Ridiculously quirky yet still perfectly serious.
Just another day in the everglades.
I certainly did not intend to take so long to post this final entry about my late-April “birding and nature” trip to Florida. I must apologize, but I was called away on a death in the family and am trying now to get back into the normal rhythm of things. So, now let’s conclude the Florida trip!
When I last wrote, my mother and brother and I had visited the Everglades in extreme southern Florida. The only place left to go from there was the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas. Unfortunately this was a short vacation and we could not spend nearly as much time as we would have liked exploring these areas, but we certainly enjoyed the time we had there.
The first “key” you arrive at after you’ve left the Florida mainland is Key Largo (of Humphrey Bogart fame). This is the largest, most populated and “touristy” of the keys with the exception of Key West. I usually try to avoid places with large numbers of people, but we did make a very worthwhile stop there at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which boasts a beautiful aquarium, a visitors center, a film about the Gulf Coast coral reefs and a gift shop among other things. I also wandered around the grounds and took a few pictures, including these two:
(Red-bellied Woodpecker arguing with himself. We get this species here in Virginia too)
(This Cassius Blue butterfly is about the size of my thumbnail)
The Florida Keys span some 100 miles between Key Largo and Key West; they are connected by causeways and 42 bridges, including one bridge that is seven miles long. I would have loved to spend some time exploring as we drove to Key West but the day we travelled it was far too windy to see any wildlife. But the drive was just beautiful, turquoise waters and various kinds of seabirds soaring over the highway as we drove along.
That evening we went to Fort Zachary Taylor at the extreme southwest tip of Key West. We walked through the picnic areas and along a small beach as evening turned to twilight, and I took a few pictures (below), including the one of a Magnificent Frigatebird at the top of this entry.
(In the eastern United States, the Hammock Skipper occurs only in Florida)
(I did not see large numbers of dragonflies on this trip: maybe it was too early in the summer. This one is a Wandering Glider, a species that also occurs in Virginia)
Years ago I went to the Dry Tortugas by seaplane; this time I thought the ferry would be the best way to travel, gliding along the glassy Gulf waters and seeing sea turtles and birds along the way. Nice idea, but on this particular day the Gulf waters were angry and very choppy as the wind continued to blow. Most of us got seasick to some extent, and my poor brother in particular got violently ill; not the peaceful and beautiful ride I had envisioned at all.
Once we got to our destination and got off the boat, we all recovered and enjoyed some wonderful birding. The Dry Tortugas are well known as a birding “hotspot,” especially during spring migration. Songbirds that migrate from Mexico and fly over the Gulf waters are often exhausted by the time they reach North America and will drop onto the first piece of land they see to eat and to rest. The Dry Tortugas are a magnet for these birds, especially following turbulent weather, and birders who go there hope they have chosen a day with a large “fallout” of these migrants.
(In North America, the Gray Kingbird occurs only in the far southeastern states, mostly in Florida.
(Sooty Tern colony, above, on Bush Key, viewed from Fort Jefferson).
(Brown Noddies are a sleek, beautiful member of the Tern family of birds. You are not likely to see them in anywhere in North America other than the Dry Tortugas)
The Magnificent Frigatebird (above) has an 85-inch wing span! It is a seabird that never lands on the water, and is known for its aerial piracy of other birds’ meals; it always feeds on the wing. The photo at the beginning of this blog entry is a female, which sports a white breast; the male, above, is all black. The male’s scarlet throat patch, which he inflates to impress the ladies in breeding season, is deflated in my photo, but below you can see what he looks like when he’s in his full spendor (photo courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.com/)
And on that note, we’ll say good-bye to Florida, for the time being. It was wonderful to share the experience with my mom and my brother and I hope we can do it again very soon.
I hate to miss any of the spring bird migration here in Virginia, but the last week of April I took some time off to go to southern Florida. My mother and my brother flew in from Utah to join me, and we set out to find new species of birds and, for me, butterflies, that we don’t see at our respective homes. I birded in southern Florida many years ago and was anxious to see again some of the species that occur only there, and get better photos of what came my way. I planned a rough itinerary from Tampa to Fort Myers to the Everglades to Key West, so we did a lot of driving but saw a bit of everything. Here I want to share some of my favorite photos with you (and if you’d like to see more, you can check out the Florida folder on my Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/birdingva/sets/72157626674047980.
This large gray crane with the red “cap” is a Sandhill Crane. Many people confuse herons with cranes because they are of similar size and structure, but in fact we only get two species of crane in North Amerca, the Sandhill Crane and the endangered Whooping Crane. Neither occur in Virginia, with the exception of a handful of stray Sandhills each year.
Everyone has heard of “meadowlarks” but few have really seen one up close. This beautiful bird with the bright yellow throat and breast is an Eastern Meadowlark. The species is common in Virginia and much of the eastern half of the United States. Yes, there is also a Western Meadowlark, which is very similar in appearance to its eastern cousin, and it inhabits the areas west of the Great Plains. Meadowlarks are renowned for their beautiful songs.
Here’s a bird that does not occur in Virginia. The Crested Caracara occurs only in Florida, Texas and Arizona in the United States, and southward into the tropical areas of Central and South America. Although it is actually a member of the falcon family of birds, it readily eats carrion like vultures do, and it is nicknamed the Mexican Eagle. It is a striking bird– just look at that beak!
Ruddy Turnstones (above) are quite common here in Virginia along the coast, and they are easy to see along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. You can see how the lower bill kind of curves up towards the tip; this is an adaptation that lets this species literally “turn stones” over as they look for food, and this is the reason for their name. They do not remain this bright ruddy color in the winter; their colors fade but their unique pattern remains the same.
This Black-bellied plover is also a species that we see regularly in Virginia. Like the Turnstone, its winter coloration is much duller than it is in the breeding season. The plovers are another family of shorebirds that you’ll almost always find near the water or wet fields.
Ding Darling has a lot of water and wetlands that are a magnet for egrets, herons, ibis and other waders in addition to the Roseate Spoonbills. This one is a Great Egret, a bird you’ll see in Virginia too.
Ospreys (above) are often mistaken for Bald Eagles because they are a large raptor with a lot of white on the head. If you look closer, though, you will see the field marks that help you identify it as an Osprey — the white underparts and the brown line through the eye are prominent. Ospreys are know as “fish hawks” because their diet consist solely of fish. These are the hawks that you see hovering over the water to search for food, then diving feet first to grasp their prey in their huge claws. When you see large nests made of sticks on power poles and other platforms near the water, they are likely Osprey nests.
After we birded the Fort Myers area, we headed south through Corkscrew Swamp, into the Everglades, and out to the Keys, where we took a boat trip 70 miles from Key West to the Dry Tortugas. In my next blog entry I will pick up the trip where this one leaves off, and introduce you to more of the Florida specialties.