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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Florida: The South, the Keys and the Dry Tortugas

Tour Narrative

In Brief:  The 2011 WINGS Spring Florida tour provided a great survey of the habitats and avifauna of this remarkable region.  The journey 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, 11 species of Herons, 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 no less than 4 species of parrots alongside the aristocratic Common Myna (slumming in a gas station parking lot) and the beautiful Spot-breasted Oriole.  Our trip out to the Dry Tortugas provided a firsthand vision of migration in action with Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Indigo Buntings, Gray-cheeked Thrushes, 17 species of warblers and a calling Antillean Nighthawk around the fort.  The throngs of nesting Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies whirling around the Cay were wonderful as always, and we had excellent views of Brown and Masked Boobies enroute to the park.  We were thrilled to have great views of virtually all of the South Florida specialties, with the real standouts including blushing Roseate Terns, a cooperative Mangrove Cuckoo, a group of male Shiny Cowbirds, White-crowned Pigeons, and Black-whiskered Vireo.  It was a great week, with warm weather and fantastic birding, and I look forward to the 2012 installment.

In Detail:  We started off this years Spring Florida tour with a bang by exploring the slash pine uplands and brush country north of Fort Myers.  Although we missed the woodpeckers in the morning, the frequently burned Slash Pine forest interspersed with wet grasslands surrounding the colony site played host to several other species of interest.  Nearby a territorial Bachman’s Sparrow was happily singing its haunting song, and after a few minutes of tracking it down to an isolated pine tree we enjoyed great scope views of this hard to see U.S. endemic.  Also in the area were several sprightly Brown-headed Nuthatches, dapper Red-bellied and striking Pileated Woodpeckers, a pair of vocal Great Crested Flycatchers and many of the peninsular subspecies of Eastern Towhees, showing their eerily white irises.  Later in the morning we stopped in at a small brush covered residential area to enjoy Florida’s one 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 four birds at close range relatively easily was a real treat.  A mid-day stop at a large wetland complex allowed us to see our first Limpkins, along with Glossy and White Ibis, several waders including Long-billed Dowitcher and Semipalmated Sandpiper and a host of herons.  In the early evening we went back to our first location and were quickly successful at obtaining extended views of a Red-cockaded Woodpeckers foraging within a few meters of the group!  We also enjoyed a singing Carolina Wren, several electric blue Eastern Bluebirds, and a few Wood Storks and Sandhill Cranes as they flew over the pines or foraged in the wetter areas of marsh.

We started day two off with a pair of very nice birds in Cape Coral.  Several artificial burrows created for Burrowing Owls alongside a baseball field were occupied by nesting owls.  Three separate burrows, all with adults and nearly fledged young in attendance were easily seen, and using the car as a blind we were able to see the birds at very close range without disturbing them.  Nearby we noticed some large nests in the light standards over the fields, and less than a minute later were staring at a small flock of (introduced but countable) Monk Parakeets feeding on seeding mustard plants on the lawn.  We then set off for the beach, and were rewarded during an hour and a half stroll around some small lagoons containing a nice array of waterbirds.  Color was provided by a very tame group of Roseate Spoonbills that sat preening and occasionally foraging just a few feet in front of us.  Shorebirds too were well represented with Semipalmated, Wilson’s and Black-bellied Plover, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderling, Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstones.  And the heron show was exceptional, with a foraging Reddish Egret that danced right in front of us and then posed for pictures!  Enroute to eastern Florida we stopped to admire a soaring American Swallow-tailed Kite, surely one of the most impressive North American raptors.  We explored the Big Cyprus Preserve, walking the boardwalk into the cypress swamp and admiring the dense bromeliad laden vegetation, lush ground cover of ferns and mosses and towering trees.  The forest was very dry this year, due to a persistent drought, but we still managed to drum up a few new birds even in the heat of the day, with singing Tufted Titmouse, Northern Parula and Red-eyed Vireo, and a White-eyed Vireo coming in to a small remnant pool for a drink.  We closed the day looking for a recently reported La Sagra’s Flycatcher in Boca Raton.  We were unfortunately unsuccessful in our quest, but remained ever hopeful that the bird will stick around long enough for a second attempt later in the week.

The following morning was spent exploring the many fine areas in the world famous Everglades National Park.  The seemingly endless “sea of grass” of the Everglades, complete with tropical hardwood, Cyprus and slash pine hammocks, and lush coastal mangroves is an amazing ecosystem to travel through.  We started the morning along the main park road, completely surrounded by fields of sawgrass, where with a little searching we found a singing Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow in the low grass.  This subspecies of Seaside Sparrow is quite visually distinctive from the other forms of Seaside Sparrows, and is confined to the southern tip of the Florida Peninsula and can often be hard to pin down.  After enjoying the sparrow we ventured to the marina area and mudflats of Flamingo, near the end of the park road.  Here amidst the grassy areas we quickly found a small flock of foraging cowbirds and grackles.  Among the flock we picked out and admired three Shiny Cowbirds nearly glowing in the early morning sun.  Also at Flamingo we had excellent studies of Great Blue, Great White, and Wurdeman’s Herons feeding in Florida Bay, and a beautiful male Prairie Warbler singing from a hedgerow.  Mammals were in evidence too, as two West Indian Manatees went swimming languidly past our viewing area while we were working through the herons.  On the way out of the park we stopped at an impressive Wood Stork rookery, with perhaps 150 pairs of birds.  A few Roseate Spoonbills and Anhingas were also breeding in the colony and the noise and commotion of the crush of birdlife was impressive.  After a refreshing fruit milkshake from a local fruit stand we made the scenic drive down to Key West, with stops to admire some shorebird flocks containing near breeding-plumaged Sanderling and Short-billed Dowitchers.  We also stopped at a few hardwood hammocks, and were thrilled by fantastic views of a very cooperative Black-whiskered Vireo, and a pair of the striking White-crowned Pigeons.  

