Hanging out with herons & shorebirds in Florida, finally seeing Red-headed Woodpeckers in Tennessee and getting my passport, wallet and phone stolen in Atlanta – I’d say October was a pretty eventful month! I had 13 lifers, took thousands of photographs and had a great time overall. I’m now back in Ottawa for three weeks before driving 3,500 km to the town of Fernie, British Columbia, where I’ll be spending the winter.
Let’s jump into some of October’s stories and then I’ll share some details about my upcoming western Canadian adventure.
Florida was nothing short of awesome. It was sunny almost everyday, there were birds everywhere and most were highly cooperative for photographs. Someone on my Instagram feed joked that going to Florida feels like cheating because everything is so close. They aren’t wrong!
This was my 8th trip to Southwest Florida. I am fortunate enough to have parents who own a house in Fort Myers. This trip was the first time I really focused on bird photography (rather than pure birding). I visited some tried-and-true locations and discovered new ones. I’ll be compiling my favourites into a blog post shortly.
Florida Statistics: I saw 111 species in total, including 17 shorebird species, 11 warbler species and the following 13 lifers: Snowy Plover, Wilson’s Plover, Piping Plover, Red Knot, Western Sandpiper, Common Ground-Dove, Yellow-throated Warbler, Monk Parakeet, White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Clapper Rail, Crested Caracara and Northern Rough-winged Swallow.
Getting Low: There are fantastic possibilities for shorebird photography in Florida and I experimented with getting as low as I could for photographs. It makes a huge difference to get a photo on the same level as a bird, rather than looking down on it. In some cases I even put my camera on the sand for extreme low-angle photos.
The only downside of this approach is you and your camera get covered in sand (sometimes even wet sand). I wore quick-dry clothing, brought a mat or towel I could lie on and was prepared to jump into the water to clean-off after a photography session.
One of the great stories coming out of my Florida trip was seeing my first Piping Plover and, after reporting the bands to the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team, discovering that it was born on Sauble Beach, Ontario. A fellow Canadian! The story was picked up by the local Owen Sound newspaper and you can read my interview here. I encourage everyone to report bands as it really helps with conservation efforts.
If you like Plovers, Southwest Florida is a fantastic place to visit as you can see all 5 plover species on one beach!
I wasn’t sure what to expect visiting so soon after a big Hurricane. When I first arrived, there was a boil water advisory and the trees were down in my parents’ yard. Aside from that, I saw damaged road signs, roofs with blue tarps and sheds that had been blown over. It really didn’t have much impact on the trip though and there were still plenty of birds to photograph (no different than previous trips). The area I visited with the most damage was Marco Island, but again, it had no effect on me as a tourist.
Here is a photograph of one of the most badly affected streets I visited:
A Few Florida Photo Highlights
I hadn’t been to Tennessee before and I really enjoyed its southern charm and hospitality. It’s also a beautiful State! My boyfriend Pete had a 31 mile standup paddleboard race in Chattanooga so I was there to support him.
The Weather: Going anywhere north after Florida feels really cold. I really didn’t pack appropriately for what ended up being the coldest October 29th Chattanooga had seen since the 1800’s (it was -1° Celsius/30° F). I can’t complain though because I wasn’t the one paddling in the rain and cold for 5.5 hours.
Nonetheless, I ended up having to buy sweater and thermals from Walgreens and I wore the same outfit for 6 straight days (yikes).
Red-headed Woodpeckers had become a bit of a nemesis bird for me. They are a rare visitor in Ottawa, but a pair normally turns up west of the city in Constance Bay. I’ve never had luck seeing them there. I also went searching for them outside Fort Myers in Florida, but again I wasn’t successful.
I hadn’t done any pre-trip research into the Tennessee birding scene. On the day I arrived, a quick eBird search came up with one lifer possibility: Red-headed Woodpecker. I initially felt a sense of dread. Did I really have it in my to chase after this bird again?
Chester Frost State Park
Well, it turns out I did have it in me and I was successful! So successful that I saw 5 of them at a great Tennessee birding hotspot: Chester Frost State Park. I found the spot on eBird and a local birder on Twitter gave me tips on where to see them in the park.
Woodpeckers aside, what really struck me about this park was all the Eastern Bluebirds. They were everywhere! Perched on road-signs, foraging on the ground and in the trees. I have never seen so many at one time before.
After a fantastic trip and a successful paddle race for Pete, we hit the road from Chattanooga to Atlanta to catch our flights back to Canada. As we were approaching the airport, I saw a sign for a gas station so I suggested we fill up before returning the rental car. We pulled into the gas station and Pete began filling the car up. At some point I decided to put my sweater into the suitcase that was in the trunk (of course, I had to choose that moment to do so).
When I got back to my seat, I noticed my handbag wasn’t there. I figured I had left it in the trunk, but when I looked it wasn’t there either. Suddenly something clicked and I realized that the car beside us never got gas. They had stolen my bag with my phone, passport and wallet in it!!
At the same moment I realized my bag was gone, I also noticed how sketchy the gas station was. The attendants were standing behind bullet-proof glass. We called the police, I cancelled my credit cards and started to rearrange our travel plans. Without a passport, we weren’t able to catch our flight home that night.
In the end it took two days to get an emergency travel document from the Canadian consulate in Atlanta so I could return to Canada. The flight re-booking costs were astronomical and my travel insurance doesn’t cover trip interruption caused by stolen travel documents.
Lessons Learned: Always lock your car when you’re at a gas station. I learned these types of criminals are called “sliders” and are scarily common. I’ll also be looking into getting better travel insurance for future trips.
I recommend watching this video to protect yourself against sliders:
Driving to Fernie, British Columbia
Just in case you were worried I’d be letting the grass grow under my feet in Ottawa, you can relax. In three weeks, Pete and I will be making the long journey west to Fernie, British Columbia. The drive is 3,500 km/22oo miles and with my dizziness condition we will be doing it at a leisurely pace!
Yesterday I posted a possible Google maps route for the drive on Twitter and I was “shamed” by my Canadian followers for posting an American route! Our loose plan is to drive from Ottawa to Sault Ste Marie and then make a decision based on the weather about whether we go north or south of Lake Superior. Once getting past the lake, we will be making an extended pit stop in Winnipeg to stay with my family. After Winnipeg, it’s either straight through to Fernie or stopping somewhere in Saskatchewan.
November in Ottawa
Until I go to Fernie, I’ll be staying with my parents and living the dream in Ottawa! I’ll be enjoying the height of waterfowl and geese migration. It’s also a fantastic time of year to see rarities and there already have been some great sightings this week: Razorbill and Black-throated Gray Warbler. I missed the Razorbill, but I had great views of the Black-throated Gray today!
My Aunt from England will be visiting next week and luckily she is a birder. My Mother is also a birder, so watch out Ottawa – there will be 3 of us out there birding.
Aside from birding, there is a lot to organize before heading out west for the winter. I’ll be answering important questions like: Which field guides should I bring? and How many ski jackets do I really need?
Have a great November everyone!
-The Afternoon Birder