South Florida Apr 21—May 01, 2008
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
South Florida is home to many birds that can't be found easily anywhere else in North America. The trick is that most of them aren't that easy to see in Florida either. This is the challenge of leading this tour: there is a long list of "target" birds and almost every one of them could be missed if things don't go just right. They range from birds that are becoming increasingly rare like the Smooth-billed Ani, and birds that are notoriously difficult to observe like the Mangrove Cuckoo and Short-tailed Hawk, to birds like White-crowned Pigeon and the various Miami exotics that are fairly common, but unpredictable, and to birds like Antillean Nighthawk and Roseate Tern that are late migrants and often aren't back on the breeding grounds in time for us to see them. Well, sometimes fortune smiles. This year we had a combination of good weather, a great group, and just enough pure luck that everything seemed to fall into place—not one target bird was missed!
Without a doubt, the bird on this trip that causes me the most lost sleep is the Mangrove Cuckoo. It always seems to be at the top of everybody's want list, usually because they've been to Florida before and missed it! While not especially uncommon, they are incredibly hard to find when they are not singing. Unfortunately for us, and most visiting birders, their singing activity doesn't really pick up until May or June; at this time, and through the summer, they are actually fairly easy to find, but that doesn't help us in April. We needed a little something extra, and some overnight showers were exactly that. The Mangrove Cuckoo has been called "rain crow" for its tendency to become active and vocal after rains, and we saw strong evidence of that. After enjoying superb scope views of a singing Black-whiskered Vireo (unusually scarce this year), I heard a distant singing cuckoo. I could barely believe my ears, but as we worked on it, it continued to get closer, and soon we were treated to prolonged views of first one, then a second singing Mangrove Cuckoo from an adjacent territory. We finally walked away as they continued their vocal sparring. We heard at least one other singing that morning as we birded in the lush, tropical hardwood hammocks of Key Largo; it was an embarrassment of cuckoos.
Short-tailed Hawk is another bird that we know is around, but getting a good look at one is an entirely different matter. They breed at very low densities in large areas of riparian woodland in the interior of central and southern Florida, and spend most of the day soaring high above these remote areas. They are almost never seen perched, so we usually have to settle for rather distant scope views. After having typically unsatisfying scope views early in our day around Lake Okeechobee, we continued our search in the afternoon. We had just gotten fantastic roadside views of a group of Florida Scrub-Jays while birding the back road woodlands (which were also yielding such goodies as Red-headed Woodpecker and Swallow-tailed Kite) when we spotted a small Buteo soaring overheard. It was a light-morph Short-tailed and, as we watched, it was joined by a second bird. For several minutes they drifted back and forth at fairly low altitude, giving us great views without even having to use the scope! Light-morph Short-tailed Hawks are very handsome raptors and we had unusually good looks.
This is not to say that this whole trip is hard core target birding; in fact, our first day was very relaxed and a trip highlight as usual. We spent the morning at two very birder-friendly water treatment facilities that have become incredible havens for birds and birders alike. Here we delighted in stunningly close looks at several marsh birds that are often secretive and difficult to observe. First we found a Sora running around so close to us that we could barely focus our binoculars on it. A bit later on we had Purple Gallinules just as close, and then noticed that they were tending to a freshly hatched clutch of chicks! The little black balls of fluff were barely bigger than ping pong balls, and yet were already crawling through the vegetation after their parents. Then we had repeated scope views of Least Bitterns skulking in the reeds, doing a great job of concealing themselves, but not quite well enough! A flock of migrant warblers here was a great way to start the tour as we had Northern Parula, Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Prairie, Palm, Blackpoll, and Black-and-white warblers, American Redstart, and Common Yellowthroat all at or below eye level! So much for warbler neck!
Other "target birds" that we nabbed included Black-bellied and Fulvous whistling-ducks, Mottled Duck, Magnificent Frigatebird, Great White Heron (the white morph of Great Blue Heron), Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Snail Kite, Crested Caracara, Limpkin (with babies!), Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Gray Kingbird, "West Indian" Cave Swallow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, "Cuban" Yellow Warbler (a.k.a. Golden Warbler), Bachman's Sparrow, "Cape Sable" Seaside Sparrow, and Shiny Cowbird. Not a bad haul! This year's tour was certainly one to remember, and has set a standard for future tours.