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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Florida: The South, the Keys and the Dry Tortugas

2021 Narrative

In Brief: The 2021 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 pair of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, inquisitive Florida Scrub-Jays, perched up Northern Bobwhite and bubbly little Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers.  The journey then 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, and Limpkin, 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), beautiful Spot-breasted Oriole and Red-whiskered Bulbils and the colorful, if a bit imposing, Gray-headed Swamphen. This year, due to changes in listing rules from the ABA we also tallied a few extra species such as the indomitable Red Junglefowl, Indian Peafowl, Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, and Scaly-breasted Munia.  Enroute to the Dry Tortugas we found several young Northern Gannets and a surprise Audubon’s Shearwater.  Out at the fort the dry and hot conditions limited the number of migrants present, but the diversity was excellent, with an impressive 16 species of warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo and Painted Bunting, and Veery.  Seabirds here were excellent as always, with point blank views of the single attendant Black Noddy, and several pairs of Bridled Terns. The Florida Keys revealed their Black-whiskered Vireo, Roseate Terns, White-crowned Pigeons, a calling Mangrove Cuckoo and an amazingly wonderful view of displaying Antillean Nighthawks as well as a long-staying male Black-faced Grassquit on Big Pine Key.  It was a busy but great week in what is surely one of most unique landscapes and avifaunas of the United States.

In Detail: After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic WINGS returned to South Florida for our annual spring tour starting in Fort Myers.  We spent the first full day exploring to the north where we visited upland (for Florida) slash pine forest and oak dominated brush country of central Florida as well as some lovely Gulf coast beaches and wetlands.  Our first stop was Babcock-Webb wildlife management area; an expansive preserve that contains open pine forests, small freshwater marshes, and open ponds.  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 are generally characterised by a grassy and open understory.  Several species of animals evolved with these very open pinelands, including Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Bachman’s Sparrow.  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.  Unlike in previous years the day dawned bright and clear, without the customary morning fog.  Perhaps due to the bright conditions the birds were quite active when we arrived, jumping from tree to tree and never lingering long as they chipped flakes of bark off the trunks in search of breakfast.  The birds soon wandered away from the road, but luckily for those that missed excellent close views we had better luck with another pair a bit later in the morning.

With active Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers bouncing around in the same trees and Pileated Woodpecker and Northern Flicker just down the road it was a bit of a woodpecker fest!  It took much less effort to locate one of our other primary targets here, with a small group of diminutive and undeniably cute Brown-headed Nuthatches that came in overhead to check us out.

We failed to hear any song or chatter from the third specialty of the open pinewoods; Bachman’s Sparrow.  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.  Sadly for us, the males did not seem to be active on our day; and without any vocalizations tracking this species down can become an exercise in futility.

We then turned our attention to more general birding and were soon rewarded with views of our first Common Ground and White-winged Doves, Blue Jays, Brown Thrasher and Northern Cardinals, Great Crested Flycatchers, Eastern Bluebirds, Pine Warblers, 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.  A few Sandhill Cranes, here of the resident Florida subspecies were out in the more open fields, and we lucked into a perched up Northern Bobwhite on a roadside tree branch.  Back near the park entrance we stopped for a restroom 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 an adult Bald Eagle perched on the far side of the lake, some very showy Boat-tailed Grackles, and a nice selection of herons foraging in the vegetated pond along the parking area.

Later in the morning we stopped 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 see several birds at close range relatively easily 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.  Here too we found a Chimney Swift flying over the road, a cooperative White-eyed Vireo and several vocal Fish Crows uttering their characteristic nasal and high-pitched calls.

