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Orlando Theme Park birding!

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Old Monday 25th September 2017, 13:06   #1
lazza
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Orlando Theme Park birding!

Just back from a family holiday in Orlando, Florida, the last 2 weeks of August and first week of September, and thought it would be worthwhile posting a little about my experiences in terms of birding on a Disney holiday!

So, to be clear from the start: this was a non-birding holiday! We were in Florida for a family holiday, and were focused on theme parks. We had tickets for all the Disney Parks and Universal, and also visited SeaWorld and its sister park, Discovery Cove. We had almost no “time off” in our itinerary, although I did manage to crowbar a day at “Wild Florida” into the schedule, which is a wildlife park that also has airboat tours out into the nearby lakes and cypress swamps.

I mostly left my binoculars in the villa (my wife pointed out it might be a bit creepy to have them at water parks…), but I did have a couple of evening and early morning strolls around the development where we stayed (in an estate called Polk Park East, near Four Corners, just 15 minutes’ drive west of Walt Disney World). So most of my observations come from what I could see and identify by eye or from hastily taken photos (in among the photos of giant mice and anthropomorphic ducks). I had no field guide, as such, but had hastily printed out a check-list from Avibird, and had done a little bit of research on-line what wildlife to expect at Florida theme parks. And I’m also not a true birder in the sense that I can pick out species from songs or know how to put an identity to a briefly seen LBJ….!

Nevertheless, I hope this overview will be useful for anyone else who finds themselves in the same situation.
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Old Monday 25th September 2017, 13:09   #2
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First morning, full of jetlag, I was up very early, and sat around the back of the villa as the sun rose. We backed onto a small woodland which separated us from a golf course and a lake. The Florida “dawn chorus” was pretty impressive, with many unrecognised warblings and twitterings, and the slow crescendo of cicadas as the day warmed up. Only birds identified were Carolina Wren, flitting around in the low scrub, Northern Mockingbird and Common Ground Dove (the first two being lifers for me). I regretted not doing some more research into the birdsongs of the local area, as I’m sure I could have added more species to my final list. A morning’s shopping at the local Walmart meant I added the two common species Common Grackle and Boat-tailed Grackle, both being quite ubiquitous in urban spaces and at the theme parks, clearly taking the ecological niche of our European Starlings in the area.

Heading to our first afternoon in the parks, at Universal Studios, I quickly picked up Snowy Egret and Cattle Egret on roadside ponds and fields. At Universal Studios, the lake held a few Mallard and several Double-crested Cormorant (another lifer) and it was also the only place where we saw Feral Pigeon!

The next day, we headed to SeaWorld, where the abundance of food provided for the “stars of the show” meant a good number of scavenging herons. In fact, I picked up 5 lifers in the first 10 minutes in the park: Black Vulture, Great Blue Heron, White Ibis, Wood Stork and Green Heron, and also dozens and dozens of very confident Great Egret!

The common heron list was completed that evening at Disney Springs, with a good sighting of a Little Blue Heron (yes, a lifer!). And I also picked up a couple more lifers the next day, spotting a Blue Jay at one of the Outlet centres, and a small flock of Wild Turkeys on a grass verge near the Grand Floridian hotel!
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Old Monday 25th September 2017, 13:12   #3
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Day 4 was “Dad’s day” (although both our girls later said it was in their “Top 3” days ): a trip to Wild Florida, about an hour’s drive south of Kissimee. This is a Wildlife park (small zoo) that offers airboat rides out onto the local lake and swamp. I’d wanted to do this for years, and although we didn’t see as much real wildlife as I’d hoped, it was a really fun day. We couldn’t get onto a very early airboat ride – which is recommended if you want to see more wildlife – so we spent a couple of hours strolling round the exhibits and through the cypress-swamp walkways, and watching the ‘gator show (picking up one lifer along the way – Sharp-shinned hawk). I gather that this is a much less commercial version of Gator World, and it was reasonably quiet (as Florida school holidays had finished the week before), but we still had a full boat for the hour-long tour we took.

