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A trip to Florida brings an abundance of birds

Mark Faherty
Royal Tern

If I were marketing Cape Cod to visiting birders, late March would be a tough sell. The Ospreys are back, sure, and that’s exciting. The first few Piping Plovers have also appeared on beaches from Plymouth to Orleans, and a few Great Egrets have returned. But overall, this this can be a bleak time in the ornithological calendar. That’s why you will now be forced to hear about my recent Florida vacation, just as if I had cornered you at a cocktail party, complete with a slideshow.

Indeed, a couple of weeks ago we packed up the kids, got a dog sitter, and headed to see my in-laws on the Gulf Coast of Florida. If you’ve never traveled with small children, I highly recommend it, mainly because it will make your work and home life problems seem trivial. This wasn’t a birding trip by any stretch of the imagination, but I was still excited for all the reasons a normal New England person would be excited to go to Florida in winter. Besides, any trip I do is a birding trip, to the extent I can get away with it, or hide from my companions that I am constantly birding – sunglasses help with this.

The good thing about Florida is that both the people and the birds tend to be on vacation, and thus more relaxed when they are back north here. Birds that would flee in terror when you got within 200 yards here on the Cape can essentially be grabbed by the neck down there if you’re quick enough. Great Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets, perhaps the same ones that we see in summer, begged for fish at the piers alongside the local Brown Pelicans. Ruddy Turnstones, shy when passing through Cape Cod, come within arm’s reach on the beaches and sort through plates of shellfish on restaurant tables before the busboy can clear them.

We spent most of our time on the beaches, which were spectacular, and luckily for me were loaded with big, photogenic birds. Every quarter mile there was a big flock of roosting Black Skimmers so confiding you practically had to kick them out of the way to get by. I photographed and later reported a color banded skimmer in one of the flocks and it turned out it was banded as a chick in a breeding colony on Long Island. That’s right – even the birds in Florida are from New York.

The skimmers were joined by mixed flocks of Laughing Gulls and terns, including big, shaggy crested Royal Terns, and smaller, more elegant Sandwich Terns. Some were starting courtship displays on busy resort beaches. All of these close birds made bird photography difficult, in that it was often difficult to back up enough to get the whole bird in the frame.

At different times in the past I have lived and researched birds in the wildest parts of Florida, including both the northern and southern Everglades, Big Cypress Preserve, and Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. At a certain point I was done with the tourist and beach traffic of Bradenton Beach, and negotiated to take my four-year-old son on a day trip to see what I call the “real Florida.” So off we went to 37,000 acre Myakka River State Park east of Sarasota in search of alligators and adventure. There, we found screaming Limpkins, Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, and plenty of gators.

Swallow-tailed Kite
Mark Faherty
Swallow-tailed Kite

We tried unsuccessfully to find the rattlesnakes and bobcats that I, and especially Beckett, really wanted to see, but from a canopy walkway we enjoyed an absurdly graceful Swallow-tailed Kite wheeling and diving over a sea of humid oak-palmetto forest. Well, I enjoyed the kite – Beckett is still on the fence about birds. Twice, startlingly huge Sandhill Cranes walked and stood tamely within a few feet of our car, greatly exciting his father but drawing little interest from the preschool demographic.

Alas, the vacation and the dreamy weather soon came to an end, complete with a 6AM flight followed by a canceled leg back to Boston, requiring an unplanned night in a flyover city. Doing all of that with two small kids made the birds, who migrate alone after abandoning their recently fledged offspring, seem all the smarter. I’m kidding, of course, for the most part.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.