A mid-day stop at a large wetland complex near Sarasota proved most productive.  Before we had even pulled into the parking lot we were happy to spot a pair of Nanday Parakeets sitting on some roadside utility wires. 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 becoming more common throughout much of the developed parts of the southwest Florida coastline. 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”.   The small pond adjacent to the well-appreciated bathroom block was hosting a small array of shorebirds including good numbers of Least Sandpipers and Long-billed Dowitchers.  The open marshes around the well-constructed boardwalks were mostly flooded, but in the shallower parts of the impoundments we picked out foraging Common and Purple Gallinules, glowing Roseate Spoonbills, a ridiculously close Limpkin, some distant Mottled Ducks and a few small native (and non-native) fish, perched dragonflies and several basking turtles before we headed back to the van.

After lunch, which we picked up and then ate at a lovely lakeside gazebo nearby (accompanied by our first Forster’s Terns and a much closer Mottled Duck) 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 70 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 during our few hours on the island we broke up our time between walking slowly through various hardwood hammocks in search of migrant passerines and scanning stretches of beach for an array of terns and shorebirds.  We began with a visit to the far east end of the island where we located a very approachable mixed flock of shorebirds, including Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers (several in nearly full alternate plumage) and many Western Willets, Sanderling, Dunlin, Least Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones.  Of particular note was the array of plovers on offer, with a pair of Wilson’s Plovers wandering by at close range, at one point flanked by several Semipalmated, a Black-bellied and a Killdeer!

A few days before our visit a storm front had hit the coast and dropped large numbers of warblers, tanagers and grosbeaks.  Most of the birds had departed for better foraging grounds to the north by the time we arrived, but there was still more than enough activity to keep us quite happily occupied around the dense trees that surround the park ranger’s house.   A few warblers were still bouncing around in the woods, with single Yellow-throated, Palm and Black-and White joining a smattering of American Redstart and Blackpoll.  We also enjoyed our first mewing Grey Catbirds and a lone Yellow-throated Vireo in some impressively large and spreading live oak trees.  At a large water feature put out for thirsty migrants making landfall on the island we shooed away some lurking Great Egrets and White Ibis and quite enjoyed the show put on by a nesting Osprey above the fountain and a pair of Nanday Parakeets that seemed to be investigating a dead tree for potential nesting cavities.

Likely the most productive spot on the island though was the cordoned off nesting area at the south end of north beach.  Here we walked out to the beach and spent some time combing through the assembled mass of birds at the breeding colony that is protected from the even larger masses of beach goers crowding the talcum powder-like white sands.  The majority of birds were Royal and Sandwich Terns and Black Skimmers, but we found Caspian, Forster’s and Least Terns, and Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls among the crowd.  A single second year Herring and a first and a third year Lesser Black-backed Gull were particularly nice finds here as well.  The shorebird show was quite impressive, with several hundred Red Knots stealing the show.  With the masses of Knots we picked out a few seemingly giant Marbled Godwits, groups of Sanderling and Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstone and a nice mix of plovers.  At one point something (perhaps an errant fisherman or an unseen Peregrine) spooked the birds and the sky was filled with calling shorebirds, with dozens of Skimmers flying just over our heads.  Along the shallow inlet inside the cordoned off area we had excellent views of a distant American Oystercatcher sitting in the dunes, three foraging Whimbrel in the grass and another handsome Wilson’s Plover.

In the late afternoon we turned the vans south, making our dinner reservation in Sarasota with a few minutes to spare.  Due to our COVID protocols we selected all outdoor seating for dinners, and this led to some new restaurant locations for the trip.  On this night we found an Asian themed fusion restaurant that catered to almost every taste, with a truly staggeringly large menu.  To top it off there was a perched Grey Kingbird on the wires just above the restaurant as we headed back to the vans.  Our daily birdlog back at the hotel took quite some time, as, amazingly, over the course of the day we had found about 100 species of birds!

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 were surprised to see a flying Crested Caracara (another endemic Florida subspecies) that obligingly perched up on the top of a roadside pine.  We don’t normally encounter this brutish looking falcon species on the tour, as its main range is more inland than our typical route takes us.  Once at the marsh we found the water levels to be quite high, but happily for us the wetland still held numbers of introduced apple snails, and their primary predator; our hoped-for Snail Kite.  We spotted two individuals flying over the marsh, both with recently caught apples snails held in their narrow, curved bills.  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!  Along the short dike walk we also enjoyed a smattering of herons, including very close Tricolored and Little Blues as well as a somewhat disconcerting number of Black Vultures and many Common Gallinules and Limpkin.  Several dazzling odonates including Halloween and Four-spotted Pennants and Eastern Pondhawks distracted us as we walked back to the cars.

