Suburbs, Sand, and Swamps
#625-#635 Kendall, Florida to Key West, Florida, April 14-16, 2014
Many people ponder “why do we list birds?” and if that can be satisfactory explained, why would we even chase birds? I heard it described as a virus, a sickness, or an addiction. But I think it is just like any other quest hobby. It is sort of a life scavenger hunt. I have met people who collect sexual encounters like us birds collect birds, although I have never heard of anyone keeping a list but I suspect there are. I have seen people collect mushrooms, mountain climbs, marathons, meals, etc. So I guess I am no more obsessed than anyone else in pursuit of a hobby.
This is a trip I had forgone last October when I had just had enough of being gone and knowing that for a non-record big year the difference between 610 and 630 wasn’t very much, so I passed. I convinced Jim to go on this now as he needed a trip and birding in twos is better than birding singly. It would be like any of our trips, hard and long, and not unlike my solo trip to Texas.
Jim had tooled around north Florida looking and getting four birds he needed that I didn’t and then picked me up at the airport in Miami after I had spent the weekend getting taxes roughed out. Jim was positive and had found a spot for target species one. We headed off and Jim took a wrong turn off the freeway and while we were making the first of many u-turns in the trip we ended up at a what would also be the first of many slow stop-lights in Florida. I’m not sure if I could tolerate Florida and the traffic. Where is everyone going?
I rolled down the window and looked through the fence into what was a corner of the airport. There on the ground feeding was a Common Myna, my first life bird to my list and I had barely left the airport! Things were looking good. These birds were released as they make popular pets but I ponder, why is there all the trade in illegal foreign exotic birds. Why don’t they come here and nab them? There are all sorts of parakeets here. It seems too easy.
We drove on a mile to the Dolphin Mall and the next spot to get an exotic that counts, a Purple Sawmphen. Why these guys were introduced in 1996 is beyond my imagination. We walked off the parking lot and in a pond edge where one, two, four, six, and finally eight no nine of them were seen. I had been in Miami and hour and had two birds, the number was 626 and counting.
The next spot was the Kendall Baptist Hospital grounds. This wasn’t exactly what I pictured but they had two ponds out front and lots of nice trees. We could hear the parakeets from the parking lot. I saw another myna on the roof. In a tree near a side entrance was all sorts of noisy Mitred Parakeets, cool, with a red face and stout bill but unfortunately not a countable species. It would turn out that wherever we went they were there. We looked for Monk Parakeets and all we found were Mitred.
It seems all the countable parakeets we could not find and all the ones we could ….could not be counted, Jim had seen Yellow-chevrons earlier in the day and they couldn’t be counted either. We hiked about in the heat and spotted nesting Egyptian geese, also not countable and put them in the ‘bank’ and went off to the University of Miami, a spot well referenced on the internet for orioles and parakeets.
Unfortunately, the University was a bust. Nothing moved even towards evening. Finally I spotted a Gray Kingbird on a powerline and got the third bird for the day, but one we’d find so it wasn’t even on the agenda.
It was a consolation prize and tiring of the campus, we drove around to find parakeets. All we found were Mitred and after dark, we gave up even finding a large roost for the birds.
It was a short night and before dawn we were back at it at the hospital. Mitreds came in and left, and I spotted a flock of White-winged Parakeets flying to the east. Then a Hill Myna sang from a palm tree and showed its pretty orange for me to allow me a nice photograph, but it wasn’t countable where the parakeets were. The Hill Myna is more striking than the Common version.
We looked around and didn’t get anything else new and went and drove the neighborhood to the north. Kendallwood is well marked as a spot for the Red-whiskered Bulbul, but despite that, it was amazing how many people stopped to see what a guy carrying a large camera was up to and looked surprised that we were birders. Jim spotted an odd bird in a tall tree and identified it is as a bulbul, I saw it but not as well and then later I turned the corner to see where it had flown to and then in a tree a few feet away I saw an oriole, a Spot-breasted Oriole, yet another exotic but countable. We watched it in the tree and then it disappeared as quickly as it left and then for contrast in a tree behind us a Baltimore Oriole appeared.
