Updated: Jan 31, 2021
After returning to work for a short workweek following the month-long government shutdown, I decided to immediately take a week-long vacation. I spent the week in South Florida camping in the Everglades and Key West (with a healthy mix of birding, photography, and hanging out). My basic itinerary was as follows: I flew into Tampa on Friday and spent the afternoon, evening, and following morning with my family in Dunedin. On Saturday, I drove south and hit a couple high-quality gulf coast birding spots before camping in the Everglades. Sunday involved birding various locations around the Everglades, ending at my campsite in Flamingo (the tip of the Florida peninsula). On Monday, I headed back through the Glades, down US-1 through the Keys, and ultimately joined some friends in Key West, where we spent the remainder of the trip kayaking, biking, and relaxing. The trip finished with a long road trip back to Tampa on Thursday, followed by an early morning flight back to North Carolina.
Before I dive into the play-by-play, I’ll mention two notable rental upgrades. The first was a convertible Ford Mustang, which I drove top-down essentially everywhere in the 80-degree sunshine. This was critical for drying out my soggy tent and improving the visibility of cars in my blind spot.
The second rental was 200-500mm f/5.6 Nikon lens, which I had been interested in trying for a while. Compared to my 70-300 f/5.6, this lens is massive, pushing the practical boundaries of hand-held shooting (or at least hiking). However, the extra reach was significant, and many of the shots included below wouldn’t have been possible (or as good) without this lens. One day I’ll have to decide whether to trade the portability and ease of my current 70-300 f/5.6 (or an upgrade to Nikon’s newer 300 f/4) for the extra reach this monster lens affords…
Okay, if anyone is still reading, the narrative follows. Be warned: it’s a long read.
Friday 2/1 – Saturday 2/2: Gulf Coast
After arriving in Tampa, I spent a relaxing afternoon with family in Dunedin. Although I didn’t do any birding per se, I couldn’t help but notice a group of unidentified parakeets flying over my Grandma’s backyard, as well as countless Brown Anoles (a non-native species that has overrun Florida) and a Bottlenose Dolphin at my uncle’s place.
Saturday started with sunrise at Weaver Park. I got in some practice with my rental lens, rattling off around 250 frames in an hour or so (which led to a lot of work for my delete button). Birding highlights included an incredible procession of Fish Crows (>3000), around 450 Redhead, some Lesser Scaup, a few shorebirds, wading birds, and other waterbirds (including Common Loon, Anhinga, and Wood Stork), a Cooper’s Hawk, and a Blue-headed Vireo.
After visiting with family over breakfast, I began my southward sojourn, with two stops along the gulf coast before I reached my first campsite in the Everglades. The first stop was Harns Marsh, one of my absolute favorite places to bird (caveat: this was only my second time there). It’s hard to overstate how awesome a place this is, and I expect that even normal people (non-birders) would be blown away by the spectacular avian assembly, most of which seemed relatively accustomed to a human presence. Given the mid-afternoon sun, heavy lens, and time crunch, I only hiked a fraction of the 4-mile loop (next trip I’ll devote more time). The list of notable and photo-cooperative birds is long and quite possibly boring to my readers (to the extent you exist), so I’ll hit only the highest points: At least 9 Gray-headed Swamphens, a non-native but well-established species and my first lifer for the trip; American Coot and Common Gallinule (which actually live up to their name in FL); a handful of ducks, including Blue-Winged Teal and Mottled and Ring-necked Ducks; pretty much every wading bird you could imagine, including Cattle Egret, Glossy Ibis, and Limpkin; a Wilson’s Snipe; and last but not least, 14 Sandhill Cranes. Also notable was a River Otter eyeing me from about 10 feet away.
Continuing down US-75, I had brief 70 mph looks at a Snail Kite (lifer #2) coursing over some marshland sandwiched between the highway lanes, made possible by my top-down ride. Later in the afternoon, I made it to Sanibel’s Ding Darling NWR, my first visit to this famous birding site. There were more people there than I would prefer, something that bothered the birds less than it did me. Highlights included sizeable groups of Roseate Spoonbill and American White Pelican, a couple Reddish Egrets, other photo-cooperative wading birds, large numbers of shorebirds and Blue-winged Teal, a few Mottled Ducks, and a West Indian Manatee.
I ended the day at Trail Lake Campground in Ochobee (not too deep into the Everglades), which probably would have been a cool birding spot had I spent any daylight hours there. A Barred Owl serenaded me to sleep (just before the rain started), and I could have sworn the screech of a Barn Owl woke me up in the middle of the night, but that also could’ve been my imagination…
Sunday 2/3 - Monday 2/4: The Everglades
This was my first trip to the Everglades. On my journey along the Tamiami Trail headed eastbound, then from Homestead southwest to Flamingo, I was blown away by the size, diversity, and beauty of the Glades. This unique gem of an ecosystem features unending expanses of freshwater marsh (freshwater sloughs and marl prairie), cypress strands, pine rocklands, tropical hardwood hammock oases, mangrove swamps, and coastal prairie, before ending in the Florida Bay. The more southern reaches held numerous subtropical tree species I’d never before seen (Mahogany & Gumbo Limbo being the most famous), plus more air plants than I could attempt to identify.
