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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Florida: The South, the Keys and the Dry Tortugas

2019 Narrative

In Brief: The 2019 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 Sparrows, 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 Wilson’s and Piping Plovers as well as our first suite of migrant passerines like Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos and Tennessee and Black-throated Green Warblers.  Here too were several perched Nanday Parakeets, in the heart of their introduced Flordia range and an unexpected Western Kingbird, sitting on a wire just a few feet from an Eastern for comparison.  We then deviated a bit from the normal itinerary to look for a selection of rare birds that were around the state.  We toured around the top end of Lake Okeechobee, finding an eventually cooperative Smooth-billed Ani near one of the many boat ramps as well as hordes of foraging shorebirds and herons and several dozen Limpkin.  That afternoon we arrived in the urban jungle of eastern Florida and were incredibly lucky in our quests, finding Bahama Mockingbird and Key West Quail-Dove in short order in two small parks near the coast.  Although the WINGS Florida tourlist stretches back 18 years both of these vagrants were write-ins for the trip!

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 Seaturtles and flying fish. Out at the fort the dry and hot conditions limited the number of migrants present, but the diversity was still excellent, with an impressive 17 species of warblers, Black-whiskered and Red-eyed Vireo, Indigo Bunting, Scarlet and Summer Tanager, and Swainson’s Thrushes.  The Florida Keys revealed a remarkably easy and cooperative Mangrove Cuckoo, many handsome White-crowned Pigeons, a somewhat unexpected White-rumped Sandpiper and our hoped for Antillean Nighthawks. In and around urban Miami we found the full sweep of ‘countable’ exotics, including the newly minted Egyptian Goose, brightly colored Red-whiskered Bulbul and Spot-breasted Oriole, and somewhat dubious Muscovy Ducks.  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 started off this year’s Spring Florida tour with a brief pre-dinner jaunt out to a nearby nest box with a reportedly active Eastern Screech-Owl.  We had to wait a bit in the early evening sun for the owl to finally deign to poke its head out of the nest box, but just as we were beginning to relent to our grumbling stomachs the owl obliged us with excellent views at it somewhat grumpily stared at us from its lofty perch. Although common throughout much of Florida we typically do not encounter these small and charismatic owls during the tour through the south part of the state.  While watching the screech-owl we also noted a wonderful pair of American Swallow-tailed Kites drifting overhead; an excellent pair of birds to welcome our arrival in south Florida.   

For our first full day, we traveled north to explore the slash pine uplands and brush country of central Florida.  We started off in the 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 fire adapted, and 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.  We moved over to a nearby woodpecker cluster (a managed and marked area with active nest and roost cavities that are used by a pair of woodpeckers and their young) and parked near an area with a half-dozen ringed trees.  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.  The first pair refused to linger for us as they rapidly began moving away from us, but thankfully a second pair at the next nesting cluster was much more cooperative.  A bit further down the road we turned our attentions to a singing Bachman’s Sparrow, which atypically was vocalizing from the dense grassy understory (rather than their customary tree top song perches).  It took some time to find the bird as it buried itself repeatedly into small thickets of saw palmetto, but eventually we found it sitting up on a knee-high shrub.  Bachman’s are a decidedly local species and can be nigh impossible to locate outside of their spring breeding season when the birds often sit up to sing their flutelike ringing songs.  Originally called the Pineywoods Sparrow, these generally furtive birds depend on an early successional understory, leaving an area about 4-8 years post burn for more open forests.  With fire suppression rampant throughout most of its range the sparrow is now generally found only on public lands managed by frequent burning.  It took much less effort to locate one of our other principle targets here, with a pair of responsive diminutive Brown-headed Nuthatches that came in overhead to check us out.

