It would be impossible to think of a birding trip to South Florida without thinking of the Everglades. Everglades National Park was founded in 1947, the same year I came onto Planet Earth. It is a World Heritage Site that comprises over 1.5 Million Acres – more than 2,500 Square Miles – of primarily wetlands. There are two basic seasons – the wet and the dry. The Everglades conjures up images of thousands of birds perched on every Mangrove and flying all about. To the extent that is true, it is only true during the dry season.
We were there at the beginning of the wet season and there sure weren’t many birds. Although this was noticed elsewhere in South Florida as well, the mental image of the bird thick Everglades was so far from our reality, that I have to admit to a great disappointment. As will be apparent later in this post, this day had my very most favorite experience of the week – sufficient to justify any birding trip. And there were some birds, including some good ones, but just not much to write about. While all of South Florida is flat, flat, flat, the Everglades seem to define that characteristic. Visually just not much of interest with mile after mile of Mangroves and low lying land. We drove over the lowest “Pass” in the U.S. – Rock Reef Pass – Elevation 3 Feet above sea level. It seemed like we drove many miles on the same road and then came to Dwarf Cypress Forest – Elevation 4 Feet above Sea Level. Did I mention “FLAT”.
If most of the Everglades trip was disappointing, the start of the day was exactly the opposite. As will be seen in another blog post (I am not doing them chronologically), our first day in South Florida had included a rarities chase at Crandon Park, near Miami on Key Biscayne. I will not detail that here except to say that in addition to a couple of other great birds, we had chased and missed a Bahamian rarity – a Western Spindalis. I don’t know what a Spindalis is, but it was formerly called a Stripe Headed Tanager and since most Tanagers are pretty striking, one would expect a good looking bird. Before heading south to the Everglades, our guide Paul Bithorn took us back to Crandon and we began the search again. I was the lucky one that first spotted the Western Spindalis in the thick brush and was able to get a photo with only a few branches in the way. Probably the rarest ABA bird for the trip, it was a welcomed Lifer for both Frank and me.
Western Spindalis – Crandon Park
At Cutler Bay on our way to the Everglades, we had another sought after species. Not rare here, but definitely not in the Northwest, many Cave Swallows darted about by and under a bridge. Too far and too active for any great photos, but still a new ABA photo bird for me.
The heat and humidity increased as we got into the Park. I believe it was the hottest day of the trip with the temperature reaching 95 degrees and the humidity was not far behind. One bird that was at least easy to see was a crow – and here, many if not most of the crows were our familiar American Crow as opposed to the Fish Crows that were seen on the coast around Miami. The Fish Crow appearance was a little different but as Sibley suggests, the only reliable way to distinguish them is by voice. To me that was pretty easy to do.
American Crow and Fish Crow
Where we found some hardwoods or pines we found some birds. These included Brown and Great Crested Flycatchers, Gray Kingbirds, Catbirds and a few Warblers. I was happy to get my first ABA photo of a Pine Warbler.
Brown Crested Flycatcher
And another welcomed find was a Brown Headed Nuthatch. Before leaving for Florida, I had visited the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum, Washington. I had Red Breasted, White Breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches on that visit, so this made it a Nuthatch Grand Slam. It also provided another ABA Photo Lifer.
Brown Headed Nuthatch
A little later we finally found a much sought after bird of note. We saw a soaring hawk that was very white below and seemed fairly small. We had seen numerous Red Shouldered Hawks but this was different. It proved to be our first Short Tailed Hawk of the trip – a Life Bird for Frank and a photo for me. BUT…unfortunately as I was editing and transferring photos, I somehow deleted this photo. We saw other Short Tails later in the trip in central Florida but we were not able to stop on the roads to get photos then so I borrow an internet photo here.
Red Shouldered Hawk
Short Tailed Hawk (not my photo)
I was not aware of it at the time, but when I got out of the car to get a photo of the Short Tailed Hawk my hat had blown off and was not with me when I returned to the car. It was not until many miles later at Flamingo that I realized it was gone when I looked to put it on as we stepped out to look at some shorebirds – finally some shorebirds as they had been missing until then. It was only then that Frank recalled that he had seen it on the ground – oh well too late now.
Shorebirds in Florida were found on the wrack line and not on mudflats – or at least that was our experience until much later in the trip. At Flamingo we found several species with the best – at least for us being a Wilson’s Plover. I had seen a very rare one in Washington in 2012 at Grayland Beach State Park and gotten good photos, but this was still a welcomed find. At the same area we also had Least and Western Sandpipers, a Black Bellied Plover, a Spotted Sandpiper and Sanderlings.
We also found what at one time was called a Great White Heron and was considered a separate species. Now it is recognized as the white form of a Great Blue Heron. If the ABA changes its mind and splits it off, I will have it covered.
Great Blue Heron – White Form
The Flamingo “Visitor Center/Primitive Campground” is a particularly depressing part of the Park. It was devastated by a recent hurricane and it does not look like any dollars have gone for restoration. People may pay attention to such things, but fortunately birds do not. In fact it is one of the most likely places to find Shiny Cowbirds – a Life Bird target for both Frank and me. There were maybe two dozen Cowbirds at Flamingo. No shining males but Paul was pretty certain that one drab darker all brown bird with a somewhat pointy bill was a female Shiny Cowbird.
Shiny Cowbird Female
Then the highlight of the entire trip happened as we were leaving Flamingo. We spotted a Swallow Tailed Kite soaring to our left. We had seen one the day before, but as I jumped out of the car, I could not have planned what followed any better. The Kites ( a second one appeared as well) put on a spectacular aerial display swooping up and down and circling us and then sailing right near me, coming within no more than 30 feet. I kept the lens on it as best I could and kept the shutter snapping. I probably took 100 pictures, so the odds were good that some would come out. I include many here and you can be the judge.
Swallow Tailed Kite
Although I had seen a Swallow Tailed Kite on my trip to Florida 39 years ago, I of course had no photo and getting one was maybe my number one goal for this trip. I was overwhelmed by this experience – simply as good as it gets just to watch these graceful birds in flight. The pictures were way beyond expectation or even dreams. We would see others later on our trip – including one group of 4, but nothing came close to this encounter.
When I finally got back into the car after the love affair with the Kites, I felt a little pain on the top of my head. Having no hair there, I ALWAYS wear a hat either for warmth or for protection against sunburn. In the blazing sun that day, being hatless meant sunburn – it did not take long – and it recalled that I had stupidly lost my hat. We had to retrace steps and pass the area where it had come off. Paul was optimistic that it would still be there. I was much less so. But sure enough as we approached the area, there was a small object on the side of the road – I was united with my hat – a hat trick of sorts in the Everglades. In Hockey a Hat Trick is when one person scores three goals in a game, I guess we could count the Short Tailed Hawk, the Shiny Cowbird and the magnificent Swallow Tailed Kites as three scores and our Hat Trick here in addition to my hat reunion.
The Lost and Re-found Hat
Time to head home. Nothing new and spectacular along the way back but as we passed by a place at a marina where fishermen often clean their catch, Paul said we should look for a Black Crowned Night Heron. Sure enough, one stood by patiently waiting for a fish head or something. I could not pass up that photo.
Black Crowned Night Heron
Had it not been for the Swallow Tailed Kite display I would have had to count the Everglades as a low point of the trip – pun and double entendre intended. We had added some birds to the trip list and I got some new ABA photos, but I was not sad to leave the Everglades and the heat and humidity, It was nice to have my hat back on my head when I did. And pretty hard to beat starting the day with a Stripe Headed Tanager – oops I mean Western Spindalis – as well