After the long boat ride back from the Tortugas, we got to Key West around 5:15 p.m. It was still very light – and at least as far as I was concerned, there were still birds to be seen, birding to do. But this was another case where looking back, I would have done this trip differently – at least for me. There is a big difference between birding on one’s own and birding with a group; and there are big differences between groups. Trips with Audubon Societies or local Bird Clubs are different than trips with major tour companies like WINGS, Rockjumper, VENT, High Lonesome Tours or FIELD GUIDES for example. I have been on trips of both kinds with all of them and for the most part, all have been enjoyable and successful. It is important to match approaches with expectations or goals – I did not do this well this time.
Birders on the tour company tours tend to be more interested in adding new species to lists with very specific targets and are generally more intense in that pursuit. It is not that they are necessarily better birders and certainly not necessarily better or more interesting people, but they are more purposeful and dawn to dusk is the usual schedule. The two and a half days when I was birding with only Paul Bithorn and Frank Caruso were focused like that and included early morning starts, long days and late night finishes. Food was at most a second thought – grabbing what we could wherever and whenever we could – and then getting back to the birds. The Tropical Audubon Society tour was far more interested in food and where to eat it than I was. Many more hours and many more dollars were spent on food than I would have allocated and spent if I were doing this again. Nothing wrong with their way – just not what I would have chosen if asked.
So after returning from the Tortugas, we were done for the day. The same thing had essentially been the case the evening before when it took a long time to get rooms assigned and then go to what apparently was a favorite place for a long dinner – excellent food and company – but not what I would have expected on a birding tour – especially since the expensive meal was being paid for by me and not the tour itself. At least on this night it gave me a chance to do something special to commemorate and celebrate Frank’s milestone ABA Bird 700. I arranged for the restaurant to bring a whole Key Lime pie to the table with “FC 700” written on the top. You only have one chance to see your 700th species!!
The Key Lime Celebration Pie
The next morning got off to another slow start as it was “essential” that the group go to a particular deli for breakfast. Having already significantly overloaded on calories and time spent eating, I stayed outside and looked for birds – particularly hoping to finally get a photo of a White Crowned Pigeon, a specialty of the Keys. Our leader had earlier assured me that they would be “everywhere”, but we had had only a few flybys – no perched birds and definitely no photos. I did not find the pigeon but got probably my best photo of the trip of a Red Bellied Woodpecker – common enough everywhere but it had been on my “picture wanted list” at the start of the trip. Perched on the only tree in the parking lot outside of the deli.
Red Bellied Woodpecker
And another bird was present in large numbers in that parking lot Red Junglefowl – the direct ancestor of our domestic chickens. It is not a countable species, but from the numbers we saw in numerous places perhaps it may become so. There were at least 12 birds scrounging around the lot including two broods of young chicks.
At last the birding began and after a while, we finally found a single White Crowned Pigeon perched high in a tall tree and some distance away. It would be the only one perched we found and thus is the only photo for the trip. I had seen them on that 1978 trip, so no lifer, but I was glad to get the photo and appreciative of the spotting by Ed Rumberger – an appreciation that would replay later in the day.
White Crowned Pigeon
Our first main stop heading home was to Fort Zachary Taylor. A good number of migrants had been reported there earlier in the week, but it was very quiet when we birded there. The best bird was a Black Whiskered Vireo, another South Florida Specialty. I had already seen several on my visit, but one birder who had also been on the Tortugas the day before got his lifer there – always nice.
Black Whiskered Vireo (photo from the first day of my visit)
Birding remained slow most of the day. There was yet another (to me) waste of time as we went to first one and then another “must eat at” restaurants for lunch. Both were very crowded so the group moved on and finally came to a third spot for a long lunch. Given the slow birding, maybe it didn’t matter. We did find some more shorebirds – once again at the wrack line on the beach. The most common shorebirds were Least Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones. The latter are uncommon in Washington and seeing them in full breeding plumage was fun. There were also a lot of Sanderlings – abundant at times in Washington. Again it was very nice to see them in full breeding plumage – sometimes next to others still in their dull winter garb. And finally we had our first Short Billed Dowitchers for the trip.