I spent a fog-shrouded daybreak hiking the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve SP. This amazing cypress swamp (the world’s largest bald cypress/royal palm swamp forest) held good numbers of songbirds (including a few wintering warblers, some Great Crested Flycatchers, and >45 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers), some waders, and my first American Alligator of the trip. Next, I made an impromptu stop at some productive freshwater marl prairie along the Tamiami Trail roadside, with one notable quarter-mile stretch hosting an impressive assembly of wading birds (including Wood Stork, Glossy Ibis, a flyover Spoonbill), some ducks, and a Purple Gallinule. At 40-mile bend, I had good looks at a Snail Kite foraging on the north side of the road, as well as a few Limpkins. My next stop was the Shark Valley section of Everglades National Park. Alligators, Anhinga, and Green Heron were ubiquitous along the short stretch of trail I managed to hike; a bicycle probably would have provided a better way to explore this area.
A 2-hour delay caused by a motorcycle fatality on the only road through this portion of the Everglades afforded me some time to air-dry my tent and the spilled-cooler-soaked trunk of my rental car. After that, I passed through the greater Miami area towards Homestead. Driving through the agricultural areas couldn’t compare with the Tamiami Trail, but I saw a few American Kestrels and Loggerhead Shrikes perched on roadside wires. The so-called “Lucky Hammock” at Frog Pond WMA wasn’t all that lucky for me, but I expect all the good birds were simply taking a siesta to escape the mid-day sun. The butterflies, on the other hand, were plentiful, including one new one: a Tropical Checkered-skipper.
Late afternoon brought me back to Everglades NP, this time via the Homestead entrance. A short afternoon stop at Anhinga Trail featured way too many tourists, along with some photo-cooperative Alligators and Anhingas (one nesting), plus a couple Florida Softshell Turtles (a new reptile for me). A short detour along Research Road yielded some grassland species, including Northern Harrier, Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Meadowlark, and Cattle Egret (but, alas, no White-tailed Kite…). Next came the long and scenic drive to Flamingo, with a quick stop at Paurotis Pond on the way (Storks and a Spoonbill). Arriving at the Flamingo marina and visitor center, I had decent looks at two Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers (lifer #3). After setting up my tent at the campsite, I passed the remaining daylight at Eco Pond, which featured some amazing birds, including groups of Black-Necked Stilt and American Avocet, Roseate Spoonbill, American White Pelican, a Wood Stork, and an unidentified pigeon flying over at dusk (potentially a White-crowned Pigeon—more exciting than it sounds).
I spent Monday morning exploring the Flamingo area, starting with the Coastal Prairie Trail, which featured an alien, almost boundless expanse of salt-tolerant succulents. Here I beheld my first ever Great White Heron. I’d like to call this a lifer, but the bird experts currently say this is just a color morph of the Great Blue Heron, not a separate species. Returning to my campsite, I had a Peregrine Falcon fly close by overhead, and the low tide in the adjacent bay brought some good birds close to camp, including a group of Roseate Spoonbills, some other waders, and a collection of shorebirds. Next, I stopped by Eco Pond once more, and was delighted to see all the species previously reported, plus a Great White Heron and a few wintering warblers. Before departing Flamingo, I made a quick stop at the marina, where I saw a manatee and maybe one American Crocodile (mostly submerged, so I’m not 100% about the ID).
Driving back through the Everglades, I encountered some huge congregations of wading birds (e.g., >300 Snowy Egrets) in the flooded mangrove swamps next to the road. Mrazek Pond had a few good waders, a couple of Blue-winged Teal, and two alligators. I attempted to hike Snake Bight Trail (lots of waders, including >200 Great Egrets), but the mosquito swarms were so brutal I had to turn back after about 10 minutes. Although I covered almost every square inch of my skin (save for a slit for my eyes and my bare hands), the bugs made quick work of all exposed flesh. A good reminder that humans have not conquered all places.
My last stop in the Everglades was Mahogany Hammock, which (as its name suggests) hosts some massive Mahogany trees and other tropical hardwoods. It’s a magical place, emerging like an island jungle out of the boundless sedge prairie. Although the birds were pretty quiet, I did pick up a few more wintering warblers before moving on and trading Glades for Keys.
Monday 2/4 – Thursday 2/7: The Keys
I arrived in the Keys Monday afternoon, and to some extent swapped birding for what most people would recognize as a more traditional vacation. That said, of course I squeezed in some birding along the way. At Key Largo Hammock State Park, I had my first Short-tailed Hawk of the trip, a Bald Eagle, and two nonavian lifers: a Julia Heliconian butterfly, and a Green Iguana (an impressive non-native species that has overrun south Florida and the Keys). A soaring Magnificent Frigatebird provided good looks as I cruised through the more developed Upper Keys. After a brief rendezvous with a couple friends from North Carolina (friends 1 and 2) vacationing on Fiesta Key, I made my way down to the West side of the old Bahia Honda Bridge, where my camping compadres (friends 3 and 4) were fishing. It was a scenic site for sunset, and the area had some shorebirds, an iguana, some weird squids, and a couple of Cushion Sea Stars.
