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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Florida: The South, the Keys and the Dry Tortugas

2022 Narrative

In Brief: The 2022 WINGS Spring Florida tour provided a great survey of the habitats and avifauna of this remarkable region.  We started off in the Florida pineywoods, with a perched Bachman’s Sparrow, several inquisitive Florida Scrub-Jays and wonderfully cooperative Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.  Out at the hotspot of Fort Desoto we picked out a great array of waders including Piping Plovers and Red Knots as well as our first suite of migrant passerines like Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Black-throated Blue, Cape May, Black-and-White and a surprise Kirtland’s Warbler around the ranger station.  Here too were several perched Nanday Parakeets, in the heart of their introduced Flordia range.  As always our journey also took in such wonderful sights as the seemingly endless “sea of grass” of the Everglades, the heavily developed metropolitan coastline of Southeast Florida, which maintains a nice selection of protected areas and shelters many more species than just the “exotics” that it is known for, the beautiful cypress bottomlands, heavily laden with epiphytes and flowers, the upland pine/oak scrub and grassland savannahs of the central peninsula, coastal mangroves and bays, and stretches of sparkling white sand beaches.  Florida provided outstanding and repeated views of wading birds such as Glossy and White Ibis, Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, 12 species of Herons including Least Bitterns, many of which were on nests and decked out in their full breeding regalia.  The tropical climate of South Florida supports large numbers of exotic species and on the tour, we located several species of parrots alongside the aristocratic Common Myna (slumming in a fast-food parking lot), the beautiful Spot-breasted Oriole and the colorful, if a bit imposing, Gray-headed Swamphen. Enroute to the Dry Tortugas we found both Brown and Masked Boobies as well as a few Green Sea Turtles and flying fish. Out at the fort the dry and hot conditions limited the number of migrants present, but we still enjoyed ten species of Warblers, a surprise male Shiny Cowbird, a locally rare Red-shouldered Hawk and excellent views of a perched Black Noddy and several pairs of ethereally white Roseate Terns.  The Florida Keys revealed many handsome White-crowned Pigeons, a few Black-whiskered Vireos, loafing Wilson’s Plover, and amazingly close views of displaying Antillean Nighthawks. In and around urban Miami we found the nearly full sweep of ‘countable’ exotics, including the newly minted Egyptian Goose, brightly colored Red-whiskered Bulbul and Spot-breasted Oriole, somewhat dubious-looking Muscovy Ducks and Monk, Yellow-chevroned and Mitred Parakeets.  We also managed to relocate a long-staying Least Grebe and a recently found Bahama Mockingbird out on Key Biscayne. On our last day, we visited some spectacular wading bird colonies, where breeding Wood Storks, Anhingas and herons were only feet away from us on the boardwalk.  It was a busy but great week in what is surely one of most unique landscapes and avifaunas of the United States.

In Detail:We spent the first full day exploring to the north of Fort Myers where we visited upland (for Florida) slash pine forest, the live oak dominated xeric forests of central Florida and some lovely Gulf coast beaches and wetlands.  Our first stop was the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area; an expansive preserve that contains open pine forests, small freshwater marshes, and a few large lakes.  Historically these open pine forest habitats stretched in a nearly unbroken chain from this part of Florida to the eastern part of Texas.  The pines here are fire adapted, and the regular fires keep the understory largely in grasses and forbs.  Decades of fire suppression across the range have resulted in a lot of the range to be choked with a dense understory, which renders the habitat of limited use for the several species of animals evolved with these normally open pinelands such as Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Bachman’s Sparrow (as well as a host of non-avian species as well).  A bit after dawn we parked near a well-established Red-cockaded woodpecker cluster (a managed and marked area with active nest and roost cavities that are used by a pair of woodpeckers and their young).  These woodpeckers prefer to build cavities from living Long-leaf Pines infected with a heartwood fungus.  The trees respond to the woodpecker damage by producing copious sap which coats the trunk below the cavity making the tree unattractive for marauding snakes that might seek out the birds or eggs.  Just minutes after arriving at the site we tracked down two birds feeding close to the road.  One pair of woodpeckers can range over 100 acres to forage, returning to their roost holes only late in the day, so we timed our visit almost perfectly; catching the birds just as they departed the area for their daily foraging route.  Unlike our experience in 2020, the birds remained close for quite some time, allowing us to really take in their large white cheeks, banded backs and spotted flanks.  Despite the length of the observation and the closeness of the birds we couldn’t discern their namesake red cockades, a feature which is nearly impossible to detect in the field.