Sanderlings – Breeding and Basic
Short Billed Dowitcher
Frank and I had looked for a Mangrove Cuckoo with Paul earlier in our trip and we had stopped once on the way down to Key West as well. We found none. We tried once more, this time at Black Point Park and Marina in Homestead. The thick Mangroves were supposed to be a favored spot for this South Florida specialty – a life bird for almost everyone there. The raucous call was played out from different apps to what was supposed to be a very responsive bird – nothing. More playback and more nothing. Then after maybe 30 minutes of failed effort, Tom Keegan came through once again. A Cuckoo had apparently flown into a Mangrove in response to the calls but had neither called back nor perched out in the open to see what was going on. It was very difficult to see from where we were, but as was often the case, Paul was able to get on the bird and was able to get me a good view through a small window in the wind blown foliage. I tried to get photos as best I could, but there was always something in the way that did not allow my autofocus to work. If I had been back 25 feet next to Ed Rumberger, the view would have been clearer and Ed’s photo is included here. Thank you Ed.
After checking my photo attempts carefully after uploading them on the computer, I found one that showed the bird poorly behind dense foliage – sufficient barely for an ID only. So I had both a life bird and a life photo. Frank and much of the rest of the group were not so lucky as the bird was just so difficult to see.
The group also visited Crandon Park hoping for some of the rarities that had been seen there, but it was really dead. Back to the Audubon Center and our trip was over. It had been good to end with the Mangrove Cuckoo even if not the best views. There definitely had been some great birds and it was good to meet some fine folks, especially the two couples, Tom Keegan and Beth Waterbury from Idaho, and Ed and Barbara Rumberger. Barbara does some incredible work with a group called Operation Smile that does reconstructive surgery for children with cleft palates all over the world. She was off to Nicaragua within days after our tour ended. All in all, 100 species had been seen by one or another of the members of the group. I include some photos of some of them – not included in earlier posts – not life birds or life photos, but great to see and photograph at any time.
Yellow Crowned Night Heron
After the three days with the larger group, it was nice to be back to the Paul, Frank and Blair threesome and to head north for some new birds. Instead of being in Paul’s car, we rented one from Enterprise. I will give a shout out to them as they were very efficient and after seeing very long lines at the other rental car companies, this proved a good choice. I was now the driver and driving in South Florida is “different”. Still way too many cars just like Seattle but the drivers are to my way of thinking much better. South Florida conjures up images of lots of old retirees who you might expect to be very careful and slow drivers. There definitely were some but much more the case was of very fast and aggressive drivers. Unlike the bane of my driving existence in Seattle, here the left lanes really were used for passing and faster drivers. Speed limits on the major highways were 65 or even 70 and if you were not going at least 7 miles faster than that (and sometimes even 10 or 15 mph faster), you better get out of the way. Have to admit, that had great appeal – both to join in but moreso because there were just not many out in the left lanes slowing things down.
Our targets heading north were Florida Scrub Jay, Bachman’s Sparrow, Red Cockaded Woodpecker, Crested Caracara and maybe some shorebirds and a long shot – Smooth Billed Ani. The Scrub Jay and Woodpecker would be life birds for me. The Sparrow and Ani would be new photos and the Ani would be a life bird for Frank. Earlier this year I had joined Mike and MerryLynn Denny on their Owls by Day trip (See ). On that trip I had met Bruce Lagerquist who has birded a lot in Central Florida and Bruce shared some of his birding wisdom with me – it proved to be extremely helpful. Paul also knew many of the key spots and that coupled with Ebird reports gave us all we needed to know to find our birds. It was more than a three hour trip to get to this new area so it was already midday when we got to our territory. – starting in the Three Lakes Area – one of Bruce’s recommendations. We had been in heavy sunshine throughout the past six days, but now the weather had changed with sun, clouds and showers mixed in.
The Three Lakes area was supposed to be good for Bachman’s Sparrow. Amazingly we had not seen a single sparrow of any kind during the previous 6 days – hardly like our Washington birding. We understood that Bachman’s Sparrows were shy and unresponsive so my hopes were high but expectations were low. Frank, with his ever keen ears was the first to recognize a “different song”. We compared it to our Bachman’s Sparrow recordings and it was very close – we had our bird – but where was it? Hardly shy and quite responsive, first one and then another responded to our playback and one came in for my first ever photo.
We understood that Whooping Cranes could be found in this spot, but that apparently is no longer very likely as the population has diminished significantly and maybe even disappeared. I have missed them in Texas twice, so it would have been wonderful. Sadly we found only Sandhill Cranes.
