Winter visits to Florida can easily bring to mind images of sunshine, Mickey Mouse and large platefuls of food but some of it’s habitats also represent a great place to visit or even live for a large array of bird species and as a result it has for many years been high on birdwatchers hotspots. It seems to have gone a bit out of vogue with photographers visiting from the UK though so we thought it was worth another look and ran our first trip there this year – 12 months on from my re-visiting many old familiar and researching some new locations last winter on the way home from Yellowstone.
Almost everywhere delivered again in spades (aside from the famous Ding Darling reserve on Sanibel island which can be either fantastic or frustrating and we had one of the latter days this year) and it would have been very easy to turn this blog into an enormous tick-list of species that we photographed in good light, good settings and doing interesting things – it really is that possible to get close up results here. I’ve decided instead to focus on a couple of habitats and the first of these the seashore, amply demonstrates the accessibility of birds for good photography opportunities here.
This bird is a Willet. They winter here in small groups and frequent the beaches all up and down the gulf coast before heading north up the Atlantic coast to breed. They’ve been coming here for centuries, but in the recent decades there’s been a lot of people and developments that have come too, also to take full advantage of the warm winter sun and the beautiful beaches. The birds have however become entirely used to their presence though and as you can see take little or no notice as people walk up and down throughout the day, simply stepping or occasionally flapping out of the way.
The consequence of this is that if you arrive at the beach for sunrise (still a very sociable 6.45 am or so at this time of the year) before the vast majority of day visitors arrive and when the light is at it’s best then you have tame birds, space to work and beautiful settings – what more can you ask for!
The Oystercatcher here is an American species, the White Ibis clearly non UK in origin and the Tern a stunning Royal variety but the Sanderling is the same as here in the UK and a lot more comfortable to work with that some of the remote mudflats and beaches I’ve done so at home! On one beach we found a group of 3 of these settled into a little hollow in the sand with literally dozens on sunbathers all around – not nesting just in extraordinary proximity. On the same beach we also found a true Floridian highlight and a bird I had wanted to spend time photographing ever since getting interested in US bird species – the truly unique Black Skimmer. I’ve written more about these on my personal blog, such is how much spending an afternoon with them moved me, but they are an amazing species to watch.
On the fringe of the coasts, and undoubtedly a significant casualty of the coastal development, is the mangrove. Along with isolated islands in the resulting swamps that act as breeding rookeries for them, these act as a magnet for a multitude of large water birds including Egrets Herons and the ubiquitous Pelicans. They all have their own fishing styles from the fly and grab approach of the Brown Pelican, the steady stalking of the Great Blue Heron and the wing waving dance and neck contortions of the Reddish Egret. All great fun to watch and photograph though.
These same birds would all gather overnight in communal roosts or rookeries where they arrive at dusk and then head out again at dawn, unless they were in parenting season (which was well underway) in which case this either meant heavy duty nest building on the part of this particular Heron or even some unattentive parenting on the part of this Great White Egret!
Florida offers plenty of other options and diversity and we also enjoyed time with Burrowing Owls, the ever present Osprey and some stunning sunsets too which this Red-Breasted Merganser helped to highlight. Even when I try not to reel off a list of species it seems it’s just not possible to avoid it here as it’s such a great place for photography. Away from the cold if winters remain grey and mild in the UK without the allure of snow then I for one will be tempted back once more!