Archive for the ‘Sandhill Crane’ Tag

Southern Florida – part one: 18th-19th February 2020.   2 comments

Back in late 2019 I had no idea of the impending storm brewing in China and couldn’t imagine that within five months international travel and indeed most travel, would be banned for a year or more.

I was looking for a bird tour in late February/March and whittled down the possibilities to two; either remote and little visited areas of Borneo or Guyana and Suriname in northern South America. In the end I went for the latter which was a good idea, because as far as I can tell the Borneo trip didn’t go, whether that was from lack of bookings or cancellation due to the pandemic I don’t know.

So what’s this to do with Florida? I have paid a number of visits to the USA but my only time in Florida was limited to a few hours on the way to and way back from my first trip to Costa Rica in 1981. Florida has a number of bird species found nowhere else in the ABA area (USA, Canada and Greenland as defined by the American Birding Association) but all but one, the Florida Scrub-jay can be easily found in the Neotropics. But although I don’t make a habit of visiting the ABA area just to up my ABA list, whilst I was there I thought I might as well target the ABA ticks as well.

But the question was when to go, there were two bird species and one mammal, the bizarre Manatee, that I really wanted to see. If I went in the summer I could see Antillean Nighthawk, a bird that I have missed on all my trips to the Caribbean (as it doesn’t arrive on the breeding grounds until late April) and the Scrub-jay – but the Manatees would be well offshore in the warmer weather. If I went in the winter I could see Manatees and the Scrub-jay but not the Nighthawk. Margaret had no interest in going as she had lived in Florida for several years in her previous life, so I couldn’t turn it into a family holiday.

In the end I decided the best thing to do was to visit Florida for a few days on my way to Guyana this February and hope I could see the Nighthawk on a future visit to the Caribbean, so I planned for three and a half days birding in southern Florida.


The direct flight from Heathrow arrived in the late afternoon, which was of course, late evening UK time. All of the eastern cost of Florida encloses the Intracoastal Waterway. In fact this sheltered waterway can be navigated from Brownsville in Texas all the way up to Baltimore. When Margaret first visited the USA she lived on a 33ft yacht in which she journeyed all the way from Fort Lauderdale to Baltimore.


Accommodation on these islands and on the outer banks of the lagoon is reserved for the ultra-rich. Initial driving in the USA is always problematic as you adjust to driving on the right (or is it wrong?) side of the road. But exiting the airport at dusk into a multilane highway system in the rush hour was always going to be a bit of a nightmare, but I soon found my rather shabby motel. I was later told this was the type of motel that you could book by the hour for whatever nefarious deeds that you had in mind, but that didn’t matter, it was a convenient place to rest. Due to the time difference it was only 2030 when I went to bed but I was away by 0430 the next day and on the road north.

I drove 88 miles north to Jonathon Dickinson State Park, which I had been told was a good site for the jay, but I arrived far too early. Whilst waiting for it to open I birded along the road seeing species like Palm Warbler (above), Pine Warbler and Myrtle Warbler – a species I’ve seen on Scilly in the UK in the distant past.


Another common species was Northern Mockingbird. Amazingly one of these turned up in Devon in the UK this February but we were in the middle of a Covid lockdown at the time. Some chose to break the rules but I stayed put until they were relaxed and visited just before Easter. This was the third British record of this species (almost certainly ship-assisted) but the other two weren’t twitchable and so it has generated a lot of interest. Unlike the individual in the photo the one in Devon had a normal shaped upper mandible! Postscript – after writing this earlier today I heard that the Mockingbird has left Devon and has been relocated an equal distance to the east of me in West Sussex!


Once in the park it only took about 30 minutes to find a pair of Florida Scrub-jays.


Originally considered one species the ‘Scrub Jay’, it has now been split into four with Island Scrub-jay only on Santa Cruz Island off California, California Scrub-jay in the westernmost Lower 48 and Baja California, Woodhouse’s Scrub-jay in interior western USA and central Mexico and this species which is confined to south-central Florida. Clearly there is a research program going on here as both birds were colour-ringed.


I spent some time looking around the rest of the park hoping to see a variety of birds, I had some success eg with this Anhinga but I was later to regret that I didn’t drive back south and go for the Manatees at West Palm Beach.


I had booked a boat ride on Lake Kissimmee, a few hours drive to the north, for 1500 so to allow plenty of time I set off early. I arrived with loads of time to spare and birded along the access road and around the dock for a couple of hours.


