Birding Tour USA: Florida Peninsula – Southern Specials and the Keys
Dates and Costs:
25 April – 03 May 2022
Price: US$3,990 / £3,064 / €3,574 per person sharing assuming 4 – 8 participants
Single Supplement: US$840 / £645 / €753
* 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$4,180 / £3,210 / €3,744 per person sharing assuming 4 – 8 participants
Single Supplement: US$880 / £675 / €789
(Please also read our blogs about recommended field guides for the seven continents here)
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.
Spot-breasted Oriole is one of the many exotics we will target in the Miami area.
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
The Palm Beach area usually holds decent numbers of Grey-headed Swamphens.
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
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.
The majestic Swallow-tailed Kite is often encountered on this tour.
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.Download Itinerary
Florida Peninsula – Southern Specials and the Keys Trip Report
24 APRIL – 02 MAY 2021
By Jacob Roalef
The Dry Tortugas were loaded with Brown Noddies allowing for excellent looks.
This nine-day set departure tour of Florida commenced in Miami on the 24th of April 2021 and concluded back there on the 2nd of May 2021. The tour visited many amazing birding locations including Spanish River Park, Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area and Wakodahatchee Wetlands before heading further south to the swamps of Everglades National Park and then down through the beautiful Florida Keys.
The tour connected with many top-quality target birds, giving us a great list for our nine days in Florida. Avian highlights featured a long list of Florida specials and migrants including Antillean Nighthawk, Mottled Duck, Smooth-billed Ani, Mangrove and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, White-crowned Pigeon, Grey-headed Swamphen, Limpkin, Wood Stork, Grey (Black-bellied) Plover, Brown and Black Noddies, Sooty, Bridled, and Roseate Terns, Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown and Masked Boobies, Swallow-tailed and Snail Kites, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Yellow-chevroned and Mitred Parakeets, Grey Kingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, Florida Scrub Jay, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Scaly-breasted Munia, Bachman’s Sparrow, Spot-breasted Oriole, Shiny Cowbird, Cape May, Magnolia, Blackpoll, and Pine Warblers, and a code 4 ABA rarity in Black-faced Grassquit.
We were lucky to score this great rarity for Florida, a Black-faced Grassquit.
A total of 154 bird species were seen (plus three species heard only), along with a few other amazing animals, including American Alligator, American Manatee, and ‘Key Deer’ (a tiny, endangered subspecies of White-tailed Deer). Species lists are at the end of this report.
Day 1, 24th April 2021. Arrival in Miami and some evening birding
After gathering up everyone from the airport, checking into the hotel and enjoying a nice Cuban dinner, we decided to venture out for some first day birding. We enjoyed a pleasant evening stroll around Kings Creek Village where we were greeted by a flock of Mitred Parakeets, an established exotic, now on the ABA countable list. Other highlights included an amazing point-blank red morph Eastern Screech Owl, pointed out to us by some kind neighborhood walkers, and the first of many Fish Crows, Northern Mockingbirds, and Blue Jays.
Yellow-chevroned Parakeet is one of many exotics in the Miami area.
Day 2, 25th April 2021. Miami exotics and Wakodahatchee Wetlands
The morning started off with breakfast before we headed out to explore some local parks and neighborhoods. Miami is known for having a long list of established exotic species which can be tricky to track down at times. We began at Pine Woods Park where we came across a small flock of Scaly-breasted Munias, a great start to the morning. We encountered a few other species including Brown Thrasher and Monk Parakeet before we turned back to leave. Just as we were approaching the vehicle, a pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls flew over and gave us some great looks as they perched in a nearby tree! From here we explored some local neighborhoods where we scored our main target bird, Spot-breasted Oriole. This glowing orange bird gave us prolonged views before we headed off towards Crandon Park. This park, located on Key Biscayne, is full of small ponds and exotic species including Egyptian Goose, Muscovy Duck, and Indian Peafowl. We also enjoyed views of five Grey Kingbirds on a single wire and a local rarity, Least Grebe, which had been hanging out in one of the ponds for the past few weeks.
After lunch it was time to start heading north towards Boca Raton but first, we made a quick stop at the Biltmore Hotel to search for more exotics. The beautiful hotel grounds were full of Mitred Parakeets and after some searching, our tour participant Urban, spotted a Yellow-chevroned Parakeet (see pic above) at the top of one of the palms!
From here we continued on to the spectacular Wakodahatchee Wetlands. As soon as we stepped onto the long boardwalk loop through the wetlands, we were greeted by the local welcoming party of nesting Wood Storks only a few feet away. These wetlands are a haven for nesting wading birds, and we spent the afternoon and early evening enjoying amazing views of Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, Purple and Common Gallinules, Grey-headed Swamphen, Anhinga, Glossy Ibis, Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Double-crested Cormorant. We also spotted some other wildlife including a Northern Raccoon and a few American Alligators.
