Six birders joined me this past weekend for a three-day Ft. DeSoto birding tour, TAS’s first trip since 2010 to this legendary Pinellas County spring migrant hotspot. Though we arrived at the tail end of a spectacular spring migration week all along Florida’s Gulf coast, we still managed to see and hear an impressive number of birds. By tour’s end, we tallied a respectable 141 species, including 17 warblers.
We headed to the west coast on Saturday via the scenic interior route through Broward, Hendry, Collier and Lee Counties, spotting Wild Turkey, American White Pelican, Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, Swallow-tailed and Snail Kites, Limpkin, Sandhill Crane, Crested Caracara and a good-sized herd of wild hogs along the way. Upon arriving at our first stop, Six-Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, south of Ft. Myers, an Eastern Screech-Owl greeted us at the entrance. Other cypress swamp breeders seen along the preserve’s boardwalks included Wood Duck, Downy Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Common Yellowthroat. A few migrant warblers were also found, including Northern Waterthrush, American Redstart and Black-and-white, Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green Warblers.
After a break for lunch, we continued north to Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area, in Charlotte County, where calling Northern Bobwhites greeted us near the entrance. Pine flatwood breeders seen or heard here included Red-headed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Common Nighthawk, Great Crested Flycatcher, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird, Pine Warbler, Eastern Towhee and singing Bachman’s Sparrows. We were also hoping to see Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch, but were unable to locate any. At Oscar Scherer State Park in Sarasota County, Florida Scrub-Jays were heard calling somewhere in the distance, but we were unable to locate them either. Birds spotted during our search for the jays included Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Pileated Woodpecker. At our final birding stop of the day, the Celery Fields, also in Sarasota County, two Bronzed Cowbirds were discovered along the fence near the parking area while Purple Martins swirled overhead. Birds found in the surrounding wetlands included Mottled Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Bald Eagle, Sora, Purple Gallinule, Limpkin, Black-necked Stilt, Stilt Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs and Swamp Sparrow. We then proceeded to our hotel in Ellenton, Manatee County for the first of two nights.
We drove to Ft. DeSoto Park bright and early on Sunday; our first Nanday Parakeets and Magnificent Frigatebirds were seen along the way. Our first stop in the park was at North Beach, where we added several new shorebirds, among them Black-bellied Plover, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Sanderling, Dunlin, Willet and Lesser Yellowlegs. Laughing, Ring-billed and Lesser Black-backed Gull, Royal, Sandwich and Forster’s Tern and Black Skimmer were also present. Later in the day, a visit to East Point, at the other end of the park, added Semipalmated Plover and Least Sandpiper.
The rest of the morning was spent scouring the park’s woodlands for migrant songbirds. Around North Beach and the Arrowhead picnic area, we found our first Hooded Warblers and Indigo Buntings; both would be seen again and again throughout our visit. We encountered a few other songbirds in this area, including Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrush, Prairie, Palm and Black-and-white Warbler, Summer Tanager, Painted Bunting and Baltimore Oriole, but overall, the birding there was slow. Things picked up considerably when we moved on to the “Mulberry Tree” area east of the fort, where we were joined by dozens of bird photographers, all documenting the migrant songbird feeding frenzy that occurs here every spring. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Gray Catbirds were most abundant, but Ruby-throated Hummingbird, White-eyed Vireo, Blackpoll and Hooded Warbler, Summer and Scarlet Tanager and Painted and Indigo Buntings were also present. Several stunning songbirds made appearances at the water fountain during our visit, including Blue-winged, Prothonotary and Kentucky Warbler, Indigo Bunting and Blue Grosbeak.
At mid-day, we made a run to the nearby Subway, then returned to the park to eat our lunch at the East Beach Picnic Area. Birds seen around the picnic area included Veery, another Gray-cheeked Thrush and more Hooded Warblers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Cedar Waxwings, Prothonotary Warblers, Indigo Buntings and the resident flock of Nanday Parakeets were found on trails in adjacent East Beach Woods. Later in the afternoon, the group opted for a change of scenery, so we drove north to Philippe County Park, at the north end of Tampa Bay but still in Pinellas County. The current attraction at this beautiful little park are a flock of Brown Boobies that have been roosting on an electrical tower out in the bay. Using scopes, we found nine boobies perched on the tower; an immature Bald Eagle was also on the tower, just above the boobies. Several Least Terns were wheeling and diving offshore. We then moved on to the park’s oak forests. A Great Horned Owl was discovered high up in the forest canopy, its position revealed by scolding Blue Jays. Other forest residents seen here included Downy Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Northern Parula and even a couple of gopher tortoises. Several migrant warblers were also found, including American Redstart and Black-and-white, Cape May and Black-throated Blue Warbler. A small flock of Lesser Scaup were spotted when we made our way back to the edge of the bay, just before calling it a day and heading back to our hotel.
Monday was getaway day; a small flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks passed over the hotel parking lot as we were loading the van. Hoping that overnight rains had brought down a few new trans-gulf migrants, we headed back to Ft. DeSoto for one last look around. Though it appeared that not much arrived overnight, we did pick up a few new trip birds: Yellow-throated Vireo and Orchard Oriole at East Beach, Wilson’s Plover at North Beach, Red-breasted Merganser at both North Beach and East Point and Reddish Egret along the causeway as we exited the park. We made two stops on our way back to Miami, both in Lee County. In Cape Coral, we visited a neighborhood well known for their substantial Burrowing Owl populations. We found plenty of marked burrows, but only a couple of owls were out in the mid-day heat. A family of Florida Scrub-Jays was recently discovered in this area, but we were unable to find them. On Fort Myers Beach, we stopped at Big Carlos Pass, where we added Snowy Plover, which turned out to be our last new bird of the tour.
Following are all the birds seen or heard on the tour:
Northern Bobwhite (heard)
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Horned Owl
Great Crested Flycatcher
Florida Scrub-Jay (heard)
Brown Thrasher (heard)
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler