Monday, February 20, 2012

HMANA's South Florida Birding Tour a Success!

By Phil Brown, HMANA Florida guide

Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to co-lead, along with Florida ecology and bird expert, Rafael Galvez, a birding and natural history tour to south Florida. Eight delightful participants traveled with us around the southern peninsula of Florida, from Sanibel Island to Flamingo to the shore of Lake Okeechobee. The focus of the tour was the Everglades system, a unique and expansive patchwork of natural and human-altered conditions completely within the subtropical zone, where we explored all of this region’s major ecosystems. Our group stomped through sawgrass along the Florida Trail, explored slash pine rocklands and flatwoods, and West Indian hardwood hammocks that contain some of the greatest tree diversity in the country, traversed cypress domes, sloughs, and mangrove estuaries, as waded in tidal mudflats. We also ventured to both coasts – the Atlantic and the Gulf – and spent a day on renowned Sanibel Island, where we were guided by special guests and Sanibel winter residents, Don and Lillian Stokes.

Among the 162 species of birds tallied during the six-day tour, we saw some incredible birds – flocks of American white pelicans with roseate spoonbills and reddish egrets, and a handful of shorebirds species on the mudflats of Ding Darling; anhingas with nestlings of several different ages; calling sandhill cranes; almost ghostly snowy plovers on the white sand beaches of Sanibel; a shorebird double-take: a long-billed curlew; four scissor-tailed flycatchers and a western kingbird in a single scope view (not to mention the vermillion flycatcher just down the road); a single smooth-billed ani; two pair of painted buntings at Corkscrew Swamp; and my personal favorite which resulted from a successful three-hour search: the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

Raptors were plentiful, with 14 of the 18 possible south Florida species located. Being a HMANA trip, one would expect no less. We saw a short-tailed hawk followed less than a minute later by a Swainson’s hawk heading in the same trajectory. A distant glimpse of the elusive and imperiled snail kite was all we could manage, but the back story of invasive mussels and an imbalanced water management scenario explains why that may have been. In addition to some of the more unusual species, there were simply impressive numbers of some of the common raptor species. There were more red-shouldered hawks and American kestrels on wires, and ospreys on nests, than anyone could imagine, and great looks at a multitude of the regal crested caracara in open prairie country. And, let’s not forget owls: our group tracked down four species, including close looks at both barn and burrowing owls.

The tour’s primary focus was on birds, but our group stopped to observe and enjoy creatures great and small including manatees, American crocodile, river otter, green anole, Julia longwing, white peacock, giant swallowtail, and zebra heliconia (butterflies), Florida red-bellied turtle, cane toad, and even the  venomous water moccasin! We also didn’t neglect the Pomacea snails (both invasive and native), nor the diverse tree and plant species with names like gumbo limbo, pond cypress, and Tillandsia (bromeliads).

Our south Florida tour was full of adventure and learning, and in just six full days, provided a memorable, in-depth look into the region’s varied habitats and birdlife. Between Rafael’s in depth knowledge of the ecosystems, the pace and organization of the tour, and our group’s ability to find most of our target bird species, it was agreed that there was little left to be desired in terms of what could have been observed and experienced. And, if you missed out this time around but would be interested in a future tour to Florida, stay tuned for information on future HMANA trips to south Florida.