South Florida & The Keys Apr 23—29, 2015

Posted by Rafael Galvez


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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The South Florida and The Keys tour was a wonderful way to experience a combination of regional bird specialties, including Caribbean breeders returning to nest in the area, established exotics, and waves of migrants. During our journey through South Florida, we delved into a diversity of habitats, ranging from the tropical to the temperate, while exploring habitats found nowhere else in North America and encountering many plant species at the northernmost edge of their ranges. South Florida offers a window into the wilderness of the Everglades, counterpointed by the encroaching hand of humanity, responsible for the introduction of many interesting, and in some cases threatening plant and animal species, many of which we saw.

Mangrove Cuckoo

Mangrove Cuckoo— Photo: Rafael Galvez


This winter and spring, our transition from the wet to dry season was rather extreme. As we made our way during our first days of the tour, we got glimpse of the unusually dry season we’ve been experiencing in South Florida. Because of this, trees such as Jamaica Dogwood, Lignumvitae, and even Seagrape were late to bloom. Regional breeding species such as Gray Kingbird and Roseate Tern seemed a bit delayed in their return. Antillean Nighthawk—a staple of summer nights in the Keys—was still not evident. By the time we were wrapping up the trip, the first of the tropical storm systems typical of the wet season was looming in the distance.

White-crowned Pigeon

White-crowned Pigeon— Photo: Rafael Galvez














Our tour started in Key West and the Upper Keys, where we staked out searches for Mangrove Cuckoo and Black-whiskered Vireo in West Sugarloaf and the Saddlebunch keys. The latter had been nearly absent only days earlier, but now Black-whiskers were singing from everywhere along the hammocks and mangrove coast. The endemic mangrove-breeding paludicola Prairie Warbler (Collins’s Warbler) was in full force, singing and actively foraging. Swinging back through Key West, we found Lesser Black-backed Gulls and three other gull species along shopping mall parking lots while Magnificent Frigatebirds soared effortlessly overhead. A visit to the hardwood hammocks of Fort Zachary Taylor gave us the first glimpse of migratory birds, where we encountered many thrushes, primarily Gray-cheeked, Rose-breasted, and Blue Grosbeaks, and various warblers including Prothonotary, Cape May, Blackpoll, and Black-throated Blue. As we made our way through the Keys, we stopped at various fields where cowbirds were foraging with many Bobolinks, a migrant common over the Keys, but not always seen in such good numbers. Several stops along the shore granted us various shorebird species including Wilson’s Plover and a pair of white morph Reddish Egrets. Throughout our ride, recently arrived White-crowned Pigeons could be seen darting in and out of trees. Not until the evening did we find one calmly perched atop a tree, granting us excellent looks at this handsome species. We ended our first day with a successful dusk vigil for Mangrove Cuckoo. We encountered two birds that taunted us with their hollow croaking back and forth, until one finally perched out in the open at the edge of the Dagny Johnson wall of hardwood trees.

Key Deer

Key Deer— Photo: Rafael Galvez


The following two days took us through the heart of the greater Everglades ecosystem, visiting a great variety of unique habitats ranging from temperate Bald Cypress swamps, part of the Big Cypress complex, to hypersaline coastal prairies with petrified Buttonwoods strewn by tropical storms. We found several Limpkins and Snail Kites along Shark River Slough. All the while Boat-tailed Grackles and Common Yellowthroats voiced the breeding season in the river of grass. Once in the Big Cypress, strand after strand of tall conifers took over the prairie. The unusually dry season was evident in the exposed tree “knees” and limestone—typically flooded. We encountered waves of migrants when we entered the boardwalk at Kirby Storter; there were many songbirds there. Northern Parulas and Pine Warblers were singing all around us. Birds were everywhere in the high canopy; many were heard yet briefly seen. We found both Summer and Scarlet tanagers there. Blue-headed, White-eyed, and Red-eyed vireos called from above as we craned our necks to find them among gnatcatchers and the region’s southernmost Tufted Titmice. Distant calls of Eastern Bluebirds and Carolina Wrens struck the chord of a southern temperate forest, while heaping bromeliads of a dozen species on each Pond Cypress and Swallow-tailed Kites weaving through the tree tops added a subtropical touch. It was a wonderful place to encounter woodpeckers including Pileated and Red-bellied. After getting great looks at American Redstarts, Black-throated Blue, Black-and-white, and other warbler species, we continued through the outpost town of Ochopee and had lunch at the picturesque Joanie’s Blue Crab Café, where we had opportunities to sample gator dumplings, frog legs, and Blue Land Crab. We then headed to the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk at Fakahatchee strand. Although the passage of migrants was no longer evident this far west, many of us got brief glimpses at a dark Short-tailed Hawk and two Bald Eagles as we arrived. Mottled Ducks were in the marshes nearby and American White Pelicans wheeled overhead. As we strolled through the boardwalk, we saw the beautiful jungle-like foliage distinctive of Fakahatche, the unparalleled orchid and bromeliad capital of the continent, where dozens of epiphyte species thrive.

