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On a map, the finger-like state of Florida protrudes prominently from the continental United States, reaching south towards the Caribbean until it just barely misses being in the tropics. To the north, frost-hardy, temperate deciduous forest dominates, while warm bodies of water surround the rest of the state. Together, both climate and geography isolate Florida from the rest of the country. Because of its geographically unique position, Florida is a crossroads between the temperate northern latitudes and the sultry Caribbean tropics. Indeed, about a dozen bird species of West Indian origin reach the northern limits of their range here, while many species typical of more northern latitudes reach the southern edge of their range here. Many of the West Indian species live nowhere else in the United States. We also time our tour in late April, when spring migration peaks, potentially augmenting our trip list with a wide variety of colorful warblers and charismatic waders.
On this tour we cover the southern two thirds of the state comprehensively in search of the many specialty birds on offer. We begin by exploring Miami, a city with a decidedly Caribbean flair, in search of several established exotics such as Spot-breasted Oriole, White-winged Parakeet, and Red-whiskered Bulbul. In the central part of the state, pinelands feature a specialized avian community, including Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Bachman’s Sparrow. We also explore nearby oak scrub for Florida’s only endemic bird, Florida Scrub Jay. On the last leg of our journey we explore the tropical hardwood hammocks and mangrove swamps of the Florida Keys in search of Caribbean specialties such as Mangrove Cuckoo, White-crowned Pigeon, and Black-whiskered Vireo. We also take a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, where Sooty Tern and Brown Noddy breed in the thousands. With some luck, many of the sites we visit on this tour can be alive with migrant songbirds, and there is always a chance for a vagrant from the Caribbean like La Sagra’s Flycatcher or Western Spindalis to show up.
Itinerary (10 days/9 nights)
Day 1. Miami
After arriving at Miami International Airport you will be transferred to a nearby hotel for the night.
Day 2. Miami and Palm Beach
The nearly tropical climate and exotic vegetation of the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale metropolitan area offers a unique landscape of opportunity for a myriad of introduced bird species from all over the world. We spend our first morning in Florida exploring this urban landscape in search of ABA-countable exotics such as Purple Swamphen, Spot-breasted Oriole, White-winged Parakeet, Red-whiskered Bulbul, and Common Myna. However, introduced species are only a small fraction of the avifauna of Miami, a county which claims one of the longest bird lists east of the Mississippi River. Parks, preserves, and even parking lots provide opportunities to see native species like Grey Kingbird, White-crowned Pigeon, and more, along with a supporting cast of migrant songbirds.
After a delicious lunch at a Cuban restaurant in Miami we head north to Green Cay Wetlands and Wakodahatchee Wetlands, two artificially-created wetlands that host nearly all of Florida’s wetland specialties: Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Least Bittern, Limpkin, Sora, Purple Gallinule and more. The rookeries at Wakodahatchee Wetlands should be active at this time of year, providing excellent photographic opportunities of nesting herons, egrets, ibis, and storks. We end the day near Port St. Lucie, where we stay for the night.
Overnight: Port St. Lucie
Day 3. Three Lakes WMA, Circle B Bar Reserve, Lettuce Lake Park
After an early breakfast we drive to Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. Although heavily altered by years of cattle ranching and logging, this wildlife management area still protects a sizeable piece of pineland habitat with a saw palmetto understory. This specialized habitat is home to three American endemics, which will be the focus of our morning search: Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Bachman’s Sparrow. It also pays to keep close attention to the roadsides in this area for Northern Crested Caracara, Wild Turkey, Sandhill Crane, and Bald Eagle.
We then continue west to Circle B Bar Reserve and Lettuce Lake Park. Oak hammock, freshwater marsh, and cypress swamp at these sites provide habitat for a tremendous variety of birds, including waterfowl, waders, raptors, and passerines. Many summer migrants approach the southern edge of their breeding range at Lettuce Lake Park, including the spectacularly-hued Prothonotary Warbler, the diminutive Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and the boldly-patterned Yellow-throated Warbler.
Day 4. Fort De Soto Park
Lying on a series of small islands in the Gulf of Mexico, Fort De Soto Park is one of the premier migration hotspots in the state of Florida. Given the right weather, exhausted migrant songbirds land en masse on these small islands, filling the woods and fruiting mulberry trees with a riot of color. Swainson’s Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak are just a sample of the migrant songbirds we hope to see here. This site is also excellent for migrating waders, gulls, and terns. By scanning the sandy beaches and mudflats we can see a broad sampling of Nearctic waders such as Snowy Plover, Piping Plover, Willet, and Marbled Godwit. The elegant Reddish Egret and the bizarre Black Skimmer are also regular along the coast. The area around Fort De Soto hosts a healthy population of Nanday Parakeet, now an ABA-countable exotic. With so many potential species we will be in no rush to leave and allot a full day of birding here.
Day 5. Oscar Scherer State Park and Tamiami Trail
We make the short drive from Sarasota to Oscar Scherer State Park, which hosts a healthy population of the threatened and endemic Florida Scrub Jay. This jay lives only in a unique oak scrub community adapted to regular fires and well-drained, sandy soils. Unfortunately, this rare habitat is under increasing pressure from agriculture and housing developments, corresponding in population declines for this species.
Afterwards we continue our journey south and then back east across the peninsula via the Tamiami Trail to Homestead, passing through Big Cypress National Preserve and the northern edge of Everglades National Park. Sites along this road provide excellent opportunities to see King Rail and Snail Kite for our growing trip list.
