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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Return to South Florida

Swallow-tailed Kite: a familiar dot in the Florida sky
Today was the start of a week long - or short actually - south Florida Birding tour, led by master birder. While I've gone to many birding festivals, this is only my second professionally led birding guide tour, and frankly I ought to do this more often. So much less stress; no driving into ditches via GPS, no tracking down target species that don't want me to see them (What, me paranoid?). And the best reason for touring vs Claire-only birding, of all: the company of other birders. So here I am, with four others, fellow birders Steve & Marian and our talented, good humored leader Larry Manfredi. Yes. Life is good.

NE entrance Kiosks at Everglades NP
Today, day one, we visited Everglades National Park. I eagerly told anyone with ears, my last Everglades visit, was in 1998 and I've been itching, without the benefit of chiggers, to return.

Everglade Grasslands
Soon we were cruising along under the morning sky, along great, flat stretches of Everglades grassland. Parked on the road's edge, Larry clued us in to listen for Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows. Off in the distance, a couple of the birds sang their buzzy territorial tunes. Soon we angled for looks through spotting scopes, while I inwardly racked up a new species for my ever-growing-in-my-retirement life list.
Seaside Sparrow
Not my photo, nicked it on-line

We spent maybe a half hour on the road, dodging trucks hauling trailers that zoomed through at speeds one normally associates with the SS Enterprise. A side note, Larry pointed out fascinating road kill, a cottonmouth snake, the first close up view of one I've ever seen, dead or alive (I have a photo I am not posting, out of respect for both you and the dead).

The day's highlight for me was seeing two species I hunted for and didn't see on my earlier trips to south Florida. We were happily viewing warblers I don't see every day, or even every year, including a Prairie Warbler, a gorgeous Black-throated Blue, Black and White Warbler and American Redstarts.
Prairie Warbler
'Cuban' subspecies of Yellow Warbler
Larry told us the spot were were occasionally turns up a Mangrove Cuckoo. Sure enough, off in the distance one of the buffy bellied bird below showed up. Trundling over we all had satisfying, nay, indulging looks at the bird, that flew from spot to spot until it decided we'd been indulged enough, and it flew off. Yay! I honestly thought I'd never be lucky enough to see one of these birds - and I can only hope I'll catch myself saying that all week long.
Mangrove Cuckoo
Oh yeah, classic butt shot

Yes, before I knew it, I was admiring and shooting a zillion camera frames at my second, 'Never thought I'd be lucky enough to see one of these' bird of the day; a Black-whiskered Vireo. The bird that moved quickly through the tree, and I thought at first I would have to make due with lots and lots of  birdy-butt shots.

Thankfully, a quick camera review however reveled one, solitary almost-in-focus shot, of the greenish, stripy-faced vireo. Hurrah!

My lifer Black-whiskered Vireo
Nearby the Vireo was a tree full of Brown-headed Cowbirds, and among them, our guide pointed out a few Shiny Cowbirds, a Caribbean bird that in recent years started showing up in Florida. I saw my first ever when I first visited the Dry Tortugas, and was grateful to get some photos of the birds. My shot of the purple male is below. This particular species is problematic, as they lay eggs in the nests of other birds, a real problem as their annoying habit means some other birds - rarer birds - raise Shiny Cowbird chicks instead of their own. This is a foster care program bird conservationists can't get behind.
Pretty... Shiny... really shiny. The male Shiny Cowbird
A bit later we were at the Flamingo maria, which we were informed at one time held lots and lots of American Flamingos. The birds are little more difficult to find nowadays. As a nice, though scaly replacement, Larry took us over to a little waterway with a bridge and by its cement stairs, huddled in the darkness - no doubt awaiting Captain Hook, lay yet another critter I'd long ago given up the idea of getting to view - an American Crocodile. Holy crap - the thing was as magnificent as it was impressive, even with just the view of its head.
Check the choppers on that Croc!
Not too far away, were birds I see far more often, even at home in California - Ospreys. These particular Osprey were new parents. Two poofy chicks were visible from below in the huge pile of sticks, that were the Osprey's marina adjacent nest.

