A long overdue visit with friends in Naples provided my first opportunity to do some birding in Florida. I had been to Florida once before, to the Pensacola area,. It’s very different than southwest Florida, and the time was well before I had taken up bird watching. This would all be new to me.
The attraction of southern Florida for any birder is, of course, the opportunity to see a significant number of species that only rarely occur in the northeast if at all. Face it. You’re not going to see a roseate spoonbill or white pelican hanging out along or on the Connecticut River. Many bird species have evolved to be very site specific. They have found a particular ecological niche. Thus for us birders the old axiom applies, “You have to go where the birds are.”
Florida is home to an astonishing 500+ bird species. Small wonder I was excited to be visiting this veritable birder’s paradise. The odds of adding new species to my life list were heavily stacked in my favor. I could see all manner of species such as waders, shorebirds, parrots and kites, to name a few, were eminently attainable first ever, personal records.
Of course, actually getting out in the field and seeing them was another matter altogether. When one goes to visit friends, there is a reasonable expectation that time will be spent together. It’s not like you can show up and say, “Great to see you!” throw the binoculars, scope and birding guide into the car and head off with a cheerful “See you later!” On the other hand, I know some birders who might do that given the opportunity.
I was more restrained, despite champing at the bit to get out. I had to pick my time and spots carefully.. The good thing about being in a previously unvisited place is that new birds can be seen just walking around. For example, after looking into a few shops in the main Naples business district, we decided to take a walk out on the city’s famous pier. And just like that – click, click, click –I had four new species; a magnificent frigate bird soaring overhead, a northern gannet riding “at anchor” a few yards off the pier, three gull-billed turns swooping through the air alongside the pier and a dozen brown pelicans variously engaged in a very entertaining fishing display.
The next afternoon we aimed for a more specific destination, a well-known birding “hot spot” the H.P. Williams Wayside Park at the Big Cypress National Preserve. The park is basically a straight and long dirt road that parallels a drainage canal. The main attraction of this sight was a chance to see alligators, a priority for my wife Nancy, and see them we did. We counted at least two dozen both canal side and in a drainage area in front one of the Big Cypress park’s visitors center.
Along the way we saw a smattering of different bird species such as little blue heron, a first, and a pair of purple gallinules, another first. Also of note were several great-crested flycatchers. This was not because I had never seen that species, I get them in the yard every summer, usually by mid-June. But here I was in late March seeing the flycatchers before they would make their perilous journey north to nest.
The following morning was set aside for the specific purpose of birding. Rising early, I drove north to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a destination that had come highly recommended by several birding colleagues. The sanctuary’s claim to fame is its 700 acres of old growth cypress forest, one of the last stands of its kind in the south. Old cypress forests once covered tens of thousands of acres across southern Florida, but heavy logging in the early 20th century almost eliminated them and the unique wildlife habitat they provided.
The Corkscrew Sanctuary offers an unparalleled opportunity to experience these magnificent trees up close by walking a 2.5-mile long boardwalk that winds through the forest and adjacent pinewood flatlands and wetlands. The sanctuary more than lived up to its reputation as a great place to go birding. Among the highlights that morning were an anhinga (a relative of our double-crested cormorant) a white ibis (I’ve seen their “glossy”counterparts in Essex, MA) and a painted bunting that was taking advantage of the visitor center’s feeder.
The number of species seen that day was not as large or as varied as I might have hoped, but on that breezy, fresh spring morning that shortcoming paled next to the opportunity to at times be alone in Corkscrew’s silent, dense, green-canopied, majesty. As I stood there surrounded by the soaring, ancient cypress, listening to the cacophony of bird songs coming from the woods, I was inspired yet humbled.
Photo: The soaring green canopy from old growth cypress at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Blake Allison - Lyme, NH