31 January–15 February 2018
The Everglades, the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas will all be visited as we look for the specialities including American Flamingo, Wood Stork, Magnificent Frigatebird, Masked and Brown Boobies, Snail Kite, Short-tailed Hawk, Limpkin, White-crowned Pigeon, Smooth-billed Ani, Florida Scrub-jay, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Bachman’s Sparrow, Shiny Cowbird and Spot-breasted Oriole, as well as any wintering rarity.
Day 1 We will fly from London to Orlando and then take a forty-mile drive to Cocoa Beach for a two-night stay. If time permits we could see our first common local birds, including Anhinga, Killdeer, Northern Mockingbird, Mourning Dove, Laughing Gull, Boat-tailed Grackle and Fish Crow.
Day 2 Our first full day will be spent exploring the vicinity of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, home of the Kennedy Space Center. Some of the birds we can expect to see are American Avocet, Wild Turkey, Black Vulture, Sora and numerous herons, egrets and ibises. Florida Scrub-jays will be around and sometimes a Great Horned Owl can be seen sitting on top of a telegraph pole in daylight.
Day 3 Moving south we will visit the excellent Vierra Wetlands where we may find American Bittern, White-eyed Vireo and thousands of American Robins. Next we will visit Markham Park for Snail Kite; the vast wetlands may also give us views of Purple Gallinule and Purple Swamphen alongside each other. Overnight in Coral Springs.
Day 4 Continuing south we will stop at various urban sites around the Greater Miami and Kendall areas where we may see a variety of the many introduced species, including Common Myna, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Monk, Yellow-chevroned and White-winged Parakeets and Spot-breasted Oriole. Many of these established feral breeders are now countable on the North American list. Our next stop will be at Matheson Hammock County Park where we will have a chance to see Pileated Woodpecker. Three nights in Homestead.
Day 5 Today we will drive onto the upper Keys at Key Largo to look for White-crowned Pigeon as well as numerous wintering warblers such as Ovenbird, Worm-eating and Black-throated Blue Warblers. On the return drive to Homestead we will watch the roadside wires for Broad-winged and Red-shouldered Hawks, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Western Kingbird, all of which can be found in the area in winter. We may also visit Castellow Hammock Park, where the feeders are a reliable place for Painted Bunting and White-winged Dove.
Day 6 Everglades National Park will be today’s destination. Our first scheduled stop will be Mahogany Hammock for winterers including Blue-headed and Yellow-throated Vireos and numerous warblers, plus the notoriously approachable resident Barred Owls. Moving on towards Flamingo, we will pass a number of ponds which may contain Mottled Duck and may have Short-tailed Hawk overhead. The Flamingo area has mudflats, mangroves and ponds where we may see Brown and American White Pelicans, the white form of Great Blue Heron (referred to as Great White Heron and formerly known as a separate species), the very rare American Flamingo and White Ibis. Hundreds of waders including Marbled Godwit and Willet may be gathering on the mudflats of Florida Bay. By now it will be getting warm so we will head towards the inviting cafe at Flamingo for a break (and perhaps a little ice cream!). This is also the best spot, by far, to see American Crocodile on the trip and we have also seen West Indian Manatee in the marina on previous tours. Smooth-billed Anis have also been recorded in the past.
Day 7 Beautiful scenery will greet us as we drive south across the Florida Keys to Key West. We will make numerous stops for wintering terns, including Royal Tern, and waders, including Wilson’s, Piping and Snowy Plovers. We may also see Black Skimmers. The Keys will almost certainly offer the best opportunity for rarities such as Key West Quail-dove and Black-faced Grassquit and we’ll pay close attention to the local hotlines. Two nights in Key West.
