A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Florida Birding Trip Report - Day 4 (Three Lakes WMA)

Day 4 -  Thursday 31st March 2016

With several of our target species for the day being ‘morning’ birds, we were once again up and out bright and early, ready to spend a full day at the fantastically huge Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. An absolutely massive reserve spanning over an incredible 63,000 acres, Three Lakes WMA encompassed a variety of important habitats for birds such as prairie and pine flatwoods, whilst also sporting a number of large lakes including the impressive Lake Kissimmee, so offered the chance for a range of new species for us.
Lake Jackson - Florida
The classically Florida looking location of Lake Jackson - part of the Three Lakes WMA
A change from the bustling expressways we had experienced around Orlando in our previous few days in Florida, the roads around the Three Lakes were much quieter with a noticeably increased abundance of birds as a result, and before we had even reached our destination, we had our first lifer in the form of a spectacular White-winged Dove perched on one of the wires. Getting the best views of the trip of this charming species, we paused for some photographs before heading on our way – the startling white crescents on the wings standing out as the bird flew into an adjacent bush.
White-winged Dove - Florida
White-winged Dove
We also got much better views of Wild Turkeys in this area, encountering several lone individuals and flocks at the side of the road and enabling us to get much better looks than the brief glimpse we had off the Orlando expressway a few days earlier. 
Wild Turkeys - Florida
Wild Turkeys
One group in particular held a fine displaying male, a fantastic sight in the early morning sun and a bird I had been really looking forward to seeing in the wild.
Wild Turkey - Florida
Wild Turkeys - Florida
With the sun shining and the skies a gorgeous azure blue, we naturally encountered various species of raptor on our journey – a Swallow-tailed Kite patrolled one of the crop fields at the side of the road in that now familiar elegant fashion, while groups of Turkey and Black Vultures congregated on the verges to take advantage of the roadkill lining the tarmac. 
Swallow-tailed Kite - Florida
Swallow-tailed Kite
Turkey Vulture - Florida
Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture - Florida
Turkey Vulture - Florida
Turkey Vulture - Florida
Turkey Vulture - Florida
Turkey Vulture - Florida
It was here that we also had our best views of Crested Caracaras – two beautiful adult birds perched proudly on the top of the telegraph poles, their glossy black caps and bright orange faces unique in appearance. 
Crested Caracara - Florida
Crested Caracara
Only just reaching America in Florida and Texas and with the bulk of the population in Central America, this scavenging bird of prey was a species I was really hoping to see during our trip, and the glorious blue skies behind offered the perfect photo opportunity.
Crested Caracara - Florida
Crested Caracara - Florida
Crested Caracara - Florida
Reluctantly leaving the Caracaras behind, we reached the Three Lakes in good time, tagging on to some helpful Florida birders who had arrived at exactly the same time as us. Heeding their warnings about the evil sounding ‘chiggers’ in the grass (a google search revealed these to be like small menacing ticks) we followed suit into the reserve, soon listening to the distinctive song of one of our key targets here – Bachman’s Sparrow
Bachman's Sparrow - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Heat hazed record shot of the distant Bachman's Sparrow
A specialist in the Pine Flatwoods and restricted to a handful of sites in Florida, this was a species we really needed to get, and it was great that we had encountered one just minutes after entering the reserve. With our Florida birders unable to locate the sparrow, I immediately turned my attention to where the song was emanating from, instantly spotting a small brown bird perched on one of the branches. Setting up the scope on the bird question – bingo – Bachman’s Sparrow in the bag. 
Bachman's Sparrow - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Getting everyone else on our target, we enjoyed nice scope views as the Bachman’s sang loudly, managing some extremely distant and poor record shots of what was actually our only individual of the trip. 
Pine Warbler - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Pine Warbler living up to its name and foraging in the pines!
Pine Warbler - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Moving further down the trail and approaching the well-known patch of trees where the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers nest (all the nest trees have a white ring of paint on them so are easy to see) we enjoyed further views of a party of Pine and Palm Warblers foraging in the needles before one of the Florida birders casually revealed he was photographing a Red-cockaded Woodpecker on the tree next to him! Rushing over, we both soon got on the bird, amazed that these often tricky targets had proved to be so easy.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Red-cockaded Woodpecker
Red-cockaded Woodpecker - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
With a second Red-cockaded Woodpecker joining the party, we enjoyed incredible views as both individuals foraged up the nearby trunks, flitting from tree to tree and staying around us for a good 20 minutes. 