With our main targets achieved with little effort we turned our attention to more general birding, and were soon rewarded with views of Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers, our first Blue Jays, Brown Thrasher and Northern Cardinals, Great Crested Flycatchers and Eastern Bluebirds, Boat-tailed and Common Grackles, and a cooperative Eastern Towhee with an eerily white iris that is typical of the central Florida race enriched the show.  In contrast to the last few years we found the marshes to be bone dry, with very little water evident anywhere in the forest.  Herons and White Pelicans were passing overhead though, telling signs that water was not too far away, and several times during our morning visit we heard the distant bugling cries of pairs of Sandhill Cranes, a species which breeds in the freshwater marshes of the central peninsula.   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 several Limpkin including two fuzzy chicks, a flyover Bald Eagle, a pair of Loggerhead Shrikes and our first Tricolored Heron and Common Gallinules, as well as several species of native fish and some amazingly large (introduced) apple snail shells.

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.  Evan tried to coax one bird closer with some proffered almonds, but his chosen feeding tray (his hands) seemed off-putting for some reason, and one bird decided that his fingers might just be more delectable than the nuts.  The pair of jays were very tame, coming quite close to the group and allowing us to see their brighter plumage and whiter eyestripe that separates this species from its largely duller western counterparts.  Here too we found a flock Chimney Swifts flying over the road, a male Coopers Hawk hunting Mourning Doves and several vocal Fish Crows uttering their nasal and higher 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 nice array of shorebirds including good numbers of Least Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers and Lesser Yellowlegs and a couple of locally scarce Stilt Sandpipers and a few striking Black-necked Stilts.  The open marshes around the well-constructed boardwalks were mostly flooded, but in the shallower parts of the impoundments we picked out foraging Wood Storks, perched Red-shouldered Hawks, an array of herons including a brief fly-by of a Least Bittern, and a pair of Purple Gallinules that were perched up high in some flowering alligator flag, slowly stripping the seeds from the stalks.  Below the boardwalk a sharp-eyed participant picked out a small Florida Green Water Snake curled up in the vegetation, and we had a bit of fun identifying a few small native fish, perched dragonflies and several basking turtles before we headed back to the van.

After lunch, 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 almost 50 individuals on the day) and our first (of many) Sandwich Terns, 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 our first Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers (severak in nearly full alternate plumage) and many Western Willets, Sanderling, Dunlin, Least Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones.  A pair of Red-breasted Mergansers flew past us just offshore, and on the adjacent utility wires we were surprised to find not only an Eastern Kingbird but a locally rare Western Kingbird as well!  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 rangers house.   A few warblers were still bouncing around in the woods, with single Black-throated Green, and Worm-eating joining the smattering of Yellow, Tennessee, Parula and Black-and-Whites.  Near some large fruiting Mulberry trees, we found small number of migrants finding shelter in the trees and using the provided freshwater fountain.  Scarlet Tanagers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were the most numerous migrants, but with a little diligence we also turned up Indigo Buntings, a few Grey Catbirds, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos and a couple of Swainson’s Thrushes. 

At nearby north beach we walked out to the cordoned off area to look 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 Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls among the crowd.  Shorebirds were present as well, with a nice pair of Wilson’s Plovers and a distant pair of American Oystercatchers likely being the largest crowd pleasers.  A huge mass of Red Knots was a welcome surprise, especially as many of the birds were beginning to moult into their orangey summer plumage.  Our final stop on the island was up at the west end, where an isolated sand bar supports breeding populations of Piping Plover and Least Tern (which both showed well), and an excellent array of migrant beach species including a couple of Marbled Godwits, lots of Forster’s Terns and roving flocks of Dunlin, Sanderling and Short-billed Dowitcher.

As we began to head back south towards dinner in Sarasota we made a somewhat impromptu stop at a local Audubon preserve where amongst the giant live oaks covered in shaggy Spanish moss we found a few active feeders (visible from a very upmarket bird blind) hosting Indigo Buntings, female Painted Buntings and several glowing Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.  A short walk out in the oak forest revealed a giant Pileated Woodpecker busily taking apart a large stump, but sadly not the hoped-for family of Great Horned Owls that had up to a few days prior been frequenting the middle of the park.  Our daily log at dinner took quite some time, as, amazingly, over the course of the day we had found more than 120 species of birds! 

