First a "heads up."  This is a long posting, but you can get the most essential facts from the first two paragraphs below.  If you're not interested in county listing, stop there.

Next, I want to thank a number of people who gave me invaluable advice about birding hotspots in the nine-county area of southwest Florida we birded last weekend.  Ron Smith, Dave Goodwin, Brian Ahern, David Simpson, Rex Rowan, Tina Mossbarger, and Susan Daughtrey all came through with great ideas and suggestions.  There are two reasons why I love county listing.  I see places in my adopted state that I never would have visited, and I come into contact with some of the best and kindest people Iíve ever known.  
Hereís the short version:  Nine counties (Charlotte, Collier, De Soto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Lee and Sarasota) in four days (April 5-8) with 124 species including one lifer (Snowy Plover at Siesta Key beach), and 473 total county ticks.  
Now for the details.  We actually left Gainesville on Friday, April 4,  after work and drove to the Fort Myers area stopping only for dinner at an exit in Manatee County.  That was a little stroke of luck because I picked up eight county birds in the parking lot of Applebees including the trip's only House Finch.  With two other species added in Hillsborough, we started the trip with 10 new county ticks that felt like a little bonus and a good omen of things to come.
We started out on Saturday morning at sunrise at Bunche Beach, just south of Ding Darling in Lee County.  I had been told that this was an overlooked gem and thatís what it proved to be.  There were few people and a greater variety of shorebirds and waders than we would see a day later at Ding Darling, and they were within a step or two of us.  We walked north along the beach to a cove that held hundreds of birds including a few Roseate Spoonbills, Western and Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers, Willets, Turnstones, Dunlin, Sanderlings, etc., all of the usual egrets and herons, and off shore were more Gannetts than Iíve ever seen in one day.  We totaled 28 species in an hour-long stop.
Next we headed south into Collier.  I had wanted to visit Tigertail, but the tight schedule and the need to cover three counties in one day kept us further north.  Instead, we stopped at Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park.  This was nearly the opposite of Bunche Ė more people and significantly fewer birds.  We had read that the best spot for shorebirds was to scope the beach from the observation tower at the north end of the park.  However, the trees around the tower have grown to such an extent that the view of the beach was negligible.  We got what we could and headed inland.  
Our next stop was Corkscrew Swamp.  The biggest surprise for us was that the swamp is bone dry.  We found one muddy area not much bigger than a small bedroom, and it was dominated by a lone gator that was enjoying the mud.  Still, we had some luck Ė a male Painted Bunting at a feeder (first left after the paved path crosses the main trail) and a singing Black-throated Green Warbler (gorgeous!).  We left Collier feeling slightly disappointed with 53 species.
Next we headed into Hendry where we did mostly roadside birding along CR 846, 835, and 832.  We had hoped to stop at Dinner Island on CR 835 but the gates were locked so we continued on to Okaloacoochie WMA and drove some of that area in the dimming light.  Ultimately we ended up in LaBelle where the best restaurant in town closed at 8:00PM on a Saturday night!  We finished Hendry with 41 county ticks for the day (including our first of many Caracaras) with a day list of about 70 (not counting heard birds which I donít count because Iím so lousy at it).  I felt much better about the day when I added up the tally and realized I had picked up 122 county ticks for the day and had broken the 5000 barrier.
We started Sunday at Ding Darling Ė my first visit there Ė and it was everything I had hoped for.  We spent lots more time than we should have driving around and walking the trails so we had to forego all other Lee County birding and head north.  Ding Darling produced 31 new species for the county (59 total) including our only Spotted Sandpiper of the trip which was kind enough to land nearly at our feet.  Also among the new were Red-breasted Mergansers and about a half dozen beautiful Prairie Warblers.
Next we headed into Charlotte County and Babcock-Webb WMA.  Perhaps it was the late afternoon heat and the sound of gunfire from the shooting range, but the birds were reluctant to come out to play.  Still, we coaxed over 30 species out of their hiding spots in a relatively short visit. They included some new trip birds such as Eastern Towhee, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Pine Warblers.  We heard a few Bachmanís Sparrows, but none came out to see us, so no tick for me.  