Day 6. Everglades National Park
Published in 1947, Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s The Everglades: River of Grass highlighted the uniqueness of the Everglades. Lying at the southern tip of the state, the Everglades is a vast, subtropical sawgrass prairie broken only by cypress domes, tropical hardwood hammocks, pinelands, and mangrove swamps. There is nowhere else in the United States with such a decidedly tropical suite of habitats. We work throughout the day along the length of the main park road that terminates in Flamingo, exploring these various habitats for several birds difficult or impossible to see anywhere else in the country, like “Cape Sable” Seaside Sparrow and Shiny Cowbird. American Crocodile is possible at the marina in Flamingo. There will also be an optional birding session after dark to look for Eastern Screech Owl, Northern Barred Owl, and Chuck-will’s-widow.
Day 7. Florida Keys
After an early breakfast we drive along Card Sound Road to Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, making a brief stop at a patch of mangroves along the way to see the Florida race of Prairie Warbler and the Cuban race of American Yellow Warbler. Once slated to become a housing development, Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park protects one of the largest tracts of tropical hardwood hammock in Florida. It is also an important breeding ground for several target species on our tour, particularly the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo and vociferous Black-whiskered Vireo. For the rest of the day we keep our schedule open, as we make our way south to Key West, to accommodate the presence (or absence) of migrant songbirds or even chasing a Caribbean vagrant. Regardless of the status of migration we visit a breeding colony of Roseate Tern in Marathon and stand vigil in the evening for Antillean Nighthawk in Key West.
Overnight: Key West
Day 8. Dry Tortugas National Park
Seventy miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas National Park consists of a series of tiny coralline islands surrounded by the shimmering aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Among birders these islands are particularly famous for having the only nesting colonies of Brown Noddy, Sooty Tern, Magnificent Frigatebird, and Masked Booby in the contiguous United States. We reach these islands via the Yankee Freedom II catamaran on a day trip.
Upon arrival at Garden Key we have about four hours to enjoy the cacophony and bustle of activity from the seabird colonies on nearby Bush Key as well as marvel at impressive Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. Due to the isolation of these islands from any land, the parade grounds of this grand fort function as a welcoming oasis for exhausted migratory songbirds, including warblers, cuckoos, flycatchers, vireos, tanagers, and buntings.
On our return voyage to Key West we make sure to stop at nearby Hospital Key to see the colony of Masked Booby.
Overnight: Key West
Day 9. Florida Keys to Homestead
We drive north back to Miami, stopping at various state parks and preserves in the Florida Keys to look for migrant songbirds and breeding specialties or perhaps even chance upon finding a Caribbean stray. We will also make a stop at the National Key Deer Refuge to see the miniature and endemic Key Deer, the smallest subspecies of the White-tailed Deer and the smallest deer in North America. This will be a flexible day so that we can chase any reported rarities, and we will keep ourselves wired to any special sightings.
Day 10. Transfer to Miami International Airport
After some optional birding early in the morning for any bird species we may have missed we drive back to Miami, where the tour ends.
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors.
I sent a longer analysis of the Florida trip to Stephan, which I will forward to you. Again, my thanks for a truly memorable experience. The trip was spectacularly successful. I chose Birding Ecotours because other trips were full, and I couldn’t be happier.
On a purely practical note, with three rather inexperienced birders as the participants we picked up a variety of birds missed by other birders.
But the final bird list doesn’t really cover why this tour was so vastly superior. This was my first birding trip ever with less than 12 participants, and the advantages of a small group are monumental – no battling for seats, no squabbling over who saw what, no battles to get to the leader’s scope when the Resplendent Quetzal finally comes into view. In fact, there were no squabbles at all on our trip
Hotels were quite well chosen, despite some early problems with accepting South African addresses, etc., and the restaurants worked out quite nicely. Mexican restaurant would be my only quibble – a bit heavy for our over 60s group. One of us simply said he wouldn’t be on the lookout for Mexican restaurants in the future. But then he also discovered Key Lime pie and had it four nights, not to mention the Key Lime ice cream along the way. The balance of Cuban unique restaurants with seafood and steak houses worked out quite nicely, and the final two nights at Cracker Barrel were a big hit. Big hit too were the home-made lunches – they were actually better than the Subway lunches of the last few days and they extended our birding times quite dramatically
But the tour only really worked because of Stephan – he’s a gifted birder – that’s a given on any tour these days, but he’s also extremely good with people. In my note to him I mentioned how impressed I was with his interactions with the other participants. They were new to American birding, so we had lots of initial sightings of grackles and starlings. But Stephan patiently looked at all their sightings, and soon they were finding some rather wonderful birds. Main point – he never made them feel bad – something many guides need to learn, believe me.
And Stephan really knew the territory – I have no qualms about any of his choices, though I might have questioned a few at the time. There were virtually no migrating birds, and we still got 20 warblers. We also got close to 180 species without that much luck either. We missed the Thick-billed Vireo by one day, and others easily picked up the Smooth-billed Ani at the same location we has scoured a day earlier. But then we got all three cowbirds in an afternoon and had great looks at multiple Prothonotary Warblers, a bird everyone else missed this year. And we birded both the first day and the last – not something most tours do, and he even saved the Spot-breasted Oriole for our last bird. Bottom line, Stephan is equal in his birding skills to any guide I’ve been with. More importantly, he’s the best overall guide I have ever experienced – a people-person who knows birds. I highly recommend him on any tour he might be leading and love to bird with him again.
So, I had never heard of your tour company and only signed on because it was all that was available on dates my wife had to be in Florida. The serendipitous result was one of the most rewarding birding experiences of my rather long birding career. I strongly recommend your company to anyone and even more strongly recommend the value of small group tours – they are worth every extra penny.
My thanks for all your help, and I hope to be on one of your tours in the future.
John Kieran Kealy — Canada
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