Friday, April 3, 2015

New birds in new habitat: Southwestern Florida beaches and swamps

We have to be honest- upon our original arrival into the Bonita Springs area off of Highway 75 we were overwhelmed with the population density. We were there to visit the famous Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary & the Ding Darling NWR. We were expecting a little more wild habitat and few less humans. Our campground was located in old town Bonita Springs and was perfect. Our little campground had a beautiful lake and lots of birds. We had quite a few exciting sighting there such as a Little Blue Heron, White Ibis and Tricolored Heron.

We had beautiful weather and were able to visited Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Lover's Key State Park multiple times and Ding Darling NWR once. All we can say is that we are so grateful that someone had the foresight and strength to save these beautiful wild areas:)

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary occupies approximately 13,000 acres in the heart of Corkscrew Watershed in Southwest Florida, part of the Western Everglades. It is primarily composed of wetlands. These include the largest remaining virgin bald cypress forest in the world (approximately 700 acres), which is the site of the largest nesting colony of Federally Endangered Wood Storks in the nation. In addition to the Wood Stork, Corkscrew provides important habitat for numerous other Federal and State listed species, including the Florida Panther, American Alligator, Gopher Tortoise, Florida Sandhill Crane, Limpkin, Roseate Spoonbill, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, White Ibis, Big Cypress Fox Squirrel and the Florida Black Bear. Several rare plants are also found here, most notable the Ghost Orchid.

Corkscrew is in a strategically important location providing a connection for wildlife and water to coastal habitat. A variety of battles over birds, lumber, water and land spanning more than a century has transformed Southwest Florida. Corkscrew remains one of the last vibrant wet wilderness areas to demonstrate what is possible.

NOTE- for more information please see

We had an amazing few days in Corkscrew. The following are photos of some of the highlights:

This Eastern Phoebe hanging out just outside the visitor's center was a nice surprise. We have not seen or heard many flycatchers on our trip to Florida and we are not sure why?
This Indigo Bunting is a first spring male- we can tell that by his mottled plumage verses a mature adult would be all blue. Corkscrew Sanctuary maintains feeders that attracted Indigo Buntings and Painted Buntings as well as Grackles and Northern Cardinals.
This was our first look at a male Painted Bunting- what plumage!
The male Northern Parula were one of the more common warblers we saw. We are assuming we are seeing resident birds since the range maps show a resident population in this area. We also see many of the birds with nesting material. The bird below is most likely a male since it has the chestnut breast bands.
Notice the white wing patchers.

The male has the a chestnut band on the chest and a patch on his flanks.
This male Palm Warbler was hanging out on a branch above a few American Alligators snoozing along the bank. They hang out down here in the winter and leave to breed in bogs up north. They are most easily recognized by their habit of wagging their tails showing off the their yellow undertail coverts. We seem to find them feeding on the ground most of the time.
These are photos of  Black-and-white Warblers.
This one looks a little scruffy like he is going through a plumage change.
They feed like creepers - walking along tree branches picking up insects and turning upside down to feed.

This was our first look at a Yellow-throated Warbler.
The resident Pine Warblers can be heard and sometimes seen foraging high in the pine forest

We heard a number or Great-crested Flycatchers calling but this is the only decent view that I got of one.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is truly a wild kingdom - where else can you see a Tricolored Heron, Wood Stork & an American Alligator together?

As the Great Egrets transition into their mating/ breeding plumage they develop a bright green color around their eyes. We had never seen this in other Great Egrets before seeing these birds here at Corkscrew.

The Anhinga is a  bird of the southern swamps: different variations of plumage mean different things. The bird below is a non-breeding male.
This bird is a winter plumage male.
The Anhinga below is a breeding plumage male due to the blue coloring around the eye
Another look at a breeding male
It is sometimes called the "snake bird" for its habit of swimming along with just its head and neck sticking out of the water. The bird below looks like a non-breeding male.
This stunning White Ibis is feeding with a mature Little Blue Heron in the background.
The White Ibis below is a juvenile- they have the pinkish red bill and white belly.
This Painted Turtle had a wonderful place to call home. He was sitting pretty close to the animal in the next photo.....
American Alligators could be seen hanging out in the swamp and sunning on the shores. The birds and other creatures don't seem to mind.

American Alligator and Little Blue Heron

We had the opportunity to get incredible looks at Barred Owl adults and young. Apparently the pair of adults had a nest right near the boardwalk with at least 2 owlets. The fledglings had just started sticking their heads out of their nesting cavity in the last week. The first day we were there we saw the adult  looking down at one of the fledglings that was hanging out in the cavity calling.
One of the fledglings
Looking up at adult
Looking down as if asking should I jump....

On our second visit there was more drama happening - one of the fledglings had jumped or fallen and was huddled on the ground right below the tree. The other fledgling was calling away while the one adult had a big snake that we imagine it was trying to prepare for the young ones......needless to say the adults had their work cut out for them.

