Michell Brodie, Bird Buccaneer, Goes to Florida
April 19 – May 3, 2008
On April 19, 2008, I caught a plane that left San Francisco at 6:00 AM and yet the man across the aisle from me still managed to drink four beers before landing in Atlanta! Both that flight and my connecting flight to Tampa, Florida were early so it was an auspicious beginning to an amazing trip to Florida. Tampa is very convenient; there is a Target (for propane and bug spray), a Whole Foods Market (for good food), and an excellent beer shop (for obvious reasons) all in the same shopping area just minutes from the airport. After finishing all my preparations there was no time left for anything but to drive to my camp for the night at Little Manatee River State Park in Wimauma, FL. Just driving in I saw a Roseate Spoonbill fly over the highway and a Little Blue Heron in a ditch on the side of the road. The entrance is lined with saw palmettos and moss draped oak trees and my little camp site was very private and cozy. As I fell asleep under a full moon a Chuck-will’s-Widow came and began to sing along with some Common Nighthawks. During the night a Barred Owl began to hoot.
April 20, 2008, I got up at 5:00 AM and drove to Ft. DeSoto Park on Tampa Bay near St. Petersburg. There were dozens of Ospreys nesting in the park. I stopped first at the East Beach and there were some White Ibises walking at my feet. They were very common it turned out. I then drove west to Bay Pier Parking Area to the famous mulberry trees. There were dozens of birders surrounding these trees but there were very few birds. Almost all of the birders were photographers. I was the only one videotaping. Finally after waiting and walking around for about 30 minutes a few things flew in—a Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Orchard Oriole, Indigo Bunting, and a Prothonotary Warbler. The birders surrounded the poor things. So I took a walk around and found a Pileated Woodpecker right out in the open in the parking lot and some Common Ground-Doves in the dunes. There were also some Black-hooded Parakeets in the palmetto trees. I took a little nature trail across the street and saw a Magnificent Frigate Bird circling high overhead. Next I took the nature walk in an oak hammock and mangrove forest at the Arrowhead Picnic Area where I saw a Louisiana Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler, and Black-throated Blue Warbler. Next I drove to the North Beach (allegedly the number one beach in the US) and walked around the hammock at the end of the island where I saw my first ever Gulf Fritillary and Mangrove Skipper. Ft. DeSoto wasn’t nearly as exciting as I thought it was going to be so I drove from there to St. Petersburg to the Boyd Hill Nature Park. Over 50 species of butterflies have been recorded in this neat little park. It has extensive trails through various habitats, oak hammock, pine woodlands, and wetlands. In the oak hammock I saw another Pileated Woodpecker, Great-crested Flycatcher, Kentucky Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, an Ovenbird, and a Red-shouldered Hawk devouring a rat. There were some gopher tortoises in the open areas and alligators near the water. I saw several different butterflies—the beautiful Zebra Longwing, Gulf Fritillary, Monarch, White Peacock, Cassius Blue, Horace’s Duskywing, Sleepy Orange, and Tropical Checkered Skipper. It was getting late so I headed back to my campsite at Little Manatee River State Park. I took a walk along the river but dark was approaching and I didn’t see much. As it darkened I heard Common Nighthawks, Barred Owl, Northern Bobwhite, and Chuck-will’s-Widow.
April 21, 2008, I got up at 5:00 AM as usual and drove north of Tampa to the Dunedin Causeway where I stopped and looked at some shorebirds including Ruddy Turnstone, Piping Plover, and a pack of Black Skimmers among other things, before heading onward to Honeymoon Island State Park. As I was entering the park I saw my first ever Gray Kingbird. It was perched on a phone wire and was singing away. I drove to the end of the park and took the Osprey Trail. As the name indicates there were many, many Ospreys. I saw several species of warblers on the trail including Palm Warbler, very common resident, Prairie Warbler, another common resident, Cape May Warbler (to think how hard I worked for one in Pt. Pelee last year), Hooded Warbler, and Indigo Buntings at my feet. A Tricolored Heron was near the end of the trail and a Blue Grosbeak was in the picnic area. After walking the trail I drove over to the beach area which was loaded with vacationers loafing about. I walked down the narrow beach and saw a Northern Gannet right off shore diving for food. Just inland from the beach was a small pond where I saw a Wilson’s Plover. It was starting to get crowded so I decided to leave and return to Ft. DeSoto where I would be camping for the night. It was extremely windy. I returned to the famous mulberry trees where there were still some birders lingering about. The Orchard Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, and Summer Tanager from yesterday were still there but there was a photographer with the biggest lens I have ever seen photographing near the fountain so that I could not get close enough for good video. His lens must have been 1000mm. I watched for a while but decided to try the end of the island. There was nothing but a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in the non-native Australian Pines at East Beach. At the end of the island I saw a small flock of shorebirds that let me get very close and included Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Plover, Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover, and some Dowitchers. That night the extreme wind kept me awake most of the night with the tent fly flapping furiously in the wind.