Eastern Meadowlarks and …


… Loggerhead Shrikes were easily seen along the access road …


… and lots of American Kestrels.


Along the shore of Kissimmee Swamp I saw …


… Great Blue Heron …


… and Wood Stork bathing in the hot sunshine. The former of these two birds is common throughout the Nearctic region but the Wood Stork is (outside of Florida and southernmost California) almost entirely Neotropical. However I already had the species on my ABA list as many years ago, circling over Miami after a trip to the Caribbean, I saw a flock out of the plane window!


It wasn’t just the herons and storks that were sunbathing in the hot temperatures, a flock of Ring-billed Gulls had all turned to face the sun and were panting in the high temperatures, either that or I had chanced on a Ring-billed Gull choral group! This species has turned up so regularly in the UK in recent years that it has been dropped as an official rarity. I’ve seen 22 in the UK and it could have been a lot more if I’d have put the effort in.


A Forster’s Tern perched on sign, another species I’ve seen in the UK but only four times.


White Ibis fed around the margins of the lake.


This is a widespread species in Central America and Mexico, the Caribbean and northern South America but in the ABA area its confined to the Gulf Coast, Florida and the coast north to the Carolinas.


The related Glossy Ibis is more widespread being found in many parts of the Old World from Europe to Australia, including these days, occasionally in the UK.


However in the Americas it is largely confined to a narrow strip from Maine to eastern Texas. As there is another closely related species, White-faced Ibis further west then it may be that Glossy Ibis is a relatively recent colonist of the New World.


Ubiquitous throughout the whole of the Americas is the rather ugly Turkey Vulture.


One of my first big twitches in the UK occurred in 1979 when I went down to Cornwall to see the UK’s first Belted Kingfisher which over wintered on the River Camel. This species can be sexed by presence (female) or absence (male) on a chestnut belt on the breast, which isn’t much help here as the breast is hidden.


There are four species in the family Anhingidae, the ones in Africa, the Orient and Australasia use those geographic terms along with the name Darter, however the one in the Americas takes its name from Brazilian Amerindian for ‘snake-bird’ – Anhinga. This group of birds differs from cormorants by their long necks which can be shot forwards at great speed to spear rather than grab fish.


Soon it was time to head out onto the water …


… earlier there had been a question as to whether the boat would go or not as I was the only person interested, but another couple had booked, so it was ok. The boat, a sort of hovercraft with a huge fan at the rear, could skim over all the marsh vegetation in a way no normal boat could, but it was mega-noisy hence the ear protection.


With my lifer (the jay) under-the-belt it was time to look for some of the species that makes visiting Florida essential for ABA birders, starting with Purple Gallinule.


Not to be confused with what used to be called ‘purple gallinule’ in the Old World and which is now treated as six species of ‘swamphen’, this bird is a colourful cousin of our Common Moorhen. I’ve seen it before in Texas and many times in the Neotropics but these were the best views I’ve ever had of it.


Another widespread bird that is only found in Florida outside of the Neotropics is the Limpkin. Limpkins have an unusual flight style in which the wing is usually held above the horizontal and the up-stroke is faster than the down-stroke.


Perhaps one of Florida’s most iconic birds is the Snail Kite, (once known in the States as Everglades Kite, but as it occurs as far south as Argentina it’s not a very appropriate name).


The kites were visible almost constantly whilst I was at the lake.


Males have this slate grey plumage – note the thin and highly curved bill …


… that has evolved to winkle apple snails out of their shells.


This Snail Kite with a very broad supercillium and spotted breast is a juvenile. Females are similar but with a narrower supercillium and heavily streaked breast.


Other species commonly seen included Great Blue Heron …


… and Snowy Egret which differs from our Little Egret by its bright yellow iris and lores, yellow on the feet extending up the tarsus and even (as can be seen here) the tibia and more but shorter plumes on the head. There has been one record of the species in the UK, in Scotland in 2002, whilst there has been two records of Great Blue Heron both on Scilly (2007 and 2015) …


… however a most unexpected fact is that the ‘type specimen’ of American Bittern (ie the first one to be collected for scientific reasons) was shot in 1804 at Puddletown in Dorset, UK,  just 15 miles from where I live.


I had the most wonderful views of American Bittern from the boat, I have seen this species before in the ABA area and the UK but never this close.


Another heron seen from the boat was Little Blue Heron, again this has been seen in Britain and Ireland, just the once in Co Galway in 2008. Of all the five American heron species seen in the UK and Ireland I’ve only seen two back home; Green Heron and American Bittern.


