An Englishman in… Florida

This article first appeared in Birdwatchers Digest

When ‘she who must be obeyed’ announced that we were taking our daughter and granddaughter to Florida to ‘do’ Disney and ‘Universal Studios’ my heart sank faster than a stooping peregrine! Some things fill me with greater horror but they all involve personal injury. I had to sit down with a calming cup of tea – trying to reconcile visiting a bird-rich area with being City bound, rubbernecking at manmade sites or strapping myself to a vomit-inducing ride rather than rising early to sneak up on snipe and stalk storks. Something drastic had to be done!

I considered options like throwing myself down the stairs or slipping something non-fatal but debilitating into the wife’s dinner. But we live in a bungalow and I’d really miss the bird-spotting skills of my better half, besides I’m quite fond of the old girl.

I tried whining, pleading and crying, but nothing worked so I compromised… I’d fly to Florida but we would have to stay in a hotel with wireless Internet so I could work in our room to raise money to pay for the trip!  I searched the web and posted this message on FLBirds and BRDBRAIN:

Calling Orlando birders – I’m a UK birder coming to Orlando in March – my family will be spending all my money at various attractions while I stay in my hotel with my laptop trying to pay for the trip 🙂 I am wary of driving so need rescuing for a few day trips birding – if anyone fancies picking me up from International Drive and show some Florida specials to a Brit I’d be happy to pay for gas and lunch! My website www.fatbirder.com is a pretty well-known; used by about 150,000 birders a month, so I could return the favor to Florida birders wanting to bird in the UK when they bring their family over to see my local town (Canterbury) with its 1,000 year-old cathedral etc.. bo beolens aka The Fat Birder

I knew I would get some positive responses. Say what you like about Americans [and the rest of the world does] but they are the most generous folk in the world, and birders like nothing more than sharing their hobby. Luckily I’ve had a couple of North American trips so have an ABA list with plenty of gaps to fill.

Within a week I had several positive responses so planned 5 full-on birding days interspersed with ‘rest days’ to answer emails, update websites and remove wrinkles from my bones.

Cheri Pierce offered to take me into Orlando Wetlands where she could drive this arthritic old birder around the lagoons. Gallus Quigley would take a day off being a park ranger to show me Merritt Island NWR; Jean Williams offered a drive to the west coast hoping for migrants and others would show me Three Lakes. I began to plan for Florida’s special birds… who would show me my first Limpkin, who find a Florida Scrub-Jay and where would Red-cockaded Woodpeckers leap before my scope.

Then came the call from Florida’s top lister and most experienced professional bird guide, that verbal hurricane Wes Biggs! As I swapped email addresses, [birdsatfnt@bellsouth.net] birding anecdotes and political opinions with this anglophile I knew I’d met a fellow spirit; someone that, had arthritis not shrunken my spine, would have made bookends with me, as his girth, like mine, is nearly as big as his reputation!

There were two days between our arrival and my first outing, which proved fortuitous, as the ‘package’ holiday included ‘premium’ class flights that turned out to mean that we had merely paid extra for ‘free’ food and there was no more legroom than in ‘economy’! 9 hours with knees and nose [thanks to my spine curvature] jammed to the seatback in front, meant being confined to bed for two days, and my Florida list confined to House Sparrow, Cardinal, Turkey Vulture and White Ibis as window ‘ticks’.


The Great Florida Limpkin Hunt

After two days lying flat recovering from the flight, I was waiting outside the hotel lobby at 0600 in unseasonably cool, windy weather when Cheri Pierce arrived, unexpectedly accompanied by Wes! He was determined to find me more birds than anyone else, so had invited himself on all my planned trip, although I have a sneaking suspicion it was really to get me to buy him breakfast all week!

First stop was Orlando Wetlands Park where Limpkins abound and King Rails are known to walk in front of the car. It is a terrific site… hundreds of acres of lagoons, woodland and grassland, which effectively filters Orlando’s wastewater. The very first lagoon set the scene with its mosaic of water plants holding a myriad of herons and waterfowl and the grassy bunds hiding skulking Savannah Sparrows and Palm Warblers. The only fly in Florida’s ointment was a strong cold wind not only keeping birds from showing, but also freezing the kidneys off a Brit in a thin T-shirt and shorts appropriate for Florida weather.

