South Florida & The Keys Apr 30—May 06, 2016

Posted by Rafael Galvez

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Rafael Galvez

Rafael Galvez has been birding and illustrating birds since childhood, a dual passion that developed when his family moved from Peru to South Florida. Always with a sketchp...

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During our South Florida & The Keys tour, we explored a diversity of environments from the tropical to the temperate, allowing us to delve into habitats found nowhere else in North America and encountering species at the northernmost edge of their ranges. This tour is a great way to experience a mix of regional specialties, such as Caribbean birds returning to nest in South Florida, and established exotics including several parakeet species. A bonus is that many songbirds winter and migrate through the region, adding to the potential of interesting encounters.

Despite the encroaching human development throughout South Florida—responsible for the alteration of ecosystems and the introduction of threatening plants and animals—the region still offers a window into the vastness of the Everglades.

Wood Stork colony at Wakodahatchee

Wood Stork colony at Wakodahatchee— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

We kicked off our tour in Key West with an early morning vigil for nighthawks. Antillean is the species we were all keen on finding, but unfortunately that daybreak we would not encounter nighthawks of any species. However, our vigil did render Reddish Egret, a species that is not always easy to find. We also found other heron species including Great Blue, Little Blue, and Green. The grassy edges nearby offered us good looks at Common Ground-Dove, a species new to a number of participants. It did not take long for a White-crowned Pigeon to fly by; it would be our first glimpse at this beautiful forest species.

Our first stop that first day was Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, which offers strands of hardwood hammocks that may hold a variety of birds during migration. Here is where we found the first of our Black-whiskered Vireos—a regional specialty breeding only in South Florida within the continental U.S. Superficially it may remind one of a Red-eyed Vireo—which we also saw there—but it is a larger, lankier bird, with yellower coloration in the underparts and two dark whiskers in the malar region. Although migrants were somewhat at a lull compared to a few days earlier, we managed to encounter Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Cape May, Palm, and Black-throated Blue warblers. A very cooperative Common Nighthawk perched on a high branch granted us great views. Gray Kingbirds could be seen in a number of locations; although it becomes a relatively common bird in the Keys into the summer, it is always exciting to see this large Caribbean flycatcher.

Black-whiskered Vireo

Black-whiskered Vireo— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

As we made our way out of Key West, we encountered Lesser Black-backed Gulls and several Magnificent Frigatebirds. Not far in the Upper Keys we saw our first Great White Heron—a regal and important bird to the Keys and Florida Bay. It is the largest heron in North America, dwarfing migratory northern Great Blues, with its range restricted to marine habitats in southernmost Florida. As we continued northward up the Keys, we made several stops, including Big Pine Key, where we found Key Deer, a very small subspecies of White-tailed Deer restricted to a sector of the Middle Keys.

After lunch at the legendary No Name Pub—a locale typical of the Keys, with countless dollar bills covering every inch of the interior—we stopped at Ohio Key to inspect shorebirds. There we found Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers, and Least Sandpipers. Most interesting was comparing the diminutive Least Tern resting beside the much larger Royal. Our next stop was a much anticipated one: a visit to a Roseate Tern colony. As we approached the government building in the Middle Keys, it was evident that many Least Terns circled overhead; they use the gravel-covered rooftops as nesting grounds. As we explored the surrounding docks, we soon found resting Roseate Terns—with their subtle rosy underparts—next to smaller Least Terns. This turned out to be a highlight for many participants.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

As can be observed with the Great White Heron, South Florida is home to various North American birds manifested in forms typically associated with the Caribbean. We stopped at Fiesta Key to examine the nest of an unusual Osprey—the Ridgway’s Osprey—a subspecies associated with the West Indies and characterized by the minimal amount of markings on the facial region, sometimes being all white-headed, with comparatively paler upperparts. 

Throughout our ride, White-crowned Pigeons could be seen darting in and out of trees. As we rode over bridge after bridge, the bright turquoise waters of the Keys reminded us we were in the Tropics. We ended the day with a vigil for Mangrove Cuckoos along the largest contiguous stretch of West Indian hardwood hammock in the U.S., rendering only views of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

Based out of Homestead in the southernmost mainland the following days, we set out to explore the diversity of habitats found in the peninsula. Away from the aqua-colored waters of the Keys, we delved into the depths of Miami’s urban environs. There we would be seeking established transplants from throughout the world—flora and fauna—introduced by the ever-growing human population of the region. Nowhere else is this more evident than in the neighborhoods of southern Miami-Dade County.