April 22, 2008, I got up early and checked the mulberry trees at sun up. The only additions were I finally saw the Prothonotary Warbler eating some berries, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which I saw very few of in Florida. Red-eyed Vireo, and an Overnbird which is very common. I left the park and drove to Osprey, Florida to the Oscar Scherer State Park, best place in the state to find the Florida Scrub-Jay which looks just like our Western Scrub-Jay but is a separate species. I carried that doggone 11 pound camera on a three mile hike through pine lands but was rewarded with ultra close ups of my first ever Florida Scrub-Jay. There were very few people at the park and I enjoyed hiking in the pine woodlands but after having my lunch I decided to drive to J.N. “Ding: Darling National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most famous birding sites in all of North America (I’m not sure why). It took a very long time to get there because you must cross a causeway from Ft. Meyers Beach to Sanibel Island to get there. Sanibel Island is a tourist destination entirely apart from the excellent birding allegedly there, and thus extremely crowded. The wildlife refuge, when I finally did make it there, was packed with people and not one of them a birder. Packs of people were all around me at all times. I saw more butterflies than birds including Giant Swallowtail, Mangrove Buckeye, Cloudless Sulphur, Zebra Swallowtail, Great Southern White, and Little Yellow. After walking the nature trail I left Sanibel Island and took the long drive to my campground for the night, Ortona Lock, which is about half way across the state. I was supposed to meet my friend, Ken, the following morning on the Atlantic side; Fort Myers is on the Gulf side. As I approached the turn off for Ortona Lock, I saw a Crested Caracara right on the side of the road and a White-winged Dove and Loggerhead Shrike. I arrived at the Ortona Lock campground right at sunset. It was a very strange campground; right across the road was a herd of cattle! It was very clean and had a nice bathroom with a clean hot shower but it was a little strange for me. I received a message from Ken that he would be unable to meet me the next day.
April 23, 2008, I got up as early as humanly possible and made the grueling drive across the state to Delray Beach to the Wakodahatchee Wetlands. I arrived later than I intended and there were already numerous people there, mostly joggers and photographers. I was the only birder there. One guy was taking photos but he didn’t know what anything was. The area is a managed wetland watered with reclaimed water from the waste water treatment plant. Before the state obliterated the real wetlands to build hundreds of golf courses, the water was naturally filtered through these wetlands leaving plenty of fresh drinking water but with the demands on land in Florida for development, the wetlands were soon vastly diminished leaving no source to filter all the waste water being created. So places like Wakodahatchee were created to fill the void. In the meantime the place had become a major attractant for wildlife that had become habituated to humans to the point that normally extremely shy species such as Least Bitterns and Purple Gallinules walked right out into the open, thus all the photographers. The joggers just enjoyed a nice walk on the boardwalks there through a lush beautiful wetland. I walked around the boardwalk twice and had extremely close views of Purple Gallinule, my first ever Limpkin, Least Tern feeding a chick, Anhingas everywhere, Common Moorhens with little chicks, Mottled Duck, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Wood Storks, and every heron species in the state. While looking at the whistling ducks several species of warblers flew into a tree by my head. While out on the boardwalk I realized that for some undetermined amount of time the microphone on my video camera had been in the off position. I was crushed to the core. I had been making running commentaries for three days and had taped nearly an hour of footage. I was just crestfallen. After lunch I drove from Wakodohatchee to Green Cay Wetlands. It was an erstwhile bell pepper farm that had been donated by the farmers to the state at a fraction of the market value with the understanding that it would be managed as a wetland in perpetuity. It too had a nice boardwalk with plenty of wildlife but being only four years old the birds were not nearly as close as at Wakodahatchee. I saw pretty much all the same species I had seen earlier in the morning. So I left Delray Beach and drove south on I-75 to Miami over the Rickenbacker Causeway to Key Biscayne to the end of the island to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. I needed a restroom desperately. I got out of the car with my video camera and walked over to some trees. They were dripping with warblers. I started to video tape some but there were mobs of Jews on their Passover vacation being wheeled up and down the trail on bicycle carts. Each one stopping to inquire what I was doing or looking at etc. I decided I better find a restroom. I saw a man with binoculars and I told him the trees were dripping with warblers but I was being harassed. I asked him where the restroom was. He introduced himself to me which I thought was strange but then later after taking care of some rather urgent matters realized he was the guy who had written the Florida bird finding guide in my car, Brian Rapoza! Fortunately I saw him later and told him I was sorry his name didn’t click earlier and thanked him for his helpful book. He pointed out a more peaceful trail I could take which was a dirt path with no bicycle carts or people for that matter save me and Brian Rapoza. This trail also had many birds and butterflies on it including Painted Bunting, Indigo Bunting, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, American Redstart, Black-throated Green Warbler, and the ever present Palm Warbler. Among the butterflies I saw were the gorgeous Zebra Longwing and a Queen. I stayed for a very long time but then decided I better go as it was getting late. I drove back over the causeway and through Miami in hellish traffic south on the Dixie Highway (Highway 1) to the Everglades where I would be camping for the next three nights. The campground had only two other people so I had my choice of the best spot which I took and fell fast asleep. A Chuck-will’s-widow sang me to sleep.
