Anticipating Florida

Forster's Tern_MerrittIslandNWR-FL_LAH_4279

Pete and I have been invited to visit friends in Florida next month. Of course, we accepted the invitation! I’ve arranged time off from work, I’ve made my packing list, and our house sitter is all lined up (with instructions on keeping the feeders filled). Now I’m eagerly counting the days until we leave.

While there are plenty of logistics involved in escaping winter for a couple of weeks, I’m also trying to prepare for birding in a relatively unfamiliar location. Yes, I’ve been to Florida before—twice, in fact—but it’s not my usual birding location, and those aren’t my usual birds.

Naturally, I want to make the best of this opportunity to bird outside my normal range. Here are a few ways I’m getting ready.

purple gallinule_sharkvalley-evergladesnp-fl_lah_5812

Because we’re driving to Florida and back from Colorado, I’ll have an opportunity to bird along the way. Yes, it’s the middle of winter, so options are sparser than I’d like. Still, there has to be somewhere we can visit to look for interesting birds. That’s why we’ve plotted out a somewhat circuitous route, and I’m online looking at the seasonal bird lists for the various wildlife refuges we’ll be passing. Ebird is another excellent resource that also takes into account the time of year.

My field guides are another good source of information. What birds have winter ranges in the places we’re going? More significantly, which of these birds haven’t I seen yet? When taking an extended road trip, there’s always the possibility of lifers!

The result of all this research is a list of target species, both for our Florida destination (just north of Merritt Island NWR) and for shorter stops en route.

Now that I know what I want to see, I need to be sure I’ll recognize these birds should I see them. Do I know the difference between a Reddish Egret and a Little Blue Heron? What if the Reddish Egret happens to be all white, as rarely occurs—will I notice that it isn’t a Great or Snowy Egret?

How about all those non-breeding shorebirds I might see? Or the gulls and terns? Can I tell the difference between a Great Black-backed Gull and a Lesser Black-backed Gull? I also need to brush up on my warblers. Most fly farther south for the winter, but some species hang around southern Florida, such as Northern Waterthrush, Orange-crowned Warblers, and Northern Parulas, among others. (Two of those would be lifers!)

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While I’m making my list, I try to pay attention to the habitat each species prefers. That will determine my Florida day trips. Should I head to a marsh, a palmetto hammock, or the sandy beach right down the street?

Finally, I’m checking with other friends in the area. Our hosts aren’t birders, although they’ve shown a bit of interest. But a birding friend from Colorado recently moved to the west coast of Florida, and she has offered to play trip guide one morning. She even threw in a guaranteed Red-cockaded Woodpecker to entice me to stop by to see her on our way home. I hope I’ll be posting photos when we get back!

In a way, the preparations for a birding trip can be the best part. Once again, the weather prognosticators are talking about a polar vortex. The last time we visited Florida, five years ago, another polar vortex pushed cold air into the warm, wet peninsula. The resulting clouds, rain, and generally dreary weather made photography nearly impossible, and I was quite disappointed. But in my fertile imagination, on this trip the sky is blue and the sun is shining. A balmy, tropical breeze follows me as I scan the foliage for a flicker of feathers. I’m not only seeing every bird on my list, I’m getting photos I’ve only dreamed of.

But even if we run into another bout of drear, I know I’m going to enjoy the trip. We’ll still get to visit with come very good friends, and a couple of weeks off work is a treat in itself. What do they say, the worst day birding is better than….

The answer to last week’s bird quiz is Bonaparte’s Gull.

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