christmas POSTCARDS from
all photos & text by Don Roberson
Rita and I visited Florida just before Christmasin late December 2006. We drove a transect along the Atlantic coast from Jacksonville to Miami, checking out historic sites and looking for interesting birds.

Our only venture toward the interior was just west of Jacksonville, to the Olustee Battlefield. This was the only Civil War battle of any size fought in Florida, and it came late in the War in February 1864. The result was a Confederate victory that stymied any attempt to release Union prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia, from the south.

The pine and palmetto woods on the battlefield are nicely preserved. We were surprised to find several Red-cockaded Woodpecker (right). Although surely this is a well-known site for this species, we had been unaware of that prior to our encounter with them.

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (left) protects the earliest and most important Spanish fortress now on U.S. soil. Begun in 1762, this large fort in today's downtown St. Augustine was occupied by the Spanish, taken (twice) by the English, and re-occupied by the Spanish, before being ceded to the United States in 1821. It changed hands again during the Civil War, and later served as a prison for American Indian leaders from the Southwest.

The hefty thick-walled fort is still impressive, although Ruddy Turnstones now tread the walls instead of soldiers.

An unexpectedly delightful spot was Ft. Matanzas National Monument (right). It is a little fairytale pocket-fort built by the Spanish in 1740 to ward off British encroachments. It is such a fine example of 18th century Spanish forts that it was one of the first four forts preserved by the National Park Service during the administration of Calvin Coolidge. Although no battles were fought here, the fort was built on the site of a 1564 massacre of French Huguenots by the Spanish from St. Augustine.

The Fort is reached only by ferry. The ride produced views of Bald Eagle and (at the fort's little pond) several Hooded Mergansers.

A late afternoon visit to the salt marshes at the end of Shiloh Marsh Road, Merritt Island NWR, produced several surprises. Don donned wading boots to see marsh-dwelling sparrows, but before finding any managed to spook a Short-eared Owl and then almost stepped on a Dusky Pigmy Rattlesnake (left; Sistrurus miliarius barbouri). Eventually, both Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed and Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows were viewed, but not without substantial efforts. A half-dozen other sparrows got away unidentified.
This female Masked Duck, a long-running vagrant stakeout, performed very well at the Viera wetlands, Brevard County, on 21 Dec (right). We have multiple still and video images but I rather like this one, in which she tries to hide in an obviously inadequate mat of floating vegetation.
Rita still needed to see an ABA-area Smooth-billed Ani, a species now seriously in decline in Florida. From Internet postings it seemed the only recent leads were at the Ft. Lauderdale airport, and even these were several months old. We tried the little linear park along Griffon Avenue at the south end of the airport and encountered a flock of 8 anis! They posed nicely in a festive setting (left). 
Our final stop was Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne, where a Western Spindalis had been the week before. Despite searches in late afternoon, and the next morning before our flight to Trinidad, we came up empty. That vagrant seems to have departed. The only vagrants of note seem to have been a few Red Saddlebags dragonflies (right). We don't know their true status here, but at least one guide (Nikula & Sones 2002 Beginner's Guide to Dragonflies) suggests they are only erratic here. If nothing else, it is always gratifying to obtain flight shots of odes.

It was just a short visit to the Sunshine State, and a prelude to tropical birding in Trinidad, but we were quite pleased with our pre-Christmas visit.

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Page created 31 Dec 2006