Red-cockaded Woodpeckers - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Like the Bachman’s Sparrow and restricted to just a few sites in Florida, it was great to catch up with this key species for the area, and we watched the pair at close quarters before they eventually flew off calling over the trees. 
Red-cockaded Woodpecker - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Red-cockaded Woodpecker - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Red-cockaded Woodpecker - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat - complete with Red-cockaded Woodpecker for good measure
With our Florida birders clearly knowing the area and its birds well, it was no surprise when one of them pointed out a solitary Brown-headed Nuthatch busying itself around the top of a large dead tree – it had apparently been favouring the same tree a week earlier so was more than likely prospecting a potential nest site. 
Brown-headed Nuthatch - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Brown-headed Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Brown-headed Nuthatch - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Brown-headed Nuthatch - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Sadly not making the ‘squeaky dog toy’ call that Brown-headed Nuthatches make, this was, like the majority of other species we encountered at the Three Lakes, the only individual of the trip. 
Brown-headed Nuthatch - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Brown-headed Nuthatch - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Parting ways with our companions, we headed off in to the prairie in search of Grasshopper Sparrows, with the off chance of a Red-headed Woodpecker thrown in for good measure. Despite being very few records of the latter on e-bird, the southern tracks around the reserve were apparently very good for this species, and we couldn’t believe our luck when Alex spotted one flying into a tree across the fields. 
Red-headed Woodpecker - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker was a species I didn’t expect to see here in Florida, and we both watched amazed as this beautifully plumaged adult worked one of the trees for several minutes before flying over the car and to the other side of the road. 
Red-headed Woodpecker - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Red-headed Woodpecker - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
With a gorgeous deep red head and jet black and white body, this for me was one of the most attractive of American woodpeckers, and I managed a couple of record shots of this stunning bird. 
Red-headed Woodpecker - Three Lakes WMA, Florida
Pleased with our success and cutting our losses with the elusive Grasshopper Sparrows, we turned our attention to one of the smaller lakes on the reserve – Lake Jackson
Lake Jackson - Florida
The road to the shore was alive with birds, and we enjoyed good views of parties of Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers tumbling through the trees, while Northern Parulas called from above. A second large female hawk (Coopers or Sharp-shinned) once again exposed our raptor ID weakness, while Black and Turkey Vultures dominated the skies. We also encountered several more Wild Turkeys in the sunlit clearings, quickly scurrying off into the undergrowth as the car approached.
Alligator footprints - Lake Jackson, Florida
Alligator footprints at Lake Jackson!
Arriving at the lake, it soon became apparent that Alligators were frequenting the murky water - huge footprints on the boat ramp revealing their presence and the odd pair of eyes often peeking out over the water’s surface. Scanning the lake soon revealed the usual water dwelling suspects – Little Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets foraged amongst the lily pads, while several Black-necked Stilts picked their way through the leaves. Two Solitary Sandpipers were also new for the trip (and a lifer for Alex), while a large flock of American White Pelicans remained distant.
Solitary Sandpipers - Lake Jackson, Florida
Solitary Sandpipers being unsolitary - Photo by Alex Jones
With several more species often reported from Lake Kissimmee and Joe Overstreet Road, we made the short journey to this excellent stretch of road, keeping our eyes peeled for the charismatic and quirky Northern Bobwhites. Sadly this unusual Quail-like species eluded us throughout the trip, but the farmlands surrounding Joe Overstreet Road instead provided excellent views of a range of other species. 
Joe Overstreet Road - Florida
Joe Overstreet Road provided excellent birding opportunities
American Kestrel - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
American Kestrel
Our first male American Kestrels showed off their brightly coloured markings, while several fantastic male Eastern Bluebirds perched obligingly on the fence posts, offering incredible and close-up views of a bird that we only had a brief distant glimpse of at Doodletown in New York.
Eastern Bluebird - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebird - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Eastern Bluebird - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
An exceptionally close Eastern Meadowlark also gave crippling views from the car as it sang on the fencepost next to us, the bright sunshine yellow breast shining like a beacon as it belted out its glorious song, a now familiar sound in the fields and farmlands of Florida.
Eastern Meadowlark - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Eastern Meadowlark
Eastern Meadowlark - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Eastern Meadowlark - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Eastern Meadowlark - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Getting closer to the lake, we soon had our next lifer of the day – 3 Killdeers sitting in the marshy grass tussocks by the side of the road.
