Florida: Birding with a Camera® (BwC)

This is a Birding with a Camera® Tour. The goal of the tour is to see a lot of great birds but also, to take great photos of certain species.

Florida is one of the states that offers an excess of opportunities to birders and camera-carrying ones in particular too. Exciting seabirds, like Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown and Black Noddy, Sooty Tern, and Brown and Masked Boobies on the Dry Tortugas, tame endemic Florida Scrub-Jays in the panhandle, and a bounty of reserves home to massive concentrations of easy-to-photograph waterbirds, like Reddish Egrets, “Great White Herons”, and Roseate Spoonbills. Marshes are also home to Purple Gallinules, Limpkins, Wood Storks and Anhingas, while Snail Kites watch on. The graceful Swallow-tailed Kites also calls Florida home. The Pine Flatwoods are perhaps less well known, where endangered species like Bachman’s Sparrow, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and Brown-headed Nuthatch flaunt their wares. The tour will start and end in Miami, where exotic parrots, like Nanday and Monk Parakeets inhabit the suburbs. The tour takes in marshes, swamps, pine woods, mangroves, Oak hammocks, and the dramatic backdrop of the Florida Keys. Bring your binoculars and your cameras too, in order to capture some wonderful images. The tour has been timed for spring, when temperatures are lower, but the birding opportunities are at a premium, the wetland species are busy breeding, the seabirds are already nesting, and while migrant birds are coarsing through the region.


PLEASE NOTE: There is a certain amount of flexibility within this itinerary, while all sites mentioned will be visited, the exact order and day in which they are visited may vary depending on local conditions at the time, and how the birding unfolds during the first part of the day.

Florida Scrub-Jays are famously tame
Florida Scrub-Jays are famously tame (Sam Woods)

Day 1: Arrival day in Miami. After arriving in Miami, please take the hotel shuttle to our nearby hotel. There are no activities on this day, so feel free to arrive at any time. Dinner is not included in the tour fee for this night, so please take your dinner at the hotel at your leisure. The guide for the tour will meet the group the following morning for the start of the tour activities. The arrangements for this will be confirmed a few weeks before the start of the tour.

Day 2: Metro Miami.On this first full day, we’ll venture into the Miami suburbs to look for a number of introduced and exotic species, all of which are ABA-countable for the listers in the group. This panel includes Red-whiskered Bulbul, Spot-breasted Oriole, Common Myna, and Yellow-chevroned and White-winged Parakeets (though the last is getting very difficult to find). We’ll hope to intersect resident Bronzed Cowbirds and White-crowned Pigeons, and we’ll have our eyes open for migrants like Gray Kingbird, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Cape May Warbler as we explore suburban parks and wooded hammocks. Importantly, we will make a special effort to find any notable vagrants — Western Spindalis, Bahama Mockingbird, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Smooth-billed Ani, etc. — which might be hanging around. We’ll probably visit Matheson Hammock Park, Black Point Marina, and Crandon Park in the course of the day, but our exact itinerary will be determined based upon what’s being seen where in the lead-up to the tour. We’ll spend this night at the same airport hotel as the first night.

Many people get their first North American Snail Kite in Florida
Many people get their first North American Snail Kite in Florida (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Green Cay Nature Center, and Loxahatchee NWR. We’ll make an early start on this second day and head north to a trio of wonderful reserves in Delray Beach: the Green Cay Nature Center, the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, and Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Wakodahatchee and Green Cay are small tracks of habitat in otherwise surrounding suburban sprawl. Both feature elevated boardwalks, and we’ll look for Anhinga, Common and Purple Gallinules, Gray-headed Swamphen, Least Bittern, and Boat-tailed Grackle as we explore the impoundments. Nesting Wood Storks, Green Herons, and Tricolored Herons will keep the photographers busy, and we’ll hope for American Redstarts and other migrants in the adjacent thickets.

Moving slightly east after lunch, we’ll explore expansive Loxahatchee NWR. At the eastern edge of the Everglades, the refuge offers similar birding to Green Cay and Wakodahatchee but in a wilder setting. Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Swallow-tailed Kite, and Red-shouldered Hawk might be circling overhead, and we’ll need to be alert to the possibility of Snail Kite and Limpkin as we explore the habitat. With turtles and alligators thrown into the mix, it should be quite the afternoon! Our memory cards full and our life lists grown, we’ll grab dinner and retire to a Delray Beach hotel for single night.