A short distance down the road we turned our attention to a singing Bachman’s Sparrow, which was perched up in an isolated pine.  These somewhat enigmatic sparrows spend much of the year scrambling around in the dense grasses like feathered mice.  When threatened they have been shown to even retreat underground at times, using Gopher Tortoise burrows or rabbit warrens as an escape route.  For just a few weeks of the year they throw caution to the wind and emerge from their lairs to perch up in the trees, uttering a sweet warbling song that earned them the moniker of Pineywoods Sparrow to the early colonizers in the south.  The species depends on an early successional understory and will depart an area roughly 4-8 years post burn for more open forests.  Some years the birds seem to breed early, and by the time our tour dates arrive the birds are generally quiet and feeding young, but happily for us this male sat up for quite some time.  Near the sparrow we successfully teased up a couple of vocal Pine Warblers and a pair of perky little Brown-headed Nuthatches; yet another pineywoods endemic.

With our principal targets all cooperating so nicely for us this year we then had some time to wander a bit through the park, making a few stops wherever birds seemed particularly active.  Likely the most surprising sighting occurred when a passing low-level airplane stirred up a roosting Chuck-will’s Widow.  The bird sang a few times, and when we walked off the road to find it, we managed to see the bird in flight, and on the ground! Over the course of an hour or so we picked up a nice array of more common species such as our first Common Ground, Mouring and White-winged Doves, Red-bellied and Red-headed Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Loggerhead Shrike, Blue Jays, Gray Catbird, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds, and a cooperative pair of Eastern Towhee showing the eerily white irides typical of the central Florida race.  In contrast to the last few years, we found the marshes to be bone dry, with very little water evident anywhere in the forest.  We also lucked into a male Northern Bobwhite that flew across the road and then landed in the open.  He quickly scuttled into some brush, but we were able to flush it again for a quick repeat view.  Once we returned to the park entrance we stopped for a restroom and snack break and birded around the margins of a small cattail and rush-filled marsh.  This turned out to be a productive site, as over about 10 minutes of birding we found a distant pair of Sandhill Cranes foraging on the far lakeshore, some very showy Boat-tailed Grackles, and a nice selection of herons, including an inflight Least Bittern, foraging in the vegetated pond along the edge of the parking area.

Our next stop was a bit further to the north in at a small brush-covered residential area to enjoy Florida’s only endemic bird: the Florida Scrub-Jay.  Now very locally distributed across central Florida this species is the cause of much conservation concern and being able to easily see several birds at close range was a real treat.   Their preferred habitat of xeric scrub forest is perhaps the most coveted land type for developers, farmers and ranchers as clearing it is straightforward and it rarely floods.  As a result, the formerly more contiguous core of the state which served as the jays range has become increasingly fragmented.  In this particular neighborhood a lot of large oaks and open, scrubby lots have been left, allowing the jays to coexist with their new human neighbors.  The jays here are very tame, coming quite close to the group and showing off the bright blue plumage and broader and whiter eyestripe that separates this species from its duller western counterparts.

A mid-day stop at a large wetland complex near Sarasota proved most productive.  Around the parking lot were dozens of foraging Purple Martins hawking insects around the parked cars, with two giant martin houses recently constructed by the local Audubon society proving the old adage “if you build it, they will come”.   Several fairly large chicks were poking their heads out of the holes, a testament to just how early (mid-January) the species returns to Florida.  The open marshes around the well-constructed boardwalks were mostly flooded, but in the shallower parts of the impoundments we picked out foraging Purple and Common Gallinules (with fuzzy bald chicks in tow), sunning Anhinga, a few Blue-winged Teal and a nice array of herons.  Here too were a couple of Gray-headed Swamphens, a species which has only recently arrived in the Sarasota region.  A larger relative of our native Common and Purple Gallinules, the Swamphens have been spreading from their original release site in Pembroke Pines.  They are highly predatory and are detrimental to the Everglades Ecosystem (along with Caiman, Pythons, Wild Boars and a host of other introduced species).  Efforts to eradicate them by the Florida Fish and Game were unsuccessful and have been abandoned, leaving the birds to spread throughout the marshes of southern Florida.  Although undeniably a problem for the environment the birds are impressive, and very colorful.   After admiring a nice selection of Palm and Cape May Warblers, and a seemingly tame Hispid Cotton Rat we moved over to the southern boardwalk in the complex.    Here we spotted our first (distant) Limpkin, some foraging Black-necked Stilts, glowing Roseate Spoonbills and Glossy Ibis and an adult Bald Eagle.  The marshes around the boardwalk were largely dry, with small patches of mud and a lot of open ground.  This made for perfect viewing conditions as normally retiring marsh species were forced to come out of the denser vegetation to forage.  By carefully scanning the open areas we picked out feeding Sora and Virginia Rails (a write-in for our spring Florida tour list) as well as our first Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper and several handsome Swamp Sparrows.  As we started the short walk back to the van we heard the unmistakable raucous calls of parrots in flight, and we soon picked out a passing pair of Nanday Parakeets that came virtually right past us over the boardwalk. These large parakeets are quite colorful, with black heads, a bluish wash on their upper breast and bright red pantaloons.  They are now regarded as established and countable within Florida by the American Birding Association and seem to be becoming more common throughout much of the developed parts of the southwest Florida coastline.

