From Snow Flurries to Sunshine

We recently returned from another fantastic trip to Southwest Florida (Fort Myers area).  We drove through some snow flurries on the way to the airport and arrived to beautiful sunny skies.  We packed in a lot on our trip. Hiking, swimming, zoo-ing, and of course some birding. I had a few target life birds for this trip – Clapper Rail and Saltmarsh Sparrow.  Well I got one of them but ended up with a few bonus lifers along the way…

We started out our walks at one of our favourite places to visit every time we go – Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve (pronounced Slew). This boardwalk and park were hit hard by hurricane Irma but lucky for us, they were able to fix things up and get it reopened shortly before we got down there.

While relaxing one evening at the condo, I was browsing some of the Florida birding pages on Facebook and a rarity caught my eye. A MacGillivray’s Warbler, a western species, had been spotted about 20 minutes down the road at Freedom Park in Naples.  We made plans to check out the park first thing in the morning.  A new park to explore and hopefully a life bird (or 2 in this case) would be on tap.  We received some detailed instructions on where to go to look for the bird so we wasted no time and headed right for the spot.  Other birders were there but unfortunately they hadn’t seen the bird for some time, but the good news was that the bird was likely still around. I scanned the brush looking for any movement and then within a short time, I heard a chip note that sounded pretty good. I waited and listed to the noise as it moved through the brush. The bird popped right out in front of me. Most of the other birders had gone down to another area so I had to motion to them to come back. By the time they got there, the bird had disappeared again.  Luckily though, to everyone’s delight, it popped back out and fed maybe 15′ from us. Sarah was tending to the girls so I switched her spots so she could get a better look. The girls were getting a bit restless so I took them for a short walk a little further down the boardwalk. In one of the clearings, a raptor that was circling not too far off caught my eye. I got my binoculars on the bird and said to myself, that’s a ‘bleeping’ Swainson’s Hawk! Another unexpected lifer – a bird that I have missed back home a few times. I quickly fired off some shots just to confirm my sighting. I walked back to get Sarah but by the time we got back to the spot, the bird had disappeared.

Last year I had noticed a hotspot on eBird that looked very interesting but I just didn’t have time to check it out. The place is called Estero Preserve (Winkler Point access) which is a big salt-marshy-salt-flat, wet-boggy, with dry parts, huge park for lack of a better description. I had read that the trails were muddy and that boots were necessary. I stopped in at the local Wal-mart to pick up some cheap rubber boots so I could explore the area. I had messaged a local birder to find out some more details on the park and what to expect. My targets for the park were Clapper Rail and Saltmarsh Sparrow, both of which had bee seen recently in the area. I got to the park before sunrise in hopes that I could hear a rail calling but it was pretty windy making listening for calls a bit challenging.   explored quite a bit of the area which is incredible habitat. I added a few new birds to my Florida list here, including some duck species. I did get one of my targets – a Saltmarsh Sparrow. It’s a pretty tricky ID especially because Nelson’s Sparrows use the same habitat and they look very similar. Decent photos were impossible but I did get good looks at at least one Saltmarsh and a handful of Nelson’s. I can’t wait to get back to this place to check it out further. Here’s my ebird checklist.

Now that the girls are getting older, evening trips down to the beach are getting a little easier. We were able to head down to catch a few of the sunsets. While we’re at the beach, I can’t help but keep an eye out for interesting shorebirds. One evening while at the beach, a flock of 17, yes 17, Piping Plovers flew and landed not far from where we were standing.  This was by far, the largest group I had seen together in one place. Usually there are other shorebirds mixed in but not this time.  I figured some of the birds must be banded and it’s always interesting to report the bands and find out where the birds originated. I had heard of a recent sighting of a bird spotted near by that hatched this past summer at Sauble Beach back home in Ontario, so I wanted to get a good look at the birds in case it was in the group.  It was already getting dark so photography was not the main goal but I wanted to get some decent shots of any banded birds.  Right away, 2 jumped out at me.  One really caught my attention.  The band sequence looked very familiar.  In reviewing all of the photos later, I was able to make out the band colours and even the numbers on the numbered band.  I was almost positive it was the Sauble bird so I posted the bird and mentioned the sighting to Plover Lovers and they quickly confirmed my suspicion!  Very cool.

We decided to check out another new park and beach – Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park. The park grounds were very well kept and the beach was a typical gorgeous Florida white sand beach. Not long after setting our beach stuff up and getting the toys out for the kids, I noticed a bit of a feeding frenzy straight out from us. I picked up my binoculars and right away I spotted a Northern Gannet – a new Florida Bird.  What an amazing sight to watch it feed with the Gulls, Terns and Pelicans.

Northern Gannet diving

As vacations go, they’re never long enough. I can’t wait to get back. I may not have gotten all of my targets but It’s nice to leave a few target birds behind for next time.  The 2 surprise lifers made up for up and then some.  I ended up with a total of 3 lifers and 9 new birds for my Florida list – not too shabby.

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