Ever since my good friend Aaron became engaged and announced they were having their wedding in Florida, I’ve had this date circled on the calendar. While an April or October wedding would have been nice, I’ll have to forgive him and his bride for not planning their nuptials around avian migration. As a consolation, they chose to have their wedding on Marco Island, an area loaded with birding hotspots. Keeping with the theme our 2015 trips, the hot weather would mean I’d have to do my birding bright and early. This would be complicated by the late-night, tiki-drink fueled celebrations. However, we fought through the hangovers and managed to find the outstanding birding we had hoped for.
The first day we visited the closest and most productive hotspot of the trip, Tigertail Beach. Located at the north end of the beach, this lagoon absolutely delivered. The only complication we ran into was something completely foreign to us Great Lakes birders; tides. Weather and wind patterns are hard enough to plan birding around; tides added a third dimension. The mass movement of water, exposing or concealing land, greatly altered the birds found in an area, as I learned when I made a return trip, later in the afternoon. Arriving during high tide, did not mean we left empty handed. Within 5 minutes of arriving wading birds were everywhere. Herons included Tricolored, Green, Little Blue, and Great Blue. Egrets found were Great, Reddish, and Snowy. A group of White Ibis probed the south end of the lagoon.
Walking around the south end of the lagoon, towards the beach, a substantial group of shorebirds, gulls, and the like collected around some standing puddles of water. Again, my Great Lakes birding expectations did not prepare me for the embarrassment of riches running a few feet from my binoculars. Dozens of Willets, Sanderlings, Marbled Godwits, and Ruddy Turnstones were completely at ease with close human proximity as they frenetically fed along the shoreline. Later, when Aly and I took to lounging around in the ocean, a Red Knot walking right by would become commonplace. I blasted away with my camera taking pictures of the terns and skimmers along with the previously mentioned birds. Walking back, I was a bit nervous that I hadn’t found a Wilson’s Plover yet, when two ran within 10 feet of me. My frustration with Yellow-billed Cuckoo (a glaring absence from my life list) would not be satiated, though.
When I returned in the afternoon, low-tide opened up easier access to the “tail” end of the beach. Wading across the lagoon, I could see shallow water and flats now exposed. As I began to walk along the beach, I noticed people walking just steps from a large raptor perched on a sign. My birding ethics indignation kicked in and I grew annoyed that people would not give this expert fisher some space. As I walked towards the lagoon shoreline, I saw the reason for the folks’ encroachment; Osprey were literally everywhere. It was impossible to walk along the beach and not pass within 5 feet of these birds. For their part, the Osprey did not seem to mind. In fact, they probably were more frustrated by the shorebirds that would occasionally run into their area. I’m not sure if this was normal behavior or a result of the extreme heat but, several Osprey lounged in 5-6 inches of water throughout the lagoon. The dozen or so Osprey would not be the only close encounter. A Wilson’s Plover was headed my direction while I knelt on the beach taking pictures of other birds. The plover walked to about 3 feet away from me before decided that was close enough. The little shorebird apparently had its mind made up on walking south on the beach, so I took a few pictures and got out of its way.
The following morning, we decided to head north on I-75 and hit two locations: Hidden Cyprus Preserve and the renowned J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Hidden Cyprus Preserve was our first stop and largely consisted of a main road you would walk along. The quality of the habitat was high but, the bird life was a bit subdued. There were highlights, though. Black Vultures roosted in trees on both sides of the road in substantial numbers. As we walked by, several were perched on the fence, allowing us to clearly see the differences with Turkey Vultures. As the sun started to create thermal movement of air, dozens of vultures would take to kettling in the sky above our heads. Aly, through some insanely good spotting, found a Red-shouldered Hawk, perched in the trees.
After a few hours we took off to Sanibel Island and the Ding Darling NWR. If the lesson of coordinating our birding with the tides was not learned at Tigertail, it was etched in our minds here; we saw more cars than birds. The high tide pushed birds away as the mangrove roots and mudflats became inundated with saltwater. Climbing up an observation tower gave us distant and unsatisfying views of Roseate Spoonbills. A few Mottled Ducks and hardly visible manatees later, we retreated to the Lazy Flamingo for some delicious grouper that would make the two hour return trip to Marco worth it.
After the wedding, we had one last destination in mind, the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. During migration, the serpentine boardwalk would be dripping with migrant passerines. Songbirds were still present but they were mostly observed by call rather than sight. Regardless, the White-eyed Vireo, an elusive species for me in Illinois was heard from first step to last on the boardwalk. As we approached halfway on our path, the volunteers began to disperse and take their daily counts. Not more than twenty feet after we met a pleasant birder and swapped sightings, we ran into a Limpkin perched on the wood railing, staring right at us. On the other side of the walk, an Anhinga perched in a tree, spreading its massive tail. We took our time observing the two birds since we knew we had only one route and it would definitely flush the birds away. We couldn’t help but wonder if the Limpkin flew in just for us, since surely the birder would have mentioned the presences of this large, unique bird.
The difficult thing about taking trips where the main focus is not birding is to be satisfied with the birding time you have, no matter how excruciating the misses. I remain dumbfounded as to how I could not spot a single Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a bird that appears on over 25% of eBird checklists in August. But, I think it’s those challenges that make me excited to return to southern Florida and enjoy the unique wildlife that lives there.
My eBird Checklists:
8/7 Tigertail Beach (AM)