Some Florida Birds
April, 2015

In early April 2015, I took a trip to Florida, a popular place for both birding and bird photography that I don't visit often enough. I visited later in the season than I have in the past to hopefully find more of the resident songbirds. I flew in and out of Fort Myers, although I didn't visit any locations near there. It was just generally centrally located between the far flung places I wanted to visit and I could get the best prices on flights there. I didn't spend much time at the popular places that attract a lot of wading birds and shorebirds. Some days were definitely more successful than others. My first stop was the Fort De Soto Park near St. Petersburg where I spent two days. Like always it was a great place for photographing shorebirds and waders. I probably should have budgeted more time there, but there is always next time.

Laughing Gull, Fort De Soto Park
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/1000th sec., ISO 500

Marbled Godwit, Fort De Soto Park
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/800th sec., ISO 500

Mottled Duck, Fort De Soto Park
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f10, 1/320th sec., ISO 800

Sandwich Tern, Fort De Soto Park
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon 300mm f2.8 L IS II lens + 2x
f7.1, 1/2000th sec., ISO 500

Wilson's Plover, Fort De Soto Park
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/400th sec., ISO 400

Reddish Egret, Fort De Soto Park
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f10, 1/1250th sec., ISO 800

Brown Pelican, Dunedin Causeway
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon 300mm f2.8 L IS II lens + 2x
f7.1, 1/1000th sec., ISO 640

Between my two days at Fort De Soto I went north to the Honeymoon Island State Park. The causeway getting there from Dunedin has been a better place for photography than the actual park has ever been for me, and this trip was no exception. There were most of the same shorebirds there as at Ft. De Soto, but the tide was coming in and the shoreline was foamy. Brown Pelicans diving for food offered a better photo op there that morning. After the St. Petersburg area I headed north to the Withlacoochee State Forest where I had been before, but in March. More breeding birds were present on this trip. It's a wonderful place that I could have been quite happy exploring for two weeks or more.  I visited the Croom and Citrus tracts, which are very well managed Pine/Oak woodlands with regular burns through the area keeping the habitat suitable for key species such as Bachman's Sparrows and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.

Pine Warbler, Withlacoochee State Forest
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/320th sec., ISO 400

Pine Warblers occur at Withlacoochee in abundance. While we have them here in Ohio too, I would be willing to bet that Withlacoochee's population of them is larger than all of Ohio's combined.

Bachman's Sparrow, Withlacoochee State Forest
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f10, 1/160th sec., ISO 500

Bachman's Sparrows are a signature species of Florida's open pine woods. They don't sing as often in April as they do in March, especially in the afternoons. Some consider their song the most beautiful of all the sparrows. While I'm not necessarily in complete agreement with that, their songs can sound tuneful. The difference between their whistled first note and the following trill is sometimes a perfect 4th or 5th interval while both major or minor thirds can also be heard. Usually the trill is too indistinct to really assign a pitch though. The result is that after a listening bout with Bachman's is that you come out humming a tune that you think the sparrow was improvising when it is really the composer in your head doing the work, but they really do seem to have a tonality at times.

Eastern Towhee, Withlacoochee State Forest
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f9, 1/125th sec., ISO 640

So what, another Eastern Towhee. Take a closer look. The Florida subspecies has a pale eye unlike the red eyes of the Eastern and Spotted Towhees in the rest of the country.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Withlacoochee State Forest
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens
f11, 1/300th sec., ISO 400

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are quite numerous at Withlacoochee. All their nesting sites are well marked by painted white rings around the trunks of their trees.  On this trip I didn't find any anywhere near their nesting cavities. They were easy enough to find just by driving around the forest and listening for their constant chattering. They forage in groups and are entertaining hyper little birds, not much bigger than a Downy. Being a very closely studied and monitored species, pretty much every Red-cockaded Woodpecker has been banded. I possibly could have tried to digitally remove the bands.  It's (barely) within my photoshop skills to do so, but instead I just desaturated the green band above on it so it wasn't as pronounced in the photo. The gray one was really green. Other woodpeckers nesting at Withlacoochee include Red-bellied, Red-headed, Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Northern Flicker, with the flickers being the least common.

Summer Tanager, Withlacoochee State Forest
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f10, 1/320th sec., ISO 640

Summer Tanagers are also abundant at Withlacoochee, and are far more common there than anywhere in Ohio. Along with species already mentioned, other birds that I would call abundant there include Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Yellow-throated Vireo, White-eyed Vireo, Great Crested Flycatcher, Northern Parula, and Northern Cardinal.  At dusk Chuck-will's-widows become quite vocal. Surprisingly Brown-headed Nuthatches seem to be absent although the habitat seems perfect with plenty of it. I have never seen or heard one there. That was a species I really wanted to photograph on this trip. As much as I love visiting Withlacoochee I might try a different forest on my next Florida trip for that reason alone.