There were also a good number of Great Egrets on the lake. Whilst widespread throughout much of the world its only been the last 15 or so years that they have become regular in the UK. So far there’s no evidence that a New World Great Egret has made it to Britain but they are separable on bare part colouration and plumes during the breeding season and are probably a different species from the Old World ones (with the Australasian ones being a third species.)


There were other raptors around the lake, I usually have difficulty in identifying all the mid-sized American raptors because I mainly see them briefly when driving but here in the south the commonest species is Red-shouldered Hawk. This is an immature.


But there was no difficulty identifying this magnificent bird …


… I tend to associate Bald Eagles with boreal forests, so it was a bit of a surprise seeing two breeding pairs just a few degrees north of the tropics. I have previously seen them on the Oklahoma/Texas border but that was in winter.


I saw lots of other species from the boat from the ubiquitous Boat-tailed Grackle …


… to a terrapin with the wonderful name of Florida Red-bellied Cooter.


Of course no visit to a Florida wetland would be complete without views of Alligators, big ones …


… baby ones …


… and some very close views indeed.


There were a number of small waders out in the marsh. When I pointed them out to the boatman he replied that he ‘didn’t do peeps’ but closer views revealed them as Least Sandpipers mainly on account of the yellow legs.


One of the highlights of the boat trip was really close views of a nesting Sandhill Crane. This species is migratory over most of its range, wintering in southern USA and Mexico and breeding in the north from eastern Canada to eastern Siberia. However there is a resident population in Florida and Cuba.


The boatman convinced me that this sitting bird was used to the boats and didn’t move at all as we passed by.


Back on dry land there were a couple of Limpkin in a paddock close to the dock.


This ibis-like bird isn’t related to the ibises at all but to the cranes, rails and gallinules, thus its taxonomically closer to the Purple Gallinule above that to the White Ibis and Glossy Ibis shown earlier in this post.


After leaving the lake I stopped a few times along the access road seeing a range of species, Eastern Phoebe …


… Savannah Sparrow (I once saw an ‘Ipswich Sparrow’ a localised race of Savannah Sparrow, at Portland Bill in Dorset – first record for the UK) …


There were also a good number of Sandhill Cranes feeding in the fields.


Back in 2015 we went to Kearney in Nebraska to see the huge gathering of migrating Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River. In Florida I saw about 40 Sandhills, in Nebraska we saw 150,000!


From time to time I mention that this bird or the other has been ‘split’ ie is now treated as a full species when formerly it was treated as a subspecies. Of course the opposite happens, sometimes two species are found out to be a single species and are merged or ‘lumped’. This has happened since I went to Florida with the Northern and Southern Caracaras being lumped into Crested Caracara. The two former species were separated by the Amazon rainforest but as deforestation continues the two ‘species’ met and interbred. It’s likely this is a case of incomplete speciation, given another few tens of thousand years of continuous separation perhaps the speciation of the two forms would have been complete.


I headed back south, I didn’t find any motels in the area, indeed the one I had planned to stay at was in ruins after having been hit by a truck a few months earlier. I asked about motels at a gas station but was told I was ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and not to expect such things. I continued back south on the turnpike until tiredness and hunger took over so I stopped just outside Fort Pierce. The first motel I tried was mind-numbingly expensive but I found another at a more reasonable cost. Whilst checking in I told the receptionist I was heading down to West Palm Beach the following day to look for manatees when a guy queuing behind me said ‘no need to go all that way, there’s some just down the road from here, I saw them this morning’.

So what happened the next day and the two days after that will be the subject of my next post.





25th – 29th March 2015 – Nebraska, USA   Leave a comment

After several trips to the east, south and west of the ABA area most of my life birds are restricted to the centre of the continent, so a visit to Colorado seemed a good idea. As a trip to Colorado involves booking slots in various hides for grouse leks and benefits from contacts with locals for up to date news, we decided to join an organised tour, but prior to the tour Margaret and I opted to spend a week exploring on our own.

Whilst life birds remain the main focus for foreign birding, sometimes the draw of an avian spectacle can be just as alluring and there is no greater avian spectacle in the world than the spring gathering of over half a million Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River in Nebraska. So we booked three nights in a motel at Kearney, leaving the other three nights free so we could decide ‘on the hoof’ what to do whilst we were there.

Here are some photos from our four days in Nebraska, perhaps not the most scenic of the States but one full of bird life, especially along the Platte River.

