You've got to love Florida if you love birds


Sunrise over downtown Tampa, Florida, one of the birdiest cities in the U.S.

Florida is the most in-you-face bird state I’ve ever visited. From Gainesville south to Key West, Florida is White Ibis in every lawn, Ospreys nesting in strip mall parking lots, and Roseate Spoonbills in drainage ditches. Especially if you are a bird photographer, there is no place in the U.S. quite like Florida.

I was invited to give a Departmental Seminar in the Integrative Biology Department at the University of South Florida last weekend. Coincidentally, my mother lives in Clearwater, and it was her 85th birthday last week. So, on Oct 6, 2016 I flew to Tampa and was picked up by my former (12 years ago) bird technician now Dr. Sarah Knutie.

Sandhill Cranes are an every-day sight on the Univ. of South Florida Campus.

It was pure business for the first two days beginning with some time to catch up with Sarah, but just driving to my hotel on the edge of the USF campus and to lunch I saw two pairs of Sandhill Cranes standing along the highway, about 30 White Ibis in lawns, and Muscovy Ducks at a campus pond. It was a strange start to my visit because a major hurricane, Matthew, was chewing its way up the Atlantic shore of Florida. The effects of Matthew on Tampa were minimal, however. There was a bit of wind with some drizzle—that’s it. On Friday, after the hurricane had passed to the north, I had a morning appointment with a faculty friend, and we just walked around Lettuce Lake Park while we talked. It wasn’t tremendous birding, but we had Limpkin feeding on apple snails right in front of us and a flock of migrants that included American Redstart, Black-and-white Warbler, a “Trails” flycatcher (Either a Willow or Alder Flycatcher), and White-eyed Vireo. We were in Florida, so of course an adult Black-crowned Night-Heron flew by, along with a Wood Stork and a Tricolored Heron. Even on mundane days, there are always big fantastic birds in view in Florida.

I picked up my rental car at 3pm and drove over to visit my mother. We had a nice dinner out and then I got up early on Saturday morning and headed for Fort DeSoto Park at the south edge of Pinellas County. Fort DeSoto sits at the south point of a peninsula of land that creates a great migration trap for birds moving down the Gulf Coast of Florida. It can be spectacular some days. Plus the beach and marsh habitat attracts huge number of gulls, terns, waders, and shorebirds, so it is a birdy place.

Unfortunately on this day, the hurricane winds seemed to have swept the migrants away instead of bringing them in and it was, by all accounts a terrible migration day. I saw exactly one warbler all morning—a single palm warbler. So I focused on gulls, terns and shorebirds.

American Oystercatchers were common on the beaches of Fort DeSoto Park.

Short-billed Dowitchers were intent on fueling up for the more than a thousand of miles of migration they still faced. This bird walked within 7 feet of me.

Wilson's Plovers are always fun to see. They are scarce and declining everywhere. I found this bird in the debris line at East Beach at Fort DeSoto Park.

About an hour after dawn, I found a flock of shorebirds at East Beach that included American Oystercatcher, Black-bellied Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Plover, and a Marbled Godwit. Semi-palmated Plovers seemed to fill every spot of sand all over the region during this weekend, so recording a them here was not noteworthy. However, I was able to photograph some very interesting dominance behavior. Two birds wanted to feed at the seem spot, and they proceeded to essentially yell at each other at close range and crouch down as if to fight. But then one bird clearly submitted to the other and after the submission, they were good. No more fighting.

The submissive posture of this Semi-palmated Plover reminded me of the submissive posture of dogs. Once the bird on the left submitted, these two were good and there was no further aggression.

A few minutes later I got to witness what I would call “ecological release”. Most of the time, birds compete fiercely for food resources, and they can only succeed if they are extremely proficient at their means of getting food. For instance, Snowy Egrets catch small baitfish in shallow water with extremely fast and accurate strikes with their tiny and dexterous bills. Likewise, Brown Bears normally use their powerful forelimbs to roll rocks and tear open logs to get small prey. However, when salmon run in northern rivers, bears can wade in and gorge on fish even though they are poorly adapted as fisherman. There is so much fish available that even the most inept fisherman can catch his limit. On this Saturday at DeSoto, huge schools of baitfish were rising a few meters off the beach. Gulls and terns were catching fish at will—they are well adapted for such feeding. But I was amazed to see Snowy Egrets flopping out, awkwardly hovering over the baitfish, and snagging fish with their bills. Even though they are poorly adapted at such hover fishing, the fish were so abundant the egrets still got all the fish they could eat.

Snowy Egrets are adapted to grab small baitfish with their small dexterous bills, but . . .

. . . I saw half a dozen Snowy Egrets trying to feed like terns by hovering over a school of baitfish.

Even though it was a dismal day for landbird migration at Fort DeSoto Park, there are always amazing birds to watch at this park. I don't think a birder can have a bad day in Florida.