Friday, October 24, 2014

HMANA Tour: Exploring Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas

By Will Weber, HMANA board member and tour participant
Hawk watching at the Florida Keys Hawk Watch
The HMANA Florida Keys/Dry Tortugas tour, Oct 6-12, 2014, was a great success.  Six participants enjoyed the extraordinary leadership and bird finding ability of leaders Rafael Galvez and Phil Brown.  Our regular program of dawn to dusk birding was punctuated with great meals in carefully chosen restaurants and our accommodations afforded good access to on- or near-site birding.

Yellow-throated Vireo
Banding demo at the Cape Florida Banding Station
I was very impressed with the Florida Keys Hawk Watch site at Curry Hammock State Park on Little Crawl Key.  They have a regular crew of four hawk watchers who diligently track raptors and non-raptors following multiple migration paths.  Our guide, Rafael, is the coordinator at this site. The site was very welcoming of our group and others who were visiting. As remote as the site is from population centers, there seems to be a regular stream of visitors and educational groups. While the site does not include a raptor banding operation, they do regular non-raptor monitoring patrols and keep in close contact with the Florida Keys Bird Banding site at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne. I was impressed by the gratitude the watch site personnel expressed for and HMANA’s support.  This site is geographically distant from any other count sites and seems critically important for monitoring raptors departing the continental US.

Some of these migrants continue past Key West and out over the open ocean via Garden Key and Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. Our day visit to Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas National Park was a spectacular raptor watching experience. While most birders plan a Dry Tortugas visit for the Spring migration, our October visit was superb for hawks, particularly all three species of falcons.  The warblers that had made the overnight flight from the Keys faced an incredible gauntlet of falcons and accipiters as they foraged in the meager vegetation of Garden Key. It was hard to know how many Peregrines, Merlins, Kestrels and Coopers Hawks we were observing chasing the passerines because they were possibly only pausing briefly en route to Cuba. Ospreys were abundant. We saw several Broad-wings that had made the crossing.

Scanning at Dry Tortugas National Park
The trip was planned and timed to feature the Peregrine migration in southern Florida. Every day of the trip we saw Peregrines in a variety of habitats.  For us northerners, a Mississippi Kite and numerous Short-tailed Hawks provided special encounters. While raptors were the prime focus, the participants enjoyed seeking and identifying not only all the birds, (140 species counted in total) but butterflies, dragonflies and plants.  Phil impressed me with his keen senses and knowledge of birds and Rafael seemed to have a comprehensive knowledge of Florida ecology, including botany. 

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