After lunch, which we picked up and then ate at a lovely lakeside gazebo nearby (accompanied by our first Spotted Sandpiper and several mid-sized American Alligators) we continued north to Fort Desoto, crossing Tampa Bay over the impressively large bridge that spans the mouth of the bay.  The road leading back out to Fort Desoto (which sits on a sandy barrier island a few miles offshore) provided us with repeated views of languidly soaring Magnificent Frigatebirds, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Osprey (we found over 40 individuals on the day) and our first Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans.  The barrier island around the fort is a well-known coastal migrant trap and we were in good spirits on the drive over as the previous day a visiting birder had located a Kirtland’s Warbler that happily was also seen earlier in the morning.  Although these chunky warblers winter in the nearby Bahamas they are exceedingly rare sights in Florida, with fewer than one in the state each year on average.  Virtually all the previous sightings were on the east coast of the state, making this bird even more remarkable.  We pulled into the ranger station parking lot, and within a few minutes of walking noted a small crowd of birders with binoculars and cameras trained on a large sea grape thicket.  Sure enough they were on the bird, and we spent about 10 minutes watching it forage from ground level to the midstory of the tree – a completely unexpected and welcome addition to the trips cumulative list, and for many of the participants an excellent bonus life bird!  A few other warblers were bouncing around in the thickets, including numbers of Palm, a few Black-throated Blue, Black-and-White and Blackpoll and one handsome male American Redstart.  A flashy Rose-breasted Grosbeak showed well also, drinking from one of the bird friendly fountains around the trail system.  Here too were a few pairs of Nanday Parakeets that obligingly sat out in front of us, allowing a better study than our first pair which were mere flybys.  Before we started the drive back to Fort Myers, we stopped at a few beachside locations to scan the assembled masses of waders.  Among the numerous Laughing Gulls, Royal Terns, Black Skimmers and Dunlin we picked out a nice selection of birds.  Particularly noteworthy were a first year Lesser Black-backed Gull, some Red Knots that were beginning to come into their dapper breeding plumage, a pair of Piping Plover with several Semipalmated Plovers on hand for ready comparison, our first Caspian, Least, Sandwich and Forster’s Terns, and some dancing Reddish Egrets.  We turned the vans back southwards in the late afternoon, stopping back in Sarasota at a steakhouse for dinner.  We went over the day’s birdlist the next morning over coffee and were amazed at how many species we had tallied over the course of the day (roughly 108 species)!

On day two we began by visiting a nearby freshwater marsh, where large wading birds are typically much in evidence.  As we neared the marsh, we stopped along one of the canals that drain from the wetland to admire a young Snail Kite that was devouring a large snail from atop a roadside pole.  Snail Kite is a distinctive bird, coal grey-black, with broad wings, a white rump band and vent, and bright red legs and lores.  The Florida population in on the increase, partially due to the rapid expansion of introduced Caribbean Apple Snails.  Recent scientific inquiry into the relationship between the snails and the local kites has shown that the Florida population is becoming larger billed in order to handle these heftier introduced mollusks, evidence of natural selection in action!  Once at the marsh we spotted a couple more kites, including a lovely slate-gray adult.  All were actively flying out, grabbing their breakfast of snails (one at a time), and then landing along the edge of the water to extricate their meals from their shells.  We never saw a kite miss a target; it must be terrifying to be an apple snail in Kite country.  The snails that escaped the kites had to contend too with the wading Limpkins that were almost abundant here.  Several Limpkins were right along the dike, and seemingly didn’t mind our appreciative attentions.  A large canal near the parking lot was largely dried up, and the muddy edges were attracting good numbers of Mottled Duck (including some young chicks), Blue-winged Teal, Ibis, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons and yet more Limpkin.  Before leaving the area, we went on a short walk along the marsh dike path, stopping to admire the local family group of Sandhill Cranes, a wonderfully cooperative male Bobolink and a somewhat disconcerting number of Black and Turkey Vultures perching up in the nearby Cypress trees.  Several dazzling odonates including Halloween and Four-spotted Pennants and Eastern Pondhawks distracted us as we walked back to the cars.

After packing up and (for some) a second breakfast we turned the vans south, navigating the busy I-75 corridor that snakes down the gulf side of the state.  We picked up a picnic lunch and then continued to the Fakahatchee Strand boardwalk in the Big Cyprus Preserve.  A long boardwalk here extends about a half-mile from the road out into a cypress swamp, with dense bromeliad laden vegetation, a lush ground cover of ferns and mosses and some towering trees.   The forest was very dry this year, due to a persistent drought, and the aftereffects of a recent hurricane were certainly still evident, with dense tangles of vegetation in the understory.  Even in the heat of the day the shady forest held a lot of birds, including impressive numbers of migrant warblers.  Most were American Redstarts, but we also found Black-throated Blue, Prairie, Cape May and Blackpoll.  Local breeding birds were quite active as well, with our first Great Crested Flycatchers gathering nesting material from the trail edge, White-eyed Vireos, Northern Parula, Carolina Wrens and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers all in good song and showing well along the trail.  For much of the walk we were treated to the jarring calls of a couple of begging young Red-shouldered Hawks that despite their size seemed intent on asking their doubtless tired parents for hand-outs.  Pileated, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers were working the snags, and nearly everywhere we looked in the underbrush we could find Brown or Green Anoles scuttling about, or hulking black, red and green lubber grasshoppers clambering through the vegetation.  Once we reached the large pool at the end of the boardwalk we noted our first Tufted Titmouse, a couple of small American Alligators and a hunting Tricolored Heron that was making good work of the many small fish that had collected in the pond.  We had planned to spent the early afternoon casually crossing the rest of the peninsula and checking out a couple of little-used sideroads, but as is often the case in Florida the birding gods had other plans in store for us.  With the news that a Bahama Mockingbird was being seen out on Key Biscayne (a large island off Florida’s east coast near downtown Miami) we decided to switch gears and cross the rest of the Tamiami trail fairly quickly.

