Searching for South Florida’s Specialty Birds

It was still light when my plane reached the Florida coast and headed across the state towards Ft. Lauderdale. As I gazed out the window, I was amazed at the seemingly endless bodies of water – canals, lakes, ponds and streams. All of this water, I would come to realize, was home to a multitude of birds.

I was meeting my friend Barb who has lived in Florida and birded there with her brother, Paul, who still makes Ft. Lauderdale his home. “You plan the itinerary,” I told her. “Here is my wish list of Florida specialties,” which included the Limpkin, Snail Kite, Short-tailed Hawk and Florida Scrub Jay. She added others I was unaware of, including Bachman’s Sparrow, Spot-breasted Oriole, Red-Whiskered Bulbul, White-crowned Pigeon, Monk and White-winged Parakeets and Common Myna.

Cypress Swamp Boardwalk

After a night at Paul’s, we set out to Loxahatchee NWR. As we walked along the boardwalk in the Cypress Swamp, I enjoyed reacquainting myself with a number of eastern species, e.g. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, and had an opportunity to study a Blue-headed Vireo – a life bird.

At the end of the loop, we delighted in watching a River Otter just finishing its morning meal, and then nosing up and down through the moss-covered pond.

White Ibis

Next we explored the Marsh Trail around the impoundments. “This is part of the everglades,” Barb explained. “The everglades are much more than Everglades National Park.” Waders in a kaleidoscope of color abounded – White and Glossy Ibis; Little Blue, Great Blue and Green Herons, Great Egret, Wood Stork (which I needed for my ABA list), Anhinga, Common Moorhen, Coot and Purple Gallinule.

Palm Warbler


We stopped to study a warbler that foraged low and then popped down into the short grass, its tail continually pumping – a Palm Warbler. A marsh lover, we soon came to realize this little bird would be everywhere. A true ‘snowbird,’ it nests in northern Canada and winters in Florida.

Green Heron snags dinner

In the afternoon we explored two wetlands created by the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department – Wakodahatchee and Green Cay. In addition to providing habitat for a variety of birds and reptiles, the wetlands acts as a natural filter to further cleanse treated waste water. “It’s a photographer’s as well as a nature-lover’s paradise,” Barb said as we approached Wakodahatchee. “The birds seem to ignore the visitors.” In addition to the species we had seen in the morning, we added Double- Crested Cormorant, Roseate Spoonbill, Tri-colored Heron, Black-bellied Whistling and Mottled Ducks, Blue-winged Teal and Sora as we walked on the boardwalk trails that snaked through the wetlands.

“American Bittern,” Barb motioned to me. We watched as it stalked and speared a fish and then flipped it into its mouth. Another life bird.

Limpkin

As we walked along the boardwalk trail at Green Cay, we heard a loud wail. “I hope the kid with the temper tantrum doesn’t scare the birds,” I commented. When we rounded the corner, we heard the source of the noise – 2 Limpkins. After a few minutes, they rose up from the wetlands and flew to another area, crying out as they went. Cross that one off my wish list. While we later saw them at a number of different locations, the first one was the most thrilling.

At days end, we tallied up 63 species.

The next day’s goal was the Florida Scrub Jay. The oak and palmetto habitat in the dunes near Juno and Jupiter were at the southern edge of this endangered species range.

We traipsed over a dune trail at Hobe Sound NWR while we waited for the state park to open. We had seen three wild pigs nosing in the sand along the highway near the entrance and saw evidence of their digging along the trail. We heard Blue Jays, but no Scrub Jay.

At Jonathan Dickinson State Park, the ranger at the entrance circled the areas where the jay is most often seen – but not guaranteed. We spent almost two hours exploring the approximately 2 mile Burn Trail where we enjoyed 27 different species, but did not spot a scrub jay. We walked along the Powerline Trail and another location, both areas with evidence of burn, which according to the ranger, cleared out the understory, exposing the plants preferred by the jay. Neither area produced the jay.

We walked the Kitching Creek Trail in hopes of a glimpse of the secretive Bachman’s Sparrow. Even though it remained hidden in the shrubs, we enjoyed several nesting Ospreys and foraging Pine Warblers.

When the ranger discovered we had not spotted the jay she directed us to what she called a ‘can’t miss’ location next to a fire station bordering the north edge of the park. “They fly from our property to a feeder in a residential area across the street from the fire station,” she assured us. However, they must already have polished off the seed in the feeder by time we arrived at 3 p.m.

We walked the dunes trails in two areas in Juno. No jay. We finally headed to our motel, having covered about five miles that day, without crossing that one off my list. “I know others who have returned to Fort Lauderdale without having seen the jay,” I told Barb.

Monk Parakeets

The following day we went in search of the Monk Parakeet, Spot-breasted Oriole and Smooth-billed Ani in Fort Lauderdale. Our first stop was at Markham Park in hopes of being able to walk up onto the levee and scan for the Snail Kite. While construction prevented us from doing this, we heard parakeets chattering overhead and found them feeding in the grass next to the campground.

“Ani’s traditionally have been found in the brushy areas along the perimeter of the airport,” Paul assured us. However, the grass had been cut back and development had wiped out their habitat. According to Tropical Audubon, they seem to be disappearing from south Florida.

We hoped to get close to the hot water outlet from the power plant which attracts Manatees, which I really hoped I would have a chance to watch; however, restrictions since 9-11 prevented us from getting to that area.

