A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Friday, 11 August 2017

Florida Birding Trip Report - Day 7 (Miami, Key West & the Florida Keys)

With a lot to try and fit in on our trip down to the Florida Keys, we awoke bright and early, the sky still a stormy inky black and the faint call of migrating Palm Warblers overhead reminding us that despite being in the big city, nature never stops. Negotiating speed cameras and bizarre minimum speeds on the roads to Miami, we were soon at our first stop of the day – a bridge on the SW 216th Street & Ronald Raegan Turnpike overlooking the canal that is famous for its nesting Cave Swallows. Usually found across Central America and Texas, this is a difficult species to catch up with in Florida without a special visit to a known nesting colony, of which there are just a handful around the outskirts of Miami.
Cave Swallow - SW 216th Street & Ronald Raegan Turnpike, Florida
Cave Swallow - ridiculously hard to photograph!
Barely having time to admire the fluffy chicks accompanying the two adult Muscovy Ducks that came waddling up to us as we left the car, we were soon gazing upon a mass of Cave Swallows swooping under the bridge and congregating over our heads, performing in the air with incredible acrobatic skill. Speeding past us and constantly weaving through the sky, it was exceptionally difficult to photograph these agile hirundines, eventually getting the shot I was after on my last attempt out of about 200!
Cave Swallow - SW 216th Street & Ronald Raegan Turnpike, Florida
Cave Swallow - SW 216th Street & Ronald Raegan Turnpike, Florida
Cave Swallow - SW 216th Street & Ronald Raegan Turnpike, Florida
Similar to the Cliff Swallow (considerably rarer in Florida), Cave Swallows can be distinguished by their much paler throats in comparison to the darker red of the Cliff Swallow, as well the lighter coloured foreheads and lack of white patch above the bill as on Cliff.
Cave Swallow - SW 216th Street & Ronald Raegan Turnpike, Florida
Standing on the bridge and admiring these attractive swallows for around half an hour, we both marvelled every time one sped past our face before swooping down low to make a pass under the bridge beneath us. Fantastic!

