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Swamphens, Storms, and Skeeters: Birding South Florida in June (1 Viewer)

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
This summer has proven to be a turbulent one for planning, with various trips planned, only for COVID, inflation, and lack of summer funding to continually hamper plans for more grandiose birding trips this summer. Eventually, with probably less thought than I should have put into it, I settled on visiting south Florida, with an emphasis on the Florida Keys, for my big summer birding adventure. Why? Well looking at my big spreadsheet of ABA area species, South Florida had the biggest list of gettable lifers/ABA birds in the lower 48. And at 638 species, I was hankering for finally hitting my 650 landmark, which should be very much possible taking in account some probable splits and additions to the ABA checklist this year.

I had only birded the state once before. However, that trip was at the end of November. By that point, many of the summering birds have already left (Gray Kingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, Swallow-tailed Kite), while others become a bit scarcer (White-crowned Pigeon, Mangrove Cuckoo). I did decent enough on residents, but the above birds all eluded me on that trip.

I also really wanted to knock off a lot of introduced birds, countable or not, before I hit the magic 700 mark. While I have no problem counting exotics on my lifelist and ABA list, I wanted me 700th ABA bird to be something more special. Having cleaned up well in California, Florida was the other main lower 48 state with a lot of exotics to tick.

Also, June is one of the best herping months around the Everglades, with warm temperatures and plentiful rain causing movement of a lot of frogs and snakes.

Of course, June is NOT the best birding month, something I was well aware of. Wintering birds have left and migration is largely done, meaning diversity is limited. There are often less Caribbean vagrants around, although whether that is due to less coverage or an actual absence, or some combination, I am not sure. On top of that, June marks the start of Tropical Storm season, high temps and humidity can make birding uncomfortable, and Mosquitos can form literal walls in places.

But I had a hankering for lifers and work and such limited my time to June, and so I took the plunge and booked a trip. With this introduction out of the way, I will then go over some initial logistics and trip plan, before I begin on the trip report (This is only day 2 of the trip).
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
Logistics

On my last trip to South Florida, one location that I failed to visit was the Florida Keys, and given the climate and time of year, I decided that this trip would emphasize that portion of Florida.

Overall plan was as followed:

Land at Miami International Airport in late afternoon; overnight in Miami
Full day birding around Miami, targeting exotics and any vagrants that might be around
Relocating to Homestead, and birding/herping the Everglades for a day and evening
Relocating to Marathon for three nights, birding the keys, taking a boat trip to the Dry Tortugas, and basically having a "spare day" to chase anything I might have missed or be a general tourist.
Head back to Miami, birding/sightseeing along the way and over-nighting near the airport, before an early morning flight.

Some initial considerations you might want to think about, for your own planning.

First, car rental and driving. You NEED your own vehicle if you want to do any appreciable amount of birding, as many key spots are not accessible via public transit (For those Europeans who might not be aware, public transit for most of the country is abyssmal). You have numerous choices for car rental at the airport. I went with Thrifty, although given that I have barely driven the car, I can't speak much to how good a rental source they are. The car rental place will try to get you to purchase a toll pass transponder. Toll roads are annoying common around Miami and easy to accidentally enter. If you enter without a transponder, the toll will be charged to the car rental company who will in return charge you, plus a hefty "service charge". For thrifty, this is $15 dollars per incidence, with a max of $90 overall. So you could easily have $10 in tolls cost you a $100 dollars. Of course, many companies will charge you for transponder use by day instead. Unfortunately, even if you don't use a toll road on a given day, you will still get charged. For thrifty that is a $11 a day charge, and you can't for instance only ask for certain days. Not all car rental companies have policies, but the whole thing is effectively a scam to milk tourists. I did not get a transponder, and thankfully there are enough "non-toll" roads around, so as long as you plan your route you can get around this. Also driving around Miami generally sucks. Traffic congestion is high and drivers are aggressive, and the city's layout is not easy to navigate, especially around the airport. A day later and I think I would probably still be circling the airport if I hadn't been smart enough to bring my Garmin with me to help with navigation (It thankfully has a setting that allows you to only do routes with no tolls).

For housing, there are decent numbers of cheap hotels however reviews indicate you get what you pay for. The cheapest accommodations on my trip are in Homestead, which is a good base camp for visiting the Everglades or doing a day trip to the keys. Given the nature of my trip, I needed a hotel in the keys, so opted for a stay on Marathon. This was cheaper than Key West by quite a bit, although still expensive. However Marathon is only about an hour from the Dry Tortugas ferry, which boards at 7:00 am. So I figured it was important for me to stay overnight in the keys. Marathon is also a good spot in the evening for Antillean Nighthawk, one of my main targets, so another reason to be based here.

Speaking of Dry Tortugas, this is practically a must-visit if you are going to be in the Keys in Florida, and the Ferry does run effectively all year, even if birder activity drops off during the summer. The Dry Tortugas are a famous migrant trap, but even once migration is over its worth a visit, with colonies of birds otherwise impossible or at least extremely difficult elsewhere in the lower 48, including Brown (and rarely Black) Noddy, Sooty Tern, and Masked Booby. However you are strongly advised to get a ticket far in advance. I am not sure how important that actually is for the summer, but appears true for spring at least.

Anyway, with that initial bit of of introductory planning logistics out of the way, the next post will cover day one, although not sure if I will post that today or not.
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
Back in Wisconsin and recovered enough from my travels to start recapping the trip, before events start becoming too fuzzy. . Just as a general note, lifer birds are in bold black, ABA birds are in bold blue, and exotics are in bold green

Day 1
Flying out of Appleton via Chicago, I arrived at Miami International Airport around mid-afternoon, to gray skies and light showers. No real issues with travel, and I proceeded to Thrifty car rental to pick up my vehicle, a more involved process than I expected it would be, requiring going through 3 different people. I elected to not get the transponder option, which would allow me to use Florida Tollways freely, although this was in part due to me believing that most of the roads would have booths where you could pay there. This doesn't seem to be the case, so if your travel is going to require a lot of toll roads, you should invest in this.

