A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Friday, 11 August 2017

Florida Birding Trip Report - Day 7 (Miami, Key West & the Florida Keys)

With a lot to try and fit in on our trip down to the Florida Keys, we awoke bright and early, the sky still a stormy inky black and the faint call of migrating Palm Warblers overhead reminding us that despite being in the big city, nature never stops. Negotiating speed cameras and bizarre minimum speeds on the roads to Miami, we were soon at our first stop of the day – a bridge on the SW 216th Street & Ronald Raegan Turnpike overlooking the canal that is famous for its nesting Cave Swallows. Usually found across Central America and Texas, this is a difficult species to catch up with in Florida without a special visit to a known nesting colony, of which there are just a handful around the outskirts of Miami.
Cave Swallow - SW 216th Street & Ronald Raegan Turnpike, Florida
Cave Swallow - ridiculously hard to photograph!
Barely having time to admire the fluffy chicks accompanying the two adult Muscovy Ducks that came waddling up to us as we left the car, we were soon gazing upon a mass of Cave Swallows swooping under the bridge and congregating over our heads, performing in the air with incredible acrobatic skill. Speeding past us and constantly weaving through the sky, it was exceptionally difficult to photograph these agile hirundines, eventually getting the shot I was after on my last attempt out of about 200!
Cave Swallow - SW 216th Street & Ronald Raegan Turnpike, Florida
Cave Swallow - SW 216th Street & Ronald Raegan Turnpike, Florida
Cave Swallow - SW 216th Street & Ronald Raegan Turnpike, Florida
Similar to the Cliff Swallow (considerably rarer in Florida), Cave Swallows can be distinguished by their much paler throats in comparison to the darker red of the Cliff Swallow, as well the lighter coloured foreheads and lack of white patch above the bill as on Cliff.
Cave Swallow - SW 216th Street & Ronald Raegan Turnpike, Florida
Standing on the bridge and admiring these attractive swallows for around half an hour, we both marvelled every time one sped past our face before swooping down low to make a pass under the bridge beneath us. Fantastic!

