Florida memories

2007 January 29
by David J. Ringer

DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — Exactly one year ago today, I was in Florida, birding with new friends Steve and Mary Pence. I’d sent Steve a list of birds I wanted to see, and we agreed on Snail Kite, Limpkin, and Florida Scrub-Jay as the most reasonable target birds for the weekend.

I flew into Orlando after dark, and before the sun had risen again, Steve and I were waiting at Brinson Park on the outskirts of Kissimmee. While we ate our muffins, waiting for daylight, we heard Fish Crows and — what? — Limpkin! The sun finally did rise, and it revealed not only a couple of Limpkins on the near shore but also several Snail Kites flying over the swampy expanse. One bird flew past close enough to give me a good look at the extremely long, fine, downcurved upper mandible, which I had admired in my Stokes field guide since I was a child.

Then we were off, headed south to take part in a banding event at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.

buteo-lineatus-alleni

We passed this Florida Red-shouldered Hawk (presumably Buteo lineatus alleni) on the way into Kissimmee Prairie Preserve. We’d seen another on the way down, and I was struck by how much paler and grayer these birds are than those in other parts of the country.

kissimmee-prairie-preserve

I found this prairie, where grasses mingle with saw palmettos, strikingly beautiful and quite unlike anything else I’d ever experienced. Sadly, the prairies of south-central Florida are all but gone, and with them, an endemic subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrow that now survives at only a handful of sites.

We soon got to work, joining a team to drag a rope across the grassland and flush sparrows into a mist net. Once caught, they were carefully extricated by the experienced researchers and banders for identification, measurement, and banding.

ammodramus-savannarum-floridanus

This is the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum floridanus. Here, the researcher is attaching a tiny radio device so the bird can be tracked later. The floridanus birds are resident on these prairies year round, and they are joined in the winter by migratory Grasshopper Sparrows from the north. It is said that floridanus is darker than other subspecies, but sometimes the researchers had to do side-by-side comparison and close scrutiny of birds in the hand to tell the difference.

swamp-sparrow-melospiza-georgiana

Grasshopper Sparrows weren’t the only birds caught and banded; we also had other sparrow species and grassland birds like meadowlarks. This is a Swamp Sparrow about to be released.

photographers

Just before they were released, birds were often surrounded by, well, the bird paparazzi.

henslows-sparrow-ammodramus-henslowii

You can study each feather on this fantastic little Henslow’s Sparrow.

florida-sunset

After the banding concluded, Steve and I birded some more wooded parts of the park, and I was amazed to see birds like Black-and-white Warbler in January! We enjoyed juicy oranges straight off the tree and finished out the day looking for Burrowing Owls as the sun set. We couldn’t find them, but nonetheless, we drove home happy.

The next morning, fortified by Mary’s fabulous meals, all three of us set off for Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, where we birded the Black Point Wildlife Drive. Waders, ducks, shorebirds, and other waterbirds were abundant and spectacular. I picked an adult Great Black-backed Gull and an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull out from among the other gulls and was quite pleased. It was the first time I’d seen an adult Lesser Black-backed.

Perhaps the most interesting and comical spectacle was a Great Blue Heron wrangling with a large snake. The snake had wrapped itself around the heron’s bill, and the heron just stood there, appearing puzzled. Dropping its head, it shook the snake’s coils off its bill, but the snake quickly wrapped itself around again. The battle lasted for several minutes, but the heron was the victor in the end.

scrub-jay-habitat

From the refuge, we drove the short distance to Cape Canaveral National Seashore and stopped at the toll booth, which was our best shot to see Florida Scrub-Jays. The palmettos, shrubs, and stunted oaks all growing in the sand intrigued me, but this perfect-looking habitat seemed disturbingly empty of birds.

florida-scrub-jay

Then, almost without warning, the jays materialized in the trees right above our heads. Gorgeous! We enjoyed them until they melted away again, and then we proceeded on toward the beach.

cape-canaveral-national-seashore

We managed to spot a few gannets far out over the water, and then we ate a picnic lunch on the beach while grackles and Ruddy Turnstones cavorted nearby.

boat-tailed-grackle

I think this bold and beautiful Boat-tailed Grackle had been strutting around all during our meal.

Deciding we weren’t quite ready to quit birding, we stopped by Orlando Wetlands Park on the way home. One of the first things we saw was a Bald Eagle that had caught a moorhen and carried it up into a tree. After careful searching, we found a brilliant Purple Gallinule, and we had intimate glimpses of a Limpkin as we exited the park.

anhinga-anhinga

I was intrigued by the pattern of black and white on this male Anhinga’s back. This picture doesn’t show it, but a scope revealed fine black-on-black horizontal barring on the bird’s tail.

Was it all really a year ago? I want to go back to Florida!

Related posts:

  1. Long-lost South Florida photos
  2. Big Bend memories
  3. Last looks
  4. Cranes and a kingbird
2 Responses
  1. January 30, 2007

    Fantastic trip report, David. I especially liked that Henslow’s photo. It’s interesting how we’re all looking for the same birds in Florida. I’m looking forward to going back soon.

  2. alex permalink
    November 17, 2007

    I just made a research paper about the endangered specie which is snail kite. I discussed couple of important points how to prevent extortion of the raptor. I was talking how important is not to destroy their primate environment, because birds are coming back to their place where they were born. An important argument was also that government should not destroy snails by implying more water to the everglades because this extra water kills snails which are primary food for the snail kite. Basically the research paper was mainly what types of actions are decreasing the number of snail kite, why the government should take action into preserving the specie, and how they should make the progress done.

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