Not having access to Toll roads resulted in my route to my hotel being...more convoluted than expected. The road around the airport are honestly kind of confusing and incredibly busy, and I took a couple of wrong turns that turned out to be impossible to reverse. Thankfully, I remembered to pack my Garmin, or otherwise I still might be circling the airport...

At any rate, a half hour drive to my hotel turned into a hour long trip, due to that confusion as well as a need to avoid the expressway. Eventually I did arrive, choosing to stay Courtyard by Marriot at the Dolphin Mall. Why the Dolphin Mall? Well this shopping center was considered the best location in the Miami area for one of my targets, Gray-headed Swamphen. I tried for this species at several spots in the Fort Lauderdale area on my last trip some years ago, and dipped on them. Thus I was looking to finally check this bird off.

The ponds they happen to favor are...odd. They are just a set of ornamental ponds surrounded by lawn next to some busy roads and mall parking lots. Hardly a wetland paradise. Yet somehow, they seem to love these ponds, being absent from seemingly better quality habitat elsewhere. Upon arrival, I didn't see any, however I soon spotted a couple of distant birds on the far side, along with my first Common Gallinules and White Ibis of the trip. I did a partial walk around the pond for better views, and got fairly good looks at the swamphens, which are still not split by ABA/NACC, despite the split being recognized everywhere else (They are currently lumped under Purple Swamphen). A lifer in less than 5 minutes at my first stop...Not bad!

And that wasn't all. I turned out that the parking lot of my hotel was home to a family of Gray Kingbirds, another major target. Gray Kingbirds are common urban birds in the Miami area and Florida keys, but are only present in spring and summer, migrating out ofthe state during winter and late fall, which was the time period I was last in the state. The parking lot was also home to a small scattered number of Florida Boat-tailed Grackles, which can be distinguished from other subspecies by the presence of a dark eye, making them somewhat distinctive Clements group, which I try to keep track of for insurance purposes. I almost certainly saw this subspecies on my last trip, but didn't keep great notes on non-lifer birds at that point (I had seen the Atlantic subspecies previously), so I hadn't properly recorded it.

I then had a supply run to some local stores for bug spray, a flashlight, and sunscreen, then settled into an evening in the hotel. A nervous evening, as the weather forecast ominously recorded the presence of a Tropical Storm system moving into the area.
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
Day 2

Morning soon revealed the first major setback for the trip: While the storm, at least where I was, didn't seem to be as severe as I thought it would be, it was causing flooding around Miami and general unsafe conditions (not to mention poor birding conditions). This sadly led to the guide I contacted, Luis Gonzalez (Birdforum's own Igonz1008) to cancel for the morning. At least the cancellation came the night before, so I was able to have one of my few sleep-in mornings of the trip on Saturday, although sleeping in for me when I am not at home just means not getting up until 6:00 am versus 5:00 am.

Thankfully, the storm soon abated and didn't seem as bad as feared, and so arrangements were made to go birding this afternoon and tomorrow morning. Given that Sunday morning was originally set aside to target a bird that hadn't been seen for a month (a Smooth-billed Ani near the Everglades), I really didn't have to actually change my itinerary as much as feared.

By 3:30, we were at our first destinations the Mangrove Preserve at C-103 and adjacent Biscayne National Park. The weathered had cleared up nicely, being bright and sunny, although sadly with little bird activity. Our main target here was a rare La Sagra's flycatcher, normally a Bahamanian bird, which had been reliably seen here along the canal for the last several weeks. However the canal was strangely silent; Who knows how the flycatcher would have reacted to the storm, and there was a real fear it had peace'd out. Birdwise, the best bird for me were several overflying Magnificent Frigatebird. These are common in Florida at the coast at this time of year, but much more difficult in winter. While not a lifer (having seen them in Panama last year), they were a welcome ABA bird. Also a few nice herons, including Tricolored and Little Blue. Fairly common Florida birds, but not something I get to see to often in Wisconsin.

Herps however performed much better. Green Iguanas, my first decent sightings in the US, were seen along the roadside, while the parking area was loaded with Peter's Rock Agama. Native to west Africa, this introduced large agama is fairly big for a lizard, and quite colorful. Males have bright orange heads and blue bodies, while females are brown with orange splotches on their side. Initially introduced to the state in 1976, populations have really exploded in the last couple of decades, and the species was one of the most common lizards I saw, being present in practically any sort of habitat that had "rocks", with rocks being basically any sort of limestone/concrete objects, especially around parking lots. Thankfully, they are considered pretty benign, and only occur in human-modified habitats. I also had very brief sightings of Brown Basilisk, another successful introduction, which seemed to favor the canal habitats.

Speaking of exotics, that was our next target, specifically parrots and Common Hill Mynas. Luis knew a good spot for both, Matheson Hammock Park. The drive there through Miami allowed us to encounter a lot of very flooded roads, a reminder that Miami is probably going to be pretty screwed in the next few decades by climate change. We also observed other exotics enroute, including Common Mynas, Indian Peafowl, and Muscovy Ducks. On arrival to the park, we headed over to a set of palms with nest holes that were in use by several species. Sadly, the favored hole for the Common Hill Mynas seemed to be adjacent to an active bee-nest. Although I had a very quick view of a probable Hill Myna, it wasn't really countable. Hill Mynas have been around in Miami since the 60's, but are currently very scarce and seem to be on the decline, potentially due to nest hole competition with Starlings. They persist but are local and very missable, and indeed we would not have any luck with this species on this trip. The Parrots however were much more cooperative, with a pair of distinct Orange-winged Amazon, which perched in the palms and gave good looks. I had earlier this year seen amazons in Los Angeles, however the Parrot situation in Miami is much different, with Orange-winged Amazon the most common species, while in Southern California Red-crowned, and to a less extent Lilac-crowned predominate, with a few other random species such as Red-lored and Yellow-headed. Parrots are also surprisingly much more numerous in Southern California. At some of the roosting sites, 400+ birds are possible, however numbers here are much fewer.

