Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando
As I began this blog site on October 30th and my trip to Central Florida was in late September and early October I thought I would rewind things and go ahead and chronicle the fantastic adventure it proved to be!
The trip to Florida originated when I was asked to co-present at the National College Access Network’s (NCAN) national conference in Orlando. The presentation was related to my role as the coordinator for the Scholars of Color Mentoring program I coordinate at Madison College. This also gave me the chance to take three-and-a-half days for myself to explore central Florida.
The conference took place at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando. I arrived in Orlando Sunday afternoon, got settled and promptly began walking along the shores of the small lakes surrounding the complex with my camera, hoping to get some good pictures of some of Florida’s avian life. I immediately saw a heron standing on the far shore and was pretty excited because it looked like it may have been a Tri-colored Heron. Being from Wisconsin, I get pretty used to Great Blue Herons, Green Heron’s and Great Egrets but not much else…save the occasional Snowy or Cattle Egret.
As I made my way around the lake, my initial thoughts proved correct and I was able get some good pictures of this cooperative bird which was my first lifer of the trip. Over the next three days I would spend the afternoon hours walking the shores of the lakes looking for new birds and more photo opportunities.
I did get great looks at American Anhingas, which were pretty much oblivious to my presence. There were also many Green Heron’s, one White Ibis and one Great Egret.
Hal Scott Regional Preserve
The real fun began on Wednesday September 30th when I left the hotel and made my way to the Orlando International Airport where I rented a car for the next three days. I decided to spend the afternoon in the Orlando area and began at the Hal Scott Regional Preserve. There was no action as far as birds were concerned, but I did see some very neat butterflies.
This Zebra Swallowtail was the first I had ever seen and the only one I saw on the trip. A gorgeous butterfly for sure.
The Gulf Fritillary was a very colorful visitor and one I saw several times during the trip.
The most interesting thing I saw that day was the giant Lubber Grasshopper that I initially mistook for some kind of toad or frog from a distance. It was that big. It actually lumbers around more than anything. Too heavy to hop well and apparently poisonous enough to not need to move very fast, this grasshopper was over 4 inches long.
My next stop was to the Orlando Wetlands. By the time I arrived, it was very hot and humid but I decided to walk a loop that was around two miles.
My next lifer was the Black-bellied Whistling Duck. This pair perched nicely for me in a dead tree in the marsh.
This Little Blue Heron was the next lifer I was able to photograph. Another beautiful heron . It was so nice to be able to see some new herons and egrets!
While not a lifer, I had not seen a lot of Snowy Egrets before. They are not common in Wisconsin by any means, but I have seen them on occasion. It was very nice to see these small elegant egrets with their yellow feet in nice numbers while in Florida.
I had hoped to see the endangered gopher Tortoise and I was lucky enough to see this one. I never saw another although I did see some burrows in the Lyonia Preserve.
I had to have a picture of my first wild American Alligator of course! This animal was around 7 feet long and was napping on the berm I was walking along and wasted no time in scurrying to the water once it realized I was approaching. I was able see many alligators during the trip, many of them quite large.
All in all, I found the Orlando wetlands to be a fantastic place to walk through and hope to visit it again some time soon.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
I began this day bright and early and made the drive from Kissimmee. I was at the Black Point Wildlife Drive before dawn. This is a seven mile long one-way auto tour not unlike the auto tour at Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin. Unfortunately it was very overcast and gloomy in the morning so I had to repeat it in the .afternoon when it cleared up a bit. I was really hoping to find the Reddish Egret here as they tend to like the salt water marshes. I was not disappointed and garnered another life bird. The Reddish Egret quickly became my favorite egret or heron.
I was also able to see the petite Common Ground Dove; another lifer for me!
I then drove the few miles to the Manatee viewing area where I got a very brief glimpse of one of the gentle giants. Feeling somewhat disappointed, I then drove back to the Merritt Island visitor center where I paid the $5 fee for the Black Point Wildlife Drive (I did not have change for a $20 when I first arrived). The woman in the center told me the real place to go to see Manatees was at the Bairs Cove Boat ramp. So I drove back out that way and sure enough , there were six of them.
