Lifers indicated in bold
In January, I got the first 100 species for the year within two days birding in Florida, and I had predicted that I would get to 400 for the year before or while my mom and I were back in Florida. Nine months and a 298 additional species later, it seems my ability to predict the future has proven much better than the last time I predicted when I would reach a milestone for the year (am I now Doctor Strange?), I rather boldly (and cautiously) claimed on The Bird Herd Discord server that "Tomorrow might be the day I finally get to 400 for the year." The last time I predicted I would get to a milestone, things did not go as I imagined and the results were, um, explosive for those who did not see my rather unprofessional Instagram story highlighting the trip. Can I prove my ability to see the future? Or will this be another claim that went up in flames?
I’m not exaggerating when I say the first thing we did upon arriving in Florida was look for more birds. Specifically, Florida Scrub-Jay, a species I normally save for last, but couldn’t because I would be in Hawaii in December, not Florida. I knew the “Scrub-Jay death march” at Jonathan Dickinson State Park like clockwork: park at the trailhead between the ranger station and the campground, walk all the way down until you find one, then head back at the trail intersection. A Short-tailed Hawk flew overhead, #399, as we set out for the trail. A Gopher Tortoise crossed the road. I was doubting we would even see a jay by the time we got to the tree where I had seen a pair in the last two years (Florida Scrub-Jays rarely stray far from their birthplace). Near the intersection, I saw the shape of a perching bird, which my mom thought was a mockingbird, but I had other thoughts. The wings, tail, and head were blue, and I could make out an eye stripe and white throat. I had no doubt this was a Florida Scrub-Jay, #400 for the year! Shortly after, I saw another three jays flying around the intersection. We stayed with them for about five minutes before heading back to my grandparents’ house where we would be staying for the weekend. Now that I had proven myself right by getting to 400 on the first day in Florida, I was full steam ahead on to 500.
Usually when I get up to bird the ponds outside my grandparents’ house, it’s on the first day of January and my yearlist is at zero. With the possible exception of Sandhill Crane, which has eluded me in Florida, Texas, and upstate New York, I wasn’t expecting to add anything new, just to get the ball rolling for October big day. I quickly got the usual cast of waterbirds, doves, and passerines (including bonus Magnolia Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo). As I was studying a small group of sandpipers, I saw two Sandhill Cranes fly in and land within feet of me! I was beginning to worry that I would not see them this year, after they had eluded me on previous trips to Florida, Texas, and upstate New York, especially after being at Derby Hill and a birder seeing them after I left.
Being in Florida for October Big Day gave me a good reason to go to as many spots in Miami for non-native species as possible. The trip to go to all the spots for non-natives does not have an official name, but I’ve decided to refer to it as the Miami Exotic Run. Birders who go on the Exotic Run typically go to the following spots: Brewer Park for parrots and macaws, Markham Park for Spot-breasted Oriole, Charles Deering Estate for Scaly-breasted Munia, Kendall Baptist Hospital for Red-whiskered Bulbul, Ocean Bank for White-winged Parakeet, and Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens for Common Hill Myna. I had initially planned to go to all these spots as well as Bill Baggs for Thick-billed Vireo, Crandon Park for Wilson’s Plover, Black Point Marina for Mangrove Cuckoo, Lucky Hammock for Smooth-billed Ani, Brian Piccolo Park for Burrowing Owl, the agricultural fields in Kendall where a Zenaida Dove had been seen, and Green Cay to add Purple Gallinule, Gray-headed Swamphen, and Painted Bunting to the day list. Since we were leaving an hour behind schedule (I wanted to leave as early as possible to maximize birding time), I had to cut several spots out in order to be home by dinnertime. Since no recent reports of the ani, dove, or vireo had come in, I cut those spots out. I also cut Deering Estate out because I would have more opportunities to see munias in Hawaii, along with a whole menagerie of introduced species from Asia, Africa, and South America. The first spot we went to was Highland Oaks Park, one of many spots to see them, but I had picked this spot because it also had Gray Kingbirds nearby, which are fairly common in suburbs and coastal areas, but I wanted to get both native and introduced birds efficiently as possible, which meant I would need to get them in the same spots (I could've gotten more at Lucky Hammock along with Smooth-billed Ani, but I did not plan to go there unless an ani stuck around). Almost immediately upon arrival I found a pair of Gray Kingbirds perched on electrical wires, if only I can find the orioles. I first asked a group of birders if they had seen anything of interest, which they replied by asking if I could help them identify a sparrow (which I wasn't ready to call Clay-colored). I then made a path towards a large lake, where I found a Black-whiskered Vireo in one of the trees and a large group of Egyptian Geese and White Ibises on the shore. While checking the perimeter, I heard the screeches of a parrot, most likely Orange-winged, but I ignored it because I could not count it for the year. Two loops around the park later, I finally located a Spot-breasted Oriole.
