South Florida Apr 21—May 01, 2009
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
It was the last morning of our tour and the pressure was on. We had two big target birds left to find and only half a day's birding to find them. The previous night we had only a glimpse of an Antillean Nighthawk as it rocketed past in high winds, never to return. It was because of this that we found ourselves driving in the pre-dawn darkness to a spot that I hoped would give us a better look at this highly sought South Florida specialty. I knew the birds were there, but I'd never tried for them at dawn; we just crossed our fingers and hoped. As we island-hopped our way up the keys from Key West to Marathon, we passed through several areas of rain showers. This was the first rain we had seen on the tour and it was a great sign. All of South Florida had been in a drought and the lack of rains had really been affecting the bird activity. So rain was good, as long as it wasn't raining in Marathon where our nighthawks were. As luck would have it, the weather was clear and we arrived as dawn was just breaking. We had to wait a few tense minutes as the sky began to brighten, but soon we had a very cooperative Antillean Nighthawk diving just over our heads, giving its distinctive "pity-pa-tit!" call. What a start! And what a relief! Now it was time to head back toward Key West and find out if the rains would pay off for us.
Thus far we had failed in our efforts to see the infamous Mangrove Cuckoo. This was frustrating, but not all that surprising given the difficulty that species usually presents. The dry and windy conditions we had been dealing with played no small part in our lack of success, and we were anxious to give it another try now that (finally) there had been some rain. It's no secret that cuckoos become active after rain; in fact, one of their nicknames is Rain Crow, and less than five minutes into our search we had one living up to its reputation. We could hear it calling, back in the mangrove forest, and soon enough we were enjoying knockout views of this highly elusive species. This is consistently one of the most difficult-to-find birds on any North American tour, and we were elated to be getting such good looks. After the dancing and high-fives had subsided, we decided that what this cake needed now was some icing.
Just a few days earlier a male Western Spindalis (formerly known as Stripe-headed Tanager) had been discovered in Key West, and now, with all of our target species accounted for, we could focus our efforts on finding this gorgeous Bahamian vagrant. When we arrived at the park where it was being seen, we were greeted by a host of migrant and resident birds. So while we tried to stay focused on the spindalis, we enjoyed the distraction being provided by birds like Broad-winged Hawk, White-crowned Pigeon, Black-whiskered Vireo, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Prairie Warbler, and Worm-eating Warbler. When we didn't find the spindalis in the Ficus tree we knew it to be frequenting, I decided it must be off in a bush somewhere, dozing until it was ready to feast again. But the clock was ticking, and we didn't have time to wait for napping birds, so I decided to go see if I could find it. Luckily for me, I had a pretty good idea of where to look, and soon we were all enjoying superb close views of the Western Spindalis having his mid-morning siesta. What a way to cap a tour!
This was just the last morning of an already fantastic tour that encompassed the whole southern third of the Florida peninsula. We saw white powder-sand beaches, tropical hardwood hammocks, cypress swamps, mangrove forests, sawgrass prairies, oak and pine woodlands, and some magnificent man-made wetlands. We amassed an impressive list of birds along the way including Magnificent Frigatebird, Least Bittern, "Great White Heron," Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, over 40 Swallow-tailed Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, Purple Gallinule, Limpkin, "Florida Burrowing Owl," Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Gray Kingbird, "Keys White-eyed Vireo," Florida Scrub-Jay, "West Indian Cave Swallow," "Cuban Yellow Warbler," "Florida Prairie Warbler," "Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow," and Shiny Cowbird.