Day 8 As we leave the harbour on our boat trip to the Dry Tortugas, with breakfast on board, we may see a few gulls and terns, but generally the 68-mile sea crossing will be quiet. However, we will surely be on deck scanning for a rare booby, skua or some other seabird. As we get close to the Dry Tortugas, we may see Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown and Masked Boobies. Though early, large colonies of breeding seabirds will include Brown Noddy and Sooty Tern. Passerines will be few but we should see wintering warblers and sparrows and could discover something truly rare as this is a fabulous site for national rarities. We will have about four hours for walking around the Old Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. Lunch will be provided by the crew. We will make the return journey in the afternoon, arriving back in Key West at about 17.30. This allows further time to look for key Florida species such as Shiny Cowbird, which can sometimes be found as a ‘yard bird’ in Key West alongside the feral Red Junglefowl!
Day 9 Birding our way slowly out of the Keys, we will head north through Saddlebunch Key and Big Pine Key where we will visit both Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge and Watson Nature Trail. We should see many waders, including Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers and Western Sandpiper, and have another chance to find the rarer plovers. The endemic Key Deer is a good possibility. Overnight in Homestead.
Day 10 Driving west along the Tamiami Trail right through the heart of the Everglades, our first stop will be at the Miccosukee Indian Restaurant, where we will look for Limpkin. If time permits we will visit Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, the largest remaining strand forest in the United States and the only remaining haunt of Florida Panther. We will continue on to Marco Island, where we will visit a superb wader hotspot on the beach. This may involve wading across a shallow lagoon but it will be worth it to watch the flocks of birds! After lunch we may visit Eagle Lake. This area is a recently established preserve and is excellent for herons, waders and other winterers. In the late afternoon we will continue to Fort Myers for a three-night stay.
Day 11 We will spend the whole of today visiting the nearby Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island. This really is a superb area and we can expect to see various warblers, including Prairie Warbler, and various sparrows. Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, Osprey, Black-necked Stilt and Eastern Screech-owl are all likely here. Around the beaches on the island American Oystercatcher, Whimbrel, Least Sandpiper, Red Knot, Bonaparte’s and Ring-billed Gulls and Caspian and Forster’s Terns can all be watched at incredibly close range. This may also be our best opportunity to find Mangrove Cuckoo – a very difficult bird at this time of year but still possible.
Day 12 Today we will visit Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Under the feeders outside the information centre, Northern Bobwhite can frequently be seen, whilst Indigo Bunting and Northern Cardinal are often present. Yellow-crowned Night-heron is regular here and we should see several new species for the tour, including Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Wren. The huge Cypress trees are impressive and will be worth checking for warblers. By driving the backroads to and from Corkscrew Swamp we may also see Crested Caracara, Sandhill Crane and American Pipit. Though early, Swallow-tailed Kites are sometimes present nearby.
Day 13 An early start is best for a visit to the Babcock–Webb WMA, an area of virgin Longleaf Pines excellent for the rarer pine woods species: Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Bachman’s Sparrow. Other special birds in this area include Eastern Bluebird, Pine Warbler and Eastern Towhee. We may also visit the Archibold Biological Station, which harbours Hairy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. In the afternoon, as we drive north, we may visit a huge power plant near Tampa which attracts large numbers of West Indian Manatees. Two nights in Orlando.
Day 14 Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, south of Orlando, is also superb for the pine woods species if we missed any yesterday. We will also be on the lookout for any other species we may have missed so far, such as Brown Thrasher. Bald Eagles breed here and we will have further chances for some of the other raptors if we have not connected with them earlier in the trip. Red-headed and Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Loggerhead Shrike, Blue Jay and Grasshopper Sparrow can also be found here.
Day 15 There should be some time for early-morning birding in Orlando before our overnight flight to London, arriving on Day 16.
General Information At this time of year Florida averages warm and sunny with cooler evenings and only a slight chance of rain. However, there may be extremes (such as highs in the mid-20s °C or the occasional heavy shower or gusty winds), so you should pack accordingly. The pace of the tour will generally be relaxed with a moderate level of fitness required. Insects can be troublesome in some areas. There are no special medical requirements. Visas are required. Food is excluded from the tour price but is relatively inexpensive; allow about £25 per day depending on your requirements.
Group size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 6; maximum group size: 9 with 1 leader, 16 with 2 leaders.