Continuing our parrot quest, the next stop was Brewer Park, which was a frequent roosting site for parrots and macaws. Our first encounter however was without a doubt with one of the most annoying small children I have encountered. Said small child stuck to our sides, grabbing my binoculars "wanting to look through them" while alternatively screaming in my ear and running around us. I have never ever had such a strong desire to toss a child into a canal. Veiled references to Haast's Eagle were made, and how that species could easily solve this problem. If you were wondering where the parent was, well he was 10 feet away and clearly uninterested in doing anything to bring his spawn under control. Luis finally, after almost tripping over the child, told him to go away, which seemed to do the trick.

On the non-annoying front, A small group of Swallow-tailed Kites appeared. I had previously seen this bird as a little kid...in fact it reminds one of my earliest bird memories, but hadn't seen it since becoming a birder, so this was another major target (the species is absent from Florida in winter). Red-masked Parakeets buzzed by, as well as Purple Martins and Chimney Swifts, but no macaws or parrots were seen. Also had the first turtle of the trip. a fairly large Florida Softshell. As we were leaving, we did get one more surprise in the form of a Spot-breasted Oriole. This was a welcome surprise for Luis, as while it wasn't a target species for me (I had seen one on my last trip), they can be rather nomadic and hard to pin down, and a bird I don't think he expected to find for me on this trip.

After that final stop, it was off to my hotel, where I ate some crappy overpriced hotel food and got ready for tomorrow, which would entail another morning with Luis and a evening trip to the Everglades.
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
Day 3.

The original plan for this day had been to drive in the early morning south to Everglades, and focus my attention on that park and adjacent areas. However the change of plans saw me spend the morning with Luis, who picked me up at 6:00 am. Our first destination was our last destination from the night before, with another attempt at parrots and macaws at Brewer Park. The park was much quieter, and also more productive, with a flock of 26 Orange-winged Amazons with both Red-masked and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets as flybys. Waiting around awhile, we soon had a very cooperative Chestnut-fronted Macaw land in a tree, allowing extended looks. Good looks at Yellow-crowned Night Heron as well, which are more common in South Florida than the more widespread Black-crowned.

Next stop was a return to Matheson Hammock, for another attempt at Hill Myna. No luck however. Did see more crabs, which is perhaps one of more interesting nonbird critters of the trip. The high water levels of the recent storm and adjacency to the ocean made resulted in crabs being quite common at a lot of the sites we visited, often in areas that you wouldn't expect to fine them, scurrying around like crustacean chipmunks.

Next we headed farther afield, with a trio of quick stops to knock off several more targets. First we hit up Miami Executive Airport, where we quickly located a Florida Burrowing Owl, a subspecies I hadn't yet seen. There burrows are easy to find in this area...simply look around the fields for traffic cones, which is how the nests are marked. Also managed to see one of the few loggerhead shrikes of the trip, a bird that is very scarce in Wisconsin.

Next was a stop at the Portofino Plaza Mall, which was adjacent to a highway bridge featuring an active colony of Caribbean Cave Swallows, another target subspecies, which were easy to see here.

This was followed by a quick visit to the Black Point Marina near Key Biscayne, encountering the first manatee of the trip in a nearby canal. Black Point Marina is considered one of the "go-to-places" for Mangrove Cuckoo, one of the tougher South Florida specialties, a bird we tried for the day before without much luck. Not today however, as we quickly were able to get great diagnostic looks at this shy species.

While looking for the Mangrove Cuckoo, Luis had received word that the La Sagra's Flycatcher was being seen and actively calling (or perhaps it was just before the Cuckoo?). Given that it was short distance away, off we went. It was a bit of a slog in the heat and humidity, requiring a bit more effort than our last three stops. While walking the canal, we soon found a pair of active calling Myiarchus, however the yellow bellies soon identified them as Great Crested Flycatchers, a normal breeding bird for the area. However, while looking at these bird we were able to see a distant birder staring at some trees at the approximate reported position of the flycatcher. Making our way over...SUCCESS! La Sagra's Flycatcher! As Luis remarked, while a rare bird it's not exactly the most dramatic looking species, being essentially a small drab gray Myiarchus without much color. Still, a great fine and probably the best bird of the trip, and one after yesterday I wasn't sure I would get.

By this point, it was past 11:00 am, and I needed to return to the hotel to check out. So we headed back, and before checking out I took another look at the Swamphens, who this day were practically right next to the hotel, providing much better looks.

I'll cover the afternoon in the next post.
 

Farnboro John

Well-known member
Way back in 1988 I had a fortnight in Florida that included a day in Miami. Spot-breasted Oriole was something we targeted but we became uncomfortably aware of being followed by a group of men in the relevant park so headed back towards the car, avoiding going through any copses of trees - luckily we fell over an oriole on the way, even getting a poor photo. Then we jumped in the car and legged it. I guess its a bit safer now?

John
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
Way back in 1988 I had a fortnight in Florida that included a day in Miami. Spot-breasted Oriole was something we targeted but we became uncomfortably aware of being followed by a group of men in the relevant park so headed back towards the car, avoiding going through any copses of trees - luckily we fell over an oriole on the way, even getting a poor photo. Then we jumped in the car and legged it. I guess its a bit safer now?

John
Miami is a pretty broad area, with what I assume are good and bad parts just like any city. I don't think Miami is any more dangerous than any other major large US city overall.

I should state that Luis was guiding me and also doing the driving, so presumably he knew where he was going. There are some places where you might not want to leave expensive items sitting unattended in your car, but my understanding is that most of the major birding spots were pretty safe (I am sure Luis can chime in with further thoughts).
 

lgonz1008

Well-known member
United States
Way back in 1988 I had a fortnight in Florida that included a day in Miami. Spot-breasted Oriole was something we targeted but we became uncomfortably aware of being followed by a group of men in the relevant park so headed back towards the car, avoiding going through any copses of trees - luckily we fell over an oriole on the way, even getting a poor photo. Then we jumped in the car and legged it. I guess its a bit safer now?

