The day following my trip to the Dry Tortugas saw much more subdued birding efforts as I slowly made my way northeast out of the Keys. I spent some time at the Indigenous Park in Key West searching for rare vireos, but activity levels were low overall. A confiding “Great White” Heron, my first Wood Thrush of the year, and yet another Swainson’s Warbler were among the highlights on this relatively quiet morning. Even car birding in South Florida can be productive, as I picked up Tricolored Heron and spied a strikingly pale Osprey of the Caribbean ridgwayi subspecies out on the Overseas Highway. The famed Bahia Honda State Park took up most of my daylight hours, where I was hoping to twitch recently seen Wilson’s Plovers for my life list. No dice, though I did manage to add Semipalmated Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, and soon-to-be “Western” Willet to the 2017 list. I stopped for food at the Shrimp Shack, which apparently hosted Guy Fieri once upon a time, indulging in a cocktail, gator bites, and the namesake crustaceans. A return trip to Dagny Johnson at dusk resulted in a nearly birdless, but nonetheless breezy and enjoyable, walk. Golden Silk Orb-weavers and several species of reptiles kept me company as I strolled the trails before returning to Homestead’s Garden Inn. I’d covered a lot of ground, and I was in position for an early expedition to the ever popular Everglades National Park.
Awakening before sunrise, I heard a Common Nighthawk calling overhead while I packed my things into the car. The lights came on as entered the Everglades, and I was the first to arrive at the popular Anhinga Trail just within the park’s borders. It seemed that I’d made it just in time for breakfast…
…most of the locals were looking for a bite to eat…
…some more successfully than others!
The Anhinga Trail is aptly named. The aquatic “snakebirds” breed in numbers close to the boardwalk. I spotted a handful of fluffy youngsters and watched as their parents flew, foraged, and fussed with their feathers. The last time I’d visited this location, the breeding season had ended, so I’d never seen these concentrations of bizarre birds. It was a pretty cool experience and a classically Floridian scene.
The deep waters of the slough are home to copious American Alligators. This is one of the prime spots in the Sunshine State to photograph the mighty reptiles in the wild. Just be careful with your hands and feet near the water’s edge! I love me some crocodilians, and not just because they’re the closest living relatives of birds. It’s amazing that these ancient beasts are still around, surviving and thriving with very little change since prehistory.
I noticed a few Purple Gallinules strutting across the lily pads like chickens in a barnyard. The birds were largely unperturbed by my presence, but they were positioned between my vantage point and the harsh light of the rising sun. I stopped and waited, hoping that the viewing conditions would improve. One gallinule slowly crept closer to the boardwalk, and the ambient lighting gradually brightened. I watched its approach with bated breath.
Suddenly, the bird snatched some sort of morsel from the spatterdock plants and fluttered to the other side of the boardwalk, landing on the roots of a nearby tree in perfect light. The unexpected shift in position illuminated the gallinule with electrifying color. Purple doesn’t begin to cover it! I was mesmerized by the rainbow hues of the bird’s feathers, complemented by its primary-colored bill and bright yellow stems. It began to pick at the plant matter it had snagged, and I fired off a series of photos, hardly comprehending my good fortune. Dazzling.
My favorable luck continued a little ways down the trail, while I was trading notes with a passing birder. Over his shoulder, a large, monochrome bird floated into my field of vision. I shouted out the identification and swung my camera into position: Swallow-tailed Kite! The graceful raptor wheeled out over the path, banking hard and twisting its namesake extremity as it looped back the way it came. If I had to be as objective and thorough as possible in my evaluation of “Best Bird on Earth,” the Swallow-tailed Kite would be a strong contender. I have plenty of personal favorites, but this species is undeniably awe-inspiring and ranks very highly among the winged creatures of the world. Elegance, agility, speed, predatory prowess, impressive migration, distinctive appearance. Elanoides forficatus has got it all. It seriously pains me that I don’t get to meet these beautiful birds more regularly, but I am always happy with an opportunity to see them. Most of my sightings have been through car windows at speed, so this relatively close encounter with a standing photo session was a welcome change of pace. Ugh. It isn’t even fair how cool this creature is.
A number of Black Vultures, less conventionally appealing than the kite but almost as entertaining, were congregating atop a shelter on the trail. I’d been keeping a watchful eye on these scavengers after using a tarp to cover up my rental car at the behest of helpful NPS signage in the parking lot. The inquisitive vultures have apparently caused their share of mischief at the Anhinga Trail, investigating vehicles with destructive consequences for anything rubber or loosely attached. I’d spent too much money on my temporary set of wheels to take any chances with the buzzards, but today they seemed content to loaf around and scowl at passersby.
