Having said that, we do also very much like birding in other parts of the world that have a warm climate and we never turn down an opportunity for some winter birding in the USA. In November, December and January of the last few years we have led tours for Avian Adventures in California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Florida, often over Christmas and the New Year. Just like the Algarve these southern states attract countless wintering birds from the north and there’s always a chance of finding something unusual.
This year’s tour in Florida from which we have just returned was most successful and full of interest. Not only did we record a good selection of birds but there were also butterflies, mammals, reptiles and amphibians to keep us occupied.
Compared to Arizona, California and New Mexico, Florida isn’t particularly attractive scenically, it’s rather flat and much of it is only a few feet above sea level. It is the eighth most densely populated of the US states and much of it has been built on. For all that there is surprising habitat diversity and it still has plenty of wildlife. The birds include a splendid variety of wetland species, several subtropical specialities some of which occur nowhere else in the USA and many exotics that have either escaped from captivity or been deliberately introduced. There is just one endemic species, the Florida Scrub-Jay, first officially recognised as a separate species only about 20 years ago and now for many birders one of the main reasons for visiting Florida.
Florida Scrub-Jay (John Cutting)
Apart from the Florida Scrub-Jay, the most notable birds seen during our tour were Snail Kite, White-crowned Pigeon and Limpkin, none of which can be found elsewhere in the USA, Burrowing Owl of the subspecies floridana, which is much darker in appearance than the birds we see in Arizona, the white morph of Great Blue Heron (“Great White Heron“), Vermilion Flycatcher, Worm-eating Warbler and Summer Tanager that are all somewhat scarce in Florida during the winter and Henslow’s Sparrow, a species that neither of us had seen previously. We also saw two House Finches in the Everglades National Park, a common enough species in the northern part of the state but almost unheard of so far south and the cause of some excitement among the locals.
Great Blue Heron - white morph
Amongst the mammals the main attraction is West Indian Manatee, which we saw in several different locations. Nine-banded Armadillo was also popular although most frequently seen as road-kill. Snakes included the attractive but venomous Pygmy Rattlesnake. With our emphasis very much on the birds, we paid attention mainly to the larger butterflies such as the potentially confusing Gulf Fritillary, Monarch, Viceroy, Queen and Soldier. Needless to say, we saw countless Alligators.
We were also fortunate to be able to watch the launch from Kennedy Space Centre of the Orion EFT-1. We joined a small crowd of people at Kennedy Point Park at first light on a rather dull morning to see the rocket lift off and very soon disappear into the clouds.
Lift-off from Kennedy Space Centre
We can thoroughly recommend Florida for a winter birding break. If it appeals to you, let us know - we are planning another tour there for Avian Adventures in January 2016!