Before returning to the hotel to pack up we drove around to the adjoining neighborhood and were successful at coaching out a responsive Carolina Wren from the underbrush of saw palmetto.  Although a very familiar bird for most of the eastern-based birders on the tour this handsome copper and brown wren was a nice treat to those of us “stuck” in the west for much of the previous year and a half.  A bit further to the south we investigated a stand of dead trees and were thrilled to find a small group of at least five Red-headed Woodpeckers hammering away on the trunks.  These dazzling red, white and black woodpeckers are near the southern limit of their range around Fort Myers, and we rarely encounter them on our tour, so it was a real treat to have such lengthy and close views this year.

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.  Our first planned stop was in an area of mangrove forest not too far from Marcos Island.  We took a longer route around, watching the skies intently for Short-tailed Hawk on a road where we have had some success in the past.  The plan worked, sort of, with one bird spotted while we were still on the interstate and couldn’t pull over, and a second individual seen by some as it made repeated high-speed dives into a roadside grove of trees.  It must have succeeded in its quest for food as once we pulled over it never reappeared over the treeline.  Happily though a little later in the day we found a third bird, this an adult light morph (scarce in Florida) that behaved nicely by slowly circling overhead before drifting off to the north.   Never common, these beautiful Buteos typically breed well to the north of the Everglades, occurring around the hardwood hammocks of the park primarily in the winter.  We seldom encounter the species during the tour dates, so it was well earned reward for us as after a bit of intent searching.  The mangroves proved annoyingly sunny and quiet, so we chose to start crossing the peninsula, with a lovely stop to explore 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, but despite that we still managed to drum up a few new birds even in the heat of the day.  Close to the start of the walk we found an adult and recently fledged Bald Eagle perched high above the trail, and with the incessantly calling Ospreys and resident nesting Red-shouldered Hawk it was a bit of a raptor show. A small flock made us pause on our way out to the end of the boardwalk, with Carolina Wren, Black-and-White, American Redstart and Northern Parula all showing well, and a male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher flitting off in the background.  Just before the end of the walk several participants managed to get on a largely uncooperative Northern Waterthrush that flicked off through a gap in the undergrowth.  Once at the end we all searched around the pond margins, spying a quite large American Alligator, and some wary foraging Tricolored Heron and White Ibis.  Whenever one of the birds approached the area of the pond with the lurking reptile they jumped up and flew over him to safety; a wise move, even if it did deprive us of some National Geographic worthy action.  Some passing folk on our way out had let me know that a Barred Owl was perched at the end of the trail, but despite 24 eyes looking around we couldn’t spot it.  As we turned to start heading back I took a step back to talk to the group and surprisingly the owl was bemusedly staring down at us from a perch just a few feet overhead – likely wondering what we were all searching for so diligently…

Our drive across the peninsula was punctuated with a parade of soaring Swallow-tailed Kites, White Ibis, Anhinga and Wood Storks. About an hour after leaving Cypress Preserve, we reached the abrupt border with the urban jungle of Miami, but before continuing on to our hotel in Florida City we elected to stop to bird around the neighborhood of 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 an Egyptian Geese, recently minted as countable 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 to be 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 Starling, Collared-Dove, Muscovy Duck and House Sparrow did make it seem that way a bit), with a couple of passing Chimney Swifts making several passes across the lawn and dozens of Cave Swallows, here of the darker West Indian subspecies that were foraging over the lake margins.  We managed to beat most of the traffic on the way down to Homestead and had a bit of time off before heading to a quite unique little restaurant that produced some excellent Cuban and Caribbean food, in a somewhat kitschy patio, surrounded by two glowing colourful neon palm trees, a huge shark statue and an impressive collection of artwork and classic automobiles!