John
I should state that Luis was guiding me and also doing the driving, so presumably he knew where he was going. There are some places where you might not want to leave expensive items sitting unattended in your car, but my understanding is that most of the major birding spots were pretty safe (I am sure Luis can chime in with further thoughts).
Miami is a pretty broad city, it has some parts that I don't visit to avoid clear conflict and others I only go to for the CBCs since nobody else will cover the area. Most of the exotics are found in South Miami or the Miami Beach/Downtown area, these spots are usually very tourist friendly and most of the parks or patches where you'd find the big targets are in safe neighborhoods. To the point like Mysticete experienced, kids are happily playing in the playgrounds next to the parrots roost site.

If you ask me which are the most risky exotics to target, I'd say the ones in Miami Beach, the parakeets there include many species not seen elsewhere in Miami like Blue-crowned and White-eyed Parakeets, but in exchange for that, you have to either pay a heavy parking fee and walk a lot around the area in hope of connecting or risking the stuff in your car if you leave anything unattended. But if you apply common practice to hide things in cars and not drive around at night in the area, you should avoid most of the difficulties of that part of the city (mostly drug addicts, drunks and the odd person asking for change).

Spot-breasted Oriole is honestly a wild card when it comes to our exotics, in its native range it is a sedentary species that mainly feed on fruits and flower nectars. In South Florida, most of the flowering and fruiting trees they enjoy are in city parks or in the backyards of individuals from the Latin community, so the birds picked up a nomadic lifestyle.

Seeing a Spot-breasted Oriole is possible on a South Florida trip since they go all the way up to Palm Beach county and they tend to stick around a site for weeks or months, but seeing it without a known location has a lot of luck involved and leads to nice surprises as the same bird we saw could not be found again by any other birder going to the park for it in the week since.
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
After checking out of my hotel, I grabbed lunch at the dolphin mall, then headed down to Florida City where I was staying for the evening. FYI, Florida City is a pretty good cost-effective place to be based out of, as its close to the Keys and Everglades, with lots of hotels and restaurants. My hotel was the cheapest of the trip, although strangely had little in the way of power outlooks. I crashed in the room for a bit, not heading back out to the Everglades until around 3. There really was very little reason to bird midday in June in South Florida. You won't see any critters and will just sweat your @[email protected]$ off. Of note before leaving, more common mynas were foraging around the hotel strip, and my first Northern Curly-tailed Lizards were hanging out in an otherwise fairly bare parking lot. These would be, going forward, one of the most common lizards I would see.

Heading off to the Everglades, my major target wasn't actually birds at all, but I was hoping to slowly road-cruise my way back, as conditions should have been good this evening for herping. The road through the Everglades is considered to be one of the premiere herping destinations in the country, and a good evening can net 13 species of snakes, including some really cool species such as Scarletsnakes and Burmese Pythons (the latter obviously not native, and a good reason why the south end of the park is relatively poor for mammals.

My first stop was the visitor center, which I took a quick look around. This was the only destination on my trip where a mask was required, although they did provide them. Stormy weather seemed on the horizon, and a veritable swarm of Common Nighthawks were hawking over the area. Also of note was another Loggerhead Shrike as well as I think my only green anole of the trip, kind of sad given the bazillion brown anoles that are now by far the most common lizard in southern Florida. I then headed down the road, stoping in at the Anhinga trail. My main goal here was to see some wading birds, particularly Purple Gallinules. However, as I would find on this trip, water bird density pretty much everywhere was poor. The Everglades, like the rest of south Florida, were well flooded, and the presence of water everywhere meant there was little reason for aquatic critters to congregate in any one spot. While I did see some waterbirds, numbers were much more limited, consisting of a lot of anhingas (at least the trail is well-named) one of the few Great Blue Herons of the trip, and several green herons and great egrets. I also had what would be one of my only alligators of the trip! This was utterly bizarre for me: Alligators are practically abundant in Florida and especially in the park. I must have seen dozens on my last trip. But nope, this would be it. Also of interest was a nice relatively low-flying Swallow-tailed Kite and my first White-eyed Vireo of the trip. Wisconsin is really too far north for the species for the most part, so this was my first one since living in New York.

Next up was Long Pine Key. The habitat here is more upland and supports pine forest, so a different suite of birds than what are found in the rest of the park. This turned out to be a productive visit, and walking along parts of the road and the picnic area soon allowed me to add Pine Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, and another White-eyed Vireo. I had one main bird target here though, and after some effort I did luck upon a few: White-eyed Towhee, the Florida subspecies of the widespread Eastern Towhee. I had seen this species as a kid but not since then, although obviously I have seen many Eastern and Spotted Towhees through the years. I also had one of my more interesting mammals here, with Hispid Cotton Rats, with several seen, many quite tame. This caused me initially a great deal of excitements, as I thought they could have been woodrats, but sadly that species is absent over the southern peninsula, except for the Florida Keys.

Continuing on my merry way after this productive visit, I made my way down to the Flamingo Marina and campground. A few days earlier a Shiny Cowbird had been found associating with the flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds here, with the area being one of the better and more reliable sites for this largely Caribbean bird. Turning into the Marina I had a quick flyby of a lifer I wasn't expecting until tomorrow: White-crowned Pigeon! Wasn't able to relocate the bird, although I did see a few commuters. My understanding is that they prefer to roost on offshore islands, presumably to avoid predators, and commute back and forth to the mainland. The Flamingo area ended up being another productive spot, and I soon located a large mixed flock of starlings and cowbirds. Sadly, no matter how much I tried to turn the normal cowbirds into one, no Shiny Cowbird was detected. However, I was alerted to a cooperative American Crocodile, which was basking on the boat ramp. Flamingo is probably one of the best places to see this species in the US, and this specimen certainly was a good lesson in the differences between crocs and gators. While looking for cowbirds I also happened upon my only Pileated Woodpecker, hanging out in a tree that seemed a bit short for it.