April 24, 2008, I woke up early to an Antillean Nighthawk singing high overhead somewhere. I could not see it because my camp site was nestled in some very tall Long Pines. While brushing my teeth in the campground bathroom I noticed a Green Tree Frog in one of the overflow holes. I drove from Everglades to one of Miami’s hottest birding spots, A.D Doug Barnes Park. There were a few warblers but nothing like the numbers I had seen at Bill Baggs. The only new bird was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and some Muscovy Ducks which I don’t think are “countable.” Countable is a fanatical birder term. Most birders keep lists of all the birds they see and count how many species they have seen in their lives. But serious birders also divide the list into areas where the bird was seen. Depending on how fanatical they are their lists might be as minute as which county the bird was seen in. So for example, my friend Jennifer Rycenga, who is very fanatical, keeps a list of how many species she has seen in San Mateo County, how many she has seen in California, how many she has seen in North America, and in the world. The North American list is further delineated by the American Birding Association (ABA) to include only the US including Alaska and Canada. You may not include birds you saw in Hawaii on your North American ABA list. The ABA has other bizarre rules about what may be counted on your list. For example escaped birds are not countable nor are released birds even if they are nesting and breeding in the wild until their population reaches what the ABA considers a viable population. I think the Black-hooded Parakeets are not “countable.” I’m not sure why because I don’t really keep up with such nonsense but there sure were a lot of them at Fort DeSoto. Yes, they did originate in the suitcase of some stowaway from South America but they most certainly are living on their own in the wild at this point. Other birds that were introduced and quickly spread to make viable populations there is no question you may count such as European Starlings and House Sparrows. California Condors may only be counted if you saw one before 1979 or something because that’s when the last one was captured for captive breeding because they are basically extinct. According to EO Wilson once a species’s population falls below 50 it is considered extinct and beyond recovery. So the Muscovy Duck was most likely an escapee and not countable on my ABA approved North American list or life list as most birders call them (although I read somewhere that Floridians consider them “countable.”) In fact, when I arrived in Florida I had a wish list of birds I had never seen before that I wanted to see. However, I was not exactly sure how many “countable” birds were on my North American Life List. My goal was to reach 600 in 2008. I didn’t count the Muscovy Duck. I was about ready to leave AD Barnes due to lack of bird activity when I noticed a very large swallowtail flutter by; this Giant Swallowtail, my first, was the best sighting at AD Barnes.