We spent the morning of day 3 exploring the world-famous Everglades National Park.  Given the spate of recent reports of a Smooth-billed Ani near the entrance to the park we decided to start the day earlier than usual, so that we could walk out the little over a mile to the area in which the Ani had been reported before the day became too warm. The morning chorus of Eastern Meadowlarks, Grackles, Cardinals and Red-bellied Woodpeckers kept us company as we headed down the canal.  A bit over half way out to our prospective sight we were surprised to spot a perched White-tailed Kite, an ethereally white and elegant raptor that is quite scarce in the state (only our second sighting in 19 years of tours).  It flew around a bit for us, once hovering with arched wings, in a pose that somewhat resembled a living snow angel before dropping out of sight when a passing Turkey Vulture seemed to disturb it.  Once we reached the bend in the canal it took only a few minutes before we spotted the Ani perched up in a dense tangle of grasses and small shrubs. Smooth-billed Anis have effectively vanished as a reliable breeding bird in Florida, and the last year that we had recorded this species on a WINGS tour was 2017.  In the intervening years one or two Anis were reported annually in scattered locations across the southern half of the state.  As these birds prefer rank grasslands and wetlands with shrubs (both habitats with a wide distribution in the state but with very limited access) I suspect that the species is holding on in small pockets of suitable habitat and that it is more common still in the state than is generally thought.  Flushed with success we walked back to the vans, stopping again to admire the Kite, which had returned during our vigil for the Ani.  Another excellent sighting while we were out on the walk was a perched Great White Heron out in a nearby field.  This striking bird occurs only around South Florida and the Keys, and is form with a bit of a chequered taxonomic past.  Long regarded as simply a local colour morph of Great Blue recent genetic work suggests that it deserves at least subspecific status, if not full specific status.  Another nice find was our first male Cape May Warbler that was foraging in the hedge along the road.

Once back to the road we stopped in at 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.  We made an impromptu stop due to some local intel in an upland (or at least what passes as upland) area of open pine forest where our hoped-for target failed to materialize, but a perched Common Nighthawk sitting out on an open limb above the road provided adequate compensation.  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 and a few generally empty campgrounds.  We parked near the marina and very soon after arriving located a male Shiny Cowbird that was perched up along the road.  Unfortunately, it managed to skip away while we were getting organized.  While trying to relocate that bird we noticed some commotion in the central canal of the marina, with several manatees rolling around on the surface and even lifting their paddle-shaped tails fully out of the water.  For such a normally placid creature theses manatees really put on an excellent show.  About a dozen more were lolling up on the surface at the edge of the marina wall, seemingly oblivious to our admiring gazes.  Apparently, the parks water supply has a leak, and if a particular tap is left on a small amount of freshwater seeps through the concrete wall and into the marina.  Several manatees were lapping up the dripping water, licking the wall with their tongues to gain access to the clean freshwater.  We generally do see a few manatees here during our visit but this year we estimated that there were approximately three dozen individuals visible around the marina, providing one of the real highlights of the tour.  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.  This crowd of seemingly happy manatees showed well and at length, and at a close enough range to see their whiskered muzzles and wonder a bit if any long-suffering sailor could ever possibly have mistaken this species for maritime maidens.

Eventually we pulled ourselves away from the mammals and turned our attentions back to the lawns around the parking area. It didn’t take long before we noticed a small flock of cowbirds and starlings foraging in the grassy verges of the lot so we wandered over for a closer look.  As we had hoped there was a male Shiny Cowbird feeding with the group.  The birds purplish gloss, thin bill and upturned tail made him distinctive among the blocky looking Brown-headed Cowbirds.  At the very end of the road we stopped to scan the short stretch of beach on the shores of Florida Bay, picking out a female Bobolink in some seeding grasses and our first Spotted Sandpiper of the trip.  The nearby Eco Pond held a nice assortment of birds, including a loafing flock of American White Pelican, several handsome Reddish Egret and both Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet.  Before we left Flamingo we spent a bit of time looking for one of the two resident American Crocodiles that often frequent the canal behind the marina.  The big adult was nowhere to be seen, but we did find the younger animal near one of the boat docks.  These generally shy animals are at the northern edge of their range in South Florida, with an estimated population of near 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.