On day two we began by visiting a nearby freshwater marsh, where large wading birds are typically much in evidence. Unlike the last few years we found the water levels to be quite high in the canals leading towards the marsh, but happily for us the higher water levels still held numbers of introduced apple snails, and their primary predator; our hoped-for Snail Kite.  Within minutes of arriving in the area we spotted a young Snail Kite sitting atop a canal-side pole, contentedly devouring a snail that it had recently pulled out of the water.  The birds thin and curved bill is perfectly adapted to extracting snails out of their shells, and there is some evidence to suggest that the local birds are actually developing longer bills to take advantage of the new oversized prey.  We watched the kite polish off its meal before returning to the canal to grab a second course.  It then made a languid eye-level pass in front of us and landed on the next pole down to finish off round two of breakfast.  Buoyed by such a wonderful start to the day we made a quick visit to the actual marsh, where we studied a family group of Sandhill Cranes with two large colts as they slowly foraged in the taller grasses lining the gravel path.  Here too we were happy to watch foraging Limpkin and Tricolored Herons along the water’s edge and a fun scene with an overly ambitious baby Alligator trying to devour a massive dead fish that was floating in the water, one tiny chunk at a time.  The bobbing commotion in the water of the fish corpse attracted the attention of a passing Bald Eagle which somehow missed as it swooped down to grab the fish.  The eagle then landed atop a tree surrounded by Black Vultures that somehow resembled a gathering of lesser vassals servicing their newly arrived monarch.

After the marsh, we deviated from our planned itinerary in order to look for several rare birds that had recently been reported well north of Fort Lauderdale.  Several of the birds were effectively too far north from Miami for us to get to on the last day of the tour, and with vagrant species its certainly best to “strike when the iron is hot”.   We set off directly east across the peninsula, passing through the heart of the state where few tourists travel.  Far from the developed and resort-laden coasts, or the vast wetlands of the southern tip of the state we found ourselves passing through a series of small towns, vast cattle pastures, orange orchards, open canals and the occasional patch of pine or oak forest.  As we neared the massive Lake Okeechobee the cattle pastures gradually gave way to expansive fields of sugar cane, still an important cash-crop in the region.  Our first destination was a short canal levee leading out into the lake where for the last several months a single Smooth-billed Ani had been frequenting the thick scrubby vegetation along the lake shore.  Smooth-billed Anis have effectively vanished as a breeding bird in Florida, and the over the last decade of WINGS tours we had only recorded the species twice before.  In the intervening years one or two Anis were reported annually in scattered locations across the southern half of the state, but no successful nests were known.  Since the birds use rank grasslands and wetlands with shrubs I suspect that the species is holding on in small pockets of suitable habitat, far from readily accessible roads.  We pulled in to the end of the canal access road and spent a pleasant hour scouring the area, finding hordes of shorebirds (including a large flock of Stilt Sandpipers), Limpkin, herons and American White Pelicans scattered around the marshes but no Ani.  Some consolation was provided with our repeated views of Gray-headed Swamphens that were strutting out on the open mudflats like giant puffed up Gallinules.  A larger relative of our local Common and Purple Gallinules, the Swamphens have been spreading from their original release site in Pembroke Pines.  They are highly predatory and are definitely 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.  Just as we were prepared to depart the area we spotted the Ani perched atop a low shrub along the water’s edge.  The bird lingered for several minutes, allowing us to study its scaled breast and casqued bill at leisure.  We continued around the north end of the lake, with the van slowly becoming thoroughly coated with pairs of splattered love bugs, cut down in their throes of passion by our passage.  The layers of caked-on spatter quickly defeated the meager actions of our windscreen blades, and we soon had to stop at a Walmart to purchase gallons of windscreen fluid and some long-handled brushes to deal with the carnage. Since walmarts have an endless supply of seemingly everything we also had a quick lunch here before pressing down to the southeast, where we abruptly entered another world as we reached the developed coastline at West Palm Beach.   