This American Alligator gave us a full view out of the water.
Day 3, 26th April 2021. Spanish River Park, Loxahatchee, JD State Park to Fort Meyers
Our first stop this morning was at Spanish River Park, a great location to catch up with migrant birds, resting and refueling before they continue their journeys north. We managed to get onto a few nice flocks containing American Redstart, Cape May, Black-and-white, Blackpoll, and Black-throated Blue Warblers, and Black-whiskered Vireo, a Florida special. We eventually headed out to the beach section where we picked up Least, Royal and Cabot’s Terns and a small flock of Sanderlings. From here we were off to Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge where we enjoyed a pleasant walk around their Cypress Swamp which really gives off Jurassic Park vibes. Highlights here were Pileated Woodpecker and Barred Owl, a great spot by our tour participant Mary!
The afternoon was spent visiting Jonathan Dickinson State Park where we managed to encounter our top target, Florida Scrub Jay, rather quickly. Unfortunately, it wasn’t interested in coming back out for prolonged looks and pictures. We moved on to the Sem-Chi Rice Mill which you can see from a distance, as hundreds of Black and Turkey Vultures soared overhead. Here we managed to catch up with the rare Shiny Cowbird as well as Yellow-headed Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird and Common Ground Dove before starting our long drive across the state to Fort Meyers.
Anhinga may be a common bird in Florida, but they are always a real treat to watch.
Day 4, 27th April 2021. Babcock-Webb, Harns Marsh, and the Tamiami Trail
The morning started off exploring Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area and its extensive tracts of Florida slash pines which plays host to a few special species. It didn’t take too long to get onto our top target for the area, Red-cockaded Woodpecker! Of course, the woodpecker wasn’t the only good species here, we also enjoyed Great Crested Flycatcher, Bachman’s Sparrow, Sandhill Crane, Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Meadowlark, and a Brown-headed Nuthatch, repeatedly visiting a nest hole. On our way out of the park, a small family of Northern Bobwhites decided to cross the road and treat us to a look, after hearing them all morning. From here we headed off to Harns Marsh where we heard the loud calls of Limpkins before finally spotting one. The main highlight though had to be spectacular, eye-level views of a Snail Kite slowly scouring the channel in search of snails and proceeding to land on a snag to dig out its prize. We began our journey south with a few stops in the Naples area which proved to be rather quiet and unsuccessful. After dinner we started our drive across the Tamiami Trail where a small channel follows the road and it was absolutely full of Snowy and Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons and Anhingas. For miles we enjoyed gazing out the windows at the massive numbers of these elegant waterbirds.
Day 5, 28th April 2021. Everglades National Park and Lucky Hammock
We started off this morning by heading into Everglades National Park, a huge park consisting of approximately 1.5 million acres of habitat! Unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck at our first stop with the tricky (Cape Sable) Seaside Sparrow but did however enjoy nice views of several Common Yellowthroats singing in the marshes. As we continued down the main road, we were treated to multiple low flying Swallow-tailed Kites, gracefully swooping over our heads. We continued along until we reached the Flamingo Visitor Center where a group of American Manatees were hanging out by the boat docks. It is always amazing to see these large sea mammals up close. We finished up with a quick hike around the eco pond which netted us some nice species including American White Pelican, Reddish Egret, American Avocet, and White-eyed Vireo. After a picnic lunch, we left the everglades behind. On our way out we stopped at the famous Robert is Here fruit stand to enjoy some delicious fruit shakes. We made a quick stop to check out a local Cave Swallow colony before heading to the hotel for some rest.
There is nothing quite like a Swallow-tailed Kite soaring just over your head!
A small group decided to venture out in the late afternoon to bird around Lucky Hammock and the L31W Canal. We met up with another Birding Ecotours guide, Luis Gles, for a fun-filled session of birding. We managed to get onto a few locally uncommon birds such as White-tailed Kite, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Western Kingbird before we started our 1.5-mile (2.5 kilometer) hike of L31W Canal. It was at the end of this trail that a rare Smooth-billed Ani had been hanging out and luckily it didn’t take long before this special bird made an appearance for us. While hiking back out we enjoyed a few Common Nighthawks overhead, preparing for their evening of hunting insects. We met back up with the others for dinner and had a nice Common Myna in the parking lot of the restaurant. A pleasant way to end a bird-filled day.
Day 6, 29th April 2021. Florida Keys
Today we ventured into the beautiful Florida Keys. Highway 1 stretches over 120 miles (190 kilometers) from mainland Florida all the way to Key West and is one of the prettiest drives in the country. Our first stop of the day was at Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park. Within the first 100 feet (30 meters) of the path we were greeted by a calling and accommodating Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Further along we enjoyed more White-eyed Vireos, Cape May Warblers, and Northern Parulas before the real star of the show, Mangrove Cuckoo, made an appearance. This was quite an obliging bird flying over the path and perching in some dead limbs, giving amazing views out in the open!