Having had our fill of the Cave Swallows and with a jam packed day travelling down to the Keys ahead, we pressed on to our next site – Black Point Park Marina and the home of the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo. Mysterious and almost mythical with its hard to track down reputation preceding it, Mangrove Cuckoos are without doubt the hardest of the three species of American Cuckoos to observe, and this was a bird I was especially hoping we would be able to connect with. Sporting an attractive “bandit” style eye-mask complete with a smart curved bill and beady eyes, Mangrove Cuckoos are notoriously hard to find, often the only giveaway to their presence being an extraordinary loud call more reminiscent of a monkey!
Mangrove Cuckoo - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
The elusive Mangrove Cuckoo
Usually moving up to Florida towards the middle of April onwards, we had originally thought we were far too early to even stand a chance, but the discovery on e-bird of an individual overwintering at Black Point Park Marina gave us fresh hope. Still present during our trip and being reported from the same patch of Mangroves every time, this was our best and realistically only chance of catching up with this enigmatic species.
Mangrove Skipper - Long Key sp, Florida
Mangrove Skipper - Long Key sp, Florida
 Mangrove Skipper - an impressive resident of the mangroves at Black Point Park Marina
Arriving at the car park and strolling around the outside of the Mangroves originally drew a blank – plenty of butterflies flitting around the gnarled and twisted trunks provided us with a distraction, while our only Racoon of the trip ungainly clung to the branches in an attempt to get down from his ill-thought out perch at the top of a Mangrove.
Raccoon - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
Raccoon - Photo by Alex Jones
Black Point Park Marina, Florida
The mangroves!
A further search of the area also revealed our first Yellow-crowned Night Heron in the form of a streaked juvenile slowly crossing the road in pursuit of prey on the opposite side. 
Yellow-crowned Night Heron - Black Point Park, Florida
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Allowing us a close approach, we were really able to see the thick strong bill, and glad to finally catch up with this species after missing one at Jamaica Bay in New York the previous year, we stopped to watch as it stared intently into the Mangrove mud.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron - Black Point Park, Florida
Yellow-crowned Night Heron - Black Point Park, Florida
Turning our attention back to the task at hand, we returned to the car park where the Mangrove Cuckoo records emanated from, and before long were astounded to hear the distinctive call echoing from the trees right in front of us – now was our chance. Straining to catch a glimpse of sooty grey plumage from in-between the glossy Mangrove leaves, Alex soon called out that he had it, and a frantic few minutes of directions and trying to get me on it followed. Panicking I was about to miss our prize, I eventually locked on to this most attractive cuckoo – elegantly perched on one of the thin twigs and peering out intently. 
Mangrove Cuckoo - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
Mangrove Cuckoo - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
Mangrove Cuckoo
Moving further up the tree to the exposed branches at the top, we were treated to unparalleled views of this Mangrove specialist in full view and completely unobscured, providing us with some excellent photographic opportunities – what a bird!
Mangrove Cuckoo - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
Practically dancing with happiness at our success, we watched on as the cuckoo retreated back in to the Mangroves, losing sight of it as it blended back in to the thicket of leaves and back to a life in hiding.
Mangrove Cuckoo - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
Mangrove Cuckoo - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
Ecstatic that this Florida speciality was safely under our belts, we headed south to begin the journey to the Keys, stopping off at Florida City on route to track down the gang of Common Mynas that make the area their home. Native to the Caspian Sea region, Kazakhstan and through to the Indian Subcontinent, and having flourished in the area since being introduced back in the 1980’s, Common Mynas are, like Muscovy Ducks and Spot-breasted Orioles, fully countable on ABA checklists. Managing to eventually locate a handful of Mynas in the Starbucks and adjacent petrol station car parks, we quickly found that they had a particular penchant for Pringles, and were soon enjoying point blank views as they fed around the car.
Common Myna - Florida City, Florida
Common Myna - Florida City, Florida
Common Myna
With a 9th for the US in the form of a Zenaida Dove currently in residence at Long Key State Park halfway down the Keys, it would have been stupid not to call in and give it a shot. Usually more at home in the Caribbean and Central America, this was a mega in terms of American birding, and it had attracted a large number of birders to the area during its 3 month stay. Driving through Key Largo and the other small towns lining the Florida panhandle, the landscape noticeably changed, with shallow lagoons and Mangroves now lining the road complete with picturesque white sandy beaches and beautiful blue ocean vistas. Our first Magnificent Frigatebird of many soared majestically overhead, these pirates of the sea present in good numbers around the Florida coastline and one of the only places in America to see this prehistoric looking bird.
Magnificent Frigatebird - Florida
Magnificent Frigatebird
Arriving at Long Key, the sweltering midday heat ensured that we weren’t able to stay out in the open for long, exceptionally glad of the shade the mangroves offered. With two other birders having been searching since the early hours of the morning but with no luck, we set to work trying to track down what at times could be an exceptionally elusive dove.
Long Key Sp, Florida
Long Key viewpoint tower!
Prairie Warbler - Florida
Prairie Warbler
With a male Prairie Warbler flitting through the leaves as company and an exceptionally showy Willet on the tideline, I remembered several e-bird notes saying observers had located the Zenaida Dove by hearing rustling in the undergrowth. With several Mourning Doves feeding on the track and providing false alarms, on what was only our first proper search of the Golden Orb Trail I heard a slight movement under the nearby bushes and caught a glimpse of a tan coloured dove shyly moving through the leaves. Raising my bins, a striking flash of white on the wings unbelievably confirmed my suspicions – Zenaida! As easy as that!
Zenaida Dove - Long Key SP, Florida
Zenaida Dove!
Dodging around the bush, we sadly couldn’t get any better views as the dove was obscured by the tangle of branches and leaves, but the white spot on the wings was all we needed, diagnostic in the identification of this mega bird and in separating it from the exceptionally similar Mourning Doves.
Zenaida Dove - Long Key SP, Florida
The diagnostic white spot on the wing
Pleased with our success and the heat now getting too much, we headed on to our final location of Key West, stopping off on route to check the shore line for any interesting waders. Sadly, the small peeps running around the Mangrove bays were just a tad too distant to confirm for definite if there were any yellow-legged Least Sandpipers knocking about amongst them, and getting increasingly tired after a series of long days in the field we pressed on to our hotel for the night in the heart of Key West.

