Let’s face it, it’s been a very slow early migration season in east central Florida. If the past two years give any indication, it’s to expect another hit-or-miss month of April. During Easter week my friend and newly minted birder, Camille discussed alternatives to get some of her first migrating warblers and other birds this spring, since some of my usual haunts and both of our other endeavors have not really gotten us a very good sampling of birds that should be passing through the state on their way northward. We hit upon doing some urban birding around Orlando.
Winter Park has a number of different parks and gardens, so we chose two: Meade Botanical Gardens and the Harry P. Leu Gardens. Meade is a little more native and informal, while Leu is a little more formal. We had read via eBird and the mailing lists that some migrants had been seen in and around both parks, and that Meade Gardens had a resident Barred Owl as well as Wood Ducks. Camille loves owls, so getting a nice daytime owl was high on our list. On our way toward the reported owl location, we had luck with some good views of the typical winter residents: Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals, Northern Parulas, and others. The Carolina Wrens were not shy at all at the southern end of the gardens.
Mixed in with the Carolina Wrens were several House Wrens, singing their perky and bubbly songs.
We also heard and saw a fair number of Tufted Titmouses. There are a few mated pairs using birdhouses with chicks present (at least based on the peeping we could hear within).
We were not having much luck finding any owls, but we heard at least one calling to our north, perhaps out of the park. We followed the sound to a creek, but we saw that across the creek was someone’s house and there was no apparent way to cross it. Then I heard a faint, low, “coo” and asked out loud, “What the heck is that?” and looked at an oak limb just above Camille’s head.
A VERY patient Barred Owl was perched about ten feet up, looking around and not at all ruffled by our presence. We found out later that this was the female of a mated pair that has two youngsters nearby. We did heard what was presumably the male further out, We both took a large number of photographs before reluctantly moving on through the gardens.
We started passing some other birders along the trails, and one man asked if we had seen the “Chuck” yet. I wasn’t sure what he was asking, but it turns out a larger group of birders had flushed a bird and were very carefully stalking it and trying to avoid spooking it again. Here’s a shot from the first set of photographs I took. Can you see what the fuss was all about?
Do you see it? No? Just right of center, that slightly warmer brown “knob” is, in fact, a Chuck-will’s-widow. Chucks are members of the nightjar family, which includes Whip-poor-wills and Common Nighthawks (among others). Locally common, Chucks are normally a bit hard to find. They blend in with branches and leaves (as you can see), and prefer to stay motionless to fleeing. But if you get too close, it will quickly fly through the woods to another spot and take another cryptic pose. This was a life bird for me!
We managed to get some side looks at the bird along the boardwalk as we continued, staying with the birding group for a while. Camille saw and identified a Swamp Sparrow (despite my best attempts at derailing her – she had a better view than I did!), and before the other birders IDed it. toward the end of the boardwalk, we heard some Gray Catbirds singing along with what sounded like a Painted Bunting. The catbirds did eventually show themselves a bit, but the buntings did not.
Along the same section of boardwalk, we saw some non-avian friends, including a Florida Box Turtle and a Marsh Rabbit. Near some flower gardens, we got to see a mated pair of Monarch butterflies flying together, along with other butterflies.
Camille and I decided to track back through the boardwalk to get another look at the Chuck-will’s-widow and eventually get back to the Barred Owl. On the way past the second viewing spot for the Chuck, we bumped into none other than Reinhard Geisler. We last saw Reinhard at the Orlando Wetlands, where he helpfully gave us a park map before shooing us out the door from his photography workshop. He was with a small group taking some photographs of the bird from the boardwalk. I asked if he had taken any “good shots” and he laughed and said, “depends on your definition of good.” The bird was in a tough spot to photograph from that vantage point. Camille and I decided to go down a path past the limb the Chuck was sitting on to both get a better photo, and to see more of the gardens. I went back and asked if everyone in the group with Reinhard had gotten a good look, because we intended to pass close to the bird, and we didn’t want anyone to miss out if it should flush and fly away. It seemed as if everyone agreed, so Camille and I proceeded. I managed to get a couple of decent close shots before the bird did indeed fly off to a new spot.
We eventually caught up to the larger group of birders, and then we all made our way back to the Barred Owl, which was sitting in the same place, though looking somewhat sleepy.
Further out on the creek, there was a pair of Wood Ducks, one male and one female. A Great Blue Heron was resting one one foot nearby. Shortly they were joined by a Great Egret that landed even closer to us and nervously stalked the creek among the cypress knees.
To this point we still hadn’t seen any migrating warblers, though other birds were active and present. Back at the parking area we saw more Tufted Titmouses, a Palm Warbler, at least one Prairie Warbler and a Black-and-white Warbler. There were more Carolina and House wrens singing, as well as the ever present Northern Cardinals. I kept hearing Great Crested Flycatchers all morning, but it wasn’t until we were back at the parking lot getting ready to head out that I finally saw one. Despite all the vocal presence at work, in my backyard and in various area parks, I finally got my first visual confirmation of a Great Crested Flycatcher at Meade Gardens.
Not far from the parking lot is an area called “the clay pits” that led down to more water and some marshy ground. I could hear Painted Buntings down in the nearby brush, so I descended into one of the pits trying to get a closer look. I finally managed to flush a pair of buntings, just catching a blur of the red, blue and green colors of a male Painted Bunting before they flew out over the gardens and out of sight.
We had one last surprise before we left. Suddenly, right in front of us, an outburst of angry tweets and chittering came from one of the larger trees. Two Great Crested Flycatchers whirled into view, feet locked, spiralling down to the ground in a mini tornado of wings. They actually hit the ground before disengaging and flying off, calling out to each other.
Here’s the list for Meade Gardens, mostly in order:
- Mourning Dove
- Northern Cardinal
- Northern Parula
- Red-bellied Woodpecker
- Carolina Wren
- House Wren
- Common Grackle
- Tufted Titmouse
- Red-shouldered Hawk
- Barred Owl
- American Crow
- Downy Woodpecker (♫)
- Fish Crow
- Red-winged Blackbird
- Chuck-will’s-widow (life)
- Swamp Sparrow
- Gray Catbird
- Blue Jay
- Northern Mockingbird
- Wood Duck
- Great Blue Heron
- Great Egret
- Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
- Palm Warbler
- Prairie Warbler
- Pileated Woodpecker (♫)
- Black-and-white Warbler
- Great Crested Flycatcher
- Painted Bunting
Our next and ultimate destination was the Harry P. Leu Gardens, but we first got a bit of lunch and decided to detour to nearby Lake Berry Overlook. A Red-headed Woodpecker has been reported there, and we thought it worth our while to check it out. One of the birders we bumped into earlier was also getting lunch and casually mentioned they saw a single Cape May Warbler in the parking area, but we had yet to see any migrating warblers. We hoped our luck would be better at Leu Gardens. We’ll pick up the story in Part 2.