It was a block later when a small long-tailed bird, my Red-whiskered Bulbul flew over my head and to the north. I finally had gotten it. We walked around the neighborhood as the weather warmed. Jim saw a needed White-crowned Pigeon but I didn’t, then I spotted a flock of Yellow-chevroned Parakeets flying away overhead. We got back in our cars, it was eleven O’clock and in 24 hours, I had spotted nine new exotics but only five that actually counted, there were probably 8 more I could have found with four countables. Those and my Kingbird and we were sitting at 630 and with that we decided to ditch the burbs and head to the swamp to find gallinule.
There is something unseemly about chasing exotics, and I almost apologized to all the birders we ran into that we were birding exotics in the burbs..
Our first spot on the map looking for “real” birds was a place called Shark Valley where there was neither a valley elevation varied from two to three feet above sea level. There was of course also no sharks. We talked to a volunteer who had seen the Purple Gallinule but not today. We walked in the stifling heat on a trail along a ditch that they marked as a canal. We listened to White-eyed Vireos and Great Crested Flycatchers and finally saw a gallinule but the wrong one, a common. It was the only one we’d see. After two miles of hiking we packed it in and decided to enter the Everglades properly and drive to Flamingo.
We stopped at the crowded Anhinga trail and saw no gallinules of any flavor, lots of Anhinga and aggressive alligators doing the mating thing. There was a piggy Anhinga trying to swallow a large bluegill that made for a nice picture.
Tired and hot we decided to try our luck looking for a rumored Shiny Cowbird and drive on. It amazes me how non swampy the swamp looked. The whole stretch of barren nothingness from this hammock south for thirty plus miles was just grassland. It was like South Dakota. We stopped at the few ponds and found swallow-tailed kites, wood stork, but no gallinule. We got to the end and found all kinds of flying critters, which were unfortunately mosquitoes.
We walked around the Eco pond, searched the amphitheater and we did find a rare breed, a twenty year old something in flip-flops searching for the American Crocodile. I didn’t know what to think. He was looking where there wasn’t water at first and maybe, just maybe he was a reptiler, like we were birders and the croc just a tick he needed. I think I would look for lizards and crocs in better footwear myself. There were no cowbirds of any stripe anywhere but there was a swallow-tailed kite flying….
We drove around and eventually ended up at the parking area near the boat landing. I spotted some in a tree and then on the ground but after searching, alas, they were just Black-headed Cowbirds and then all I heard from my car window was cowbirds. We stopped and then I saw two fly and there were more. Soon a lot more feeding in the grass, and then in the middle of the menagerie were two male Shiny Cowbirds, unmistakable. This was a code 3 bird! I had found it, and Jim and me did a very poor high-five but we did it anyways.
We had two or three hours of sunlight left and we could have listened for Mangrove Cuckoos or walked the infamous Snake Bight trail looking for Flamingoes, or we could drive on looking for gallinule. What to do, what to do? In the end we drove back to Anhinga trail looking for gallinule. Maybe they came out in the evening?
The second trip around the trail was much like the first. We saw aggressive gators and a lone common gallinule. Then as we watched an Anhinga swallow a whole sunfish we ran into four other birders, they were also there…looking for Purple Gallinule. They had seen on the day before and talked of a great spot for Mangrove Cuckoo and also of Black-whiskered Vireo near Key Largo. In the end it was a skunk for us and for the Purple Gallinule, a very common bird, or so it seemed. We drove into Key Largo without a room to sleep in and tried the Hampton Inn. It was pricey, still spring break season but they had a room. Tired and footsore we found a restaurant and ate a nice meal of fish thinking of our buddy the Anhinga and its fish dinner, Jim was asleep before the light was even off and soon so was I.
Well, immediately in the morning we figured our intel was suspect. We passed at the site near the toll plaza and then went to the Key Largo Botanical Reserve, a spot of a recent LaSagra Flycatcher sighting and walked around looking for Mangrove Cuckoo. It soon became apparent that the cuckoo here were Yellow-billed Cuckoo NOT Mangrove Cuckoos.
We heard them and finally called one of them out. We heard nothing that even remotely sounded like a Black-whiskered Vireo and 2 miles later of hiking in 100% humidity we were no closer to a new bird. We went to Coral Reefs State park and their boardwalk trail was closed. We ran into a group of birders in a car from California. They would become familiar folks along the Overseas Highway.
In Ismerelda, we spotted Common Mynas in a Walgreens and Jim swerved to see them and pulled in the parking lot. I got a picture.
