Last Saturday, I spent the day visiting Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Orlando Wetlands Park with a close friend of mine. Sean and I have known each other practically our entire lives and Sean is my only other friend who was interested in birds as a kid and will still go birding with me today. My dad joked that he should drive us on Saturday so that we could stand on the center console of his car with our heads sticking out the sunroof looking for birds. There was a time when we were kids that we both could do that at the same time. I don’t think we’d fit today.
In any case, we headed off to visit some of our old haunts and track down a couple specific birds. Our goals included a White-faced Ibis at Orlando Wetlands, a Painted Bunting at the same location, and then just a swing through Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge to see what else we could find. We got all that and more…
It had been a long time since I had been to either location since I haven’t lived in Orlando in several years. Major changes could be seen at both, particularly in the number of people. It was great to see so many people out and enjoying a spectacularly beautiful day. At Orlando Wetlands, I used to only see a half dozen or so other people, but on Saturday morning I would guess there were a minimum of 60 people visiting, probably a lot more in the afternoon as well.
Orlando Wetlands offered the usual suspects including all the herons and egrets normally found in a freshwater marsh in Florida including an American Bittern. We had a dozen or so Purple Gallinules, as well as a great look at a Sora feeding out in the open while a King Rail called in the marsh. The White-faced Ibis was feeding right where it was supposed to be and while we had distant views, we were able to clearly see the red eye and facial skin compared to the darker, bluer eye and skin of the much more common Glossy Ibis. We stopped at the feeders on our way out and got Sean a life bird, the Painted Bunting. We only had a couple females and while they don’t have the gaudy colors of a male, they still are quite beautiful.
About mid morning, we headed off to Merritt Island NWR where we stopped at the refuge office to pick up a bird checklist. The visitor center was packed and understandably so as several pairs of Painted Buntings were coming in to feed at a feeder. Sean was able to finally get some point blank views of these amazing birds, which was quite satisfying for both of us.
The main attraction at the refuge is Black Point Wildlife Drive, a 5 mile auto tour through a series of marshes and impoundments. A typical winter visit will turn up huge flocks of ducks and coots, a handful of shorebirds species, and a couple raptors as well. Historically, there is always a huge flock of ducks just after the second numbered stop on the drive. As Sean and I pulled up getting ready to scope the ducks, we were shocked to find that there was not a single duck in the entire impoundment. After searching for a few minutes, wondering where the thousands of ducks had gone, we found only a single yellowlegs.
Further down the drive, we finally started to find some of the ducks. I still think numbers were down from past years, and we may have been a little late in the year, but I am curious where they all are. Have they moved due to water levels? Are they simply not here this year? Have they already headed back north? Species diversity was there as we found Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and a single Gadwall, but I think that the overall numbers were down, but I could be wrong.
The drive itself turned up a huge number of Roseate Spoonbills, always a crowd favorite, as well as a number of Reddish Egrets. Again, visitor numbers seemed to be high which was great to see. Merritt Island always has had good visitor numbers, but it was nice to see so many people enjoying the area.
After the drive, Sean and I headed out to the beaches at Canaveral National Seashore to see if we could pick up a couple more species of sandpipers, a few terns, and a Northern Gannet. Our first stop turned up large numbers of gannets off the coast and subsequent stops yielded Sandwich Terns, Royal Terns, and Sanderlings. However, the huge surprise was about 500 meters off the coast at one stop. A North Atlantic Right Whale.
These large whales, averaging about 50 feet in length, are highly endangered with only about 300 individuals remaining. Part of the population comes to this portion of the Atlantic each winter to calve, and individuals are occasionally seen from the local beaches. I didn’t know all this at the time; I was just shocked and excited to see a whale from the beach. A whale made the local news a few days later as it was seen breaching of the beach just to the north of where we were.
It was a great day with a lot of amazing birds, not to mention the whale. We concluded the day with 113 species, which is a pretty great total for a relaxing day of birding. The whale was a once in a lifetime sighting which just topped the day off. As Sean said at one point, “you know its been a good day when seeing an otter feeding at close range was like the eighth best experience of the day.”