Missing the heat from Southwest Florida

We recently returned from another fantastic family trip to Southwest Florida in the Fort Myers area.  We experienced some of the nicest and hottest weather we’ve had on our many trips down south.  We were lucky this time that we were able to stretch out the vacation to about 11 days.  Jeremy Hatt joined us for a part of the trip so I got to tour him around to some of my favourite spots in the area.

Emily was pretty excited for the trip.  We were telling her stories of how we’ll get to go up in an airplane, jump in the “big pool”, play with the beach toys and maybe even hit the Naples Zoo.  On the first Saturday, we got up and made our way down to the zoo.  We knew it was going to be hot so we wanted to be there early.  At this zoo, you can pay a nominal fee to feed a giraffe.  Emily loves giraffes but I thought she might be terrified of an animal that is towering over her.  I was wrong.  After watching the giraffes for a few minutes I asked her if she wanted to feed one.  She didn’t hesitate – “YES!! I want to feed the giraffe!!”  So she did.  It was a definite highlight of the trip and that smile on her face is something I will never forget.  “It licked me!!”

After a delayed flight, Jeremy arrived on Sunday evening.  His trip was going to be short and we had some key bird targets in mind so we strategized beforehand to make sure we could get as many targets as possible.  We still had some time before dark on Sunday to try and get him some easy lifers.  The plan was to  grab a quick bite and head down to Bunche Beach.  One of my favourite spots.  Even before we got there, we racked up what I think was one of his top targets – Roseate Spoonbill.  A small group of them in a ditch showed nicely.  We quickly ate and continued on to the beach before dark and picked up another lifer flying off in the distance – Reddish Egret.

Piping Plover
Piping Plover

The next few days was a bit of a birding blitz.  Monday was to be a trip to Storm Water Treatment Area 5, or STA5 for short, in Hendry County. I only recently discovered this place and explored a part of it on a previous trip with Jeremy Bensette.  The place is massive and the birding potential is unbelievable.  Our first Crested Caracara of the day, Black-necked Stilts, Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling ducks, Grey-headed Swamphens, Purple Galinule, and Snail Kite were some of the highlights.  On the mammal front, a Bobcat scurried across the road in front of the car with prey in it’s mouth.  Incredible!   After STA5, we headed up to a known Barn Owl roost – a potential lifer for both of us.  On the way there, we saw the first of what ended up being 7 different Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and a surprise Western Kingbird.  All hanging out on the wires.  No luck with the Barn Owls but we got a consolation lifer mammal – River Otter.  eBird Checklist for STA5 – http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25562362

Tuesday was a bit of an easier day.  We all headed out to another one of our favourite locations – Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.  A long boardwalk through a Cypress Swamp can house a variety of species of every living thing.  Even when the birding isn’t great, I still love walking through this place.   It’s so different from anything back home.  Emily lead the way on the  boardwalk.  That evening, after a swim, we all headed out to Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve.  Another beautiful park near the condo.

Wednesday was another bird blitz day.  Thunderstorms were in the forecast and boy did it rain.  The rain let up by mid-morning as we were on our way for a few more lifer targets for Jeremy.  We headed over to Cape Coral area in search of Monk Parakeets, Burrowing Owls and the endemic but threatened Florida Scrubjay.  The first two were pretty easy targets but the scrubjays were not cooperating.  I had been to the location a couple times before and without much effort, was able to find a few birds.  After about an hour or more of driving around searching, we were almost ready to give up when one popped out as it was being chased by another bird. Success! We grabbed some lunch and headed over to Sanibel Island.  The skies were threatening more rain but we were mostly doing car birding at this time anyway so we pressed on.  We made it to Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge by early afternoon but the tide was very high – super moon high! It was still nice to drive around especially since this was Jeremy’s first time.  A surprise lifer for Jeremy of a different kind came later near Bowman’s Beach on Sanibel.  After scanning the stormy Gulf of Mexico for any crazy storm pushed birds, we got caught in another downpour.  As we headed back to the car, we crossed over an inner waterway and low-and-behold – Manatees!  On our way back, we made a quick stop at Bunche Beach again but found that there was almost no beach.  A combination of the super moon tide and the strong on-shore wind.  We could however see many shorebirds over at Bowditch Point.  Our target location for that evening.

Bowditch was insanely incredible for shorebirds that night.  We came across a banded Piping Plover (still waiting to hear back more details from the banding lab), many Am. Oyster Catchers, Redknots, Western Sandpipers, Marbled Godwits and on and on.  Jeremy spotted a partially leucistic Marbled Godwit among the group.

Thursday was the day that Jeremy was heading home.  His flight was later in the afternoon so we headed down to Barefoot Beach to scan the Gulf and play in the sand with Emily.

Friday was to be a family beach day.  We wanted to soak up as much of the sun and hot weather before heading back north.  We headed down to Lover’s Key State Park, a place we hadn’t been to in a while.  The beach was pretty quiet but was nice to just relax and build sandcastles with Emily and Sarah.  While sitting back in my chair, after watching some Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring over the Gulf, I noticed what looked like a crane off to the north and heading my way.  My first thought was “what is a Sandhill Crane doing out over the Gulf?”  As it got closer, I thought it looked pink so I quickly grabbed my binoculars out of my bag and got on the bird.  An American Flamingo!!!  I got Sarah on the bird as it flew past us.  I studied the bird and looked for any tags or bands but didn’t see a thing.  Your immediate thought is that it’s probably just an escapee but this may have been the bird that was hanging out over the summer in the area.  The ruling is not out on the origin of the bird.  It’s believed that there is evidence of wild birds back in Florida.  Pretty crazy sighting either way.

Saturday was another amazing family beach day, this time at Fort Myers Beach.  Emily and I made a beach creature.  “Daddy, put this shell there!  It’s his ear.”  Another highlight.

What an amazing trip.  I ended the trip with 137 species of birds, 7 of which were new Florida birds for me.  We’re so lucky that we have a place to stay that truly feels like home away from home (Thank you Grandma Bep and Poppa).  The next time we head down, our family will be a little bigger and we’ll have all new adventures and memories to share of this piece of paradise.

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