As the morning was drawing to a close we made only one stop on the way out of the park, pulling in at 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.  We found few birds during our brief visit, save a smattering of warblers and a cooperative Great Crested Flycatcher, but the walk allowed us to gain a real understanding of what these tropical hammocks look like from the inside.

Leaving the Everglades behind we stopped in 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.  After the refreshing milkshakes and lunch for those who declined the sole lunch option at the fruitstand 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.  A quick roadside stop near the western end of Key Largo rewarded us with a host of shorebirds and terns along a narrow seaweed filled beach.  Lots of breeding plumaged Ruddy Turnstone, frenetic Sanderling and bright Short-billed Dowitcher joined Least and Royal Terns and a single Eastern Willet along the road edge. Although only 100 miles long the road is slow, and we arrived in Big Pine Key (about 30 miles shy of Key West) in the latish afternoon.  A bit of birding around the abandoned rock quarry that now forms a small freshwater lake didn’t produce any sign of the long-staying and generally cooperative Black-faced Grassquit (a bit of a long shot in the heat of the afternoon) but we were amazed by the number of warblers in the surrounding bush.  Seemingly every tree held a bird or two, and we enjoyed repeated and point-blank views of a kaleidoscope of colour; with Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Cape May, Palm, Praire, and Black-and-White Warblers as well as lots of American Redstarts and our first furtive Ovenbird.

We arrived in Key West in the early evening and checked into our hotel.  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.   Due to COVID a music festival had been rescheduled this year and we found the island to be heaving with people.  This made finding dinner at a suitable outdoor restaurant a bit difficult, so we elected to place a pick-up order from a local café, and enjoyed dinner at the bar in our hotel courtyard; a relaxing enough spot to go over the logistics of our next morning, out on the Dry Tortugas.  And having White-crowned Pigeons, a handsome navy-blue pigeon with a white cap and iris that can be plentiful in the keys during the summer as your dining companion can’t really be all that bad!

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 and several large sea turtles lounging on the surface.  Once we reached the deeper navigation channel the sea turned a much deeper blue, and by scanning intently over the half-hour or so period that we were in deeper water we managed to locate a single Audubon’s Shearwater flying low in front of the ship.  It never came particularly close, but as it was flying in the same direction as our travel we were able to watch it for several minutes, noting the black half-collar and largely white underwings that marked it as an Audubon’s.  This species is out and about around the Tortugas every year during our visit, but as the ferry spends little time in the deeper water, and does not slow down, divert or chum for birds enroute we see it only rarely (this was only the 4th time in 19 years of tours).  After crossing over the national park boundary, the captain stopped quite close to Hospital Key giving us excellent views of the colony of Masked Boobies that have been breeding on this unassuming sandy island for over a decade. We counted an impressive 70 birds sitting on the sand (there seem to be more each year), and occasionally flying past the boat.

Once out at the fort we saw thousands of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns wheeling around the Key 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 then tied up to dock.  The fort 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 scaffolding on the lighthouse.  Once off the ship we headed over to the northern Coaling Docks, where over much of the previous two weeks a single Black Noddy had intermittently been roosting among a 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 grayish-brown Bridled Terns sitting along the rock wall to our left.  These small and elegant terns are very irregular breeders in the Tortugas, as they prefer more vegetation and cover for their nesting sites.  Being able to study them from a few feet away rather than out on the open ocean from a moving boat was quite satisfying.  The close views allowed us to clearly discern the pertinent plumage and structural differences that separate this species from the vastly more common Sooty Tern.

