South Florida Apr 20—29, 2010

Posted by Brennan Mulrooney

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Brennan Mulrooney

Brennan Mulrooney was born and raised in San Diego, California. Growing up, his heart and mind were captured by the ocean. He split his summer days between helping out behi...

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Many birds that call South Florida home are found nowhere else north of Mexico or the Caribbean. For this reason, birders looking to build their ABA list arrive each year with the same targets in mind. Florida also has an abundance of more widespread birds that are easily seen there, as well as several subspecies of widespread birds that occur only in Florida. We had a wonderful trip this year and were able to find almost all of these species and subspecies, while enjoying some fine weather and taking in quite a bit of the real Florida that most general tourists never see.

Our trip began with a search for what has become the last-known Smooth-billed Ani in Florida. This species used to be fairly common and widespread in Florida, but its numbers have been rapidly declining in recent years. For several years now the only consistently seen birds were in one spot in Fort Lauderdale, and for the last year there has only been a single bird. After about 30 minutes of searching, and just as we were about to leave, we found it…sitting on a dumpster. Oh well, it didn't take away from our excitement and enjoyment of what was a life bird for most of the group.

Soon afterward we found ourselves at one of our most memorable birding destinations—Wakodahatchee Wetlands. As we walked the boardwalks at this Rolls Royce of a sewage pond, we were repeatedly stopped by one breathtaking discovery after another. Green Herons, Tricolored Herons, Glossy Ibis, and Mottled Ducks were all within a few feet of us in the morning light. Then we began seeing birds like Purple Gallinule, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Sora, and Roseate Spoonbill. The real highlights came when first we found a Least Bittern pair tending their nest (only 15 feet away!), and then a shrieking Limpkin came flying right toward us and landed in the marsh nearby.

The next day found us exploring the sparsely populated prairies and woodlands north and west of Lake Okeechobee. Our targets for this day were the endemic Florida Scrub-Jay, the range-restricted Short-tailed Hawk, and the always elusive Bachman's Sparrow. Our day began as we searched the edge of the Venus Flatwoods Preserve, and though we heard one or two very distant singing Bachman's Sparrows, they were nowhere to be seen. We were hardly bothered by this though, as we were enjoying wonderful views of Red-headed Woodpeckers, Eastern Bluebirds, and Northern Bobwhite. As we continued on, we got our first views of Swallow-tailed Kites. These elegant and striking raptors never fail to impress, and it seemed like we never went more than about 20 minutes between sightings.

As the morning was turning to day, we noticed the vultures starting to soar and knew that now was the time for Short-tailed Hawk. These hawks spend most of the day soaring high above the forest, searching for their avian prey in the tree tops below; the best time to see them is when they are first rising up out of their overnight roosts. As we wandered down a bucolic back road through the woods, we were enjoying a nice variety of butterflies and dragonflies and being serenaded by White-eyed Vireos and Carolina Wrens, when a Short-tailed Hawk suddenly appeared right above us. It was an adult dark-morph bird, and it gave us a fantastic view as it circled low above us. This was by far the best view I've ever had on this tour. We later found a second bird, a light-morph this time, that gave us equally good views.

Buoyed by our success with the Short-tailed Hawk, we tried another formerly productive spot for Bachman's Sparrow. Though the sun had risen high and the day was warming, we soon found a singing bird quite close to the road. We all enjoyed fantastic scope views as it watched us from a partially obscured perch where it obviously felt concealed and safe.

Our final target bird of the day would not require nearly as much hard work or luck. Though the Florida Scrub-Jay is listed as an endangered species, it is still common and conspicuous in good habitat. Soon after our search began we found a very cooperative bird right on the side of the road. We all piled out of the vans and were a little surprised as the bird flew directly up to us. Soon it was foraging on the ground right at our feet. Clearly this bird was accustomed to humans, and we thoroughly enjoyed our experience with it.

The rest of our tour of South Florida was filled with more fantastic birds and more unique Florida experiences. From Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and the incomparable Corkscrew Swamp near Naples to Snail Kites and the wonder of the Everglades near Homestead, to the dizzying array of introduced species inhabiting the Miami area, and to the Black-whiskered Vireos and White-crowned Pigeons of the tropical hardwood hammocks of the Keys, it was an amazing trip that will provide years of memories and many new checks on the life list.