The typically sneaky Mangrove Cuckoo gave us excellent views on this trip.
After some breakfast, we continued our drive of the keys, enjoying soaring Magnificent Frigatebirds overhead as we went. A quick stop on Grassy Key yielded several nice shorebirds including Grey (Black-bellied) Plover, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher and Semipalmated Plover. We continued on to the Marathon Government Center which has a small dock behind the building where a few Roseate Terns were hanging out with a large group of Least Terns. We then made it to the Blue Hole located on Big Pine Key where the star bird, Black-faced Grassquit, was spotted almost immediately. Other nice birds here included Black-and-white Warbler and Grey Kingbird. On our way to the No Name Pub for the next meal, we encountered a few ‘Key Deer’ along the side of the road. These deer are a tiny and endangered subspecies of White-tailed Deer.
After some tasty food, we started to head back towards Grassy Key for an evening birding session. We made stops along the way as the tide had shifted to low tide providing nice foraging areas for shorebirds and other waterbirds. Here we encountered Ruddy Turnstone, Willet, Reddish Egret, and the white form of Great Blue Heron, which may end up becoming a new species in future years. Finally, we made it to Grassy Key to put ourselves in position for Antillean Nighthawk. It took a while, and two silent, distant nighthawks, before an accommodating bird flew close by giving their signature “pitti-pit-pit” call.
Day 7, 30th April 2021. Dry Tortugas National Park
We were off to the docks first thing this morning and then onto Dry Tortugas National Park. While waiting at the docks for our ferry to load up and set sail, we enjoyed a few birds including a flock of Black Skimmers, Green Heron, Western Osprey and a Red Junglefowl walking around the street. It wasn’t long before we were onboard and out on the open waters. It was a pleasant day for the two-hour ferry ride and as we got closer to the final destination, a Brown Booby and a pair of Audubon’s Shearwaters flew by the boat. Before actually landing on Garden Key, our boat passed by Hospital Key, a small sand bar which plays host to nesting Masked Boobies. Finally, we arrived at Garden Key and the Dry Tortugas, where we were greeted by a swirling cloud of thousands of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns. We hiked up to the fort to begin scanning through the large flock while enjoying many Magnificent Frigatebirds flying low overhead. Thankfully, it didn’t take too long to spot the single Black Noddy mixed into the huge Brown Noddy flock.
Several species nest on Garden Key, including Sooty Tern.
From here, our time was spent further exploring the island. The south coaling docks had a few Bridled Terns hanging around giving nice views for everyone. The middle of the fort has a small water drip where migrant birds seek a drink and bath. Here we had Indigo Bunting, Wilson’s, Magnolia, Black-throated Blue and Palm Warblers, Grey-cheeked Thrush, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. We all loaded back onto the boat and took the ferry back to Key West for dinner after a really pleasant and enjoyable day with sunshine and perfect blue waters.
Day 8, 01st May 2021. Keys back to Homestead
Today was spent birding and driving our way back out of the keys to mainland Florida. We started off along Boca Chica Road where we heard a Clapper Rail call a few times and there were several American Yellow Warblers singing but they were not being very cooperative with looks. From here we had a lovely breakfast and headed off to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. This location produced some good species for us including White-crowned Pigeon, Yellow-crowned Night Heron and a lingering, Red-breasted Merganser. We also got stuck into a nice little flock of migrants such as American Redstart, Cape May, Magnolia and Blackpoll Warblers and a Northern Parula. The rest of the day was mainly spent driving back out of the Keys and enjoying the views of the crystal-clear blue waters. We did stop and pull over a few times when the tide was low and enjoyed species such as Reddish Egret, Bald Eagle, Magnificent Frigatebird and Royal Tern.
After dinner, we had an optional late evening birding session back at Lucky Hammock. As the sun set on a beautiful evening, we enjoyed several nighttime species such as American Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, and a few loud calling Chuck-will’s-widows. A great ending to a lovely day.
A soaring Magnificent Frigatebird is a welcome sight in the Florida Keys.
Day 9, 02nd May 2021. Departure day
Our final day was spent transferring to the Miami airport for departures home and discussing some of the top birds of the trip. A few of the favorites for the group included great species and memorable encounters with birds which we managed to watch up close and enjoy their natural behavior. The favorites consisted of Florida Scrub Jay, Snail Kite, Grey-headed Swamphen, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown Noddy and Mangrove Cuckoo. We then all said our goodbyes and wrapped up a great trip to Florida.
Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included. This is a sample trip report. Please email us ([email protected]) for more trip reports from this destination.