Before we could go on to Glades County we made an unscheduled stop that was absolutely worth the cost in time.  We stopped at a convenience store to watch the US Air Forceís Thunderbird team put on an unforgettable display of flying.  The jets screamed over us so close that we could see the pilots in their seats and feel the vibration in the air.  They flew in formations of 3, 4, and 6 planes that were incredibly tightly packed together.  The show defies description.  All I can add is that the next time theyíre in Florida Ė go see them.  You wonít regret it.
On to Glades County and what was to be our most difficult birding.  It was already late in the day and thunder storms and lightning surrounded us.  Our goal was Fish-eating Creek, but we didnít reach there until quite late and the weather kept us from walking the trails.  Instead we headed into Moore Haven thinking to pick up some ďcity birds.Ē What we found was a really pleasant surprise.  On a hunch, we crossed the bridge heading east out of the city but took the first right off the bridge, curling back to the canal along a cane field.  We then took the first left and parked along the ditch.  This turned out to be a great little spot!  We scored White-winged Doves, Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, Common Yellowthroat, Purple Martin, Gray Catbird, and a fly-over Ring-billed Gull.  That little bonanza as the sun set brought us to 34 in Glades.  
For the day, we scored 81 species seen and 97 new county ticks.  While our totals were low, we were happy.  Ding Darling was magnificent, the air show incredible, and a male Painted Bunting a few feet away in the dying light with thunder and lightning in the distance was a great way to end the day.
On Monday morning we started out at Englewood Beach and Stump Pass State Park.  The former filled with people rather quickly. We saw a nice variety of shorebirds and waders but nothing new for the trip.  Stump Pass is a small park to the south of the main beach that we heard about from a local resident.  It was a nice little gem with lots of beach to walk and few people.  At Englewood we were thrilled to find a Common Loon in something very close to its summer plumage. We also picked up Royal, Caspian, and Sandwich Terns, the last two being new for the trip.  At Stump Pass we saw Green Heron, Red-breasted Merganser, and a nice variety of shorebirds, but nothing new.  We left Charlotte County with 24 new species for the day and a total of 56.
Next we drove north to Siesta Key Beach Park in Sarasota County.  My expectations were low here because the parking lot was packed.  The birds didnít seem to mind all of the people, however, and we found lots of beach birds to admire.  Here we got our best terns of the trip Ė Royal, Sandwich, Common, Forsterís, and Least Ė numerous Black Skimmers, and my only lifer of the trip, six wonderful Snowy Plovers about five feet away.  They were too close to use our bins, so we kind of stared at each other until they realized how uninteresting people are and wandered away.  Fantastic!
Our next planned stop got delayed a bit by an unexpected visit to a place Iíve never heard of before Ė Manasota Scrub Preserve.  As I recall, itís on the south side of CR 758 just before the bridge to the mainland (someone please correct me if thatís wrong!).  Itís a very small area, but we picked up a few nice surprises here including our only Eastern Kingbird of the four days.  We also found Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, White-eyed Vireo, and Pine Warblers.  Nice surprise.
Next, it was on to the Celery Fields.  Way cool.  This was a great stop, and only time constraints made us leave.  In a very short time we saw Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Wood and Mottled Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Coots, Moorhens, and Pied-billed Grebes.  There were American White Pelicans in the distance and above us were a Bald Eagle and a Red-tailed Hawk.  Meanwhile, Meadowlarks sang from the field across the street from the gazebo.  Iím sure there was much more to be seen, but time was slipping away, so we headed out for a quick stop at Mayakka State Park.  Continuing the pattern of previous days, the late afternoon birding was sparse at best.  We added the trip's only Limpkin, a Northern Parula and a Black-and-white Warbler to the county list.  We left Sarasota County with 74 species for the day and headed toward Arcadia and De Soto County.