I drove a little more onward, visiting the campground area. The recent storm had flooded this area quite a bit, resulting in a grassy marsh that was a magnet for all sorts of shorebirds, and indeed I think this was my only spot where I got any. Shorebirds seen here included Black-necked Stilt, Semipalmated Plover and Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, and Lesser Yellowlegs. I almost certainly missed some, as I didn't have a scope and the grass was effective at concealing the peeps. I also had a good size flock of Black Skimmers here, my only ones for the trip.

It was getting late, but the sun still hadn't set. Still, I didn't plan on being out here all night (although my eventual herp "haul" would have probably been better. The plan was to slowly drive back out the park, looking for critters along the way. once nightfall started, I soon got my first cool herp, and one I wasn't expecting. Eastern Musk Turtle, with the teeny turtle spotted along the roadside against the border stripe. You are not allowed to touch any wildlife (otherwise I would have probably helped him across). Musk and Mud Turtles are often quite hard to see compared to other turtles, as they are more aquatic and seldom leave the water, so this was a great sighting.

I continued on. Southern Toads were relatively common on the road, common enough that after my first few I stopped stopping, so I might have missed some amphibians. The next most common was another one of my main targets. Cottonmouth! Overall, I ended up having three live Cottonmouths and one DOR on my cruise out. They are pretty cooperative, as when exposed to light they tend to freeze up. They also are pretty chunky, so stick out against the flat road. They are also of course highly venomous, being the US's only true aquatic viper. Roadcruising of course can let you see other wildlife beyond herps, and while my secret hope for Cougar didn't pan out, I did have several cooperative Chuck-wills-Widow on the road. I had previously encountered this species on my last roadcruise through the park, but I was never quite sure if I misidentified it and it wasn't a Whip-poor-will instead. I got better looks this time however, and it helps that the only summering nightjar is the Chuck.

However, as it turned out, I didn't have much other luck on the road. I did find another snake, a sadly recently killed Florida Brownsnake, a recent split from Dekay's Brownsnake. This was in part because the weather stayed nice. Originally there was a forecast for thunderstorms, and the rain would have likely brought more aquatic snakes and frogs out. I will say however this was a surprisingly relaxing road cruise. There were few cars making it easy to drive slow with my high beams on, and the road is smooth and almost perfect for spotting things on it. I suspect I would have logged more species If I had done another pass through the road system, but being up at 6:00 am that morning meant I wasn't eager on being out until 2 in the morning. Eventually I got back to my room at 10:30 pm, shoveled some leftover Lo Mein from lunch into my maw, and went to bed. Tomorrow I would begin my journey into the Keys!
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
Day 4

Having had a late night, I decided to sleep in a bit more (which meant waking up at 6:00 am vs 5:00!) grabbing the morning complimentary breakfast than heading out to the first of several days on the keys. My first destination of the day was the way-to long a name Dabney John Key Largo State Botanical Site. This is a well known spot for most of the Florida Key land bird specialties, and is particular a well known spot for Mangrove Cuckoo, White-crowned Pigeon, and Black-whiskered Vireo, the latter my main target for the day. Reaching the site at just after 7:00 am, I found a pleasant bit of tropical forest. What I didn't find was a whole lot of bird diversity. Cardinals incessantly called, and were probably the most common and obvious songbird in the keys, being active and vocal pretty much all day, no matter the heat. I can't tell you the number of times that a fleeting bit of movement or call note would frustratingly morph into a Cardinal. Pretty birds, but I can see them easily in Wisconsin! The next most common songbird were probably White-eyed Vireos, which were pretty common and also vocal, and caused a fair bit of consternation, as they are a bit less distinctive in appearance and often acquired more effort to ID. I suck at vocalizations, although I have to say Merlin has become more useful a tool to learn them. I also had a pair of Carolina Wrens (my only one of the trip), and heard a Mangrove Cuckoo, but birds were otherwise fairly scarce, and a hour and a half later I was on my way to the next spot.

Wanting to take advantage of the morning, whose prime birding time was rapidly evaporating, I next made a stop at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Florida Keys folks must love there long-winded names!). Here I added the first Red-winged Blackbirds of the trip, and also had Eurasian Collared Dove and Gray Kingbird in the parking area, but bird diversity here was again limited. Sadly, they were not doing any boat trips out today, in part because waters were still murky from the prior storm. However, they often have a glass-bottomed boat tour that visits the keys, and provides a dry land way of seeing some marine critters. The park was pretty crowded with boaters and campers, which probably didn't help birding. My main target here was Golden Warbler, which can apparently be found in the mangroves here, plus Black-whiskered Vireo. No luck with either species, although it didn't help that the mangrove trail was closed.

Herps were more abundant here, with both Northern Curly-tailed Lizard and Peter's Rock Agama holding court in the parking lot, and Green Iguana was encountered here as well. More interestingly, walking a short nature trail revealed a myriad of brown anoles, but some of the brown anoles looked different, with distinct patterns and prominent head and back crests. These I was able to identify as Crested Anole, an introduction from Puerto Rica and one of something like 10 anole species, most of them exotic, that can now be found in Florida. With the exception of the much more invasive Brown Anole, most of these introductions are relatively local and require targeting specific spots. I thought I might have had some Bark Anoles here, but anole identification is tough and I didn't spend enough time preparing to sort through them.

With the heat and merciless sun beating down on me, I headed off. Given that it was past prime birding time I pretty much drove straight onward to my hotel in Marathon, attempting to avoid accidents caused by me gawking at all the Frigatebirds, which are indeed common.