Wilson's Plover is a shorebird, so by definition, this is a native bird. In Florida, the best spot to look for them is on the Gulf coast, but a few have been seen at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne. I had looked for them at the beginning of the year, fresh off the excitement of the Loggerhead Kingbird, but did not have much luck. My mom and I went back to the spot in hopes of seeing one, but did not see much of anything in terms of birds in the heat of the Florida sun, mostly iguanas basking on the shore.
Most parakeets are not countable in the ABA Area, but a few exceptions, Green, Monk, Nanday, Rose-ringed, and White-winged, have established populations large enough to count. Of these five, the one I needed most was White-winged (I would hopefully get Rose-ringed in Hawaii), the rarest of the seven established parrots in the ABA Area (Red-crowned Parrot and Rosy-faced Lovebird are the other two, while Thick-billed Parrot has been extirpated from the southwest and Carolina Parakeet is unfortunately extinct). Hundreds of thousands were imported to the US until 1972, and many of them escaped and bred. Unfortunately, due to competition with the similar Yellow-chevroned Parakeet and starlings, their populations have suffered a massive blow, declining up to 99% in their introduced range in just 5 years. As Yellow-chevroned and Blue-crowned Parakeets expand in population, Ocean Bank in Miami is the last stronghold of the White-winged Parakeet. My mom and I parked across the street and waited for a parakeet to appear, only seeing a Common Myna, before deciding to move on...
The next species we searched for is even harder than the parakeets to find: Mangrove Cuckoo, among the most poorly known North American birds. As their name implies, they only inhabit mangrove forests of South Florida, but can be found in other coastal habitats in their more extensive neotropical range. Skulking and secretive by nature, it is usually difficult to observe. As a result, most aspects of this species' reproductive biology, ecological requirements, and population dynamics remain a mystery. I was not expecting to see a Mangrove Cuckoo on this trip, let alone hear one. One of the few reliable spots to see a Mangrove Cuckoo is Black Point Marina, which is also home to manatees and crocodiles. Despite the low probability of seeing a cuckoo, I decided to try my luck at the marina anyway. We searched the mangroves along the shore of the marina with no luck, then decided to get lunch because we weren't having much luck with anything other than iguanas (one of which I spooked from its resting spot). As we were eating, I spotted a large gray mass emerge from the marina. This was definitely not a bird, but the closest living relative ever since non-avian dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago: an American Crocodile! Unlike American Alligators, which I usually give a passing glance while birding, crocodiles are the rarer of Florida's two native crocodilians. While alligators prefer freshwater swamps and marshes, American Crocodiles hunt in coastal estuaries and mangrove swamps, one of only two living* pseudosuchians to be comfortable in both freshwater and saltwater, along with the extremely dangerous Saltwater Crocodile of Oceania and Southeast Asia. Both alligators and crocodiles suffered from hunting for their skins to make handbags and belts, until the US government declared them endangered in the 1970s. The alligators made an incredible comeback, to the point of legal, carefully managed hunting to resume, but the crocodiles never made as big of a recovery and are classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. Many people at the restaurant, including myself, watched as this ancient predator swam through the boat basin, then disappeared below the surface. Having come to my senses that finding a Mangrove Cuckoo was going to be harder I imagined outside of the Everglades and Florida Keys, we moved on to our last spot of the exotic run.