Fort Myers is an excellent area to see and photograph Burrowing Owls
Fort Myers is an excellent area to see and photograph Burrowing Owls (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Delray Beach to Ding Darling and Fort Myers. We’ll use the early morning to clean up any species or photographs we missed the previous day before heading west towards the Gulf Coast at Fort Myers. En route stops will offer opportunity to find the animated Florida Scrub Jay — a Florida endemic which occupies isolated parks and neighborhoods — and we’ll invest additional time into Snail Kite if we didn’t intersect with it at Loxahatchee the previous day. After lunch, we’ll hit a number of Fort Myers spots including (but not limited to) Rotary Park Environmental Center and Six Mile Cypress Slough. By visiting a variety of habitats, we’ll increase our chances of intersecting with Common Ground Dove, White-eyed Vireo, Northern Parula, Purple Martin, Tufted Titmouse, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and — if we’re really lucky — Short-tailed Hawk! We’ll round out the day in Cape Coral where we should have incredible views of the Burrowing Owls which populate the suburban neighborhood. Throw in the possibility of Monk Parakeets and it should be the perfect end to our day. This will be the first of two nights in Fort Myers.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a specialty of the Pine Flatwoods
Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a specialty of the Pine Flatwoods (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Babcock-Webb WMA and Sanibel Island. An early start will deliver us to Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area as close to sunrise as possible. The dawn chorus will greet us, and we’ll explore expansive pine savannas for the ‘Pine Woods Trio’: Brown-headed Nuthatch, Bachman’s Sparrow, and Red-cockaded Woodpecker, the last a Threatened species named for its usually-concealed ear patch. We might observe Northern Bobwhite scampering across the reserve’s roads, and we’ll need to be on the lookout for Pileated Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Brown Thrasher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee, Northern Cardinal, and Pine Warbler. Bald Eagle and Crested Caracara are often in the area, and we’ll have opportunity for Cooper’s, Sharp-shinned, Red-shouldered, and Red-tailed Hawks.

Reddish Egrets are abundant in several  Florida refuges
Reddish Egrets are abundant in several Florida refuges (Sam Woods)

After lunch, we’ll return to the water at JN ‘Ding’ Darling NWR on Sanibel Island. The refuge is comprised of tidal flats, wetlands, mangroves, and tropical hammocks, and we’ll spend time looking for Piping Plover, Roseate Spoonbill, Marbled Godwit, Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron, and the comical American White Pelican. Magnificent Frigatebird could fly over us at any moment, and we’ll hope for Belted Kingfisher, Tree Swallow, Mangrove Cuckoo, Palm Warbler, and Loggerhead Shrike as we explore terrestrial parts of the refuge. Manatees are sometimes loafing round, so that would be extra cool, right? This will be our second of two nights in Fort Myers.

White Ibis are an abundant waterbird, easily photographed, in the Sunshine State
White Ibis are an abundant waterbird, easily photographed, in the Sunshine State (Ken Behrens)

Day 6: Bunche Beach, Corkscrew Swamp, and the Everglades via Tamiami Trail. Can you say shorebirds? If not, that’s gonna change after a morning at Bunche Beach! Waders should be out in full force, and we’ll try to pad the trip list with the likes of Black-bellied, Wilson’s, Semipalmated, and Piping Plovers. Beyond those, American Oystercatcher, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Least, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, Willet, and Short-billed Dowitcher are all within the realm of possibilities. Royal, Sandwich, and Least Terns are usually around, and we might also observe Black Skimmer feeding low over the water. Exploring the adjacent mangrove habitat, we’ll try for the shifty Mangrove Cuckoo, a species which has experienced sharp declines with the continued development of its obligate habitat.

