Over spring break I had the opportunity to bird Southern Florida with two of the country’s top birders, Dave and Tammy McQuade. My four days there were non-stop birding, and thanks to the McQuade’s skills and knowledge we swept every Florida specialty. I had only been to Florida once before on a non-birding vacation, so I had about 20 potential lifers at the start of this trip.
I met Dave and Tammy in November 2017 at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, where we saw Audubon’s Orioles, an Aplomado Falcon, and even the rare Tamaulipas Crows together. We’ve been in touch ever since, and not long after the festival they invited me to come birding with them in their home state. Florida is home to many species of birds that can be found nowhere else in the ABA region; these were my main targets, but I had a few others.
I arrived in Fort Myers late Friday night, tired from a stressful week at school but excited for the days of birding to come. When we arrived at the house, Dave and I listened for the resident screech owl and the continuing Chuck-Will’s-Widow. Both of these species are somewhat crepuscular (most active around dawn or dusk), so 11:00pm wasn’t the best time to listen for them. We didn’t hear them, but Dave was confident we’d get them another day.
The next morning we were up before dawn, and on our way to Sanibel Island with Eary Warren. Eary is a phenomenal birder from Lee County, and a fun person to be around. It was also good to be birding with him because, like the McQuades, he knows the county like the back of his hand. We started at J.N. Ding Darling NWR, where I added several new year birds. After that we made a quick stop by the beach to get some Snowy Plovers, another new bird for the year. Next up was San Carlos Bay and Bunche Beach, where we hoped to see Mangrove Cuckoo and a variety of shorebirds. It didn’t take long to find the Cuckoo, which we heard and saw just seconds after pulling up. I was thrilled to get crushing views of this bird, as south Florida is the only place in the ABA where it can be found. Even in Florida they are uncommon, and can be very tricky to get. The Mangrove Cuckoo resembles a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, but has an entirely black upper mandible, black edging to the upper tail (yellow-billed has white edging), a buffy wash on the breast and belly, and a slightly shorter wingspan (due to the fact that yellow-billed migrates long distances and mangrove is non-migratory). The growing crowd of birders scared the Cuckoo back into the mangroves so we moved on to Bunche Beach, a world renowned shorebird destination. We were not disappointed and saw a dozen species of shorebirds, highlighted by Piping Plovers, Red Knots, and excellent side by side comparisons of various peeps. We scanned the flats until a Merlin scared the shorebirds away and we decided to move on.
Dave and Tammy were speaking at an Audubon event later in the afternoon, so Eary and I dropped them off before heading to Harns Marsh. The marsh was relatively dry, but we managed to pick up some Limpkins, Gray-headed Swamphens, and Swallow-tailed Kites before heading off to a feeding station nearby. Our main target was the Painted Bunting, a charismatic bird of the Southeast. It took a little waiting, but eventually we saw two male and two female buntings. Many people think the male is prettier, but to me the lime green female is just as gorgeous. We would’ve spent longer with the buntings, but we had other birds to see. Our next stop was Cape Coral, a vast area home to Burrowing Owls and Florida Scrub-Jays. We were successful here too and had close encounters with both species. The owl was kind enough to pose for photos, and we found a pair of jays foraging in the shade nearby.
At this point Eary had to go, so he dropped me off with Dave and Tammy at the local Monk Parakeet roost. After that we successfully found a Nanday Parakeet, but decided that introduced species weren’t worth any more of our time. We chose to go for Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatches in Collier county, at a place called Picayune Strand State Forest. We birded Picayune with Yve Morrel, 2017 big year champion, whom I had met on a California pelagic last summer. It was good to bird with Yve in her local patch, and she helped us find the endangered woodpecker as well as the nuthatches. Next, we birded Collier County some more before heading home and celebrating a long but successful day of birding. As we were pulling in the driveway we heard an Eastern-Screech Owl, my 118th species observed that day.
On Sunday we went to Babcock-Webb WMA first thing, hoping to see a Bachman’s Sparrow. The best strategy was to drive slowly through the forest, listening for the song. Eventually we pulled over with some other birders to sort through a flock of migrants. There was a Red-cockaded Woodpecker mixed in, but the real excitement came when we heard the sparrow sing from further back in the woods. We took a side trail, and successfuly located the sparrow singing from a low bush. Seeing this elusive sparrow was a great way to start the day.
Bachman’s Sparrow Singing in the Fog
The next part of the plan was to drive across the state and spend two days birding on the east coast. The birding on Florida’s east coast is similar to the west coast, but a few key species are much easier to find in the southeast. To break up the drive we stopped at the Sem-Chi Rice Mill, the only reliable place to find Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the state. When we arrived there were hundreds of blackbirds feeding on spilled grain next to the silos. A quick scan produced several Yellow-headeds, mostly females and immature males. It was nice to get close views of this unique species.
The rest of the drive passed quickly, and before I knew it we were at Wakodahatchee Wetlands. Here we found nesting Wood Storks and my lifer Purple Gallinule, both only a few feet away. A quick stop at Loxahatchee NWR yielded another lifer, a gorgeous female Snail Kite that flew right up to me. Another new bird was a Common Myna sifting through trash at a fast food parking lot. The day had been very efficient, so we had time to bird the Everglades at sunset. There we were lucky enough to hear several King Rails (my 200th bird for the year) and see a barn owl fly over in the dark.
The next morning was full of various parakeets, other introduced species, and White-crowned Pigeons. In the afternoon we were able to track down some White-Winged Parakeets, and even a pair of Short-tailed Hawks. Other exciting sightings included a White-tailed Kite, Swainson’s Hawk, and Western Kingbird, all very good birds for the state. The day ended with a group of Cave Swallows (the Caribbean ssp. Petrochelidon fulva fulva) near our hotel.
My last day in Florida began in the Everglades, just before sunrise. With a thick fog, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise and a feeling like walking in the clouds. We were hoping to hear a Black Rail (another crepuscular species), but instead we were treated to King Rails and a very large, dense flock of White Ibis. It was hard to leave the beautiful scenery of the Everglades, but there was another bird that needed to be seen – the Shiny Cowbird. This is by far the rarest of the three ABA cowbirds, and it is restricted to extreme southern Florida. Dave and Tammy knew a bird guide who had the cowbirds in his backyard, so we headed there. Thanks to the guide’s generosity we enjoyed this rarity at close range as it fed in his backyard, and even got to see all three cowbird species on the same feeder. This was a great way to get my last lifer of the trip, and my 534th bird in the lower 48 states.
Dave Recording King Rails in the Fog
Shiny Cowbird- #534
Many thanks to all who made this trip possible and good birding!
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