We did not pursue specific other targets in the immediate area but kept our eyes open for anything new. We heard the distinctive call of Northern Bobwhites but did not locate any birds. As with every other place in Florida, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Boat Tailed and Common Grackles and especially Northern Mockingbirds were abundant. We also had more Red Shouldered Hawks, Swallow Tailed Kites, Black and Turkey Vultures, our first Bald Eagle, Eastern Meadowlarks, a singing Carolina Wren, our first Osprey, another Limpkin, lots of Cattle Egrets and a small group of Snail Kites.
We headed for a spot near Vero Beach that Bruce had said was a sure thing for Florida Scrub Jay. Along the way, we had another Snail Kite, 4 Swallow Tailed Kites and another Short Tailed Hawk. We found our spot, the Wabasso Scrub Conservation Area in Indian River County. The last half mile before arriving did not look like a place you would want to visit alone or at night and when we arrived at the park, two cars pulled off and we immediately thought drug transaction – definitely not birders. A jay appeared – but unfortunately only a Blue Jay. I went out exploring and found a path leading into a sandy area. Not too far in I played the Scrub Jay call, and there was an immediate response and a Florida Scrub Jay flew right over my head and perched near the top of a short tree. Not a perfect photo, but a life bird and life photo nonetheless. Then without any further prompting on my part, it flew down and landed literally at my feet less than 5 feet away on the sand. I actually had to back up to get it sufficiently far away to take a much better photo.
Florida Scrub Jay
Frank had not originally followed on this path but quickly did so and found the Scrub Jay when I returned with the news. We were two for two now on our pursuits so far and a Red Cockaded Woodpecker beckoned. It was getting late and the weather was threatening but we headed off to the St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park – another of Bruce’s can’t miss spots. By the time we arrived, it was getting dark – a little bit from the hour but moreso from very dark skies portending rain and possibly thunder and lightning. The preferred habitat for the Red Cockaded Woodpecker is described as forests with little underbrush and few trees except for tall pines. This area looked perfect.
Pine Woods at St. Sebastian State Park
Frank and I started down the trail looking for white markings on trees that would indicate that nests were at hand. We saw none and the skies continued to darken. We heard some chattering and Frank saw some small birds fly and concluded they were more Brown Headed Nuthatches. Since he had already seen Red Cockaded Woodpeckers and did not need one as a life bird as I did, and probably also being much wiser when came to the danger of lightning strikes, Frank headed back to the car.
I carried on and in another 100 yards or so was pretty sure I was hearing the Woodpeckers. The chatter was coming from a spot that looked like it was across a ravine or even a small stream. As I approached, I got a glimpse of one woodpecker in flight. I had already seen a Red Bellied Woodpecker, but this looked different and when the chatter continued I was certain it was a Red Cockaded. It turned out that the ravine was both shallow and dry and when I crossed it, just ahead of me two black and white woodpeckers flew in together. I had the targeted Red Cockaded Woodpeckers. The light was terrible so the resulting photos were pretty poor, but there was no question about the ID.
Red Cockaded Woodpeckers
I looked hard for some red on the head of the birds and found none – and figured maybe it was just the poor light. Later at home, I looked at better photos on the Internet and even on the best of them, the amount of red was tiny so no surprise none was seen under the conditions I had in the field. See the photo below.
Red Cockaded Woodpecker with Red Showing (from the Internet)
I high tailed it back to the car and got in just as the thunder and lightning started and it poured. It would have been worth it to get wet – but I was very happy to have avoided that. Paul’s brother lived fairly close and he had graciously offered to put us up for the night. After a very effective day of birding with two new life birds for me and an additional life photo, it was nice to relax – have some carry out Chinese food for dinner and get to bed early.
Hoping for a better view of these Woodpeckers, we returned to St. Sebastian the next morning. We were greeted by very loud “Bob – White” calls. My ears directed me in the direction of a distant pine tree and sure enough, a male Bobwhite was sitting on an open branch calling frequently.
Frank soon also picked up a recently familiar call. We were hearing and then seeing several more Bachman’s Sparrows. And then another familiar call – the “pe-ent” of a Common Nighthawk. Often heard flying during the day, none of us had ever heard one call from a daytime roost before, which this one seemed to be doing – quite a surprise. Just as I was about to snap a photo, it flew off the exposed limb of one tree and flew a mere eight feet to the next tree. None of us had seen a Nighthawk do this before. This time it remained still for a photo.
