South Florida Apr 13—23, 2005
Posted by Kim Eckert
Coming from northern Minnesota, I am always somewhat apprehensive about this spring tour to South Florida, wondering just how hot and humid it’s going to be this year. You see, 70 degrees is plenty warm enough to suit me, considering that it hardly ever hits 90 where I live. Luckily, the weather both this year and last was relatively pleasant, with the humidity not reaching oppressive levels, and the thermometer never approaching 90. Sure, the mosquitoes were a bother on our day in the Everglades, but elsewhere they posed little difficulty (and, of course, they’re nothing a Minnesotan can’t handle). No, there aren’t any alligators in the North Woods, nor is there any traffic in Duluth like there is in Miami. But the ‘gators pretty much ignore you, and Miami’s traffic isn’t bad if you schedule your day to search for exotics on a Sunday.
So, I found myself again enjoying this year’s tour, as Florida itself and its birds are certainly interesting, even fascinating at times. It helped, of course, that the birds we sought cooperated for the most part. Most of this tour’s specialties are a challenge to find, with some of them possible at only one or two of the places on our itinerary. Consider, for example, such birds as Snail Kite, Short-tailed Hawk, Limpkin, Mangrove Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Swainson’s Warbler, Bachman’s Sparrow, the Cape Sable race of the Seaside Sparrow, and Shiny Cowbird. All of these are specifically targeted on these tours, some of them being essentially exclusive to Florida, and we were successful with all of them. To be honest, though, I can envision any of these being missed.
Beginning in the fabled Florida Keys, thanks to a tip from fellow VENT leader Brennan Mulrooney, we had great looks at a responsive Mangrove Cuckoo, but only after missing it the day before at two places where I had found it in the past. We never did see another one. Then in the truly unique Everglades National Park, we finally had nice scope views of the “Cape Sable” Seaside Sparrow at the “usual spot,” but it took a while before it sang, and I had no “Plan B” if none decided to sing. (And you can quote me on that!) Next, there were the usual Shiny Cowbirds at Flamingo, apparently the only consistent location for this Florida specialty of dubious morals. (They really are shiny, though!) On the way out of the park, two Limpkins luckily decided to walk across the road in front of the van, and we didn’t see another until the last day of the tour.
The Miami area was next, where we had very close looks at a migrant Swainson’s Warbler, a highly sought species that easily escapes detection (indeed, we saw no others). Then we headed west to the opposite coast via the Tamiami Trail and, as usual along this road, it didn’t take too long to find Snail Kites, one of Florida’s truly trademark specialties; again, though, I couldn’t confidently say I’d be able to find some elsewhere. Perhaps the most satisfying target bird was next on the agenda in Naples. I had last seen the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker in this particular stand of pines on the edge of town back in the 1980s. Much to my relief, despite relentless development all around, a pair of woodpeckers was still there both last year and this year.
In the Lake Okechobee region of South Florida, this tour has two highly sought specialties to find. Fortunately, the habitat is still favorable for Bachman’s Sparrows at one (but only one) area not too distant from our Clewiston hotel. Far more of a challenge at this time of year is the Short-tailed Hawk, the only quintessential Florida specialty which is easier to find in winter. In spring and summer, it is almost never seen except in flight, usually at a distance, and most are relatively nondescript dark-morph individuals. Both last year and this year, however, we have had excellent looks at low-circling Short-taileds, and both of them were handsome light-morph birds. Our tour ended the next day in Fort Lauderdale with the Smooth-billed Ani, a Florida specialty in serious decline which now no one seems to consistently find anywhere except at a small landscaped park by Lauderdale’s busy airport.
But there was so much more to this year’s tour than searching for specific and difficult target birds. There were spectacular Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, and Swallow-tailed Kites. We found White-crowned Pigeons, Gray Kingbirds, Florida Scrub-Jays, and Black-whiskered Vireos, about the only Florida specialties which aren’t hard to find (don’t ask me about last year’s silent vireos, though.) There was the challenge of all those parakeets, bulbuls, mynas, orioles, and other suburban exotics—some of which can be quite elusive, others whose “countability” is hard to figure out. And there were all those migrants which were just passing through the state; we had no fewer than 23 shorebird species and 22 species of warblers. The warblers were especially impressive, considering we had no weather to ground them into view, and, since all of this year’s participants were also on the Tortugas tour, we actually saw a total of 26 species.