Like most of the world, I’ve been keeping pretty close to home for the past year or so. I spent over a month confined almost exclusively to my apartment last spring, and several months beyond that entirely within the borders of New York State. Later short-range outings still never took me more than a few states away. Now that I’m fully vaccinated, however, I am cautiously optimistic about the not-too-distant future of travel. I recently found myself in Florida for a brief visit with family, and I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to slip away for some southern style birding.
Despite limited time and social distancing restrictions, I was fortunate enough to connect with quite a few quality species that I haven’t seen in years. Even backyard birds in the Sunshine State can be a treat for tourists from the north. Anhingas and White Ibis were daily sights during my brief trip, and the abundance of herons and egrets was difficult to ignore. I was pleasantly surprised to see and hear Limpkins on a regular basis, and the courtship sky dances of Swallow-tailed Kites never failed to leave me awestruck. These few days also provided an appetizing teaser of spring migrants still to come, with early species like Osprey, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Palm Warbler, and Yellow-throated Vireo putting in frequent appearances.
Jacqi and I made a daytrip to Wekiwa Springs State Park, a site that had come highly recommended when we were planning our rental car schemes. Upon arrival, we found that the main spring area was especially crowded, so we elected to explore the side trails and quieter spots off the beaten path. Along the shores of Sand Lake, we finally spotted our first target critter: an American Alligator loafing in the shallow water. The prospect of a life encounter with this iconic reptile was Jacqi’s primary motivation for heading out into the wilder regions of Florida. It’s great having a copilot who’s so enthusiastic about new nature adventures! This particular gator was only a mid-sized individual, and we observed it from a fair distance away, but we were both glad that we’d succeeded in our quest to track down one of these draconic beasties.
We continued on towards the larger Prevatt Lake, navigating a winding network of trails that led us through open Longleaf Pine woodlands. This unique ecosystem was originally widespread throughout the southeast, but land development and fire suppression have fragmented these forests and threatened the species that depend on them. One such creature is the Bachman’s Sparrow, a plain-looking and secretive songbird with an especially lovely voice. We heard several individuals contersinging as we trekked through the trees, and I enjoyed distant but prolonged views of a vocal male perched atop a burnt snag. The experience made for a delightful lifer sighting, but Jacqi was more impressed with an up close and personal encounter with a Turkey Vulture perched on a low branch alongside the trail. It was pretty cool to be within sniffing distance of this scavenger, especially since they are so often seen wheeling high overhead or scrounging on the shoulder of a high-speed highway.
Once we finished our midday hike, we continued on to search for another potential life bird: Florida Scrub-Jay. This species is wholly endemic to the state they’re named for, and their numbers have declined dramatically over the years as the habitat they’re named for continues to disappear. Like the open pine forests, scrub is dependent on regular burning to prevent successional vegetation from overgrowing the land. Thanks to suburban sprawl and the associated efforts to prevent the brushfires, the entire world population of scrub-jays is now confined to increasingly isolated pockets of suitable scrublands scattered across central Florida. Researchers are doing what they can to help manage communities of the charismatic, cooperative-breeding corvids, but the future remains uncertain for this threatened species.
I had yet to connect with this sought-after target on all my previous visits to Florida, so I devoted a decent amount of time and effort to tracking them down on this trip. Jacqi and I headed to Seminole State Forest after finishing up at Wekiwa Springs, hoping to find some more wildlife excitement in addition to the possibility of scrub-jays. To my great dismay, we discovered that the only road to the trailhead we planned to visit was under construction, preventing us from proceeding or parking safely. We had driven well out of our way, pushing the limits of our time constraints for the day, with nothing to show for it. Once I recovered from being blindsided by this disappointment, I decided to call an audible and make another attempt for my quarry. We still had the rental car, so I might as well put it to use, right? Before sunrise the following day, I set out for the Lyonia Preserve in Deltona. It was a bit further afield than the sites I’d visited previously, but I was told that the jays were essentially guaranteed there. I arrived onsite at first light, and it didn’t take long for me to find what I was looking for.
As soon as I emerged onto the sandy tracks beyond the refuge entrance, I heard the harsh calls of scrub-jays emanating from the vegetation a short distance away. A family group of half a dozen individuals popped out of the brush and began foraging boldly along the edges of the trail. The birds repeatedly flew past me at incredibly close range as they moved about the area together, and they showed no fear about perching in the open within reach of where I stood. I had high hopes for this species after all the tales I’d heard about their brazen, entertaining antics, and they still managed to exceed my expectations. It was absolutely worth the early wake-up and long drive to seek them out!
I caught up with a few other Florida specialties while exploring Lyonia Preserve, including Common Ground Dove, Sandhill Crane, Northern Bobwhite, and the “white-eyed” subspecies of Eastern Towhee. Eventually, however, my time ran short and I had to take my leave of the charming scrub-jays. I was treated to one last unexpected glimpse of a pair crossing the road on the way back for breakfast, a fitting farewell for this special little expedition. It’s always a pleasure to enjoy the company of some new birds, especially when they’re accompanied by refreshing new scenery. My short-lived Florida vacation may not have been the most dramatic or exciting journey of my life, but it was a welcome change of pace that certainly helped break up the dreary March doldrums. Two long-awaited life birds in as many days makes for an undeniably solid weekend! That should be enough to keep me going until the thrills of spring migration finally arrive. It won’t be much longer now!