About an hour after leaving Cypress Preserve, we reached the abrupt border with the urban jungle of Miami, but before heading over to look for the Mockingbird we elected to check a small city park where we had a recent tip for a nesting location of Spot-breasted Oriole.  We pulled into the parking lot and before we had even parked one adult landed in a small oak tree.  This is a large and very bright oriole, with lots of white in the wing and a smattering of small black feathers at the sides of the breast is stunning and although introduced, is perhaps the most impressive of the US Orioles.  We enjoyed a lengthy visit with this pair of adults, watching them come back into the oak to feed their mostly grown yellow chicks that were tucked into the denser part of the crown.  Here too we found our first Gray Kingbirds chattering away from the treetops, looking (and sounding) much like Tropical Kingbirds that had been rinsed in a colour-draining solution.  Since we didn’t relish the thought of trying to cross through Miami in rush hour we headed out and reached Bill Baggs State Park (at the southern tip of Key Biscayne) before the masses of Miamites (Miamiers?) hit the highways.  The plan worked well, with only a short bout of stop and go traffic as we navigated around the south end of Miami Beach, and we arrived at the southern tip of Key Biscayne a little before 5pm.  This well forested park (and Key Biscayne in general) have hosted an amazing array of rarities over the years since the extensive native vegetation and good cover provide a lot of shelter for birds arriving on the coast.  It took about ten minutes to walk up the birding trail from the lighthouse, but soon we were in position and staring deep into the dense brush hoping that the mockingbird might deign to pop up for us.  In many ways Bahama Mockingbirds act more like thrashers than our more familiar Northern Mockingbird, preferring to remain in or near cover and infrequently venturing out into the open.  After about a half hour we could hear some suspicious chacking noises from a little further back on the trail, and when we moved over to investigate the Mockingbird jumped up into a tall tree that overshadowed the trail.

We followed the bird as it moved up in the tree and obtained a few decent photos before it shot down and back into cover in a nearby fruiting shrub.  From some angles the flank streaking was hard to discern, but from others the streaks were very evident, and the browner toned wings, stockier body and legs, unmarked wings, and faint malar bar that set this rare vagrant from the Bahamas apart from the nearly ubiquitous Northern Mockingbird were all quite easy to notice.  Even though our cumulative list for the tour stretches back an impressive 20 years this sighting represented only the second Bahama Mockingbird that a WINGS Florida tour had ever recorded!    We had dinner at the nearby small boat harbour restaurant, some enjoying the local catch of the day, and others the sangria and Key Lime pies.  By the time dinner was over it was smooth sailing down to our hotel in Florida City, where we arrived rather late but quite content with our choice of impromptu birding locales!

We spent the morning of day 3 exploring the world-famous Everglades National Park.  Before heading into the park though we cruised around a bit of the developed part of Florida City, stopping to admire the introduced but firmly established Common Mynas that frequent the developed parking lots and wires around town. We then drove the few miles over to the park entrance, eager to enter this world-famous National Park.  The seemingly endless “sea of grass” of the Everglades, complete with tropical hardwoods, cyprus and slash pine hammocks and lush coastal mangroves is an amazing ecosystem to travel through, even thought the persistent drought and general lack of water due to the intensive agriculture further north has left much of the southern glades quite dry.    Our first stop was the well-named Mahogany Hammock.  Here a short boardwalk winds around a small hardwood hammock out in the marshy prairie.  These hammocks are a botanically diverse spot, consisting of an isolated grove of trees popping up from the surrounding grassy marsh.  Shady and often full of fruit and insects, these hammocks provide food and shelter for migrants and breeding habitat for a wide range of species that do not inhabit the surrounding wetlands.  Hurricane Irma hit the Everglades square on after passing over the central Keys in 2017, and although this particular hammock was over twenty miles inland from the coast most of the larger mahogany, gumbo limbo and cocoplum were snapped off or toppled, and the understory was dense and tangled with the fallen upper limbs.  The walk around the boardwalk produced a few migrant birds including a Black-whiskered Vireo that spent some time foraging over the trail.  The large bill was quite evident, but it took a bit of time before all the participants managed to pick out the thin black malar stripe that gives this mainly Caribbean species its name.  Here too we spotted a sleepy fledgling Barred Owl that was perched on a limb not too far off the boardwalk, giving us the occasional half-hearted and quizzical glare before its eyelids drooped again.