I left AD Barnes and drove to Matheson Hammock County Park. This is Miami Dade County’s oldest park and it was a dandy. It had trails through some incredible tropical hardwood hammock of which there is very little left in the extremely developed South part of Florida. I took one of the trails and soon came to a Royal Palm with a Chestnut-fronted Macaw poking his head out of one of the many holes in the trunk. (I’m pretty sure this is not countable). I also saw a Hill Myna. I had never heard of it before and wasn’t sure whether it was countable. I was looking intently at a Spicebush Swallowtail I wanted desperately to photograph when another birder said, “Ma’am, there’s a Short-tailed Hawk overhead.” Sure enough there was my first ever Short-tailed Hawk, a dark morph, circling right above us. I walked into a very wild tangled trail– what all of Miami looked like before all the development. In there I found a Great Southern White and a Florida White Butterfly. I heard a Bobwhite calling. I had lunch in the picnic area and then left. I drove back across the Rickenbacker Causeway to Key Biscayne to Crandon Beach. I went to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center and took the Osprey Trail through maritime forest. It was near midday and I didn’t see much besides the resident Prairie Warblers and Palm Warblers but it was a nice walk out to a boardwalk through a mangrove forest. It was nearing rush hour and I couldn’t bear the thought of being caught in Miami rush hour traffic again trying to get back to my campsite in the Everglades so I decided to head directly east toward the Shark Valley entrance thinking there would be less traffic. The roads in Miami are ridiculous. They are numbered but not in order! How absurd. I ended up in some run down neighborhood full of Cuban refugees. I finally managed to get out of there in some convoluted way and make it to Shark Valley in time to have my dinner beside the canal. This was an alleged spot to see Snail Kites coursing over the marsh. I watched while eating but saw nothing but herons and Vultures. I heard a King Rail somewhere in the bank but never saw it. The Shark Valley visitor center was closed with a gate pulled across it. So after dinner I left and returned to my camp site at Long Pine Key Campground. Some more people had arrived including some completely self absorbed foreigner in a rented RV who parked his RV right next to my tent even though there were hundreds of open camp sites. At 10:30 PM when his obnoxious noisy generator was still running I went over to his door and pounded on it until he answered. I said “quiet hours are 10:00 PM. Your generator is bothering me. Will you turn it off please?” He couldn’t speak English but mumbled something and a few minutes later it was off. I didn’t put the fly on my tent because it was a nice evening but I had no sooner fallen asleep than it began to rain and I had to get up and put the fly on. It was a rocky night and I didn’t feel well the next day.
April 25, 2008, I had intended to get up early as usual but I was feeling under the weather so to speak. The rain was very short lived and the sun was up by the time I arrived at Royal Palm in the Everglades, an alleged spot to see White-crowned Pigeons. I couldn’t find any but I took the Gumbo-Limbo trail which was a quite nice self-guided nature trail through tropical hammock. There was a Great Crested Flycatcher, Ovenbird, and American Redstart but not much else. I took the Anhinga trail and there were some alligators and Anhingas but not much else there either. So I drove some more down the park road to Mahogany Hammock. It held more tropical hammock including some very large mahogany trees, a tree that has mostly been logged out of Florida due to its high value as a hard wood for furniture and building. In most of the trees air plants were growing. There were two Gray Kingbirds at the entrance and one Eastern Kingbird, and a Barred Owl that was perched at eye level near the boardwalk. Next I drove further to the Snake Bight Trail, an alleged place to see the ever elusive Mangrove Cuckoo. According to Rapoza’s book the mosquitoes on this trail are particularly vicious. He was not kidding about that. I sprayed 100% poison on myself, 100% deet, and had long pants and a long-sleeved shirt and they still bit me hundreds of times right through my clothes. It was unbelievable. It was 1.6 miles of pure hell to the boardwalk at the end of the trail. I couldn’t keep the mosquitoes off my hands because I was carrying my video camera on a tripod in one hand and binoculars in the other. I saw a few warblers but not too much else. I ran part of the time and was relieved at a little breeze on the boardwalk to keep the mosquitoes away. Just as I arrived a Swallow-tailed Kite flew right over my head followed by an immature Bald Eagle. I couldn’t see any Flamingoes allegedly visible from the boardwalk way out in Florida Bay, only a few shorebirds eating in the mudflats. I ran back down the trail to the car and proceeded to the end of the park at Flamingo. I saw the endangered American Crocodile on the banks of the canal behind the camp store. There are only 500 left and all of them in South Florida. Next I walked the Bear Lake Trail. At first I wasn’t seeing anything and I was just about to turn around and give up because I just could not take the constant whine of mosquitoes in my ears for one more minute when I heard a Black-whiskered Vireo singing, another new bird for me. I returned to the car and then headed back up the road to the Pa-hay-okee (native word for grassy waters) Observation Tower. Supposedly an occasional Snail Kite is seen here but I had no such luck. It was neat to see endless saw grass prairie from the top of the tower. It made me a little sad though to think in what peril the Everglades were to the depredations of humans. Lake Okeechobee is the largest lake in Florida and is a source of fresh drinking water for 99% of Florida’s water is not fresh. Due to rapid population increases, human demands, and overdevelopment the people nearly drained the Everglades dry by diverting the water from Lake Okeechobee. Man made canals had to be built to prevent the Everglades from disappearing forever and with them several species dependent on them including the Florida Panther.