For the rest of the day we ambled 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 an impressive 16 species of warblers, from beautiful Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Hooded and Magnolia, to the locally rare Chestnut-sided and more subtlety plumaged Palm and Tennessee.  Also present were a few Indigo Buntings, a single female Painted Bunting, Red-eyed Vireo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Wood-Pewee and Veery.  Cattle Egrets were stalking around the fountain looking to snack on any particularly tired migrants (an annual event here at the Tortugas) and the skies over the fort’s central courtyard held foraging Bank and Barn Swallows and a surprisingly diverse selection of raptors including both Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, a young Broad-winged Hawk and two different Merlin.

In short, it was a perfect day out on the key, with a wide array of migrants, the suite of seabirds that one can expect and two bonus species, and excellent views of nearly every bird that we saw.  All too soon it was time to leave and head back to Key West, this time under a bit rougher seas that were actually large enough that they closed the front deck of the ship off (a first for me after 10 trips to the fort).  It took about 45 minutes of rougher water before the captain shifted north, entering the shallower and much smoother waters of Florida Bay.  After some down time at the hotel we then capped the day off with a delectable seafood dinner near the hotel with a live shark feeding just off the dock, 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 over to the nearby Blue Hole, for another attempt at the long-staying Black-faced Grassquit.  This time proved much more rewarding, with the birds wispy song audible from the parking lot.  We tried jockeying around for good views, but we needn’t have worried because a minute or two later he hopped out to the edge, foraging and singing within a few feet of our parked van, fairly showing off like some tiny and portly model for the cameras.  Although this is not a species likely to win any beauty contests (it is a tanager after all) its black body and olive-green back are still pleasing to the eye.  With fewer than 20 records in the US it is a rare bird as well, though this particular male has been bouncing around the bushes at Blue Hole since sometime in early 2019.  We made one more quick stop before heading back to Key West, this time at a small tidal creek lined with tall mangroves.  Here we were happy to get good and repeated views of a singing Black-whiskered Vireo as it shuffled around in the tree tops.  The large bill was quite evident, but it took a bit of time before all the participants managed to also pick out the thin black malar stripe that gives this mainly Caribbean species its name.  Our grumbling stomachs reminded us that we had only had a snack of fruit and banana bread for breakfast, so we returned to Key West to enjoy a fuller breakfast at the hotel and pack up for our drive back up to Miami.

For the rest of the morning we visited a bit of downtown Key West.  It’s a historic city that has combined its authentic architecture and relaxed feeling with the draws of a major tourist destination to good effect.  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 truly spectacular.  A pair of Blue-winged Teal swimming around in the forts small moat represented our only new bird for the trip here.

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 a traditional spot on Ohio Key where flocks of shorebirds tend to roost at high tide.  As luck would have it we found a good-sized flock of birds arrayed around the normally shallow pool.  Perhaps due to the full moon the lagoon area was flooded, with most of the birds sitting out on small emergent sticks, lkely wondering where their mudflats had disappeared to.  Most were Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers and Least Sandpipers, but with some scanning we picked out several Western Sandpipers (some beginning to show the beginnings of their bright breeding plumage) and a smattering of blunt-billed Semipalmated Sandpipers.  Here too was a foraging Belted Kingfisher and our only Greater Yellowlegs of the trip.  A bit farther up the keys we stopped in Marathon for lunch at a recently reopened Cuban café that had finally finished rebuilding after the hurricane damage.  Full of Cuban coffees, giant Cuban sandwiches and fresh-squeezed juice we went across the road to the Marathon Government Center; a large flat-roofed building that for many years has hosted a breeding colony of Least Terns, with a few pairs of Roseate Terns mixed in.  We didn’t have any luck from the parking area, but a quick walk around to the back of the facility revealed six Roseate Terns loafing on a long pier.  These tropical terns are lovely birds, with ethereally white bodies, long tail points, and a large black cap that extends down the nape.  Several of the birds also showed varying amounts of pink blush on their chests.  After missing them around the Tortugas and off the coast of Key West it was really nice to have extended scope views of them perched.