Barred Owls roost amongst the Spanish moss in the Oak Hammocks
Barred Owls roost amongst the Spanish moss in the Oak Hammocks (Sam Woods)

Next up? The legendary Corkscrew Swamp! Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Limpkin, and White Ibis lurk in the swampy recesses, and we might find Barred Owl roosting among the beautiful, moss-covered cypresses. Also possible along our extended boardwalk amble are Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Great-crested Flycatcher, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated and Prothonotary Warblers, and Louisiana Waterthrush. The setting is absolutely stunning, and our trip to Corkscrew won’t be forgotten!

We’ll have lunch outside Naples and recross the peninsula on the Tamiami Trail through the afternoon. An en route stop at Thousand Island NWR might yield Bald Eagle or Stilt Sandpiper, and we’ll need to keep our eyes skyward in case a Snail Kite floats over the road. If we’ve missed Bronzed Cowbird, we can look for it in the agricultural fields west of Homestead, where we overnight.

Florida is a hotspot for wintering Yellow-throated Warblers
Florida is a hotspot for wintering Yellow-throated Warblers (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Everglades National Park and The Florida Keys. An early start will deliver us to the Flamingo Recreational Area at the southern end of Everglades National Park. Brown Pelicans and Ospreys should grace the tidal flats, and we’ll explore adjacent thickets, marshes, and wooded hammocks for migrants, waders, and raptors. Swallow-tailed Kites can abound, and we’ll make a special effort to tease the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow from appropriate habitat. Shiny Cowbird is a rare but regular visitor, and resident Prairie Warblers usually offer confiding, photographic views. Whooooo knows? Maybe we’ll add Barred Owl at Mahogany Hammock!

We’ll backtrack to Florida City for lunch and spend the rest of the day exploring the incomparable Florida Keys. Birding as we island hop to the southwest, we’ll look for Laughing Gull, Roseate Tern, Gray Kingbird, White-crowned Pigeon, Black-whiskered Vireo, and Mangrove Cuckoo. Rarities are always a possibility in the Keys, and we’ll pursue anything interesting that surfaces. We will also make a late-evening attempt for Antillean Nighthawk, either en route at the Marathon Airport or somewhere closer to Key West. The keys are only reliable place in the United States to see the bird, so we’ll try hard to find it for the ABA listers! Two nights will be spent in Key West.

A Keys specialty: White-crowned Pigeon
A Keys specialty: White-crowned Pigeon (Sam Woods)

Day 8: The Dry Tortugas. We will board the high-speed and very comfortable Yankee Freedom III and reach west to the Dry Tortugas on this last full day. The crossing takes about two hours, and we’ll have four hours to explore Garden Key and Fort Jefferson once we arrive. With white sands and turquoise waters, the setting is a tropical paradise! Throw in breeding colonies of Magnificent Frigatebirds, Sooty Terns, and Brown Noddies, and it makes for an incredible birding experience! Brown and Masked Boobies, and Bridled Tern are present in smaller numbers, and we might get really lucky with something like Black Noddy. Beyond the resident breeders, spring migration could deposit Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Gray Catbird, Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Blue Grosbeak, or Indigo Bunting on the tiny island. At the end of our Tortugas time, we’ll board the ferry and return to Key West for a second night, the final of our amazing tour.

80,000 Sooty Terns breed on the Dry Tortugas
80,000 Sooty Terns breed on the Dry Tortugas (Sam Woods)

Day 9: Departures from Miami. The drive from Key West to Miami takes around three hours, and we’ll leave early so we can mop-up any missing birds as we return north and east. Clients should arrange to fly out any time after 3pm. If that’s a problem, please contact the Tropical Birding office.

A boat trip to the Dry Tortugas will bring us to Brown Booby breeding country
A boat trip to the Dry Tortugas will bring us to Brown Booby breeding country (Sam Woods)

Several refuges will offer up rails, like this King Rail
Several refuges will offer up rails, like this King Rail (Sam Woods)

Brown-headed Nuthatch is found within the Babcock/Webb WMA
Brown-headed Nuthatch is found within the Babcock/Webb WMA (Sam Woods)

Southern Florida is the best place in North America for Mangrove Cuckoo
Southern Florida is the best place in North America for Mangrove Cuckoo (Sam Woods)

Wetlands offer two species of bittern
Wetlands offer two species of bittern (Sam Woods)