With the long day getting a bit too much and with the traffic jams heading in to Key West rendering us at a standstill, I was soon abruptly awoken from my nap by Alex shouting and pointing excitedly out of the window – “White-crowned Pigeons!” Sure enough, looking across the road bleary eyed, I soon caught sight of 4 of these beautiful and sleek pigeons perched on the telephone wires, their sooty grey bodies topped with an attractive snow white cap. 
White-crowned Pigeon - Key West, Florida
White-crowned Pigeon - Key West, Florida
White-crowned Pigeons
Migrants in to Key West and with no definite site for these impressive birds, it was sheer luck that we’d managed to jam in on them by the side of the road, and before our trip had begun we had been apprehensive as to whether we would catch up with any. Pulling over in to the entrance of the nearby golf resort where they were perched (we did cause a little bit of chaos and the beeping of horns by disgruntled golfers), we were able to get much closer views of this Florida Keys speciality and reel off a few photographs.
White-crowned Pigeon - Key West, Florida
Extremely pleased to get the White-crowned Pigeons under our belt, we re-joined the traffic, eventually reaching our hotel in the centre of Key West nestled within the palm trees and boasting a lush garden, sitting out on the balcony revealed our first Indigo Bunting of the trip, feeding on the seed on an adjacent rooftop and soon joined by a rather skittish Common Ground Dove. Several Roosters also wandered freely below, a regular sight in the town and one of the many we encountered during our stay.
Indigo Bunting - Key West, Florida
Indigo Bunting
Rooster - Key West, Florida
Rooster!
Refreshing ourselves with a truly delicious meal of orange chicken for me and Yellowtail Snapper for Alex in one of the top local restaurants, we were ready for tomorrow and one of the days we had both been looking forward to the most – our day trip out by boat to the paradise that are the Dry Tortugas islands. 
Dry Tortugas, Florida

Friday, 4 August 2017

Florida Birding Trip Report - Day 6 (Loxohatchee, Green Cay & Wakodahatchee Wetlands)

With the sun shining once again and a new day dawning, we headed up to the northern end of Miami in the hopes of catching up with what is now a very rare and unusual species in America – the Smooth-billed Ani. 
Smooth-billed Ani - Loxohatchee, Florida
Smooth-billed Ani
Found only in southern Florida in the US, Smooth-billed Anis are in fact a bird of the Neotropics, abundant throughout Central & South America and the West Indies, with Florida right on the edge of their range. Becoming a regular nesting bird back in the 1930’s, since the 70’s Smooth-billed Anis have undergone a tremendous decline, at one point even thought to have disappeared from Florida entirely. Now, there is just one known nesting pair, and still present for their second year, we couldn’t visit Florida without stopping by at Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge, the home of America’s last known Smooth-billed Anis.