We pulled into the tiny Lantana Nature Park, just off the coast along the intercoastal waterway, and even before the entire group had exited the vans we spotted our hoped-for Bahama Mockingbird perched up and singing in a palm tree on the edge of the carpark.  We followed the bird as it switched trees and fed from a low fruiting shrub for quite some time, obtaining reams of photos and really being able to study the browner toned plumage, stockier body and legs, unmarked wings, streaked breast and malar bar that sets this rare vagrant from the Bahamas apart from the nearly ubiquitous Northern Mockingbird.  Even though our cumulative list for the tour stretches back an impressive 18 years this sighting represented the first Bahama Mockingbird that a WINGS Florida tour had ever recorded!  The ease of finding this rarity after several near misses on previous years was incredible, and suddenly the lengthy drive across the Peninsula seemed well worth it.   We lingered for a bit, savouring the views and listening to the bird sing but the day had one more mega target bird in store for us, so we soon pressed on, heading south along the coast for a narrow coastal park just east of the Fort Lauderdale Airport.  Here about two weeks before our tour some visiting birders had found a Key West Quail-Dove along the short nature trail of the tongue twistingly named Dr. Von Mizell – Eula Johnson State Park.  The day before the tour we scouted the area, scouring the underbrush for nearly five hours without success.  With a run of excellent luck over the course of the day though we arrived at the trailhead with high hopes.  Luck was again with us, as within minutes of setting off down the trail we were flagged down by another birder who had just seen the dove walking slowly through the dense leaf litter.  With a bit of jockeying for position on the somewhat narrow trail virtually the entire group obtained lengthy views of the bird as it moved back and forth at the back of a largely open patch of understory.  While we followed its progress across the forest floor it occasionally walked out into a pool of sunlight, where its green crown, brilliant purple nape, reddish wings and white facial stripe combined to make a truly strikingly beautiful dove.  It walked out of sight before the last two participants were able to fully appreciate it, so we decided to stay for a bit in an attempt to relocate it, and to further explore the park for any migrant warblers that might be lingering from the recent storm front.  After about an hours searching we successfully found the dove over on another nearby trail, this time in much more open woods, and quite a bit closer to the trail.  We quickly gathered everyone up and were able to watch the Quail-Dove for nearly twenty minutes as it again slowly walked along about fifteen feet off the path.  We filled up a few camera cards as the bird spent quite some time out in the sun, fairly glowing in a rainbow pallet of plum, gray, green and brown.  Key West Quail Doves have a somewhat murky history in the United States, with some anecdotal evidence that they may have bred in the keys in the nineteenth century.  In the last hundred years there have only been 15 or so bona fide records, and like the Mockingbird this Caribbean stray represented the first sighting on a US Wings tour.  In order to avoid the infamous Miami rush hour traffic we left the park and ate a delicious Cuban dinner while cars idled on the freeways.  It proved a good strategy, as our drive through Miami was smooth after dinner, and we arrived at our hotel near the entrance to the Everglades in good time.  It was a perfect end to a truly amazing day, where we traversed the southern peninsula of the state and found all of our target birds at every stop to be confiding and easy.

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 now 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.  We started along the main park road where a quick stop and a short conversation with some roadside crows revealed that, unlike in the other areas of the tour where Fish Crows dominate, these crows were American Crows.  Our first real stop was along the boardwalk that winds around a small hardwood hammock out in the marshy prairie.  These hardwood hammocks are botanically diverse small groves of trees, that 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.  Nevertheless, we picked up a nice array of migrants, including a handsome Yellow-throated Warbler near the boardwalk entrance, and American Redstart, Prairie, Parula and Black-and-White inside the shaded hammock.  Some very vocal Red-shouldered Hawks and a hunting Snail Kite were around the carpark and in the shallow marsh we picked out an array of small native fishes and several bright species of dragonflies that were happily hawking for mosquitos along the path.

