THE GREAT JANUARY BIRDING ADVENTURE
By Powers and Rosann McLeod
We have a McLeod birding tradition going back to 1998 called “The Great January Birding Adventure.” Joining with another couple who we introduced to birding and with Powers’ lifelong friend, who had introduced him to birding.
Typically, we would bird spots from Mobile over to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Since 1998, our adventures have taken us from New England to Southern California and from South Florida and Southwestern Louisiana to Southeastern Arizona.
Every trip involves great days of friendship and birding, great local foods and a gathering at the end of the day we call Tally Toddy Time when over a toddy we tally the species seen and share “lifers,” favorite birds of that day and anticipate the day to come.
As grand as these adventures seem; we keep coming back to three spots much closer to home, which give us…Powers and Rosann…a combination of what we enjoy most about our group adventures far-afield. These spots are Saint Joe Bay/Cape San Blas, Cedar Key and Southwest Louisiana.
Our trips to Cape San Blas are usually in April and late October. We stay in a cabin on stilts at the bay’s head where the deck gives a great view of the bay with its long legged waders and shorebirds.
Two marsh ponds, complete with King and Clapper Rails and Belted Kingfishers are nearby.
Several Great Horned Owls inhabit the piney woods surrounding the cabin. Tidal changes in the bay are usually dramatic, which enhances shorebird activity.
In May 2020, we enjoyed watching thirteen Limpkin loafing in the bayside grasses and found ourselves hoping they were harbingers of better days for that species at not distant Wakulla Springs State Park.
This area is good for Reddish Egret who are entertaining dancers as they pursue minnows in the shallows. Several years ago we identified a Whitemorph Reddish Egret who got our attention by this dancing behavior.
The cape offers numerous trails through the dunes. One to a shore-side shell midden created by a Native American culture hundreds of years ago and another along the shore of the bay.
Beaches produce expected shorebirds, gulls, terns, pelicans and has yielded American Oystercatchers.
Both the Gulf side shoreline and the bay at low tide offer enjoyable shelling where Lightening and Pear Whelk, Crown, Tulip, and Conch shells are plentiful.
Of course a`er a day of hiking and birding we relax on the deck, toddy in hand, to tally up the birds of the day, discuss favorite birds and watch the shore for what the late afternoon will produce.
American Oystercatcher We make an annual pilgrimage to Cedar Key, down Florida’s “Forgotten Coast,” each year at the end of December.
Thus we are well familiar with the many great birding sites along this part of our state. Often we bird our way from St. Marks to The Big Bend WMA to Steinhatchee and to beach access areas in between.
We always end up at our second floor corner room at Cedar Key Yacht Club with its deck view of the town of Cedar Key and the Gulf of Mexico.
This part of the Gulf is also shallow with rather dramatic tidal movements enhancing our birding enjoyment.
From our second floor deck, we love watching the massive morning and evening movement of Ibis, Cormorant, Pelican, and several species of ducks.
Thousands of Black Skimmers loaf on the flats each morning and afternoon.
Two years in a row we enjoyed watching both a Black-crowned Night Heron and a Spotied Sandpiper feed on the small jetty just below us.
In and around Black-crowned Night Heron the inlets and coves with which Cedar Key is amply blessed we have found Barred Owl, American Oystercatcher, White Pelican, numerous shorebirds, every long legged wader common to the area, Common Ground Dove and the occasional Wood Stork.
The laidback town of Cedar Key fades quietly around 10 o’clock each night including New Year’s Eve.
Before that hour an easy walk to the four square block “downtown” area offers lots of shops, numerous restaurants and even better opportunities for people watching.
Interesting trails for birding abound in the Cedar Key area. We got our “life” Florida Scrub Jay on the trail into the Scrub Jay State Preserve though that was years ago and we haven’t seen one in a number of years.
The trail is a good one through different habitats. The Shell Mound area just beyond the Reserve has excellent trails and good coastal habitat.
We’ve seen Oystercatcher, gulls, Wood Stork and White Pelican on the flats and migrating warblers in the big oaks in the area. Two years ago we met a man from England who reported having just seen a Black Rail in the coastal marshes of the Shell Mound area.
The Cedar Key Railroad Trestle Trail is a .6 of a mile trail out and back with good information about the flora along the trail. We had a Great Horned Owl along the trail last year.
Each late afternoon has us back on our second floor corner deck, bins by our side, toddy in hand relaxing to the pace of the Gulf, the birds and the slowing town.
Last, but not least, though farther away, we enjoy the National Wildlife Refuges of Southwestern Louisiana and surrounding locations. A three to four day winter trip always serves us well for there is much to see.
It has been convenient to stay in Lake Charles though this area has taken more than its share of this summer’s hurricanes and it will be some time before motels and restaurants recover.
Do not lose heart, however! The lovely town of Lake Arthur is slightly east and south of Lake Charles, is nicely located for birding this area of Louisiana and is open and ready for birders.
Lake Arthur features a first class motel, The Bank, which was, in fact an actual bank. Converted into a hotel, The Bank features eight suites and a wine store, The Wine Vault, which was the bank’s vault in a previous life. One room sports the bank’s drive by teller window.
Within walking distance of the hotel is La Regatta, a seafood and steakhouse restaurant. Casual and friendly, Regatta offers Cajun and creole dishes and just plain good fried seafood. Don’t forget to try the Crawdad Mud Castle dessert!
We had a Barred Owl atop the tall antenna of the nearby sheriff’s office on the way to supper several years ago.
With the basics always nicely done, we hit the refuges, Lacassine, Sabine and Cameron Prairie along with many other productive spots.
We have the ABA Birder’s Guide to Louisiana, and highly recommend it. Most of this part of Louisiana consists of freshwater marshes, beaches and oaken ridges (called cheniers), and rivals Texas’ High Island and Alabama’s Dauphine Island in bird diversity.
As an added benefit, High Island, the Bolivar Peninsula and Anahuac NWR in eastern Texas are reachable in an easy day trip.
Shorebirds, waders, hawks, ducks and many winter visitors are present in good numbers.
Lifers we have picked up in this area include, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Ferruginous Hawk, Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Black Rail(Powers has a story about the rail).
Finding huge flocks of Sandhill Cranes early in the morning can really start your birding day-off right.
And to end the day we still suggest Tally Toddy Time with each other or with good friends; to recall the birds and adventures of the day and to plan and to anticipate the birds of tomorrow.
We just returned from our Cape San Blas hideaway.
We are anticipating our Cedar Key adventure in late December.
We have hope for our neighbors in Louisiana.
Life is good! Stay safe and good birding!