South Florida Apr 23—May 03, 2007
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
The first day of our 2007 South Florida tour was one to remember. I knew from the outset that we had the chance to see a lot of great birds, including several that we might not see again during the rest of the tour. So there was a bit of trepidation mixed with our excitement as we set out that morning.
Our first stop was a quick check to see if we could locate the last chaseable Smooth-billed Anis left in Florida. They hadn’t been seen for a few weeks, so I wasn’t too surprised when we came up dry. I quickly refocused the group on the next task, locating a Western Spindalis (a rare visitor from the Bahamas) that had been frequenting a nearby cemetery. As we entered the neighborhood of the cemetery, we were stopped by a fly-by pair of Spot-breasted Orioles! I quickly parked the van and we all piled out, trying to keep our eyes on them. After several minutes of searching, we finally tracked them down in a gumbo limbo tree. We were getting great views when somebody asked, “Hey, isn’t that the Spindalis?” And it was! We watched it for a brief moment and then the orioles chased it off. Though we had seen the bird land in a mango tree nearby, several minutes of waiting proved fruitless. And then it started to rain. I decided to run back for the van so we could wait out the rain shower and resume our search later, but by the time I returned with the van everybody was smiling and giving me thumbs up! As it turns out, the bird had emerged from the mango tree and sat out in the open at close range, allowing everybody fantastic views. I’d rather be lucky than good.
With our main morning target out of the way so quickly, I decided to try a nearby park where I had recently seen multiple Snail Kites. This bird can be difficult some years so I wanted to try early as insurance. Not only did we find 3 Snail Kites, but they were accompanied by a huge concentration of wading birds. We had 50 or more Wood Storks, large numbers of Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Tricolored and Little Blue herons, and several Purple Swamphens. The Swamphen is an introduced species (resembling a Purple Gallinule on steroids) that is rapidly expanding its range in South Florida and may soon be considered countable. To top it off, sitting out in the middle of the marsh with all the other birds was an immature Bald Eagle?what a sight!
Our next stop, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, was for many the highlight of the tour. This water reclamation facility (i.e. sewage pond) has become a must-see for birders visiting South Florida, and we saw plenty to justify this reputation. As we walked the boardwalk over the ponds, we were treated to an unforgettable show from several species of marsh birds that are usually much more difficult to observe. It all started with knockout looks at Purple Gallinule. This is one of the prettiest birds in North America, and to have one crawling around in the bulrushes and fire flag not 20 feet from us was quite a treat. We would see several more before we completed our circuit. Next it was a Sora, again right out in the open and so close we almost couldn’t focus our binoculars on it.
Soon our attention was drawn away by a group of photographers all in a cluster with their lenses pointed at a patch of bulrushes. We were astonished to find out that they were watching three fledgling Least Bitterns that had just emerged from their hidden nest and were periodically being fed by both parents! Again we were getting incredible views of a species that is usually very secretive and difficult to observe. From less than 20 feet away we watched as tiny, awkward, fluffy young tested their wobbly legs and scrambled to be fed when a parent would return; it was truly mind-blowing. After that, the nests full of Anhingas and other herons and egrets were just icing on the cake, but we really put the cherry on the top with a Limpkin that spoke up just as we were leaving. With a little effort and patience we were able to get excellent scope views as it sat quietly preening in the marsh.
Over the next eight days of birding we tallied a tremendous list of quality birds including Great White Heron (the white morph of Great Blue Heron), Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, Swallow-tailed Kite (20+ in one day), Short-tailed Hawk (light and dark morphs), Crested Caracara, Piping Plover, White-crowned Pigeon, Smooth-billed Ani (we found two on a second visit), Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Black-whiskered Vireo, Florida Scrub-Jay, Cave Swallow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, “Cuban Yellow Warbler” (a subspecies of Yellow Warbler, also known as Golden Warbler), Bachman’s Sparrow, Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow (an endangered subspecies of Seaside Sparrow), and both Bronzed and Shiny cowbirds. It was quite a trip, but that first day was a doozy!