Miami is a fairly popular destination for spring break adventures. My much-needed vacation brought me to Florida late on a Monday night, and I crashed in my hotel bed shortly after picking up a rental car. When I awoke bright and early on Tuesday, I immediately set out on a journey very different from that of the countless college students who had also made the pilgrimage to the Magic City. Honestly, the travel plans for my first day down south would surprise even my fellow naturalists.
My primary stop was Ocean Bank, not far from the airport and my lodgings for the night. A helpful employee in the lot surprisingly understood my intentions, and told me it was fine to leave my car in customer parking while I finished my business at the bank. I was hoping to get some green, and I’d received tips that this was the best place in town. The palm trees on the front lawn were quiet and seemingly empty at first, but after a few minutes staked out on the property I heard raucous screams behind me. I turned to see a small group of White-winged Parakeets floating across the street and coming to a landing among the fronds.
Most people think of cities as devoid of nature. Miami, nestled between mangroves, coral reefs, and the expansive Everglades, has quite a bit of native wilderness within easy reach. The main attraction for visiting birders, however, are the introduced, exotic species which have become established in the area. International animal trade operations, both official and less-than-legal, have brought a variety of creatures from all over the world to South Florida. Many of these escape, and some of these escapees have survived to form naturalized populations. The birding powers that be periodically review the status of these invaders, and some have been deemed countable for North American life lists. There are about a dozen currently accepted exotics living in Florida, 6 of which were would-be lifers found in Miami-Dade county, and I was out to catch them all. The White-winged Parakeets hanging in the trees above my head, descendants of birds from the Amazon River Basin, were lifer and target #1 for the trip. When they ducked into their nest holes, I departed the bank and headed for my second unorthodox birding stop, Dolphin Mall.
The most conspicuous creatures I encountered upon arrival at the mall were Boat-tailed Grackles. Although these shiny songbirds can easily be found in coastal habitat as far north as Long Island, the dark-eyed subspecies of the Gulf States seems larger and more imposing then the birds I see at home. They’re particularly menacing when they’re flying directly at your head, which I learned when I approached a nesting colony along the shores of the twin ponds at the entrance to the parking lot. I’m no stranger to being divebombed, so I held a distracting hand higher than my skull and tried not to flinch whenever I got buzzed. The assault was not without good motivation, as indicated by an awkward fledgling stumbling through the grass a stone’s throw from my location.
The ponds themselves hosted coots, grebes, Anhingas, and Common Gallinules. Among these familiar faces, I spied a large, blue fowl with a striking, bell pepper of a bill affixed to its grizzled visage. Target #2: the Gray-headed Swamphen. This Eurasian marsh dweller is one of the most bizarre additions to North America’s fauna, but the individuals I saw certainly seemed right at home in the vegetation-choked ponds of this suburban environment. I watched them stroll through the reeds as I dodged strikes from the grackles, snapping a few photos before retreating to safety.
I picked up a variety of birds, native and non-native, as I explored the fringes of Miami. Exotics I’d seen previously included Eurasian Collared-Dove and Common Myna, and I reacquainted myself with local specialties like Gray Kingbird and White Ibis. I was not surprised to see some species that fled New York with the turn of the seasons, bumping into Northern Parula and Common Yellowthroat before migration returns them to my neck of the woods. My quest led me to the neighborhoods of Kings Creek and Kendallwood, known haunts for the elusive Red-whiskered Bulbul of Asian origin. These communities were definitely different from the suburbs I’m used to, with Cattle Egrets stalking the roadside, Loggerhead Shrikes perched on the wires, and White-winged Doves and White-crowned Pigeons roosting in the trees. I spent a few hours working the area, knowing that bulbuls are consistently inconsistent in their visibility. I finally caught a lucky break with glimpse of a quick flyover, noting the black spurs on the sides of the breast, a long, squared-off tail, and a hint of the distinctive facial pattern. Target #3 in the bag.
I’d made plans to meet up with Brian, a fellow birding buddy from Cornell who is currently stationed in Miami. While waiting for him to finish up with morning classes, I detoured to the Miami Executive Airport to look for another old friend. I was fortunate enough to spot a Burrowing Owl standing at the entrance to its lair, surveying the grassy scenery adjacent to the road. The sighting was my 10th owl species for 2017, and I always love seeing these little terrestrial predators. I received a notification from Brian that he was free, and I bid the Burrower farewell to head for the coast.
I collected Brian at his temporary home in Coconut Grove, taking the Rickenbacker Causeway towards Key Biscayne. Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, and the ever impressive Magnificent Frigatebirds were all seen over the water on the drive out. We stopped a marina followed by a golf course at Crandon Park, and we finally located target #4 in the form of a family of Egyptian Geese. These unusual waterfowl are one of the newest exotic additions to the North American checklist, gaining acceptance from the American Birding Association just a few years ago. The fluffy goslings and the parents were both quite distinct from any other geese I’ve seen before, and the close range encounter on the roadside was very rewarding.