IMG_1692 Arctic Ice

One of the nice things about flying to the western USA is that the flight takes you north over Iceland, Greenland and Arctic Canada and at this time of year the entire flight is in daylight. Although cloudy over most of Greenland we did get a good view of pack ice between Baffin Island and northern Hudson’s Bay.

IMG_3369 Bufflehead

After a night in Denver, Colorado we set off on the 350 mile journey to Kearney, Nebraska. We broke the journey at Lake McConaughy just over the border in Nebraska. There was a strong westerly wind blowing and all that we could see on the lake itself were some distant ducks, but there were many waterfowl on a series of small lakes below the dam wall where it was much more sheltered. This is a male Bufflehead.

IMG_3338 Glaucous Gull

I had expected some ducks and perhaps some gulls but I did not expect to see a first winter Glaucous Gull, a visitor from the high Arctic. The robust structure and bicoloured bill distinguish it from an Iceland Gull of similar age.

IMG_3302 Glaucous Gull

I have seen over a thousand Glaucous Gulls, mainly in Arctic Siberia and in Japan in winter. Surprisingly this might not be the southernmost Glaucous I have ever seen, Nebraska is on a similar latitude to Hokaido in northern Japan and I recorded one off a pelagic boat out of Monterey, California in 2003, however some on board thought the Californian bird might have been a hybrid (what with they didn’t say).

IMG_3711 Sandhills

We carried on to Kearney, the self-styled ‘Sandhill Crane capital of the world’ arriving in the late afternoon. After checking in we immediately went out to Fort Kearney State Park, a good site to see the Sandhills coming into roost.

IMG_3385 Sandhills

We didn’t have to go far before we found the fields and the sky above the fields to be full of Sandhill Cranes.

IMG_3474 Sandhills

Once the Platte River was a mile wide but a mere foot deep. The conditions provided an ideal refueling stop for the cranes between their wintering grounds in southern USA and northern Mexico and their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and even eastern Siberia. Dams on the river such as the one we saw at Lake McConaughy have tamed the river which now runs in just two channels, but waste corn from the surrounding fields has provided the food that river can no longer supply, so the skies above the central Platte River still resounds to the sound of over half a million cranes every spring.

IMG_3483 Sandhills

Many of the birds were performing their courtship dances. Over the next couple of days we visited two sites at both dusk and dawn as well as watching thousands of birds in the fields. In the Platte River valley there was never a time when we couldn’t either see or hear Sandhill Cranes.

IMG_3524 Downy Woodpecker

As well as watching the cranes I was searching for American Tree Sparrow, one of two North American sparrows that I have yet to see. In spite of a few tip offs I failed in my quest, but here are a few other birds that I saw in the Platte River valley: North America’s smallest woodpecker – Downy Woodpecker.

IMG_3459 Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier, still considered con-specific with our Hen Harrier by some, but recent research has shown it to be more closely related to Cinereous Harrier of South America than the Palearctic Hen Harrier.

IMG_3393 Cedar Waxwings

Several hundred Cedar Waxwings were seen in the Fort Kearney area.

IMG_3470 Harris' Sparrow

Like American Tree Sparrow, Harris’ Sparrow is an Arctic breeder and occurs in the Lower 48 as a winter visitor, however it departs for the north a little later than the Tree Sparrow allowing us to catch up with this flock of seven birds near Kearney and again later in Colorado.

IMG_3510 Trumpeter Swans

At a small reserve to the west of Kearney I finally caught up with Trumpeter Swans. This species was one of just five waterfowl that I had yet to see. Two of the other four as effectively impossible, I must make plans to see the other two Freckled Duck (Australia) and Andaman Teal some time in the future. These Trumpeter Swans were much more rewarding than the presumed escapes we saw in Suffolk earlier in the year.

IMG_3406 Bald Eagle

At least six Bald Eagles were seen along the river, four immatures (as seen above) and two adults. Some crane watchers thought these all brown birds were Golden Eagles but the proportions and jizz are totally different.

IMG_3621 Sandhills

On our first evening along the river the presence of the eagles wouldn’t allow the cranes to settle and the huge flocks kept taking off and landing elsewhere.

IMG_3580 sunset at Platte River

On our second evening we positioned ourselves at a lookout platform further east. Here the cranes came in over a one hour period and quickly settled on the river. You can, if you book far enough in advance, go to a series of hides right on the river’s edge and watch the birds at close quarters but we didn’t find out about that in time.

IMG_3578 sunset

It was a glorious sunset ….

IMG_3641 Sandhills

…. and the cranes kept arriving long after the sun had gone down.