We then continued on to Flamingo, the slightly developed end of the road which contains a small marina, little visitors center for the park and a few generally empty campgrounds.  While parking near the center 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 pair of Shiny Cowbirds feeding with the group.  The purplish gloss, thin bill and upturned tail of the male definitely 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 some close Semipalmated Sandpipers and our first Spotted Sandpiper of the trip, as well as hordes of distant American White Pelicans and Great Egrets loafing out in the shallow waters.  We found the normally productive Eco Pond to be largely devoid of birds, with just a lone Tricolored Heron and single Greater Yellowlegs wandering in the water, but the brush around the pond held a singing Prairie Warbler, our first Black-throated Blue Warbler and a very cooperative White-eyed Vireo.  Before we turned the vans back to the east we stopped in at the marina where we were thrilled to find at least two West Indian Manatees lolling around on the surface right next to the dock.  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 two happy manatees showed well and at length, at close enough range to see their whiskered muzzles and wonder a bit if any long-suffering sailor could ever possibly have mistaken manatees for maidens.

Our last birding stop in the park was at the short Anhinga Trail; a paved walkway close to the park entrance that parallels a deep pond and canal.  It’s always the most popular stop in the park, as the deeper water hosts a nice array of Alligators and turtles as well as very approachable Anhinga and an array of herons and egrets.  We found all of the above, with our first Florida Red-bellied Turtles and lots of identifiable fish vying for out attentions with the several hulking Alligators and a half-dozen species of dragonflies.   The best bird on the walk was undoubtedly a foraging Great White Heron just a few feet off the path.  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.  We generally see one or two at some point in the tour, but rarely so close or for so long.  As we neared the parking lot a pale morph Short-tailed Hawk soared overhead, giving excellent views as it banked in the midday sun.  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 an excellent parting gift for us as we left the national park behind.  

We reached the main road again and then stopped in at the famous fruit stand near Florida City for a filling fruit shake 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 small lunch at a Caribbean restaurant 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.  Acting on a tip we elected to make a quick stop in at the tiny Old Settler’s Park in Tavernier where the previous day someone had located a Mangrove Cuckoo in the small patch of trees in the center of the park.  Virtually as soon as we turned into the forested trail the cuckoo appeared above us, perched quietly over the trail and just casually snapping down a passing wasp that conveniently flew too close.  The bird then sat for quite some time digesting its meal and allowing us to fully take in its caramel coloured underparts and grayish coloured 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! Also in the park were our first White-crowned Pigeons, again close enough for us to easily admire their namesake white crown, pale iris, grooved feathers on their necks and deep navy-blue bodies.  These attractive pigeons become quite common in Florida’s summer, even as far north as greater Miami where they are attracted to the ornamental fruiting trees in suburban Kendall and Cutler. A few migrant warblers including our first Blackpoll and Black-throated Blue livened up the trees here too, and in the underbrush we watched several Northern Curlytails (a charismatic introduced lizard from the Bahamas) sunning themselves on coralline boulders.  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.   Our restaurant reinforced this quirkiness, with a live shark feeding just off the dock, excellent mojitos in our hands, and fresh stone crab or gulf shrimp on the table.

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 calm and sparkling azure blue waters.  This year we traversed the ‘northern’ route, which passes through mostly shallow 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 Brown Boobies flying low over the ocean, one crossing the bow at quite close range. 

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 60 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 the staff dock (as the normal mooring wharf occupied by a large Park Service ship.  The fort looked as impressive as ever, although there were signs of the 2017 hurricane still evident everywhere, with bricks knocked out of the window openings, a few cracks in the walls and scaffolding on the lighthouse.  As we took our first scan of the key from the bow of the ship we picked out a perched female Orchard Oriole that was sitting atop one of the beachside shrubs.  We took this as a good omen for active migration, and although the numbers of migrant passerines that we encountered this year was quite low we were not disappointed.  We began our exploration of the fort by slowly walking around the inner courtyard, 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 17 species of warblers, from beautiful Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Prothonotary and Magnolia, to the locally rare Blue-winged and Chestnut-sided and more subtlety plumaged Northern Waterthrush and Palm.  Also present were a few Indigo Buntings, single Red-eyed and Black-whiskered Vireos, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers and a few Swainson’s Thrushes.  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, Cliff and Barn Swallows and the occasional hunting Merlin, Peregrine, Kestrel or Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Of course, a trip out to the Tortugas is not soley focused on migrant passerines.  The islands support a large nesting colony of Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies, and in the afternoon, we walked out to the coal docks adjacent to Bush Key to admire these two handsome terns at close range.  As was the case last year we also detected a couple of pairs of Bridled Terns perched on the edge of the fort walls, with nearby Sooty Terns available for close comparison.  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 from the ferry as they forage over the ocean at some distance is much more satisfying.  We spent some considerable time trading off scanning the shrubs and grassy patches on Bush Key in search of a recently reported Black Noddy.  Alas (as is too often the case) the bird eluded us, despite an intensive search of the part of the island that the bird was apparently using.  By the afternoon it had become fairly windy, and relatively few noddies and terns were perched up in good positions, most preferring to hunker down in the taller vegetation which hardly helped us in our search.  A little before we had to return to the ship for the journey back to Key West we took a short walk around the northern side of the fort which allowed us to look at some of the underwater fauna that were swimming along the coral-covered moat wall edges.  The striking Blue-headed Wrasses, Blue Tang and schools of Queen Parrotfish and hunting five-foot long Tarpon might just have been interesting enough to convince a few participants that fish watching has its rewards as well.

