The Keys to Success

The drive down U.S. Route 1 to the Florida Keys is an exceedingly beautiful stretch of road. The portion between Homestead and Key Largo feels like a roadside tour of various habitats, and the Overseas Highway that continues along the island chain to Key West features some truly stunning vistas. I set out from my hotel with the rising sun, reaching John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park early in the morning. I last visited in 2009 with the rest of the Healy tribe, and I was eager to explore the park again on my own. While walking the wooded trails at dawn, I encountered a number of Neotropical migrants that had just arrived from the south. Black-and-white, Worm-eating, Hooded, Black-throated Green, and Cape May Warblers, along with Northern Parula, Blue-headed Vireo, and Great Crested Flycatcher, were spotted foraging among the local White-eyed Vireos and Northern Cardinals.

Pennekamp’s mangrove exploration trail was closed for maintenance, but I carefully checked the fringes of the flooded forest for activity. A young White Ibis and a perched Gray Kingbird were nice enough, but the real prize was a guttural, croaking call coming from the edge of the trees. I moved closer to the source and caught a fleeting glimpse of a good-size bird flying deeper into the tangled branches. The pacing of the repetitive, two-note noise was a little different than the typical delivery (essentially a repeated version of this example recording), but the quality of voice itself was recognizable as a Mangrove Cuckoo. I saw this elusive species for the first time on my last visit to the park, when an individual flew across a mangrove channel as we were boating out to the snorkeling site. I got to know them a bit better during my Tropical Field Ornithology class in the Dominican Republic back in 2013, but it was still nice to hear and see this sought-after bird again, however briefly.

My next stop was Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, where I added Prairie Warbler, Black-necked Stilt, Spotted Sandpiper, Royal Tern, and Common Ground-Dove to my year list. Other noteworthy sightings at this long-named location included close encounters with a number of Green Iguanas. These large lizards are exotic invasives, introduced to South Florida decades ago and well-established in the Sunshine State. Most of the individuals I found were smaller youngsters, but a handful of larger adults were seen lounging about in the heat of the sun’s rays.

I departed from Dagny Johnson just after noon, considering my options for lunch on my journey down the highway to Key West. I checked out the Florida Birding and Rarities Facebook page, just to see if there was anything worthy of a detour along the way. I froze when my eyes fell upon a post containing the word that all birders hope to hear, or in this case read, during spring migration: fallout.


I was not expecting to experience especially impressive migration conditions during this trip. A strong wind from the east had been blowing for a week and would continue to blow throughout my stay, and traveling birds prefer a southerly tailwind when moving north across the water en masse. However, April is peak migration season in Florida, and the birds need to move whether the conditions are ideal or not. Apparently a light rain had forced birds down at the southernmest Key, and the show was just getting started. The nature nerds of the internet, true to form, immediately began debating whether the fallout truly qualified as “large” or just “decent,” but I didn’t care. The excitement was palpable. After a long winter in the Neotropics, our breeding birds were coming home. The possibilities were endless, and I couldn’t wait to see what I’d find. I put aside my thoughts of lunch and continued southwest along the Overseas Highway, all but shivering with anticipation.

Nearly 3 hours later, I reached Fort Zachary Taylor, a famous site for birding in Key West. The park employee who collected my entrance fee noticed my binoculars, informing me that there were lots of birds around. She marked a few hotspots on my map and sent me off towards the parking lot. An immature Short-tailed Hawk, kiting in the wind overhead, suddenly dropped down to the pines with legs extended as I stepped out of the car. A Turkey Vulture was perched on the fort itself, drying its wings from the recent precipitation, and frigatebirds hung high in the sky above.

As I approached the stands of trees at the picnic area, I saw that the branches were alive with dozens of fluttering birds. Cheeps, beeps, and zeeps floated down from the highest boughs, and I counted half a dozen species in a single patch of scrub. This was going to be fun. The majority of the fallout flocks consisted of Palm Warblers, a very common migrant throughout South Florida. These tiny tail-waggers seemed to be everywhere I turned, picking insects from the treetops and hopping around on the ground.

All in all, I tallied 13 species of warblers during my 2-hour stay that afternoon. Most of the species were represented by multiple individuals, and I had close-range views of Yellowthroat, Redstart, Parula, Prairie, Hooded, Black-and-white, Black-throated Blue, Blackpoll, Worm-eating, Yellow-rumped, and Cape May Warblers as they scrambled to refuel from their Caribbean crossing. Other migrants of note included a bright male Summer Tanager, a squeaky Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a hungry Merlin. The fallout event was hardly the stuff of legends overall, but it was a pleasant, unexpected treat that made memories which will last a lifetime.

Light rain came and went in waves throughout my stay at Fort ZT. More than once, I was forced to take shelter under the cover of vegetation. As I stood in a patch of dense tangle with thick leaf litter, I mused that this would be an ideal spot for a Swainson’s Warbler to take refuge. I glanced around, and was surprised to find one perched on a low branch just feet from my feet. This secretive, subdued species is one of the grand prizes of North American birding, and migration is the best time to observe them before they retreat to the isolated thickets where they breed. The Florida Keys are one of the best places to reliably encounter these skulkers, and I was treated to crippling views and crushing photo opportunities as the bird flipped leaves in search of prey. Seeing this bird is rare enough, and seeing it this well is a privilege. I even discovered a second Swainson’s foraging a short distance down the path from the first, which forced me to backtrack and make sure they were actually separate individuals. My pictures, if nothing else, were a huge improvement from my surprise life encounter in Central Park last spring.

I left the park in the late afternoon and checked into my room at the Key West Bed & Breakfast. The staff and accommodations at this charming establishment made me feel right at home, welcoming me to Key West for my first visit as an adult of legal drinking age. I received insider intel on where to park, eat, and go for happy hour. I made it to Alonzo’s Oyster Bar in time for half-price drinks and appetizers, enjoying some specialty cocktails alongside shrimp, mahi-mahi, and Key Lime pie before the clock struck 6:30. With a full stomach and an enjoyable buzz, I wandered back to the B&B as the White-crowned Pigeons came to roost. Did I mention that Key West is home to a huge population of semi-wild, Red Junglefowl-looking chickens?

My adventure to the southern extreme of the continental United States was a full, fantastic day. I turned in for the night before it got too late rather than heading out on the town. The call of Key West nightlife was alluring, but I had another busy day coming with a very early start.

Year List Update, April 12 – 213 Species (+ Black-and-white Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, Great Crested Flycatcher, Hooded Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Mangrove Cuckoo, Prairie Warbler, Black-necked Stilt, Spotted Sandpiper, Royal Tern, Common Ground-Dove, Least Tern, Short-tailed Hawk, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Summer Tanager, Swainson’s Warbler)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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4 Responses to The Keys to Success

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