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Birding South Florida May 2018 (1 Viewer)


Well-known member
Following a very successful trip to Ohio last year we (myself, Simon Hitchen and Dave Rose) were keen to revisit the US. This year we headed for Florida to try to get the Floridian specialities. We had no real interest in the Miami plastics so went for the Keys, Everglades and dry prairie specialities. Mainly by using ebird we lined up likely sites for all our target species. Work and family commitments limited us to 6 nights away.

We flew direct to Miami from Heathrow. Car hire was easily arranged on line and we hired a condo at Big Coppitt Key from HomeAway (just twenty minutes drive from Key West but much cheaper than Key West prices) for two nights. We followed this by a night in Florida City at a Best Western before heading up to Punta Gorda where we stayed at a Knights Inn motel for a couple of nights. There was a lot of driving, easily averaging 4 hour driving a day but with frequent birding stops.

Day One: Thursday 3 May 2018
We arrived in Miami on time and got through immigration very quickly. With a long drive ahead we headed straight for our accommodation on Big Coppitt Key. Traffic out of Miami was stop-start and we only felt we were making progress once we got past Key Largo. We finally arrived at 6.30pm and from our balcony we soon had a fly-by from one of key targets White-crowned Pigeon. With light fading we headed straight to Key West airport in the hope of finding Antillean Nighthawk. We heard a Nighthawk immediately on arrival but it was the “peent” call of a Common Nighthawk. We had good but brief views of this bird (a lifer for two of us) however it was the only Nighthawk to be heard or seen so with darkness having fallen we headed for an excellent dinner at Geiger Key Marina.

Day Two: Friday 4 May 2018
Today we had booked ourselves on a day trip to the Dry Tortugas in the hope of finding migrants and seabirds. The birding commenced at Key West harbour where there were several Least Terns feeding. The first Magnificent Frigatebird of the trip drifted over and a flock of 14 Black Skimmers gave a fly past. A single juvenile American Herring Gull harassed the many Laughing Gulls in the harbour. As the Yankee Freedom III left the harbour we had good views of 3 Royal Terns and the ubiquitous Brown Pelicans.

The boat trip initially produced little in the way of seabirds but we encountered several warblers flying alongside the boat, American Redstarts, Common Yellowthroats, Blackpoll and Palm Warblers. It was a stark reminder of the challenges these tiny birds face to see them out at sea, out of sight of land. Several attempted to land on the boat, which was of course heading in the opposite direction they needed to go. We also had a distant Merlin far out to sea.

As we neared the Tortugas we had our first small flocks of Sooty Terns, followed by a flyby Masked Booby, one of our top targets. The catamaran sails close enough to Hospital Key, (the only nesting site for this species in the USA) to get a good look. The boat even slows down to allow birders on board to take in the sight.

Landing on Garden Key we came across our first migrant, a Northern Waterthrush, feeding on the corpse of a Brown Pelican, nice! It quickly became apparent that there plenty of migrants to see and there had been a decent fall. Most numerous were the American Redstarts, many of which fed around our feet on the beach. As a conservative estimate there must have been 150-200 on Garden Key. In Fort Jefferson Blackpoll, Cape May, Black-and-white, Palm, Parula and Black-throated Blue Warblers were all present in reasonable numbers with ones and twos of Prairie Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, Magnolia Warbler and Ovenbird. Other migrants included Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Grey Kingbird, Bobolink, Indigo Bunting and Grey-cheeked Thrush. Two Merlins were taking advantage of the tired migrants.
As well as migrants the Key is well known for its seabirds. Amongst the many nesting Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies we were able to pick out singles of Tortugas specialities Bridled Tern and Black Noddy as well as a couple of Roseate Terns. A real bonus though was an American Flamingo somewhat out of place on the beach by the Sooty Tern colony. All too soon we had to say farewell to Garden Key for the 2 and a half hour trip back to Key West. The boat trip isn’t cheap at $165 per person but you do get breakfast and lunch included and unlimited water, tea or coffee. Overall we considered it worth the money.

Back on dry land, we had time for a quick tea before heading off to Big Pine Key, where ebird showed several recent records of Antillean Nighthawk. On arrival we soon came across several groups of the endemic and endangered Key West Deer, a diminutive subspecies of White-tailed Deer. As the sky darkened we heard the diagnostic “pitty-pit-pit” (which reminded of the noise of a particularly annoying giggle stick my children used to own) and soon saw a couple hunting over the houses and gardens. A good finish to a great day.


