South Florida & The Keys Apr 25—May 01, 2013

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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This short South Florida & the Keys trip was designed as a quick sampling of South Florida specialties, as well as an opportunity to encounter migrants at various points along the way. Beginning and ending in Key West, we ventured north through the Keys to Florida City, from which we explored the Everglades and suburban Miami.

On our first day we headed to Summerland and Saddlebunch keys, where numerous White-crowned Pigeons put on a great show. We also had good studies of our first Black-whiskered Vireo and several Gray Kingbirds, and saw several of the resident mangrove subspecies of Prairie Warbler. But the main event of the morning was to search for the female Western Spindalis that had been seen at Key West Botanical Garden. Before leaving the parking lot, Jeff spotted this bird and we all ended up getting good looks. The lush plantings at this botanical garden also held a nice assortment of migrants including Black-and-white, Cape May, Blackpoll, Black-throated Blue, and Palm warblers, Northern Parula, American Redstart, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. We even saw a Painted Bunting, though views were brief. As we headed up the Keys, a stop at Ann’s Beach produced a nice selection of shorebirds, including Black-bellied Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Western Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Semipalmated and Least sandpipers, and Short-billed Dowitcher. A real highlight of the day came as we were headed up Route 1 south of Florida City and found a pair of Snail Kites at the side of the road. These beautiful birds posed well for us, and even copulated. One of them disappeared into a shrub where we suspect a nest was hidden.

Western Spindalis at Key West Botanical Garden

Western Spindalis at Key West Botanical Garden— Photo: Michael O’Brien

On our second day we headed to suburban Miami in search of exotics. Starting near the Baptist Hospital in Kendall, we cruised the neighborhoods and eventually found several Red-whiskered Bulbuls, as well as Mitred and Yellow-chevroned parakeets. A friendly homeowner invited us to watch parakeets at her feeder, so we graciously accepted the offer and enjoyed wonderful views of Mitred Parakeets devouring fruit. Meanwhile, we were captivated by a Common Gallinule and her cute little chicks, which were roaming the edge of the canal. The presence of several West Indian strays altered our plans slightly, which is why we spent most of the late morning and early afternoon at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Although the Thick-billed Vireo and La Sagra’s Flycatcher eluded us, we did have more migrants, including great looks at several Cape May Warblers. On our way back to Florida City, we stopped at Cutler Ridge to enjoy the nesting colony of Caribbean Cave Swallows. This is one of the few places this richly colored subspecies nests in the United States.

Having spent the first two days in relatively congested areas, day three at Everglades National Park provided a delightfully relaxing change of pace. We began by heading straight to Mahogany Hammock, where we found the very localized Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, a distinctive subspecies that is restricted to fresh sawgrass marshes of the Everglades. Then we visited Paurotis Pond, which was a real highlight. Nesting Wood Storks were obvious, and brightly colored Roseate Spoonbills were coming and going. And before long, a stunning Swallow-tailed Kite magically appeared over the tree line. Our first alligator nicely rounded out the ambiance of this wonderful site. A long walk along Bear Lake Trail didn’t produce any Mangrove Cuckoos, but was a lovely way to experience life in the mangrove swamp, and get good looks at the mangrove subspecies of White-eyed Vireo. Around Flamingo, we scrutinized the cowbird flocks until we turned up a couple of Shiny Cowbirds, an uncommon recent immigrant from the south. We also scanned Florida Bay and found all three forms of Great Blue Heron, plus numerous shorebirds and a flock of Black Skimmers. An afternoon stroll around Anhinga Trail was enjoyable, particularly for the numerous Anhingas nesting there. An evening excursion to Long Pine Key produced two close, calling Eastern Screech-Owls and a more distant Chuck-will’s-widow.

The next day, we began early at Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site in hopes of finding a Mangrove Cuckoo. Although cuckoos were frustratingly silent, we did have excellent views of Ovenbird and other migrants, and also heard the distinctively low-pitched song of the “Golden” Yellow Warbler, a largely Cuban member of the Mangrove Warbler group. Later, an afternoon drive to Tamiami Trail turned into an unbirdable deluge, though we did see quite a few Wood Storks, as well as Tricolored and Little Blue herons, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and a very wet Common Gallinule.

On our final day, still hoping to see Thick-billed Vireo, we returned to Bill Baggs first thing in the morning. Our luck wasn’t any better the second time around, but a few migrants livened up our time there. A return to Key Largo was similarly devoid of our target, Mangrove Cuckoo, but we had excellent views of Black-whiskered Vireo, and more migrants: seldom have we seen an Ovenbird so well, and, though it’s easy to get jaded, we were truly delighted to have such fine and repeated views of Cape May Warbler. Feeling a bit defeated from the morning, our mood changed during lunch at the Big Chill, where we not only had the best key lime pie of the trip, but we also enjoyed some fly-by Nanday Parakeets, a species recently added to the ABA “countable” list.

One real highlight of the trip occurred as we headed south across Seven Mile Bridge. The Caribbean Osprey we had seen at a distance on the drive north was now perched on the side of the highway, just feet away. Even though we were traveling at highway speed, with such a close view we were able to see the bird’s distinctive head pattern, and both Joe and Jeff were able to obtain nice photos. This is only about the third record of this subspecies in North America! A stop at Ohio Key a few minutes later produced some nice shorebirds, including a Wilson’s Plover. We ended the day near Key West Airport, where we succeeded in finding two Antillean Nighthawks flying alongside a Common. A great way to end the tour!