Thursday, March 24, 2011

Birding Florida 2011

I went to Orlando a little more than a week ago. While the trip was centered around Disney, of course, I was able to fit in some birding, and ended up with 3 lifers, and a lot of great birds. It was a welcome break from the fairly slow birding in New York in March, as well as from the cold.

Day 1 (Saturday, March 11th)- Got to Orlando at 10:30 or so, and started to see some of the familiar common Floridian birds- Boat-tailed Grackle, Tree Swallows, Turkey Vultures, and Herons and Egrets. On the drive from the airport to a waterpark, I had my first very nice sighting of the trip. While we were stopped at a toll, I noticed what I first though was a Little Blue Heron flying with a Snowy Egret. However, I soon realized that it was much too large to be a Little Blue, because it was noticably bigger than the snowy. Tricolored was eliminated by the lack of white underparts, and the bicolored bill and rusty neck sealed the id- it was a Reddish Egret, an unusual (though not unheard-of) bird in the area. At the waterpark I picked up a few more birds- Black Vulture, White Ibis, Bald Eagle, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Day 2 (Sunday, March 12th)- Headed to Animal Kingdom in Disney early. After making sure that the spoonbills were captive and not wild, I turned to watching the abundant white ibis. There were lots of birds overhead, and I picked out a Purple Martin overhead. There was a large cluster of vultures, and with them was a smaller bird- a dark buteo, with distinctive white patches on the underside of the wings. Short-tailed Hawk! I had been hoping for one on this trip, and had somehow found one, almost purely by chance. Later in the day, a Pileated Woodpecker flew by our car in a parking lot, and I found the first of many Palm Warblers.

Day 3 (Monday, March 13th)- Much of this day was spent observing the unprecedented invasion of northern owls into the Orlando area. While at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I found large numbers of snowy, great horned, barn, great gray owls, on a scale never before recorded in Florida. Additionally, there were multiple European Eagle Owls, which, if I am not mistaken, represent the first six records of this species in North America. Also of note was a presumed hybrid owl- looking like an abnormally large Great Horned Owl, it gave a Barred Owl call consistently and clearly. The reasoning for the concentration of owls is unknown, but it might have something to do with the fake snow covering nearby buildings- presumably all Snowy and Great Grey owls in Florida would be attracted to this spot, as it resembles the snowy north.
Perhaps this building has something to do with it?
Day 4- (Tuesday, March 14th)- I spent the whole day at Magic Kingdom and Epcot, which both had more birds than expected. Nice sightings were Cattle Egrets at the entrance to Magic Kingdom, and Brown Pelican, Bald Eagle, Osprey, and Mottled Duck at also around Magic Kingdom. Epcot is centered on a lake, which was filled with cormorants, anhingas, coots, and grebes. Much of the area around orlando is like this- there are tons of small ponds and water-filled ditches, and each of them has a handfull of nice birds in it- herons, egrets, coots, ibis, grebes, or moorhens, usually.

Day 5 (Wednesday, March 15th)- Our last day in Florida, and the only one with any real birding planned. The destination that I had picked was Brinson Park, on Lake Toho in Kissimmee, about 20 minutes south of our hotel. The spot is known as a reliable location for Snail Kites and other nice waterbirds. It was a good sign when we pulled up in the parking lot, and the first thing we saw was a pair of Limpkins, one carrying a snail.
Panorama of Lake Toho. Click to see the whole photo.
Birds were everywhere- there were hundreds of coots, at least a half-dozen Limpkins, a big cloud of Tree Swallows, more pied-billed grebes than I had ever seen before, multiple moorhens and anhingas, and more birds showed up at every scan. I quickly found some new herons for the trip list- Little Blue and Tricolored. Even better were a pair of Sandhill Cranes that flew by, quickly joined by a few more cranes.
 I started scanning the bushes on the north shore of the lake, because I had read that Snail Kites sometimes perched at the top of low vegetation near lakes. This looked like pretty perfect Snail Kite habitat to me, but the distance complicated the search- without a scope, I saw a raptor-like profile in a tree a few times, only to realize that it was an anhinga, which looks oddly nothing like a cormorant when perched at a distance. With its upright posture and long banded tail, it looks almost like a Cooper's Hawk, until you see the head and neck, when the bird's identity becomes obvious.

While searching, I spotted a flock of duck-like birds flying by, and quickly realized that with their long necks and white wing stripes, they were Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, nice birds and my first outside of Costa Rica. Snail Kites were not in evidence, so I went back to watching the numerous and tame Limpkins, very cool birds whose abundance at Lake Toho belies their overall status- they are found in the US only in Florida, and are often wary and secretive. Here they were walking in full view beside a major road.

Glancing up, I spotted a large raptor flying over the lake closer to the opposite shore. Slow, floppy wingbeats? Check. Overall grey coloration? Yup. Distinctive tail pattern and white rump? Definitely. Snail Kite? Yes!! It flew down and perched on one of the bushes I had searched earlier, and I got a good look at it before it flew away and disappeared, only to reappear not long afterwards with another snail kite in tow, the second bird being either a female or an immature. Awesome. Great bird, great experience.
Snail Kite Paradise 
After the kites flew out of sight, I checked the trees in the small park, finding some migrants- Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, a Savannah Sparrow, as well as another nice Floridian bird, a Eurasian Collared Dove. They will probably we everywhere in a decade or two, but for now this exotic is still mostly restricted to the southeast. We had to leave to catch our flight, but a Forster's Tern and a Green Heron wrapped up the sightings at Lake Toho. In all, we had been there for barely over an hour, but had seen enough good birds for an entire trip.
Collared Dove
And to top it all off, I got my lifer Loggerhead Shrike on the way to the airport.


  1. Wow, sounds like a fantastic trip. As well as being a birder, I am an avid Harry Potter fan and am DYING to go to the Harry Potter World at Disney. Sounds so cool!


  2. Looks like you had a great trip... you found some great birds!!

    Happy Birding,

  3. Sounds like you really managed to get some great birds on a non-birding trip! Reddish Egret, short-tailed hawk... Disney isn't bad for birds