We then continued on to the end of the road in Flamingo, the slightly developed park that contains a small marina, a little visitors center (still under construction from the ravages of Hurricane Irma) and a few generally empty campgrounds.  We started out with some amazingly point-blank views of a half-dozen American Swallow-tailed Kites that were hawking dragonflies right over the road and an adjacent meadow; often flying right past us at eye level. With their snow-white heads, glossy backs and long tail streamers it is hard to argue that Swallow-tailed Kites are not one of the prettiest raptors in the world.  Leaving the kites behind we drove to the end of the road, where a small beach provides an overlook of the sparkling shallow waters of Florida Bay.  Here we quickly located a wading Great White Heron standing out in front of one of the nearby mangrove islands just offshore.  This striking bird occurs only around South Florida and the Keys, and has a bit of a checkered taxonomic past.  Long regarded as simply a local color morph of Great Blue recent genetic work suggests that it deserves at least subspecific status, if not full specific status.  While scanning out over the bay we were shocked to see herons wading at least a mile offshore, seemingly standing in mid-air due to the light refraction and the truly shallow water.  We then moved over to the marina and very soon after arriving located several manatees rolling around on the between some of the boat slips.  It is often hard to see these rotund and generally reclusive animals well, as they tend to inhabit opaque waters and barely surface before sinking back to the bottom in a small ring of bubbles.  These guys were nice and close, and although they never stayed at the surface long, we could clearly see their whiskered muzzles and wonder a bit how any long-suffering sailor could ever possibly have mistaken this species for maritime maidens.  Also, around the marina we were successful in tracking down two of the resident American Crocodiles that often frequent the canal behind the marina.  These generally shy animals are at the northern edge of their range in South Florida, with an estimated population of roughly 1500 individuals in the state.  They tend to frequent brackish, mangrove-lined channels in coastal estuaries rather than the more widespread freshwater marshes favored by their more well-known Alligator cousins.

Earlier in the day we noticed that the Keys highway was closed due to a large wildfire that was blowing smoke over the road north of Key Largo.  Since we could still make out the billowing cloud while we were in the park and we were concerned about the travel time south to Key West we decided to drive out of the park and have an early lunch at the famous fruit stand near Florida City for a filling fruit shake and Cuban sandwich lunch.  The array of bewildering fruit options here further enforced the idea that we were culturally now in the Caribbean.  Guanabana, Mamey, Dragonfruit, Jakfruit, Sapote, Key Lime, Mangos and Tamarind were all on the menu, blended with ice cream or ice, and the fruit stand with fresh fruit, jams, honeys and salsas occupied our time while we waited for our drinks.  The menagerie out behind the building seems to get more varied with each passing year, and now includes a remarkably disparate group of parrots, tortoises, goats, cows and emus, all seemingly content to accept handouts of cabbages and grains from the throngs of visiting tourists.  After the refreshing milkshakes and we made the scenic drive down to Key West. This long highway crosses dozens of small keys, with dazzlingly blue water often on both sides, and coral reefs visible under the crystal-clear water.  Although only 100 miles long the road is slow, and even with the reopening of the highway due to the efforts of several water dropping helicopters it took us most of the afternoon to reach our hotel near the end of the highway.   Key West is a historic city that has combined its authentic architecture, quirky nature and relaxed feeling with the draws of a major tourist destination to good effect.   As we checked into the hotel rooms we noticed a couple of White-crowned Pigeons perching on wires above the carpark.  This is a large and attractive Caribbean species; navy-blue with a starched white crown and glossy green neck stripes.  After a bit of time off we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at a local Cuban restaurant and turned in early in preparation for our next day out on the Dry Tortugas.

The next morning the day dawned clear and warm, not generally the best conditions for a trip out to the Dry Tortugas (where a bit of rain often causes birds to stop over at the fort rather than continue on through the storm).  With no fronts in the area, and little chance for rain we did not have high hopes for a fall-out on the island, but even these “slow” days are exciting in the Tortugas, as birds land here in any weather.  The ride out was splendid, over slightly rolling but sparkling azure- blue waters.   As is generally the case with shallow and warm waters we spotted few birds during the nearly three-hour passage over to the Tortugas. We did see a couple of young Northern Gannets flying low over the ocean, one crossing the bow at quite close range, little groups of flying fish and needlefish skipping out in front of the bow, a few Bottlenosed Dolphins and several large Green Sea Turtles lounging on the surface.

