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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Florida: Winter Birds

Thursday 13 January to Friday 21 January 2022
with Gavin Bieber as leader
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A Florida Scrub-Jay being its normal curious and entertaining self. Photo: Gavin Bieber

While the rest of the country can already be shrouded in the wet, cold, and generally disagreeable tones of winter, in South Florida the days are usually full of sunshine with temperatures of 60 to 80 degrees. Our getaway will explore some of Florida’s best birding destinations in the central and southern reaches of the state, including Cape Canaveral National Seashore, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, the Everglades National Park, and the sprawling suburbs of tropical Miami. Along the way we’ll look for a staggering array of wintering waterfowl and shorebirds, local specialties including hard to locate sparrows such as Henslow’s, LeConte’s, Grasshopper and Sharp-tailed (both species are possible), the endemic Florida Scrub-Jay, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Snail Kite, Limpkin, Short-tailed Hawk, and the somewhat bewildering number of introduced exotics that have settled into the suburban jungles of Miami. Add in the weather, the overall bird and wildlife diversity and the ever-present chance of a Caribbean stray and it’s easy to see why Florida in mid-winter is such an appealing destination.

Day 1: The trip begins at 6 p.m. this evening in the lobby of our hotel near the Orlando Airport. Night in Orlando.

Day 2: On day two we will head over to the Atlantic coast of the peninsula, dubbed the Space Coast due to the presence of NASA’s Cape Canaveral, the site of so many famous rocket launches and the newly minted Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Adjacent to these restricted areas lie two phenomenally good birding areas; Cape Canaveral National Seashore and Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge. We’ll have an early start this morning so that we can in amongst the saltmarshes near dawn. We’ll look for Saltmarsh and possibly Nelson’s Sparrows in the early morning when they occasionally remain out in the open atop the marshy vegetation. Separating these two quite similar species can be tricky with quick views, but both are surely candidates for the most attractive of our US sparrows, so the time is well worth it. In the early part of the day, we’ll look for Clapper Rail along the muddy edges of the marshes, as well as enjoy the wealth of general birdlife in the area. By late morning we’ll shift our focus to the coast, with a visit to Jetty Park. The site of many a departing cruise ship heading out to explore the Caribbean islands this site offers us a chance to look for wintering Purple Sandpipers along the jetty that marks the shipping canal. Loafing flocks of shorebirds and larids on the beach can often contain a surprise or two here, and out to see we’ll watch out for Magnificent Frigatebirds, wintering seaducks, Northern Gannets and the odd passing Pomarine or Parasitic Jaeger. After lunch we’ll spend the afternoon casually exploring the Cape Canaveral National Seashore, often regarded as one of country’s most attractive sand beaches. Endless lagoons, marshes, white sand beaches and wide bays play host to a staggering array of wintering birds, and seemingly every year the area attracts a surprise or two. Night in Orlando.

Day 3: In contrast to our first day out on the coast, this day will be spend birding the interior of the Florida peninsula. We’ll have an early start to the day, as we head north into the Ocala National Forest to seek out some of the species that call the xeric sandy pinelands home. The Ocala Forest is vast, covering almost half a million acres. Within its borders we hope to find the celebrated pinewoods trio of Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Bachman’s Sparrow (a species which can be very difficult to track down in the winter months). Here too we should encounter family groups of Florida Scrub-Jay, and several more widespread eastern species that are not common in the south of the state, such as Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Eastern Meadowlark. About mid-morning we’ll leave the national forest and drive a bit further north towards Gainesville, where we will spend much of the rest of the day exploring the sprawling Prairie Creek Preserve. Here our chief goal will be to tease out some of the many species of sparrows that frequent the area in winter. Although the subtly attractive and often extremely furtive Henslow’s Sparrow is the undoubted chief prize the diversity is often excellent, with Song, Swamp, Lincoln’s, Savannah, Vesper, White-crowned, White-throated, Field and Grasshopper Sparrows all in attendance as well. In the late afternoon we’ll head back to our base in Orlando, with diversions to seek out any recent reports of Whooping Crane (here part of an experimental reintroduction program) or any other local rarity on offer. Night in Orlando.

Day 4: We’ll start the day exploring the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, likely one of Florida’s best and most accessible waterbird sites, with over 350 species of birds recorded. For decades the north shore of Lake Apopka hosted a continual influx of nutrient (and pollutant) rich agricultural runoff from the adjacent farmlands. About a decade ago the St. Johns River Water Management District bought the land with an eye for restoring the marshland to a more natural state, thus benefitting birds as well as creating a boost to the local economy. The project has worked remarkably well, and now the 20,000-acre former agricultural area is a mecca for birds and, of course, birders. We’ll spend much of the morning slowly working along the roughly 11-mile-long wildlife drive which opened in 2015, looking for a staggering array of wintering marshbirds and waterfowl. Chief targets include Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling Ducks, King and Virginia Rails, Purple Gallinule, Gray-headed Swamphen, Limpkin, Wood Stork, and American Bittern, but we should see a wealth of other species as well. Once we tear ourselves away from the marshes we’ll make our way west towards the Gulf of Mexico side of the peninsula and on south to our base for the next two nights in Fort Myers. Although most of the afternoon will be taken up with the drive, we’ll make a few key stops along the way. If the facilities are open a quick stop along the shores of Tampa Bay should reveal dozens of West Indian Manatees loafing in a clear-water bay. Around Sarasota we’ll visit the celery fields, another excellent inland wetland where we might pick up a few more species including perhaps Nanday Parakeet and Least Bittern. Night in Fort Myers.

