Venture to Florida’s Space Coast

Dec 11-16, 2022

With Aaron Steed

Narrative and Photos by Aaron Steed

Our quick getaway to the ‘Space Coast’ of Florida was really just 4.5 days long, which is not a huge amount of time to explore this rich area! We focused our efforts on the classic hotspots of the region, making a few adjustments to the itinerary to account for some rarity chasing, some of which was successful, and some of which was not! Rarity success aside, we still managed 135 species while maintaining a pretty laid-back pace and never really working too hard.

Our tour began at the famous Merritt Island NWR Black Point Wildlife Drive. A visit even on a weekday morning such as ours often finds the drive congested with photographers, and its easy to understand why.

There were birds everywhere! The rainfall from two recent hurricanes had the roadside pools flush with water and stuffed with waterfowl, shorebirds, and waders. Hundreds of Northern Shoveler mingled with Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, and Northern Pintail. There were huge rafts of American Coot and smaller but still impressive numbers of Common Gallinule. There were plenty of diving ducks too. A few flocks of Redhead flew over our heads and landed out of sight, making us wonder how much else was out there that we couldn’t see. We found Hooded Merganser, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Duck, and a single Canvasback as well.

Often with so many birds, there’s a good chance that something unusual is around, and this turned out to be true. While scanning through a group of feeding Ring-necked Ducks, we noticed an odd-looking male that wasn’t diving with the rest, only tipping up like a dabbling duck. Further observation revealed that this was in fact a Mallard X Ring-necked Duck hybrid, a previously reported individual that resembled a Ring-necked Duck from the front (including odd bill markings) and a Mallard from the rear. We drove past tons of Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, Glossy & White Ibis, and Reddish Egrets showcasing their animated, entertaining feeding style. Roseate Spoonbills never failed to steal the spotlight from whatever we were looking at, whether it be a hovering Belted Kingfisher, or a Bald Eagle harassing an Osprey. A Cattle Egret used our van as ‘cattle,’ following (too) closely along next to us as we drove along, hunting the insects stirred up by our passage.

After the amazing Wildlife Drive, we headed to the nearby Scrub Ridge trail to stretch our legs a bit. Our main target here was Florida’s only endemic bird, the Florida Scrub-Jay. It was late morning, already getting a bit warm, and there was more than just one mosquito around – but thankfully, we found more birds than bugs! A Merlin gave us great views as it hunted dragonflies and grasshoppers from its perch in a pine tree. An Anhinga soared up with a handful of Wood Storks and vultures. Eastern (White-eyed) Towhees called around us, sounding quite different from the Red-eyed Towhee calls from back home.

Eventually, we heard the raspy screeches of a scrub jay and before long, one popped up on a shrub top and gave us great views. We also had our first of several encounters with a Gopher Tortoise before leaving for lunch in New Smyrna Beach.

A post-lunch stop at Jetty Park in Port Canaveral gave us our first selection of ‘beach birds’, including Ruddy Turnstone, Willet, Lesser Black-backed & Great Black-backed Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gull, Royal & Sandwich Terns, and Black Skimmer.

We spent the entire following morning at Orlando Wetlands Park near the town of Christmas.

We were greeted by the high-pitched whistles of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and were soon looking at over a hundred in the first pond. A few pairs of Mottled Ducks dabbled here as well while a Limpkin flew up and landed on a high snag. Coots and Common Gallinules were once again everywhere but we delighted at picking out the tour’s first Purple Gallinules, bursting with color in the morning light. There was no shortage of waders either and in addition to all the usuals we had seen at Merritt Island the day before, we managed to find a couple Black-crowned Night-Herons roosting over one of the pools. Savannah Sparrows were common in the grassy areas along the trails and embankments and we found a few Swamp Sparrows too. By late morning, the clouds had gathered, the winds picked up, and it started to rain, which hastened our departure. We did add a Barred Owl just before leaving, calling from a nearby woodland. We skirted the storm by driving southwest, picked up a to-go lunch, and headed to Barber Park in south Orlando, where a Western Kingbird had been recently seen. We covered every inch of the park and though we didn’t find the Kingbird, we had great views of Loggerhead Shrike, Sandhill Crane, Bald Eagle, Wilson’s Snipe, and Pine Warbler.