We briefly parked at the course to get our bearings, taking note of a Loggerhead Shrike gathering nesting material nearby. To my surprise and delight, the butcherbird ferried the mouthful of sticks to a branch directly above my vehicle, adding them to a twiggy cup that was still under construction. It was a pleasure to observe this behavior in such an interesting, engaging bird.
Brian and I grabbed some lunch and check out the coastal habitat near the Miami Seaquarium. We encountered a number of reptiles, including Green Iguanas, a Northern Curly-tailed Lizard, countless anoles, and some sort of Ameiva jungle-runner. We also poked around the floating sargassum by the docks, where Brian spends much of his between-class time searching for sea creatures. A couple of crabs and some fish kept us entertained as we skimmed through the seaweed.
Brian had not yet visited the White-wings at Ocean Bank, so I returned with him for a quick lifer twitch. With sunset approaching, I drove towards a known parakeet roost in the Miami Springs area. Most of the birds at this site are species which are not yet accepted as countable under ABA rules, such as Mitred and Rose-ringed Parakeets. There was, however, a single Nanday Parakeet reported to be hanging around with the “unofficial” birds. This recent acceptance, target #5, is more populous in other parts of Florida, and I have an interesting history with the species. I once saw an obvious escapee along the median of a Long Island highway, and I encountered groups of these South American natives in Pinellas County years before they become countable. Brian and I located the black-faced bird among the flocks of parrots without much difficulty. This was my first wild, free-flying individual since the species was deemed established. We enjoyed good views in the glow of evening, watching as the birds moved between the trees and wires of the neighborhood.
I returned with Brian to Coconut Grove, and we set out to explore the neighborhood as the sun continued to sink nearer to the horizon. We’d made a circuit a few hours earlier in the midday heat, hoping to find my final exotic lifer for the day: the Spot-breasted Oriole. These colorful Central American birds breed in several locations around the greater Miami area, and I’d been listening and looking for them all day without success. Brian texted me that an individual was vocalizing near his place when he departed for class in the morning, but it had gone quiet by the time I arrived. An American Redstart was a nice consolation prize on our leisurely stroll. We hoped that the cooling temperatures around dusk would cause the orioles to become active again and resume singing, as they can be surprisingly difficult to see despite their boldly patterned plumage. Once again, I got lucky. Brian noticed the distinctive song coming from down the block, and we were able to locate a pair of Spot-breasts that seemed to be nesting in a yard nearby. Target #6: confirmed! I’d managed a perfect sweep of my goals for Day One, an auspicious start to the trip.
We continued meandering through the densely vegetated, surprisingly wild neighborhood of Coconut Grove as the lights dimmed. My first Chimney Swifts of the year chittered overhead, and packs of semi-domestic Indian Peafowl roamed the streets, calling loudly as they headed for their nightly roosts. I said good-bye to Brian for the time being, borrowing a tent and making plans to return at the end of my trip. Packing my gear into the car, I set my sights to the south.
By searching for the parakeets and orioles late in the day, I strategically managed to avoid the worst of rush hour traffic. The drive down to Homestead was quick and easy, but I had some difficulty finding my hotel. This was the second night in a row where I struggled to reach my reservation, since there is a Miami Airport Days Inn in addition to the Miami International Airport Days Inn, both inexplicably associated with the same airport. My GPS led me to a dark, residential sidestreet when I tried to find the Garden Inn in Homestead, only to discover that the phone had instead located a spot on the map labeled “the Garden Inn of Homesread.” I couldn’t see anything that resembled an inn, so I quickly corrected the technological error and continued on. I was eager to take my leave of the mysterious “Homesread” where locals rock in chairs on darkened porches. My true lodgings were perfectly acceptable, and I settled into bed feeling mighty pleased about my successful blitz of the Miami exotics. The remainder of the trip would focus on native, natural wildlife…after a night of hard-earned rest.
Year List Update, April 11 – 193 Species (+ Eurasian Collared-Dove, White-winged Parakeet, Common Myna, Common Gallinule, Gray-headed Swamphen, Northern Parula, Common Yellowthroat, Gray Kingbird, Anhinga, White Ibis, Cattle Egret, Loggerhead Shrike, White-winged Dove, White-crowned Pigeon, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Burrowing Owl, Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Pelican, Egyptian Goose, Snowy Egret, Laughing Gull, American Redstart, Nanday Parakeet, Chimney Swift, Spot-breasted Oriole)