All of the wildlife that live in this part of the park are accustomed to constant human presence. I was able to get much closer to cormorants, egrets, stately Great Blues, and tiny Green Herons than I would at home, and the pictures I took were uncharacteristically respectable by my standards. Some would argue that photography at this location is kind of like cheating. Personally, I just enjoyed the opportunities for close study and the images that resulted from our time together.
I made a brief detour back to the hotel to pick up my forgotten phone charger, and I received a message from Donna that I should check out Lucky Hammock by the park entrance. This is a traditional spot for overwintering Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and I was lucky enough to spot a lingering individual perched on a wire along the roadside. Other highlights from my early morning efforts included a singing Eastern Meadowlark, a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks, and my first of year Eastern Kingbird. I repeatedly passed signs that marked crossing zones for Florida Panthers, but unsurprisingly I saw neither hide nor hair of this elusive predator.
I stopped at Long Pine Key Campground as I ventured deeper into the park, and it was here that I heard my lifer Brown-headed Nuthatches. Paurotis Pond was home to a number of nesting waterbirds, including Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, and several varieties of ardeids.
I made a number of observations at my various stops and along the roadside. Multiple Florida Softshell Turtles were seen on the grassy edges of the highway, probably searching for places to lay eggs. The large and boldly patterned Lubber Grasshoppers were an unforgettable sight the last time I visited the Everglades, and I saw a few on this trip as well. Pipefish and Alligator Gar were among the diverse fish I saw swimming in the water features, and I reacted audibly to each of the Swallow-tailed Kites I saw defying gravity along the way.
When I finally arrived at the marina in Flamingo, I set out in search of a highly anticipated non-avian lifer. It didn’t take me long to locate my first American Crocodiles, lounging along the muddy banks where the mangroves met the water. I’ve seen related creatures in zoos before, and I’ve always read about the differences between crocodilians, but it was a real treat to finally encounter this species in the wild and observe their unique features firsthand. They were strikingly different from the alligators I’d seen earlier, with acutely pointed snouts, grayish coloration, and a snaggletoothed appearance created by the visible teeth from both the upper and lower jaw. There was also habitat preference to consider, since crocs favor brackish or salty water like this channel at the edge of Florida Bay. One individual floated over to the crowds of admirers assembled at the dock, providing an amazing opportunity to marvel over the monster at close range.
Another gray snout broke the surface a short distance away, looking like a bowling ball with a hole missing. There were several West Indian Manatees gathered near the end of the pier, and they, too, had a group of attendant onlookers. These gentle giants are wildly popular with landlubbers from all over the world, and we watched as they floated through the marina, feeding on seagrass and periodically coming up for air. It’s always fun to chill with these strange sea cows for a while.
I’d booked a campsite at Flamingo for the night, so I picked out a spot and set up my tent before setting out to explore some more. A resident ranger gave me a tip about a Pileated Woodpecker nest nearby, and I spied the young bird looking out its front window as I passed by.
I revisited some of the places I’d stopped on the way in and checked a few new locations as I continued on. The mostly dry Eco Pond featured a flock of Black-necked Stilts with a single American Avocet, and there were large groups of coots floating around on West Lake.
I made one final stop at the Anhinga Trail to take a look around. A pair of Swallow-tailed Kites was flying together in the distance, circling together in ever tightening circles like an intricate dance. It was an amazing sight, but it highlighted that I was down here by myself and reminded me to send some messages to the outside world while I still had cell reception. I love traveling and adventuring on my own, but it’s still important to keep in touch with the folks back home. After making contact with my loved ones, I returned to the wilderness and headed for my campsite.
I decided to walk the Coastal Prairie Trail at dusk, hoping to hear or see some elusive crepuscular creatures. The path picks up right at the Flamingo Campground, and it features some beautiful habitat and offers chances to find some very special wildlife. I listened for Black Rails that are known to inhabit the area, but sadly I couldn’t detect any this time. I noticed Bobcat scat and tracks at regular intervals along the trail, but the feline itself stayed hidden from view. I discovered plenty of animals during my walk, but the vast majority of them were hungry mosquitos. I did myself to keep them at bay with bug spray and a brisk pace, but I had to turn back before reaching the end so I wouldn’t be stuck searching for my bed when it got too dark to see. It was still a lovely evening despite the biting insects, and I actually managed to lose them for a time on my trek back to camp.
I made it to my tent just a bit after official sunset, settling in to sleep after an action-packed day in the park. It was a pleasure to find myself back in the Everglades after all these years, and I managed to cram a lot of excitement into just one day. The length of this post and the multitude of photos here are ample evidence of that!
Year List Update, April 15 – 244 Species (+ Wood Thrush, Tricolored Heron, Willet, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Common Nighthawk, Eastern Kingbird, Purple Gallinule, Green Heron, Swallow-tailed Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, American Avocet)