Pictures - 3 Galleries
Michelle and I
have been talking about taking our first cruise for several years and this summer we took the plunge. We also wanted to spend some time birding and hiking in Florida,
and since we were already down there, decided to extend the trip to Key West and the Dry Tortugas to look for some island specialty birds.
We started our journey on June 18 which turned out to be a a long day of driving south (775 miles)
and put us just north of Daytona
Beach. Michelle had spotted a Swallow-tailed Kite in South Carolina so she was already picking up life birds on the trip. We also saw
Great, Snowy, and Cattle Egrets, Wood
Storks, Mississippi Kites, Boat-tailed Grackles, Glossy
White Ibis, and Anhinga
along the way south.
The next morning we were up early and decided to spend a few hours birding the
National Forest area before we had to begin boarding the cruise ship at 1:00 p.m. Our first stop was
(76 million gallons/day). The birding here was fairly slow, but we did find two juvenile
Armadillos beside the trail. We then hiked the
Yearling Trail near Lake George and located several
Florida Scrub-Jays and Red-headed Woodpeckers.
Then we drove to Port Canaveral
and boarded Royal Caribbean's Sovereign of the
Seas for a four-night cruise to the Bahamas. I had taken my spotting scope along thinking that I might have some time to do some birding from the decks - it never left my cabin. There is simply too much fun stuff to do on a cruise. We ate about four times a day, went to at least two different shows each night, played games, danced, etc. - and that is not including the day trips to
Coco Cay and
The only seabird we saw was a single Sooty Tern off the coast of
Florida. Our first stop was Coco Cay - a private island owned by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Michelle and I spent the morning snorkeling the reefs off the island. The variety,
number, and color of the fish and coral were spectacular. It was an experience that neither of us will
soon forget. After a cookout lunch provided by the cruise ship we hiked the nature trail on the island
where we spotted Gray Kingbirds and our first ever Bananaquit.
The next morning we arrived in Nassau on New Providence Island. Nassau has lots of shops but we were both a little disappointed with the downtown area. We visited the Atlantis
Resort Hotel which is quite amazing with beautiful architecture and a huge
aquarium. After catching a cab downtown, we walked the mile or so to the Ardastra Gardens Conservation
Center - spotting Cuban Grassquits, White-cheeked Pintails, and a pair
of Smooth-billed Anis along the way. While in the zoo section we saw
many species of birds and other animals from all over the world - sadly
all in cages of course. While walking the gardens we also added a Bahama Woodstar that was visiting the hummingbird
feeders as well as a Red-legged Thrush spotted along the tree line.
We got on the local bus to head back to town but realized that we had boarded on the wrong side of the street (or the right side - they drive on the left in the Bahamas) - anyway we got to take a scenic 30-minute tour of the island instead of the 3 minute ride back to town that we thought we were taking. After a quick trip to the Straw Market for some souvenirs we headed back to
the ship early to get ready for dinner.
The next day was spent at sea but the ship had plenty of activities and
entertainment to choose from during the day and well into the night.
We arrived back at Port Canaveral the next morning, June 23, and decided to bird
Jetty Park at the end of the channel. There we found
Loggerhead Shrikes, Brown Pelicans, and
several other ocean-side residents. The highlight was a pair of Osprey who were making dives into the surf just off the beach in about a foot of water. They were
unfazed by the people standing only a short distance away and were determined to catch their lunch. It was amazing to watch these birds hover over the surf and then plunge into a wave feet first.
We then headed inland on the Beeline Expressway and then south on Rt. 27 to Lake Wales. We spent at least an hour in the hot sun scoping the skies for Short-tailed Hawks near Lake Weohyakapka but did not have any luck. We made several more stops along the way to Sebring but only found hundreds of
Black and Turkey Vultures along the way. The Short-tailed Hawk was one of several birds that would elude us on the trip.
After a night to re-pack from the trip and a stop at Wal-mart to stock up on supplies we headed out to
Highlands Hammock State Park the next morning. The park is a beautiful place to bird. The trails are well maintained and you wind your way through 1,000-year-old oaks as well as Wild Oranges and Cypress. Michelle spotted four
Swallow-tailed Kites sitting in the top of one large oak. Northern
Parulas were at every turn in Florida - one of only three warblers we spotted in the state (Parula, C. Yellowthroat, and Prairie). We found a juvenile
Red-shouldered Hawk that was catching insects in an open area. It allowed us to approach within 40 feet or so and we got some great video of this lightly colored Florida morph bird.
We stopped for lunch in an area known to have Short-tailed Hawks but did not see any. We did have a
pair of Swallow-tailed Kites come floating over our heads, giving great looks at this striking bird. Along the way we found a large kettle of vultures along with a dozen or so
Wood Storks circling very high above the kettle.