On a calmer note we came up the this striking Yellow-crowned Night Heron - another new bird
This Yellow-crowned Heron appeared to hunting from the mangrove branches
This is an immature or 1st spring Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
This Little Blue Heron was actually hunting at the side of the lake at our campground in Bonita Springs. Another new bird...
This Little Blue Heron was hunting in the swamp at Corkscrew

This immature Little Blue Heron might easily be confused with a Great Egret or Snowy Egret at a first glance- but once you take a look and see the bill is grey-blue and the pale dull green legs you can figure out it is a juvenile Little Blue Heron.
We saw Red-shouldered Hawks flying low through the swamp. At one point we heard a struggle and squeals from below the boardwalk where we were standing. Next, a Red-shouldered Hawk came up soaking wet and sat on the railing staring down- see the photos below. We imagine it was trying to figure out how it was going to carry out what every it had just killed. We think it was a juvenile White Ibis, which would be a very big meal for the Red-shouldered's family. There was a Red-shouldered Hawk nest not to far away - that could be seen from the boardwalk.

This is a Black-crowned Night-Heron adult that appears to be hunting something- they can hold a pose like that for a long time....I guess as long as it takes to catch its next meal.
A Pileated Woodpecker working on its nest- you could see the wood chips flying
We could hear the White-eyed Vireo in the trees but had a hard time getting a good look. Finally this bird gave us some good views.
This male Mottled Duck was swimming around the lake at our campground.
The Common Grackle male's head has a beautiful iridescent purple sheen and yellow eyes. There are 2 subspecies-the "purple" or quiscula and the "bronzed" or versicolor. We think the one below is the "purple" subspecies.

The Uncommon......the Wood Stork is a relative of the Vulture. They are the only stork that breeds in the U.S. They nest above the water to prevent predators such as raccoons from feeding on their eggs and young. In Florida, the Wood Stork breeds during the late winter dry season when its fish prey are concentrated in shrinking pools.

The bird below is an immature or 2nd year Wood Stork. The adult has a totally unfeathered head and the juvenile has a grayish brown wash all the way to the neck feathers. It appears that the white feathers have started to come in and the top of the head is starting to lose its feathers which would indicate a 2nd year bird.
They feed by wading with their bill open just under the water surface, snapping it shut when they encounter prey.

This looks like a younger bird than above since its neck still has the grey brown wash all the way to the neck feathers as mentioned above.
A Wood Stork in flight
Lover's Key State Park was only accessible by boat for many years. Today it is one of four barrier islands that make up this state park. A haven for wildlife, the islands and their waters are home to Osprey, West Indian Manatees, bottlenose dolphin, roseate spoonbills, marsh rabbits, Gopher Tortoises, American Alligators and bald eagles. There is a 2 mile long beach and over 5 miles of hiking trails so we had lots of terrain to enjoy:)

This American Oyster Catcher was just hanging out on the beach feeding. It did not seem to mind humans. People would walk by it as it was feeding and it kept right on going. This is another first for us- what a gorgeous bird!
It looks like it caught a sand crab or something...
We had groups of Black Skimmers with Royal Terns come flying by. There were a few Sandwich Terns and gulls mixed in as well. 

The Black Skimmers have striking black and white plumage. They are the bigger gull looking bird that has a black body with a white chest with a huge red and black bill that they use to feed as they skim along the surface of the water. The lower mandible is longer than the upper so they can catch small fish as they drag the lower bill through the water.

Black Skimmers in flight

Heading towards the water to feed
A close up of a Black Skimmer
A Laughing Gull has joined the mix of Royal and Sandwich Terns and Black Skimmers: the Laughing Gull is a relatively small gull with a black head in breeding plumage.

Herring Gulls of all shapes and sizes: the Herring Gulls below are coming into their breeding plumage. They transition from extensive streaking on the head to a white head.Note their striking pale eyes and pink legs
The darker gulls below are probably 1st winter Herring Gulls. It takes gulls many years to come into their full adult plumages. It varies between gull species.
The adult Ringed-billed Gull in breeding plumage has a white head with a black band at the tip of its bill. Note their yellow legs. Leg, bill and eye color are very helpful in trying to identify gulls.
This Ring-billed Gull is a first winter gull-note the pink bill with black tip (not yellow as with the adult)
Sanderlings love to feed along sandy beaches where wave action makes invertebrate prey available.

We have never seen so many active Osprey nests in one place!
Osprey adult and juvenile
The "Ding" Darling NWR was created in 1945 to safeguard and enhance the pristine wildlife habitat of Sanibel Island, to protect endangered and threatened species and provide feeding, nesting and roosting areas for migratory birds. Today the refuge provides important habitat for over 220 species of birds. The refuge consists of over 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes and West Indian hardwood hammocks (which are closed canopy forests of diverse species)
Most of the photos were taken of birds at a long distance but because they are relatively rare and new to us we wanted to share them.

The Reddish Egret and its dance: this beautiful bird has a very unique foraging technique. It runs, spins and flaps while chasing fish through shallow water. It looks like it is performing a ballet! This is another first for us. Note the black-tipped pink bill.

These were our first Tricolored Herons! Relatively solitary hunters- they can take many forms when hunting- see photos below

Roseate Spoonbills: they are a unique wading bird of southern Florida and the Gulf Coast. They use their odd shaped bill to strain small food items out of the water. They are amazing to see in action.

The world is full of beauty & wonder,
Turtle & Hawk


  1. Your bird sightings are fantastic -- those fledging Barred Owls are adorable! We were surprised to see the bright green breeding plumage on the Great Egrets in the South, too -- at first we thought it was pond weed stuck onto their bills. :-) We've never noticed that on the West coast. Seeing all of your photos, I'm very happy that we're returning for another winter/spring of birding in Florida next year.

  2. You guys are an inspiration! We have fallen in love with Dauphin Island- migration is slow but we are enjoying the shorebirds and the daily few new birds that come in the afternoons:)