I arrived at Marathon at about midday, starling a green iguana from the parking area, and crashed in my room during the heat of the day. I chose Marathon as my base of operations for the Keys portion of the trip, because it was considerably cheaper than Key West and only an hour away, so not unreasonably far for my early morning drive tomorrow for the Dry Tortugas ferry. It's also convenient for looking for Antillean Nighthawk and terns. My original plan had been to explore the keys further west, but I decided to stick to the vicinity of Marathon, heading out to Crane Point Nature Center. A ten dollar price to enter seemed a bit high, but I hit the small section of trails. The most interesting birds were a few White-crowned Pigeons, an okay looks at the Florida Keys race of Red-bellied Woodpecker. After this, I then headed to the Marathon Government buildings, a desolate looking block of seaside buildings whose roofs are home to several nesting tern species. Least Tern was pretty easy to see and the most abundant, but I only found one bird which could have been a Roseate Tern, a major target here. That probably has more to say about my ability and the poor viewing than it does the presence or absences of this species, as the terns were basically just commuting back and forth from the sea, with only the brief glances before disappearing onto the rooftops.

This stop didn't take long, so next up was...the grocery store, as I was tired and kind of not into eating by myself in a restaurant, and not feeling fast food. It was still to early to try for the nighthawk, so I went back to my room and internet'ed while eating the sandwich I bought.

Checking ebird, several nighthawks had been reliably seen at the Marathon airport, and it looked like the best time to try would be around 8:00 pm. So I dragged my butt over there, parking in the helicopter tours parking area and began my vigil, entertained by a family of Gray Kingbirds foraging along the US-1. Sure enough, around 8:00 pm a single Antillean Nighthawk swooped over, and began foraging over the airport. This is a summers speciality of the keys, which can be distinguished from Common by a distinctive call, which I made sure to take the time to listen to that afternoon. Although I think by June it might be the only Nighthawk around? Thankfully, it was actively calling and providing excellent looks, allowing me to check off the last "regularly occurring" caprimulgid from the ABA area (Buff-collared Nightjar of Arizona is still considered a code 3 bird). The landing of a helicopter drove it away, and off I headed back to my hotel, to get ready for one of the most awaited and exciting days of the trip: The Dry Tortugas!
 

Bitis

Well-known member
Austria
Thanks for the excellent report, I really enjoy reading it! I visited the USA twice, both times we went to Florida. I wasn't a birder back then, so we didn't really focus on all the small birds. It was kind of a fishing and "all wildlife" trip. Your report brought back a lot of good memories: canoeing in a crystal clear river with a manatee and its calf swimming right next to the canoe, fishing in lake okeechobee, alligators sitting right next to the trails, a pair of bald eagles, a boat trip at Ten Thousand Islands with dolphins following the boat, visting many wildlife refuges, a lot of really friendly people, ... . Really looking forward to visit the United States again :)

all the best
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
Day 5

Woke up at 4:30 this morning, and after cramming a bagel into my face, started the hour plus drive to Key West and the Yankee Freedom Ferry terminal, the ship offering service to the fairly remote Dry Tortugas National Park. The park is famous for two major bird-related things. First, the island serves as a major migrant trap during spring migration, with a strong track record of bringing in very rare stray songbirds from the Caribbean. Secondly, the island is well known for its breeding colonies of tropical seabirds, and before the addition of Hawaii to the ABA checklist, was pretty much the only place where you could get noddies, Sooty Terns, and Masked Boobies. Venturing forward to this island chain in early June, long after migration, meant that migrants weren't something I had realistic expectations for, although the recent tropical storm had me hopeful that something cool could have been blown in. However, the seabirds would be in full breeding mood, and should be readily apparent.

The drive in the dark on US-1 was pretty uneventful, other than my first brief roadside views Key Deer, an endangered subspecies of White-tailed Deer endemic to the keys. I arrived early to the ferry, and after parking headed over to the terminal area. Check in for campers begins at 6:30 am and day-trippers, like me, at 7:00, with boarding starting at 7:30. However you can pretty much check-in whenever. Boarding is based on a number, with numbers passed out in order of check-in, so I would recommend getting there early if you want a good spot on the ride over for seawatching. Despite this being a weekday trip outside of presumably peak season, the Ferry was packed with no available spacings. You definitely want to make sure you book several months in advance, and maybe even further out during peak songbird migration.

Waiting around the Ferry I began to do some birding, and practically as soon as I arrived the iconic calls of Key West's most famous residents were noted. Soon enough, I managed to see several roosters and a family of Red Junglefowl, one of the other major Florida Key landbird targets. The birds are the descendants of birds released from Cuba and elsewhere, and date back to the 1950's. There are over 2000 birds on the island, and are a self-propagating population almost entirely produced by the wild birds breeding, rather than supplemental releases. Hell, they have even survived hurricanes without much of a dent in there populations. They are not on the Florida checklist yet, however they are considered countable by ABA rules; through a quirk of the rules they are on the checklist thanks initially to the addition of Hawaii, however Key West is listed as one of the places ABA considers the birds to be countable. While the birds are effectively wild, they are wild in the way a Rock Dove is in New York City. They are used to people and given the freedom to run around, and are not particularly shy about scavenging crumbs from folks. The population is also quite sizable, which has stirred a bit of controversy. In large numbers they can become pests, and the city has longed to control them, but they are popular residents with some people fiercely protective of them.

Beyond the Junglefowl, the ferry offered other critters. A lone manatee could be seen in the harbor, while both Eurasian Collared Dove and White-crowned Pigeon were also present. The latter bird is much more tame in Key West and much easier to see than on the mainland, and I was able to get much better looks this morning. There were also Green Iguanas present, just chilling. Surprisingly, at least compared to the harbors in California, aquatic birds were much more scarce, just a scattering of Laughing Gulls, Terns, and a couple of herons. I'd love to hear if this is "normal" or if winter and spring the harbor is birdier.