The next morning we enjoyed excellent scope views of Gray Kingbirds and White-crowned Pigeons and fantastic Cuban coffee while we waited to board our ferry to the Dry Tortugas.  The ride out was splendid, over calm and sparkling azure blue.  Enroute to the fort we managed to see several Masked Boobies loafing on Hospital Key, and both Green and Loggerhead Sea Turtles!  The Tortugas offer a reliable site for nesting seabirds, and we saw thousands of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns wheeling around the Key and sitting on their nearby nesting colony of on Bush Key.  Also present were dozens of Magnificent Frigatebirds, which also nest on Bush Key.  In addition to the cacophonous seabirds the fort offers some vegetation and foraging opportunities for tired migrant birds.  During our stay on the island we lucked into small fallout of migrants.  In every bush a few birds lurked about, actively foraging, or coming into oranges provided by some helpful campers.  We saw an amazing 17 species of warblers, from the beautiful Magnolia and Black-throated Blue, to the more subtle Worm-eating and Ovenbird.  Also present were several Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Red-eyed and Black-whiskered Vireos, Indigo Buntings, Bobolink, and a few Gray-cheeked Thrushes.  Of particular note was a flying and calling Antillean Nighthawk that circled over the fort!  Even after a few hours of wandering around the fort we were still picking up new species and individuals.  One participant happily labeled it as one of the best birding days of his life, and I think few would disagree!  One of the most unique sights was played out underwater, as we watched a medium sized Barracuda catch and then dismember a hapless Yellow-tailed Snapper.  On the way back to Key West we were fortunate to have very close views of several Brown Boobies, and a few groups of Bottlenosed Dolphin.

Birding for migrants on the mainland of Florida continued to be very slow due to a complete lack of cold fronts, but we still had an amazing morning of birding as we made our way back north through the Keys.  Stopping at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in the morning allowed for repeated views of several feeding White-crowned Pigeons perched in a large fruiting fig.  Even better we had wonderful views of a trio of courting Roseate Terns, amongst a flock of loafing Least and Common Terns.  Their pinkish breasts, long tail streamers and graceful appearance were all very well received by the group.  Indigenous Park held our first Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and a small pond full of Green Iguanas and several different species of turtles.  A quick stop to pick up some excellent Cuban Coffee fueled our excitement as we began our quest for one of the more elusive Florida specialties, the Mangrove Cuckoo.  Some years this species can be devilishly difficult to pin down, but this year we exceptional views of a singing bird perched at close range in a dense stand of mangroves.  It slowly climbed higher and higher up the tree until it sat for several minutes in the sun and then flew over our heads providing one of the most satisfying cuckoo showings that I have had on the tour.  A productive stop in Cutler, a suburb of Miami gave us views of several dozen Cave Swallows returning to their nest sites under a small bridge over a canal.  The nearby Cutler Wetlands were nearly dried out, but played host to a good array of waders, including our first White-rumped and Stilt Sandpipers, and hundreds of White Ibis.  On the way to our hotel in Miami we stopped in Kendall to look for a few of the established exotics that make this district of Miami famous.  Within minutes of arriving we lucked onto a beautiful pair of Spot-breasted Orioles foraging in a large Bottlebrush tree.  The orioles remained perched in a close tree for over 5 minutes, offering beautiful views of their electric orange and black plumage.  We then headed over to the nearby hospital where several pairs of Mitred Parakeets had set up nests in the eaves of one of the hospital buildings.  After such a wonderful day in the field settling into a nice Cuban restaurant seemed like just the thing.

Our last day is usually dedicated to the pursuit of any special species that we may have missed, with several stops in coastal hardwood hammocks for migrants and a few wetlands for another round of enjoying Florida’s myriad waterbirds.  We started the day looking at a small flock of White-winged Parakeets foraging on figs 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.  Afterwards we checked for the reported La Sagra’s Flycacther in Boca Raton to no avail.  Due to this year’s slow migration we elected to concentrate on chasing a few reported rarities and exploring a beautiful reclamation marsh near Fort Lauderdale.  Here we marveled as the wading birds of South Florida were all in their replete breeding dress, and many species were actively feeding young.  The sight of a nearly fully-grown Great Blue Heron chick begging for a handout from its parent was priceless, as were the antics of the very young Anhinga babies constantly looking for their next meal, and the incredibly bright nuptial coloration of the Great Egrets and Cattle Egrets.  As we walked the boardwalk we had very close views of most of the common marshbirds on the peninsula.  Some of the scarcer species were in evidence too, with some Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks resting in the shade of some scattered trees, and three incredible 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 striding through the water in near perfect light, and studying the reflective blues, indigos, purples, and greens of its back feathers.  Least Bitterns were here as well, with at least three birds seen as we walked around the boardwalk.  I always feel fortunate to see this often highly cryptic species, and this year’s views were excellent.  We tried again for Smooth-billed Ani, but were sadly unsuccessful; making me wonder how much longer the few birds that remain will hold out.  We closed the day at an excellent Cuban restaurant, a fitting end to a wonderful tour to South Florida!

- Gavin Bieber


Updated: June 2011