We visited a cemetery and several parks suggested by the A Birder’s Guide to Florida and Tropical Audubon as places to see Spot-breasted Oriole – without luck. “It is much easier to locate during the spring when it is breeding,” Barb lamented.

The next day we headed to Miami to search for White-winged Parakeet, White-crowned Pigeon and Red-whiskered Bulbul. At Indian Hammock Park I am pretty sure I saw a White-crowned Pigeon fly out of the hammock and across the road past the picnic area; however, a search failed to find it so I could get a really good look at it. However, we did spot a Prairie Warbler foraging with a mixed flock in an oak tree next to the restroom – an unexpected life bird.

The grounds of the Baptist Hospital are a roosting area for parakeets. As they flew out of the palms and headed over the hospital, we studied their profile. On the 3rd flock, Barb said, “look at the white under-wings.” Sure enough, it fit the profile for White-winged Parakeet, a life bird for both of us. We also saw a flock of non-countable Mitred Parakeets settle into a tree next to the large pond in front of the hospital.

The neighborhood south of Kendall on either side of US-1 was recommended as a possibility for Red-whiskered Bulbul. They have become established in that area since some birds escaped during the summer of 1960. They feed on introduced trees and shrubs. We drove and walked through the areas where they are most often seen – without luck.

It was time to head west along the Tamiami Trail to the Miccosukee Indian Restaurant. Several birding friends reported having seen a Snail Kite from the parking lot as it flew across the everglades marshy grasslands. That location was also recommended by Tropical Audubon. We spent about half an hour scanning the horizon from the parking lot and then decided to drive to the Shark Valley Visitor Center for Everglades National Park. “Is there a possibility of seeing a Snail Kite from this location?” we asked the ranger where we showed our Senior Access Pass.

“No,” he replied, “you need to find them back at the restaurant; however, I can tell you where there is a Great Horned Owl nesting.” While we stopped at the tree and peered up at it, we were after Florida specialties. We chose to walk along the paved trail where we could stop and observe the wildlife up close, rather than take the 2-hour tram ride.

American Alligators lounged in the sun alongside the trail, and we had the opportunity to watch a mother alligator with her 8 babies, four of whom were resting along her back.

momma Alligator with babies on her back


“I want to check up on the immature Anhinga that has gotten something caught on its bill,” one of the park volunteers said as she rode up next to us on her bicycle. “It has been tangled there since yesterday. The Anhinga keeps trying to rub it off, but hasn’t been successful. If it is not able to free its beak, it will die of starvation.”

Immature Anhinga with scrunchy caught on bill


“It’s a tiny scrunchy,” Barb observed as she looked at it through her binoculars. “It probably came loose from a small child’s fine hair.” It was amazing how something as innocent-appearing as a scrunchy could have such a devastating impact on a wild bird.

Little Blue Heron

We delighted in the opportunity to see a Little Blue Heron stalking prey next to the canal – in the same vicinity as an alligator was sunning itself. When it wanted to move to the other side of the alligator, it seemed to know exactly how wide a berth to give the alligator as it walked past.

We returned to the restaurant parking lot hoping that a Snail Kite would fly by. It is possible that it was hunting elsewhere, since there were several air boats roaring through the marsh grass.

As we headed back towards Miami, Barb suddenly pulled off the highway and headed up onto a levee. It turned out to be the Everglades and Francis Taylor Wildlife Management Area. Waders were flying in for the night – and directly out from us flew a Snail Kite, distinctive with its floppy wing-beats and dives into the grasses to retrieve apple snails from the blades of grass. Its specially-designed beak allows it to scoop the innards from the snail.

After a day exploring the Everglades National Park, Barb drove into a gas station in Florida City to fill up. “We should be able to see a Common Myna here,” she announced. As I pumped gas, she scanned the parking lot, finally finding a couple perched on a wire across the street. Before we finished, several more walked across the pavement at the service station – another life bird for me.

The following day we headed down into the Florida Keys. “White-crowned Pigeons are common here,” Barb assured me. Our first stop was Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site, recommended as a location to find White-crowned Pigeon. The only bird we spotted as we walked along the nature trail was a Northern Cardinal. During our day on the Keys, we did not see any White-crowned Pigeons.

Our final search was for the La Sagra’s Flycatcher, which often spends part of the winter at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park near Key Biscayne. It had been spotted almost continually since early January, and the Tropical Audubon’s Bird Board had regular reports with specific directions to the location where it was hanging out. As we finished lunch, 3 birders walked into the restaurant at the park over-looking Biscayne Bay. “Did you see the La Sagra’s?” we inquired. After spending all morning at the site, they had finally called it quits and headed for lunch.

When we arrived at the location, there were several birders there. Three of them, who had been there for several hours, decided to leave. “I’m giving it until 1:00,” a man from North Carolina told his tired friend. They had been there since 11 a.m. At 1:30, a local birder and photographer arrived. He showed us where he had photographed one last winter, but it wasn’t there. After returning to New Mexico, I checked both the TAS Bird Board and recent eBird sightings and discovered that it had not been reported since February 1.

We asked him about the White-crowned Pigeon. “I was at Bill Sadowsky Park this morning and someone had seen it there before I arrived,” he reported. There was no sign of it when we arrived mid-afternoon.

Sadly, it was time to return to Ft. Lauderdale and prepare for our flights home the following day. While we had not seen all of south Florida’s specialty birds, we had been able to observe several and had seen 100 different species of birds. It had been a wonderful trip.

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