We walked towards where I had found the Red Cockaded Woodpeckers the previous day. A large raptor flushed and flew silently away from us. Not a great look but we were 99% sure it was a Great Horned Owl. Maybe its presence explained why we were not able to find the sought after woodpeckers. We did get looks to confirm that Frank was right about the Brown Headed Nuthatches the day before. We also had Pine Warblers and Eastern Towhees and then a Tufted Titmouse calling. The latter is a common bird in the right habitat but I had never gotten a photo so was quite disappointed when I was unable to coax it in for a picture. Unfortunately unlike the previous day, no Red Cockaded Woodpeckers were heard or seen. More Bachman’s Sparrows and that was it.
Another Bachman’s Sparrow – Not Secretive at All
How strange that before coming to Florida, I had my doubts about seeing a Bachman’s Sparrow. Not only had it proved easy to find but also easy to photograph and just like the Laughing Gull was our only gull of the trip, the Bachman’s Sparrow was our only sparrow. Amazing…
We were running out of target birds. I was interested in a Red Headed Woodpecker – needing a picture, and we were both interested in a Smooth Billed Ani – Frank as a life bird and me for a life photo. Since there were lots of places where I might find the woodpecker, but this was the only likely area for the Ani, we decided to concentrate on that. First however, I had found an Ebird report of a seemingly extraordinary shorebird spot – not on a wrack line but a more traditional area of mudflats. Best of all, the report had included two White Rumped Sandpipers, a species that was on my wanted photo list. Literally hundreds of shorebirds were reported so off we went to try to find Lake Poinsett and its smaller arm, Lake Florence, in Brevard County. It was a ways off, really off the beaten path and a bit hard to find – and the weather was definitely turning for the worst with more thunderstorms brewing but when we arrived, there were shorebirds indeed. Lots of them. Hundreds of them.
The problem was that the mud flats were both large and hard to access as we were afraid to drive the car out onto obviously soft ground – and it wasn’t going to be easy to walk out closer either. From the car we could see that there were Dowitchers, peeps, Black Necked Stilts, Semipalmated Plovers, and Yellowlegs. There were also some sandpipers that were larger than the peeps and at least one that sure looked like it had a white rump when it flew. The challenge was going to be how to identify specific species. And then the birds all took off – flying left and right. In Washington, when this happens we generally look for a Peregrine Falcon or an Eagle on the hunt. Sure enough we found two immature Bald Eagles on the flats.
The birds resettled but now were more scattered on the sizable mudflats. And then the rain came – not a light rain – a downpour – making wet ground even wetter. I waited it out and then could not resist and got Paul’s scope and ventured as far out onto the soft ground as I could. With the aid of the scope, I could identify 150+ Semipalmated Sandpipers, 46 Semipalmated Plovers, a half dozen Least Sandpipers, both Short and Long Billed Dowitchers, 35 Lesser Yellowlegs, 4 Greater Yellowlegs, 5 Black Necked Stilts and 15 Stilt Sandpipers. Each of those numbers was probably conservative and there had seemed to be many more individuals than that before the Eagle scare. And there was one “large peep” that I was pretty sure was the White Rumped Sandpiper that we had seen before. It was a bit larger than the peeps almost as large as the Stilt Sandpipers but with a less erect posture. It had relatively long wings. Mostly brown, it had indistinct spotting on its breast and a bit of a white eye stripe/supercilium. The bill seemed a bit longer than the Semipalmated Sandpipers but much shorter than the Stilt Sandpipers and with at most a very slight droop. The legs were dark. The feather scaling on the back seemed smaller than the Semipalmated’s as well. Unfortunately it was pretty far out and the light was terible. Never have I more wanted a bird to fly but it never did so no chance to see the rump. Was this the White Rumped Sandpiper? Paul was convinced that it was. Two had been reported here two days ago. Probably was, but it sure would have been nice to get a for sure photo. The only two even half way decent photos of any shorebirds were from before the deluge (and the gray skies that remained afterwards) and before the birds moved further away – one of a Stilt Sandpiper and one of a Lesser Yellowlegs.