The Manatees never really came too far out of the water but they did come within 6 feet of me. Most of them showed some sign of a collision with a motor boat. The boat ramp was very busy with boats coming and going at an almost constant rate. Given the close proximity of boats, it is hard to imagine Manatees not having a collision at some point or another.
When I was done marveling at the Manatees I decided to head back over the A. Max Brewer Memorial Parkway back into Titusville to get some lunch. As I was coming off the bridge, I noticed a parking lot that was very birdy indeed. I quickly pulled in and was pleased to see some neat shorebirds and first and second cycle Laughing Gulls.
One thing I can never seem to get in Wisconsin is really good close up pictures of either the Long-billed or Short-billed Dowitchers. Yet, here I was, within just a few feet of both species! Fantastic!
Another unusual visitor to Wisconsin and one that I have only seen once as far inland as Madison is, was the Willet. This bird gave me some great looks and seemed rather unperturbed by my presence. Of course, I was in my car using it as a blind for this encounter.
Canaveral National Seashore
After lunch, I headed back across the bridge to the Canaveral National Seashore ins search of the Florida Scrub Jays I had been told frequent the area around the ranger station. While I had no luck finding them I was able to see some great birds along the beach.
The first of these were Sandwich Terns, which was a life bird for me. I also got some great looks at Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings.
Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands
On my way back to Kissimmee, I stopped at the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands where I saw my first Roseate Spoonbills, some more Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and several alligators among other things. At one point, I was walking along a berm towards some spoonbills that I wanted to photograph. Suddenly a very large alligator rose up out of the long grass and thundered down the slope into the water with a resounding thunderous clap. This gator was only a few feet in front of me. While it certainly surprised me, it appeared to be just as surprised.
my favorite picture was of a Great Blue Heron that was sunning itself with its wings hanging down at its sides. I found that the Great Blue’s were much less skittish overall than they are in Wisconsin. The one pictured blow allowed me to walk right past it and never got too worried about it.
When I was planning my itinerary, I was not sure I would get to the Lyonia Preserve in Deltona but after trying so hard for the Florida Scrub Jay at Merritt Island and Canaveral, I decide to make the trip north. I was told by a birding friend that he had never missed them there, Sure enough, no sooner then I got out of my car, I heard the calling to each other!
Because the Florida Scrub Jay is Florida’s only endemic bird species, this made for an extra special life bird for me and was worth the time it took to find it. This bird actually flew up and landed on my hand and began vigorously pecking away at it hoping I had some peanuts for it. While it was a neat experience, it sure seemed to indicate that people are feeding these rare denizens of the rare and decreasing Florida oak scrub, which is unfortunate.
Another species that I saw was this Ovenbird, which I generally find to be rather elusive and hard to sight. It was raining and very cloudy when I saw this bird so the picture was a bit dark.
I found a family of Brown Thrashers playing in some low trees ans bushes at the southern border of the preserve and had a great time just quietly observing them play for a while. The parents were sounding the alarm because of my presence, but the juveniles were oblivious to me. I have never been so close to unwary Thrashers before.
Three Lakes Wildlife Area
I next drove the 85 miles south to the Three Lakes Wildlife Area where I drove the roads of the Kissimmee Prairie looking for the elusive Crested Caracara. Even though I whiffed on the caracaras, I fortunately decided to go to the Lake Jackson observation tower. The first thing that I saw and in great numbers I might add, was the Giant Golden Silk Orb Weaver. This spider was as big as my hand! They had the unsettling habit of making their very large webs just higher than my head, so they were always very close.