Nothing threatened to add itself to my life list but it was neat to see the Great Blue & Little Blue Herons, Least Bitterns and Purple Gallinule in the bright sunshine, Rough-winged Swallows vacuuming up insects and shorebirds probing the waters edge for mollusks. A scattering of early migrants sang in the trees and a top bird for the area, Short-tailed Hawk soared overhead but the Rails and Limpkins were hiding.

By consensus we moved on to Tosohatchee WMA where the trackside ditches down to the St John’s River hold Limpkin and the pine trees have Bachman’s Sparrows. On route Cheri stopped on Taylor Creek Road spotting a Swallow-tailed Kite – three Swallowtails soared over the tree line – my first trip lifer, [British for life birds], and surely the world’s most attractive raptor! Tosohatchee is a great site, but its ditches did not give up Limpkins… just warblers in woodland, ‘gators and pond turtles sunning themselves in the waterways and bluebirds prospecting the birdhouses on every power pylon.

We adjourned to a ‘Subway’ for a Limpkinless lunch, Cheri and Wes discussed options and decided our next stop would be Viera Wetlands (water treatment on a much smaller scale) where King Rail and Limpkin usually abound. We drove around the diked impoundments ever hopeful, managing some new ducks for the day and admiring the ever-present Red-winged Blackbirds and other common delights and we heard, but did not see Limpkins.

This is typical of the joys of showing visiting birders your favorite hot spots. I’ve often done it myself – you take your new friend to birding spots where, 99 times out of a hundred you get the target birds practically eating from your hand, only to find that this is the 100th time and you draw a blank. The thing is, the visitor doesn’t mind at all, 90% of what they see will be lifers or birds they’ve rarely seen. You of course, are distraught, feeling that you are letting down the visitor, your country and even the World Ornithological Congress! So, a happy Bo lapped up the Loggerhead Shrikes, drooled over Dowitchers and savored Lesser Scaup while my guides sobbed into their subways and hid embarrassment behind hotdogs.

Wes was not daunted, indeed I doubt Wes has ever been daunted, daunting maybe, but daunted? Never!

“Right” he said as we drove toward Brinson Park in Kissimmee [which I now know is kiss-IMMEE not KISS-immee].

“We will see a Limpkin within 2 minutes 48 seconds of arriving!”

As it happens he was way out as it was well over 3 minutes after arriving and raising my bins that a Limpkin limped into view… within the next four minutes I had seen my second and third and added the not inconsiderable bonus of my first, and so far only, Snail Kite! So ended my first outing of the trip, 3 life birds, a growing Florida list and a big smile on my face.


Searching for Scrub-Jays

After a restorative day I met Wes at even sillier o’clock on a windless day and we headed toward Zellwood and the wetland restoration area near Lake Apopka picking up breakfast then to Duda Road where Wes called in life birds numbers four and five for; Barred Owl and Chuck-Wills-Widow. We celebrated over breakfast serenaded by the dawn chorus of Carolina Wrens, Gray Catbirds and Great-crested Flycatchers. Wes heard a distant Great-horned Owl that we found silhouetted against the dawn. Then on to Ranch Road near Astatula where Wes provided me with one of the top trip highlights.

Along the sandy road through scrub we had great views of three woodpecker species, Northern Bobwhites, and Blue Jays with a background chorus of Titmice and wrens. Wes asked me how many Florida Scrub-Jays I would like to see? He imitated calls until a family of five appeared and I watched in awe as they fed from his outstretched hand… then one landed on mine to take a peanut! ‘Brilliant’ as we Brits say [or to quote Wes’s impersonation “Bwillyant”]. What could better than an endemic ‘lifer’ eating out of your hand?

Think the day could only go down hill from there? Not a bit of it! We spent several hours in the restoration area… where land is being restored to natural habitat after overuse of agricultural chemicals. Despite its history it’s a wonderful wetland wildlife area, high in bird variety and density. I saw more Ospreys here than all those I’ve ever seen on five different continents! As I peered into an alligator-filled lagoon the five adjacent power poles were topped with Ospreys, each eating a fish. Here were Swamp Sparrows and Barn Swallows, Red-shouldered Hawks and the season’s first Chimney Swifts, we even heard King Rails three feet away but never managed to glimpse these elusive denizens of damp ditches.

Wes headed to his friend Doug Stuckey’s house in Titusville where Painted Buntings dutifully visited feeders for us; not only welcome for themselves. but doubly so as I had missed this species when visiting Pelee in Ontario. There is nothing quite like filling a gap in the list created by ‘the one that got away’.

