Saturday, 26 December 2015

Florida II - Trip Report

  • A three day trip in mid November (13th – 16th), hopefully to be a repeat of the trip I made in February and which I enjoyed hugely, and targeting a slightly different area I hoped to see a few different species.
  • I took advantage of an airline sale and snagged an economy return to Miami for £380 with British Airways on their A380 service. Airline geek, moi? In a very happy turn of affairs I ended up getting upgraded to a flat bed both ways which made the trip a lot easier. I also booked cheap onward tickets to Tampa with American Airlines.
  • Car hire via Avis was a lovely Ford C-MAX hybrid, very comfy with lots of mod cons including satnav which meant I didn’t even need to use my phone. About £90 for three days and used a mere £15 of fuel.
  • I stayed in the frankly dreadful Guy Harvey Outpost on St Pete Beach, complete with spurious resort 'fees'. I don’t believe there are any decently-priced options that are not going to be full-on uber-occupancy party hotels. I spent very little time there so it didn’t really matter, but it was a poor way to spend close to £200.
  • In contrast to my last trip where I tried to visit too many sites, I resolved to visit only two – Fort Desoto Park and St Pete Beach. Research was thus very thorough, reading up on what the tides were doing, where to park, which locations were best at which times of day. I even picked out the main Skimmer colony from Google Maps satellite view, though in the event no birds remained after the breeding season.


Day 1: A morning at work before a wholly chaotic departure from London Heathrow mid-afternoon, arriving three hours late into Miami and missing my Tampa connection which was the final flight of the evening. These things happen I suppose. BA put me up in a hotel overnight, and AA rebooked me onto the first flight in the morning – the benefits of being a frequent flyer but irritating as I missed out on a sunrise.
Day 2: Early arrival into Tampa, picked up my car and was in Fort Desoto Park by half nine. I spent all morning and early afternoon here, and then investigated St Pete Beach in the afternoon.
Day 3: Early morning at St Pete Beach, an exploratory drive to Clearwater, Largo and Seminole. Afternoon and evening at Fort Desoto Park.
Day 4: All morning at Fort Desoto Park, early afternoon around Old Tampa Bay, and then an afternoon flight to Miami. Miami to London overnight and straight to work.

Main Sites I went to

Fort Desoto Park - a fantastic peninsula for birds reached by some toll bridges. Multiple beaches that face all directions, so great at all times of day, tidal pools, scrub and mangrove. Shell Key Preserve just to the north ensures plenty of birds, as does a roped-off sanctuary area on the western edge. There is a $5 park entrance fee.
St Pete Beach – this is a stretch of white sand that stretches for miles, from Fort Desoto in the South to Clearwater in the north. I spent most time near Indian Shores.
Old Tampa Bay - various boat ramps around the bay seemed to attract waders, gulls, egrets and other birds.

Day by day account

Day 2

Day 1 was all about either work or travelling. I dislike work and I like travelling, but nonetheless let’s skip straight to day 2 and birds. I arrived at Tampa at 8am, and had completed the 40 minute drive to Fort Desoto Park by about 9.15am. Florida was experiencing some rather unseasonal weather, and rather than temperatures in the 80’s and bright sunshine, it was more like high 60’s, with a stiff breeze blowing and overcast skies. This turned out to a blessing in disguise, and meant I could happily take photographs all day long, albeit that I missed out on the soft golden light that Florida is so famed for. After paying my $5 at the entrance booths, I checked out East Beach but this was busy with kite surfers so I went straight to North Beach, parking at the far end. Here I had a good encounter with some Palm Warblers in the mangroves at the shoreline, as well as a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. Waders on the beach included Willet, Grey Plover and Sanderling, however most birds were concentrated on some sandbars offshore – huge swirling masses that I couldn’t get to! Green Heron and various Egrets stalked some inland pools, and an American Herring Gull played with a crab. Being a weekend, the numbers of beach users soon began to build up, but there were plenty of inland areas that I could bird happily. Eastern Phoebe and Mourning Dove were the commonest birds, whilst Ospreys and Black Vultures soared overhead, and there was constant traffic in the form of Royal and Sandwich Terns. I was very happy, but as with most first mornings, the photography was a slight disappointment. I guess I am somebody who just needs a bit of time to get into it.

Palm Warbler

In the early afternoon I drove to St Pete Beach, to somewhere between North Redington and Indian Shores. There were loads of tame birds around the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary – this is a hospital that takes in and recuperates injured birds, but due to the amount of food around there are a lot of hangers on. Maybe they’re there to visit friends, maybe they spent some time there themselves? Whatever, if you want to see Wood Storks and Great Egrets wandering around, copious quantities of Night Heron etc, then this is a place to visit for sure. The best photographic opportunities are on the beach outside the Sanctuary, where you can see the Pelicans coming in to land on the aviary roof. On my visit there was also a fantastic Cooper’s Hawk perched on a wooden pole nearby. 
Cooper's Hawk
On the beach itself there were plenty of the usual suspects – Laughing Gulls, Royal, Sandwich and Forster’s Tern, and lots of waders. In the afternoon with the light coming in off the sea, I had to resort to a bit of wading myself to get the right angle, but it is very shallow, and in any event it was still cloudy. Of course there were lots of people swimming, using the beach, out for a stroll and so on, but very few of them flushed anything – in most cases they walked right past and the loafing birds barely moved. Gradually people started moving away, and this resulted in more birds dropping in on the beach, including an American Oystercatcher, a bird I had missed last time. Finally the sun went low enough to undercut the cloud layer, and so I finally got some decent light and spent a good 20 minutes with this one bird which was quite wary by Florida standards. I resolved to come back in the morning when the sun would be coming from the land side.

