Back to Florida – 39 Years Later

There will be several blog posts about my trip to South Florida.  This entry starts things off with an overview and then others will be more focused about segments of the trip or special bird groups or stories.  First some personal birding history and context.

I have been birding now off and on for 47 years, starting way back in law school days in 1970 in Palo Alto when I was 23 years old.  How is that possible?  I don’t feel that old, but pretty soon I will be 70 and the math then says 47 years.  Wow…  I first birded in California and then had great Eastern U.S. birding in Maryland and Delaware during an externship in Washington D.C. in 1972.  I moved to Seattle 1973 and explored our state’s diverse habitats and wonderful birds.  As I became more serious and found others to share the experience, the lure of birding meccas like South Texas and Southeast Arizona resonated strongly.   I traveled to South Texas in November 1975 and added great birds like Green Kingfisher and Brown Jay among many others.  There were then lots of new birds from two trips to Southeast Arizona in December 1976 and then again in June 1976.  Such fun.

Green Kingfisher – First Seen in 1975 – Photo from 2013

Green Kingfisher[1]

Thanks to a ridiculously cheap airline deal from now-defunct Eastern Airlines, in April 1978, I joined three Seattle friends on a trip  that included a return to South Texas and then my first visit to South Florida – the Everglades, the Keys and the Dry Tortugas.  Fabulous birding with lots of specialties and when the trip was over, my ABA List stood at 545 species.  (And that Airline promotion where you could go ANYWHERE in the Eastern Airlines route system for a total of $299 so long as you did not retrace any segment – also allowed my first international as we visited the Asa Wright Center in Trinidad.)

Asa Wright Nature Center Trinidad


Over the next ten years other commitments and interests diverted me from serious birding although there were some great birding days add-ons to international trips that were for business or vacation.  Great birds in Hong Kong and Argentina and Japan and Jamaica but no more trips within the US to add ABA birds.  And of course, this was before personal computers, cell phones, Ebird and digital photography.  How different it is today.

Life and birding changed greatly with the addition of two great kids and birding was at best sporadic.  A vacation trip to Jamaica with them in 1997 added almost 100 worldwide species but the focus was not birding.  Then nothing for 5 years.  A trip with my daughter to Hungary allowed me a half day of birding in 2002 added another 50 species.  The kids were getting older now and I took my first “mostly birding” international trip – to Australia – in 2003. Over the following dozen years I traveled to and did some (or lots of) birding in Brazil, Kenya, Belize, India, Peru and South Africa.  There was lots of birding in Washington starting again in 2011 but in the 29 years from that Eastern Airlines extravaganza until then, I had added a grand total of 29 birds to my ABA Life List – essentially one a year.  By contrast I added more than 1500 species to my World Life List during those years – not to reach a goal – just enjoying birds in some wonderful places.

Galahs – Australia 2003


Hyacinth Macaws – Pantanal – Brazil 2005

Hyacinth macaws 4

Hoopoe – Kenya 2007

54 Hoopoe

There would be more international birding after 2011, but that was when interest was refocused onto birding in Washington, spurred by Dennis Paulson’s terrific Master Birder Class through Seattle Audubon and the advent of Ebird and Tweeters and digital photography.  In the beginning of 2010 my state list for Washington was barely 200 species.  That quickly changed and especially after a State Big Year in 2013 and a Photographic Big Year in 2015 that list more than doubled.  One result is that it has become harder and harder to add new state birds – maybe it was time to pursue other challenges…like improving my ABA List and taking photos of as many ABA Birds as I could including all of those birds in Texas and Arizona and Florida from those many years ago.

That is the introduction – albeit a very long one – to this Florida trip.  After trips to Texas,  California, Colorado and Alaska and all that Washington birding over the past few years, I had gotten my ABA list up to just under 670 species and I had photos of almost 540 species.  I set a goal of getting to that magical 700 ABA list and to 600 ABA species with photos.  The biggest opportunities for additions to both lists would be return visits to Florida and to Arizona.  Birding pal Frank Caruso was also looking to add to his ABA list – hoping to get to 700 himself – which would require adding about 20 species.  He had not birded much in South Florida, so he was eager to go there – and to Arizona as well.

I found a trip to the Keys and the Dry Tortugas offered by the Tropical Audubon Society out of Miami and also got a referral for an excellent guide in the area, Paul Bithorn, who had guided Ann Marie Wood a couple of years ago.  And coincidentally, Paul was a co-leader on that Tropical Audubon Society trip.  Arrangements were made and we were set to go.  A red-eye flight to Miami arriving early on Tuesday April 25th, bird with Paul for 2.5 days then off to the Keys on Friday the 29, to the Dry Tortugas on Saturday the 30th and then back to Miami with them on May 1st.  Two more days with Paul heading north to Central Florida and then a day on our own to clean up whatever had been missed in the Miami area before heading home.

Paul Bithorn – Florida Guide Extraordinaire – at Tomb of Leslie Nielsen

Paul and Leslie Nielsen

Although I would do it differently if planning it again, the trip was great.  It is hard to imagine two places as different as South Florida and Western Washington.  Both areas suffer from way too much traffic, but that may be the only similarity.  South Florida is hot and humid – temperatures were in the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s and humidity was always over 90 percent.  I don’t see how anyone can live with that day to day.  We may have rain in Seattle but it is spread over months.  South Florida has even more rain but mostly in concentrated downpours (often accompanied by thunder and lightning).  On our last day in Central Florida, it rained for many hours, often so hard that vision was almost zero.  I would guess there was more rainfall in that 4 hour period than we get in Seattle in our wettest month.