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Well-known member
Day Three: Saturday 5th May

Today’s idea was simple, drive back down the length of the Keys to Florida City making plenty of stops to pick up the Keys specialities. We started early at Sugarloaf Key in the hope of finding Mangrove Cuckoo. Driving down Sugarloaf Boulevard we encountered some more White-crowned Pigeons which were more confiding than those we had seen on Big Coppitt and we had good views of this striking bird.

Arriving at the Mangroves we almost immediately heard another of our Keys targets, a Black-whiskered Vireo. This somewhat drab species is a mangrove specialist and gave good views. Taking a trail through the mangroves failed to turn up the hoped for Cuckoo but we did find a “Wurdeman’s” Heron - the hybrid between the standard Great Blue Heron and the white-morph of that species. There was another good selection of warblers, again dominated by American Redstart but nothing new.

We tried a couple of other spots on Sugarloaf Key but the only Cuckoo seen was Yellow-billed. We did find our first Bald Eagle of the trip and a couple of White-eyed Vireos. We also added Great Crested Flycatcher and Veery to the trip list.

Leaving Sugarloaf we doubled back to Key West to Fort Zachary State Park. Here once again warblers were in abundance, especially Cape May and Black-and-white. However despite a thorough search we could not find anything new to add to our list other than an attractive Common Ground Dove.

We headed down the Key; a brief stop at the lagoon at Ohio Key produced a few waders, Willet, Dowitcher sp, and Semipalmated Plover. At Key Colony we looked for Burrowing Owls without success (the whole area looked very built up) and found another Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

A more successful stop was on Grassy Key where we had our first decent views of Tricoloured Heron, great views of Grey Kingbird, a distant Pied-billed Grebe and a variety of Reddish Egrets (standard adult, white-morph and juveniles).

Continuing down the Keys we arrived at Key Largo where we tried Carysfoot Circle without luck for the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo. We had our first Black Vultures here. On returning to our car I noticed that a low tyre pressure warning light had come on and we resolved to find a garage once back on the mainland.

We crossed back via Card Sound Bridge and stopped to look for the “Golden” race of Yellow Warbler. We found no sign of them. The road was too noisy to hear anything and despite this being a known site it did not look promising. Our tyre was now alarmingly soft and we needed to find a garage so we did not give it too long.

12 miles later the third garage we tried finally had a working air pump and we pumped the tyre up from an alarming 10 PSI to 30, hoping that we hadn’t got a puncture. We had one final stop before our hotel in Florida City, the somewhat unlikely birding hotspot of the Portofino Plaza shopping mall and cinema complex. The attraction here was the plaza’s car park which backed onto a canal which ran under the Ronald Reagan Turnpike. A colony of Cave Swallows nest under the bridges where the Turnpike crosses the canal. These gave good views and were nice to compare to the Cliff Swallows we saw in Ohio last year. The Plaza also produced our first good look at Boat-tailed Grackle (seemingly absent from the Keys) and a Loggerhead Shrike.

Returning to the car the tyre was as soft as it had been at Card Sound. We had a problem. We decided as we were ten minutes drive from our hotel we would risk driving there and then decide what to do. We made the drive and checked in and by the time we went back to the car to assess the situation the tyre was completely flat. Not good at 8pm on a Saturday night. We phoned Alamo who to be fair were as helpful as they could have been under the circumstances. Within an hour their contractor had been out and put on the pretend spare tyre. We then had to drive back to Miami airport (40 minutes away) to swap the car for another one. Driving into Miami at night on a tyre limited to 50 mph when everyone else is doing 70-80 mph on 6 lane roads was not an experience I would want to repeat in a hurry! We got back to Florida City after midnight but had at least avoided the problem eating into tomorrow’s birding time.


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Well-known member
Sunday 6th May

An early start as we headed into Everglades National Park, stopping first to look at some White-winged Doves in the hotel car park. Our first target was Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow a species which would be difficult to see once it stopped singing. We stopped at several spots in the main area the Sparrows were supposed to be and spent plenty of time looking and listening but there was no sound nor sight of the Sparrows to be had. We had a similar experience with Henslow’s Sparrow last year. We were in the right place at the right time of day and in the right season but there was no singing Sparrows to be seen. I am cultivating quite a dislike for Ammodramus sparrows!

