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FLORIDA 2008

In February 2008, Birdfinders ran a very successful winter trip to Central and Southern Florida. This tour offers unique opportunities to see many Florida and South Eastern US specialties at a time of year when many birders from northern climes are ready for some warm sunshine and good birding! The tour features a number of species that can be difficult or impossible to see elsewhere in the ABA area, and also runs at a particularly good time of year for rarities – this year's star bird was a Bananaquit in the quiet suburbs of Hollywood, not too far from Fort Lauderdale International Airport.

Other major highlights included Brown and Masked Boobies, Wood Stork, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Snail Kite, Short-tailed Hawk, Limpkin, Sooty Tern, Brown Noddy, White-crowned Pigeon, (West Indian) Cave Swallow and Florida Scrub-Jay, the latter being Florida's only endemic bird species. Notable, rather unexpected bonus birds included a stunning Yellow Rail seen by the entire group at Three Lakes WMA, two male Eurasian Wigeons together at Merrit Island NWR, seven individual Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and a mixed flock of seven Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and two Western Kingbirds in the back streets of Key West. The latter were found just before a tropical storm sent us scurrying north in haste along the keys.

Florida is also recognized for several interesting subspecies, and in addition to the above mentioned West Indian Cave Swallows, we also came across several 'Great White Herons' in the Everglades and Keys. This huge heron is currently regarded as a white morph of Great Blue Heron and we also encountered several 'Wurdemann's Herons, an intermediate morph between Great White and Great Blue Herons. We had good views of the pale-headed South Florida form of Red-shouldered Hawk extimus, many (rather tame) pairs of Florida Sandhill Crane (G.c. pratensis), a pair of Mourning Doves of the West Indian race (Z. m. macroura), 'Florida' Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia floridana which is an endemic subspecies, Florida Prairie Warbler (D. d. paludicola), likely Florida Grasshopper Sparrows (two birds flushed in appropriate habitat at Three Lakes WMA), and the spectacular pale-eyed form of Eastern Towhee P. e. alleni.

South Eastern US species included Mottled Duck, American Purple Gallinule, Anhinga, White Ibis, Wilson's Plover, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, White-eyed Vireo, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Bachman's Sparrow (singing in mid-February!) and Painted Bunting. Many of these birds could be enjoyed at very close range, for which Florida's birds are known, providing excellent photographic opportunities. The herons in particular were very photogenic with notables including Reddish Egret, Tricolored, Little Blue and Yellow-crowned Night-herons, plus Roseate Spoonbills. Wood Storks were plentiful and we recorded them on eleven days of the tour.

Highlights amongst the raptors included six individual Short-tailed Hawks, both light and dark morphs, with the first being almost in downtown Miami! This species is arguably easier to see in the winter months than later in the spring and we were certainly pleased with this tally. We also had an early American Swallow-tailed Kite at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and had a great time watching Snail Kites between the squally showers at the Miccosukee Restaurant on the Tamiami Trail. Red-shouldered Hawk was easily the most common Buteo of the trip, but Ospreys were even more abundant throughout and Bald Eagles quite common in the interior where we also saw three Northern Caracaras.

Shorebird highlights included American Avocet, Semi-palmated, Wilson's and Piping Plovers, Marbled Godwit, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Willet, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers, Wilson's Snipe, Semi-palmated, Western and Least Sandpipers – not a bad haul for the middle of February!

Our day out to the Dry Tortugas was an interesting experience to say the least! With the wind whipping up ahead of a tropical storm we were going to be in for a rough crossing and the Captain of the Yankee Freedom appropriately warned us before sailing. He was right! It wasn't the most comfortable two hours across the Gulf of Mexico but it was well worth it producing good views of Northern Gannet, Pomarine and Arctic Skuas in Gulf waters. As we approached Jefferson Key reasonable views of Masked Booby, and a single perched Brown Booby were secured. Surprisingly, the breeding cycle of the Sooty Terns (600+) on Bush Key was in full swing, and the first Brown Noddies of the season were very much in evidence. The highlight for many of us however, was watching the Magnificent Frigatebirds wheeling just overhead and hanging effortlessly on the wind. Few landbirds were present at this time of year but there was a pair of American Kestrels, a Killdeer, four Hudsonian Whimbrels and a handful of Palm Warblers. The trip had most certainly been a success and we settled down for another, even rougher, two hour sea crossing back to Key West. That said, we were grateful that the trip ran at all. Had it been planned for the following day, we would have almost certainly have been disappointed by a weather-related cancellation.

On the downside we did rather poorly when it came to seeing some of the many, non-native, exotics in the Urban areas of the Southern Peninsula. We had little trouble with Monk Parakeets but all the other species that we saw including Red-crowned Parrot, Mitred and Red-masked Parakeets, and Common Mynas, are not yet considered countable by the ABA. However, some of these, especially the Common Myna, may become countable in the near future.

Amongst the mammals, the undoubted highlight would have to be the West Indian Manatees that we saw at two locations, but we also saw Bottlenose Dolphin, American Otter and Marsh Rabbit. The reptiles included more American Alligators than we could shake a stick at, as well as Gopher Tortoise and Loggerhead Turtle.

This relaxed paced, mid-winter birding break will be running once again during 7th–22nd February, 2009, so why not join us in the sunshine state! Special thanks go to tour participant Jared Tibbetts, who constantly shared his observations with our group and listed some 51 species of butterfly and 19 species of Odonata – not bad considering more northern climes were still gripped by freezing winter conditions! And further thanks to our well natured group, all of whom made the tour extremely enjoyable. As usual on our trips, there was some outstanding bird finding by our group members. I'm very grateful to Jim Hamilton, Malcom Gwilt, Jared Tibbets, Doreen Marsh, Michael O' Donnell & Janet Wheelahan.

Florida Scrub-jay

Florida Scrub-jay