At Clewiston, we located a flock of Common Mynas in the parking lot of a McDonalds. We found this species in several other towns and cities along the way south. Anhinga
and several species of wading birds were found every quarter mile or so
along the roadways. We stopped at Lake Okeechobee but found very little
out over the lake. A roadside lake along Rt. 27 produced Black-necked
Stilts with young, Mottled Ducks, both Ibis, and several heron and egret species. We did not find any new species at
Markham Park or Sawgrass Recreational Area but we did get to see a drug bust in the parking lot - complete with about six police cars. A quick stop at Pembroke Pines just before a thunderstorm did not produce the Purple Swamphens we were hoping for. We then drove into Homestead that night to place us close enough to the Everglades National Park for some early birding.
The next morning, June 25, we drove into the Everglades National
Park. We bypassed some of the earlier trails in order to get to the best breeding grounds of the
Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow. As soon as we stopped we could hear several sparrows out in the
sawgrass but it took over 30 minutes before we were finally able to scope a distant bird. After only half a minute
the bird left its perch and we never were able to locate another sparrow, although we heard several more during the day. We then drove to Flamingo - 38 miles from the park
entrance and the end of the line as far as driving south along the Florida peninsula.
There was a light rain so we scoped several species out in the bay including a
Reddish Egret, Black-bellied Plover,
Marbled Godwit, Great White Heron, and a Sandwich
Tern. The highlight was a Manatee frolicking in the bay - sticking his tail and flippers into the air. The hurricanes of 2005 have taken their toll on Flamingo and the lodge and many of the other buildings are still closed. Only the Visitor's Center and Marina were open. Finally the rain stopped and we
birded the extensive grounds around Flamingo. We spotted our first Gray Kingbird in the U.S. (we had seen many in the Bahamas) and a beautiful
Florida Red-shouldered Hawk. Osprey could be found almost on every other tree. At the marina we spotted and videotaped one of our target species - the
Alligators were everywhere in Florida but
the Crocs can normally only be located with any regularity at Flamingo. We had met a local birder who told us about a small flock of
Shiny Cowbirds in the area. We looked for them for almost an hour before giving up and heading to the famous
Bight Trail. We knew that Flamingos had not been spotted there in 2006 but we were hoping for a Mangrove Cuckoo along the first mile or so of the trail. The trail has a reputation for mosquitoes and it was well deserved. Michelle and I were covered from head to toe in bug suits.
As an extra precaution, we sprayed each other with DEET. Even then we
just managed to limit the damage to about a dozen bites each, as there was a cloud of mosquitoes around us at all times. We did not find the Cuckoos but the trail
through the mangrove swamp was beautiful with many different flowers and bromeliads along the way. Our next stop was the Paurotis Pond and the
Wood Stork rookery there. It was amazing to watch the hundreds of young storks start begging as small groups of adults would come back to the rookery from the everglades. There were also many other species of wading birds in the area and alligators patrolled the waters under the rookery in case any young storks fell out of the nest.
On the way to Mahogany Hammock Michelle spotted our first Snail Kite of the trip. We got great looks as it hovered over the
sawgrass and picked snails off the stalks. The weather started to clear so we headed back to Flamingo for one more try at the
Shiny Cowbirds. After about 10 minutes we found a small group near the marina. Their call is liquid like the Brown-headed Cowbird but has
many more syllables. I managed about 10 seconds of film of one bird. By this point it was getting late and we headed back to Homestead to celebrate Michelle's birthday with a good dinner.
A small group of Roseate Spoonbills seen over Homestead finished out the
The next morning we were off to the Keys. Instead of taking Rt. 1 to Key Largo we headed down the lesser used Card Sound Road. At the end of the road we turned SW along Key Largo. A cuckoo flew out of the Mangroves on one side of the road in front of us and we stopped the car. We never did see the cuckoo again (in fact we missed the Mangrove Cuckoo on the entire trip) but Michelle spotted a pair of
White-crowned Pigeons and a Florida Red-shouldered Hawk while we were parked beside the road. We drove on for a few more miles and stopped in a hammock of trees. Here we found the first of many
Black-whiskered Vireos we would see or hear over the next few days. At the
Dagny Johnson Key Largo State Park we found
Black-whiskered Vireo, Common Ground-Dove, White-eyed
Vireo, Least Terns, White-crowned Pigeons and several other species. As we got into the car to leave three
Magnificent Frigatebirds came sailing over the trees heading south.
Our next stop was Long Key State Park where, in addition to many wading birds, we located a
Florida Prairie Warbler, Gray Kingbirds, and more Common
Ground-Dove. Mosquitoes and spiders were plentiful along the nature trail but the many dragonflies were working hard to keep their population in check. Next we stopped at the Marathon Government Center to watch the
Least and Roseate Terns that nest on the building's roof. We got good looks at both species (the Roseate was a life bird for us). Our last birding stop was at the National Key Deer Refuge. We did jump a single
Key Deer out of the brush as we hiked along. At the beach we found more
Gray Kingbirds and
a few shorebirds. From there we headed to Key West - getting a room at
Simonton Court near Duval Street. Our room was located in an old
sailing captain's home and this has be one of the nicest places we have ever stayed. If you
ever visit Key West I would highly recommend staying downtown at one of the places near
Duval Street. That night we headed down to Duval Street for some shopping and a great seafood pasta at
Crabby Dicks restaurant.