By 8:00 am we headed off, leaving the harbor. The ferry FYI provides complimentary breakfast and lunch, so if you are a daytripper, don't feel obligated to bring a bunch of food. There are also snacks and booze available for purchase on the vessel. I reserved a spot on the back of the boat to watch for seabirds, and of course soon ran into a few other birders who soon joined forces, one of which was even from Wisconsin. It was a 2 hour + voyage and honestly pretty boring. There were some double-crested Cormorants I desperately tried to turn into Boobies, but the only other birds were a possible Sooty Tern and a single Audubon's Shearwater, the only bird for the trip.

While boarding, I made sure to mention to the staff that I was a birder and interested in going by Hospital Key,and outlying island of Dry Tortugas National Park. The captain doesn't always go by this key, but it's not a major detour for them or anything, and will swing by if folks are interested. The key is notable as featuring a breeding colony of Masked Boobies. Squinting into the distance on the island I could just barely make out some white booby-shaped blobs, although one of the birders with a really good camera was able to provide me a somewhat better image of the birds. Not the greatest views, but definitely Masked Booby. I should also note there were some dark booby-shaped blobs amidst the colony, but whether they were immature birds, Brown Boobies, or even the much rarer Red-footed Booby I could say. Also seen near the Key was a single Bridled Tern, the only definitive one of the trip, although distinguishing them from Sooty at a distance could be tough.

I should note here also that, doing some calculating while at the Ferry, I realized that sometime today I could hit the magical #650 on my ABA list, a landmark that I hoped to reach this year. Masked Booby was #647 and Bridled Tern #648, So I had a pretty good guess at what my 650th bird could be.

However, given the length of this post, I'll cover Garden Key and the rest of my day in the next post.
 

lgonz1008

Well-known member
United States
To answer your question of whether the harbor is better at other times of the year for birds, the answer is not really for the spring season. Common/expected waders and gulls with the odd Herring Gull that stayed a bit longer that season (these guys are uncommon down here).

The few birds of note from my checklists for the harbor include White-crowned Pigeon, Black Skimmer and summer breeders in the forms of Least Tern and Gray Kingbird (both of which are dime a dozen in the Keys).
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
To answer your question of whether the harbor is better at other times of the year for birds, the answer is not really for the spring season. Common/expected waders and gulls with the odd Herring Gull that stayed a bit longer that season (these guys are uncommon down here).

The few birds of note from my checklists for the harbor include White-crowned Pigeon, Black Skimmer and summer breeders in the forms of Least Tern and Gray Kingbird (both of which are dime a dozen in the Keys).
Interesting. Although I suppose it makes sense, as coastal California has much higher oceanic productivity. Probably makes sense it can support higher bird populations, resulting in more birds in the harbor.
 

lgonz1008

Well-known member
United States
Interesting. Although I suppose it makes sense, as coastal California has much higher oceanic productivity. Probably makes sense it can support higher bird populations, resulting in more birds in the harbor.
As a rule, Gulf coast Florida is better for birdlife in the coastal areas, depending on the time of the year the variety drastically changes, but even in the summer months if you go to places like Siesta Key and Fort de Soto, you can expect at least 7 egret and heron species, a variety of gulls, terns and skimmers, plus some shorebirds. The further South you go, the less variety you can hope for (Common Loon and Northern Gannet are uncommon or complete rarities south of Palm Beach and the Keys in the winter, yet they are pretty common in the Gulf area at the same latitude of Broward).
 

Hotspur

James Spencer
United Kingdom
Awesome work. This echoes my trip in August 2019, although I didn't get out to the tortugas and still need the vireo. I had a non-calling nighthawk on Key Largo that still annoys me but I did get a huge Burm near the Anhinga trail
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
From Hospital Key it doesn't take long at all to arrive at the main island, Garden Key, where the Fort Jefferson is located. This large fort, falling apart in places, is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, and construction began by the US in 1847, but never really finished. It's an impressive place that might be one of the closest things in the US to a castle you can find. The wall of the moat are surrounded by a saltwater moat that provides good views of various Florida Keys fish and sometimes sea turtles, while the courtyard contains scattered trees and bushes and large grassy areas.

Pulling into the dock, one quickly becomes aware of the large cloud of tropical terns, most of which breed on the adjacent and connected Bush Key. This area is roped off during the breeding season but the terns roost practically right up to the barrier, and one can get great views and photographs with ease.

The tern colony large consists of two species, which were quickly seen and observed at leisure. Brown Noddy (#649), and my soon to be 650th bird, Sooty Tern. Sooty Tern is a bird which most bird guides don't really do justice to. It's really a smart-looking tern with the strongly contrasting white and black elements. Brown Noddy was also exciting to see, as it allowed me to check off another subfamily, Anoinae, which includes the dark noddies. Family listers might want to make sure they see a noddy, as Anoinae and the white noddys (Gyginae) may potentially be raised to family level, as they represent a set of stem taxa to at least all other terns and skimmers, and possibly to terns and gulls as a whole.

I decided to join forces with another birder and walk around the moat wall, as this would allow more views of the tern colony and provide looks at the North Coaling docks, where sometimes Black Noddy can be found mixed within the flock, with a few reports this past spring. Black Noddies used to be far more regular here, but have become scarcer and less reliable in recent years, as have Tropicbirds. A decade or two ago there were a couple of roosting birds of the latter species that could be sometimes seen sailing over the fort, but I don't think any have been spotted in years. Needless to say, I saw neither Black Noddy nor Tropicbird on this trip.

Scanning more distant bouys for perching birds that weren't noddies, I Found a somewhat larger brown bird with a distinct shape. After the cormorant debacle, I was a bit hesitant to outright identify it, and asked the birder with better optics to take a look. But my hunch was soon confirmed: Brown Booby! One of my targets that along with Bridled Tern I was not sure I would get. While I have seen this species in Mexican waters and while in Panama, this was an ABA first with me, and I enjoyed distant if identifiable views of this cool seabirds.

The heat was pouring down and I next decided, after checking the perimeter, that I would grab the bag lunch from the ship. While doing so, the birds on Garden Key were disturbed, and I picked up a Glossy Ibis flying around. I assumed this would be a rare bird but ebird didn't flag it. Other seabirds observed around the fort included Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, and a few actually identifiable Roseate Terns.