Cardinal Air Plant in bloom

Cardinal Air Plant in bloom— 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—was found singing and tending to nests. As we continued, the sloughs started giving way to stunted Red Mangrove clumps, like saltwater crabs intruding into freshwater. At Paurotis Pond, we were greeted by dozens of Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, Snowy and Great egrets, and Tricolored and Little Blue herons at the most visibly accessible rookery in the region. We found small and huge endangered American Crocodiles at a couple of the brackish lakes as we continued south, along with the much more common American Alligator. Good timing at Nine Mile Pond gave us views of a flying Least Bittern, a seldom seen yet common year-round resident of the glades. Upon arriving at Flamingo, the mainland’s southernmost outpost, we combed through flocks of cowbirds, finding only Brown-headed. Finally, a lone bird on a Gumbo Limbo tree proved to be a beautiful male Shiny Cowbird, granting us the looks we desired. By now we had grown accustomed to ubiquitous Florida Red-shouldered Hawks (extimus) perched in the open, and circling Ospreys. The high Flamingo tides dealt us a challenging card, cheating us from views at exposed coastal flats. However, at the campground beach we found various shorebirds, including White-rumped Sandpiper, other peeps, and dowitchers.


Limpkin— Photo: Rafael Galvez









 The evening of our visit to the Everglades, we set out on a crepuscular and nocturnal adventure, stopping first to admire a Burrowing Owl in Homestead, the agricultural hub surrounding the Everglades. Bronzed Cowbirds, Eastern Meadowlarks, Loggerhead Shrikes, White-winged Doves, and Common Nighthawks were encountered as we entered the Everglades at sunset. A Barred Owl greeted us at Royal Palm, granting us excellent views. White-eyed Eastern Towhees had been found earlier in the unique Pine Rockland habitat (shared only with the Bahamas), but now we were there to share the place with nightjars. Our headlights caught glimpse of a few Chuck-will’s-widows—with their pink-orange eye glow—resting briefly on the road, and Florida Cottonmouths slowly crossing our path. We stopped at a couple of locations to absorb the pinelands bursting with nightjar calls. Hundreds of Chuck-will’s-widows whistled from every direction while Common Nighthawks announced their flights vocally, and with the boom of their nuptial dives.

Julia Heliconian

Julia Heliconian— Photo: Rafael Galvez


Aside from the incomparable Everglades and the presence of bird species and habitats associated with the Caribbean, South Florida is also characterized by established transplants from throughout the world, in the form of its ever-growing human population, and the flora and fauna they bring and release. Nowhere else is this more evident than in the neighborhoods of southern Miami-Dade County. Starting with visits along Biscayne Bay to marshes where Caribbean Cave Swallows foraged and shorebirds stirred, we began entering the density of civilization. County parks along the way had many birds in the Strangler Figs—evidence of migration—including Yellow, Black-and-White, Black-throated Green, Blackpoll, and Cape May warblers. Among the lush gardens composed of innumerable exotic ornamental trees and shrubs, one can find a variety of bird species introduced and established in the area. We encountered 7 parrot species, including White-winged, Yellow-chevroned, and Nanday parakeets, along with large flocks of Mitred and Red-masked parakeets. We were also quick to find a band of Red-whiskered Bulbuls, composed primarily of several recently fledged birds. Egyptian Geese—a recent ABA countable established species—were found in Kendall. A visit to a marsh on the outskirts of a mall in western Dade gave us great views of the large and curious Purple Swamphen, a relative of the Purple Gallinule introduced from the Old World—also a recent ABA countable addition. After enjoying an afternoon roost of parakeets in the center of bustle near the Miami airport, we veered into Little Havana for an unforgettable dinner in the world-famous Cuban restaurant, Versailles. There, we feasted on traditional dishes and sampled “coladas” from one of the best espresso bars in Miami. This was a day when not only our palates were treated to the exotic, but also our eyes feasted on unusual creatures such as the multicolored Rainbow Agamas, Green and Black Spiny-tailed iguanas, and Northern Curly-tailed Lizards.

Purple Swamphen

Purple Swamphen— Photo: Rafael Galvez





Our final day took us back through the Keys, starting with a successful encounter with at least three “Golden” Yellow Warblers (gundlachii) along Crocodile Lakes NWR. We then strolled through the largest remaining contiguous hardwood hammock in North America at Dagny Johnson, where most trees are of West Indian affinity, dispersed by birds such as White Crowned Pigeons, Gray Kingbirds, and Black-whiskered Vireos that eat the abundant fruit. While we found low numbers of migrants at “Dagny,” we continued finding Bobolinks along our way to Key West. A visit to a rooftop breeding site for terns in the Middle Keys not only gave us many Least Terns, but we were quick to get on a group of Roseates. Only a few days earlier, none had yet arrived. Gray Kingbirds were now ubiquitous, with many birds returning from the Caribbean to their Keys nesting sites, visible on perched wires and treetops. We stopped on the bridge by Indian Key—the site where Audubon first made landfall in the Keys in 1832—to admire the Great White Heron (first described by Audubon himself). We watched as a massive breeding Great White took foothold of the emerald-colored shallows along the mangrove coast, soon to be challenged by another bird that emerged from a hidden nook to defend its territory. Our final evening had us returning in search of Antillean Nighthawks, rather scarce this late in April, only to turn up empty-handed. It would not be until some members of our group continued with the Dry Tortugas Extension that we would come into proximity with this Caribbean nightjar.

Gray Kingbird

Gray Kingbird— Photo: Rafael Galvez





We were fortunate to have great weather throughout our tour—although some rains could have brought some rest from the sun and heat—and even more migrants. We encountered wave after wave of migratory songbirds, tallying 14 warbler species (21 for those that continued on to the Tortugas), and many other species including thrushes, grosbeaks, buntings, and icterids. Our adventure through the labyrinth of Miami gave us smooth access to a variety of established exotic species, and the vast panoramas of the Everglades and the aquamarine waters of the Keys left a lasting impression of South Florida’s natural riches.