Key West is known as the
Conch Republic and the people there live the laid-back, anything-goes, Jimmy Buffet lifestyle.
The next morning, June 27, we headed into town to do the tourist thing. After walking along the waterfront we toured the
Key West Museum
of Art and History at the old Customs House. Mel Fisher's
Museum is located just across the street. It holds the treasures
Fisher found on the Spanish galleon the Atocha. We then walked past
Truman's Little White
House where every president since Truman has visited. The big stop of the day was a visit to
Ernest Hemingway's House. A guided tour gave us lots of interesting stories about the writer who won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes. We also visited the southernmost point in the continental United States.
White-crowned Pigeons can be found atop almost any tree in Key West and the famous
Key West Chickens are everywhere. We stopped at
Willie T's for supper and then had to go get a drink and dance at
Sloppy Joe's - the bar that Ernest Hemingway (AKA
Papa) frequented, almost every night, while he lived in Key West.
We were up at dawn on Wednesday, June 28 in order to checkout of our room and get to the docks by 7:15 a.m.
to catch the
Yankee Freedom Ferry to the
Dry Tortugas National Park. The Tortugas lie 70 miles off the coast of Key West and are the site of
Fort Jefferson - a U.S. fort started in 1846 but never completed. Eagle-eye Michelle spotted our first ever
White-tailed Tropicbird on the trip out to the islands and it gave us a great look as it flew in front of the boat. I also spotted what I believe to be a shearwater but could not make an ID. As you near Garden Key and Fort Jefferson you start to find large flocks of
Sooty Terns along with groups of Brown Noddies flying to and from the island. The fort itself is massive with over 16 million bricks used in
its construction. It was fascinating to walk along the top of the fort and look out over the other islands - covered with terns, noddies, and frigatebirds. After touring the fort and a quick lunch provided by the ferry we decided to snorkel around the island. We found a
Barracuda, a six-foot Nurse
Shark, and other species but overall we decided the snorkeling was much better in the Bahamas. At 2:45 we were back on the ferry and headed back to Key West - much too short a time to bird and explore the fort and island.
After arriving back in Key West we drove out to Sugarloaf Key to look for the Mangrove Cuckoo,
but missed this bird once again. Finally we ended the day at Marathon Airport at dusk and a beautiful sunset - watching the sky fade to black as the
Antillean Nighthawks wheeled and
called out over the runways.
The next morning we drove north into the suburbs of Miami. At 248th street we found
Monk Parakeets nesting in a power substation. We then followed the directions in the ABA Guide
A Birder's Guide to Florida and saw the West Indian Cave Swallows near Rt. 821. We spend over two hours looking for the Red-whiskered Bulbul in the Kendall area,
but could not find one. We did manage to find a single Spot-breasted
Oriole, Common Mynas, and several Yellow-chevroned
Parakeets. At Fuchs Park we had our best ever looks at both the Anhinga and the
From there we headed west across Florida along the Tamiami Trail (Rt. 41). At the
Big Cypress National Preserve we saw several alligators,
a pair of Sandhill Cranes, and our first ever Lubber Grasshopper. We also saw our third Snail Kite of the trip near
Fakahatchee Strand State
Preserve. Along the boardwalk there we found an alligator resting his head on a large turtle. We also spotted a
Bald Eagle nest in a dead cypress tree. Our next stop was the rookery at Marco Island.
If you make a birding trip to Florida do not miss this sight. There were at least
1,500 Magnificent Frigatebirds along with many thousands of White Ibis all crowded onto one small island. The air was in constant motion as flocks of
Ibis were returning to the island late in the day. Many pelicans and wading birds also could be seen on the island. The light was perfect with dark skies behind the island and the setting sun coming over our shoulders. It was a magical moment and I'm thinking about adding it to my
list of Top 10 birding experiences of all time.
We spent the night near Ft. Myers and the next morning were off to the Bunche Beach/San Carlos Bay Preserve to look for plovers and other shorebirds. We located
Snowy, Wilson's and Black-bellied Plovers along the beach. Other birds included
Willets, Sanderlings, Reddish Egrets, Black
Great Blue and Little Blue Herons, and Ruddy Turnstones. Next we headed north to the
Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management
Area. We found singing Bachman's Sparrows near the entrance but our
real target was the Red-cockaded Woodpecker - which we failed to locate. We did get to see
River Otter cross the road in front of us - the first I have seen in many
We then decided to head back to Virginia for a much needed rest from vacationing. Two days of hard driving put us back in the mountains of
Southwest Virginia. We certainly enjoyed the trip to Florida but I don't think it is an area that I could live in. Between the National Parks and Wilderness areas we drove through vast suburban sprawls of strip malls and housing developments, traffic jams, and millions of people. I need a mountain to rest my eyes on from time to time and a place I can walk to from my house to be alone with nature. Every time
we travel to some other part of the country it makes us appreciate the mountains of Virginia even more.
Our total trip was 3221.4 miles in 13 days. We saw well over 100 different species of bird and lots of new territory. Overall, I would certainly recommend a birding trip to Florida as well as taking a cruise.
and Michelle Talbott