For the next part of the afternoon we spent time 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 Florida range is generally inaccessible except by boat and over much of the keys we can’t broadcast playback.  This year the species seemed particularly reticent, and after several stops we managed only a few brief calls emanating from deep in the woods and a quick shadow flashing over the group.   We did find a sitting Yellow-billed Cuckoo that briefly got our hopes up, and also enjoyed a wonderfully cooperative Ovenbird that walked out onto the path in front of us, but eventually decided that this year (after a streak of 9 successful years in a row) the cuckoo had won.

We left the keys via the old Card Sound bridge and drove some back roads through Florida City.  This enabled us to stop to admire the introduced but now firmly established Common Mynas that frequent the developed parking lots and wires around town.  Our last stop for the day was up in South Miami, where we pulled into a small and quite tranquil neighborhood park situated along a serenely calm canal and surrounded by a nice mix of tall trees.  It’s an area known for its diversity of parrots, and we didn’t have to wait around along the canal bank (watching nesting Yellow-crowned Night-Herons in the process) before some raucously calling Chestnut-fronted Macaws arrived.  A pair of these medium sized macaws landed atop a flowering tree across the canal, staying put for quite some time.  Also here were several small groups of Red-masked Parakeets.  Their full red heads, green bodies and the extensive red in the leading edge of their underwings help separate this species from the Mitred Parakeets that we had seen a few days prior in Kendall.  The greater Miami area plays host to several dozen species of parrots.  All originating from cage escapes many of these species have established breeding populations in the suburban parts of the city.  Here they spend the day foraging in the mostly exotic tropical foliage planted over much of the city, adding a bit more tropical flavor to this already Caribbean feeling town.  It’s up to the ABA and the Florida records committee to track which species are truly established in the state, and therefore “countable”, a definitely unenviable and tricky task for such long-lived birds.  With some recent rule changes around countable exotics that were made by the ABA a set of newly sanctioned species became countable in Florida.

The Chestnut-fronted Macaws and Red-masked Parakeets are still regarded as unestablished, though they are both nesting.  The population of Red-masked seems to be expanding rapidly and that species may well be sanctioned sometime soon.  One of the vans also encountered several groups of now countable (by virtue of the ABA rule changes) Indian Peafowl strutting around some suburban lawns.  It would appear that the melting pot culture of Miami definitely extends to the birdlife!  As the day drew to a close, we made the short drive north to our final hotel of the tour, situated just to the north of the Miami airport, and enjoyed a Mexican dinner and some margaritas before popping off to bed.

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.  While waiting to load up in the vans we heard some Yellow-chevroned Parakeets in the neighborhood just north of the hotel.  This prompted us to make a short trip in that direction, and within 10 minutes of searching we successfully tracked down a few of these small electric green parrots with extensive yellow patches in the wing.  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 2021 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…  Also in the neighborhood we found a pair of perched Orange-winged Parrots, another somewhat widespread introduced species, although this one not yet regarded as established by any of the pertinent authorities.  We also heard a few calls from a Spot-breasted Oriole which failed to materialize despite some searching.

Pulling ourselves away from Miami Springs we headed a bit to the south to investigate a small city park centered on a powerline right of way outskirts of Kendall.  The margins of the right of way were covered in thick tall grasses and short scrub, while the backyards facing the clearing had a lot of tall ornamental fruiting trees, providing the perfect habitat for bulbuls. We walked a stretch of the powerline, noting such common birds as Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, Chimney Swift and Purple Martins.  On some of the tall powerpoles we spotted the tell-tale bulky stick nests of Monk Parakeets, perhaps the most common and widespread psittacid in Florida.  It didn’t take long before we located the first of our target species here, with a pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls perched up in the morning sun.