After we crossed over the national park boundary, the captain passed quite close to Hospital Key giving us views of the Masked Booby colony that have been breeding on this unassuming sandy island for well over a decade. We counted an impressive 75 birds sitting on the sand (there seem to be more each year), with a few more flying around the small island.  A nearby green navigation marker was hosting an impressive number of Brown Boobies (we counted up to 11 individuals), giving us a rather pleasing three species of Booby for the day before we even set foot on the fort!  As we neared our destination, we began to see hundreds of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns wheeling around the fort building and sitting on the nearby nesting colony on Bush Key.  Also present were a few hundred Magnificent Frigatebirds, which nest on the outlying part of Bush Key.  We motored around the fort and tied up to the public dock.  The building looked as impressive as ever, although there were still some signs of the 2017 hurricane evident, with bricks knocked out of the window openings, a few cracks in the walls and lots of construction materials and fencing cordoning off parts of the walls.

We started our time in the park with an amble around the inside of the fort, where small oak trees, sea grapes and a few Gumbo Limbos provide shelter and foraging opportunities for tired migrant birds.  Despite the lack of any inclement weather a surprising diversity of migrants were evident.  Over the course of the day, we located 10 species of warblers, with lots of beautiful and cooperative Cape May, Black-throated Blue, and Black-and-White Warblers as well as good numbers of American Redstarts.  A few non-warbler migrants were also present including male Indigo Buntings, a few male Bobolink, Gray Catbird, and a distant Belted Kingfisher,

Cattle Egrets were stalking around the fountain looking to snack on any particularly tired birds (an annual event here at the Tortugas) and the skies over the fort’s central courtyard held foraging Barn and Bank Swallows and a surprisingly diverse selection of raptors including Sharp-shinned and Red-shouldered (quite rare out in the Tortugas) Hawks, American Kestrel and a very active Merlin.  After our sojourn inside the fort walls, we headed over to the northern Coaling Docks, where over much of the previous two weeks visiting birders had repeatedly located a Black Noddy roosting among the throng of Brown Noddies.  Our good luck held, as within just a few minutes of scanning we picked out the bird sitting on one of the closer posts, with several Brown Noddy next to it for an excellent comparison.  Its smaller size, darker body plumage, thinner and more drooped bill and nicely demarked white cap really stood out at such a close range.  With literally thousands of Brown Noddies wheeling around the sky and perching along the islands shores it is always a bit of a needle in a haystack search for the (at most) one or two Black Noddies that frequent the area most summers.  While ogling the Noddy we were also thrilled to see a couple of pairs of Roseate Terns sitting out on the pilings as well.  These tropical terns are lovely birds, with ethereally white bodies, long tail points, and a large black cap that extends down the nape.  Roseates are never numerous, and given that we had checked on their small colony in Marathon without success the previous day we were quite happy to have such close-range views on the fort.  For the rest of our time out in the tortugas we simply enjoyed poking around and seeing what other species might be lurking in the shrubs, or visiting the fountain in the mid-day heat.  No large fallout of birds happened while we lingered, but we did tally our first Semipalmated Plover, Herring Gull, Lesser Yellowlegs and Yellow Warbler for the day, and the fountain held one last surprise for us before we had to board the ship; a young male Shiny Cowbird.  Scarce in Florida, and strangely missing this year from their customary location in Flamingo this was a target species for most of the group, and we were able to watch it for quite some time as it foraged in the grasses around the fountain and occasionally came up for a drink.

In short, it was a simply wonderful day out on the key, with a smattering of migrants, the suite of seabirds that one can expect, and excellent views of nearly every bird that we saw.  All too soon it was time to leave and head back to Key West, with more dolphins, flying fish and Green Sea Turtles to admire on the journey back.  After some down time at the hotel, we capped the day off with a delectable seafood dinner near the hotel with excellent mojitos in our hands, and fresh stone crab or gulf shrimp on the table.

As no Antillean Nighthawks had been reported around the Key West Airport as of the time of our tour, we elected to make an early morning run north to reach some spots where the species is often recorded earlier in the season.  Once we reached the area on Big Pine Key it took only a minute or so of waiting before we detected the characteristic pit-a-ta-tic calls from a flying Antillean Nighthawk.  As the sky began to brighten, we were soon able to find a couple of birds flying back and forth over some nearby houses.  One individual was displaying directly overhead, making repeated dives down to the ground before swooping back up just a few yards away from us.  It was a quite spectacular display from one of the countries most localized breeding birds.  Here too we located several Key Deer; a resident tiny subspecies of White-tailed Deer that inhabits Big Pine and a few adjacent keys.  Barely larger than a German Shephard these endangered deer are quite endearing (no pun intended) and thankfully the recent Hurricane that greatly affected the island seemed to leave the population largely intact.  Happy with our views and excellent audio we headed to a nearby neighborhood in search of Mangrove Cuckoo at a site that a friend had recently seen one.  We dipped on the Mangrove, but did find a migrant Yellow-billed Cuckoo as some consolation and then headed back to our hotel for breakfast and some time to pack up for our journey north to Miami.

