Feathers of Florida: Part One

Posted by ardeidae on April 08, 2007

In the Fall of 2006, I assigned myself the task of photographing all the birds in the heron family, over 60 species of birds. I look forward to the travels in the coming years to achieve my goal. I chose southern Florida as my first stop since it is home to about a dozen species of herons, and they're pretty accessible. Plus, southern Florida boasts two morphs of the Great Blue Heron known as the Great White Heron and Wurdemann's Heron.

It was raining when Carol and I arrived in Miami at 5:30am on March 22. A few minutes after we got to the car rental place at 7am the downpour really set in. This wasn't like the rain in Los Angeles where the news proclaims "Storm Watch" when we experience a little drizzle. This was the kind of rain where every part of you is drenched in 10 seconds or less. You might as well just jump into a pool. The locals welcomed it since it had been a really dry winter in Florida. My sense of direction was completely turned around...it was raining and still dark, and with the storm, the sun wouldn't be providing hints any time too soon. The kind ladies at the car rental place gave us a map and pointed us in the right direction. When the rain let up for just a moment, we stuffed our luggage in the trunk and took off.

I've heard that when it rains in Florida, it's usually for 20 minutes and then it's sunny. Apparently the weatherman hadn't heard the same story and forgot to turn off the faucet. Nevertheless, it was actually refresing to experience a "real" rain. The rains that accompany El Nino in Los Angeles can be pretty heavy, but the experiences with those aren't as enjoyable since I'm usually on my way to work. I digress.

First Gator
First Gator
The check-in time for the motel at our first destination of Fort Myers was 1pm, so we knew we would have some time to spend. Rather than taking Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley) to our destination, we decided to take the more scenic Tamiami Trail. It runs on the north side of the Everglades National Park and through Big Cypress National Preserve, which was dedicated in 1974 as one of the first national preserves within the National Park Service. The critically endangered Florida Panther, a great diversity of birds, and many other creatures make their homes in the swamp land and ancient bald cypress trees of Big Cypress.

Loop Road
Loop Road
After getting out of the urban setting, we were able to pay more attention to the sky and vegetation. The south side of the road was lined with small trees and brush. Occasionally, I was able to catch some glimpses of white through the patches, enough to determine they were egrets. On the north side of the road was fairly open, with a canal running next to the road. It wasn't long and we'd identified our first new lifer of the trip...the Anhinga. A few flew two feet over the water, others were perched on power lines. We'd also seen various black birds on the side of the road, most likely grackles and crows. Vultures sporadically flew over.

On the Big Cypress map (PDF) I'd downloaded, I noticed a scenic trail called Loop Road. Since the map marked the road as unpaved (and it was still raining heavily), we continued to the Oasis Visitor Center for more information. When we arrived at the visitor center around 8:45, the rain had subsided a bit. We got a good look at another lifer, a Black Vulture, as it flew in and landed on a light post right next to our car and looked at us. Though we hadn't showered since the day before, I didn't think we smelled that bad.

Wood Stork
Wood Stork
After asking the nice folks at the visitor center about the condition of Loop Road, we figured we'd head back the 12 miles to the east entrance.
Snowy Egret and Tricolored Heron
On our way, we looked north for a Snail Kite, but no luck. The rain started to pick up again. Loop Road is a 26-mile path through wetland cypress habitat, with occasional clearings where the water is allowed to flow from the north to the south through the Everglades. Shortly after we started in, I spotted a Wood Stork. We'd seen them at the Salton Sea in the summer, but they're really skittish. This bird was about 20 yards from our car and didn't really seem to care that we were watching it as it fed. After a few minutes, we continued on. Each of the clearings that followed seem to provide its own set of gems. At one stop, we saw our first alligator. At the next clearing, a Tricolored Heron was just minding its own business when a Snowy Egret flew in and decided it wanted the Tricolored's perch. Another stop produced a Great Blue Heron all the way up to its belly in mucky water. I'd never seen a GBH in water that deep!
Great Blue Heron
Great Blue
Toward the end of the trail, we talked to two women that had driven from Miami for the day. They had noticed a bird in the brush on the side of the road, but didn't know what it was. It was well hidden, and I never would have noticed it if it wasn't for them. After a few minutes we relocated the bird....a Black-crowned Night-Heron. On Loop Road, we managed to see a total of seven different species of herons: Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Green Heron, and Black-crowned Night-Heron! Also noted were Anhinga, White Ibis, Black Vulture, Bald Eagle, Purple Gallinule, and Belted Kingfisher.

It was almost noon, so we figured we'd head toward the 75 and continue up to Fort Myers. We decided to take Turner River Road, another scenic trail. There were alligators scattered all along the canal at the east side of the road.

Black Vulture
A couple of miles up the gravel road, we saw some Black Vultures feeding on the side of the road. I stopped the car to observe, and they didn't seem to care that we were even there. One even modeled for us. We continued north, adding Northern Harrier, Osprey, and Red-shouldered Hawk.
Red-shouldered Hawk
We continued until we arrived at the 75. Since there was no on-ramp, we turned around and headed back toward the 41 so we could catch a road that would hook us up with the 75 and on to Fort Myers.

When we hit our motel room in Fort Myers at around 3:30pm, we were both pretty exhausted. We'd both been up since 6am (PDT) they day before and only had about two hours of sleep on the plane. We ordered some Chinese food, showered, and crashed. Considering what an awesome day it had been, we were looking forward to what Friday had in store.

(Continue to Part Two)

Hi Jason
Nice article about the birds here in Florida. Your right about the rain, it will rain 20 minutes and then the sun is shining. Great state choice for trying to capture the herons, we do have our share. I have some posted as well on my personal site http://www.deborahkunzie.com also just started this new florida bird forum, it would be great if you stop by and add your thoughts and pics!

Posted by Deborah  on  04/11  at  09:02 AM

Thanks Deborah. I was really surprised with how accessible the herons (and other birds) were there, as future parts of this writeup will show. You have a great site…I’d be happy to contribute!

Posted by Jason  on  04/12  at  06:30 PM

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