TAS North Florida Trip Report

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Posted by Brian Rapoza on January 22, 2003 at 14:54:06:

Led by Paul Bithorn and myself, thirteen south Florida birders made the trek this past weekend to sunny yet frigid north Florida. Discretion being the better part of valor, Paul dressed appropriately (jeans and a jacket) for the sub-freezing temperatures we faced Saturday and Sunday mornings. On Monday, he was back in his trademark birding garb of shorts and a t-shirt, dispite early morning temperatures in the 30’s.

We saw/heard a total of 135 species, including 3 loons (!), 21 waterfowl, 8 raptors, 3 owls, 6 woodpeckers, 2 nuthatches, 5 wrens, and nine sparrows. Leaving Miami early on Friday, our first significant sighting was a flock of Chestnut-fronted Macaws flying over our vans as we headed up I-95. Sandhill Cranes, Bald Eagles, and Crested Caracaras were spotted on our way through central Florida. Our first birding stop was La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie Preserve in Gainesville, where we saw Song and Vesper Sparrow, Marsh Wren, Red-headed Woodpecker, Orange-crowned Warbler, and a pair of copulating Great Horned Owls.

Making our base of operations the Red Roof Inn in Tallahassee, we were awakened each morning by “Red”, the motel chain’s fiery-haired mascot. Our first stop on Saturday was Tall Timbers Preserve, north of Tallahassee, where we found White-breasted Nuthatches, House Finches, Wood Ducks, and Swamp, Chipping and White-throated Sparrows. Crossing over into central time, we drove to Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, where we saw Golden-crowned Kinglet, Barred Owl, and had brief glimpses of Winter Wren. After a hearty lunch at the Old Mexico restaurant in Marianna, we headed back east, stopping at Three Rivers State Recreation Area in Sneads, where we scoped Lake Seminole for waterfowl, finding a blue morph Snow Goose among the flocks of coots, Canvasbacks and other ducks.

We began Sunday with two off-itinerary stops, first to Phipps Park in Tallahassee for the reported flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (no luck), then to Jackson Mounds State Park for the reported Brown Creepers (again, no luck). From there we headed to Apalachicola National Forest. Henslow’s Sparrows were present in good numbers in the savannah habitat north of Sumatra, providing great looks even for those who had to bird from the road. Also seen there were LeConte’s Sparrow and Sedge Wren. After an early-afternoon stop at Apalachicola Airport, where we were able to find one of the Sprague’s Pipits, it was off to Alligator Point.

After a quick stop at Jack Dozier’s house for an update as to what was being seen in the area, we headed to Mud Cove, where a Field Sparrow was spotted as we were getting out of the vans. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the incoming tide and lack of any wind had produced perfect conditions for finding what we were hoping for: Red-throated Loons. They were everywhere, probably as many as fifty. There were also rafts of Redheads and Lesser Scaup offshore. But then it got better. As we were scoping the red-throateds, we spotted a similar-sized loon, but swimming lower in the water. With a darker back, nape and head, shorter neck, and straight bill, it appeared to be the Pacific Loon that Jack told us had been sighted in recent days. Seeing the “necklace” when the bird flapped its wings cinched the ID.

A late-afternoon stop at the KOA campground produced Common Loons (how often does one see three loons in Florida in one-afternoon!), plus a lone female Surf Scoter. As dusk approached, we headed back to Jack’s to report our sightings, then raced to Bottoms Road in Panacea, hoping to glimpse the Short-eared Owl that had been seen there recently. Our timing could not have been more perfect, as we spotted the owl soaring over the marsh just as we arrived, the light from the setting sun providing breathtaking views. Dinner at Posies in Panacea, where we were joined by the visiting David Simpson, capped an outstanding day.

We spent our last morning at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. A stop at the power lines on the entrance road produced another Sedge Wren. At the first bridge after the entrance, we spotted a group of foraging Rusty Blackbirds. Brown-headed Nuthatch and another Field Sparrow were seen on the road to the helipad, but the helipad itself, which had been recently burned, produced only Swamp Sparrow. A hike to Mounds Pool 3 gave us several duck species, but the poor light conditions prevented us from pulling out an American Black Duck. We did find the Long-tailed Duck at Picnic Pond, but failed to find the Brown Creeper. At the lighthouse, distant views were obtained of Common Goldeneye; we struck out on sharp-tailed sparrows along the beach.

Before leaving Tallahassee, we made one last attempt for the juncos at Phipps Park, but again, no luck. An excuse for Paul (who still needs junco for Florida) to come back next year. A quick stop on the way back to Miami, at the retention pond at the Home Depot off I-75 in Gainesville, produced Hooded Merganser and a sleeping Wood Duck. The group arrived back in Miami, weary but triumphant, late Monday night. All in all, a great trip. Paul and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of birders. Now the planning begins to make next year’s trip even better!

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