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FLORIDA 2011

Birdfinders have just returned from another glorious winter trip to Central and Southern Florida. This year's tour was full and we enjoyed excellent group banter and camaraderie throughout the trip –thanks to all our participants!

Those wishing for winter sunshine and warmth were not disappointed. After a chilly start we fortuitously ran into a spell of high pressure and had near perfect weather for most of the two weeks. Only one morning was soggy enough to disrupt our plans, but even then, an itinerary change resulted in close up views of a La Sagra's Flycatcher on Key Biscayne, feeding actively after a rain bearing front moved through. It was the second year in succession that we've seen this rare species in Florida.

Again we did well in finding some of the key exotics in the Miami region with Monk Parakeet, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Spot-breasted Oriole and Common Myna but also several currently non-countable exotics including Purple Swamphen, Mitred Parakeet and Scaly-headed Parrot. The swamphen in particular may become ABA countable in the not too distant future, and both the swamphen and the parrot were new to our ever-growing trip list.

One of the better spectacles of the trip was encountered early in the tour with the pre-roost gathering of tens of thousands of gulls at Daytona Beach Shores. The locals seemed almost intimidated about guessing the real numbers of gulls here and they may well be uncountable. But on the afternoon we visited, 60,000 gulls would have been a reasonable estimate, most of them being Laughing, American Herring and Ring-billed Gulls and by carefully sifting through them we found numerous Greater and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a Kumlien's Iceland Gull, the latter being new to the tour. But even the Kumlien's Gull was eclipsed by the discovery of a Black-headed Gull at close range, perhaps not too exciting for a group of visiting Europeans but a bird that hit the local hotlines as soon as we found it. Black-headed Gull is rare in Florida and the bird that we found was actually the first for Volusia County – not too shabby for the first day of the tour!

But of course, most of our focus was on the key birds of Florida and the SE United States and we did incredibly well at seeing most of these. Highlights included Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown and Masked Boobies, Great White and Wurdemann's Herons, Wood Stork, Mottled Duck, Snail Kite, (Florida) Red-shouldered Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk (10 seen again this year), Limpkin, (Florida) Sandhill Crane, Piping and Wilson's Plovers, Sooty Tern, Brown Noddy, White-crowned Pigeon, (Florida) Burrowing Owl, Mangrove Cuckoo, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Florida Scrub-Jay, White-eyed Vireo, (Florida) Grasshopper Sparrow, Bachman's Sparrow, Painted Bunting and Boat-tailed Grackle. Without doubt, the pick of this list would have to be the Mangrove Cuckoo that performed in front of the entire group for twenty solid minutes or more at Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island. Many locals give up on the idea of seeing this shy resident in the winter months but this bird proved the impossible can be possible with a little patience and effort – it was the highlight of the trip for many.

Warblers featured again this year and we found thirteen species including a rare Worm-eating but also such dazzlers as Yellow-throated, Cape May and Black-and-White Warblers. Northern Parulas and Ovenbirds seemed to be particularly plentiful this year.

Non-avian highlights included American Alligator and American Crocodile (Everglades NP) and a fantastic display of West Indian Manatees at Big Bend Power Plant near Tampa. Moreover, we found the endemic Key Deer on Big Pine Key for the first time on the winter tour.

Overall we recorded 183 bird species with Redhead, Purple Sandpiper, Bronzed Cowbird, Worm-eating Warbler and Lincoln's Sparrow being new to the tour, in addition to gulls mentioned above. As for the Swallow-tailed Kites, well we flew from Orlando on Feb 21st and the first kites of the spring were reported on Feb 22nd! Perhaps next year's new tour dates (13th–28th February 2012) will ensure that we see this enigmatic species once again as we did in 2008.

This was a really wonderful Florida tour and I'm especially grateful to Bob Bailey for stepping up to drive the second vehicle which he did willingly and without a single word of complaint. Thanks Bob!

James P. Smith

Florida Scrub-jay

Florida Scrub-jay