No not Kansas and definitely not Seattle either. Our guide, Paul Bithorn, picked us up at the Miami Airport after our red-eye flight from Seattle and despite very little sleep, Frank Caruso and I were ready to bird. My earlier post ( wordpress.com/post/blairbirding. wordpress.com/14301) set the context for this trip and now I am writing about the actual birding. And the birds we were after are not found in Kansas and definitely not found in the Northwest. We had sent Paul a long list of target birds – ABA Life Birds for each of us and ABA Life Photo birds for me. We had a lot territory to cover and a lot of birds to see and Paul had a plan to find us as many as he could.
Adrenaline was already in our system but when Paul told us that a number of Bahamian rarities were being seen at a local park, the adrenaline increased and sleeplessness was forgotten. We headed directly to Crandon Park south and east of Miami on Key Biscayne. In addition to a Thick Billed Vireo (a notable South Florida rarity), there had been recent sightings of a Bananaquit, a Western Spindalis, and a Bahama Mockingbird on the Osprey Trail and a Fork Tailed Flycatcher had been seen at another spot within the Park. Any one of these birds would be fantastic and the possibility of more than one was beyond any reasonable expectation. There was also a good chance for migrants.
Even before getting to the area where the birds had been seen, I started picking up ABA Life photos. I would get better photos of each later, but I quickly got photos of Magnificent Frigatebird, Black Whiskered Vireo, Anhinga, Fish Crow, Black and White Warbler and Red Bellied Woodpecker. (I am not including photos of some of these because even though these were my first ABA photos of them, we saw them elsewhere (and sometimes often) and better photos will be included in other blog posts). Then I found a bird that really startled me. A quick look noted a small warbler with a striking supercilium and I thought I had a Bananaquit in a tree near the beginning of the trail. I checked my field guide and nope not a Bananaquit. It was a female Black Throated Blue Warbler. I had never seen a female before. Little did I know how valuable that misidentification would turn out to be.
Black and White Warbler (First ABA Photo)
Black Throated Blue Warbler – Female – NOT a Bananaquit
A little further down the path, Paul spied a pretty nondescript little bird that he quickly identified as a Thick Billed Vireo. It was not very cooperative for a photo but we got sufficient looks to tick the species. We had lots of warblers but mostly American Redstarts, Prairie, Palm, Northern Parula and Cape May Warblers (which was another ABA Life Photo but since I have a much better one from later in this trip, I am not including one here). Then a small bird flashed in front of me and that earlier confusion with the Blue Throated Gray female paid off. This time it really was a Bananaquit and I got photos to prove it!!
Bananaquit (ABA Life Bird)
We had been birding for at most an hour and I already had a life bird and 8 life photos. If we could get the Bahama Mockingbird or Western Spindalis, the trip would already be a big success. Other birders were looking as well and we all struck out. A surprise and treat was running into Chris Feeney – a BIG TIME ABA Lister who I had met on my trip to Adak with John Puschock last year. He too was looking for the Mockingbird. No success this day, but I learned he found it later in the week. I added a very poor first ABA photo of a Yellow Billed Cuckoo and that was it. We decided to move on and went to a different area of the Park looking for the Fork Tailed Flycatcher. Again no luck. It had moved on and was not seen again during the time we were there. But there were other goodies.
Yellow Billed Cuckoo (ABA Life Picture – poor for sure)
At a large pond, we found Egyptian Geese and Muscovy Ducks – both now recognized by the ABA as countable species. I had seen the Muscovy Duck that was either a released or escaped bird at the Kingston Ferry Terminal in Washington, but this guy was for real. Later in the trip, we would see dozens of this species. The photo here is of the first one seen. I also added ABA Life photos of Gray Kingbird and yet another countable exotic – a Common Myna.
Egyptian Geese (ABA Life Bird)
Muscovy Duck (ABA Life Bird)
Gray Kingbird (ABA Life Photo)
Common Myna (ABA Life Photo)
There was also a Swan Goose – another species I have seen in Washington – but not yet recognized by the ABA. A couple of very tame Sandhill Cranes gave us great looks and photos and we watched a Tricolor Heron fishing. As large and colorful and out in the open as it is, it is hard to believe that I first noted this bird by its call. I remembered it from India where I saw one in the wild. Here the Indian Peafowl is a domesticated bird or an escapee, but they are thriving and self sustaining in Florida, so who knows, someday they may be “countable’.
But it was time to move on. We saw birds as we went along the way, but our next stop was to be Dolphin Mall in Sweetwater, FL. This was more like “Classic Florida” – wetlands, lots of water and lots of birds. Our quarry here was the Gray-Headed Swamphen – a close relative of the smaller Common and Purple Gallinules. It took us very little time to find one – a life bird for both of us.
