There is no hard edge to the west coast of Florida. The land is a freshwater sponge of limestone, fed by rain and percolating springs. The water is an intricate filigree of creeks, threading their way through the salt marsh. Islands dot the horizon, big sky above. Where one element begins and the other ends is open to interpretation, weather, and tide. Wings and webbed feet come in handy.
“Florida? So many people! Why would you want to go there?” someone asked me here in Alaska, before I took off to visit my parents last month. I want to go there because that’s where my family lives. Not just the snowbirds, but extended year-round family: aunts, uncles, cousins — and in the old days, grandparents. Like most of the Lower 48, Florida has lots of people, traffic, and sprawling development. But I’ve been fortunate, during visits over the years, to explore some of the out-of-the-way places along Florida’s “Nature Coast” – north of Tampa, on the Gulf side – and have grown to love it: the salt marsh, spring-fed rivers, and hardwood hammocks. And eastward, to the interior, there are open pasture lands, sandhill country, and long-leaf pine forests.
These natural features and varied habitats are protected by a mosaic of public land: national wildlife refuges; water management lands; and Florida state forests, parks, and wildlife management areas. The name “Nature Coast” was originally a marketing campaign that re-branded Florida’s Big Bend, eight counties along the Gulf coast. (I’d guess that they didn’t want to be confused with Texas’s Big Bend.) My travels have primarily been in just two of those counties, Citrus and Hernando, and only in the winter months.
The Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail is an excellent resource that offers maps and links to eBird, including site profiles and checklists. Highlights on the trail are marked with eye-catching logos signs showing a Swallow-tailed Kite. Speaking of which, one of my 2017 Florida life birds was the Swallow-tailed Kite. We saw nine of them during my 10-day visit.
At the beginning of each Florida trip, when my folks pick me up from the airport, riding back to their place I always feel a bit giddy – not only with jet lag and the excitement of seeing them again, but also: Driving with the windows open! Palm and pine trees! The color green! And the birds! Great Egrets in roadside ponds, kettles of Black and Turkey Vultures circling overhead, Cattle Egrets in the fields, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, Osprey nests on practically every utility tower. It’s a mix of the familiar eastern birds from my days in Massachusetts and Michigan, and southern specialties, like Wood Stork and Anhinga.
My mom and dad’s residential neighborhood is actually a pretty good place to see and hear birds, too. In February, it seems like there’s an Eastern Bluebird on every house and light post. In March, Northern Mockingbirds sing constantly. If I were in better birding-by-ear shape, their “mockery” would be a good clue as to the other species in the area. A flock of thirteen White Ibises graze the neighbors’ yards, and Northern Cardinals, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Sandhill Cranes, and Northern Flickers are there, too. It can be quite satisfying (especially at the beginning of a visit) to just sit on the porch, enjoy the warm air and sun on my glaringly white northern skin, watch, and listen.
But soon adventure calls, or we at least decide to go out to dinner. Most waterside restaurants have Common and Boat-tailed Grackles looking for a handout, and often a Great Blue Heron begging for deep-fried shrimp. Unfortunately, people often comply. After dinner, on a drive out to Bayport to watch the sunset, we are rewarded with a Great Blue in its more natural state.
If you want to see shorebirds or terns on a beach, Fort Island and Pine Island are just about the only spots in these two counties that offer this kind of habitat. In February 2016, a windy, cold, and rainy time, I saw dozens of Royal Terns and Black Skimmers, and an American Oystercatcher, taking shelter on the beach at Fort Island. At Pine Island, I had Spotted Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Least Sandpiper. But during my March 2017 visit, it was hot and the Gulf was flat as a mirror. The beaches were packed with human beach walkers and waders, and I didn’t see a single shorebird or tern. As a birder, sometimes you pray for bad weather.
Interior lakes, ponds, and springs offer the chance to see ducks, coots, and gallinules. A visit to Lake Dora in Tavares (not shown on the map above), made me aware that breeding season is in full swing by early March.
Wading birds seem to be the dependable standby on all my visits to the Nature Coast, no matter the weather. In both February and March, I’ve seen Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, and Snowy Egret. A river trip is an especially good way to get up close, without disturbing these birds.
Although both Hernando County and Citrus County have active Audubon clubs with field trips and indoor meetings, I have yet to connect with either of them. Hernando Audubon Society has a checklist that’s been handy over the years. Maybe on some future visit I’ll meet some other birders, and enjoy having a local expert show me around.
In the meantime, I’m getting my folks used to looking at birds. On my last day of this recent visit, my dad and I were swimming in the recreation center pool. “Hey, what’s that bird over there?” he asked.