*I say living because a now extinct clade of pseudosuchians, Thalattosuchia, was widespread during the Jurassic and lower Cretaceous.
As we were leaving the marina, I was shocked to see a female Indian Peafowl on the side of the road. I have seen peafowl numerous times in captivity and running free in neighborhoods, but unlike this bird, they were domesticated. Until recently, I would've ignored this bird and kept moving on, but as of May 2018, the ABA deemed feral populations to have been breeding long enough to count for an ABA year list.
The last non-native species I needed from Miami is the Red-whiskered Bulbul. During the 1960s, populations of introduced Red-whiskered Bulbuls became established in southern Florida and southern California, although these populations remain small and limited in distribution. In contrast, a released population O‘ahu has proliferated. In Miami, Kendall is the best area to see the small population bulbuls left in the lower 48, and the preferred spot to see them is even weirder: the grounds of Kendall Baptist Hospital. We first tried driving around the hospital grounds after a mob of Muscovy Ducks attacked us for food, but that didn't get us too far. It was getting late, and in an act of desperation, I walked around a small garden near the entrance. I got a brief look at a Red-whiskered Bulbul before it dropped back into the brush, but as I was searching, a flock of parakeets flew over. These were mostly Mitred Parakeets, another common, but unfortunately non-countable species. In that flock, I spotted a Red-masked Parakeet, which is also not countable, several also non-countable Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, and my most-wanted White-winged Parakeet. My first attempt at birding the Miami Exotic Run has been a success!
I considered two options for birding the next day: either to try another spot on the coast where Wilson's Plovers have been reported, then go inland in search of King Rail, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, and Snail Kite; or try for the inland stuff first then bird on the coast. My mom, however, had a different idea: she wanted to get my grandfather interested in birding, so she insisted on going to Wakodahatchee to get him interested in birding, which I begrudgingly agreed to. Fortunately, as we were arriving, I spotted a Fulvous Whistling-Duck in a ditch across the street from the parking lot at Wakodahatchee, but I eBirded it for the main hotspot. When we got to the spot, I learned that after I explained how to identify a bird, I had to leave future identification on this trip to my grandfather. Among some of the more interesting finds were, aside from most of the stuff I got at the beginning of the year, the continuing Neotropic Cormorant, an also continuing Neotropic X Double-crested Cormorant hybrid (which my mom "accidentally" deleted my photos of), and two acts of predation: a Great Blue Heron stalking a tilapia and a White Ibis wrangling a snake, with the birds succeeding in each act.
In all the years I’ve been going down to Florida for birding, only one relatively easy (for the record, Mangrove Cuckoo and Antillean Nighthawk are not easy, as I've learned the hard way with the former) specialty bird has eluded me: Snail Kite. True to their name, Snail Kites only eat apple snails, which are common in freshwater wetlands throughout the neotropics. In North America, these snails are only found in Florida, preferably away from the highly-developed coast. I had found a reliable spot for one in Wellington that I was eager to try after going to Wakodahatchee. We started on a paved trail that extended to a boardwalk, where I saw many wading birds, including a heard-only King Rail. Shortly after, I picked out a female Snail Kite as it flew over the marsh looking for prey. Success! I decided to continue further on, also finding several Roseate Spoonbills, a Bachman's Sparrow as it flew across the path in a forested section of the preserve, more herons, swamphens, Limpkins, and Wood Storks, another Fulvous Whistling-Duck, and several Blue-winged Teal. As we were leaving for the airport, a Western Kingbird flew over the parking lot, ending a productive weekend in Florida. On to 500!
Back in New York, I found out that not only had Key West Quail-Dove and Bahama Mockingbird appeared in Palm Beach County a few days after I left Florida, but also a Kirtland's Warbler was there while I was there and not reported until after I left. I was slightly irked by this, but I had little power to do anything about it. Next time...
To be continued…
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