We then came upon another state park, Long Key State park, paid the fee and drove in. They had a trail and in the heat of the day, I got out and headed into the trail and shade. I saw a cardinal, visited a tree and helped irrigate it and waited for Jim. He wasn’t coming. Finally I sighed and headed back and then I heard.
“Olaf!” I saw Jim with the look, the look of a good bird.
I followed him back to the parking lot and a tree that housed vireos and it would turn out lots of them. It hardly had leaves and a few fruitlike things but the vireos came and were counted. Many of them and at least half were the scarce and key bird the Black-whiskered Vireos. I got them even on film!
The guys from California were there but nowhere to be seen so we went down the trail to find them. Tiring of the heat we came back and they had came out another way and were gone. We watched a few more and found a nighthawk sleeping on a branch in the tree. We wondered which one, Common or Antillean and happy for our bird, drove off to the south.
After burgers which Jim never seemed to be able to even eat, we stopped at two state parks, the second had good shorebirds but not a good place to see them. They had two Pipping Plovers in a throng of Semipalmated Plovers after we finally just double parked where we weren’t supposed to. Although Jim likes U-turns and quick stops on busy highways, he doesn’t like breaking traffic laws, and unlike me who considers all highway rules as mere suggestions , he obeys the signs.
It was three by the time we pulled into the Botanical Gardens on the outskirts of Key West. I was looking over a pond while Jim was getting a ticket and when I finally came in, the rather “new-aged” entry woman was obviously flirting with Jim. I almost pulled Jim aside and told him to get her number and he could call me when and where to be picked up, but good Jim was all business and today’s business was birding. If I was single, I think I’d rather be shaking up with her tonight. Women and birding can and do mix.
I was giggling for the rest of the day. She was trying to get Jim to buy a brochure on butterflies or some nonsense. I think the only person to get Jim out of his underwear birding was Thor, who got some of Jim’s home by mistake. I think Thor will laugh when he reads this. We hiked around. I easily got my needed White-crowned Pigeons, a bird seen close and nicely in Roatan so it was more of a tick than a new bird to study and a turtle which I didn’t know the species.
At five we were at Fort Zachary Taylor State park after negotiating the streets of Key West when we accidentally found ourselves driving right down the middle of Duval Street, and at Sloppy Joes, I recognized where we were, the legendary hangout of Hemmingway. I instructed Jim to take a left as I think I had been here before, I think also looking for this park. We finally found it and parked. It was soon apparent warblers were everywhere. We saw a family of birders who were on to something. I scoured the area they were looking low in some brush and then a yellow bird appeared, a Hooded Warbler, about two feet off the ground. I could not photograph it but it was striking with its black hood on an all yellow body—life bird #635. Jim had only seen one before himself. It was a high five moment.
The family was leaving and gave us some park birding tips and also some tips on Dry Tortugas. Using their advice we worked the area near the water and the gate to the actual fort. We saw Louisiana and Northern Waterthrush,
a Blue-winged Warbler, a Cape May Warbler, among six other types the first three I hadn’t seen very often.
a common yellowthroat (above) and the black-throated green warbler below……….
We exhausted all the birds we could find and then with a little daylight we went to set up a spot for Nighthawk watching. We picked the parking lot of the community college near the hospital and behind the golf course by the Botanical Gardens and waited for dusk. While we waited Jim took off his shoes and complained about his feet. He admitted to me he needed a real pair of shoes, the sneakers he had on were from a garage sale. I’m thinking we walked between twelve and fourteen miles today. I had on nearly two hundred dollar shoes and my feet and legs hurt but Jim had on a dollar pair. I shook my head as I watched him lay out on a vacant parking space the cement at the head of the space serving as his pillow.
A cacophony of sounds from a massive flock of Least Terns came up from the hospital. Then we saw two nighthawks, the sound was easily identifiable as Common Nighthawks and we noted the size and shape of the bird. The only definite way to identify an Antillean, a smaller nighthawk is by sound. Then the terns left and just before we were going to head to the hotel, a lone nighthawk came over, it didn’t sound like the other ones, it was smaller, definitely a nighthawk, and almost certainly an Antillean Nighthawk, the final new bird for a long exhausting birding day.
For the first time in my life the hotel we were staying at called me to see if we were coming. We arrived ten minutes later ordered a pizza, drank a beer and just before ten we were both passed out dreaming of legs that didn’t ache. It was the end of a very long birding day. But we had a great start…..2 1/2 days down and one big day to go……Dry Tortugas…check out the next blog…