I finally checked into my hotel who had of course been expecting me the previous evening, and went and had a couple of beers on the beach before going to a roadside bar for dinner and live music. Despite the “mission” aspect of it, this was still a holiday.

Day 3
Back on St Pete Beach at exactly the same place as the previous day, and most of the same birds were still there! Overcast again, and although somewhat of a repeat of what I’d already done I had a couple of different ideas and spent some time trying to make them work. Particularly appealing was a juvenile Royal Tern constantly begging from a parent that had no food. I spent a happy few hours here, rarely going a hundred metres either side of the pier here. I’d lie down and photograph Terns and Waders, and then when a Brown Pelican came in range, quickly stand up, change the settings and try for a few flight or diving shots. 

A quick sandwich lunch and then I drove the length of St Pete Beach looking for different opportunities. Due to the amount of residential buildings it’s very difficult to find places to actually get to the beach, but there are a few public carparks along the way. I pootled all the way to Sand Key Park and beyond, but there was nothing doing during the middle of the day. Retracing my steps I spent the early afternoon driving around the interior looking for suitable habitat, but the short answer is that it’s either exceedingly built up or that you need a boat. I found a friendly female Anhinga on a public golf course, but other than that I barely took a photograph. So, back to Fort Desoto Park.

I tried a different area at the south end of North Beach, and this was fantastic. There are some saline pools, and beyond this the beach is roped off – and this is where all the birds are! The ropes are there not only for the breeding season, but also to provide the birds some respite from the constant human activity. There were thousands of them in tight flocks – no good for photography but great birding. Happily there is a bit of overspill, and it was here that I found one of my top target, Black Skimmer. A lone bird in with Laughing Gulls, and unfortunately right in the middle! They’re enormous, like a giant Tern with an even more outsized beak. Miracle of miracles this single bird was progressively joined by more and more birds, giving me some brief flight opportunities, and then developed into a decent sized flock on the beach. Again I had to wade to get the best of the light, but managed to isolate some individual birds – very happy. And then the inevitable happened and a kid flushed them, whereupon they all took off and went some distance back over the rope and into the sanctuary area. Still, it had been good while it lasted and I knew where I would be the following morning.
Black Skimmer
I spent the final part of the day investigating the fishing pier and the scrub behind it, and unfortunately managed to lie on a fire ant nest whilst photographing some Phoebes. For very small ants they really pack a punch, and being social animals they cunningly all got into position before HRH Number One Ant issued the bite command, whereupon they all got stuck in simultaneously. Agony, like being poked by a thousand needles. Legs, arms, back of the neck, thumb, ears. I sprang up, dropped the camera and vigourously started slapping at myself but it was too late….. I read later that these mass attacks can be bad enough to require steroid injections, so I was pleased to more or less get away with it, though some of the bites persisted for two weeks. I didn’t get any photos of the Phoebes and didn’t try again!

Day 4
I had until at least midday before needing to return to Tampa, and finally the day dawned bright and clear, and I got the light I had been wanting. I was at the same spot at sunrise and photographing a Reddish Egret fishing on the saline pools. Wonderful birds, and exactly as per the last trip to see them fishing is superb – dancing, jinking, running, waggling. Comical but amazingly effective in the shallow water. There were Egrets and Herons everywhere, but the Osprey I attempted to stalk was having none of it. No Skimmers this morning, and rather disappointingly two metal detectorists were systematically working the beach exactly where they had been yesterday, no doubt hoping to find all the jewellery lost at the by the weekend visitors. They happily stepped right over the rope and carried straight on into the bird sanctuary, pushing everything with them….Grrrr. A few birds remained however, and in the lovely warm light I made the most of it. Best of all was a white morph Reddish Egret. By 10am the light was really harsh, and I reverted to birding mode. Although the prior days had seen no nice light at all, the benefits of a cloud layer were now very apparent – I had in reality been very fortunate.

Hard to believe that these two are the same species! Reddish Egret!
All too soon it was time to leave, and as is typical for my flying visits I was late already. Just enough time to photograph a male Anhinga on the shores of Old Tampa Bay, and then I packed up, got rid of as much sand as possible, and headed to Tampa airport for my flight to Miami. A long layover in Miami stocking up on beer and deleting upwards of a thousand duff images, and it was onwards to London on the upper deck of the flying whale. All in all a decent and very productive trip, once again in rather compressed timescales, but it only required a day and a half off work.


  1. Very nice pictures. I'm surprised you don't get more in the way of comments. I admire your enthusiasm for flying and airports particularly Miami which is pretty awful. I'm 3500 miles closer and I wouldn't do it for a long weekend.



  2. Nope, not many comments, but I keep plodding on. It's for my own enjoyment mainly.

  3. As always, a good read illustrated with cracking photos. As well as the images I could see, there was also one for which I had to use my imagination - the fire ant episode. Excellent! I'm happy to work a bit for maximum blog post value.

    1. Cheers Gavin. Any photographer fortunate enough to have been close to me would have had a wonderful time. That said, everyone has an iphone these days, so perhaps a Google search for "stupid brit photographer lies on fire ant nest!' could yield some fun results? It was awful, and I (now) have the utmost respect for this particular branch of insectdom.