One thing I hadn’t realised: these are NOISY machines – I guess it’s obvious that a boat driven by an enormous fan is going to make a din, but I’d not really given it a thought! Of course, it being nearly midday (and around 40C) and the loudness of the boat all meant that the chances of seeing much wildlife was fairly low, but I loved every minute of it! And we did see a good number of birds, and millions of dragonflies…And a pretty decent six lifers for me….! Straight away, we picked up some Fish Crow over the reeds (lifer 1), along with a couple of Osprey flying low over the boat, and good numbers of Common Gallinule scampering out of our way (lifer 2). Our “pilot” then slowed the boat right down and moved in towards the shore, where there was a magnificent Bald Eagle perched in a tree (lifer 3) – the first of three we would see on the ride. In terms of herons, Great Egret and Great Blue heron predominated, but there were also plenty of Little Blue heron, Little Egret, White Ibis and my first Glossy Ibis of the holiday. The 4th lifer was a small group of Sandhill Cranes sheltering from the sun under trees, quickly followed by lifer 5, an adult Limpkin with two juveniles. Finally, as we arrived back at the jetty, a flashy Red-winged Blackbird flew over (lifer 6). Again, my poor birding ability meant I missed out on a few lifers, I’m sure, as small birds flitting into the reeds as we came by and small passerines in the cypress trees remained unidentified and unphotographed!
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Old Monday 25th September 2017, 13:14   #4
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The next few days were spent in intense theme-park mode, so I didn’t add much to my trip list. White ibis were the main species seen at the theme parks, with both Grackle species being the main species to be seen at the water parks. Mourning Doves and Ground doves were quite common, and we also saw plenty of House Sparrows. A gathering storm brought some American Crow down to shelter on a visit to Volcano Bay, I saw several Anhinga at Magic Kingdom, and picked up a Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding at flowers at Animal Kingdom (all three lifers). A visit to my in-laws villa, on the southern edge of the same development we were in, gave me good views of Purple Martin feeding over the nearby pond.
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Old Monday 25th September 2017, 13:16   #5
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Into our last week, I finally added Northern Cardinal to my list (another lifer), seen in the gardens of the Royal Pacific Hotel at Universal resort, where we stayed for a couple of nights. This bird had frustrated me, as my entire family had seen one at Discovery Cove, but I had missed it (“Dad, Dad, we just saw a bright red bird with a black chin and a crest hopping around under our sunbeds” ), so it was a relief to finally find some (although we later saw some being fed by visitors at Hollywood Studios!). And on one of the days at Volcano Bay, I was surprised to see a Brown Pelican fly over (although it seems they’re not that uncommon inland). A final visit to Animal Kingdom gave me good views of circling Turkey Vulture (lifer!) and on our last visit to Magic Kingdom I picked up some brown-and-white hirundines flying over the lake, which looked a lot like Sand Martin (but I have a feeling it could’ve been too late for this species, so might have been something else).

On our last evening at the villa, I had a final wander down to the lake, and somehow managed to add three lifers. A Red-shouldered Hawk was perched on the fence of the communal basketball court, and I then picked up a few passing Common Nighthawk overhead, and my final new species of the whole trip was one of the prettiest: a lovely Eastern Bluebird flitting from perch to perch over the golf course.

So, all-in-all, 43 species seen, of which 28 were lifers for me. Not a bad return considering the limited time for birding, the lack of decent equipment (bins and local bird book), the time of year, my crappy birding abilities and the fairly restricted habitat types visited!
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Old Monday 25th September 2017, 13:39   #6
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a few photos
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World life list: 530 (Red-backed Shrike, Newbiggin, UK; December 2018)
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Old Monday 25th September 2017, 13:42   #7
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A few more...
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Old Tuesday 3rd October 2017, 11:14   #8
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Cheers for that report, gives me hope that I might actually see some birds when i do my family holiday bit in early December there. They have all the theme parks planned out, so little time for birding. But we do have a day out at the Space Centre which is meant to be excellent for birding in the area.
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Old Tuesday 3rd October 2017, 23:33   #9
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Your hirundines would probably have been rough-winged swallows. They're a lot browner than sand martins.
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Old Wednesday 4th October 2017, 15:44   #10
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HI Lazza. 43 species isn't bad considering you just did the parks, it is amazing what you see in and around the parks. I've only been in October so not really sure what the bird life is like at the end of Aug beginning Sept.
Next time you go you'll have to get out birding for a couple days. You don't have to go far from Orlando to see some superb birds.
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Old Thursday 5th October 2017, 10:34   #11
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One could make a small series of papers: 'where to watch birds next to major business and family destinations'.
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Old Monday 16th October 2017, 13:48   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jeff hopkins View Post
Your hirundines would probably have been rough-winged swallows. They're a lot browner than sand martins.
Thanks. That's certainly a possibility I hadn't considered. Shame I didn't get any photos.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Dubb View Post
Cheers for that report, gives me hope that I might actually see some birds when i do my family holiday bit in early December there. They have all the theme parks planned out, so little time for birding. But we do have a day out at the Space Centre which is meant to be excellent for birding in the area.
No problem. I was hoping it might prove useful to somebody at some point! Despite being there for just under 3 weeks, we didn't make it out to the Kennedy Space Center, which is a shame, as I also read that it's a good place to see a lot, coastal bird species and alligators in particular.
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Old Wednesday 18th October 2017, 14:24   #13
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Too early for Sharp-shinned Hawk in Florida. Almost surely a Cooper's Hawk.

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Old Monday 6th November 2017, 15:11   #14
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Quote:
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Too early for Sharp-shinned Hawk in Florida. Almost surely a Cooper's Hawk.

Andy
OK, thanks :)
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Old Thursday 14th December 2017, 08:37   #15
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Just got back from my 2 weeks doing the Theme Parks and got a respectable list of 52 species. This was aided by the siteing of our villa 200 yards away from a small swamp area, so was able to get out for an hour early in morning when i wasn't too knackered from the day before !. This site held numerous Palm and Yellow rumped Warblers, along with Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers. Great Blue, Little Blue Heron, GW and Snowy Egret with the ever present Vultures overhead. Also had a Bald Eagle fly over. Highlight though were the 3 Sandhill Cranes which literally walked past me as i was standing there. though the once seen Brown Thrasher was a very handsome bird. Theme Park birds were American Coot, Palm Warbler. Egrets and Herons as per norm along with House Sparrows and both Grackles. Also popped over to Wild Florida, well recommended though birding on the air boat was difficult with the speed and the noise, though we saw Greater Yellowlegs, Common Gallinule , Glossy Ibis ,Bald Eagle as well as the numeous heron species.
So if you re going theme parks, don't despair, there are plenty of birds to keep you going, and don't forget to keep scanning the sky for those birds of prey.
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