The following morning found us at Lighthouse Point Park & Jetty scanning the beach and ocean for shorebirds, gulls & ducks. We found both Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Willet and a flock of 70+ Red Knot, which is always nice to see on southern shores. We had a quick flyby view of a male Red-breasted Merganser and found our only Herring Gulls and Forster’s Tern of the trip roosting on the beach. A few distant Northern Gannets dived offshore while a pair of brazen Snowy Egrets tried to snatch fish out of the fisherman’s buckets on the jetty. We moved on to Smyrna Dunes Park, hoping to track down the previously reported Heermann’s Gull. It was a bit of a long walk along the boardwalk to get to the beach, but we marveled at the number of Osprey all airborne in our view at the same time (20+). Finally on the beach, we had up close views of a Piping Plover exhibiting it’s foot-trembling feeding behavior in an attempt to scare invertebrates closer to the surface. As if these birds couldn’t get any cuter! After spotting a distant flock of Black Scoter moving offshore, we started our walk back, picking up a few Common Yellowthroats in the coastal scrub on the way. After lunch, a repeat visit to Black Point Wildlife Drive in Merritt Island had us enjoying views of a American Avocets in the afternoon light, and just before exiting the refuge we found our only Greater Scaup of the trip. Our evening was spent at LeRoy Wright Park just off the highway, a nice little park set amongst the marsh. Scanning the wetlands around us at golden hour got us great views of Crested Caracara and a plethora of wading birds. A Northern Harrier swooped low over the grasses and a couple of Sora called from their hiding places in the marsh. Just before dark an increasing number of Tree Swallow stole our full attention, and hundreds and then soon, thousands of them gathered over the marsh. Literal rivers of swallows passed by, and after about 30 minutes the massive flock which now numbered an estimated several hundred thousand began moving south over the marsh towards a communal roost site for the night. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the southern sky was darkened by the sheer number of swallows that came through! What a spectacle!

Our plan for our last full day was to head south to Vero Beach with the hopes of finding a Smooth-billed Ani that had been hanging around for weeks.  We arrived just before 8 AM and we were pleased to find a few flooded fields stuffed with ducks & shorebirds, including 85 Long-billed Dowitchers. We scoured the area for the Ani but increasing winds made it difficult to detect any birds, and before long it was time for us to begin our drive to the Lake Apopka area. We were rewarded with great views of Snail Kite on our drive out, counting at least 5 different birds on the roadside. After a bit of a drive through rain and a lunch at the amusingly named ‘Hungry Pants’ restaurant in Orlando, we checked into our hotel and headed out for the evening. Walking a section of the Lake Apopka Loop Trail on the eastern shore got us some great looks at a huge number of birds coming into their various roosts for the night, and the trail was quite active on the songbird front as well. Here at last we found Orange-crowned Warbler, got good views of Marsh Wren, and got fleeting glimpses of a male Painted Bunting. A Peregrine Falcon perched on a distant snag, settling in for the night. As the light faded, the Sora began to call in earnest and a close-calling Barred Owl bid us goodnight.

Our final morning was spent back at Lake Apopka, this time on the northwestern side of the lake on the Clay Island Loop Trail. Our main target here was one of the several Vermilion Flycatchers that had been previously reported. It involved an early departure from our hotel and we started our hike in low-light conditions, but our efforts were not in vain! After a 1.5 mile one way walk (thankfully on a straight, flat road), we found our quarry – a beautiful young male Vermilion Flycatcher, flycatching from the various stalks and snags sticking up out of the marsh. The bird cooperated enough for satisfying scope views and even a few digiscoped photos! Once we’d had our fill, we began the walk back, managing fleeting glimpses of Sedge Wren on the way. Just before getting back to the vehicle, we found a 2nd Vermilion Flycatcher, this one a female – a nice bonus for our efforts! Twenty minutes later we were on the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, where we’d spend the rest of the morning. The Fulvous Whistling-Ducks were waiting for us en masse – well over 150 of them scattered across the drive. Gray-headed Swamphens (like Purple Gallinules on steroids) stalked through the marsh, treating us with great views in good light. We took our time driving through, enjoying close observation of many waders, ducks, and other waterbirds that we’d previously seen, and we added some Gadwall, a first for our trip. We made one final stop in the woodland at the end of the drive, where a small mixed flock of passerines had both Blue-headed and White-eyed Vireos, House Wren, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

With that, we departed, pleased with all the birds we encountered for the trip despite not having the best luck finding those rarities!

Aaron Steed

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