The highlight of this part of the trip was, without a doubt, the elusive Purple Gallinule. When I got up to the top of the tower, All I could see below me were lily pads…the preferred haunts of the Purple Gallinule. I was up in the tower for quite awhile; unwilling to give up searching for them when I suddenly caught a quick movement from under some pads. Wait…it couldn’t be…yes! It was a Purple Gallinule! Another life bird. I patiently waited for this bird to come out of its refuge for about an hour. Eventually, this bird did come out and I got some great looks at it running across lily pads. This bird was very thrilling and satisfying for me to locate for two reasons. First, I have always wanted to see one. Second, being patient really paid off. This is just one of many, many examples I have of seeing wonderful and often rare birds by being patient and/or persistent. This strategy has paid off for me on several occasions.
On my way to Joe Overstreet I had a gorgeous adult Red-shouldered Hawk land on a fence post right on the highway. Need less to say, I braked quickly and backed up to get a great picture of it.
Joe Overstreet Boat Landing
I really had a great time at Joe Overstreet. The road to the boat landing is three or four miles long and it took me over an hour to get to the landing as I kept finding great butterflies and an amazing juvenile Red-shouldered hawk that was hunting grasshoppers from a perch on a telephone pole. It kept flying right down by my car to catch them. Incredible looks and great photo opportunities.
The butterflies were great on the road down to the boat landing as well. First up was a beautiful Queen.
Next was a White Peacock
When I was finally able to tear myself away from the most entertaining Red-shouldered Hawk and butterflies, I made it down to the boat landing where I saw a rather tall bird wading through some tall grass at the lakes edge.I felt my pulse quicken as I thought to myself “is that a Limpkin?” Yes it was! It was hunting Apple Snails and as I got out of my car, it got one. That was another lifer and with the Purple Gallinule that was seen earlier, tow of the more elusive Florida birds in one afternoon! Heard but not seen was a King Rail (another lifer).
I had hoped to see a Crested Caracara at Joe Overstreet but once again whiffed.. The bird I most hoped to see at this location however, was the endangered Snail Kite. When I got down there, I ran into another photographer by the name of Dale Sitts. He had spent a lot of years living on San Juan Island off the northwest coast of Washington where my family has a house and I spent 10 days this summer! Quite a small world. He had a friend of his, Brandt Schurenberg who had come down to the landing searching for the Snail kite as well.
While we were scoping and searching for a kite we saw a bird fly up to the lake edge near us and land in the grass. It came up with a snail…could it be…yes! A Snail Kite! By the time I got in gear it was swiftly moving away from us.
Joe Overstreet was great fun and I had a great time meeting and hanging out with Dale and Brandt. That is one of the great things about birding and nature photography; you meet some really great folks out there!
Wakodahatchee Wetlands & Green Cay Nature Preserve
While I was at Joe Overstreet talking with Brandt and Dale, I decided to spend my last day in Florida driving to Miami to see if I could see some exotics. Brandt suggested I look at the Tropical Audubon website to see if there were any suggested places.
When I got back to my cabin in Kissimmee, I did just that and found a rare bird alert for a Neotropical Cormorant at a place called the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach. I decided to stop there on my way south. I arrived right at sunrise and made my way onto the boardwalk where there were an incredible number of roosting birds; especially White Ibis and Cattle Egrets.
Almost immediately, I met Judy Rapp, an incredibly nice women who was gracious enough to guide me at both Wakodahatchee and Green Cay.
I told Judy that I was hoping to see a Yellow-crowned Night heron and she said Green Cay was the place to see them. After we finishes the boardwalk at Wakodahatchee (alas, there was no Neotropic Cormorant), it was off to Green Cay where my lifer Yellow-crowned Night Heron was seen still roosting.
There were many great sightings of birds and other wildlife at these two wonderful wetlands. Both had fantastic boardwalks that allowed close viewing of the birds and other wildlife. Thank you for the great day of birding Judy!
I anticipate a return to this area in the near future and some more birding adventures with Judy!
During my three days in Florida, I was able to add 33 birds to my 2015 list and 17 life birds to my North American list. A wonderful trip for me. It is too bad that I was just a little early to take advantae of the migration and arrival of winter birds. But that will be a good reason to get back down to Florida during the winter months.