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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Florida: The South, the Keys and the Dry Tortugas

2023 Narrative

In Summary

The South Florida and Dry Tortugas tour is always a success, and this year was no exception. We benefited from excellent weather, productive birding, and even a few scarcities. Starting on the Gulf Coast, the Fort Myers area hosted pinewood specialties including Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, and Brown-headed Nuthatch while nearby we had Florida Scrub-Jay. To the north, Fort De Soto offered an excellent mix of shorebirds including Snowy, Wilson’s, and Piping along with a whole host of migrating passerines. We even completed a grackle trifecta with Common, Boat-tailed, and a vagrant Great-tailed Grackle all in one day. Cutting across the infamous Big Cyprus National Preserve and into the Everglades National Park, we enjoyed everything from the endangered ‘Cape Sable’ Seaside Sparrow to West Indian Manatees. The Florida Keys didn’t disappoint with excellent views of Black-whiskered Vireo, Mangrove Cuckoo, and Antillean Nighthawk, while the Dry Tortugas offered a great selection of migrants along with Masked and Brown Boobies, Brown and Black Noddies, Sooty and Bridled Terns, and a couple Audubon’s Shearwaters from the ferry. Back in Miami, we not only skipped around town targeting the ‘exotics’ such as Red-whiskered Bulbul, Mitred Parakeets, and Spot-breasted Oriole, but we also picked up a few scarcities including La Sagra’s Flycatcher and Smooth-billed Ani. A nice surprise near the end of the tour was observing male Bronzed, Shiny, and Brown-headed Cowbirds all lined up in a row on a fence!

In Detail

Our first morning found us at Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area at sunrise. We could hear distant Sandhill Cranes calling, a couple Norther Bobwhites, and several Eastern Meadowlarks before a pair of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers came in, one offering excellent views. These were soon followed by Bachman’s Sparrow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Pine Warbler, and the local ‘white-eyed’ subspecies of Eastern Towhee. We continued north picking up Florida Scrub-Jay along the way. Near Sarasota, we birded The Celery Fields, which had a good selection of waterbirds including Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Purple Gallinule, the introduced Gray-headed Swamphen, Black-necked Stilt, Long-billed Dowitcher, Tricolored and Little Blue Herons along with Swallow-tailed Kite.

After lunch we visited Northshore Park in St. Petersburg, where a vagrant Great-tailed Grackle was recently discovered. We were able to quicky pick it out of a group of Boat-tailed Grackles and were offered great comparisons in structure and song. This gave us a grackle trifecta for the day!

Our final stop of the day was Fort De Soto, an excellent place for migrants. Here we had, among other things, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Blue and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and a selection of warblers including Cape May and Northern Waterthrush. En-route to the beach, where we would spend some time picking through shorebirds, we stumbled upon a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher that had been hanging out along the entrance road. We had no fewer than fourteen species of shorebirds including American Oystercatcher, Snowy, Wilson’s, and Piping Plovers, Marbled Godwit, and Short-billed Dowitcher. Among the flocks of gulls and terns, we also had Black Skimmers and a single Reddish Egret dancing around feeding in the water.

Before leaving Fort Myers the following morning, we headed to some nearby irrigation canals where we quickly found a couple of Snail Kites actively flying up and down a canal offering almost too-close views. A Limpkin was quietly feeding along the edge of the water.

Working our way east across Florida, we traversed Big Cypress National Preserve and a section of Everglades National Park making a few stops along the way. Some of the new additions included Pileated Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse at their southern limit, and a calling King Rail.

Once in the Miami area, we visited a small park where we quickly found a resident Spot-breasted Oriole along with our first of many Loggerhead Shrikes. After an excellent lunch at a local coffee shop, we headed to a stakeout La Sagra’s Flycatcher and after quite a bit of patience, we finally heard it and ultimately saw it well. Nearby agricultural fields didn’t disappoint, offering an Upland Sandpiper, a Common Nighthawk feeding out in the daylight, and no fewer than 550 Bobolinks flying in murmuration and landing in the fields, giving quite the spectacle. Nearby along the coast we added White-crowned Pigeon, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and a good selection of warblers including Worm-eating, Black-throated Blue, Blackpoll, and Prairie.