Having had our fill of the Cave Swallows and with a jam packed day travelling down to the Keys ahead, we pressed on to our next site – Black Point Park Marina and the home of the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo. Mysterious and almost mythical with its hard to track down reputation preceding it, Mangrove Cuckoos are without doubt the hardest of the three species of American Cuckoos to observe, and this was a bird I was especially hoping we would be able to connect with. Sporting an attractive “bandit” style eye-mask complete with a smart curved bill and beady eyes, Mangrove Cuckoos are notoriously hard to find, often the only giveaway to their presence being an extraordinary loud call more reminiscent of a monkey!
Mangrove Cuckoo - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
The elusive Mangrove Cuckoo
Usually moving up to Florida towards the middle of April onwards, we had originally thought we were far too early to even stand a chance, but the discovery on e-bird of an individual overwintering at Black Point Park Marina gave us fresh hope. Still present during our trip and being reported from the same patch of Mangroves every time, this was our best and realistically only chance of catching up with this enigmatic species.
Mangrove Skipper - Long Key sp, Florida
Mangrove Skipper - Long Key sp, Florida
 Mangrove Skipper - an impressive resident of the mangroves at Black Point Park Marina
Arriving at the car park and strolling around the outside of the Mangroves originally drew a blank – plenty of butterflies flitting around the gnarled and twisted trunks provided us with a distraction, while our only Racoon of the trip ungainly clung to the branches in an attempt to get down from his ill-thought out perch at the top of a Mangrove.
Raccoon - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
Raccoon - Photo by Alex Jones
Black Point Park Marina, Florida
The mangroves!
A further search of the area also revealed our first Yellow-crowned Night Heron in the form of a streaked juvenile slowly crossing the road in pursuit of prey on the opposite side. 
Yellow-crowned Night Heron - Black Point Park, Florida
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Allowing us a close approach, we were really able to see the thick strong bill, and glad to finally catch up with this species after missing one at Jamaica Bay in New York the previous year, we stopped to watch as it stared intently into the Mangrove mud.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron - Black Point Park, Florida
Yellow-crowned Night Heron - Black Point Park, Florida
Turning our attention back to the task at hand, we returned to the car park where the Mangrove Cuckoo records emanated from, and before long were astounded to hear the distinctive call echoing from the trees right in front of us – now was our chance. Straining to catch a glimpse of sooty grey plumage from in-between the glossy Mangrove leaves, Alex soon called out that he had it, and a frantic few minutes of directions and trying to get me on it followed. Panicking I was about to miss our prize, I eventually locked on to this most attractive cuckoo – elegantly perched on one of the thin twigs and peering out intently. 
Mangrove Cuckoo - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
Mangrove Cuckoo - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
Mangrove Cuckoo
Moving further up the tree to the exposed branches at the top, we were treated to unparalleled views of this Mangrove specialist in full view and completely unobscured, providing us with some excellent photographic opportunities – what a bird!
Mangrove Cuckoo - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
Practically dancing with happiness at our success, we watched on as the cuckoo retreated back in to the Mangroves, losing sight of it as it blended back in to the thicket of leaves and back to a life in hiding.
Mangrove Cuckoo - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
Mangrove Cuckoo - Black Point Park Marina, Florida
Ecstatic that this Florida speciality was safely under our belts, we headed south to begin the journey to the Keys, stopping off at Florida City on route to track down the gang of Common Mynas that make the area their home. Native to the Caspian Sea region, Kazakhstan and through to the Indian Subcontinent, and having flourished in the area since being introduced back in the 1980’s, Common Mynas are, like Muscovy Ducks and Spot-breasted Orioles, fully countable on ABA checklists. Managing to eventually locate a handful of Mynas in the Starbucks and adjacent petrol station car parks, we quickly found that they had a particular penchant for Pringles, and were soon enjoying point blank views as they fed around the car.
Common Myna - Florida City, Florida
Common Myna - Florida City, Florida
Common Myna
With a 9th for the US in the form of a Zenaida Dove currently in residence at Long Key State Park halfway down the Keys, it would have been stupid not to call in and give it a shot. Usually more at home in the Caribbean and Central America, this was a mega in terms of American birding, and it had attracted a large number of birders to the area during its 3 month stay. Driving through Key Largo and the other small towns lining the Florida panhandle, the landscape noticeably changed, with shallow lagoons and Mangroves now lining the road complete with picturesque white sandy beaches and beautiful blue ocean vistas. Our first Magnificent Frigatebird of many soared majestically overhead, these pirates of the sea present in good numbers around the Florida coastline and one of the only places in America to see this prehistoric looking bird.
Magnificent Frigatebird - Florida
Magnificent Frigatebird
Arriving at Long Key, the sweltering midday heat ensured that we weren’t able to stay out in the open for long, exceptionally glad of the shade the mangroves offered. With two other birders having been searching since the early hours of the morning but with no luck, we set to work trying to track down what at times could be an exceptionally elusive dove.
Long Key Sp, Florida
Long Key viewpoint tower!
Prairie Warbler - Florida
Prairie Warbler
With a male Prairie Warbler flitting through the leaves as company and an exceptionally showy Willet on the tideline, I remembered several e-bird notes saying observers had located the Zenaida Dove by hearing rustling in the undergrowth. With several Mourning Doves feeding on the track and providing false alarms, on what was only our first proper search of the Golden Orb Trail I heard a slight movement under the nearby bushes and caught a glimpse of a tan coloured dove shyly moving through the leaves. Raising my bins, a striking flash of white on the wings unbelievably confirmed my suspicions – Zenaida! As easy as that!
Zenaida Dove - Long Key SP, Florida
Zenaida Dove!
Dodging around the bush, we sadly couldn’t get any better views as the dove was obscured by the tangle of branches and leaves, but the white spot on the wings was all we needed, diagnostic in the identification of this mega bird and in separating it from the exceptionally similar Mourning Doves.
Zenaida Dove - Long Key SP, Florida
The diagnostic white spot on the wing
Pleased with our success and the heat now getting too much, we headed on to our final location of Key West, stopping off on route to check the shore line for any interesting waders. Sadly, the small peeps running around the Mangrove bays were just a tad too distant to confirm for definite if there were any yellow-legged Least Sandpipers knocking about amongst them, and getting increasingly tired after a series of long days in the field we pressed on to our hotel for the night in the heart of Key West.

With the long day getting a bit too much and with the traffic jams heading in to Key West rendering us at a standstill, I was soon abruptly awoken from my nap by Alex shouting and pointing excitedly out of the window – “White-crowned Pigeons!” Sure enough, looking across the road bleary eyed, I soon caught sight of 4 of these beautiful and sleek pigeons perched on the telephone wires, their sooty grey bodies topped with an attractive snow white cap. 
White-crowned Pigeon - Key West, Florida
White-crowned Pigeon - Key West, Florida
White-crowned Pigeons
Migrants in to Key West and with no definite site for these impressive birds, it was sheer luck that we’d managed to jam in on them by the side of the road, and before our trip had begun we had been apprehensive as to whether we would catch up with any. Pulling over in to the entrance of the nearby golf resort where they were perched (we did cause a little bit of chaos and the beeping of horns by disgruntled golfers), we were able to get much closer views of this Florida Keys speciality and reel off a few photographs.
White-crowned Pigeon - Key West, Florida
Extremely pleased to get the White-crowned Pigeons under our belt, we re-joined the traffic, eventually reaching our hotel in the centre of Key West nestled within the palm trees and boasting a lush garden, sitting out on the balcony revealed our first Indigo Bunting of the trip, feeding on the seed on an adjacent rooftop and soon joined by a rather skittish Common Ground Dove. Several Roosters also wandered freely below, a regular sight in the town and one of the many we encountered during our stay.
Indigo Bunting - Key West, Florida
Indigo Bunting
Rooster - Key West, Florida
Rooster!
Refreshing ourselves with a truly delicious meal of orange chicken for me and Yellowtail Snapper for Alex in one of the top local restaurants, we were ready for tomorrow and one of the days we had both been looking forward to the most – our day trip out by boat to the paradise that are the Dry Tortugas islands. 
Dry Tortugas, Florida

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