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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Florida: The South, the Keys and the Dry Tortugas

2024 Narrative

In Brief

The South Florida tour covered a wide array of habitats ranging from pinewoods to coastal beaches and wetlands to the vast Everglades the extensive Florida Keys. Late April offers the best birding in this region when resident birds are joined by summer visitors while migrants from farther south are passing through on their way north.

We began this tour in Fort Myers. There we visited Babock-Webb, where an extensive area is managed for pinewood specials such as Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Bachman’s Sparrow. Nearby we visited the endemic Florida Scrub-Jay and sifted through flocks of migrant songbirds and shorebirds at Fort DeSoto.

Crossing from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast, we worked out way south through the Florida Keys targeting Black-whiskered Vireo, Mangrove Cuckoo, White-crowned Pigeon, and Antillean Nighthawk. From Key West we took a day trip out to the Dry Tortugas for a day of Black and Brown Noddies, Sooty and Bridled Terns, Brown and Masked Boobies, and a whole host of migrants.

We finished off the tour in and around Miami where we targeted the countable exotics including Scaly-breasted Munia, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Spot-breasted Oriole, Egyptian Goose, and a whole host of parrots. We also visited the Wakodahatchee Wetlands for an up-close view of breeding waterbirds namely Wood Storks, Anhingas, and a suite of herons and egrets. It was a productive tour with favorable weather, excellent birds, and great camaraderie!

In Detail

We had a gorgeous first morning at Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area just north of Fort Myers. The morning fog being pierced by the sun through the sparsely forested pinewoods really set the stage for an excellent morning. We stopped along the gravel road at a reliable spot for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and quickly found a couple, which even came close for superb views. A couple Common Nighthawks were flying around, and a Chuck-will’s-widow sang from somewhere nearby. The morning chorus included Eastern Meadowlarks, Eastern Bluebirds, Great Crested Flycatchers and some distant Sandhill Cranes calling in the fog. Common Ground Doves were, indeed, common, and we spotted some along a side track. Further along the road we picked up two more targets, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Bachman’s Sparrow, obtaining great views of both. We also had Pine Warbler, Loggerhead Shrike, and Eastern Towhee, the pale-eyed form here in the southeastern U.S.

Continuing north we drove a neighborhood where we eventually found the endemic Florida Scrub-Jay before arriving at an area called The Celery Fields. These wetlands provided an excellent stock of marsh birds including Sora, Common and Purple Gallinules, Gray-headed Swamphen and a selection of herons and egrets such as Little Blue and Tricolored Herons. Also present were Black-necked Silts, Long-billed Dowitcher, Mottled and Wood Ducks, and a late Green-winged Teal. The feeders hosted a few common species along with a small flock of the established Nanday Parakeet.

Our final stop of the day was Fort De Soto Park. We first pointed our attention to a forested area in search of migrants. It was pretty quiet, but we did have Indigo Bunting, Palm Warblers and a single Kentucky Warbler.

The beach area was bustling with people, but focusing on the quieter areas, we picked up American Oystercatcher, Black-bellied, Semipalmated, Piping, Wilson’s, and Snowy Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Willets, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderlings, Dunlins, and no fewer than 55 Red Knots! Non-shorebirds included Black Skimmers, Least Terns, Reddish Egret, and flyover Magnificent Frigatebirds.

The next morning, we drove out to the edge of Fort Myers where a canal that cuts through a neighborhood hosts Snail Kites and we quickly found one right along the main road. We then spent nearly an hour at the nearby Harns [BAK1] Marsh which hosted flocks of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Limpkin, Pileated Woodpecker, and a flock of Bobolinks on their way north.

We then headed back into Fort Myers and paid a quick visit to Bunche Beach for more shorebirds adding Least, Western, and Semipalmated Sandpipers along with a couple Prairie Warblers. Up next we hopped on a boat for a couple hour “dolphin cruise”, however, the dolphins were only a bonus. After Hurricane Idalia, American Flamingos showed up all over the Eastern U.S. which a number of them remaining in Florida. In Fort Myers the number dwindled to a single individual, which remained at a small island in the middle of the Caloosahatchee River estuary. There were a number of other waterbirds around mainly your usual suspects like Royal Terns, Brown Pelicans, and a variety of herons and egrets including a single Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Of course, we also had some Atlantic Bottlenosed Dolphins.

After cleaning up on all of our targets on the Gulf Coast, we crossed the Florida peninsula through the Big Cypress Preserve and Everglades National Park until we reached the bustling Miami. A stop at a local city park yielded our first countable exotic, a very cooperative Spot-breasted Oriole that was in the small tree literally over our parked van. Along the way to the hotel, we also added Common Myna and made a stop to view a large Cave Swallow breeding colony under a highway bridge.

