Birding at Lake Okeechobee (Part 1)

WHEN: 06 February 2018, 07:30
WHERE: Lake Okeechobee, Florida, USA (Google map)

Part 2 of this article can be found here.

With a morning to kill, on what was my 1st ever visit to Florida I wanted to see some of the local wildlife. I decided the tourist airboat rides, whilst thrilling were probably not going to give me the wildlife fix I was after. Instead I opted for some local expert knowledge and decided to hire the services of Captain Dave Hunt and his boat. Dave has been building a reputation as the go-to person for 1:1 birding tours in the Miami area. Using his local knowledge Dave recommended Lake Okeechobee over the everglades due to the sheer density of bird sightings he had been having there of late. So early on the Tuesday morning I found myself waiting outside a McDonald’s restaurant to meet up with Dave and catch some of the diverse winter visitors to Florida’s unique landscape.

Dave arrived and we set off for the lake just as the mist started to lift, we hadn’t even made it to the launch site when Dave pulled over at the side of the road and pointed out a pair of Sandhilll Cranes, so began my crash course in ornithology.

Sandhill Cranes

Nikon D500, Nikon 300mm F4 PF + TC-17E II at 500mm (750mm equiv.)

It was a great to watch these majestic birds go about their business in first light. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite fast enough with my camera to get the shot of the birds mating, maybe next time 😉
Once at the launch ramp Dave set about getting the boat in the water whilst I got my gear together. Due to my afternoon flight we had a tight schedule and Dave planned to fit as many different birds into my tour as possible. Rather than heading straight out on to the lake we spent the 1st half of the trip on a small dyke on the North East side of the lake. It proved to be a great area and within minutes of getting in the boat we had started spotting species that were new to me. I won’t go through every bird in order (it’s a long list that I will include at the end of the article), but instead try and call out the highlights for me, both photographically and bird species wise.

Northern Parula

Nikon D500, Nikon 300mm F4 PF + TC-17E II at 500mm (750mm equiv.)

One of the key things that makes Dave’s tours such a success is his boat, a small skiff with plenty of flat deck it makes a fantastic platform for photography. The majority of the birds on the lake seemed perfectly at home with the boat approaching very close, probably due to the number of fishing boats on the lake. This Northern Parula was very inquisitive coming within 5 metres of the boat and giving me this great image. Just up from the Northern Parula we were lucky to get a glimpse of 2 female painted bunting, there was a male also lurking in the undergrowth but a flash of colour was all we saw.

Female Painted Bunting

Nikon D500, Nikon 300mm F4 PF + TC-17E II at 500mm (750mm equiv.)

We continued down the dyke and despite Dave’s insistence that I would see plenty of Herons when we got on to the lake I couldn’t resist catching a few shots as we passed. This is a Great Blue Heron, very similar looking to the Grey Herons I see all the time at home in the UK, but definitely larger.

Great Blue Heron

Nikon D500, Nikon 300mm F4 PF + TC-17E II at 500mm (750mm equiv.)

I also managed to catch a nice shot of a Green Heron, I really find the variety of Herons in the US exciting, spending the whole year seeing pretty much nothing but Grey Herons and Egrets leaves you excited for the sighting of something familiar yet different.

Green Heron

Nikon D500, Nikon 300mm F4 PF + TC-17E II at 500mm (750mm equiv.)

The Wood Storks were not quite as accommodating as some of the other species, I managed to get a few shots when we were still a distance away but this in flight image proved one of the better ones. Normally I struggle to get good birds in flight shots in the UK, the combination of poor lighting (especially in winter) and the smaller size of many of our species of birds making things challenging. My skills were getting a serious workout on this trip and thankfully all those missed shots back home were paying off.

Wood Stork

Nikon D500, Nikon 300mm F4 PF + TC-17E II at 500mm (750mm equiv.)

I am a big fan of raptors and have always wanted to see Ospreys in the wild, they are a bit of a rarity back home in Farnborough UK so I was thrilled to see so many whilst out in the boat. This specimen gave us a nice flying display before posing in this tree.


Nikon D500, Nikon 300mm F4 PF + TC-17E II at 500mm (750mm equiv.)

In between birds I took the chance to take a scene setting shot. This image is pretty much straight out of camera and really captures the scene nicely The colours really were this beautiful and the waterway we were on was simply stunning. In hindsight (and if I visit again) I would take more scene setting shots, but to be honest there was just so much bird life around there wasn’t time to think of anything but the next amazing bird opportunity.

Florida Briding

Nikon D7000, Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 at 18mm (27mm equiv.)

The last shot for part one of the trip was Dave’s showpiece. As we got towards the end of the waterway Dave told me how he regularly sees Barred Owls in the trees around here, instructing me to point my camera at a specific spot Dave pulled a vintage owl call out of his pocket and blew on it. A few seconds later Dave was laughing as he explained the owl had arrived, just on completely the other side of the river. As we drew closer in the boat the owl sat and posed for me, a truly magical moment.

Barred Owl

Nikon D500, Nikon 300mm F4 PF

With this last sighting under our belts Dave suggested it was time to head to the main lake and see if we could catch some of the other Florida species. With that he turned the boat round, opened up the throttle and we headed for the “Big O”

Part 2 of this article can be found here.

If you are in the area and want a fantastic private tour be sure to look up Dave, his website is

The bird list for the entire trip was as follows;
> American Coot
> American Crow
> Anhinga
> Belted Kingfisher
> Black Vulture
> Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
> Boat-tailed Grackle
> Cattle Egret
> Common Yellowthroat
> Crested Caracara
> Eastern Phoebe
> Glossy Ibis
> Great Blue Heron
> Great Egret
> Greater Yellowlegs
> Green Heron
> Green wing teal
> Killdeer
> Lesser  yellow Legs
> Least Sandpiper
> Limpkin
> Little Blue Heron
> Northern Rough winged-swallow or tree swallow
> Northern Cardinal
> Northern Harrier
> Northern Parula
> Osprey
> Painted Bunting
> Palm Warbler
> Pine Warbler
> Purple Gallinule
> Purple Swamp Hen (gray headed)
> Red shouldered hawk
> Ring-billed Gull
> Sand hill Crane
> Snail Kite (both male and females)
> Snowy Egret
> Tricolored Heron
> Turkey Vulture
> White Ibis
> Wood Stork
> Yellow-rumped Warbler
> Barred owl

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