Thursday 12 September 2019

Florida Birding Chronicles, The Other Part

A great bird
It's warm but not the sort of warm that makes you want to drink gallons of water and then dump the rest on your head and because of that, in my head its cool. Florida Keys cool is still 27c and 70% humidity but a lack of sun means that I'm birding in comfort. Seeps escape the mangroves from birds unseen. I had been seeking a glimpse of the bird (birds?) that were hiding in there for ten minutes without success. In exasperation I thought of pishing and remembered all the fanciful tails of birds falling out of the trees to see you. Worth a try perhaps? With zero expectations I pish away, quietly at first and then gradually with more gusto. And do you know what? Along with looking a prat in the hotel car park, I now sounded like a prat too. Despite this a smoky, grey-blue bird dropped out of the canopy and started flicking its tail on a twig like an anorexic fantail. Then two and finally three Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers are dancing for my merriment, intoxicated by my ridiculous tune.
A flash of yellow suggests that there may be more than just Gnatcatchers in there and a bit of patience means a female American Redstart joins the throng, just behind the smoky blue blurs which continued to evade my ridiculously slow super-zoom. My eye is drawn to another small bird walking down a trunk, nuthatch style but in a rather fetching pied number. Being America this is of course a Black-and-white Warbler. Still I pish, now louder and with a nonchalance after this overwhelming success. The Redstart has morphed into an adult male and this hangs around a moment too long and I steal a rather poor record shot. I suddenly see half a dozen White-capped Pigeons explode from a treetop and lose my focus and the insectivores drift away. The pigeons, a Keys speciality have proved elusive to this point and I reckon the odds are that one or two are still in the roost. I was proved right a few minutes later when I find a bird hiding in plain sight and evidently convinced I can't see it. That too has a poor digital rendition captured.

This wasn't the first bit of birding I did in Southern Florida or the best bit but it was the moment when the scales fell from my eyes and I realised just how good it could be. I saw a couple of male American Redstarts during our ten days in the south of the state but this was my first and most intimate view. I subsequently also realised I had already seen a couple of Gnatcatchers, piecemeal, in the canopy at the Dagny Johnson State Park. At the time my viscera was being liberated from my possession by hordes of exceedingly persistent mosquitoes as the dawn sun rose but despite my injured pride, itchy skin and resemblance to Joseph Merrick I wasn't fretting about the blue blurs in the half light. I had seen two Mangrove Cuckoos. Mangrove Cuckoo, another Keys speciality, is also a bit of an enigma resembling a slightly dowdy Yellow-billed Cuckoo but with a reputation for being stubbornly difficult to see. Obviously the first bird I saw aside from a Nighthawk which may or may not have been Common (I erroneously thought Antillean Nighthawks only occurred further to the west), was a Mangrove Cuckoo, uncalling, in the hardwood hammock. A second, calling bird was seen later whilst exiting at high speed and I could not have been less bothered as my claret tax limit had been exceeded. My search for Black-whiskered Vireos had led me to a damper, closed canopy part of the forest, perhaps 20 minutes after first light and whilst watching a couple of White-eyed Vireos I took my eye of the ball until it was too late. I did however learn that a liberal coating of deet under my sacrificial T-shirt helped discourage the mozzies for long enough to enjoy the bird you are looking at. Once back at the car, two Northern Flickers bounded through the treetops, my only ones of the trip.

