April 28 -30, 2012
During the last week of April, South Florida, including the Florida Keys and even further South – Southwest the Dry Tortugas are a haven for birder’s. During the last 3 days of April, Gary Ludi and I did a rocket – run, flying down to Miami, renting a car and we birded exclusively for 3 long days and well into the evening on each day. Gary Ludi is a long time friend and he and I have done some wonderful birding trips including 2 past trips to California, which included pelagic trips out of Santa Barbara and San Diego, a trip to the Texas Rio Grande Valley, a few pelagic trips out of Hatterras, North Carolina and numerous trips to Florida seeking birds. We have been extremely successful on our field forays and the South Florida trip was not an exception to this. The trips were quite remarkable in many. One thing that is always out of the control of a birder is the WEATHER! On our trip, mother nature brought Gary and I back to reality as in the past, we have been extremely fortunate to have experienced glorious weather on our birding trips….this one was simply just the opposite…….we experienced high winds and LOTS of rain over our 3 day “hard core” birding trip. Being the consummate birders that we are, however, this did not dampen our spirits……it only soaked our clothes. South Florida is a Mecca of sorts for birders and thus many species that otherwise may be difficult to find are listed on the Tropical Audubon’s website with regular up-dates being supplied by birders. In addition, birder’s are a very friendly lot and most are extremely cordial and willing to share “cherished information” about the locality of specialty birds. In this regard, Gary and I are very thankful for constant communication and updates from Audrey Whitlock and Robin Diaz. Without their help, we would have missed 2 of our target species and although the LaSagra’s flycatcher did not put in an appearance, due to Robin’s guidance, we sure gave that bird a good chance to be added to our list.
Our trip, due to the weather, resulted in many short birding stops in both South Miami and the keys. In Florida, one never knows what may just “show up” and just in driving, we had black-hooded conures, yellow-headed parrot, numerous gray kingbirds, scissor-tailed flycatcher and short-tailed hawk observed while we were driving. At one break in the weather, we found a fruiting tree on Upper Matecumbre Key and it was a riot of color as birds flew to and from the tree to feed. Over the course of about 30 minutes we observed some of the most beautiful birds to be found in the Eastern U.S. Indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, rose-breasted grosbeak, scarlet tanager, summer tanager, Cape May warbler, blackpoll, bay-breasted warbler, black-throated blue warblers, yellow warbler, Swainson’s thrush and a few white-crowned pigeons even dropped in to feed on the fruits in the canopy of the tree. What was also quite remarkable was that of the species mentioned, many of them like the indigo buntings, there were 20 + buntings so most of these birds we observed were not just single birds of the species.
One of our target species was the Antillean Nighthawk. This “goat-sucker” is only known to occur in the U.S. in extreme south Florida….mainly the keys. They are spring and summer residents and the only reliable way to ID this bird is by it call. In flight, they closely resemble the common nighthawk and giving its crepuscular nature, they are usually observed in diminished light. We were fortunate in finding this species at the Marathon airport and 2 birds over a mangrove area on Lower Sugarloaf Key. One of our main objectives for the trip was a day trip to Fort Jefferson which is on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas. Luck was with us on that day as we set sail from Key West on the 2 + hour boat trip, we gradually left the rain behind us in Key West. However, the wind persisted which had its pros and cons. The wind resulted in good raptor migration over Garden Key but also resulted in not being able to use spotting scopes to check out the thousands of terns nesting on Bush Key, adjacent to Fort Jefferson. Once on the Key, we had wonderful birding. Just the site of hundreds if not thousands of brown noddy terns and sooty terns stirred the soul in utter amazement. During our 5 hours on the Key, we had 5 peregrines pass by, as many or more merlins and a few kestrels and sharp-shinned hawks. A few nice shorebirds beyond the commonly expected species included a white-rumped and a pectoral sandpiper. The passerine birds were absolutely incredible. Many of the birds were exhausted after enduring al l night flights across many miles of open water…..the Gulf of Mexico and thus the landfall on Garden key was a haven for these birds to rest and refuel before they continue their migration north. Birders are sensitive to plight of these birds and although they permitted very close approach, most birders respect the importance of letting these birds feed as many of the birds are literally on the brink of starvation. So a respectful distance for observation was the norm but even at this, most birds are observed from 30 feet or so. Just some of the most colorful species include: Yellow-throated warbler, magnolia warbler, Black-throated blue, N. parula, Indigo bunting, painted bunting, Baltimore oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak. In addition, we observed a gorgeous little aberrant hooded warbler. This little bird was feeding near one of the walkways and although it could be identified as a hooded warbler, it supported lots of soft yellow plumage and is probably a partially xanthic individual. On our return navigation, we stopped by Hospital Key to observe the masked boobies nesting there. It was a great way to end the day….unfortunately for some folks, the rough seas on the trip back resulted in the trip ending on a rather unpleasant note as they became rather green around the gills….if you know what I mean?
Fort Jefferson is an amazing birders paradise during spring migration. The very beautiful aberrant hooded warbler was a real treat to observe as it refueled after its long flight across the Gulf of Mexico.
I have always had a passion for raptors and while visiting Fort Jefferson we had wonderful observations of many falcons, including Kestrels and numerous merlins, including the adult male in the left photograph. We also saw 5 different peregrines and this big girl provided Gary Ludi and I with a spectacular observation of this peregrine and its total command of the wind.
On Monday, we awoke well before daylight, as one typically does for birding, and we drove through monsoonal rain and winds as we headed north up the keys. The rain was hitting the car windshield in waves and it was one of those days when getting a few extra hours of sleep may have been the better choice. We arrived on Key Largo to look for another of our target species but due to the weather, we knew this was at best a very remote possibility that we would hear of observe our target bird…in this case the mangrove cuckoo. So, we decided to head up to the mainland and drive into Everglade National Park. This proved to be a very good decision as we left the rain squalls in the Keys and only had light rain in the glades. While driving we saw numerous indigo buntings as they would fly up from the road edge, where they were feeding, as well as the typical resident herons and egrets. We also had a very brief observation of a light phase short-tailed hawk as it flew over. Our real target for the park was the Shiny Cowbirds that Audrey Whitlock had observed only a week prior to our trip. Very typical in birding, the long drive down to Flamingo did not result in shiny cowbirds but we did get a few species we had not seen thus far on the trip. White pelicans, bald eagle, lots of marbled godwit and a solitary sandpiper made the drive a pleasant success. We then headed back into the Miami area and found Hill Myna and scarlet-fronted parakeets (thank you Audrey) and our last stop was the Baptist Hospital where we found good numbers of mitered parakeet. We then headed to rental car return and the airport for our flight home.
While heading back into the Everglade National Park, we were lucky to have a terrific observation of a ground roosting common nighthawk.