On the way to Arcadia we saw our first Wild Turkeys of the trip, two or three Red-headed Woodpeckers, Tree Swallows, Purple Martins, and several Swallow-tailed Kites Ė always a beautiful sight.  Our next stop for the day was in De Soto County at a small park along the Peace River on the north side of SR 70 in Arcadia.  The trees here had lots of birds, mostly your every day park type but each a new tick for the county.  We tallied Blue Jays, Downy Woodpecker, Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Parula, and Palm and Black-and-White Warblers.  Finally we went to a restaurant in front of the Holiday Inn Express (a Chiliís, I think).  Before we went in we checked the retention pond behind it and scored a Green Heron and some Red-winged Blackbirds.
That ended our third day.  It was a good one with nearly 90 species on our day list and 126 county ticks.
Our final day started with a frustrating search for what the DeLorme calls NE Roads St.  It is actually called NE Roan St.  Once there, we had a very enjoyable morning doing roadside birding and picking up the tripís first seen Bachmanís Sparrows.  Among the other birds found there were a Pileated Woodpecker, a Swamp Sparrow, two Eastern Towhees, several Ground-Doves and a Blue-headed Vireo. We finished up our stay in De Soto with a swing along CR 760 which is southeast of Arcadia and then heading east along SR 70.  Our final tally for De Soto was 29 new ticks for the day bringing our total to 57 Ė not bad for the small amount of time we spent there.
We were on to Highlands County next where our first stop was near the Archbold Biological Station where we picked up our second Red-eyed Vireo of the trip and our only Florida Scrub Jays.  Then we headed off to the area around Lake Placid, particularly around the boat ramp on the western edge of the lake.  Here we added White-winged Dove and Forsterís Tern to our county lists.  Eventually we made our way to Lake Jackson and Highlands Hammock State Park which Ė true to form for this trip Ė was nearly birdless in the mid and late afternoon.  Still, we added a Tufted Titmouse, a Carolina Wren, and a few common warblers.  We decided to call it quits in Highlands and took SR 66 west toward Zolfo Springs, birding a bit along the way.  We ended up with 44 species for Highlands and little hope that we could find anything unusual in Hardee as the day began to fade.
Boy, were we wrong!  If memory serves, it was either Ron Smith or David Simpson (or both) who suggested we check out CR 664 west of Bowling Green.  In the last hour of daylight, we started along the road until we saw a small pond on the north side as the road took a sweeping turn to the right.  Thank goodness we stopped, because we had all missed the large pond on the south side.  There was a Moorhen in the northerly pond, but we quickly turned our scopes to the south.  There were American White Pelicans, Black-necked Stilts, Blue-winged Teal, Caspian Terns, a Forsterís Tern, Mottled Ducks, an Osprey, an Anhinga, Cormorants, and Snowy and Great Egrets.  Then a half-dozen Roseate Spoonbills flew in as well as a single Sandhill Crane.  One Ring-billed Gull flew overhead and dozens of Meadowlarks sang in the field in front of us.  Back across the street we noticed some Black-bellied Whistling ĖDucks in the northerly pond.  Wow, we thought, what a great
 way to end the trip . . . but we werenít finished yet.  A bit down the road was another pond to the north with about 40 dowitchers, a few Greater Yellowlegs, and some Least Sandpipers.  And a Black Skimmer.  A bit further along the road we found a building that must be a community center or perhaps a church.  In front and on top of one of the telephone polls was a Great Horned Owl being harassed by Blue Jays.  A few hundred yards away we encountered a Northern Bobwhite out for a stroll along the road.  It was time to turn around and head toward home, but we decided that there was enough light to justify one last stop.  We went back to the original ponds, but just before them we turned north onto what I think was called Pool Road to scope from a different angle.  There we found the last bird of the trip Ė a Sora, just visible in the last bit of light (thank heavens for that distinctive shape and lovely yellow bill).  
Our last day netted us 81 species and 118 county ticks.  Our final tally included 124 species, 473 county ticks, and more laughs than we could count.  

Since I moved to Florida in 1982, Iíve come to love this state.  Since I took up county listing, I have really come to appreciate its beauty as Iíve explored 66 of our 67 counties looking for birds.  Get out and see Florida, folks; itís a jewel Ė and I havenít even gotten to Monroe County yet!
Bob Carroll
Florida County Listersí Website

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
Emily Dickinson
US poet (1830 - 1886)

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