Aware that Florida and thus continental North American petered out into a series of small islands before turning into the Caribbean Sea and the Greater Antilles, I had a vague idea that visible migration may have been a thing. I was also aware that a hawk watch station was present at Big Pine Key, about halfway along the chain. However, it was mid-August and I didnt hold much hope of large movements of birds, perhaps the odd raptor and a few swallows. My expectations were blown away. Laid on my sun-lounger with a cold craft beer on the go I watched in awe as a constant stream of hirundines passed overhead. This was an everpresent during my time in South Florida with Barn Swallows leaving by the droves, 80-100 birds per minute, constantly. There were other species in there but it took a few days to realise what the makeup was with perhaps 20% Cliff Swallows and 10% Purple Martins, both of which were lifers. I kept an eye out for Cave Swallows and other species but managed to detect none. The poolside setting of my watch was straight out of Cocktail minus Tom Cruise. Despite the lack of movie star sparkle it became evident by late morning that a slight drop in the rate of hirundines passing was to be compensated by raptors and Magnificent Frigatebirds. I followed a kettle of Black Vultures from the mainland(ish) to Key Largo and then turn west. Soon after a Turkey Vulture passed overhead with a Frigatebird and they kettled together, continuing along the Key. Ospreys passed high above and within 90 minutes or so I had seen 20+ of all four species, all heading for the out door at Key West, some 100 miles along the archipelago.

Common Ground Dove
The very best bit of birding I did was on my final daytime visit to the glades. It was outside that National Park, a mile or so east of the entrance, at Lucky Key. I understand the name now. Arriving just as the sun was about to rise I was concerned about how much blood I was going to lose in the gloaming. I needn't have worried as the liberal application of Deet meant that I birded largely unmolested (infact the only time I was heavily bitten in the park was when following the advice of a ranger who said the mosquitoes were largely absent from a trail that ran through a suspiciously damp bit of woodland). I arrived to a trio of Common Ground Doves, my first of the trip and also my first in 12 years since I visited Barbados. Northern Mockingbirds and Northern Cardinals abounded and a Loggerhead Shrike was doing what Shrikes do, perched upon a telegraph wire. The morning flight of Red-winged Blackbirds came out of roost in their hundreds if not thousands and spread over the glades along with an almost infinite number of swallows and martins.

Lucky Hammock is pretty small. Think Old Fall Plantation at Flamborough and you wouldn't be far off. All you can do is walk round it as the vegetation is too thick to penetrate and to be honest I'm not sure you would want to with all manner of biting and stinging things likely hidden in its depths. It is however dense with several layers of canopy and oh, so lush. It is an island in the agriculture east of the park and harbours migrants. Lots of migrants. I started pishing and obviously the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers emerge, gung-ho. A warbler is amongst the Gnatcatchers, a Prairie Warbler. It took a few days to realise these guys were the default thing with yellow on and like the Gnatcatchers the penny had dropped prior to this that the yellow flashes I saw at Dagny Johnson SP were these guys. Less expected was another warbler with a spike-like, slightly decurved bill. It was pied, save for a yellow-throat which means that it must be a Yellow-throated Warbler. A Black-and-white Warbler failed to pose for shots and my second Great Crested Flycatcher of the trip scoots through the treetops.
Loggerhead Shrike

A couple of the Red-winged Blackbirds
Suddenly it was all happening, my heart was hammering as it started to rain lifers, Red-throated Vireo, followed but not one but two Ovenbirds in the treetops before dropping, pipit-like into the crop nearby. A Queen Butterfly, a close relative of the Monarch was floating past as a golden apparition appeared above me. Possibly my most wanted warbler of them all, a Prothonatary Warbler in all its citrine loveliness was above me, one of a vanguard of migrants that were reported across the state that day. My pishing began to lose its effect as the birds bored and moved off to forage. This however was hardly a day done. A Great Egret and the first Turkey Vulture of the day suggested other birds were starting to leave their roosts and I headed west. I stopped short of the park entrance as I watched a trio of Swallow-tailed Kites sallying over fields, weightless, before edging, slowly north out of view. These are truly magnificent raptors and this is my excuse for failing to pap them effectively as I was enraptured by them dancing in the breeze. So enraptured, I failed to notice an Alligator that was below me in the canal. Its explosion across the water due to my looming presence on the bridge was thankfully no more than a shock before it sunk into the weeds.