Killdeer - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Killdeer
Killdeer - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Killdeer - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
A majestic Bald Eagle perched on a telegraph pole also gave excellent views as we approached in the car, while parties of Sandhill Cranes foraging in the fields as we neared Lake Kissimmee showed incredibly well, sometimes not fitting in the frame of my 400m lens!
Bald Eagle - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Bald Eagle
Sandhill Crane - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Sandhill Crane
Sandhill Crane - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Sandhill Crane - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Sandhill Crane - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Sandhill Crane - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Arriving at the lake and enjoying a spot of lunch, we soon had our next big Florida target under our belt – Snail Kite
Snail Kite - Lake Kissimmee, Florida
Record shot of the female Snail Kite
Lake Kissimmee - Florida
Lake Kissimmee - Snail Kite habitat
Another enigmatic species of the southern states that (like the Limpkins) specialises in feeding on Apple Snails, we watched at least one female floating distantly over the reed beds, the diagnostic black and white striped tail distinctive, and at one point swooping down and picking up an Apple Snail in its talons. 
Snail Kite - Lake Kissimmee, Florida
Snail Kite - Lake Kissimmee, Florida
The tell-tale black and white banded tail of a Snail Kite
Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any of the gorgeous soot grey and crimson footed males on our trip, and these were sadly the only views we had of Snail Kite throughout our two weeks in Florida – incredibly lucky that we saw them at all!
Snail Kite - Lake Kissimmee, Florida
Probably the biggest anti-climax of the whole trip - sadly we didn't see any more Snail Kites up close or any male birds throughout the rest of our time in Florida
Watching the hover boats powering through the water (having thousands of pounds worth of gear with us, we didn’t dare risk a trip on one), we soon spotted the usual wetland species, now familiar around any large lake or water body. White Ibis and Great Egrets waded in the shallows, while the Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls on the jetty were joined by a couple of Common Terns in winter plumage. The usual American Coots and Common Gallinules skirting around the lily pads were also joined by our final new bird of the day – American Purple Gallinule. Distant, but clearly viewed through the scope, we eventually made out a group of three feeding in the leaves, their bright yellow legs (the key feature separating these from the introduced Gray-headed Swamphen) and bright red bills standing out.
Lake Kissimmee - Florida
With no more Snail Kites materialising and wanting to get to Clewiston (our next stop) in good time with a long drive ahead, we decided to head on to our next hotel, this time with me at the wheel. My very first time driving in America, it had barely been 5 minutes before it turned out I had accidentally ran over a snake (great start!) – however on closer inspection, the dried up body indicated it had been long dead. Seeing just the one same species of snake during our time here, but with every individual quickly retreating into the undergrowth with rapid speed, they had proved impossible to identify, so this non-moving (albeit dead) individual proved an opportunity to get a positive ID.
Snake - Lake Kissimmee, Florida
Snake! (Southern Black Racer?!)
Sadly being unable to spot any of the often reported Wilson’s Snipe, and with no Northern Bobwhites in sight on the drive back up to the main road, we had the consolation of our closest yet perched Red-shouldered Hawk and two charismatic Sherman’s Fox Squirrels (another mammal tick), one of which gave great views at the entrance to Joe Overstreet Road and kept peeking round the trunk at us.
Red-shouldered Hawk - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Red-shouldered Hawk
Sherman's Fox Squirrel - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Sherman's Fox Squirrel
Sherman's Fox Squirrel - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Sherman's Fox Squirrel - Joe Overstreet Road, Florida
Arriving in Clewiston for our overnight stay a few hours later provided the chance to view more of the compelling Black Skimmers as we stopped for supplies, swirling round the sky and landing on the roof of the nearby Walmart. Several more Brown Anoles also scurried around the hotel grounds (at one point me saving one from the eagle eye and sharp bill of a Great Egret) while Palm Warblers flitted rather fittingly in the surrounding Palm trees and on the windowsills – a reminder that migration was still well underway. Filled up after a delicious meal of fried chicken (my staple over in the states) and surviving the icy air-con, we settled down in the hotel ready for our next day’s birding, hopes high that we would be able to find the last of the captivating overwintering Scissor-tailed Flycatchers before moving on to our next stop - the iconic city of Miami! 
Miami - Florida

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