IMG_3590 dawn on the Platte

We were keen to return to the same spot for dawn, indeed Margaret was so keen that we arrived there when it was still pitch black on the observation deck. Even so the birds were active, calling loudly and as our eyes adjusted to the dark we could see that thousands were already taking off into the gloom.

IMG_3665 Sandhills

As the sun rose we realised that many more birds must have arrived after it got dark, as the river was even fuller with cranes than the night before. Also many must have come down to roost to the east of us, as vast flocks numbering tens of thousands were lifting off ….

IMG_3448 Sandhills

…. beautifully lit by the breaking dawn. As with the night before it was a thrilling and deeply moving (yet bitterly cold) experience ….

IMG_3447 sunrise

…. and the camera shutter worked overtime in an attempt to save the experience for posterity (ie this blog).

IMG_3695 Sandhills

Looking back to the west, a vast grey carpet of birds extended as far as the houses in the distance, even though many had already departed. Indeed many stayed on the river until mid-morning. These birds had probably fed enough to be able to continue their migration north and were waiting for thermals to develop.

IMG_1700 Sandhill migration map

At the Crane Foundation near Grand Island some interesting displays and a very helpful member of staff explained that 80% of the world’s Sandhills stop on the 50 mile stretch of the Platte River between Kearney and Grand Island each spring. The spectacle which starts on Valentine’s Day, peaks on St Patrick’s Day and is over by Tax Day (April 15th) involves some 650,000 birds. The peak number at any one time is 350,000. It is impossible to estimate just how many we saw in our two and a half days there but somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 i.e. between a third and a half of the birds present seems reasonable. The map shows the migration route of the 80% of the population that converges on the Platte River each spring. The red dots show the breeding and wintering range of the very rare Whooping Crane and the orange dots the breeding and wintering range of the artificially managed Whooping Crane population (the truly wild Whooping Crane population now number some 310 birds, up from 16 in 1941).

IMG_3316 RT Hawk

Later that day we drove south as far as the Kansas border. We saw many hawks, including this pale ‘Krider’s’ type Red-tailed Hawk and two hovering Rough-legged Hawks.

IMG_3740 White Pelican

At Hanlon County Reservoir we encountered flocks of American White Pelicans, numbering some 200 in total.

IMG_3745 White Pelican

Note the knob on the bill which develops during the breeding season.

IMG_1705 Archway Monument

Back near Kearney we paid a short visit to the Archway Monument, an exhibition which features the history of the area housed in an arch that spans the Interstate Highway (Margaret took the photo, my hands were firmly on the wheel!).

IMG_1716 Platte River Road map

What I hadn’t realised and the exhibition explained, was that the three routes that pioneers took from 1841 until the arrival of the railroad in the 1860’s; the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City and the 1849 gold-rush trail to California, all followed the Platte River valley and diverged just west of Kearney. The route of the Mormon Trail is shown above.

IMG_1708 covered wagon diaorama

When the railroad opened as many settlers went west in a year as had gone by covered wagon in the previous twenty, given the hardships endured by those early pioneers, it is hardly surprising that relatively few chose to go.

IMG_1726 Sandhill country

Our time at Kearney was over, so on the 29th we left early and headed north from North Platte to South Dakota. On route we travelled for hours through the sandhill country, mile after mile of rolling dunes, the habitat that gives the cranes its name.

IMG_3896 Western Meadowlark

Along the road Western Meadowlarks were abundant.

IMG_3766 Canvasback

Roadside lakess held many wildfowl including Trumpeter Swans, Cackling Geese, Hooded Mergansers and these Canvasbacks.

IMG_3850 Turkeys

We broke our journey at Fort Niobara National Wildlife Refuge where these Wild Turkeys provided some entertainment ….

IMG_3869 bison

…. but it was here that I caught up with a mammal I have been wanting to see since I was a nipper. Of course like all my generation I was brought up on tales of Cowboys and Indians, but I was more fascinated by the wildlife, none more so than the mighty Bison.

IMG_3892 bison

The sight of herds numbering tens of thousands covering the prairies must have been absolutely magnificent as the small herd of 50 or so we saw at Niobrara looked pretty amazing. Even so I doubt if they (or most others for that matter) are truly wild as the refuge was fenced and the Bison didn’t appear to be free to roam at will, but seeing them was still one of the highlights of the entire trip.


From here we continued into South Dakota into the Badlands where ‘Dances With Wolves’ was filmed, the presidents heads at Mount Rushmore and the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the site of another epic movie, ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’. That will be the subject of the next post.