Spot-breasted Oriole

Spot-breasted Oriole— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

We first set out to Brewer Park in South Miami where we encountered Spot-breasted Orioles in their nests, many Red-masked Parakeets inspecting Australian Pines for potential breeding sites, and a Chestnut-fronted Macaw—all three introduced species long established in South Florida. We proceeded to the King’s Creek neighborhood of Kendall where we found several Red-whiskered Bulbuls—a charismatic and intrepid species. At this location we also found some migrants including Blackpoll Warblers and American Redstarts. We continued on to Fuch’s Park, which was uncharacteristically quiet, except for a handsome family of Egyptian Geese. After an exciting Middle Eastern-style lunch, we continued on to Kendall’s Baptist Hospital. The lush trees surrounding the parking lot were host to dozens of Mitred Parakeets. Somewhere in the distance we could also hear Yellow-chevroned Parakeets. Our next stop was for Caribbean Cave Swallows—a subspecies more colorful than its western counterparts, which has been breeding in highway underpasses of southernmost Florida since the 1980s. We then drove to the Kendall-Miami Executive Airport where we had close looks at a pair of Burrowing Owls. We left the Kendall area towards the heart of Miami’s hustle and bustle. The palm trees in an industrial/commercial area near the international airport attracted White-winged Parakeets, which we watched as they played on the hanging fronds. Posts and signs nearby were perches for Common Mynas. A pair of Yellow-chevroned Parakeets flew by. We finished our wonderful birding day with a meal at the famed Versailles, Little Havana’s best known Cuban restaurant.

Roseate Terns

Roseate Terns— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

The following day, we ventured considerably northward towards Martin County, where we visited Oak Scrub habitat at Jonathan Dickinson State Park in pursuit of the state’s sole endemic bird species, the endangered Florida Scrub-Jay. It did not take long to find a couple of cooperative jays that gave us great looks. There we also saw Loggerhead Shrikes. We then proceeded to a Pine Flatwoods forest where we had fantastic looks at a singing Bachman’s Sparrow. A nearby slough had an American Alligator. We continued south and west towards Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, where we walked a berm through the sawgrass prairie towards the last known location for Smooth-billed Anis. Unfortunately, once a relatively common species in South Florida, anis have declined dramatically, and for long stretches of time none have been found in the region. Recently, a pair has been relatively cooperative at Loxahatchee. Sadly, despite our great efforts, we did not find the anis. However, we did encounter many birds, mainly waders. As we walked the berm, countless Great and Snowy egrets, Tricolored and Little Blue herons, and White and Glossy ibises flew by along the adjacent canal. We were all impressed by the number of birds and diversity. Both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned night-herons gave us great looks, and Green Herons could often be seen cruising over the sawgrass. One of the greatest treats was seeing ever-present Swallow-tailed Kites foraging over the fields. Limpkins could be found in any of the nearby ditches, skulking along the thick vegetation. 

We then continued on to Palm Beach county and the beautiful Wakodahatchee Wetlands. There we were treated to fantastic views of wading bird rookeries and several marsh species. Immediately we found the Pond Apple islands brimming with Wood Storks and their chicks, Anhingas feeding their young, and Great Blue Herons and their fledglings, all at incredibly close proximity from the comfortable boardwalk. Careful scrutiny of the marshes gave us our first Purple Gallinules, a species most are surprised to see daintily gleaning for flower buds from nimble branches, agilely suspended by their long golden toes. Soon we would find the Purple Gallinule’s close relative, the much bulkier Gray-headed Swamphen, another species quite dexterous with its long toes; we could see it pulling up roots with its feet and carefully holding them up to eat from. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks soon flew overhead, and Mottled Ducks could be seen swimming amidst reeds. It was not long before we got great views of a Least Bittern foraging in the thickets!

