South Florida Jan 27—Feb 02, 2013
Posted by Michael O'Brien
Every time we bird South Florida in winter, we are amazed by the sheer abundance of birds. Herons, raptors, shorebirds, gulls, terns, warblers, flycatchers, and other groups are all well-represented. And while the array of exotic species that call South Florida home is constantly changing, some of these species are always present and add an extra layer of interest to birding in this region. And the beautiful weather that met us this year was in sharp contrast to bitter cold temperatures that were gripping much of the remainder of the country. Our group picked the perfect time for a Florida getaway!
On our way south from Orlando, we made an important stop at Indrio Savannahs Natural Area to look for Florida’s only endemic bird: the Florida Scrub-Jay. It turned out we didn’t need to look very hard, because they found us! A confiding family group surrounded us as we entered the trail system, and allowed point-blank views and great photo-ops. Our other major stop on the way south to Homestead was Green Cay Wetlands in Boynton Beach. One of several very birdy wastewater reclamation facilities in Florida, this site naturally filters several million gallons of highly treated Palm Beach County water daily, and also provides some of the finest birding in Florida. Highlights here included Mottled Duck, Purple Gallinule, Limpkin, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and Painted Bunting. We also heard a La Sagra’s Flycatcher, a vagrant from the West Indies, but the bird remained firmly planted in an inaccessible spot during our time there.
The next day we headed west toward Tamiami Trail, stopping first at the “sparrow fields” north of Homestead. Although it doesn’t look like much more than an overgrown field, this spot is always birdy, and produced excellent views of White-tailed Kite, Broad-winged Hawk, Common Ground-Dove, and a variety of other species. We even saw a Tropical Kingbird here, a vagrant from Mexico that has been seen at a number of locations in Florida this year. Farther west, we stopped at Shark River Slough to look for one of our primary “target” birds of the day: Snail Kite. We quickly found several kites, and even saw one sitting on a nest! In our exploration of Big Cypress National Preserve, we particularly enjoyed a walk at the Kirby Storter Boardwalk. This place seemed a little quiet at first, but we eventually came across a nice passerine flock including Pileated Woodpecker, Blue-headed Vireo, and seven species of warblers!
On day three we headed to Everglades National Park, stopping first at “Lucky Hammock.” Like the sparrow fields, this little spot doesn’t look like much, but it sure does attract an interesting assortment of birds—especially rarities! In one tiny area we saw White-tailed Kite; Ash-throated, Brown-crested, and Vermilion flycatchers; Painted Bunting; and Shiny Cowbird! Then on to the park and Anhinga Trail for some slightly more ordinary birds, but with extraordinary views: Wood Stork, Anhinga, six species of herons, alligators, and many other critters literally at arm’s-length—a photographer’s paradise! At Paurotis Pond, we were pleased to find a few Roseate Spoonbills beginning to investigate their nesting area. In Flamingo, we stopped to say hello to our favorite American Crocodile by the boat ramp, and also scoped the flats where a Great White Heron was roosting on a nearby island. A rising tide and onshore breeze meant that shorebirds would be roosting by the campground, so we stopped there and had excellent views of Western Willet and Marbled Godwit.
Although in stark contrast to the wide-open spaces of the Everglades, it is always interesting to visit suburban Miami where lush neighborhood gardens and local parks provide habitat for an amazing diversity of birds, both exotic and native. We began this day at our favorite neighborhood in Kendall where we quickly found several “target” exotics: Monk and Mitred parakeets, Red-whiskered Bulbul, and Spot-breasted Oriole. We were particularly pleased to find the oriole, which has been declining in recent years. Then we made a stop at Mathesson Hammock where we were greeted by Red-masked and Yellow-chevroned parakeets, as well as a juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker, which is slightly out of range here. But before the day warmed up, we headed to Virginia Key to search for the Western Spindalis, a West Indian stray that had been seen recently. Alas, no luck with the spindalis, but we did see a nice selection of warblers, and thoroughly enjoyed some close looks at gulls, terns, and shorebirds at nearby Crandon Park. Of particular interest was a color-marked Piping Plover that had been banded as a chick the previous summer in Michigan!
On our final day we headed down to the Keys, stopping first at Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park. Although our stroll through the wooded trails was a little quiet, it was a wonderful way to see the characteristic tropical hardwood hammock trees of the Keys. It also turned out to be a great way to find our target bird there: the very shy White-crowned Pigeon. After flushing the first pigeon we came across, we finally found a cooperative bird that sat beautifully for us—long enough for each of us to try our hand at digiscoping! Later, we found ourselves at picturesque Long Key where a little seawatching produced perhaps our rarest bird of the trip—a flock of 16 Razorbills! This species staged an unprecedented invasion into Florida waters this winter, so it was a species we were hoping to find somewhere along the way. It was a little odd to see Razorbill and Magnificent Frigatebird on the same day!