Finally (Fly)catching up with Orlando Wetlands Park

I bucked the Lonely Birder trend again this past weekend by heading out to the Orlando Wetlands Park with my friend Camille. She is such an enthusiastic new birder, it’s great to head out with her and see whatever we can. This trip was focused on two things:

Thing 1: Neither of us had been to Orlando Wetlands Park before. It is closed seasonally from November through all of January which includes the usual dates for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.

Thing 2: A male Vermilion Flycatcher was reported there this winter (and apparently the past several winters), a rare and desirable bird for this area. It’s getting late in the “wintering” season in central Florida, so it’s likely he’ll head north soon. This weekend was a good opportunity to see him.

scenic
This is actually a really big park. We walked at least 5 or 6 miles in the course of the day.

We arrived during a light rain shower, and (along with several other birders, including a group of photographers) used some small shelters near the parking area to wait out the rain and watch what birds were in the nearby trees and brush. We could hear a lot of “chipping” notes which turned out to be a large number of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Interspersed with them were some American Goldfinches, and I could hear at least two White-eyed Vireos. There was one Yellow-throated Warbler (one of several life birds for Camille).

There’s an education center nearby, and we went there to find a park map, and apparently interrupted a photography workshop lead by Reinhard Geisler, who tried to whisk us out, until we told him we just wanted a map. He grabbed one for us and quickly shut the door!

As we passed some large blue plastic tubs, ostensibly for a plant experiment, we saw some more Yellow-rumped Warblers, as well as Blue-headed Vireos, and some Carolina, House and Marsh Wrens in the brush nearby. I thought I caught a glimpse of an Ovenbird, but not enough to really be sure. I also caught a quick look at a Ruby Crowned Kinglet.

blue-headed-vireo
A Blue-headed Vireo shows off its white spectacles and yellow-green flanks.

As we got out past that area near some open marshland, there were dozens of Tree Swallows all around us, and then looking farther out, a huge flock of many hundreds (perhaps even a thousand!) were swirling. Everywhere we went, all day, there were Tree Swallows.

tree-swallows1
One of several swirling masses of Tree Swallows we saw throughout the day.

We saw our first herons and egrets, as well as some American Coots, and further along, Common Gallinules. In a dead tree there was a pale adult Red-shouldered Hawk that we spotted quite a distance away. We saw several of that species through the day (of course, some may have been repeat individuals), all the pale “Florida form.”

red-shouldered-hawk

More impressively, Camille was wondering if we’d see any Crested Caracaras, and shortly thereafter in a tree not far from that hawk, was an impressive caracara, alternating between grooming and watching us approach. Just about all of the Crested Caracaras I have seen in Florida have been banded at least once, but this one was not banded and quite majestic.

crested-caracara
Crested Caracaras are majestic looking birds.

The park also has an impressive number of alligators. Every embankment we walked along had at least several, sometimes in close proximity. The largest I saw was over eight feet long, and there were some small 2-3 foot long ones as well. Many seemed to be snoozing or at least disinterested, but some were alert and intently watching us as we went by. At one point, near the end of the day, a woman we spoke with was saying how, even as a native Floridian, she sometimes gets a little nervous with so many alligators out and about.

two-gators
“One medium and one large ‘gator to go, please.”

Her comment made me realize that while I used to be a little intimidated and anxious at some of the larger alligators I would see, now I just harbor a great deal of respect and admiration. I’ve never felt threatened by an alligator. In fact, more often than not, even the larger ones will panic and head straight for the water in a startling splash if I accidentally seem to be getting too close.

front-gator
“This IS my happy face.”

Alligators weren’t the only non-avian species present. There were turtles sunning in most of the ponds and open wetlands and various butterflies. I did not notice any dragonflies, but it may be too early in the year to expect the adults to have emerged from the water yet.

This is a Viceroy, a mimic of the better known Monarch butterfly. The extra thicker black line running across the thinner lines is the defining field mark.
This is a Viceroy, a mimic of the better known Monarch butterfly. The extra, thicker black line running across the thinner lines is the defining field mark.