Those that opted to remain at the fountain instead were able to watch as a few Redstarts, Black-and-Whites and even a single Yellow-rumped Warbler came in to drink and bathe quickly in the proffered freshwater.  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 excellent views of nearly every species.  All too soon it was time to leave and head back to Key West, with some more passing Brown Boobies, several Green Sea Turtles, a few Flying Fish and some distant Bottlenosed Dolphins punctuating the voyage.  As we neared Key West we also picked out a flock of foraging Roseate Terns that were swooping down over a bait ball just a few hundred yards off the tip of the island.  After some down time at the hotel we then capped the day off with a delectable seafood dinner near downtown Key West, which ended with a passing parade that commemorated the 34rd anniversary of the tongue in cheek Conch Republic (a good-natured independence movement for Key West, an island which definitely dances to the beat of its own drum).

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.  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 were reminded by our grumbling stomachs that we had only had a snack for breakfast, so we returned to Key West to enjoy the buffet at the hotel and pack up for our drive back up to Miami.

Before starting the journey though we decided to spend the remainder of the early morning exploring 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). We started out by walking to the tip of the island, where in fairly short order we found the little flock of Roseate Terns that we had noticed as we came back from the Tortugas the prior afternoon.  Although the birds were a bit distant, they were close enough that in scopes we could clearly discern their ethereally white upperparts, long tail streamers and black caps; a much easier feat on land than our more pelagic views from the bow of the ferry.

In the small patch of open woods near the fort we found a few migrants bouncing around in the trees.  Perhaps our best find was a brilliant male Chestnut-sided Warbler (a scarce migrant through SE Florida), but our close views of male Black-throated-Blue, Palm, Black-and-White and Blackpoll Warblers and few Indigo Buntings certainly livened up the stroll.   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 shallow pool.  Most were Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers, but with some scanning we picked out a half-dozen Western Sandpipers (some beginning to show the beginnings of their bright breeding plumage) and a single White-rumped Sandpiper.  White-rumpeds are a scarce, and generally late migrant throughout Florida, as the bulk of the population passes through the central flyway, and a quick search of eBird revealed this individual to be the first reported in South Florida for the year.  A bit futher 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 then finished the drive north off the keys, arriving in the town of Cutler in the mid-afternoon.  We found the often productive Cutler Wetland to be heavily overgrown, with just a few Black-necked Stilts stalking in the remaining small pools.  Nearby though we pulled into a parking lot adjacent to an active colony of West Indian Cave Swallows that is established under a small overpass.  Along with excellent views of the swallows were a mother Muscovy with a dozen fuzzy duckings, a pair of Egyptian Goose and several large Green Iguanas that were foraging on the ground between two apartment buildings!  This duo of introduced waterfowl are both expanding dramatically in their range and population density within southern Florida, with the Muscovies (which fail at any resemblance to the sleek black birds that one sometimes can spot along the Rio Grande in South Texas) being particularly common in recent times.