Already armed with gen as to the precise location where the Anis favoured spot was in the huge marshy expanse, we barely had time to admire the beautiful butterflies fluttering around the towering cathedral like trees and vines in the car park. Zebra and Julia Heliconans gracefully manoeuvred through the trunks, while only our second Carolina Wren of the trip belted out its distinctive song from a nearby rock.
Carolina Wren - Florida
Carolina Wren
Hurrying down the gravel track alongside the canal on the very western edge of the reserve, Loxahatchee was full to the brim of bird life. Green, Tricoloured, Little and Great Blue Herons perched precariously in the swaying mangrove trees alongside Snowy and Great Egrets, while American Coots and Common Gallinules dabbled in the marshy inlets. There was barely time to stop to admire a lone American Purple Gallinule stepping gingerly across the lily pads, while Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were both in abundance, their alien-like trills echoing up through the reeds.
Tricoloured Heron, Florida
Tricoloured Heron
Double-crested Cormorant, Florida
Double-crested Cormorant
Snowy Egret, Florida
Snowy Egret
Approaching the patch of scrub where the vast majority of Ani reports had been emanating from, we kept our eyes peeled, an American photographer also joining us in the hunt. Passing off a distant black blob perched on a grass stem far across the other side of the water as just another Boat-tailed Grackle, I should have perhaps taken a look through the scope instead of binoculars. With it still swaying on the grass 5 minutes later, the realisation hit me that perhaps this bird was just a little bit too bulky and had far too long a tail to be just another Grackle. My eventual suspicions soon proved to be correct, as getting Alex to check through the scope he confirmed that it was indeed the Smooth-billed Ani – bingo! Expecting a lengthy search, we had found one half of the pair almost instantly – far easier than we had anticipated!
Smooth-billed Ani - Loxohatchee, Florida
Smooth-billed Ani - record shot!
Moving over to the other side of the water and following the track towards the patch of reeds the Ani was perched in, we approached with caution, not wanting to flush it and treading carefully in the soft grass. With the Ani now right in front of us, this unusual and prehistoric looking bird gave fantastic views as it climbed from stem to stem, the glossy black plumage standing out and the smooth, curved bill that separates it from the closely related Groove-billed Ani clear to see.
Smooth-billed Ani - Loxohatchee, Florida
Smooth-billed Ani!
Smooth-billed Ani - Loxohatchee, Florida
Smooth-billed Ani - Loxohatchee, Florida
Hopping down in to the clump of grass and out of view for the time being, the Ani clearly hadn’t gone far, the occasional rustling and movement in the reeds betraying it’s presence as it hunted for insects below. Sure enough, after a patient wait, the Ani re-emerged, clinging to a grass stem right in front of us and giving absolutely incredible views – we really couldn’t have asked for any better!
Smooth-billed Ani - Loxohatchee, Florida
Smooth-billed Ani - Loxohatchee, Florida
A great addition to our Florida trip and a bird that since I had learned were present back in 2015, had hoped would stay until we got there. With presumed nesting in the summer of 2015, it appeared this pair were nesting again, and through the course of the morning we saw both individuals together, at one point the male even bringing the female a courtship present of a large twig! Hopefully they bred successfully in 2016 and continue to delight visitors to Loxahatchee for years to come.
Smooth-billed Ani - Loxohatchee, Florida
With the Smooth-billed Anis well and truly in the bag, we drove to our next point of call, the excellent Green Cay Wetlands situated just ten minutes away. 
Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Green Cay Wetlands
This wildlife oasis is exactly how I imagined Florida to be, raised boardwalks winding through the swampy marshes below, Alligators swimming underneath and birds flying all around. 
Alligator - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Alligator - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Alligator!
We definitely weren’t disappointed – as soon as we set foot on the boardwalk we were in awe. Herons and egrets probed in the water mere metres away while American Coots and Common Gallinules dabbled below our feet. A particularly impressive Anhinga proceeded to land directly in front of us on the railings, its magnificent wings outstretched to dry off in the blazing sun while it watched us out of the corner of its beady eyes. 
Anhinga - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Anhinga
Anhinga - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
With such close views we could really appreciate the sharp dagger-like bill of this subtly beautiful bird, the sheen of the feathers bouncing back the sunlight and the contrasting black and white plumage a sight to behold. 
Anhinga - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Often known as the snake bird, it was clear to see why, and we often saw these unusual birds disappear slowly under the water, neck still outstretched and just sinking under the surface quite unlike any other water birds I’ve seen – no hint of a dive like cormorants or mergansers.
Anhinga - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Having discovered by accident through e-bird that Green Cay Wetlands held a regular and well-known roost spot of an Eastern Screech Owl, we made our way across the boardwalk to the patch of palm trees where it could usually be found sitting. 
Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Unfortunately, careless photographers had vandalised the palm tree the owl frequented, cutting down some branches and forcing fencing and warning signs to be erected to protect it. Despite this, the Eastern Screech Owl could still be found sitting on its favoured branch, and sure enough we were soon staring in to the glassy eyes of this grumpy looking owl mere metres away from us at eye level. 
Eastern Screech Owl - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Getting a series of photographs capturing its rather menacing looking facial expressions, it was great to see a species that until relatively near to travelling to Florida was looking very unlikely we would catch up with. Indeed, this pixie-like individual was our only bird of the trip, so we savoured the views of another delightful owl species for as long as we could.
Eastern Screech Owl - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Eastern Screech Owl - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
We also struck it lucky with our next new bird of the day – a single Gray-headed Swamphen sneaking stealthily through the reeds. Another introduced exotic in Miami, but again now fully countable and accepted by the ABA, Gray-headed Swamphen was previously an Asian subspecies of Purple Swamphen – only recently elevated to full species level. Differing from the American Purple Gallinules by their bright pink legs and red bills, we saw several throughout the day, including a small family party later in the afternoon at the adjacent Wakodahatchee Wetlands reserve.
Gray-headed Swamphen - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Gray-headed Swamphen
With the heat now blazing down and with very little shelter on the exposed boardwalk, birding was extremely hard work. Despite the destroyingly hot weather the lifers kept on coming thick and fast. We caught up with our first Purple Martins of the trip - a large group congregating around the Purple Martin nest boxes and soaring across the sky, swooping down to take advantage of the abundance of insect prey. 
Purple Martins - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Purple Martins
Purple Martin - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Purple Martin - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Purple Martin - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
At one point the colony set off in alarm to attack an intruding Red-shouldered Hawk, harassing it until it moved on in disgust.
Red-shouldered Hawk - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
Red-shouldered Hawk (minus eye!)
American Bittern was our next new bird; whilst sipping on the last of the juice from my bag Alex alerted me to a large heron-like individual flying right overhead across the boardwalk before dropping ungainly in to the reeds below. Exceptionally camouflaged, it took us a while to pick it out as it proceeded to creep towards us, the huge yellow eyes on constant watch as it hunted in the shallows. A great bird and totally unexpected!
American Bittern - Green Cay Wetlands, Florida
American Bittern
With the intense heat now getting unbearable and with none of our target Soras in sight, we headed to the visitor centre to cool down and take a look at the interesting native fish and reptile exhibits on display before moving on to our final point of call for the day – Wakodahatchee Wetlands
Green Cay Visitor Centre terrapin sp.
Green Cay Visitor Centre frog sp.
Green Cay had plenty of interesting reptiles and amphibians on display in the visitor centre
Our second White-winged Dove feeding underneath the bird feeder in the car park on the way out was a treat to see, and before long we were treading the boardwalks of yet another fantastic swamp reserve.

