Out in the Open at Orlando Wetlands Park

September 19, 2017

Everything is slowly getting back to “normal” here in Florida, and particularly on the Space Coast, where we managed to get through Hurricane Irma without a major catastrophe. Power has been restored to almost everyone in the area, thanks to the hard-working linemen and linewomen from around the country.

The area parks, sanctuaries, and conservation lands are going to have a bit longer of a time getting squared away. Most of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is still closed, and smaller parks, like Turkey Creek Sanctuary are closed as debris is removed and water levels recede.

Out at Lake Apopka the storm damaged infrastructure so severely, there’s no timetable for it to reopen yet. Assessments are still being made there, and at many other public lands. Everyone will need to be patient and work around what’s available as the main part of migration nears.

But some places managed to get through the onslaught relatively unscathed. Orlando Wetlands Park got through the storm with minimal damage and was open within days. I met up with Camille and we headed over to Christmas, Florida for some late-summer birding.

Most of Orlando Wetlands Park consists of very large open cells of water with groves of relatively wind resistant (particularly the dead ones!) palms.

While some early migrants have been through the area since the end of August, most of central Florida is still in between the end of breeding and fledging season and the start of migration. The hurricanes in the region (both Irma and Jose now, and Maria later in the week) have not made for favorable winds to help move birds out from the north, but that will change as Fall begins.

The morning started off comfortable, but the weather would quickly turn oppressive before the end of the morning. We kept our hike short, only doing the main “birding” loop and not the far reaches of the park.

We mainly stuck to the red-dashed route here on the map. You can see how large the park is – just that loop is 4 kilometers (2.5 miles).

There were several Red-shouldered Hawks perched, looking for breakfast. All appeared to have adult plumage, but some were missing tail feathers. This is indicative of molting, and in fact many of the other birds in the park were missing all or some of their tails.

The Red-shouldered Hawks seemed unconcerned with our activities and let us get close a few times.

By now, most of the Common and Purple Gallinules have raised their broods and the surviving youngsters are getting their adult plumage as well.

This sub-adult Purple Gallinule’s patchy plumage will eventually grow into the beautiful glossy and iridescent colors that give the species its common name.  

Of course there are always late breeders, and there were still a few Common Gallinule pairs that had small chicks, but they were few and far between.

This chick was probably about a week old. Gallinule chicks are precocious – the hatch with eyes open, covered in down, and able to swim and feed within hours. Any species that shares space with alligators needs to be mobile and alert as soon as possible.

There were not many songbirds present, though several Prairie Warblers (a resident breeder) in fall plumage flew past us a few times, and both Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos were actively feeding in the woody edges near the park entrance and nature center.

An adult White-eyed Vireo about to jump out of frame.

All in all it wasn’t too bad of a morning, for mid-September in central Florida. As a bonus, we saw a small flycatcher on the road just outside the park entrance. There seems to have been an influx of Empidonax flycatchers through the state over the last few weeks. I’ve certainly seen more of this genus this year than previous. This particular bird did not vocalize, though it did seem to perk up at a recorded call of a Willow Flycatcher. Unfortunately, that is not enough to identify this bird beyond its genus.

I apologize for the blurry photo here. I was taking this photo while contorted out a vehicle’s window, bracing against the top of the door while the engine was running! But you can see the essential field marks for an Empid – species unknown.

Here’s the complete eBird list, if you’re interested.

It was a real treat that this park was open and relatively clear of debris after such a wide-ranging and destructive storm. And of course, just a few years ago this park was closed over the fall and first part of winter. Now it’s open to the public year-round, so it should have a lot to offer as migration gets under way.

[Note: Our friends in the Caribbean, including the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have been and are being devastated by both Hurricane Irma and Maria. Please donate if you can. Here’s the link to Charity Navigator so you can find somewhere to donate that feels right for you: https://www.charitynavigator.org/]

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