Saturday 4 April 2015

A weekend in Florida - part 1

·        A three day trip in late March (28th – 30th) with the sole aim of photographing extremely tame Herons, Egrets and Waders, as well as taking in a bit of early migration. I had wanted to go to Florida for a long time, as I greatly admire the bird photography of Arthur Morris, and this is his patch so to speak. I wasn't disappointed, and I now see in part why his photos are so spectacular. It was however rather busy as I had not realised it was Spring Break in the US, which meant that the population of every State east of the Rockies and north of Georgia had gotten in their cars and driven to Florida....
·        An extremely complex and stupid routing whereby I took nine flights when I could have taken just two in order to benefit from a sale fare out of Dublin. I quite like flying, but still. It also gave me an afternoon in NYC to see a suite of different birds, followed by an overnight flight back to London City Airport and straight into work. Zero jet-lag at any point, which was a bit of a result.
·        Car hire via Avis was a lovely Ford Fusion, very comfy and a nice big back seat for me to sleep on.
·        I did skimp on the hotels somewhat, with just one night booked on the Saturday at Estero Beach. Good thing I had booked as it was rammo everywhere. On Friday and Sunday nights I just slept in the car wherever I was, and showered in the various airports I visited.
·      Used my phone for navigation but this wasn't necessary really, everything was well signed.
·        Research was fairly brief due to lack of time, but as it was just me that didn't really matter. I used Artie's SW Florida site guide, and followed my nose. There were birds everywhere.

Laughing Gull at Estero Beach


Day 1: Flight arrived at Miami via NY at about 11pm, and I was on the road very quickly. I slept in the Everglades for a few hours and was at Ding Darling Reserve on Sanibel Island for dawn and spent the morning there. Midday at Blind Pass Beach, the afternoon at Sanibel Fishing Pier, and then the late afternoon session at Little Estero Lagoon.

Day 2: Dawn and all morning at Little Estero, Cape Coral in the afternoon, and Placida for the rest of the day.

Day 3: Early morning flight from Orlando to NY via Miami gave me four hours in Central Park, and an opportunity to buy some new clothes as most of mine are falling apart.

Main Sites I went to

Ding Darling NWR - a fantastic wetland reserve, though not that good for photography as many of the birds were too far out. You drive a one-way loop, stopping as you like.
Blind Pass Beach - between Sanibel and Capitiva, good for roosting waders though my timing was poor.
Sanibel Fishing Pier- incredibly tame Egrets hang around waiting for handouts. Good migrant scrub.
Little Estero Lagoon - a series of lagoons between Fort Myers Beach and the strip of hotels, fabulously tame birds.
Estero Beach - plenty of roosting waders
Cape Coral - Burrowing Owls!
Placida Fish Restaurant - Ospreys and Pelicans, with plenty of decent scrub to find migrants in.

American White Ibis

Day by day account

Day 1
After sleeping in the Everglades and a decent breakfast at all-night diner near Fort Myers, I found myself at the gates of the fabled J.N. "Ding" Darling  National Wildlife Refuge. This is a place that I have known about for many years, but never had the opportunity to go. To say I was excited doesn't do the word justice. It doesn't open until 7.30am (and be aware it's closed on Fridays), but I was first in the queue and that's about the time it gets light anyway so not a problem. Once the gates opened it's simply a question of paying your $5 and then walking or driving the four mile loop trail. Being in America, I chose to drive it, as did almost everyone. There are huge pools each side, and they were teeming with birds. Willet, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Pelicans, the list goes on and on. Not a great deal was close enough in for the camera but I didn't care. It was fabulous, and supposedly is a shadow of its former glory. All I can say is "wow", it was phenomenal. For starters it was teeming with fish, jumping out of the water, flurries, shoals - the Egrets were having a field day. Bigger fish too, Ospreys catching enormous great things with ease. It was just first class habitat. The Spoonbills were sadly right at the back, and indeed although I saw several birds over the weekend, they were always the furthest away. I'll have to go back - shame.

Tricolored Heron

I drove the loop a few times, seeing new birds each time, including a decent selection of Warblers - Parula, Black and White, and Palm. A pole nest had an Osprey with nearly fully-grown young, and overhead an Anhinga zipped past. Gradually it became busier, and once it had got to the point where I had to identify birds for groups of geriatric US birders it was time to move on. I left the loop for the final time and turned off to the right, towards Captiva. I stopped at Blind Pass beach, which is where Sanibel joins Captiva, and spent literally 45 minutes getting parked - the place was heaving. I knew, as I finally headed off down the beach, that it wasn't going to be great and so it proved. Way too many people - I found three Willet, all of which were repeatedly flushed to buggery by all manner of human activity, and try as I might there was no spot on the beach which was empty. So much for my Skimmers and Terns, so I headed back to the car and back towards the Sanibel Lighthouse.

Once again it was nearly impossible to get parked, and the place was rammed. The fishing pier did have the incredibly tame Egrets that I had heard about, but with so many people around I wasn't feeling the love so I just did a bit of casual birding - the usual fare really, though a Frigatebird was pretty cool, and the only one I saw all weekend, as was a Lesser Black-backed Gull.

I got stuck in a huge jam on the way back to Estero/Fort Myers Beach, my base for the evening, but eventually found Little Estero Lagoon. A gem of a place, a bit mucky, but with the muck and the slime came fewer people - hurrah! More incredibly tame birds, including a Reddish Egret, a bird I'd been hoping to see for its amazingly fishing style, a skipping, dancing, hopping chase through the shallows. None of this slow stalking, it was all that and more, incredible, and the photos don't do it justice. There was a Palm Warbler sat on the sand, and I did a bit of wader photography on the beach that was so enjoyable I decided that I would start here again tomorrow. The other choice had been the Venice Rookery, but that was nearly a two hour drive and after my back seat slumber I needed some proper rest. 

A welcome shower, dinner at a great seafood grill, a couple of beers and a good old-fashioned deleting session saw the evening out. Camera ready by the door, what would the next day bring?

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