Gray Headed Swamphen (ABA Life Bird)
This was only to be a half day of birding and Frank and I really were pretty beat from the red-eye trip. Paul was generous with his time and we chased down a lot of parakeet species which I will detail in a separate blog post about them and other exotics. I will include just two more birds from this day – one a countable exotic and the other a Florida specialty that both Frank and I very much wanted.
The countable exotic is the Nanday Parakeet – one that is easy to identify because of its black head. The other is the Spot Breasted Oriole. Paul got both of them for us on that first day and then we had other observations of each later in the trip. Both were life birds for each of.
Nanday Parakeet (ABA Life Bird)
Spot Breasted Oriole (ABA Life Bird)
I promised i would not go into details, so lets just say that Paul kept going until the light was gone – literally. No more said – right Paul?!
With the three hour change especially after a mostly sleepless night on the flight, my body had no clue what time was what. Still there was no trouble meeting Paul for an early start for our birding. We were off to the Evergreen Cemetery chasing another reported Bahama Mockingbird and to Green Cay and Wakadohatchee Wetlands and to Loxahatchee National Wildlife Reserve. Lots of ground to cover. And exactly what is a “hatchee”?
No Bahama Mockingbird at the cemetery. It was wild seeing all of the Muscovy Ducks – faces that only another Muscovy Duck could love. Paul made sure that we saw Leslie Nielsen’s grave there.
Leslie Nielsen’s Grave (I will spare you the stories from Paul and Frank)
Too bad it was only a Northern Mockingbird that was in a nearby tree. I found a Wood Thrush at the cemetery but could not get my camera to focus and missed what would have been an ABA first photo. There will be lots of opportunities for that species photo somewhere else someday. Otherwise, it was basically more of the same regular birds.
Muscovy Duck with Young
Time to move on and we headed to Wakadohatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach which was a “classic” Florida spot to me – birds nesting in the trees and a boardwalk that got you to them. I have not said much about non-avian wildlife in these blog posts but we had lots of reptiles on our visit and this was definitely a spot with alligators, iguanas, lizards and such. I will probably cover some of them in another post but throw in an alligator picture here.
But this was a fun place for birds. The boardwalk took us up close to a number of small islands with a good variety of waders. We had nesting Wood Storks, Anhingas, Great Egrets, Cattle Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills. It was also the place where we found our first Purple Gallinule – giving me another ABA first photo – unfortunately one of the only birds we saw here that was not up close. And we had more Gray Headed Swamphens and I include another photo to compare it with the Purple Gallinule.
Wood Stork Chick
Purple Gallinule (ABA Life Photo)
Gray Headed Swamphen
While it is great to see new, rare or target birds especially life birds or life photos, it is most memorable when there is some activity that reminds us that these are real life birds in their natural environments where they eat, breed, compete and display. We had one such encounter here when two Common Gallinules were seemingly fighting each other to establish dominance – and probably to show off to nearby females. We watched for many minutes in fascination as they squared off and fought. The photo captures some of the action and shows the incredibly long toes on their feet.
Fighting Common Gallinules
Just after we watched that display we had another “magic moment” one of my favorites for the entire trip. We had just seen a Black Necked Stilt on one of the islands, our first shorebird for the trip, when I caught a small form flying across the water. Even though I have only seen the species once – more than 43 years ago – and it was moving fast – somehow my brain immediately knew what it was and I called it out. I even caught a fleeting shot of it in the camera. Not a great shot but my first ever of a Least Bittern. It had been on my want list but I was not optimistic and any shot even a poor one made me happy. And then it got way better. As we rounded a bend in the boardwalk, we saw the Least Bittern fly back behind some reeds and then move its way through some others – coming out into the open on a couple of occasions in good light for an excellent photo opportunity – and then we saw a second one – not as photo friendly.
Least Bittern – (ABA Life Photo)
Soon thereafter some more drama as we came upon an Anhinga that had speared a pretty sizable fish – a Bream. It maneuvered to get the fish into position for several moments and then swallowed it whole down its long neck. It would seemingly be enough food to last quite a while.
Anhinga with Fish
We also had a Little Blue Heron, a Tricolored Heron and a Great Blue Heron at Wakadohatchee – a really terrific place. There were not many ducks on our trip but here we had one of the best looking – a Black Bellied Whistling Duck – a species I had seen in Texas only. And another terrific place was up next as we headed to Green Cay – another wetlands with a great boardwalk – this one in Boynton Beach. On the way Paul showed us a Monk Parakeet at its massive nest. There is a small colony of these Parakeets in Yacolt, Washington where they have successfully nested but unlike here in Florida, it is not countable in my home state. It is also countable in Texas where I have seen it but this is my first photo of an ABA Countable bird.