Day 5: This morning we’ll explore the sandy beaches and tidal flats of Sanibel Island, looking especially for species such as Wilson’s and Snowy and Piping Plovers. We’ll spend most of the morning on the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge loop drive, where large numbers of shorebirds and other waders gather. Seeing tidal flats covered with hundreds of elegant herons including frenetic Reddish Egrets, hulking Pelicans and dazzlingly pink Roseate Spoonbills is an experience to remember. It’s an ideal place to watch birds, as they’re always abundant and normally quite unconcerned by human presence. Sanibel, though famous for exclusive hotels and lavish vacation homes, has a surprising amount of land in public hands, and some of these areas are easily accessed by good trails. We’ll walk the best of them, keeping a wary out for Mangrove Cuckoo, a tough to locate species in winter. There’s no shortage of things to do on Sanibel. We’ll conclude the day with dinner near the beach. Night in Fort Myers.

Day 6: We’ll start the day visiting a nearby freshwater marsh a few miles inland that typically supports a healthy population of Limpkin and good numbers of Snail Kites that typically forage along the irrigation canals. Afterwards we’ll likely stop in near the coast to look at a colony of Burrowing Owls in nearby Cape Coral. Mid-morning we’ll start the drive across the peninsula, stopping at the Big Cypress Preserve, a delightful sanctuary with an elevated winding boardwalk through stands of tall Bald Cypress to a sawgrass marsh. The huge Cypress lend a somewhat primeval feel, and although the preserve is an experience as much as a birding spot, we hope to find Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, and a collection of wintering warblers such as Black-and-White, Palm and Prairie. The area can be excellent in winter for Short-tailed Hawk, so we’ll be sure to keep an eye out throughout the day. After lunch, we’ll drive east across the northern Everglades to Florida City; the gateway to Everglades National Park. If time allows, we’ll visit the neighborhood around the Kendall Baptist Hospital to look for our first Miami exotics such as Mitred Parakeet, Common Myna, Egyptian Goose and Muscovy Duck. After dinner at a tasty nearby Cuban restaurant we’ll continue south to our hotel in Florida City. Night in Florida City.

Day 7: Today we shall spend the morning in the world-famous Everglades National Park. Along the entrance road to the park we should encounter a few wintering species of interest, including birds often thought of a having a more westerly distribution such as Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Western Kingbird and perhaps even White-tailed Kite. Once in the park we’ll drive to Flamingo, the terminus of the main road, stopping at such well-known places as Anhinga Trail, where the common glades residents are often just a few feet off the boardwalk, and Mahogany Hammock with its collection of tropical hardwood trees, colorful land snails, and often a collection of wintering warblers. At Flamingo, we’ll scan mudflats for shorebirds and terns, Great White Herons (a local subspecies of Great Blue Heron with an unsettled taxonomic position) both Brown and American White Pelicans and Roseate Spoonbill. For the past several years small numbers of Shiny Cowbirds have frequented the parking lot area, and with luck we’ll have excellent views of this scarce invader from the Caribbean. We may also encounter an American Crocodile or West Indian Manatee lurking around the Flamingo small boat harbor. After lunch we’ll spend the afternoon birding south of Miami, with the actual locations dependent upon what species of birds we still need to see. An evening stop at one of Miami’s many parrot roost sites should reveal a few more exotic species, some of which are sanctioned by various listing committees as fully established. Night in Florida City.

Day 8: For our last full day of the tour, we will concentrate on the remaining introduced exotics, likely including birds like the vaguely menacing Gray-headed Swamphen, jaunty Red-whiskered Bulbul, garrulous Monk Parakeet, ornate Indian Peafowl, brightly colored Spot-breasted Oriole and diminutive Scaly-breasted Munia. If any particularly interesting strays from further north or the nearby Caribbean are present, we’ll try to work them into the itinerary as well. Birding in the urban and suburban megalopolis of Miami will feel quite different to the rest of the tour, but even here a network of surprisingly wild feeling public parks and spaces offer a wealth of birds. Night in Miami.

Day 9: The tour concludes this morning in Miami. For those wishing to ride back to Orlando with the leader contact the WINGS office.

Created: 09 August 2021


  • 2022 Tour Price : $3,290
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $750


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Questions? Tour Manager: Greg Greene. Call 1-866-547-9868 (US or Canada) or (01) 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

This tour is limited to seven participants and one leader; 12 with two leaders.

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