Wakodahatchee is famous for its roosting Wood Storks, and we got great views of these unusual looking birds as they tended to their nests, joined by a noisy mass of Anhingas and Double-crested Cormorants
Wood Storks - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Wood Storks - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Wood Storks - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Wood Storks
With a single Neotropic Cormorant nesting here, we failed to locate it despite checking all the nesting trees thoroughly – this species was clearly going to slip through the net during our time here.
Wood Storks - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Wood Storks - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
The nesting colony
Wood Stork - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Wood Stork - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Adult Wood Storks and juveniles were also stood obligingly around the reserve
Exploring Wakodahatchee further also revealed a number of new reptile species for us, including several Cooters and an unidentified reptile species! 
Reptile sp- Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Despite being hauled out of the water on the banks, at the time we didn’t realise there were so many similar looking Cooter species in Florida, and my quick snapshots were sadly insufficient to ID them down to species level in a lot of cases.
Cooter sp. - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Cooter sp!
Cooter sp. - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Peekaboo...
We did however manage to catch up with some more American Purple Gallinules at Wakodahatchee, this time providing much closer views than at Lake Kissimmee and even allowing some photos. 
American Purple Gallinule - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
American Purple Gallinule - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Florida Softshell Turtles were also showing really well at Wakodahatchee, floating through the murky water just underneath the boardwalks and providing excellent close up views of of their pointed snouts and huge shells.
Florida Softshell Turtle - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Florida Softshell Turtle - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Florida Softshell Turtle
The extreme temperature sadly meant our target Black-bellied Whistling-ducks were not on show during our visit, more than likely sheltering in a cool spot to escape the heat. With up to 40 showing well in previous weeks this was a definite blow. Never the less, we got great views of up to 14 Gray-headed Swamphens foraging in the reeds at the side of the boardwalk, some in family parties and putting on a great show. 
Gray-headed Swamphen - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Gray-headed Swamphens
It was here that we also had our best views of Pileated Woodpecker – a species that we had previously only seen in flight in New York – so it was fantastic to get prolonged views as this extremely large and stunning woodpecker perched obligingly on a tree across the swamp.
Pileated Woodpecker - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Pileated Woodpecker - Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida
Pileated Woodpecker
With the heat not abating and with time moving on, we decided to head back to the hotel to cool off and relax, stopping en-route to re-stock up the fridge with refreshing juice (the discovery of Ribena on the shelves made me very happy indeed). 
Miami, Florida
Enjoying a tasty evening meal of pizza overlooking the harbour, two calling flyover parakeets kept their identity a mystery as the sun set, and we headed back to the apartment ready for the next day’s mission – the tricky task of locating the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo. 
Miami, Florida 
Miami, Florida
Miami, Florida 
Miami, Florida
Miami, Florida
Miami, Florida
Miami, Florida

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