South Florida & The Keys Apr 24—30, 2014

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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Our spring South Florida & The Keys tour was a fun way to see some local specialties, see a little migration, and also conduct a very important key lime pie taste test! Our exploration of Florida’s diverse habitats focused on three main elements: the Keys, the Everglades, and the lush suburban environs around greater Miami.

Mangrove Cuckoo

Mangrove Cuckoo— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Starting and ending in Key West gave us ample opportunity to explore the Keys. This year, the appearance of a stray Bahama Mockingbird steered some of our time toward Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park in Key West. Although we never saw the mocker, this proved to be an excellent way to see Magnificent Frigatebird, Roseate Tern, White-crowned Pigeon, Black-whiskered Vireo, and a few migrants such as Gray-cheeked Thrush, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and nine species of warblers. Farther up the Keys, we all enjoyed our visit to Sombrero Key Golf Course where a Burrowing Owl seemed right at home perched atop a cactus, though a Bobolink looked oddly out of place as it foraged on the green. Stops at West Summerland and Ohio keys, and Ann’s Beach proved excellent for close studies of shorebirds, including Wilson’s Plover and White-rumped Sandpiper. No doubt the highlight in the Keys for most of our group was a visit to Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park (aka, Dagny Johnson). Though it was entertaining to get good views of the resident subspecies of White-eyed Vireo, the real prize here was a close encounter with two Mangrove Cuckoos right by the entrance! Perhaps not as exciting as Mangrove Cuckoo, though certainly rarer, it was very interesting to find three Ospreys of the Caribbean subspecies in the Keys, including one at a nest!

“Caribbean” Osprey— Photo: Michael O’Brien

For a change of pace, the next phase of our tour took place in more rural settings, dominated by seas of sawgrass and islands of pine and cypress. First, we ventured west along Tamiami Trail to Shark River Slough, famous for its concentration of Snail Kites. With a little scanning we found four Snail Kites, and eventually had close views of one as it foraged near the road. Farther west, a walk along the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk was memorable not as much for what we saw, but for what we heard. In a wild and tranquil setting, among giant cypress and strangler figs, we heard a spectacular vocal chorus from Barred Owl, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Pileated Woodpecker, along with Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Northern Parula—a classic southern swamp soundtrack! At Everglades National Park, we enjoyed several different ecosystems as we traveled the 38-mile road down to Flamingo. An early morning stop in the Pinelands produced nice views of Brown-headed Nuthatch and Pine Warbler, as well as a Great Crested Flycatcher going to and from its cavity with mouthfuls of nesting material. At Paurotis Pond, islands of mangroves were swarming with nesting herons, spoonbills, ibis, and storks, as Swallow-tailed Kites soared overhead. Down at Flamingo, we had nice views of several Shiny Cowbirds feeding on the lawn, and also scanned the vast shallows of Florida Bay and saw Great White Heron, Black Skimmer, and a variety of shorebirds. An afternoon walk at Anhinga Trail was very productive, with a pair of soaring Short-tailed Hawks, a Purple Gallinule, and incredibly close views of a variety of waterbirds, including nesting Anhingas.

Shiny Cowbird

Shiny Cowbird— Photo: Michael O’Brien

No birding trip to South Florida would be complete without a sampling of the exotic species that have taken up residence in lush suburbs around Miami. We began this day by cruising neighborhoods near Kendall, where we were quickly greeted by some fly-by flocks of Mitred Parakeets. Our main target here, Red-whiskered Bulbul, proved difficult to find, and when we did finally locate a pair, only half the group got to see them. After the trail ran cold, we moved on to check several different city parks. At Fuchs Park, we found a giant strangler fig with a flock of roosting parakeets, and had excellent views of both Mitred and Red-masked; there was also a flock of Egyptian Geese, a species with a growing feral population, and perhaps the next in line to become established. Another fun stop was the Dolphin Mall outside Miami. The marshy ponds around this property turn out to be just perfect for Purple Swamphen, a Eurasian species that has become established in recent years. We saw at least seven individuals, and watched their characteristic feeding behavior—tugging entire plants out of the marsh and eating the tender roots. This rather destructive behavior is one of the reasons why some biologists are not too happy about this species taking up residence in Florida. Our last stop on this day was one more try for the bulbuls near Kendall. At this point it was quite warm, and we didn’t think our chances were very good. But there they were, a pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls splashing and drinking in a birdbath, for all to see!

Oh, and the winner of the key lime pie taste test? Square Grouper on Cudjoe Key!