From there I headed directly south and wasted a few days in the process. I made a stop in the Sarasota area along the way. I checked out the Oscar Scherer State Park, which 10 years ago or so used to be a great place to see and photograph Florida Scrub-Jays. I did walk around there and saw one individual in a spot where I couldn't photograph it. I talked to a naturalist there who told me that the park's current population is a mere 17 individuals, which was very disappointing to hear. The next morning I stopped at the Venice Rookery which hosts many nesting waders. I had been there too about 10 years previously. It was also a disappointment, although I did get a few photos there that I will eventually post. In an effort to eradicate non-native vegetation, they have made it a less attractive place for photography in general. Now exposed in the backgrounds are telephone wires, a white church, a trailer park, etc, making it more difficult to photograph birds flying to and from their nests. If I could have the time in the Sarasota area back I would have gone to the Myakka State Park instead.

The next day I drove down to Homestead where I thought I could spend my last few days poking around the Everglades and the Keys. There were a few species I wanted to find for the first time. I really had no conception of what the Keys were like before hand. I had no idea where I could find suitable public habitat or what the traffic was like. I learned fast. I spent the first day from Homestead driving almost to Key West and back, which took the whole day. Except for some tiny, poorly lit parks in the upper keys, you really need to drive quite a ways to get to an area where you can do any serious photography. The light gets harsh quickly that far south in April and the heat is like a sauna. After packing up my things in Homestead I got another motel in Marathon, getting me closer to where I wanted to be without paying Key West prices. That took up another whole morning. I basically did no photography for those three days. On the bright side, I did pick up 4 life birds on the Keys. It has been many years since I have added any lifers onto my list besides splits such as Sagebrush/Bell's Sparrows, Clapper/Ridgway's Rails, etc.. Where does it put me now? Right where it did before somewhere between 650 and 700 species in the ABA area, but closer to 650. I will never reach 700 since I don't go chasing rarities and I never will, so I don't count any more. The four lifers I got were White-crowned Pigeon, Magnificent Frigatebird, Gray Kingbird, and Black-whiskered Vireo. I was also hoping to find Mangrove Cuckoo, which also would have been a lifer, but despite spending most mornings in or near mangroves, I never saw or heard one.  I probably needed to visit later in the season. The pigeons were easy to find, and quite widespread and numerous in the keys flying over the mangroves or sitting high above on power lines. Finding them near eye level down low in acceptable light for the camera was not in the cards for me on this trip.  The frigatebirds wouldn't be too difficult to photograph with a bit more time and effort I think. By the time I ever got around to trying the harsh sun was already too high up or they flew by quickly when I was unprepared for them to do so.

Black-whiskered Vireo, Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/800th sec., ISO 400

I did manage to photograph a couple of the other lifers I encountered in the Keys. The Black-whiskered Vireo was at the top of my list there. By looking at the above bird, it is obviously closely related to the Red-eyed, but the song is very different as are its habits. It's song is a series of quick two or three noted phrases repeated in vireo-like fashion with different inflections. Unlike the Red-eyeds which can often deliver its monotonous song all day long, Black-whiskereds usually seem content to call it quits well before 10:00 a.m.. Finding these birds to photograph in decent light was a big challenge. I heard quite a few, mostly on private property. They like the densest hammocks of mature trees like mahogany mixed with mangroves. (The above bird is on a mahogany branch).  Where these habitats occur along roads they were usually trimmed with no twigs or bare branches sticking out for the birds to perch on. Inside these habitats there is little light (and lots of mosquitoes). Spending time with this species for the first time was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. Hopefully it won't be my last encounter with them, but I would rather find them further north in their range on mainland Florida than have to go into the keys again to be honest with you.

Prairie Warbler, Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/1600th sec., ISO 500

Far easier to find and photograph in the mangroves on the Keys were the resident Florida subspecies of the Prairie Warbler. They were the only resident warbler that I encountered on the Keys. The Cuban subspecies of Yellow Warbler is also reported to occur, but I never saw or heard any. In song and in plumage there is really little apparent difference between these Florida birds and the familiar nominate subspecies common in Ohio. I did occasionally hear a phrase by a couple of birds that were lower and less distinctive than most other Prairie Warblers that recalled the song of the Black-throated Blue Warbler, but usually what I heard sounded the same as what you would hear in Ohio.

Gray Kingbird, Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens + 1.4x
f11, 1/1600th sec., ISO 500

Gray Kingbirds were widespread and easy to find high up on power lines throughout the Keys during this trip. Finding them elsewhere was a different story altogether. While I wish I could have also gotten a better profile shot for this bird, I am grateful for even this on my last morning. It was time to head back. I made one pass through the Everglades National Park in the afternoon and evening, photographing a few vultures along the way and wishing that I had more time to spend there. I never did get around to trying to photograph the Cape Sable subspecies of Seaside Sparrow there. There also seemed to be a lot of good habitat for Black-whiskered Vireo there, now that I know what to look for. Of course they were silent in the evening, and finding a well lit area to photograph one there would also be a time consuming challenge. Hopefully I can get back to Florida again in the near future. There are lots of great places to visit in the state. This particular trip wasn't the best planned one I must say. I would definitely recommend hitting a certain area for a while instead of driving all over the place like I did this time!