Rather than spending some time in the Baptist Hospital grounds and adjacent suburban neighborhood, slowly driving or walking around the residential streets in search of Red-whiskered Bulbuls we elected this year to visit a powerline right of way cum city park in the 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 Brown Thrasher as well as a few migrant warblers like American Redstart and Palm Warbler.  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.  At one point a single parrot came rocketing in overhead, but it promptly crawled into the communal nest and stubbornly refused to reappear.  Shortly after the appearance of the parrot we heard the ringing calls of a distant bulbul.  It took a bit of patience before we tracked a perched bird down, but we were eventually rewarded with at least five individuals sitting up in a fruiting tree, with one pair feeding a recently out of the nest juvenile.  This attractive bird which sports an elegant crest and striking black, white and red plumage has a very restricted range and small population size in southern Miami, so seeing so many adults and a newly-fledged young was a treat.  Before we left the park we drove over to an even larger Monk Parakeet nest, and were able to watch as three of these garrulous but somberly coloured birds sat around their giant construction like a planning committee arguing over a prospective architectural floorplan.  Our last stop before arriving at our Miami Airport hotel was just a mile or so to the southwest of the hotel, where we finished the birding day by looking at a small flock of White-winged Parakeets perched in some date palms in a suburban Miami neighborhood.  Although scarcer in South Florida than its (unlistable) congener the Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, this species has officially been added to the ABA list, while the Yellow-chevroned remains “unofficial”.  As is often the case in this neighborhood our presence elicited some largely friendly stares from the locals, one of whom I suspect would have been quite happy to give us all a tour of his two comically oversized pickup trucks (clearly visible on google maps and dwarfing his modest home) parked in his front yard.  After a bit of time off at the hotel we enjoyed dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant and finalized our plans for our final full day.

Our last day is usually dedicated to the pursuit of any special species that we may have missed.  We started with a short pre-breakfast trip to a nearby neighborhood just a mile from the hotel where we often encounter Spot-breasted Orioles; the final introduced and countable species remaining for us in the state.  We walked around a couple of pleasant residential blocks, finding a smattering of migrant warblers including singing Northern Parula and Black-and-White and even a wandering Virginia Opossum before a sharp-eyed participant spotted a flash of orange atop a nearby tree.  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.  We returned to the hotel for breakfast and to bid farewell to one participant who had to leave for home one day early to return to work.  It was then that our enviable streak of extremely good luck ground to a bit of a halt.  We ventured down to Key Biscayne in a bid to locate the long-staying female Western Spindalis that had been frequenting some fruiting trees and shrubs around the Crandon Park Nature Centre.  Despite devoting the balance of the morning on the quest we were not able to find the bird; perhaps the massive groups of beach-bound school children were a sufficient deterrent to it appearing along the trails.  Nevertheless, our time here was well spent, with repeated and close-up views of foraging Cape May and Black-throated Blue Warblers, American Redstarts, family groups of Egyptian Geese and Muscovy Ducks, a few Blackpoll and Prairie Warblers and a cagey migrant Chuck-will’s-Widow that flushed a few times in front of us along the trail but stubbornly refused to land in a good spot for an extended look.

As lunchtime neared we headed north towards the town of Delray Beach, stopping for lunch and then 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 a pair of birds loafing outside their 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.

Leaving the owls behind we travelled further north to our main location for the afternoon, the Wakadohatchee Wetlands, where we marveled at the wading birds of South Florida in their replete 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.  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 over a half-dozen Swamphens along the boardwalk, enjoying repeated and very close views of their undeniably handsome (if menacing) plumage and even spotting one bird that appeared to be of the purple-headed species (which is not currently countable).    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 an adult sitting in a nearby reedbed along the boardwalk.   As we neared the end of the loop boardwalk we were treated to an amusing scene when a young Roseate Spoonbill picked up the tail of a basking Green Iguana rather than the stick that it was aiming for.  Both animals seemed quite puzzled by the event, with the spoonbill repeatedly tasting the lizards back until the lizard scuttled off, scaring the bird in the process.  We headed back to our hotel in Miami, for a rest before a delicious French dinner and a wrap up of a really great week in south Florida.

Created: 24 September 2019