It was time to go – to try for an Ani. In the vicinity we also had a Dark Phased Short Tailed Hawk (seen from car on highway only), a Wood Stork, Snowy and Great Egrets, Tricolored and Little Blue Herons and a Roseate Spoonbill. We kept looking for a Caracara and finally found one perched on a pole as we sped by – with more rain. We were heading to Stormwater Treatment Area 5/6. Paul had had Ani’s there in the past and one was reported from a few days earlier. A remote and pretty unattractive spot. Another long drive and with lots of very heavy rain – not fun at all. We arrived and there was bad news and more bad news. The entry gate was closed and it was raining – hard. Walking in was still a possibility but not in that rain. When one of the workers left through the gate we showed him a photo of the Ani and he said – “Oh yeah, see them all the time.” Indeed the habitat looked perfect – so we decided to wait out the rain and walk in. After 30 minutes, we got a sufficient break to give it a try. There was a lovely but wet Loggerhead Shrike and lots of Black Vultures, wings outstretched to dry off from the rains but no go for a Smooth Billed Ani. And then the rains returned. We left in defeat.
The return to Miami was in some of the hardest rains I have ever seen. We worried about hydroplaning and even seeing the road. The biggest dangers were the drivers who remained on the highway but toodling along at 30 mph when the rest of us were doing 60 or more. At least some of them had their lights on. And when we got back to Miami – the rain stopped. We were exhausted. A last dinner with Paul and then our good byes. We had run out of birds, stories to tell, jokes to share and roads to travel. It had been wonderful.
Paul, Frank and Blair (and yes Frank got a lot of grief about his Pats shirt)
Our flight was not scheduled to leave until the next evening and we still had the car, so the next morning Frank and I – alone in Florida for the first time – headed back to the Black Point Marina with hopes of a much better Mangrove Cuckoo experience. Just as in our previous visit, we quickly heard Prairie Warblers but now there were other sounds as well – including a number of very active Northern Flickers. We had heard a couple and seen one at distance earlier in our trip but unlike in Washington, they seemed to want no part of us and remained distant. I wanted a photo of the Yellow Shafted form that is dominant in the East, but it had not been possible to get one. This morning they seemed to be everywhere – drumming and calling and persistence finally paid off and here is the photo. Still at distance and highly magnified but the black mustache is clear. Our Western Red Shafted forms have a red mustache.
Northern Flicker – Yellow Shafted Form
So much for Flickers what about Cuckoos? Also unlike the previous visit we started to hear Mangrove Cuckoos. this time. At first there was one and then we were sure we heard two. But try as we might, we could not get them to fly in for a look. I went back to a small bridge over to a walking bath next to the channel and heard at least one more and probably two more there. They would not fly in and were not visible. Frank had a possible fly over, but it could have been a Blue Jay. We gave it our best shot for an hour plus and then called it quits – a Prairie Warbler photo our best souvenir.
It was getting hot – really hot – and really humid again as well. Crandon Park had been so good to us, so we decided to give it one more try – our last birding in Florida. For the fourth time, we hiked out along the Osprey Trail. We were tired and our energy was disappearing – and it must have been the same for the birds – almost nothing was there to be found. There were more birders than birds and all had the same story – nada. We left – returned the car to Enterprise – again a shout out to them for making everything so easy – and then checked in many hours early for our flight home.
The return flight was almost as bumpy as our boat ride to the Tortugas which was already seeming like a long time ago. It had been a great trip. As with most trips there were surprises, some disappointing misses and many more happy “gets”. Frank’s 700th ABA Species was certainly a highlight – especially such a great bird as an Antillean Nighthawk. The close encounter with the Swallow Tailed Kites at Flamingo remained my most magical moment. The Bananaquit and Western Spindalis at Crandon Park the biggest surprise rarities. I don’t expect I will be back that way anytime soon and I sure wouldn’t want to live there, but the birding is extraordinary and it is a must see place to go if one is serious about birding. If Paul Bithorn is available – grab him as a guide. He will get you your birds. I just hope he takes care of his knees so he can continue to walk the trails etc.
It is a little odd ending this blog post at the end of this trip as there are at least two and maybe three more that need to be written to recount the experiences and birds of the trip. That won’t happen for a few more days as Washington birds beckon. It is fun to relive the trip as I write and I know I will return to re-read this post later and relive the moments again. Thanks to all who made it possible.