A diversity of sub-tropical habitats and proximity to the Caribbean, offering a vital first landfall to millions of spring migrant birds from Central and South America, make the ‘Sunshine State’ of Florida the fifth most species rich in the United States and the richest east of the Mississippi River, with a bird list of over 500 species, including restricted local specialities like Roseate Spoonbill, Swallow-tailed and Snail Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, White-crowned Pigeon, White-winged Dove, Mangrove Cuckoo, Grey Kingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, Shiny Cowbird, the quirky Limpkin and Anhinga, the bizarre Black Skimmer and the endemic Florida Scrub Jay. Florida is also home to seven woodpeckers, including the rare Red-cockaded, eleven different herons and egrets, in a range of sizes from the tiny Least Bittern to the Great Blue Heron, a dazzling variety of colourful warblers and the highest concentration of iconic Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states, while the state bird is the Northern Mockingbird. Besides all these amazingly tame and approachable birds, offering unrivalled photo-opportunities, there is a wealth of other wildlife such as thousands of American Alligators and much rarer American Crocodiles, the secretive Florida Panther and the wonderful West Indian Manatee, which we can actually swim with on this trip! Imagine being face to face with a friendly gentle manatee! This represents a unique and unforgettable opportunity and is one of the “Ultimate Wildlife Experiences” according to world renowned zoologist Mark Carwardine!
Along this fantastic journey we shall enjoy spectacular wildlife sightings from the purpose built boardwalks and wildlife driveways at the top sites of the Great Florida Birding Trail like ‘Ding’ Darling and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuges, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the Big Cypress National Preserve, and of course, the world famous Everglades National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and wetland of international importance. So, pack your optics and let’s hit the trail!
Day 1 We depart Heathrow airport on an afternoon British Airways flight to Orlando (to be confirmed) where we arrive at 8pm and transfer to a nearby hotel. Overnight at Rosen Inn International or similar.
Day 2 We drive east to Florida’s Atlantic coast to spend the day at the famous Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge with a bird list of over 300 species including a wealth of water birds like Anhinga, Brown and American White Pelicans, Great and Little Blue Herons, Wood Stork, Glossy and White Ibises, Mottled Duck, Killdeer, Willett, Black Skimmer and Belted Kingfisher, plus raptors like Red-tailed Hawk, the endemic Florida Scrub Jay, and at this exciting time, a spectacular passage of various warblers. There is also a Manatee Observation Area where we can hopefully see these special creatures from dry land. Overnight at Rosen Inn International or similar.
Day 3 We drive south to spend the day in Lake Kissimmee State Park where the Florida Scrub Jays are so tame they may even land on your head! Other star birds here include Crested Caracara, Wild Turkey, Sandhill Crane, Pileated, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, Eastern Meadowlark and Eastern Towhee, while we should also see White-tailed Deer. Continuing our journey south, we have an overnight stay at Taylor Creek near Okeechobee, Florida’s largest lake. Overnight at Days Inn or similar.
Day 4 Heading further south, we have a full day to explore the fabulous Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, a premier site on the Great Florida Birding Trail. This northern part of the Everglades ecosystem has a bird list of over 250 species including specialities like Limpkin, King Rail and Snail Kite, while a boardwalk through the Cypress swamp offers the possibility of more woodpeckers and warblers plus birds like White-eyed Vireo, Carolina Wren and the exquisite Blue Jay. From here it is not far to the coast at Boca Raton for an overnight stay at Ocean Lodge or similar.
Day 5 The nearby Wakodahatchee Wetlands are a must see gem, as the boardwalk offers unbelievable views of birds like Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Sora, Least Bittern, the rainbow coloured American Purple Gallinule and many more. If we have not yet seen Burrowing Owl, we will also visit Brian Piccolo Park, where the sports fields are one of the best sites in Florida to see this owl! Overnight in Florida City at Fairway Inn or similar.
Day 6 We have a full day in the nearby world famous Everglades National Park where boardwalks like the Anhinga Trail are a photographer’s paradise offering point blanks views of alligators and numerous birds like Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Green Heron, Snowy Egret, Double-crested Cormorant and Red-winged Blackbird. Islands of sub-tropical forest, known as hammocks, are home to White-crowned Pigeon, Barred Owl, Great Crested Flycatcher and Black-whiskered Vireo plus more warblers, while other targets include Tricoloured Heron, Short-tailed Hawk, Swallow-tailed Kite, Mangrove Cuckoo, Shiny Cowbird, Roseate Spoonbill and the rare American Crocodile. Overnight back in nearby Florida City.
Day 7 We head northwest across the ‘river of grass’, with stops along the way in the Big Cypress National Preserve, home to a wide variety of water birds, songbirds and raptors including the majestic Bald Eagle. Further on, the Gulf of Mexico coast offers the chance of shorebirds such as Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers, American Oystercatcher, Least and Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitcher, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern and even Magnificent Frigatebird. Overnight at Hampton Inn or similar, in Bonita Springs, where we shall be based for four nights.
