Published March 17, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Florida in February is full of fabulous birds.”
2014 Update: Bill Gruber is now park manager at the Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, near Bushnell, Florida.
By Barb Gorges
Florida is where people see their favorite Disney characters come to life. Florida is where I finally saw 14 species of birds that I’ve paged past in my field guide for 40 years.
I wasn’t sure what to expect last month when Mark and I went down to visit his relatives. Images of beaches with high-rise hotels from TV alternated with those of cattle ranches, alligator swamps and orange groves.
I was familiar with historical accounts of the first wardens hired by the precursor of the National Audubon Society to protect the wading birds of Florida being hunted for their plumes used to decorate ladies’ hats. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside Pelican Island as the first unit of what became the National Wildlife Refuge system.
Those early efforts have led to preserving numerous other Floridian acres and so I was able to see those plumy wading birds 110 years later.
Our first bird outing was Caladesi Island State Park, on the Gulf about 1.5 miles offshore from Dunedin. You have to take a ferry since this is a barrier island without a bridge.
We were welcomed by the park manager, Bill Gruber, who back in 1999, was the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Outdoors editor who invited me to write this monthly bird column.
The day we were there, staff and volunteers were setting up poles to rope off part of the award-winning, white sand beach where four kinds of plovers would soon be nesting. I also met my first gopher tortoise. Florida lists it as a threatened species.
The island has a long human history, including a family who homesteaded from 1890 through the 1930s. The daughter, Myrtle Scharrer Betz, banded birds and had an island list of 158 species. Remarkably, Caladesi managed to avoid development, the fate of so many other Florida barrier islands. Betz’s book, “Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise,” explains how and why.
On a whim, I bought a copy of the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer for Florida. The amount of human development becomes quite plain—all those little blue lines in perfect grids are drainage canals. Florida’s peninsula would otherwise mostly be a freshwater swamp surrounded by saltwater ocean, which is exactly what makes it so interesting for birding.
At Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, on the north end of the swampy Everglades, we nearly managed a complete roster of all the large wading birds we saw on the whole trip: great blue heron, great egret, snowy egret, little blue heron, tricolored heron, cattle egret, green heron, black-crowned night-heron, yellow-crowned night-heron, glossy ibis, white ibis (also seen on lawns everywhere), roseate spoonbill and wood stork. The reddish egret eluded us.
On our last day, at the Storm Water Treatment Area 1 East, adjacent to Loxahatchee, among many coots and common gallinules (known before their name change last year as common moorhens), we spied something that looked like a purplish-blue, over-sized gallinule. It was a purple swamphen! It is an exotic from Eurasia, but the week before, the powers that be decided it was countable for anyone pursuing an official life list.
We also picked up a copy of “A Birder’s Guide to Florida,” by Bill Pranty, published by the American Birding Association. It lists almost every good birding spot in Florida, explains Florida’s landscape history and its many habitats, and provides information about, and a checklist of, all the birds in the state, showing where and when they can be found.
Florida is, for me, upside down. We saw many familiar Wyoming summer birds there in February. Unlike Wyoming, summer is when Florida has its fewest bird species. The problem is that in winter, our familiar birds may not be in the breeding plumage we northerners are used to seeing them in.
Besides Caladesi Island, the ABA guide missed another fabulous birding spot, maybe because it was too new. We heard about it from another birder we met on a trail.
Palm Beach County acquired 100 acres of farmland in Boynton Beach for a third of its value from a couple who stipulated it must be made into wetlands. Construction of Green Cay Wetlands began in 2003. Besides catering to native wildlife and human visitors, the park is a water reclamation facility.
It has 1.5 miles of boardwalk so you don’t have to worry about alligator encounters, and the wildlife, including the alligators we saw, doesn’t have to worry about encounters with people. No birds flinched as we walked by and so the photo ops for my little point and shoot were fabulous.
I imagine we’ll go again next year—there are 300-plus other birdy parks and preserves to visit, and more of Florida’s 481 native bird species to find.