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 any 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.  Another target here was found just a few yards away from the bulbul.  In the dense seeding grasses along the right of way we located a pair of Scaly-breasted Munia and were able to watch them at length as they gathered broken grass stalks for building their nearby nest.  Before we left the park, we drove over to an even larger Monk Parakeet nest, and were able to watch as several of these garrulous but somberly coloured birds sat around their giant construction like a planning committee arguing over a prospective architectural floorplan.  Given our rapid success here we elected to fit in an extra spot to make a last-ditch attempt at finding a Mangrove Cuckoo.  It was a trifle sunny, but we stopped in the shady sections as we walked out an old road through the large Matheson County Preserve.  We didn’t get a whiff of a cuckoo, but the mangrove forest here was impressive, with bright purple and red crabs and yellow clawed fiddler crabs scuttling around under the canopy, an array of fishes visible in the canal and a few more Yellow-chevroned Parakeets wheeling overhead.  As it was now late morning we decided to head northwards, stopping in for lunch at a Panera before visiting a 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.  Happily for these owls the local sports park has actively protected their nesting sites, and uses the birds presence as an educational tool for local youth classes.  Usually we see the owls simply sitting in the heat of the day, but this bird flew out onto the soccer pitch, chasing a passing moth and really putting on a bit of a show for us.

Leaving the owls behind we travelled further north to visit the Richardson Historic Park and Nature Preserve.  Nestled in the town of Wilton Manors this small and heavily vegetated park sports a short nature trail and boardwalk around a tall and open stand of inland mangrove, with lots of mature oaks and palms scattered around the lawns.  It can be an excellent spot for migrants, and our visit proved productive.  Lots of American Redstarts, Northern Parula and Black-throated Blues dotted the trees, with over a half-dozen Ovenbirds strutting along the forest floor and a single (our only) cooperative Northern Waterthrush foraging along a small creek.  The local Wilton Down community group that was gathered for a party provided an interesting backdrop to our birding, with the emcee doling out various exotic titles such as Lady of the dancing manatee to the assembled crowd.  The park also featured an array of interesting (if exotic) lizards, including portly Northern Curly-tailed, a native Green Anole, and a single hulking Cuban Knight Anole.   A pair of Blue-crowned Parakeets zipped through as well, but they stayed stubbornly behind the crowns of the trees for most of the participants.

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 were the antics of the very young Anhinga babies (fuzzy and white with comically oversized webbed feet) constantly looking for their next meal, and the incredibly bright nuptial coloration of the Great Egrets and Cattle Egrets.  Wood Storks seemed particularly abundant this year, with some pairs still nest building and other nests containing largely grown begging young.  Many of the nests near the start of the boardwalk were just feet away from the railing, giving us an unparalleled view of their young.  At such a close range we could see that the normally black flight feathers of the adults were glowing with a green iridescence.  One very close adult had a large fish that it coughed up to feed its begging chicks, but as the fish was actually twice the size of the babies they really couldn’t deal with it.  Eventually the adult simply swallowed it herself.

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.  The trees held a few migrants, including an impressively large flock of several hundred Bobolink that flew in for a few minutes and then flashed off.  Several of the birds were handsome black and gold males, amazingly different from the buffy and streaked females.  Also here, we found several native Purple Gallinules stalking the reedbeds.  This stunning bird is surely one of North America’s most colorful, and we felt fortunate indeed to watch one individual feeding on the top of some seeding flag plants right off the boardwalk and in near perfect light.  The reflective blues, indigos, purples and greens of its back and wing feathers are a sight to behold.  Least Bitterns were here as well, with two adults spotted 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, and in a testament to the dedication of the group almost everyone decided to make one more quick pass through Miami Springs rather than take 40 minutes off before meeting for dinner.  Those that went were indeed rewarded, as at the 11th hour (one van had already started loading up to head back to the hotel) a beautiful Spot-breasted Oriole flew past and landed in the top of a large spreading oak.  This 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.   It made for an excellent final species for this year’s tour list (which was 184 species overall).  A wonderful dinner at a surprisingly great Peruvian restaurant capped off our tour, 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; it was an excellent return to bird touring after a long year off due to the pandemic.

Updated: July 2021