My two camping compadres and I stayed at Leo’s Campground on Stock Island (right next to Key West), alongside an interesting mangrove-lined pond that was home to >10 iguanas and a fair number of birds, including a gregarious Palm Warbler, a White-crowned Pigeon (lifer #4) that flew over Tuesday morning, and a Short-tailed Hawk (the first white-morph I’ve seen) that circled overhead Wednesday afternoon.
After a boat rental fell through, my two camping compadres and I spent essentially all day Tuesday on the water kayaking around Geiger, Saddlehill, Pelican, and Saddlebunch keys. The birdlife wasn’t too remarkable, but highlights included a large flock of American White Pelican soaring overhead, a Magnificent Frigatebird, and at least 4 Great White Heron. The underwater life, by contrast, was more remarkable. Easily viewed in the crystal-clear shallows, I saw a Bonnethead Shark, a Nurse Shark, an unidentified ray, a handsome blue-striped pufferfish (not sure what species), a patch of 20+ huge Queen Conch (animals intact), a handful of Cushion Sea Stars, and thousands of the aptly-named Upside-down Jelly.
Friends 1-4 (and me) ultimately joined forces and we spent Tuesday night in downtown Key West, where the food, live music, and nightlife left little to be desired (except my wife!). This being my first time in Key West, I was pleasantly surprised by the architecture, trees (Banyan or Strangler Fig?), and overall vibe, which reminded me more of Charleston/ Savannah/ New Orleans than Miami. A large free-roaming population of feral Red Junglefowl (domestic chicken) added an interesting touch of semi-wildlife to the city. (UPDATE: As of November 2020, the ABA, aka the bird police, consider this population of Red Junglefowl to be a naturalized, wild population since at least the '80s, so this technically counted as a lifer!)
I shook out my legs Wednesday morning birding some Key West hotspots, including Little Hamaca City Park, Indigenous Park, and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic SP. Highlights included a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk, a Blue Grosbeak (rare this time of year), a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, some warblers and other passerines, and lots of iguanas. My camping compadres and I then spent the day on rented bicycles, cruising the oceanfront paths as well as downtown Key West, before settling down at Sunset Pier. Hundreds of Black Skimmers complemented the procession of boats crossing the falling sun.
After a relatively low-key Wednesday night in Key West, a camping compadre and I spent Thursday morning hiking around a few uninhabited areas on Big Pine and No Name Keys. There, I saw a few of the endangered, endemic Key Deer (lifer), a Mangrove Skipper butterfly (lifer), and a handful of birds. A quick stop at the interesting “Blue Hole” freshwater formation on Big Pine Key featured a mixed flock of warblers, an American Kestrel harassing a Cooper’s Hawk, a couple alligators, and an iguana. And, with that, I began my northward journey home around midday.
The drive from the Lower Keys back to Dunedin was very long—about 7 hours, followed by a short night’s sleep and an early-morning flight back home. A dark-morph Short-tailed Hawk at the front end of the drive offered some mental relief, and I broke up the drive with a short pit stop at Black Point Park near Miami. The park held some decent birds, including a Great White Heron and a group of four Indian Peafowl (an obviously non-native species that the bird police do not yet consider “countable” as a wild member of the area’s avifauna) (UPDATE: per the Nov. 2020 update of the ABA rules, the Peafowl did count as lifers), plus a Raccoon and a couple more iguanas. Driving through the outskirts of Miami on my way back to the Tamiami Trail, a group of Muscovy Ducks and Egyptian Goose (lifer #5) loafed near a roadside ditch (these are both non-native species that the bird police do consider countable). One day I’ll spend some time actually birding Miami, and will doubtless pick up many more countable and non-countable exotic birds—most derived from the pet trade—that fly free over the city. However, this trip was focused on seeing of the native South Florida specialists in their natural habitat (while it still exists), and I’d say it was a success in this regard.
Recap by the numbers:
I observed roughly 112 species of birds (including 7 lifers and 22 birds I’d never seen in Florida before) (totals updated per Nov 2020 bird police rules), an assortment of butterflies (3 lifers), mammals (1 lifer), and reptiles (including 2 or 3 lifers), and some interesting marine life. I took 1736 pictures, a reasonable total given the length and intensity of this trip. My keeper ratio was above average, thanks in part to the 500 mm rental lens. In addition to my plane flights, the 1164 miles in the convertible Mustang (over the course of 31 hours behind the wheel) generated a pretty serious carbon footprint, but all things considered, it seemed the best way to experience South Florida. Until next time!