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Birding the West Coast of Florida

Over spring break this year, I was lucky to have the opportunity to go birding on the west coast of Florida, just south of Tampa. Having never birded eastern North America before, there were many opportunities to search for lifers in this area.

Leaving Nelson, BC for Spokane, WA on Tuesday morning, we stopped briefly for early spring migrants in the Pend Oreille Valley where we saw Violet-green and Tree Swallows, Western and Mountain Bluebirds, Say's Phoebes, many Spotted Towhees, and a Western Meadowlark.

Arriving at Tampa International Airport at 5:30 on Wednesday morning, we picked up our rental car and headed straight for Fort De Soto Park. There, I saw many lifers such as Laughing Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Sandwich Tern, Black Skimmer, White Ibis, Wilson's Plover, Nanday Parakeet, Fish Crow, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Boat-tailed Grackle, and Prairie Warbler. Since there were so many new birds to see, I did not take any photos on the first day of the trip, instead focusing solely on looking for birds.

Next, we went to Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, a large patch of protected forest and wetland in the centre of the city, where I saw my lifer Tricolored Heron, Tufted Titmouse, Blue-headed and White-eyed Vireo, Northern Parula, Pine Warbler, and ABA Area (American Birding Association Area covering Canada and the US) lifer Anhinga. At this point, it was nearly noon, the heat was beginning to slow down bird action, and we decided to head to the place where we were staying for the next week. That evening, an Ibis flew in front of a beautiful sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.

Ibis against a sunset

The following morning, we headed to Oscar Scherer State Park where we were hoping to see Florida Scrub Jays, the only species of bird endemic to Florida. At the park, we were incredibly lucky to run into a free tour led by the local Audubon society with the purpose of finding these birds. Right away, we saw two Mottled Ducks, another lifer, in a pond near the parking lot. Further down the trail, we heard and saw a Great-crested Flycatcher and the first Scrub Jay of the walk.

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay (1)

We saw more of these Jays, along with my lifer Wood Stork, and my first for ABA area Black Vulture throughout the rest of the walk. Back at the parking lot, a small flock of palm warblers were feeding in a tree in front of our car.

Palm Warbler

Black Vulture

To finish off the day, we stopped at Myakka River State Park in search of Roseate Spoonbills. Though we did not find our target, I did see my lifer Limpkin and Eastern Meadowlark.

Eastern Meadowlark

Late in the evening, I heard my lifer Chuck-will's Widow out the window of my bedroom.

The next morning, we went to the Celery Fields, an artificial wetland designed to absorb flooding caused by overdevelopment of the land, is search of Purple Gallinules, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and Least Bittern. There are two boardwalks in these wetlands, each attended by a naturalist to help with spotting and identifying birds. At the Palmer boardwalk, I saw my lifer Purple Gallinule, Grey-headed Swamphen (Not native to North America), Black-bellied Whistling Duck, and Cattle Egret.

Purple Gallinule

Grey-headed Swamphen

Realizing we were at the wrong boardwalk to look for Least Bitterns, we headed to the Raymond boardwalk where they are seen more regularly. At this point, it was already too late in the morning to have good chances of seeing a Least Bittern, but we did get excellent views of Red-winged Blackbird, Swamp Sparrow, and Brown Thrasher.

Red-winged Blackbird

Swamp Sparrow

Brown Thrasher

Next, we went searching for warblers in Pinecraft Park, a small city park located just outside of Sarasota, FL. Because of the dry spring this year, most migrant warblers had not arrived; however, I still saw my lifer Black-and-white Warbler and Green Heron, along with my best ever views of Northern Parula and Barred Owl.

Green Heron

Green Heron (1)

Barred Owl

Northern Parula

That evening, we went to the Venice Rookery, a multi-species rookery on a small island in the middle of a pond. There, we got excellent views of many species I had only seen briefly or distantly thus far on the trip.


Anhinga (1)

Cattle Egret

Great-blue Heron

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Green Heron

Next day, we left early for Siesta Key Beach, a popular place for spring breakers looking to experience the large expanses of fine sand that this beach has to offer. Even at 7:30 in the morning, there were at least 600-700 people walking on the beach. Even so, I got my best ever views/photos of Sanderlings, Black-bellied Plover, and Black Skimmer.


Black-bellied Plover

Black Skimmer

As the beach got busier, we decided to head back to Celery Fields where we once again missed the Least Bittern.

Later that day, we went to some feeders where Painted Buntings had been seen recently, and, after waiting for about 15 minutes, were rewarded with one female and two male Painted Buntings. These birds are often targeted for the caged bird trade, so I will not reveal the location of where they were seen.

Painted Bunting (Female)

Painted Bunting (Male)

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting (1)

The next day we went back to Myakka River State Park to clean up on some species we had missed earlier on the trip. Instead of going into the main part of the park, we got special permission to go to an area that has limited access and great birds. Right away I saw my target, two Roseate Spoonbills flying overhead. Further along the trail which passed trough a large expanse of prairie, I head then saw my lifer Eastern Towhee and Bachman's Sparrow.

Bachman's Sparrow

Bachman's Sparrow (1)

On our last day before heading home to Canada, we once again stopped at Celery Fields to look for the Least Bittern, this time at the right place and early in the morning. Our efforts were finally rewarded when a female Least Bittern gave excellent views and photos opportunities from the Raymond boardwalk. We also saw Morning Doves, Purple Martins, a Brown-headed Cowbird, and a pair of Wood Ducks visiting a nest box.

Least Bittern

Least Bittern (1)

Morning Dove

Purple Martin

Brown-headed Cowbird

Wood Duck

Before going to our hotel near the airport for the evening, we stopped at Fort De Soto Park again where I saw my lifer Piping Plover and Northern Gannet.

This trip was incredibly successful, ending with 39 world lifers, 46 ABA Area Lifers, and 159 species. Every birder we met in Florida was incredibly kind and helpful in pointing us in the direction of the birds we were looking for. I would highly recommend this area to anyone who has the chance to go.


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