Birdwatching in Orlando

In the end I left my binoculars and field guide at home. The trip was a short one for Dave to attend a convention in Orlando where we stayed on International Drive (I-Drive)—an eleven-mile strip of chain restaurants, outlet malls, and amusement parks—not an obvious place to look for nature.

April was a hectic travel month with one day between west and east coast trips, so I only had time for a quick glance at a map before we repacked our suitcases and ran for a flight to Florida. A wildlife refuge had caught my eye, but it wasn’t until my first morning in Orlando that I got a chance to check it out more closely.

Dusky Seaside Sparrow by John James Audubon

St. Johns Refuge is located 45 miles east of the city, established in 1971 along the St. Johns River to protect the habitat of the endangered dusky seaside sparrow.  The little songbird has since been declared extinct.  The refuge is maintained today for several other threatened and endangered species but is closed to the public.

On my second day I was drinking a cup of coffee at a sidewalk table when I noticed the ducks.  Mallards—youngsters, I think.  They were foraging in the planter between I-Drive and the parking lot.  Two of them got into a scrap just before one of the females waddled  into the parking lot to cross over to another landscaped area, no different from the first: crape myrtles, honeysuckle, monkey grass.  I held my breath as she dawdled, crossing the driveway leading to the Starbuck’s drive-thru.  I feared a caffeine-deprived, late-to-work commuter would come wheeling in and run over her, but she made it.  The others were wise enough to fly across the drive into the Walgreen’s flower bed.  When I left a group of noisy crows had gathered on the roof to lecture the invading ducks.

Photo Credit: Paula Nixon

A few hours later at a bustling outdoor mall this guy with the crazy hairdo caught my eye.  It took me a moment to figure out he was a fledging—a starling, I think.  I stopped and watched from a distance as his mom encouraged him and he made a short clumsy flight up to an awning.  Shoppers hurried through the plaza never giving the birds a second glance. When Mom disappeared the youngster was stuck, couldn’t remember how to get his wings moving.  I forced myself to leave, certain she was nearby and would soon return to continue his flying lessons.

And that was the highlight of my trip to Orlando—not bad for never straying more than a few blocks off of I-Drive!