We checked out Mahoganny Hammock which held a few common warblers (Blackpoll, Cape May, Palm & Redstart) and a Pileated Woodpecker but little else before heading further into the Park and checking out the rookery at Paurotis Pond. This was teeming with birds, Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, Anhingas, White Ibises, Snowy and Great White Egrets and the “Great White” morph of Great Blue Heron. We also encountered our first American Alligator and a Soft-shelled Turtle.

With time getting on and several other sites to visit and a long trip to Punta Gorda ahead we retraced our steps, stopping at the Anhinga Trail on the way out of the National Park. The trail was well-named, holding many Anhinga but no sign of the hoped for Purple Gallinule despite the habitat looking great for them.

At this point it felt like the trip had taken a downward turn. In the last 24 hours we had dipped Mangrove Cuckoo, Burrowing Owl, “Golden Warbler”, Seaside Sparrow and Purple Gallinule, and had to deal with the tyre fiasco. We needed a pick-up to get the trip back on track. Acting on a memory from a family trip to Florida seven years ago I suggested we pull into the car park of the Everglades Safari Park as I recalled seeing Purple Gallinule around the airboat ramps there. My memory was correct! After a little searching Dave found one of these Moorhens on acid and we celebrated with ice creams, which the incredibly tame Boat-tailed Grackles tried to nick.

In better spirits a very short drive brought us to the Miccosukee restaurant. This stop was not for food but to scan for Snail Kites, one of our most wanted targets. A distant raptor got pulses racing but was quickly identified as a Red-shouldered Hawk, however shortly afterwards a female Snail Kite glided almost right above us. It then settled in a tree alongside the canal allowing fantastic scope views before getting into a tussle with a furious Boat-tailed Grackle. It felt as if our trip was getting back on course and we headed on towards Punta Gorda, but decided to take a short detour to Marco Island to see if we could get Burrowing Owl.

Almost as soon as were on the island we started seeing roped off areas where owls were nesting. The third one we came across had an owl sat outside. We quickly found somewhere to park and trekked back to enjoy stunning views of the adult Burrowing Owl which was joined for a short while by an owlet. Overhead we saw our only Purple Martins of the trip and several Ospreys, which caused the Owl to send its offspring back down the burrow.

Having filled our boots we headed back to I75 and continued north. I had predicted (from past experience) we would see Swallow-tailed Kites as went along this road and this was indeed the case with 3 overhead in the Naples area.

We made another short diversion leaving the I75 and heading for Lehigh Acres. Whilst searching ebird for good sites for Limpkin I had come across Harns Marsh which had a concentration of sightings. The marsh was created by the snappily named “Lehigh Acres Municipal Services Improvement District” in the 80s and had looked worthy of a visit to see this unique species.

On arrival initial impressions were not great. The looked to be a lot of human disturbance and it did not look like somewhere you would want to leave your car. However what it did have was Limpkins and lots of them. We counted a minimum of 30 feeding around the lake and in the adjoining marsh. They were completely unphased by the many fishermen.

As we surveyed the lake for other species, two Swallow-tailed Kites drifted over, giving better views than those seen from the car on the Interstate. They were then joined by a Red-tailed Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk. Along the drainage canal we came across our first pair of Mottled Ducks and what was surprisingly our first Little Blue Heron. A short walk produced all the other usual herons, two Roseate Spoonbills, a Wood Stork and several White Ibises. 5 Sandhill Cranes close to the path completely ignored our presence although a Killdeer was a little more flighty. Back at the lake we added both American Coot and Common Gallinule. The marsh was a little gem, holding so many Florida specialities in such a small area.

After a slow morning we had had a very successful afternoon and evening. The day held one last treat though. Sat outside our Punta Gorda motel enjoying a nice cold Landshark beer we heard a rustling in the undergrowth and a Nine-banded Armadillo came snuffling past. A mammal tick to end the day. An early start was needed the next day as another tricky Sparrow was our next target.


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Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
Sounds like a great trip so far - a good fall and lots of good locals sounds like a promising combination.

Any pix of the Armadillo?



Well-known member
Sounds like a great trip so far - a good fall and lots of good locals sounds like a promising combination.

Any pix of the Armadillo?


Thanks Mike. I think this is what is known as a "record shot", it was a lot darker than this lightened photo makes out!


