Birding Tour USA: Florida Peninsula – Southern Specials and the Keys
Dates and Costs:
23 April – 01 May 2022
Price: US$3,321 / £2,512 / €2,894 per person sharing assuming 4 – 8 participants
Single Supplement: US$663 / £501 / €578
* Please note that currency conversion is calculated in real-time, therefore is subject to slight change. Please refer back to the base price when making final payments.
22 – 30 April 2023
Price: US$3,422 / £2,587 / €2,982 per person sharing assuming 4 – 8 participants
Single Supplement: US$685 / £518 / €596
Duration: 9 days
Group Size: 4 – 8
Tour Start: Miami
Tour End: Miami
Gratuities – (please see our tipping guidelines blog)
Personal expenses such as gifts
Featured Guide:Luis Gles
Florida Peninsula: Southern Specials and the Keys
On a map, the finger-like state of Florida protrudes prominently from the continental United States, reaching south towards the Caribbean just barely missing Cuba 90 miles (c. 140 kilometers) beyond. 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 with almost tropical forest-like habitat resulting in some fantastic bird watching opportunities. 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 in Florida. 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 and the national parks, botanical gardens and residential areas are teeming with bird life, potentially augmenting our trip list with a wide variety of colorful warblers and charismatic shorebirds.
Florida Scrub Jay is a charismatic and quizzical species.
On this tour, we cover the southern two thirds of the state comprehensively in search of the many special 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/western 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 specials 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 their thousands. With some luck, many of the sites we visit on this tour may be alive with migrant songbirds, and there is always a chance for a vagrant from the Caribbean like a La Sagra’s Flycatcher or a Western Spindalis to show up.
Itinerary (9 days/8 nights)
Day 1. Arrival in Miami
After arriving at Miami International Airport, you will be transferred to a nearby hotel for the night.
The unique Wood Stork is one of many waders on offer in Florida.
Day 2. Miami and the Palm Beach Area
The nearly tropical climate and exotic vegetation of the Miami-Fort 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 Grey-headed 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 local spot in Miami, we will head north to Green Cay Wetlands and Wakodahatchee Wetlands, two artificially created wetlands that host nearly all of Florida’s water-associated specials: Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Least Bittern, Limpkin, Anhinga, Purple Gallinule, the incredibly beautiful Roseate Spoonbill and more. The rookeries at Wakodahatchee Wetlands should be active at this time of year, providing excellent birding photographic opportunities of nesting herons, egrets, ibises, and storks.
Overnight: West Palm Beach
Day 3. Ocean side to gulf side
We will spend the morning hours birding the ocean (east) side of the Florida peninsula at several local parks, hoping to catch a new batch of migrant songbirds. Depending on how we faired with waders the previous day and how migration fairs for the day, we may head to Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge for species such as Roseate Spoonbill, Snail Kite and a shot at Smooth-billed Ani. After lunch, we will spend the slower afternoon birding hours driving across the middle of Florida towards Fort Myers. The late afternoon and evening hours will be spent birding the gulf (west) side of the peninsula, searching the coastline for shorebirds including Snowy, Piping and Wilson’s Plovers, American Oystercatcher, Willet and more.
Overnight: Fort Myers
It is always a treat to see the adorable Wilson’s Plover.
Day 4. Babcock-Webb and Tamiami Trail
Today will be an early start to ensure our sunrise arrival at the Fred C. Babcock/Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area. This huge tract of land hosts a wide variety of habitats including Florida slash pine, a favorite of several special bird species. We will spend the better part of the morning exploring these pines in search of Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow and Brown-headed Nuthatch. Following a successful morning at Babcock-Webb, we will then explore one or two other locations to search for the endemic Florida Scrub Jay. Where we go will depend on recent trends and timing.
Afterwards, we start our journey southeast 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 5. 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 bird throughout the day along the length of the main park road that terminates in flamingo campground, 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, Barred Owl and Chuck-will’s-widow.
Day 6. Florida Keys
After an early breakfast, we will 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 look for 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 the vociferous Black-whiskered Vireo. For the rest of the day we will keep our schedule open as we make our way south to Key West, to accommodate the presence (or absence) of migrant songbirds or even the possibility of 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 7. Dry Tortugas National Park
Seventy miles (c. 110 kilometers) 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.
We spend a second night in Key West to hopefully allow some time to relax and admire this famous town and perhaps to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home for example.
Overnight: Key West
Brown Noddy will certainly be a highlight of the Dry Tortugas.
Day 8. Florida Keys to Homestead
We drive north back towards Miami, stopping at various state parks and preserves in the Florida Keys to look for species we may have missed. Perhaps we’ll find some new migrant songbirds and breeding specials or maybe we’ll even chance upon finding a Caribbean stray (we’ll be checking the e-bird reports frequently to see what’s around!). We also usually make a stop at the National Key Deer Refuge to see the miniature and endemic Key Deer, the smallest subspecies of 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 9. Transfer to Miami International Airport
After some optional early morning birding, looking for any bird species we may have missed, we drive back (less than an hour when there is no traffic) to Miami to catch our flights home.
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. In addition, we sometimes have to use a different international guide from the one advertised due to tour scheduling.
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Florida Scrub Jay
This is a sample trip report. Please email us ([email protected]) for more trip reports from this destination.
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