Not a good photo of a Swallow-tailed Kite
You might have guessed by now that this post is neither comprehensive nor chronological and I will post a checklist for the whole trip shortly. This however is a brief bit of intact chronology as I moved along to the Anhinga Trail. Few herps were doing which is probably for the best from a birding point of view. The Anhinga trail is known for excellent views of Alligators and waterbirds but this morning an obscured gator under the boardwalk was unremarkable, however there were birds present as a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers shouted like delinquents at each other and stayed remarkably well hidden until they broke cover to fly. A Green Heron squawked as it left its hiding place in the reeds only to be followed by a second bird. A buteo swirled up from its overnight resting place. I couldn't immediately place it as it wasn't an obvious Red-tailed or Red-shouldered Hawk. Upon closer inspection it was a light morph Short-tailed Hawk which aren't as short-tailed as the name suggests. As it rose I noticed clouds of Black Vultures overhead, hundreds of birds evacuating to the stratosphere, joined by a handful of Turkey Vultures the odd Osprey and a dark-morph Short-tailed Hawk. The kaleidoscopic form rose higher until it was barely visible and then birds peeled off in all directions to forage over the river of grass.
Lots of Black Vultures
Dark morph Short-tailed Hawk
The penultimate bit of birding I am going to recount comes from several visits to the same place, Flamingo. At the end of the Everglades NP road is Flamingo. A small quay either side of a lock with one direction heading out into the lagoons and mangroves and the other heading along a 'freshwater' canal. Away from here is the Campground although why you would camp there god only knows as mosquitoes gather in billowing clouds over the grass. Here however is some of the best birding in the park. Ospreys breed at high densities, raptors circle and shorebirds forage. The swamps held foraging parties of Snowy Egrets with Tricolored and Little Blue Herons hidden in their midst whilst my only Reddish Egret of the trip was on the shoreline along with my lifer Least Tern and Black Skimmer. Waders were also thick on the ground with Black-bellied, Semipalmated and a lifer Wilson's Plover mixed in with flocks of Willets. Fresh water pools from the afternoon deluges held Black-necked Stilts, Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs. Overhead amongst the vultures a squadron of American White Pelicans flew out to sea. I imagine there were other things but here I also got distracted by newly fledged Turkey Vultures sitting en masse atop the toilet block I was using as a screen and equally fresh Red-shouldered Hawks sat on posts around the grounds. I'm sure I have forgotten something but each time I reached Flamingo it was flaming hot and the humidity was nearing 100%. Usually I was nursing some freshly purchased ice cream or soft drink, attempting to replace the fluids or top up the sugars from my exertions. And of course none of this even touches on the Manatees or the Crocodile.

Solitary Sandpiper

Turkey Vulture lounging on the loo

Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk
My final little tale is of Pay-hay-okee watchtower. My first visit saw distant Red-tailed Hawks and rather closer Red-bellied Woodpeckers. An American Redstart was scant compensation for a near miss. Two non-birders came and grabbed me and tried to show me but it was gone. Slipped into the flooded hammock, unseen so I went back to watching Florida Gars and invasive Plec catfish whilst listening to the odd tunes of Pig Frogs. I returned the following day with the kids and a funny feeling that provided nobody spotted it before me that day I may get lucky and show the kids. My wife and Isabelle raced to the tower whilst I showed Abby a turtle and some fish. I didn't climb the tower but paused on the stairs to look below it. A Barred Owl stared back and this chubby Strix duly sat, largely oblivious and certainly unbothered to the stream of admirers. Once my family had their fill of the large owl, eight-foot below the tower, my daughter took great delight in showing other tourists but despite this the owl sat, unflustered. It really was awesome. Eventually we left it in peace. 

Barred Owl. The first view.


Eastern Kingbird
Great Egret
There are a few other anecdotes and plenty of other birds but really this is the essence of the trip and I loved it. Florida, I will return.

Brown Pelican

Red-shouldered Hawk
Little Blue Heron

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