Florida Scrub-Jay and Bachman's Sparrow

Florida Scrub-Jay and Bachman’s Sparrow— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

We continued our exploration southward into Everglades National Park the following day. Our first stop was an early morning visit to Jamaica Sawgrass wetlands where the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow—the only freshwater-breeding “seaside” sparrow— can be found singing and tending to nests. We were fortunate to encounter researcher Michelle Davis there, who took a break from slogging through the marsh in pursuit of sparrow nests to chat with us about her important work. As we continued, the sloughs started giving way to stunted Red Mangrove clumps, intruding into the freshwater habitat. A brief stop at Paurotis Pond gave us views of Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks. We stopped to observe Florida Red-shouldered Hawks (extimus) perched on the road’s edge. When we arrived at Flamingo, the mainland’s southernmost outpost, we combed through flocks of cowbirds, and it did not take long for us to find two adult male Shiny Cowbirds amidst many Brown-headeds. This was an excellent opportunity to compare the two species and identify their distinctive traits: the Shiny being entirely glossy blue, and structurally different. A nearby Osprey nest was great to see, since we were able to inspect its young at close proximity. Although we had arrived at Flamingo at low tide, the winds did not expose much for birds to rest and feed on. However, at the campground beach we found various shorebirds, including White-rumped, Semipalmated, and Least sandpipers in what proved to be an exciting lesson in “peep” identification. There, we also found several Dunlins in beautiful breeding plumage. On the way out, we stopped by Frog Pond Wildlife Management Area and observed a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and a Western Kingbird.

We returned early in the afternoon to Homestead, making sure to stop at the famous fruit market, “Robert Is Here,” for delicious tropical fruit shakes. On our way back, we stopped to admire our third cowbird species of the day, a male Bronzed perched out in the open. After an Italian dinner, we went on an optional nocturnal outing in the Everglades. We arrived at Royal Palm as the sun was setting and soon found a recently fledged Barred Owl perched by the road. Nearby, one of its parents was in view. We were granted fantastic views. As we ventured down some of the desolate roads of the park, we came upon a Chuck-will’s Widow resting on the road—another great view! Soon we also found a young Florida Cottonmouth and an Eastern Glass Lizard on the road. We ended our nocturnal venture with a Barn Owl perched on a wire just outside of the Everglades entrance.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

We started our final day with an early drive to a couple of locations along Biscayne Bay, the body of water off the coast of Miami. We first went to the R. Hardy Preserve, where we walked by the canal leading to the bay in search of Mangrove Cuckoos, which breed in that area. We were paid an unexpected visit by a Clapper Rail that was making its way down the trail. After several attempts, all of us finally saw the bird as it flushed. The “Mangrove” Clapper Rail of southernmost Florida—subspecies insularum—breeds in the vicinity of mangrove forests and is associated with Clappers in the Caribbean group. Unfortunately the cuckoo evaded us. We then tried another location further south along Biscayne Bay—Black Point Marina at the head of Biscayne National Park—another location where Mangrove Cuckoos breed. While standing in a perfectly suitable gallery of Red and Black Mangroves, we heard the species call in the distance, but despite our best efforts, we never saw the bird. Again we tried in the Upper Keys for the species to no avail. Instead we were rewarded with great looks at a skulking White-eyed Vireo.

After a fantastic lunch at one of the prominent fish restaurants in the Keys, we made a few stops for shorebirds, adding both yellowlegs to our list. For our final birding stop, we returned to the very first park where our tour started, for a sunset vigil for nighthawks. As the sun lowered in the sky, we could see White-crowned Pigeons flying into the trees to roost. We finally got stellar looks at this beautiful Caribbean species; the iridescent scales on their napes glistened with the afternoon sun. Swallows of various species streaked through the sky, including Barn, Northern Rough-winged, Cliff, and Bank. It was a great surprise to see Chimney Swifts fly by as well, most likely migrants, although some may breed in the Keys. As the sun set, nighthawks started appearing over us. Soon we could see nearly a dozen nighthawks foraging in the vicinity. Unfortunately none vocalized in any manner. None of their physical traits necessarily suggested Antillean Nighthawk; since it is such a similar species to Common, when seen under poor light conditions, it is best to identify by its distinctive vocalization. The hurried and quiet foraging behavior seemed to suggest these were migratory Common Nighthawks, but they remained silent throughout.

Under a glorious colorful sunset, we drove back to our hotel, where the tour ended. During our tour we were blessed with very cooperative weather, little rain to interrupt our birding, and some overcast skies to give us shelter from the heat. We found most of our targets in the Keys, all the regional specialties we hoped for in the Everglades, enjoyed the vast panoramas of the “river of grass” and gorgeous waters in the Keys, and had close encounters with Florida’s sole endemic bird species. The South Florida & The Keys tour was a great success, and we are very grateful to all participants for their abundant enthusiasm.