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Well-known member
Day 5 Monday 7th June
Today we had 4 big targets: Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Bachman’s Sparrow and Florida Scrub Jay. The first 3 were all resident at Babcock-Webb WMA, just 10 minutes from our motel. After a slight kerfuffle when Simon and Dave managed to lock their optics in their room (thankfully the maintenance man was on site at this early hour) we were soon at Babcock-Webb a large preserve. We stopped at a potential Sparrow spot and immediately thought we could hear one, however on searching we found the singer to be an Eastern Towhee which it turns out has a fairly similar song to Bachman’s Sparrow. At this first stop also we found two Pine Warblers and a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

A ranger pulled up alongside and very politely reminded us to stay 100m away from any Red-cockaded Woodpecker nest trees we came across. She also very helpfully told us where the nest trees were and where we might find a Bachman’s Sparrow. A short drive later we spotted a sign saying “RCW” and a tree marked with a tin foil ring. This was the Red-cockaded Woodpecker tree and very obligingly a Red-cockaded Woodpecker was feeding on the trunk. Good views (from the respectful distance!) were enjoyed.

We were then approached by a couple of birders whom announced to us “We know you!” in an English accent. Unbelievably it was a couple who we had met at Magee Marsh in Ohio last year. It transpired they had a holiday home in Florida and soon we had tip-offs for Northern Bobwhite, Barred Owl, Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Florida Scrub Jay in the area. The Jays they knew were much closer than the ones I had planned on going for. The plans for the rest of the day now looked more fluid but first we had other birds to track down at Babcock-Webb.

We headed for a picnic site that had been recommended for the Sparrow but although there were some good birds in the area, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Meadowlark, Common Ground Dove and a fly-over Black-crowned Night-heron (the only one we saw all trip) but no Sparrow. We took a short walk through the pines and were rewarded with the toy trumpet call of a Brown-headed Nuthatch. We soon found a pair, busy excavating a nest hole. Our second target of the day in the bag.

We drove on stopping at Pylon Grade where we had been told there was a good chance of Bobwhite. On arrival at this spot a pair of Brown Thrashers were seen, followed by a Red-headed Woodpecker. We then heard the call of a Northern Bobwhite as one barrelled straight past us into long grass where it was joined by another. The pair showed intermittently in the scrub. A good bonus tick.

We decided to give the Sparrow one last go and stopped at a junction by some good habitat where the ranger had suggested. On exiting the car we could hear singing but was it another Towhee? No! This time the culprit was a Bachman’s Sparrow, obligingly sat out on a branch in full view. Not the most visually exiting bird (“well, that’s a sh*tty little thing” was my comment at the time) but given our record with the more skulky North American sparrows a very gratifying tick.

We had covered only a small part of Babcock-Webb but had seen our three targets and mindful of time we headed back to Punta Gorda for some quick refreshment before heading north to Port Charlotte on our first tip off. Our destination was Kiwanis Park, a suburban park, complete with small lake and children’s play area similar to many in the Uk (apart from lack of litter, lack of dogs, lack of shellsuits). On arrival we headed straight for the kid;’s playground (try doing that in the UK with binoculars, scopes and cameras!). There the information we had been given proved spot on. A family of 5 Barred Owls had taken residence. These spectacular birds gave fantastic views and were a lifer for all of us. Although not rare in US terms or a Florida speciality, they were undoubtedly bird of the trip up to that point.

Further exploration of this site resulted in great views of Green Heron, Mottled Duck and Red-shouldered Hawk amongst others. Having taken our fill of the owls It was time to try our next tip off and we drove 10 minutes to Ollie’s Pond.

Ollie’s Pond was a well vegetated lake and we had been told to go here for Black-bellied Whistling Duck. It didn’t disappoint as these were the first birds we saw. There were many on the lake (100+) and once we had enjoyed these it soon became apparent there was a lot more to see. A Glossy Ibis showed very well at the boat ramp. Scanning the lake we soon picked up various waders; Black-necked Stilts, Semipalmated Plovers, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs. We walked around the lake for a while to see what we could pick up by changing our perspective. Setting up scopes again we were delighted when a Solitary Sandpiper landed right in front of us. Another lifer for us all. A family of Pied-billed Grebes were found and at least two Spotted Sandpipers. Two Least Sandpipers then provided good views at close quarters. Overhead Ospreys regularly flew over and we saw a single Bald Eagle. No doubt if we stayed longer we could have found more but as this was our penultimate day we needed to move on.

