Sanibel and the Stokes

On my final full day in Florida I headed out of Fort Myers and drove west to Sanibel Island. I had a few lifers on my wish list and I was going to start at a well known migrant hot spot: Lighthouse Park. I crossed the three mile bridge from the mainland, scanning the deep blue for any life birds. Just some gulls that weren’t worth risking my life to identify.

I pulled into the sandy parking lot and perched on the roof of the car to my left was my first life bird, or was it? American crow vs fish crow can be one of the toughest IDs in North America, that is, until it opens it’s mouth. If you ask a fish crow if it is an American it will deny it by replying “nah-nah”. This crow certainly denied it, life bird #481.

At 7:45, there where already birders scattered around the trees and bushes that surrounded the lighthouse, all hoping for a bounty of birds. Lighthouse Park is on the eastern point of Sanibel Island and it’s trees are a magnet for northern bound birds coming up from the tropics. The anticipation was palpable as we waited for a warbler or a vireo to appear and the park was abuzz with news of what was being seen and where.

Blue-headed vireo, then a northern parula, follow by a white-eyed vireo. Then in the upper branches of a tree was the liquid gold of a male prothonotary warbler, a bird that I had added to my life list in Golden Gate Park the previous October (see the post from October 8, 2014). As I lowered my binoculars I noticed there were even more birders in the park and they had just seen a Swainson’s warbler!

Among these birders were field guide authors Don and Lillian Stokes. They spent half the year on Sanibel Island and they were essentially birding their local patch. A male hooded warbler was seen and the birders with binoculars and cameras circled the tree where the bird was foraging.

I introduced myself to the Stokes and I headed to another part of the park with Don. On the way I asked him if he had seen all the birds in his guide books. He asked me what I meant by “seen”. He noted that there are many ways in which a bird can be “seen”: adult plumage, juvenile, 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year, male, female, etc. In all my rush to add birds to my life list I had sometimes lost sight of the pleasure of simply looking at birds for just the enjoyment of looking at birds. We stopped and looked up into a palm where two birds where foraging. A hooded and prothonotary warbler where giving us nice views as they moved between palm fronds. I had seen both of these birds in California, in two different places in San Francisco and with 11 years between sightings and now I was seeing them together in the same tree with Don Stokes as my walking and talking field guide.

I left Sanibel Island without adding Swainson’s warbler to my life list. But my short experience of birding with the Stokes helped me remember that it really didn’t matter whether I had 28 or 29 life birds on this trip to Southern Florida. It was about the quality of experience. I was a guy with his binoculars and journal and paints, marveling at the the splash of sunshine turning on a palm frond above.

This was somehow enough. And it was.

Fish Crow



“The list total isn’t important, but the birds themselves are important. Every bird you see. So the list is a frivolous incentive for birding, but the birding itself is worthwhile. It’s like a trip where the destination doesn’t have any significance except for the fact that it makes you travel. The journey is what counts. ”

-Rich Stallcup, Birding legend, as quoted by Kenn Kaufman in Kingbird Highway

I  will probably never see 28 life birds on a single trip in North America again. I have birded some of the Meccas of birding, my home state of California, southern Arizona and Texas and finally southern Florida. To see this many new birds, I would have to go to the farthest reaches of Alaska (and be extremely lucky), or have an incredible migrant fallout in Cape May, or travel to another country.

To celebrate this haul of birds I wanted to sketch each bird, because I believe that to sketch something you attain a deeper understanding of it and you really internalize the shape, color, feather patterns and contours of each bird. As source material I used photographs, drawings, and field guides. For these pages I designed a unifying theme, using overlapping cartouches to list the life bird number, date, location, and time.

Florida page 2

This spread documents an amazing morning of birding with a Michigan snowbirder named Dave.We birded Babcock-Webb WMA and Prairie/Shell Creek Preserve.


The Everglades Kite

There is a much sought after bird in Florida and I was going to try my damnedest to add it to my life list. This is the snail kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis), formerly known as the Everglades kite. It’s a much sought-after bird because it is only found in the United States in southern Florida and it specializes in feeding almost exclusively on apple snails. The apple snails depends on water and the depletion of the Everglades means that the population of snail kites has suffered. The kite is currently listed as a Federal and State endangered species because of it’s small population and extreme population specialization. It is estimated that there are currently less than 400 breeding pairs in Florida.