And of course the ethnic mix is completely different.  Paul thought that 75-80% of the population is Latin American.  Sometimes it appeared that English was the second language with Spanish everywhere.  A few Asians but almost nothing compared to our many ethnic Asians and South Asians here in Seattle.  Restaurants reflect that difference.  In both places there is an abundance of water and boats.  In South Florida, there is the open ocean and numerous canals and channels.  We have our lakes and the Sound.  We fish for Salmon.  They fish for a great variety of salt water species including Dolphin (Mahi Mahi), Redfish, Marlin and many others.  We each have our crabs and each are expensive at restaurants wherever.  Architecture is very different.  Seattle is both more traditional and more modern with hardly any stucco which is common in Florida.

The topography is starkly different.  Florida starts out flat and gets even flatter.  Forget mountains, there aren’t even any hills.  Especially away from the water on the coast, I found it endlessly boring.  And the plant life is completely different as well.  Many exotics, lots of flowers and mangroves and more mangroves.  Some pines and some hardwoods but completely different from our Northwest Forests or even the hardwood forests of the East or the Cottonwoods and such in Eastern Washington.  And of course the animals and the birds are very different as well.  Reptiles and amphibians are plentiful: lizards, frogs, turtles, snakes, crocodiles, anoles, iguanas and the iconic alligators abound and we saw many.  We saw a few deer (endangered Key Deer) but there are no elk or mountain sheep or goats or moose.

Most importantly for us the birdlife is very different.  Washington and Florida have similar numbers of species on their official state lists with Florida having maybe 20 more.  There is of course some overlap but even a quick count suggests there are about 170 species seen in Florida that are either not seen in Washington or seen almost never.   Somewhat fewer birds in Washington but not seen in Florida.  It is the Florida specialties – especially those in South Florida attract birders from all over the U.S. and the world.

And the birding scene in Florida is in flux as escapees that are colonizing, climate change and more and more birders are coming up with more and more species.  There is always the possibility of strays from the Bahamas or Cuba and it is expected that some races such as the Cuban Yellow Warbler will join more and more exotic species as recognized by the AOU/ABA.  We spent a lot of time with Paul looking for exotics – some already ABA countable and others likely to be recognized by the ABA in the future.  In essence, we wanted to stockpile some of these exotics in anticipation of that future day of recognition.

Cuban Yellow Warbler

Cuban Yellow Warbler

Not every species was seen by each of us but altogether Frank and I had just under 190 species seen including 15 exotics.  Extreme rarities included Bahamian species like Bananaquit and Western Spindalis and rarer or less common specialties included Black Whiskered and Thick Billed Vireos, Antillean Nighthawk, Snail Kite, Spot Breasted Oriole, Red Whiskered Bulbul, Common Hill Myna, Shiny Cowbird, Bridled Tern, Short Tailed Hawk, Florida Scrub Jay, Mangrove Cuckoo, Egyptian Goose, Gray Breasted Swamphen, Red Cockaded Woodpecker, Limpkin, Cave Swallow and White Crowned Pigeon.  I got pictures of  all of them except the Thick Billed Vireo.  We missed the Fork Tailed Flycatcher and Bahama Mockingbird that were seen in the area while we were there.  We also missed Audubon’s Shearwater and the very rare Black Noddy Tern on our Dry Tortugas trip.  Our success ratio was higher than expected – due to good luck, hard work and excellent guiding by Paul.

A real highlight was Frank getting his 699th and 700 ABA birds on the Dry Tortugas when he saw first a Bridled Tern and then an Antillean Nighthawk.  Both were new for me as well.  For the trip I had 18 Life Birds and 42 ABA Life Photos.  We did well.

The highlight of the trip for me was a breathtaking interaction with a pair of Swallow Tailed Kites at the Flamingo visitor area in the Everglades National Park.  I had seen a Swallow Tailed Kite on m visit in 1978 and we had seen others earlier in the trip, but this was special as one of the Kites flew by us and circled us for a good 5+ minutes often coming within less than 30 feet of me and my camera.  A couple of times it was so close that I could not focus for a photo.  I probably took more than 50 photos during the encounter, two of which are shown below.  (As an aside I took almost 8000 photos so odds were that at least some would be ok and many will be included in the blog posts to follow.  Of course many are not very good (or even worse than that) and those have already been deleted.)

I am still not sure of what and how many blog posts will follow.  Definitely one on the Tortugas and another on the Everglades.  Probably one on the exotics and another that is either a catchall or maybe two – one on specialties and one on our trip North.  This was another trip where there was the combination of good birds, good places and good people.  That is what it is all about.

Swallow Tailed Kites in the Everglades

White Tailed Kite 3a

White Tailed Kite 4


One thought on “Back to Florida – 39 Years Later

  1. Excellent post I’m glad you included the bad and the good. I loved the birds and bats in TX but that was about it. I won’t surgar coat it and glad you didn’t either. Your encounter with the snail kite must have been magical. That is one bird we dipped on in TX and really wanted to see. Photos like you got are rare with these kites! Gorgeous work. I’m envious of your snail kite another great bird. I know you saw sooty terns on tortugas funny that I saw one in TX as well maybe I don’t need to go there now 😉 kidding.

    I look forward to more of your posts on Florida. I thought it was a place I’d always want to visit for the birds I’m sure it’s worth it but humidity and traffic and other stuff you said may make me reconsider.

    I agree nowhere like the beautiful Pacific Northwest and I do love AZ and Montana hahha.

    Congrats to you both on 700 ABA birds! Incredible I’m at 631 and catching up on you ;).

    Cheers dear


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