After another stop at the Lake Lizzie Nature Preserve east of St Cloud for the most attractive Red-headed Woodpecker and Eastern Towhee, we headed onwards for Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch with the added bonus of the [scarce for Florida] Hairy Woodpecker – turning the day into a 7-woodpecker day – and a fly over by two even rarer White-tailed Kites.

The day had been awash with top birds, but was not over until we had driven down Joe Overstreet Road north of Three Lake WMA between cattle pastures, finding Burrowing Owls despite Wes’s attempt to turn a heap of cow dung into one before we spotted the real thing. These wished for beauties warranted a shy manly hug from me – just about as demonstrative as an Englishman can be! The only downer of that day was finding a freshly killed Crested Caracara on the road home [now in the collection of the University of Central Florida].


Bachman’s Sparrows & Blue-Gray Time-wasters

My third outing was with Gallus Quigley who first took us to Lori Wilson Park. This small reserve near Cocoa Beach is a migrant trap and while there had not been a significant fall it was still terrific quietly watching as more and more warblers moved through the trees to the drinking pool while Catbirds and Painted Buntings visited the feeders. This spot produced a number of life birds for me including Worm-eating and Cape May Warblers and several birds that we did not see anywhere else such as Prairie and Tennessee Warblers.

Next we drove to Gallus’s second home, Merritt Island NWR NWR, where we still failed to connect with rails, but another life bird in the shape of a fine looking Stilt Sandpiper, more than compensated, helpfully associating with Lesser Yellowlegs and Dowitchers so I could compare distinguishing features. I also saw my second ever Willet, not the sub-species that I’d seen in California… realization dawned just how many new races I was seeing.

After lunch we headed again for Tosohatchee WMA and this time we did connect with Bachman’s Sparrows… by dint of Wes’ playing tapes, no wind and Gallus’ familiarity with a species whose conservation he had worked on for years.

We drove down to the St John’s River then worked the track back stopping to search the woodland edge for warblers. At home I can pick up cryptic olive-green warblers against olive colored leaves, but in Florida, to my dismay, I had difficulty with colorful warblers, even when pointed out to me. Gallus homed in on passerines finding that most were the same species, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers or, as he calls them ‘Blue-Gray Time-wasters’ because they so often seem initially to be something rarer.

A raptor drifted overhead identified by my guides after a cursory glance as a Swallow-tailed Kite, until I pointed out that its tail was not swallow-like; their closer inspection revealed a great find, Mississippi Kite! It shows that even experts – and believe me these two are among the best birders I’ve had the privilege to raise my field-glasses to – can overlook the unexpected when trying to get a dumb foreigner onto some easy birds!


Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

My final two outings were to Florida’s west coast in search of migrants. First Jean Williams kindly drove Wes and I to St Petersburg and around Tampa Bay, and on a second occasion Wes took me back to the coast for other goodies.

On the first day we found no Wilson’s Plovers by the Sunshine Skyway Bridge Approach but connected with Monk Parakeets nesting in floodlights at Eddie Moore Park in Safety Harbor and Black-hooded Parakeets at Fort DeSoto where we also had a flyover Frigatebird. Here incoming warblers joined a large Cedar Waxwing flock at a renowned birding tree. It was excellent to see Indigo Bunting, Scarlet and Summer Tanager, Orchard Oriole, American Redstart and assorted warblers. We checked out the Mulberry Tree next to the Park Manager’s house only finding Orioles and Catbirds. The day ended with a drive around Jean’s favorite localities; Tenoroc Fish Management Area and Saddle Creek Park. It was easy to see why she favored them, warbler trees, a roost of Black Vultures and some very obliging Limpkins too!

Even my final day had life birds. Wes found Wilson’s Plovers at the East Beach turn around and Yellow-billed Cuckoo at the North Beach woods back at Ft. DeSoto and other birds for my Florida list and I finally ticked Yellow-throated Warbler at John Chestnut Sr. Park on Lake Tarpon.

This piece is too short to mention every bird seen or how hard these guys worked to get a complete stranger with limited mobility up close and personal with avian delights. Nor is there room to share my too close encounters with a Pigmy Rattler and a Black Racer. I don’t even have the space to steal any of Wes’s best anecdotes, don’t worry I’ll turn them into my own before long. It’s a shame I cannot share any of Wes’s rants about people who let cats roam, or the myth of the Ivory Bill, maybe another time, if you invite me back. There’s just space to say that I finished with a Florida list of 159 species, 23 life birds and four new friends; not bad for a trip I never wanted to take!

Rant it out!