We came across a three-foot long snake on one path that Camille almost stepped on. I looked up what species it was after getting home, and it was a yellow striped Rat Snake. Normally this species is nocturnal, and I thought maybe this individual had expended some energy before dawn and was waiting for the sun to warm it up so it could get about its business.

rat-snake-head

A major difference between this park and something smaller, like the Wetlands in Viera, is the density of bird activity. With so much room to spread out, there didn’t seem to be as much bickering and posturing among the wading birds. There were Limpkins around, but they only flew out in the open a few times. The herons were mainly standing alone, with only the usually grumpy Tricolored Herons making any regular fuss. It’s possible we caught the park on a quiet day, with things transitioning from Winter to Spring, but I’ll have to revisit a few times to know for sure.

flying-limpkin
A Limpkin with a Tree Swallow escort comes in for a landing.

As I mentioned above, one reason for coming to this particular park was to see the Vermillion Flycatcher. We had some vague idea of where it might be based on eBird reports and some e-mail list messages, but as the scale of the park became evident to us, we realized we needed specific help on where to find it. As we were walking down the aptly named “Alligator Alley” a couple of men approached our location and asked if we were trying to find the Vermillion Flycatcher. They then gave us very specific instructions on where to walk and what to look for.

So off we went, via their directions, across the park. We walked quite a long distance, well over a mile, until we came and area to that most closely matched their description. There were a few things wrong, however, with what we had read about where it would likely be and this location. There were no “small” cypress trees, for example, and the only cypress stand that might have been close to the two men’s description was apparently accessible from other trails, making it unlikely that we’d have to be out where we were to see it. As we searched for the flycatcher, we did see some Caspian Terns, a perched Osprey, and several Great Blue Herons in the cypress dome across the water. We decided to head out and either ask someone else, or just take our chances in another area of the park.

After we walked a way down the trail just a short way, we saw a photographer setting up a tripod and asked him if he knew how close we were to the flycatcher’s location. He told us we were no way near it, and in fact we had to cross almost the entire park to find it! We were a bit frustrated and amazed because of how specific the first set of directions had been, but this man had photographed the bird the previous day and was very confident in where we needed to go.

There were Red-winged Blackbirds in moderate numbers. Most were busy finding food and looking around. The majority of the males had their red shoulder patches (called epaulets) in eclipse, showing mainly the yellow border. The epaulets are exposed when the bird is looking for a mate or staking out his territory.

red-winged-eclipse
Most of the male Red-winged Blackbirds seemed content to walk the edge of the water with very little fuss. There were some singing here and there, but nowhere near the frenetic activity the species often exhibit at Viera.

Some smaller birds were flying along the trail, including Savannah Sparrows and Palm Warblers. Most of the Palm Warblers in central Florida during the winter time are of the gray “Western” variety, with limited yellow to their tail coverts and sides. One Palm Warbler was foraging along the reeds and other water plants near us, and it stood out because of how pale it was compared to other Palm Warblers I’ve seen this winter.

palm-warbler-2015-mar-01
Pale Palm Warbler eating tiny bugs.

Just across the road along the shoreline of the pond I was slightly startled to see several very small birds wading within a few feet of me. At first I thought they were sparrows, but once my brain adjusted to what it was seeing, I realized they were very small sandpipers. Other than Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones, I’d never been that close to small shorebirds, and it turns out these were Least Sandpipers (I had to double check at home because Western Sandpipers are also small, but they have dark legs whereas Least Sandpipers have yellowish legs).

least-sandpipers-2015-mar-01
Hangin’ with my peeps at Orlando Wetlands Park.

Anhingas were distributed fairly evenly around the park. I don’t know when the normal breeding season is for them, though I know they can breed any time of year in places. We encountered one Anhinga that seems to be a juvenile or an immature bird. Other Anhingas in the area (Viera, for example) have blue skin around the eyes and lores (area in front of the eyes) which indicates breeding adults, but this one does not have those markings.

imm-anhinga
A young Anhinga nervously watched us as we passed by.