Black Bellied Whistling Duck
Monk Parakeet (ABA Life Photo)
There was a feeder on the way in to Green Cay that Paul said often had Painted Buntings. We watched for quite a while with great anticipation hoping to see these very colorful birds and then two flew in and perched – but unfortunately they were the very drab females and no males ever made an appearance.
Painted Buntings – Females
Per the above, we did not have many ducks on this trip and the Mottled Duck we had at Green Cay sure looked drab compared to the Black Bellied Whistling Duck at Wakadohatchee. We also had a Blue Winged Teal – the only place we had either species.
Blue Winged Teal
Boardwalks are great both in providing access and also in giving birds places to roost right in front of watchful observers. These next three photos from Green Cay could not make that point any better. The first is of a Green Heron that seemed to prefer the Boardwalk railing to any of the mangroves. We saw many Green Herons here and at other stops, but this was easily my favorite photo. The second is of a young Double Crested Cormorant that never flinched from its railing post – even when one lady literally came within inches as she walked by. The third is another one of my favorites for the whole trip – a close up of an Eastern Screech Owl – an ABA Life photo. It was part of a three owl family group near a nest box.
Double Crested Cormorant – Close-up
Eastern Screech Owl – (ABA Life Photo)
We should have been very tired, but Paul kept producing more and better birds and places and we were going strong. Our next stop was to be at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Reserve, a very large reserve in Palm Beach County which supposedly is the most northern remnant of the Everglades system. We had a repeat of some of the birds seen previously but it was here that we found our first Limpkin – another ABA Life Photo – and several Glossy Ibis. We saw them in many places but the best photo of a Tricolored Heron was also from Loxahatchee’
Limpkin (ABA Life Photo)
Although it would get supplanted by an experience in the Everglades the next day, it was at Loxahatchee that we first found a Swallow Tailed Kite, a beautiful bird I had seen only once before and which was at the very top of my Photos Wanted list. I was riding high when I was able to get its photo.
Swallow Tailed Kite (Life ABA Photo – but Even Better the Next Day)
We had hoped for a Two Kite day but but we did not find our other target – a Snail Kite – well that is until just after we left the Refuge. We were on to our next spot after Loxahatchee when I saw a “form” perched on a wire out of the car window that was clearly a raptor and even at the speed we were going – looked interesting. Had it been on home turf, I probably would have assumed it was just another Red Tailed Hawk and kept going but it looked smaller – here then it most likely was a Red Shouldered Hawk, but something different had caught my eye and I wondered if we had a Snail Kite. Paul said we definitely had to find out and he did the first U-Turn he could. Sure enough it was our first Snail Kite of the trip. A Life bird for Frank and my first photo. It flew almost as soon as we parked across from it but we could watch it in flight and then as it landed on a metal post across the road.
Snail Kite (ABA Life Photo)
It was mid afternoon and Paul’s Plan was to take us to a spot where Red Whiskered Bulbul was likely. It was a small residential community and we walked through it looking for another exotic that was now established and countable by the ABA. I spoke to some of the residents out walking dogs or playing with kids – mostly to assuage any concerns about folks with binoculars and cameras in their neighborhood. Some were familiar with the Bulbuls and had seen birders there looking before. No luck at first and then we saw a pretty cool thing – sort of. Seemingly out of nowhere, a Cooper’s Hawk swooped in and picked a dark “something” off of the ground and then perched nearby. At first we thought it was a Bulbul. How horrible would that be! Check out the photo yourself – is that feathery or furry?
Shortly thereafter we found a single Red Whiskered Bulbul in a tree and I was able to get a photo. And it was a very welcomed ABA Life Bird for Frank.
Red Whiskered Bulbul (ABA Life Photo)
Not long afterwards, we had another exotic that at least as of yet is not ABA Countable – Common Hill Myna – one of many seen.
Common Hill Myna (Not An ABA Bird – at least not yet)
It had been another long and great day. We had dinner at one of Paul’s favorite establishments. Everyone was friendly and knew Paul. It was not exactly a birder crowd but everyone was welcome and we welcomed the excellent straightforward food. Then it was back to the motel – ready for the next day – off to the Everglades. We had over 100 species for the two days – many of them South Florida Specialties. Super birding!! Most definitely we were NOT in Kansas!!