Migration at Fort de Soto

Fort de Soto on the southern tip of Pinellas County and St. Petersburg is one of my all-time favorite places to spend time with my camera. Springtime at Fort de Soto is even more exciting than any other time of year that you might visit. Not only are the usual shorebirds on the beaches, but April and May bring thousands of migratory birds from Central and South America to the park. If weather conditions are just right, the park is one of the first land masses the birds encounter after their long overnight journey across the Gulf of Mexico.

This past April, I took a day off work and headed over there for an afternoon of photography. Fort de Soto is not around the block for me. It’s a 130 mile 2.5 hour one-way trip, so the decision to go over there isn’t taken lightly. Weather, traffic, time of day, tides and recent bird sightings are all taken into account before making the drive over there. On this particular day, almost everything worked in my favor. The only disappointment was that I wanted to photograph Royal Terns and their courtship, but there wasn’t a single Royal Tern on the beaches to be found. But regardless I still came home with a card full of shots I’m happy with. Besides the photo opportunities, it was nice to spend the afternoon with Rich and Jess, Kevan Sunderland and Don Hamilton.

I arrived about 2:00pm in the afternoon and decided that it would be better to look for migrant songbirds in the trees while the sun was high and then look for shorebirds as the sun moved closer to the horizon. It was an excellent decision. The trees at the East Beach picnic area were filled with male Scarlet Tanagers. These are beautiful birds sporting a bright red color. Throughout the year, the only red songbird that we traditionally see are Northern Cardinals, so finding tanagers is a nice treat. Click the images to view larger.

Scarlet Tanager - Fort de Soto
Scarlet Tanager

There were also Hooded Warblers hopping around in the grass as well. These songbirds are so hungry and desperate to fuel up and continue their journey north that they don’t sit still very long. I was fortunate to find a couple of tanagers with their bellies full, but the warblers were on a mission to find every last insect in the grass and devour it.

Hooded Warbler - Fort de Soto
Hooded Warbler

After a period of time I took a walk through the East Beach woods looking for thrushes. Thrushes are notoriously difficult to find and photograph as they like to skulk around near the ground and stay in the shadows hidden in the underbrush. I flushed this Gray-cheeked Thrush as I walked the trail and he obliged me with a couple of seconds on a branch so that I could get an ID shot. After two quick clicks, he was gone, never to be seen again.

Gray-cheeked Thursh - Fort de Soto
Gray-cheeked Thrush

Next, Jess and I headed over to the ranger’s house where the mulberry trees were full of migrant songbirds feasting on the ripe fruit. The male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were one of best finds in this area.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Fort de Soto
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

We also had another Hooded Warbler pose nicely for us.

Hooded Warbler - Fort de Soto
Hooded Warbler

Another exciting find of the afternoon was this Baltimore Oriole.

Baltimore Oriole - Fort de Soto
Baltimore Oriole

We were able to get some good looks at a Black and White Warbler as it relieved a tree of any insects and spiders on its branches.

Black and White Warbler - Fort de Soto
Black and White Warbler

It seems that every year I see a Tennessee Warbler in the trivets, but I still haven’t got a really good shot of one. This one has obviously been spending some time in the mulberry tree.

Tennessee Warbler - Fort de Soto
Tennessee Warbler

This female Orchard Oriole is sporting a cool mulberry look as well.

Orchard Oriole - Fort de Soto
Orchard Oriole

We did see some Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks as well, but I didn’t get any decent images of those. But the real find of the day was a male Bay-breasted Warbler. There were a few photographers that were lined up waiting for him to make and appearance and I was fortunate when he popped out of the trivets closest to where I was standing. He was moving pretty rapidly through the bushes, so I was happy to get a couple of half-decent shots of him.

Bay-breasted Warbler - Fort de Soto
Bay-breasted Warbler

By this point it was getting to be time to give the shorebirds an opportunity to show off for us, so Jess and I headed back to the car to move on to North Beach. Along the way we came across this small rabbit that was quietly enjoying a snack in the grass. This is the first time I’ve seen a rabbit in the park.

Rabbit - Fort de Soto

In my next post, I’ll highlight some of the opportunities that the shorebirds gave us on the beaches of Fort de Soto.