A flock of American Wigeons took to the sky at one point, marking the largest group of ducks we’d seen all day. Aside from a few isolated Blue-winged Teals, and later a few Mottled Ducks at the end of the day, these were the only ducks we’d see.

As we continuted to follow the photographer’s directions, we eventually came upon some birders who had just seen the Vermillion Flycatcher and were happy to point out where to stand and what to look for. It turns out we were just around the corner from the spot when the first two men had us go in the complete opposite direction! I don’t know if they were being malicious or were confused themselves over where they had been that morning, but it was frustrating at first. But the walk, though hard on the feet, was not a waste, as we did get to experience areas of the beautiful park we’d likely have walked through anyway. We were warned that without a high powered scope or telephoto lens, we weren’t likely to see much more than a reddish dot or smudge, but we knew that going in. Any glimpse of the bird was worth it.

We stood at the spot and scanned the small cypress trees for several minutes and were just about second guessing ourselves when I finally caught a flash of red in my binoculars and saw my very first Vermillion Flycatcher! Soon, Camille had it in her sights as well, and we watched that little red smudge sally over the water and back to the same perch several times. I decided to take whatever image my camera could capture, even if just a red blob.

vermillion
It’s not much, but that red blob is a male Vermillion Flycatcher! Worth every minute, mile and foot ache!

We watched him for a while longer before finally heading back down the trail, where we came across a woman setting up a spotting scope, looking toward the trees the flycatcher was in, from the opposite direction. We talked to her for a few minutes, and found out that she birds with the man running the photography workshop (Reinhard Geisler) and had seen the flycatcher from that vantage point some days earlier. She very quickly got it in her scope and let us have a look. In her scope one could see his face clearly, including the black eye-line.

We continued to walk back toward the education center and the parking area, stopping to look at a few more birds. As we did, the woman with the spotting scope walked by us and pointed out Tree Swallows perched in some small trees out in the water, relatively close to us. After seeing so many hundreds, if not thousands, of these birds flying all day, it was nice to see some sitting quietly.

more-swallows
A small group of Tree Swallows taking a bit of a break.

We walked a little further on and saw another bird we had hoped to see there, but had eluded us all day: a Purple Gallinule. We’d both seen this species this year, but they’ve been comparatively rare lately and are such a neat bird, we really were wanting to get it on this trip.

Just as we were arriving back toward the parking lot, one of the large swirling masses of Tree Swallows was descending along the trees along the trail. There were two main components to the flock, and as the two flocks interacted, they started noisily calling out and descended further. Eventually hundreds landed in just a few trees at the edge of the road, causing the entire tree to sag and bend. This caused the birds to loudly launch off the trees en masse and take to sky in a frantic surge. They did this a few times before heading off a short distance.

Thus ended our day at Orlando Wetlands Park. It lived up to its hype, and we got lots of good birds, including a good handful of lifers for Camille. We didn’t leave the park until after 3:00, which was much much later than I anticipated, and even realized it was. Our feet and backs were sore, but it was an amazing adventure.

Here’s my complete species list in general order of first positive identification.

  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • American Goldfinch
  • Northern Parula (♫)
  • White-eyed Vireo (♫)
  • Carolina Wren
  • Common Ground Dove
  • Gray Catbird
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Pine Warbler
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Blue-headed Vireo
  • House Wren
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Yellow-throated Warbler
  • Marsh Wren
  • Tree Swallow
  • Palm Warbler
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • White Ibis
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Tricolored Heron
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Crested Caracara
  • American Coot
  • Great Egret
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Limpkin
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Gallinule
  • Anhinga
  • Green Heron
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • American Bittern
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Snowy Egret
  • Cattle Egret
  • Glossy Ibis
  • American Wigeon
  • Fish Crow
  • Sora (♫)
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Killdeer
  • Caspian Tern
  • American White Pelican
  • Bald Eagle
  • Osprey
  • Black-crowned Night Heron
  • Vermillion Flycatcher
  • Mottled Duck
  • Purple Gallinule
parting-shot
A parting look at the beautiful Orlando Wetlands Park (those black specks in the sky are more Tree Swallows).

One thought on “Finally (Fly)catching up with Orlando Wetlands Park

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