South Florida Apr 19—28, 2011

Posted by Michael O'Brien


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 South Florida trip was an enjoyable sampling of birds, including specialties whose range in the U.S. is restricted to Florida, as well as migratory species on their way to points north. Although we covered a lot of ground, our pace was relaxed enough to allow prolonged enjoyment of many species and special habitats.

We began in Fort Lauderdale where we visited two of the birdiest wastewater treatment facilities in the country. Wakodahatchee Wetlands and Green Kay Wetlands don't feel much like sewage ponds when you walk the boardwalks and enjoy close views of such species as Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Mottled Duck, Least Bittern, Purple Gallinule, and Limpkin, not to mention nesting herons, egrets, and Anhingas. These wonderful sites are located in a heavily developed area, so the birds are acclimated to visitors and extremely tame. A photographer’s paradise!

The next phase of our tour, based in Clewiston, focused on the "high elevation" areas of central Florida, north and west of Lake Okeechobee. The key bird here is the endemic Florida Scrub-Jay, a species no birder is allowed to leave Florida without seeing! Fortunately, we had no trouble finding them and enjoyed excellent views of these inquisitive birds. This was also a day to watch the sky. The very local and uncommon Short-tailed Hawk breeds mainly in central Florida, and we found a dark morph bird kiting over the forest. But the real show-stopper was Swallow-tailed Kite. As soon as it warmed up a little, these lovely birds started appearing above the treetops, swooping and wheeling gracefully, with subtle twists and flares of tail and wing. At one point we had 13 birds in view at once, a few of them passing right overhead and swooping low over the field in front of us! The area held many other interesting birds, and we were pleased to have nice views of Northern Bobwhite, Sandhill Crane, Crested Caracara, Common Ground-Dove, Red-headed Woodpecker, Eastern Towhee, and a variety of other passerines.

In the southern mainland, we enjoyed tranquil walks among giant bald cypress at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Big Cypress Bend. Both sites were active with songbirds such as Northern Parula, White-eyed Vireo, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and we enjoyed nice views of baby Red-shouldered Hawks on the nest and a recently fledged Bald Eagle perched next to its nest. Traveling east, we stopped at Shark River Slough where we had superb views of a Snail Kite feeding right next to the road, while others cruised over the vast sawgrass prairie before us.

Of course, no trip to South Florida would be complete without a visit to Everglades National Park, where we found the endemic "Cape Sable" subspecies of Seaside Sparrow, and also Western Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (both strays from the West), and several Shiny Cowbirds (an uncommon visitor from the South). We also spent a day in the Miami suburbs, searching for exotic species that have become established there. We succeeded in finding Monk, Mitred, and Yellow-chevroned parakeets, Red-whiskered Bulbul, and Common and Hill mynas. We also enjoyed watching a colony of Cave Swallows, and had nice studies of a "Golden" Yellow Warbler, a resident subspecies found in mangroves.

The final leg of our tour was a visit to the Florida Keys. We began with a full morning on Key Largo, focused primarily on finding the very shy Mangrove Cuckoo. Our success was nothing short of remarkable—we found six, including prolonged close views of two of them! In the same area, we saw our first Black-whiskered Vireos, as well as numerous migrants including some stunning Cape May and Black-throated Blue warblers. A stop at Bahia Honda produced a nice list of shorebirds, including Piping Plover. And, while birding around Key West, we had good views of both "Great White" and "Wurdeman's" herons, White-crowned Pigeon, Antillean Nighthawk, and numerous migrants. It was also a pleasure to see the beautiful blue water and have Magnificent Frigatebirds sailing overhead. Just a little taste of what we would see on the next leg of our trip—the Dry Tortugas!