We started the morning at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, where we took the 5-mile loop road as soon as they opened at 7:30 a.m. There was one area with a LOT of shorebirds of many species, including Red Knot and Marbled Godwit among the more numerous dowitchers and peeps. Unlike our visit here in 1978, there were almost no ducks (thousands of American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and Blue-winged Teal before) and very few American Coots (10,000+ before). We saw only a handful of wigeon, about ten teal, and a couple hundred coots. Perhaps they hadn't arrived yet from the north? Of course, we were here in November in 1978 which may have made a difference. The numbers of waterbirds was lower too, but we did manage to see most of the major species including:
From here we headed south through Naples then east towards the Everglades. Our next stop was the Fakahatchee Strand State Park where we intended to walk a short boardwalk, then drive a scenic road. Unfortunately, we found out that the road wasn't in great shape so we'll have to go there some other time. This area is better known among orchid enthusiasts than it is among birders. Several rare orchids are known only from this area, and a few species have not been seen in many years, or the exact location where they were found originally has been lost. Much of this is due to over collecting, but some is due to environmental issues, such as a period of freezing in the 1980s. Looking out at the habitat from the boardwalk, it isn't too hard to figure out why some of these often inconspicuous plants have vanished for years, decades, or even forever.
We saw more Wood Storks in this part of Florida than elsewhere.
Heading east, we stopped at various locations within the Big Cypress Reserve where waterbirds were very common, including especially American Anhingas, in the ditches.
At a new Visitors Center (well, apparently new since our last trip through this part of Florida in 1988), another Anhinga allowed very close approach.
And American Alligators were very abuntant also, including some large ones that were perhaps 10-feet long.
Near the boundary of Everglades National Park we found a Snail Kite at the expected locale near the Miccosukee Restaurant, but it only allowed for a few brief photos. From here we headed northward to the Atlantic Coast where we stopped near Melbourne, Florida for the night.
Day 7 - Thursday, December 11, 2008
We were concerned about getting home on or before Saturday, so we got up very early and drove 200 miles north to Jacksonville, arriving at the Fort Clinch State Park. Here, we hoped to see a few species difficult or impossible to find elsewhere in Florida. These included Purple Sandpiper which would be on the jetty, and scoters and Northern Gannets which would be offshore. It turned out that the pier was closed so views of the jetty were very restricted, and no Purple Sandpipers were in evidence.
It was overcast, windy, and threatening to rain. Offshore there were virtually no waterfowl of any kind, but a couple of immature Northern Gannets did oblige with distant views. On the beach here was a fairly large flock of Laughing, Ring-billed, and Herring Gulls (two Bonaparte's), Royal Terns, and Black Skimmers.
The wind kept putting the birds up, and they had to keep resettling themselves on the beach.
As we left this park around 10:30 a.m. it started raining. By the time we got back to the freeway it was torrential. We drove north into Georgia and, despite the rain, headed east to Jekyll Island. Most of the species we were hoping to add to our Georgia list were waterbirds that would likely still be active despite the rain, but most land birds were hunkered down waiting for the storms to pass. We did succeed in finding may shorebirds, gulls, terns, both Brown and White Pelican, and Northern Gannet. The rain never let up, but was somewhat lighter at times, so it would have been foolhardy to try to take photos. It is clear that during spring and fall migration, Jekyll Island would be a birder's paradise.
From here we continued north, and around 2 p.m. the rain was stopping and the sun was even starting to come out. Reports on the radio indicated that some areas had gotten 4-inches of rain with this storm, though apparently no tornados (watches were posted). We decided on one more stop, at the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. We drove the 4-mile loop road here, finding a few birds but not a lot of water was visible from the road. We found a Nine-banded Armadillo, face down in pine needles, foraging along the roadside in one area of Longleaf Pine woodland. The pink scar on his/her rump is likely from a close encounter with a car.
And one of the last birds of the day was this fine Loggerhead Shrike perched right next to the road in the Refuge.
We then continued northward into South Carolina, mostly in the dark, stopping near Orangeburg for the night.
Day 8 - Friday, December 12, 2008
We decided not to get an extremely early start, as we had 800 miles to get home and it might be too difficult to do in a single day, depending on the weather we'd encounter. We started at 7 a.m., and the roads were quite clear all the way up into North Carolina and Tennessee. We had some very scenic views around the east and north sides of the Great Smoky Mountains caused by snow. Fortunately, most of the snow was above the level of the road. Northward into Kentucky, the temperatures really started dropping (it was 73 when we started), getting down to freezing pretty quickly. The roads remained clear, except for rush hour traffic around Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. We managed to make it all the way home by 9:30 p.m.