For the rest of the morning, we visited a bit of downtown Key West.  The large trees and heavily ornamental plantings are attractive to migrant birds and although the real estate here is among the most expensive in the world the residents go out of their way to look casual and laid back.  We spent about an hour walking around Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, a protected area near the tip of the island that features a Civil War era brick fort (a companion to the one on the Tortugas). In the small patch of open woods near the fort we found a few migrants bouncing around in the trees.  The forest here is a bit more open than at the fort, so although none of the warblers were new, some of the views were spectacular.  Some White-crowned Pigeons showed well here too, and we had a bit of fun watching Northern Curlytail lizards pounce on grasshoppers in the understory.  As it didn’t appear that any large movements of migrants were underway, we pointed the vans northward for the nearly 3-hour drive back up the Keys highway, stopping at an out of the way spot near the naval air station where we made a short walk along the coast.  The small sandy beach had a nice rack line of drying algea that was attracting a mix of shorebird species.  We were able to study Least Sandpiper, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, “Western” Willet and Short-billed Dowitcher at close range as we wandered over to a large saltpond.  Once at the pond we quickly found our principal target, a winter-plumaged Wilson’s Plover that was sitting amongst a motley assortment of moulting Black-bellied Plovers, many with nearly fully black bellies.

A bit farther up the keys we stopped in Marathon for lunch at a local Cuban café and juicebar.  Full of Cuban coffee, giant Cuban sandwiches and fresh-squeezed juices we headed further up the keys, checking several areas that have been productive for us in the past for Mangrove Cuckoo.  This wraith of a bird can be exceedingly difficult to see on demand in Florida.  The bulk of its range is generally inaccessible except by boat and over much of the keys we can’t broadcast playback, limiting our chances even further.  We didn’t have any luck on the day, but as we had some time available on our last day we decided to stop tilting at cuckoo-shaped windmills and instead visit Kendall a little south of Miami, in an effort to track down a number of established (and non-established) exotics.  In the ponds around the Kendall Baptist Hospital, we quickly located a family of Egyptian Geese, recently minted as established by the state of Florida and the ABA.  Also here were a number of Muscovy Ducks, which, although a far cry from the wary, all black birds that course over the Rio Grande River in Texas are also deemed countable.  Nearby on the hospital roof we found some noisy Mitred Parakeets, yet another recently sanctioned established species flying around and occasionally landing in the large palms around the parking lot or on the hospital roof.  It wasn’t all introduced birds (though the picnic table with European Starling, Eurasian Collared-Dove, and House Sparrow did make it seem that way a bit).   We then moved to the north and quickly found a couple of Red-whiskered Bulbuls perched up on wires in a tiny little suburban neighborhood.  This attractive bird sports an elegant crest and striking black, white and red plumage.  In Florida it has a very restricted range and small population centered around southern Miami.  They don’t seem to compete with of the native birds to any appreciable degree, and certainly add a splash of colour and panache to the backyards of any locals lucky enough to host them.

Our last day is usually dedicated to the pursuit of any special species that we may have missed and to picking up the remaining countable exotics around Miami. In contrast to the rest of the trip we awoke to find light rain and heavy skies, which made for pleasant temperatures.  Happily, the weather cleared up as the day went on, and we really never needed our raincoats or umbrellas.  The first stop for the day was the historic Biltmore Hotel and Country Club, where around the impressive dome and tower of the building we found another chattering flock of parrots.  These were Red-masked Parakeets, a close relative of the Mitred and a species that as of yet has not been sanctioned by the Florida state committee as established.  We saw well over two dozen birds here though, and the overall population in greater Miami seems to be increasing rapidly, so perhaps one day they will get the nod (not that one should really root for introduced species to take hold, but these assorted parrots generally prefer suburban neighborhoods with ornamental trees, and as such, seem not to pose a huge threat to truly wild areas or our non-commensal birds).  Here too we were able to track down and study a small flock of uncharacteristically cooperative Yellow-chevroned Parakeets as they flew in and landed in a conveniently located high perch for us to study their emerald green and gold plumage in the scopes.  This species illustrates wonderfully the often-intricate knots that birders can tie themselves into when it comes to introduced exotics.  It became countable in the ABA when California accepted its population as established.  The Florida population became countable for ABA under the new rule changes as well, but as of our tour in 2022 the Florida Ornithological Society had not added it to the official state list.  This means that for those that “follow the rules” we could count the bird on our ABA list but not on our Florida list.  Sometimes it’s easier to just go birding…  Leaving the Biltmore behind we drove south through the impressive Coral Gables neighborhoods, looking at the massive spreading canopies of exotic fig trees and hundreds of opulent and stately houses tucked into the woods.  Here too we encountered little groups of Indian Peafowl strutting around some of the suburban lawns.

