South Florida: Birds and Butterflies Jan 11—19, 2008

Posted by Michael O'Brien

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Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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Our tour to South Florida was met with generally delightful weather and mild temperatures, so butterflying was very good. Birding was also excellent and we were able to find virtually all of South Florida's specialties.

We began at Wakodahatchee Wetlands Preserve, a water recycling facility where birds are amazingly abundant and tame. What better way to begin the tour than with scope-filling views of such birds as Pied-billed Grebe, Anhinga, Mottled Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Purple Gallinule, and virtually every heron in the book? We also enjoyed watching courting Great Blue Herons exchange nesting material and saw several Brazilian Skippers. At John Prince Park, a little searching was rewarded with nice views of our only Limpkins of the tour. Some of our best butterflying of the tour took place at Okeeheelee Nature Center where we found Polydamas Swallowtail, Atala, Julia, Zebra, and Ruddy Daggerwing. The long drive to Sebring was broken by stops for Snail Kite, Crested Caracara, and Sandhill Crane.

Our morning in the pine flatwoods at Avon Park was delightful, starting with a wonderful little Green Treefrog at the office building. Though military activities prevented us from accessing the Red-cockaded Woodpecker site, our time was rewarded with nice views of Pine and Yellow-throated warblers, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and an inquisitive group of Florida Scrub-Jays. On our drive south, we made stops to enjoy White-tailed Kite and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, both scarce but regular visitors to Florida. The solitude of walking among the giant bald cypress at Corkscrew Swamp was enriched by close views of both night-herons, White Ibis, Anhinga, and other swamp birds.

Day three began at Marco Island's Tigertail Beach, one of the finest and most underrated shorebird sites on the East Coast. Here we had wonderful comparisons of Piping, Snowy, Semipalmated, and Wilson's plovers along with a fine diversity of other shorebirds. After seeing a Burrowing Owl peer out of its hole, we left Marco Island and headed east, stopping first at Collier-Seminole State Park where we found our first Short-tailed Hawk, along with a nice selection of butterflies including Fulvous Hairstreak, Mangrove Buckeye, and Hammock, Long-tailed, and Salt Marsh skippers. Later we enjoyed a relaxed visit to Sweetwater Strand, one of the most enchanting spots in all of Florida. Here, in the cypress swamp, we enjoyed listening to the eerie croaks and grunts of ibis, storks, herons, and Anhingas, and the popping and splashing of fish. A few butterflies here were highlighted by our only Tree-spotted Skipper of the tour.

We had two full days to enjoy the riches of Everglades National Park. We began outside the park at "Lucky Hammock," which lived up to its name with sightings of Merlin, Cave Swallow, and several species of warblers. An American Bittern, several close Short-tailed Hawks, a pair of hooting Barred Owls, and a sunning Viceroy were just a few of the highlights at Anhinga Trail. A visit to Paurotis Pond was rewarded by nice views of Roseate Spoonbills. Our second morning began at Snake Bight Trail where we saw our first Great White Heron, a few warblers, several Common Ground-Doves, an unusually long-billed Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and a mass of wading birds at the end (but, alas, no flamingos). Butterflies were numerous in the Flamingo area and, among dozens of Great Southern Whites, Zebras, and Mangrove Buckeyes, highlights included Silver-banded Hairstreak, Eastern Pygmy-Blue, Dorantes Longtail, and Monk Skipper. At the Flamingo marina, we saw three basking American crocodiles and watched a juvenile Brown Pelican consume a huge snapper in a single gulp, then proceed to smash his pouch against a wall, apparently in order to subdue the fish! On the flats behind Flamingo, we saw swarms of pelicans, gulls, skimmers, and shorebirds erupt into the air when a Peregrine buzzed by.

Day six was a fine day spent in the Florida Keys. We began at Windley Key where we watched a Giant Swallowtail lay its eggs on wild lime, and the Hammock Trail helped us sort out tree identification. As we headed south, we saw many Magnificent Frigatebirds riding updrafts off a stiff easterly wind. A quick stop at Missouri Key produced nice views of Royal and Sandwich terns. Much of our day was spent butterflying at Bahia Honda State Park. Soon after arriving we found our primary target, the very rare Miami Blue, a species on the verge of extirpation in Florida. Other highlights at Bahia Honda included Large Orange Sulphur, Martial and Mallow scrub-hairstreaks, and Southern Broken-Dash. As we headed north, we found several Broad-winged Hawks, one offering excellent views.

On our last day we began in the lush gardens of suburban Kendall where we found White-crowned Pigeon; White-winged Dove; Monk, White-winged, and Yellow-chevroned parakeets; and Red-whiskered Bulbul. Then we headed to Mathesson Hammock County Park and Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens where we spent much of the day. A short walk at Mathesson Hammock produced a nice variety of warblers, as well as a Brown-crested Flycatcher, a rarity from the southwest. A tour of Fairchild produced some excellent butterflies including Giant and Polydamas swallowtails, Florida White, Orange-barred Sulphur, Atala, Julia, numerous Monarchs and Queens, and a beautiful Mangrove Skipper. Some nice birds there included Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and many noisy Hill Mynas. We ended the day at Pembroke Pines where we saw two Purple Swamphens, an exotic species that is growing in numbers despite efforts to eradicate it. Nearby, at Brian Piccolo Park, we enjoyed much better views of Burrowing Owls than we had earlier in the week.