I wanted to see one out of those 400 pairs and according to my Falcon Guide, Birding Florida, there are a few spots on the Tamiami Trail, across the highway from the Shark Valley entrance to the Everglades to check for this bird. I tried there, scanning the marshes for the bird. No kites. I read in my guide:

“A more reliable spot in recent years for this sought-after species has been an abandoned airboat concession across from the Tower Market. . .The kites may be seen coursing over the marsh or may be perched on distant trees. If it’s your lucky day, one may be perched on a cypress tree directly in front of your vehicle.”

I returned to my rental and drove a mile west to the airboat concession on the right. I pulled into the parking lot and bingo, today, April 1, 2015, was my lucky day! A male snail kite was perched across the canal on a cypress. I was able to take a few photos and I returned to my car to grab my sketchbook and pens. When I returned, the bird was gone. This kite was not to be as accommodating as the black vultures of the Anhinga Trail, but it certainly was one of the easiest Florida life birds to add to my list.

Florida jay

The two other Florida specialties I sought on this trip was the endemic Florida scrub-jay and the red-cockaded woodpecker. Both birds are listed on the state watch list, which includes species most in danger of extinction without significant conservation action.

According to e-bird and my Falcon Guide, Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area (just north of Fort Myers) was the hot spot for red-cockaded woodpecker. You must arrive at dawn near their cavity trees (which are ringed with white paint by field biologists). The birds gather near their cavity trees before dispersing to forage for the day. The painted trees were easy to spot and a car was already parked along the dirt road. A snowbirder from Michigan was already there, waiting for the show to begin. As if on cue, a single red-cockaded flew in and perched on a tree for less than a minute, enough time to see the identifying white cheek field mark, and then was gone. The show was over. North American life bird #472.

I followed the snowbirder, (Dave) and we made our way around Babcock-Webb. With his help I picked up three more lifers: brown-headed nuthatch, northern bobwhite, and eastern bluebird. He offered to show me where to find Florida scrub-jay at the Prairie/Shell Creek Preserve near Punta Gorda. After a short walk, Dave led me to the area where they are seen. I spotted the rare jay flying to the top of an oak. Life bird #476 was mine!


One of the photos I was able to get of the male snail kite that was handed to me on a platter, just before he flew off.




Spring Break in the Sunshine State

“There are no other Everglades in the world. ”

-Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Most spring breakers head to Florida’s white-sand beaches to collect stupidity, lovers, and hangovers. But I was here, in the southern extremes of the Sunshine State, to collected birds, alligators, and journal pages.

I had been drawn to Florida at an early age while looking through a book about endangered animals. I had always loved animals but the concept that they could be endangered was new to me. The Florida Panther, American alligator  and the Everglades kite were from the state that presented a continuing threat to their existence and as an adult I wanted to see them before they disappeared for good. And I wanted to see the Everglades before it was completely covered in water.

My first impressions of Florida where driving through the concrete jungle from Miami International to my hotel in Homestead. According to the FBI, Homestead is the sixth most dangerous city in Florida, but it ranks number one when it comes to violent crime. It proves that the most dangerous animals in Southern Florida are not Alligators, venomous snakes, or mosquitoes, but Homo sapiens.

It was nice to leave behind Homestead and the gun shops and strip clubs and enter the fabled Everglades National Park. I picked up three life birds just in the parking lot of the visitor’s center. I headed into the park and my first stop was Royal Palms and the Anhinga Trail.

I headed out on the loop trail and true to it’s name there was an anhinga sunning itself with open wings. At the end of the boardwalk were about twenty black vultures perched on the rails. They were certainly not afraid of close human approach and preferred to walk rather than fly away. This called for a sketch. This sketch, featured above, was a very loose drawing of the different postures of the vultures as they preened before their mid-morning foraging over the “Sea of Grass”.


I had further adventures on my first day in the Everglades, including surprising a four foot eastern diamondback on the Snake Bight Trail, seeing a rare American crocodile, and watching two elegant swallow-tailed kites as they effortlessly rode the thermals. I ended my first day in Florida with 12 life birds.

Over the next few posts I will include pages about some of the 28 life birds I saw over the course of my week in south Florida.

Bird Tower

The observation tower in the middle of the 15 mile bike loop at Shark Valley, the Everglades.