One of Nature’s truly miraculous events is the annual migration of birds. It’s not something they do for fun. The survival of an entire species depends on successfully navigating to and from breeding areas. When one thinks of the obstacles such relatively small creatures must overcome twice each year, it’s incredible they continue to exist at all. I think of the logistics involved in planning a trip of just a few hundred miles and I’m overwhelmed by the journey a small bundle of feathers undertakes. And without a GPS or thermos of coffee!
Groups of migrating birds tend to use a similar route each year. This permits earth-bound creatures such as birders to know where to look for certain species in order to snap a photograph or place a check mark on a list. Many things can affect a migrating bird’s path: weather, food supply, changes to habitat, back seat driving. So a successful birder wishing to maximize the number of migrants observed on any given trip must rely on that age-old, proven, reliable tool: luck.
With fingers crossed, we headed toward the Gulf of Mexico and our local Mecca of migration, Fort De Soto Park. The park is spread across a collection of islands which forms an arrowhead when viewed from above. The vast Tampa Bay estuary is continually refreshed by changing tides from the Gulf of Mexico which flow beside the park. One can view Tampa Bay from one end of the park and look into the infinity of the Gulf from the other end. In between are beaches, ponds, mangrove bogs, tidal streams, wooded areas and protected bays. It also happens to be located along a major bird migration flyway. Bad weather in the gulf can force all sorts of species to seek shelter along the coast.
All of this prime bird territory, coupled with the potential for seeing rare species at any given moment, make Fort De Soto a prime birding hotspot. The beaches of Fort De Soto have consistently been voted among the best in the United States. Also, within a 30 minute drive are the cities of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa with a combined population of nearly three-quarters of a million. Translation = more people than birds.
We normally prefer less-visited venues but this is the sort of sacrifice we make for you, dear reader.
Our day was typical for the Fort. A jumble of shorebirds, migrants, residents, sun bathers, fishermen, bicyclists, butterflies, skaters, ships, flowers and fellow birding thrill-seekers. At the fishing pier we found Red-breasted Mergansers and a Common Loon. On the beach were peeps, plovers, swallows and a Red Knot sporting the latest in leg-wear. The woods produced migrating warblers, singing vireos and humming hummingbirds. A new bug, a surly mammal and very friendly birders empathizing with our “warbler neck” syndrome made the day quite special.
I managed a few photographs which you are welcome to look upon. If you are ever in the Western Hemisphere, do not fail to visit Fort De Soto! You’ll be glad you did.
It was early. Too early for this female Red-breasted Merganser to be awake to greet visitors. Or brush her hair. Okay, she always looks like this. A few stretches and she’s ready to face the day.
We typically see many Common Loons during winter migration, however, they are usually in non-breeding (that means “dull”) plumage. This one is all dressed up for Spring and was busy gulping as much fresh seafood as possible in preparation for the long flight north.
A single Barn Swallow flew up and down the beach for awhile. I have a feeling he got separated from his tour group.
The little Semipalmated Plover works the upper part of the beach looking for easy to grab morsels. His sandpiper cousins prefer to probe the wet sand as the waves roll in.
A Wilson’s Plover is distinctive with a relatively large dark bill.
I couldn’t get a picture of this Red Knot with his head up as he was intent on touching every grain of sand under the shallow water. His leg flag tells us he was originally captured a few years ago on a New Jersey beach and has spent his winters enjoying the gulf coast of Florida. Last August, he stopped for a few days on the coast of Georgia for a change of pace.
As we explored the woods, we discovered a different type of migrant. This Monarch Butterfly looks quite worn and may have had a tough winter.
White-eyed Vireos serenaded us almost continually as we hiked the woodland trails. Although this species breeds in Florida, most of the birds here are probably migrants.
Black-and-White Warblers were abundant and this brightly colored male shows off his upside-down tree climbing prowess.
A male American Redstart is unmistakable with its glossy black, orange and white plumage. It “flashes” its tail and wings which startles insects from their hiding places and makes it easier for the Redstart to catch them.
We counted over 20 Hooded Warblers in the park. This one prepares to enjoy filet of beetle.
With all the human visitors to the park, it’s inevitable (and unfortunate) that many of the park’s creatures have learned how to panhandle for food. And when they don’t receive the expected handout, they turn downright nasty. This young raccoon snarled and hissed when he discovered I had nothing for him.
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird enjoyed the profusely blooming Lantana. I chased him for awhile hoping to get a photograph of his namesake gorget but I just couldn’t do it. Maybe next time. The second image is highly cropped to show how they probe a small flower for nectar and come away with a bill covered in pollen.
Almost as large as the hummingbird, a Scoliid wasp also enjoys the Lantana blooms. Some species of this wasp are called Scarab Hunters as they will dig into the ground to find beetle larvae to sting and lay eggs in.
As we were leaving for the day, an Eastern Kingbird gave us a farewell look. We hope he has a successful journey home.
Check your local area to see if you might be near a migration route. You might be surprised. Don’t forget the birder’s most useful tool – pure luck! I use it all the time.
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
See more birds at: Paying Ready Attention (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)