Daytripper at Ft. De Soto

April is peak Spring migration in Florida, and Ft. De Soto is usually the center of the action. On Friday, some weather came through behind strong southerly winds, and on Saturday there were reports of many migrants in the park. Camille and I couldn’t get there until Sunday, but the birding activity was still high.

The five islands (keys) that comprise the park jut across the entrance of Tampa Bay, south of St. Petersburg [map]. Its location along the Gulf migration route (and not terribly far from the Atlantic coastal route, depending on prevailing winds and weather), make it a migrant trap. Its relatively undeveloped beaches and sandbars are a haven for shorebirds and gulls and terns (at least where public access is limited).

brown-thrasher
A Brown Thrasher greeted us in the parking lot.

It was nice to see a Brown Thrasher (above) out singing. This normally more reclusive relative of the mockingbird also mimics other birds, though a little less forcefully.

Of course, the main draws to Ft. De Soto this time of year are migrants, including warblers, orioles and finches (among others).

blackpoll-warbler
A male Blackpoll Warbler eating mulberries.

We had a nice number of warblers through the day, including resident birds like Black-and-White Warblers and Northern Parulas. Migrants included Blackpoll, Yellow, Magnolia, and Hooded warblers.

Most of the activity centered around the Mulberry Trees by the rangers’ residence, with birds flying in and out of the trees, occasionally singing. The Indigo Buntings had a long feeding session before some Fish Crows broke up the party.

indigo-bunting
An Indigo Bunting.

Some male Summer tanagers obliged us by perching out in the open. Having not seen this bird for so long, I was happy to see them just a few weeks apart.

summer-tanager
Summer Tanager.

Yellow-billed Cuckoos normally feast on caterpillars and other insects, but will eat seeds and small fruit, including mulberries.Cuckoos are elusive birds for their size, and even perched in the canopy, it was difficult to line up a photo.

yellow-billed-cuckoo
Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

We used to have nesting Baltimore Orioles in our yard, when I was a child, but it’s been less easy to get these birds in Florida. It was great to see several of these striking birds. They are adept at hiding in foliage, though their loud, melodious whistles are often a give-away of their locations.

baltimore-oriole
Baltimore Oriole, hiding in the shade.

It was hard to pull away from this area, since so many birds were apparent. There’s a nearby beach, which had some Least Terns and a few shorebirds.

Working our way back toward the car, we also got some quick views of some American Redstarts, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler, and a Hooded Warbler pair.

We were hoping to get some good looks at plover, godwits, terns, and other water birds at North Beach.

wilsons-plover
A Wilson’s Plover foraging. A bird steward we met at the beach said they suspect a nest was nearby, in the rushes.

The sand bar in the restricted habitat zone had the usual mass of Black Skimmers and Royal Terns. There were a few Short-billed Dowitchers, some peep sandpipers running along the shore, and a nesting pair of American Oystercatchers. We got some close looks at a Wilson’s Plover out in the open (see above), near the edge of the restricted zone. The main part of the beach was overcrowded and loud. The ever-present Laughing Gulls didn’t seem to mind so much, but we had little hope for seeing Piping Plovers there, as we did in the fall.

 

Further north, at the lagoon, we managed to get quite close to some resting groups of Willets, Marbled Godwits, and more Short-billed Dowitchers. Black-bellied Plovers, many of which were still transitioning to breeding plumage, were mixed in with the larger shorebirds. A group of about half a dozen Wilson’s Plovers were calling loudly and flying around another roped-off area. Normally when an area is roped off, it indicates active nests, so it’s very important not to cross the ropes or otherwise disturb these areas.

marbled-godwit
Marbled Godwits use their long and slightly upturned bills to probe mudflats for crustaceans, but will also forage in more upland areas for insects. 
reddish-egret
Reddish Egret.

Throughout the entire day, there were Laughing Gulls either on the ground or in the sky. These birds are quite handsome, but are opportunistic omnivores, not above scavenging nests and tourist lunches alike.

laughing-gulls
Whether in groups or in pairs, on sand or seawalls, Laughing Gulls are the summer gull of the southeastern US.

Several species of terns were cruising the shoreline and resting on the beaches, too, including my first of year (FOY) Sandwich Terns.

sandwich-tern
One way to remember this is a Sandwich Tern is that the bill-tip looks dipped in mustard (some say mayonnaise, but if your mayo is yellow, you might have other issues).

Subtropical environments, like most of Florida, are havens for normally tropical animal species. The Nanday Parakeet (also known as the Black-hooded Parakeet in the pet-trade) has established itself around Ft. De Soto. As an invasive species, its unclear what impact these birds are having on native and migrant animal populations, though even in their native regions they have been regarded as pests. So far the St. Petersburg area population doesn’t seem to be breeding; its numbers are thought to be kept stable by constant introduction of escaped and released birds. If you have any caged birds, please be careful to keep them from escaping, and never, ever intentionally release them.

nanday-parakeet
A feral and beautiful Nanday Parakeet.

At East Beach, we had more waders and shorebirds, including some Dunlins, Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers.

As the afternoon wore on, we went to the Arrowhead Campground, hopeful for a Great Horned Owl encounter. While that was a bust, we did have a good grouping of birds at a sponsored bench on the trail, near a small mangrove wetland. A female Hooded Warbler made a brief appearance, followed by a male Magnolia Warbler and a Hermit Thrush. After a walk along the entire trail loop, we stopped back at the bench and were treated to a close fly-by and great looks at a male Scarlet Tanager! It amazes me how birds that are this brightly colored (like Northern Cardinals) can conceal themselves so well.

scarlet-tanager
One of my few clear shots of the tanager. These birds are adept at hiding in the canopy.

We ended the day on a high note, working the edge of some woods near one of the beaches. A pair of male Hooded Warblers were foraging on the ground, nervously wagging their tails and flicking their wings.

hooded-warbler
One of the two male Hooded Warblers, foraging in the grass. I think their hoods look like tiny black space helmets.

 

hooded-warbler2
The other male Hooded Warbler. These birds were sharing the grass (and bugs) with some late-season Palm Warblers (not shown).

It was a long and rewarding day. Including a break for lunch, we spent a good 10 hours (not including the 5 hours of driving). If you’re interested in the eBird lists, here are the links:

Ft. De Soto (before and after lunch):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S29181643

Lunch break incidental list:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S29168870

The next day-trip will likely be for Global Big Day on May 14th!

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