Five birders joined me for Tropical Audubon’s annual four-day winter birding tour to North Florida. Though we encountered heavy downpours all morning on Friday as we drove north, we still decided to try for the recently reported Western Grebe at Lake Ariana in Auburndale, located between Orlando and Lakeland. Using his camera lens as a spotting scope during a period of lighter rain, John Boyd was able to find the grebe among a raft of Ruddy Ducks in the very center of the lake, offering identifiable views of a new state bird for all. American White Pelican and Bald Eagle were among the other birds spotted at the lake before another band of heavy rain descended upon us.
After lunch in Wildwood, where the weather finally cleared, we continued north to Gainesville, where we stayed the first night. We spent the mid-afternoon hours at Sweetwater Wetlands, a wonderful new birding location at the northern edge of Paynes Prairie. Large flocks of Black-bellied Whistling-Duck and several Limpkin were encountered as we explored the wetland’s extensive boardwalk and berm system. After checking in to our motel near the University of Florida, we headed to Dauer Hall on the UF campus to wait for a wintering flock of Vaux’s Swifts to arrive. The flock appeared just after sunset; it was quite the spectacle as they swirled overhead, then dive-bombed almost one-by-one into Dauer Hall’s twin chimneys to roost for the night. We all toasted our second state bird of the day during dinner at one of Gainesville’s finer restaurants.
After breakfast in Gainesville the next morning, we made the long drive to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, stopping to assemble our picnic lunches before entering the refuge. We spent most of the day exploring the refuge. Among the highlights during our visit were a dozen duck species, including several Mallards (the non-feral kind!), a Canvasback and many Bufflehead, Bald Eagles at the nest, a Clapper Rail scurrying along the mudflats, a young male Vermilion Flycatcher, a heard-only Winter Wren and our only Hermit Thrush seen on the tour. After a quick late-afternoon stop at Lake Henrietta, south of Tallahassee, where we failed to find any of the Rusty Blackbirds reported earlier in the month, we headed to our motel near I-10, home for the next two nights. Dinner was at Nancy Freedman’s favorite Mexican restaurant in Tallahassee.
Day three took us west of Tallahassee, first to the Sumatra area in Apalachicola National Forest, where we met up with Danny Young and his girlfriend Grace. Danny is a birder from the Daytona area whom we first met on Friday at the Vaux’s Swift stakeout. We took a short drive on Forest Road 123 off of Apalachee Savanna Scenic Byway, where we found several Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. We then backtracked to an area of wet savanna where we have consistently found Sedge Wren and Henslow’s Sparrow; this year would be no exception. Next, we headed down to Apalachicola Airport, where we found a wintering Sprague’s Pipit in a grassy area between runways; we also flushed a couple of Wilson’s Snipe.
After lunch in Apalachicola, we drove east towards the Panacea area. Along the way, we spotted four American Oystercatchers loafing on a pier, as well as a spectacular flock of thousands of Redhead close to shore. Also present were at least a dozen Horned Grebes and a small flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls that were apparently chasing a baitfish school. Flocks of Lesser Scaup and a Northern Gannet were the only birds of note during two visits to Alligator Point. In between, we visited Bald Point State Park, where we found Snowy Plovers and a Red Knot among the shorebirds at the point. We also had crippling looks at a female Common Goldeneye there. Along Bottoms Road, we heard and saw both Clapper and Virginia Rail; John Hutchison heard a Black Rail! Our traditional dinner at Posey’s in Panacea followed.
The tour’s final day began with a predawn visit to Southwood Estates in Tallahassee, where we found a single Whooping Crane among the large flock of Canada Geese. We stopped briefly at Crowder Landing on Lake Jackson, but failed to find the Red-throated Loon seen there over the weekend. At Tall Timbers Research Station, near the Georgia border, sightings included Wood Duck, Red-headed and Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Palm Warbler and Chipping, Song, Swamp and White-throated Sparrows. The tour ended with a visit to a Tallahassee home where four species of hummingbirds were recently banded. During our brief visit, we managed to see two of the four: Ruby-throated and Calliope!
Here’s the list of 142 species encountered during the tour:
Mottled Duck (en route)
Northern Bobwhite (heard)
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Black Rail (heard)
Winter Wren (heard)
Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler
Field Trip Coordinator
Tropical Audubon Society