Following another petrol station lunch we headed towards the Scrub Jay site we had been given near Cape Coral. We had been told they would be easy but on arrival there was no sign of them.The only Jay being a Blue Jay. We carefully worked around the site seeing Eastern Meadowlarks, Loggerhead Shrikes, our first definite Fish Crows and another Burrowing Owl but of the Scrub Jays there was no sign. It was now mid-afternoon and we had a lengthy debate as to what to do next as if we didn’t see these birds we would need to revert to our original site which would change the plan somewhat for our final day. We decided to come back to the site in the early evening and with a couple of hours to kill we headed down to Bunche Beach at Fort Myers to look for shore birds.

At Bunche Sanderling was the commonest wader but Willet, Semipalmated Plover and Grey Plover were also present. We also saw Caspian Tern and Red-breasted Merganser looking out of place, swimming around mangroves rather than off the English coast in winter, before it was time to try again for the Scrub Jays.

Back at Cape Coral there initially appeared to be no sign of the Jays but then we spotted a distant bird on power lines, scoping it confirmed its identity, Florida Scrub Jay. We cautiously approached the Jay and soon found another 3. Turning back we found one of the Jays using Dave’s scope as a convenient perch. Seeing this and recalling seeing Florida Scrub Jays on some tv nature doc’ or other (Bill Oddie Goes Birding I think) I stuck my arms out like a scarecrow. The reaction of the Jays was instantaneous and astonishing as 3 of the 4 Jays flew over to me and I ended up with one on each hand and another on my head! A great experience and we spent some time with them only realising how late it had got when a loud “peent” announced the arrival of a couple of Common Nighthawks which performed well in the fading light. A superb end to a highly successful day!


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Well-known member
Day 6: Tuesday 8th May
After our successful day yesterday we decided to start the last day by targeting Yellow-crowned Night-heron. We headed for Sanibel island and the Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve. Almost as soon as we turned into the wildlife drive we encountered a Yellow-crowned Night-heron walking casually on the road. We had come to the right place for this beautiful species as we encountered many on the drive round.

Stopping at the first lagoon there were large numbers of all the Florida herons, including at least 30 Great Egrets and a Reddish Egret in fine breeding plumage and a Double-crested Cormorant with a full orange face, looking much smarter than this species usually does. There were a handful of waders, mainly Dunlin but also two Semipalmated Sandpipers and several Grey Plovers. The latter were quite unconcerned when an Osprey (seemingly with identity issues) landed amongst them and started wading about. We had further incredible views of Ospreys on nesting platforms right next to the road.

The next lagoon held fewer herons but more waders and we added Willet, Least Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher and more Semipalmated Sandpipers. A further flock caused some identification issues, especially with no Dunlins to do size comparatives with. Although some of the Sandpipers looked decidedly long-winged and led us to initially id them as White-rumped, posting pictures on id forums resulted in a unanimous verdict of more Semipalmated Sandpipers.

We left Sanibel at 11 for the 3 and a half hour drive to Miami. We had time for one last try at a missing target species. Ebird had several reports for Mangrove Cuckoo at Black Point Marina and Park just south of Miami. We arrived at 2 giving us 2 and a half hours to try to see this elusive bird before we had to catch our flight. Unfortunately it was the hottest and quietest time of day but we decided to go for it.

Again we had a little luck. Whilst working out the car park ticket machines we were approached by an employee who asked us if he could assist. When we mentioned the cuckoo he told us we were at the wrong car park and to follow him to the right part of the park. Now in the right place and having tipped the helpful attendant we started to comb the vicinity.

Some Common Yellowthroats and a pair of Red-bellied Woodpecker provided scant entertainment as the afternoon wore on. Dave caught a glimpse of the cuckoo in flight but neither I nor Simon managed to get on it. A raccoon sauntered past and took no notice of us as it raided a bin but the cuckoo still did not reappear. With time running out before we had to head to Miami airport we finally heard a Mangrove Cuckoo call but no sign of it. Then in true dramatic style with about 10 minutes left, Simon spotted a Mangrove Cuckoo quietly perched in a tree. I quickly got on it but we enjoyed only the briefest views before it melted away into the mangroves. A good end to the trip with one of our missing targets got back. 125 species in total in 5 days which included 23 personal lifers and of our targets we only missed Seaside Sparrow and “Golden” Warbler.


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