Brown Noddy breeds on the Dry Tortugas
Brown Noddy breeds on the Dry Tortugas (Sam Woods)

Coastlines jam-packed with birds: Florida in a nutshell
Coastlines jam-packed with birds: Florida in a nutshell (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. This is not a physically-demanding tour (see Physical Difficulty section below), but the days will be pretty long. Sunrise at this time of year is around 7:00am, so we will generally eat breakfast around 6:00am and depart the hotel at 6:30am. Participants can expect to make multiple birding stops throughout the day, and we’ll aim to be at our place of lodging by 6pm to let people rest before dinner. There will be time to rest in the van as we move between locations, and we’ll have a field lunch on most days to avoid restaurants and crowds. Any lunches eaten at restaurants will be eaten outside.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. All of our birding stops will require light to moderate walking, but we’ll rarely cover more than a mile at a stretch. The pace will be very mellow, and the footing should be level everywhere we go. There won’t be steep hikes on rocky trails, and anyone in average walking shape will do just fine on this tour. There are four days with drives of around 3 hours, although all of these will be broken up by birding stops. Elevation is not a concern anywhere on this tour. There is a boat trip to the Dry Tortugas on day 8, where conditions can be smooth or choppy, so seasickness medications are recommended for those who usually require them.

CLIMATE: This tour has been timed for the cooler late winter/early spring spell, so that the climate is more friendly to us. The average monthly high/lows at this time of year are 54-76F (12-24C), with humidity at around 70%. This is the lowest time of year for rainfall in the area, although a small amount of rainfall does occur (6 days per month at this time of year).

ACCOMMODATION: All the hotels we utilize are fully-modernized with hot water and wireless internet. Importantly, and because of COVID-19 concerns, we have deliberately selected smaller hotels where the rooms are accessed externally. This will minimize time in communal spaces like lobbies and hallways. All lodgings are high-quality with an emphasis on customer service.

WHEN TO GO: Florida offers good year-round birding, and is particularly appealing in the spring, when migration adds to the considerable bird list. Temperatures are also more comfortable than later in the year.

PHOTOGRAPHY: : This is a Birding With a Camera tour, and so while it goes after a number of Floridian specialties, it also takes in some excellent sites for bird photography, such as around the many Delray Beach wetlands and Ding Darling, where large waterbirds provide endless chances to shoot them at close range. That is one of the characteristics of Floridian birding, big numbers of large photogenic waterbirds. The Florida Scrub-Jays are often tame and photographable too. The light if often great in Florida at this time of year for photographers.

GEAR: Binoculars and camera equipment are essential items. The guide will have a scope which of course you are welcome to use too. If you would like to bring your own scope you may do so. A tripod is always welcome but keep in mind that all of our photography will be opportunistic which means you will have to be quick. Monopods are often a better, quicker and more portable option. However, neither a monopod or tripod is necessary to join this tour.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. For all foreign citizens, please check the ever-changing restrictions as a result of COVID-19. Tropical Birding cannot be responsible for changes in entrance policy or restriction levied by the US government. Citizens of Canada may enter the US with a valid passport, and do not need to obtain a visa. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which can be applied for online. For all passports, the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure. Those who need to apply for an ESTA or Visa should do so long in advance of the tour, as these can take days weeks to be issued.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodations from the night of day 1 through the night of day 8; meals from breakfast on day 2 through to breakfast on day 9 (if you do not leave too early for that); all park fees to sites stated in the itinerary; an airport shuttle is provided on day 1 and day 9 for arrivals and departures; Tropical Birding tour leader from the morning of day 2 through to the night of day 8; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from days 2 to 9 in a modern, rental vehicle with the Tropical Birding tour leader as the driver. One return boat trip on a passenger ferry to and from the Dry Tortugas on day 8.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Any extra nights you wish to stay in the area; any flights; optional tips to the tour leader; tips to any baggage handlers if used anywhere; any passport or visa fees; excess baggage fees; snacks; any drinks other than drinkable water; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; passenger ferry to and from the Dry Tortugas on Day 6; extras in hotels such as laundry service, internet, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.