Besides the perimeter, the courtyard is also a major birding destination, and is generally the best place on the island for stray landbirds. It's also a pretty decent spot, especially on top of the walls, to watch Magnificent Frigatebirds, which breed on a adjacent key and can always be found over the fort. Upon entering the fort I noticed a few Rock Doves and a fair few Cattle Egrets. The latter species can often be found year round, and many have adapted to catch songbirds, with terrestrial food and water being in short supply. Another long term rarity that had been reported over the last month was also on the hunt: A Red-shouldered Hawk, and I found a few grisly reminders of its diet in the courtyard.

With the cruel tropical sun beating overhead, hanging out in the courtyard was a kind of grueling experience, with at first the only birds detected being a few mourning doves. One of the birders I met on the boat was looking through a line of bushes. He reported seeing a skulky thrush-like or flycatcher-like bird, seen by another birder who thought it was "woodpecker-like". Both descriptions immediately captured my attention, and with the recent tropical storm and just overall lack of birder reportage at this time of year, visions of stray Cuban birds danced in my head. Unfortunately the bushes were thick, nothing wanted to be active in the heat, and the other side fronted an area with no birder access, so none of us ever figured out what species was encountered. Working the bushes did reveal two other rarities eventually, although not exactly the rarities I was looking for. A small warbler revealed itself to be a rather late female Magnolia Warbler, while a Gray Kingbird, rare for the island, was seen hunting a short-time later.

As the afternoon wore on, rain began, and my time on the island drew to a close. Not sure when we actually left, but I was back on the ferry by 2:30 pm, watching the rain outside, which seemed to also send the tern colony flying off. We had an uneventful ride back, the poor weather largely keeping me indoors. Weather was a little better on the mainland, and after grabbing restaurant at a nearby spot (which had a young chicken running around scavenging leftovers), I drove back and crashed for the evening.
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
Day 6

My last full day in the Keys!

So far, I had some pretty good luck with most of my targets, but there was one major one that had still eluded me: Black-Whiskered Vireo. A bird that by all regards should have been easy, but due to heat and presumably nesting season, had proven quite elusive.

While on the boat yesterday, I had gotten some intel from a birder, who reported seeing a vireo the day before at Blue Hole, a freshwater pond located in Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge. Blue Hole and the surrounding area is also a good spot for Key Deer, a species I wanted more than a quick drive by view. Blue Hole, although not a large area, is a well known birding hotspot. A year ago or so for instance the pond held a wintering Cuban Pewee AND a pair of Black-faced Grassquits. Getting a bit later than intended, just before 8:00. Strolling the short trails around the perimeter of the ponds revealed an alligator across from the viewing platform, only the second one I had seen this trip. Blue Hole is one of the few reliable places, due to the presence of freshwater, where this species can be found. A few Green Herons perched around the lake as were White-crowned Pigeons, and a family of Great Crested Flycatchers was also present. Heading back to the car revealed a brief glance at a Key Deer, which seemingly disappeared with no trace after looking away. However I soon started hearing a different set of vocalizations, and a active bird soon started popping in and out of bushes. Fixing my bins on it, I soon saw a vireo with distinct dark malar stripes: My target! Black-Whiskered Vireo. Good views were had of the actively foraging bird, often at close range, before it flew off.

Having some luck here, I then headed to to a set of trails a short distance away, the Watson and Manillo trails. These are actually separate trails, although located at the same parking area and largely adjacent to one another. I did not encounter much new here, and between refuge personal planning a burn they were doing that day, and some flooding from the earlier tropical storm at the beginning of the trip meant that the trails were a bit flooded. I didn't spend much time here, before heading onward, hoping to make use of the remaining good birding time. Before hitting US-1 I spotted another Key Deer. This deer was in a much less scenic place, a parking lot of a WinDixie supermarket, feeding with a range of chickens and collared doves, apparently some person having put out some feed in a parking lot median. At least the deer, a young male was tame and offered extended looks.

The next few hours resulted in a series of short stops, not adding too much more to the list. First, I pulled over in some wetland habitat on Summerland Key, which the bird-finding guide said was good for wading birds. Unfortunately, water levels were high and it was pretty bird-less. However, while stopped I saw a pair of rails walk across the road. These turned out to be Caribbean Clapper Rails. I knew clapper rails were a possibility, but it wasn't until looking online later did I discover that the birds in the keys belong to the Caribbean group, rather than the Gulf or Atlantic coast groups.

I then visited some mangrove habitat on Sugarloaf key, which was recommended to me by the bird-finding guide to be good Golden (Mangrove) Warbler habitat. Unfortunately, biting flies were more common here than birds, and other than the omnipresent Cardinals songbirds were largely absent.

My last stop was the Key West Botanical Garden. While the gardens are nice, there later opening hours and the now oppressive heat didn't do them much favor. About the only bird of note here was a Common Ground Dove in the parking lot and my only Florida Keys Muscovy Duck of the trip.

I had been considering stopping in at Zachary Taylor for an incredibly longshot attempt to see if there were any blown in vagrants or Short-eared Owls, but the oppressive heat resulted in me dropping that idea, and I shifted into "normal tourist" mode for the rest of the day, grabbing lunch and checking out a few well known tourist venues such as the (over-priced) Aquarium, the Audubon House, eating some delicious key lime pie, and finally stopping at Fort East Martello museum. Housed...well the East Martello Fort, the museum had a few displays on the history of Key West, but is claim to fame, at least in the circles of those of us interested in "generally weird things", is Roger the Doll, a supposedly possessed doll that had quite a bit of spooky history before being donated to the museum, where its clearly the major "breadwinner" exhibit wise.

From here, I headed back to my hotel, grabbing fast food to take back to my room and generally had a sedate evening, as tomorrow would be a day mainly of travel, with a few birding stops along the way, which I will wrap up on my last post.
 

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