Parent Osprey naps while chicks watch the curious humans below
Spotted Sandpiper
While we lunched by the Flamingo Marina, a familiar & spotty little shore, its butt merrily bobbing as it marched along the dock.

In the afternoon we drove about, and I had the chance to try my hand at taking photos of several soaring Swallow-tailed Kites. The resulting photos I got have convinced me I need to go back to basics and put in some work on photographing birds that move quickly and make 'focusing' a pain-in-my-arse. GAK! Really, I need to do some work on my basic photography. I did get a few interesting picture anyway though.

Note the kite below is peering curiously at it's feet - you can see it has picked up a froggie from somewhere in the swamp, that is dangling from its talons.

Froggy is in trouble...
See what I mean? Froggy is getting swallowed for lunch
Mid afternoon we headed off along the Tamiami Trail, which is a state road that traverses from Tampa on Florida's west coast, to Miami in the east. I remember the trail from 1998 quite well as back then I'd stayed over night at a rather run down motel run by the Mikasuki tribe. My room was clean, but run down, with holes in the walls, raggedy linen and I could not have cared less. Why? Because when I looked out the window, to the other side of the highway, I spotted a male Snail Kite running scrafts across the swamp. Jackpot! Now, more than a decade later, the highway seems much changed in spots, and alas - the Mikasuki motel is no more.  We stopped along the highway to check out the swamp and although we found an alligator and speedboats, we couldn't find a Snail Kite - yet!  In the photo below you can see one of the ubiquitous thatched roofs, which are common in south Florida. The thatching, made from palm was how the Seminole and Mikasuki kept a roof over their noggins.
Typical thatching job at a swamp picnic site 
We stopped at another Mikasuki landmark, locally famous for its speed boats and touristy gift shop, restaurant and the like. We found dozens of Common Grackles everywhere and one fun surprise - a Purple Gallinule with adorable little black, poof-ball chicks with colorful mini-puffin bills.

The Purple Gallinules were well used to people being about, so they were quite close to the deck & walkway where people happily watched the puff-balls toddling about and the adult bird preening and tending to the babies.

Attending Yoga Class with Mom
Can scarcely believe I got to see these adorable chicks
Air boats taking off on a swamp tours at the Tribal park
Our tour of the Everglades complete, and me, all happy with four lifers, we headed back to our motel. As Larry steered us through Homestead, a small flock of birds shot past overhead. "Monk Parakeets", he said. I said I hoped to see some this week, and soon we pulled up to a little spot Larry knew of. Up high were piles of sticks that amounted to a 'nest' for the pesky little parrots. I say 'pesky' as I remember them being a prime pest species back in my days as a weed & vertebrate biologist.

Yikes! Can only imagine how long it took for such tiny birds
 to drag all those sticks to construct such a massive nest?

Feral Monk Parakeet entering its nest
These cheeky little birds are named 'Monk'
because of they seem to wear the gray cowls, of religious sorts
Monks are fairly popular as pets around the world
Too bad they so often get lose and go feral
It was the end of a long day and thoughts began to linger on dinner. I hadn't mentioned but we had the pleasure of the company for today of a another birding tour led by a fascinating Cuban who is a crack birder, particularly for birds of his homeland. His little group included a lovely couple from Toronto Canada. So following a bit of downtime at our mutual motel, we all met up again for dinner. Larry's wife and son, lovely, both of them, joined us at a Florida City Italian restaurant. After a lovely meal the we all took part in the listing of the birds of the day. That satisfying little ritual is something I have always enjoyed after the comradely & fun of a day's birding.

Today is done. Saw loads of birds, and a lot of other fauna as well. Must have have seen hundreds of the colorful dragonflies today. The one below is called 'Halloween Pendant'. Quite pretty for a 'bug', and yeah, I'm well aware it is by no means a 'bug'. Its so pretty; the chassis on the thing looks as spruced up as the average NASCAR. No wonder many see dragonflies, or darning needles as I grew up calling them, as keeper of dreams, and the totem spirit of transformations.
Halloween Pendant  Dragonfly 

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