Day 8 We have a full day in the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area where the mix of pinewoods, prairies and marshes offers a great range of woodland, grassland and wetland birds including Northern Bobwhite, Great Horned and Burrowing Owls, Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Thrasher and Pine Warbler. The area is also the best place in southwest Florida to find three pinewood specialities; Brown-headed Nuthatch, Bachman’s Sparrow and the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Overnight in Bonita Springs.
Day 9 We have a full day on Sanibel Island at the famous ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge, one of the finest in the whole country, with a bird list of almost 300 species, where the easy birding makes it another top spot on the Great Florida Birding Trail. Potential sightings include Pied-billed Grebe, Blue-winged Teal, Reddish Egret, Black-necked Stilt, Semi-palmated Plover, Spotted Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, American Kestrel, American Coot, Least Tern, Grey Catbird and Boat-tailed Grackle. Overnight in Bonita Springs.
Day 10 We have a full day in the nearby Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, another gem along the ‘trail’, with a bird list of over 200 species. The reserve is run by the Audubon Society, the US equivalent of the RSPB, conserving the largest remaining stand of old growth Bald Cypress swamp on the continent! The fabulous boardwalk through this rare habitat offers another face to face experience with a wealth of confiding wildlife including Racoons and birds like Red-shouldered Hawk, Mourning Dove, Common Ground Dove, Chimney Swift, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Tree Swallow, Tufted Titmouse, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, American Goldfinch, Common Grackle, Painted Bunting, Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers and plenty more. Overnight in Bonita Springs.
Day 11 We head north to Oscar Scherer State Park, home to one of the densest populations of Florida Scrub Jays, while plenty of migrating warblers can ‘drop in’. If time permits we can also visit the nearby Myakka River State Park, one of the largest in the state, with a 7 mile scenic drive through shady hammocks, festooned with hanging epiphytes, plus a tree top walkway and a 70 foot tower with an “awesome” view of the wetlands, forest and prairie, where new birds could include Wood Duck, Red-headed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Northern Parula and Common Yellowthroat. From here we continue north to our last base near Homosassa Springs. Overnight at the historic Chassahowitzka Hotel.
Day 12 This is it, the big day and probably the highlight of the tour as we have the unique opportunity this morning of a three hour manatee tour on the shallow crystal clear Homosassa River, which at a constant 22°C is ‘manatee heaven’, attracting hundreds of these magnificent 10 – 13 foot gentle giants in the cooler months. Once in the water (wetsuits and snorkels provided) we simply relax and wait for these curious sociable creatures to approach, stare into our eyes and give us a big hug! No wonder this amazing experience is included in Mark Carwardine’s Ultimate Wildlife Experiences; his personal selection of the world’s top twenty wildlife encounters! This afternoon we drive east to Orlando airport to check in for a late evening British Airways flight home (to be confirmed).
Day 13 We arrive back in Heathrow around 10.15am (to be confirmed).
Cost; £2975 If for any reason the trip needs to be cancelled, all monies paid to New Horizons will be refunded.
Single supplement; £725
What the price includes:
Return flights from London Heathrow to Orlando, with British Airways (to be confirmed), eleven nights’ bed and breakfast accommodation, all transport in Florida, all activities and reserve entry fees, wildlife checklist and the services of your guide.
Swimming with manatees is conducted under strict federal guidelines; boats must adhere to speed limits and swimmers must enter the water slowly and quietly and must not chase, surround, corner, poke, pinch, hold, ride or feed the manatees, or separate mothers and calves, or enter designated manatee rest areas, or touch manatees which are resting or feeding. Manatees have the right of way and with passive observation, the manatees will often actively engage with the swimmer.
The flight time to Orlando is 9 hours 40 minutes and the return flight is 8 hours 5 minutes.
To visit the USA, British citizens must apply on line for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation). This is valid for two years and costs $39.
It is advisable to be vaccinated against Tetanus. There is little or no risk of Malaria.
In Florida in March, temperatures range from 18 – 26°C, and so the average is 22°C. There is a 19% chance of rain each day, with about 1.6 times the amount of rain we get in the UK in March.
We shall be staying in six comfortable accommodations, many of which have “excellent” ratings on Trip Advisor.
The tour involves easy walks, with excellent photo-opportunities and we can hope to see around 150 bird species in addition to some very special mammals and reptiles.
Passengers returning to the UK (excluding arrivals from the ROI, Isle of Man and Channel Islands) may be required to complete an online Passenger Locator Form before arriving at the UK Border and may also be required to self-isolate for 14 days – please visit www.gov.uk.uk-border-control for information on UK public health requirements and a link to the form.