We arrived near the end of the road at Black Point in search of our main target species of the day; the Mangrove Cuckoo.  After admiring a large family group of Muscovy Ducks that were happily splashing around in a large rain puddle near the public restrooms we moved down to the mangrove-lined end of the road.  Within just a few minutes we heard the unmistakable cackle of a Mangrove Cuckoo coming from the road edge, and soon we were staring at a bedraggled bird that was sitting high up in the trees with outspread wings trying to dry out in the mid-morning sun.  The bird then sat for quite some time, allowing us to fully take in its caramel-colored underparts and grayish wings.  This species is generally one of the most wanted birds by participants on the Florida spring tour, and can be devilishly difficult (and time consuming) to consistently locate.  I think all agreed that our  views were deeply satisfying!       

As our cuckoo experience took an unexpectedly short time to complete, we decided to head back out to Key Biscayne, where a long lingering Least Grebe and a possible Thick-billed Vireo were on offer.  On the way, we stopped to watch a colony of Cave Swallows, here of the Caribbean race fulva, that were busily bringing mud in to their nests under a bridge over a small canal.  Once out on the Key we were quickly successful in located the Grebe as it sat quietly in a small pond in Crandon Park.  Although Least Grebes are common in South Texas, they are quite rare in Florida as they occur there only as occasional strays from breeding populations throughout the Caribbean islands.  When one reaches Florida, it often lingers for a long time, and this bird on Key Biscayne has been present for over a year!  We walked around the forested trail at the north end of the park for an hour or so in search of the occasionally reported Thick-billed Vireo but were not able to locate it despite our perseverance.  With only a handful of sightings spread over the previous two weeks it is a bird that seems to be stymying most eager birders (although we did meet a guy on the trail who had seen it just a few minutes before we arrived).  Despite the change in weather, we did not encounter many migrant birds, although we did find our first (and only) Baltimore Oriole and a couple of fairly cooperative Black-whiskered Vireos. 

By now the morning hours were coming to a close, so we left the coast behind and headed north of Miami, stopping for lunch in Pembroke Pines at a Panera.  Just after lunch we stopped in at a nearby well-known hotspot for Burrowing Owls in Cooper City.  Here, amid the sprawling baseball and soccer fields we found dozens of roped off nesting burrows with thoughtfully provided metal T perches and signage.  It didn’t take long to locate birds loafing outside its burrow.  These “Florida” Burrowing Owls are found in the central part of the state and across some scattered parts of the western Caribbean.  They are a darker brown with more contrasting white spots than the more familiar western birds, and like the Florida Scrub-Jay are highly threatened by the development and widespread land use changes across Florida.  These particular owls are protected by the local sports park which runs educational classes for local youth and monitors the nest success. Apparently, the spring of 2022 was a very good one for the birds, with the local population numbering an impressive 30 pairs, and the total number of birds a little above 100!  We saw 6 or 7 nesting pairs during our visit, with one nest sporting a clutch of 7 mostly feathered young who were all napping just outside the entrance to the burrow.  The park also supports a few nesting Monk Parakeets, and on some of the tall power poles that run behind the baseball fields we spotted their tell-tale bulky stick nests.  Monk Parakeets are the most common and widespread psittacid in Florida, and it didn’t take long before we located a few birds sitting around their nests, on roadside wires and foraging in the seeding grasses along the edge of one of the fields.

Our final major stop of the day was at the superlative Wakadohatchee Wetlands, where we marveled at the wading birds of South Florida replete in their full breeding dress, with many species actively feeding young.  The sight of a nearly fully-grown Great Blue Heron chicks begging for a handout from its parent was priceless, as was the nearly epic battle between two adjacent nesting Wood Storks that were squabbling over a particularly perfect stick.  Fuzzy, white Anhinga babies (comically oversized webbed feet) were begging for food from their attending parents, and the incredibly bright nuptial coloration of the Great Egrets and Cattle Egrets was impressive.  A lot of nests were right along the boardwalk, allowing us to see right into the nests in a quite intimate way.  As we walked the boardwalk, we had very close views of most of the common marshbirds on the peninsula. One particular bird of interest seemed markedly more common here than on our previous visits; the Gray-headed Swamphen.  We found a dozen Swamphens along the boardwalk, enjoying repeated and very close views of their undeniably handsome (if menacing) plumage.   Black-bellied Whistling Ducks dotted the shaded berms around the boardwalk, flanked often by sunning Green Iguanas or perhaps a lounging Alligator.  Also here, we found several native Purple Gallinules stalking the reedbeds.  This stunning bird is surely one of North America’s most colorful, and the reflective blues, indigos, purples and greens of its back and wing feathers are a sight to behold.  Several Least Bitterns were here as well, with a couple of birds actually standing out in the open as they foraged along the edges of some large clumps of Alligator Flag.  This small park is surrounded by development, but the density of birdlife here is staggering, and the overall impression for most first-time visitors matches their expectation of the best of the Everglades.

In the late afternoon we made the hour-long drive back down to our Miami hotel near the airport.  We capped the trip off with a wonderful dinner at a Peruvian restaurant, with a lot of frivolity and reminiscing about our week across South Florida.  I hope all of the participants enjoyed the trip as much as I did!

Created: 27 October 2022