After dinner, we took a quick drive into the Everglades National Park, only 15 minutes from our hotel, to try out luck at some nocturnal birds. Eastern Screech-Owl and Barred Owl cooperated very well while Chuck-will’s-widow called all around us.

Having only driven through sections of the Everglades, today we spent the morning birding from the main entrance to Flamingo at the end of the road. After picking up Western Kingbird on our way in, we headed to an area that can be reliable for the ‘Cape Sable’ Seaside Sparrow. After a bit of patience and luck, we finally heard and then saw one teed up offering distant scope views. This is a very easy bird to miss. Around Flamingo we had ‘Great White’ Herons, our first of many Gray Kingbirds, and a single male Shiny Cowbird among others. After lunch and our first attempt at Smooth-billed Ani near Homestead, we started working our way through the Keys on our way to Key West.  

With a lot of enthusiasm, we boarded the Yankee Freedom III the following morning for our day trip to the Dry Tortugas. Along the 2.5-hour ride out, we had lots of Least Terns, Magnificent Frigatebirds, two Audubon’s Shearwaters, and a Bridled Tern, which flew directly over our heads. As we approached the Dry Tortugas, we began seeing many Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns flying around and due to the very calm weather, the captain circled Hospital Key offered great views of the Masked Booby colony. At least 75 were present along with a half dozen Brown Boobies.

Once on Garden Key, where the fort is located, we had four hours to explore around, and we hit the ground running. In the middle of the fort, which is a big grassy area with scattered trees and a water drip, we worked our way through the various migrants before the Merlin and Sharp-shinned Hawk found them! Although the winds didn’t produce a large push of migrants, we still had ten species of warblers, three species of swallows, Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and a good number of Indigo Buntings. Outside the fort walls, we turned our focus on Black Noddy, seeing one on the cooling docks along with several Roseate Terns.

We caught the ferry back to Key West, had an early dinner, and headed out at dusk to try our luck at Antillean Nighthawk. Of course, we drove past Red Junglefowl in Key West, which are common throughout town, before reaching our destination. Luck was on our side as we had no fewer than five Antillean Nighthawks calling and flying around well before dark including a couple passes right over our heads.

Before heading back up the Keys towards Miami the next morning, we visited Fort Zachery Taylor State Park. Migration was light, but we did find a Black-whiskered Vireo singing and were able to see it along with a Red-eyed Vireo in the same tree. After a couple more stops along the way, we had up close and extended views of Mangrove Cuckoo, which can be notoriously difficult to see.

Once back on the mainland, we paid a visit to a Cave Swallow breeding colony with the ‘Caribbean’ subspecies being represented. We then headed to the Homestead General Aviation Airport to try our luck at the Smooth-billed Ani. On the drive in we watched Burrowing Owls and had a Short-tailed Hawk flyover while waiting for the ani, which never did make an appearance. We checked into our hotel with the plans to return to the airport first thing in the morning.

With a good feeling we’d have better luck this morning, we returned to the airport and found the Smooth-billed Ani after about 30 minutes of searching. It sat partially hidden in a small tree for a long while offering extended scope views. Another highlight was seeing a male Bronzed, Shiny, and Brown-headed Cowbird all lined up in a row along the fence…not something many folks have seen!

The rest of the morning was spent bouncing around looking for exotics with Monk, Mitred, Yellow-chevroned, and Red-masked Parakeets, and Red-whiskered Bulbul among the ever so common Egyptian Geese, Indian Peafowl, and Muscovy Ducks.

Our final stop of the tour was the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, a success story involving the local wastewater reclamation facility. Here large numbers of waterbirds breed and, on this day, we tallied over 300 Wood Storks, over 100 Anhinga, and plenty of other herons, egrets, ibis, and cormorants. On our way back to our hotel, we swung by Loxahatchee where we found several Roseate Spoonbills to end the trip with some color.

Ethan Kistler 2023

Created: 11 May 2023