We departed early to head into the Everglades National Park for the morning. We practically had the entire place to ourselves. Just before entering we had a couple Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on the wires where a small population overwinters. We then headed to an area that hosts the local population of “Cape Sable” Seaside Sparrows not before spotting a Barred Owl in a small tree right along the road. A couple Seaside Sparrows were singing after arrival, and we were able to get some distant scope views of one. We then spent some time around Flamingo at the end of the road where our main target was Shiny Cowbird. Exploring around we found many “Great White” Herons, the white form of Great Blue Heron, a Peregrine Falcon, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler, several Black-whiskered Vireos, along with West Indian Manatee, American Crocodile, and finally a two male Shiny Cowbirds mixed in with 18 Brown-headed Cowbirds.

After a successful morning in the Everglades, we headed back out and picked up a couple Western Kingbirds after exiting. Similar to the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, these kingbirds also overwinter in South Florida in small numbers around the same area. The afternoon was spent slowly working our way down the Florida Keys towards Key West. This incredibly scenic drive, spanning over 100 miles including 42 bridges, was broken up with a couple stops along the way including a delicious lunch at a local coffee shop and a quick stop on Grassy Key to pick up a vagrant Neotropical Cormorant.

Once in Key West, we paid a visit to Fort Zackary Taylor State Park where we had a host of migrant warblers including Blackpoll, Cape May, and Worm-eating. We also had excellent views of White-crowned Pigeons, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and yet another Black-whiskered Vireo.

The next day promised to be a great day as we embarked on a boat trip out to the Dry Tortugas the spend the day. The ride out yielded Northern Gannets, Magnificent Frigatebirds, scores of flying fish, and several Green Sea Turtles. On approach, a special request with the captain took us right by Hospital Key where we counted 11 Brown and 74 Masked Boobies.

As we approached Garden Key, where the fort is located and where we’d spend the day, we were greeted by thousands of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns, hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds, and a team of Ruddy Turnstones on the beach. Our first stop was the part of the key where Black Noddy can be found. It took us a while to get there due to the number of migrant warblers stopping us in our tracks…Black-throated Green, American Redstarts, Black-and-white, Hooded. Eventually we made it to the noddy spot and after only a minute of scanning, we found one individual surrounded by Brown Noddies for an excellent comparison showing the darker plumage and smaller size.

After the success, we then proceeded to do a walking loop checking out all of the key spots on the key picking up an American Golden-Plover right on a fort pathway, several species of swallows, and several raptors trying to find the migrant passerines before us – Sharp-shinned, Merlin, American Kestrel, and Peregrine Falcon all making their rounds! In the fort courtyard, especially around the water drip (the only freshwater source on the island) we tallied thirteen species of warblers such as Prairie, Magnolia, and Cape May along with a male Painted Bunting, a Summer Tanager, a couple Gray Kingbirds, no fewer than 5 Yellow-billed Cuckoos, a White-eyed and yet another Black-whiskered Vireo. We had a wonderful day moseying around and watching nearly all of the migrants visit the water drip. Before leaving we managed to find a couple Bridled Terns that were hanging out with the more common Sooty Terns. Sadly, it was time to return to Key West and those dedicated enough to stand in the full mid-day sun on the ride back spotted Audubon’s Shearwater.

After an early dinner, we ventured back out once more in search of Antillean Nighthawk not far from Key West. This species can be tricky and often requires a very early start the next morning to a reliable spot. However, luck was on our side, and we managed to hear and see one flying around causing reason to celebrate… a good bird, and more sleep!

Before departing Key West the nest morning, we stopped by Fort Zachary Taylor once more in case the favorable winds brough in anything last night. Although there wasn’t much changeover, we did pick up Northern Waterthrush and several Ovenbirds. The rest of the morning and afternoon we worked our way back along the Florida Keys and arrived on the mainland mid-afternoon. Our next goal was to try and find the secretive Mangrove Cuckoo, which can often be difficult to find. Despite the mid-day heat, we eventually spotted one right along the trail where it proceeded to sit there for several minutes offering phenomenal eye-level views. Views one can only dream of.

With a major target in the bag, we spent the rest of the day targeting some exotic species around the Miami suburbs finding Red-whiskered Bulbul, Scaly-breasted Munia, Egyptian Goose, and Mitred Parakeet.

Over the last few months there had been an unreliable Yellow-headed Caracara hanging out in an area outside Miami, so we devoted some time for this mega rarity. Unfortunately, no caracara this time so we headed north the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, a large breeding site for waterbirds. We walked the boardwalk where Wood Storks were the most numerous with no fewer than 370 adults and youngsters. We also had excellent numbers of Anhingas, Glossy Ibis, Tricolored Herons, among others all nearly within arm’s reach.

Heading back south towards our hotel, we swung by Brian Piccolo Park for the resident Burrowing Owls, which have little areas roped off between soccer fields in this busy urban park. We also picked up some Monk Parakeets off in the distance. A couple more stops yielded Red-masked and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets and a calling Indian Peafowl. With virtually no new birds to be found, we checked into our hotel and had a lovely Peruvian dinner for our final dinner together celebrating a wonderful and successful South Florida tour!

- Ethan Kistler, 2024

Created: 05 June 2024