April 26, 2008, I woke up not feeling my usual perky self. I went over to the Snake Bight Trail again to look for Mangrove Cuckoo but there was very little action so I gave up after about 50 mosquito bites and tried Royal Palm again. Not too much was happening there except for dozens of Black Vultures and I tried one last time at Mahogany Hammock but only saw three Barred Owls. So I left the Everglades and drove south on Highway 1, the Overseas Highway, to Key Largo. I stopped at the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical Site, the largest protected mangrove forest in the world. There were a few Cape May Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, and a few other things like White-eyed Vireo but not too much else. So I decided to go on down to Key West. I had my lunch in the parking lot and while I was eating I heard some more Black-whiskered Vireos in the trees.
It is a long miserable drive down the Florida Keys on the Overseas Highway. You cannot go more than 45 MPH most of the time on a two lane road. So after driving for quite a long time I decided to stop in a Bahia Honda State Park. I drove to a parking area for a beach which was packed with tourists, and the Silver Palm Nature Trail. There were so many people I figured it was senseless to carry my camera and wouldn’t you know it I came within two feet of a gorgeous Reddish Egret in breeding plumage! Gorgeous. But I have no pictures and no video of it. Shame. I continued down the Overseas Highway to Key West and drove to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, supposedly a good place to find White-crowned Pigeons. I was having no luck at all. However, the warblers were right at eye level and very easy to see there. The poor birds are so tired and hungry by the time they see land in Key West that they just don’t care about human presence. All they can think about is eating. So I got some nice close up looks at some but it was getting late and I needed to pack for my big trip the next day so I left Ft. Zachary Taylor and checked into my hotel in Key West, the El Rancho. It took me a long time to prepare for my trip because I was headed to Dry Tortugas the next day and needed to have my cooler full of ice and all the food and water I would need for the next three days as Dry Tortugas has no water and no facilities whatsoever. I wanted block ice that would last longer but was having trouble finding any. The town was full of drunk revelers on spring break riding around recklessly on scooters and I was starting to feel poorly so I gave up and bought regular chipped ice. That night I slept very poorly.
April 27, 2008, the day I had been looking forward to for so long arrived. I woke up so terribly sick. I got over to the Land’s End Marina and checked in with the Yankee Freedom Ferry that would take my camping gear and me to Dry Tortugas, 70 miles off shore from Key West. After all my things were safely aboard and I was waiting for the ferry departure a deluge came and dumped the only significant rain of the entire two week trip. It passed after about 20 minutes and we were soon boarded and on our way. My nose began to run relentlessly. I had an inadequate amount of tissue, well none really and was constantly running down to the bathroom to get some. My nose would not stop running. I was so sick that I was unable to look for birds and anyway I couldn’t really see any. It certainly wasn’t like the Pacific Ocean which is full of pelagic bird life even close to shore. The ferry ride is 2.5 hours and I was sick for every minute of it. But I refused to let it get my spirits down. I had so looked forward to this part of the trip. I still think of it now with tears in my eyes, it was so special. The ferry landed at 10:30 AM and I went directly over to the campground to secure a good spot. I found a nice spot and put up my tent and then headed for a look around. Dry Tortugas is a very small island that you can walk around easily in 30 minutes but there is much to see there. The first thing I noticed was dozens of Ruddy Turnstones practically at my feet and half a dozen Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring overhead. I also noticed two hand made boats littered with refuse on the shore. It turned out that 10 Cuban Refugees had landed that day at 10:00 AM and were being escorted by the Park Service to Key West. I did not know this but unlike the Mexicans and Central Americans who are taken promptly back to Tijuana when caught illegally crossing the border, Cubans are welcomed by our country with open arms and given magnanimous greetings and help to establish themselves here. If they make it to land they are allowed to apply for citizenship and start a life here unencumbered by mere laws. I found this hard to accept given the discriminatory treatment given to Central American refugees and illegal entrants.
Just past the abandoned home made boats I came to the coaling docks (I never did find out what that term meant). Brown Noddies were roosting all over them at very close range. I think this is the only species that nests on Dry Tortugas. This was a new species for me but what would be really special would be to pick out a Black Noddy which is a very rare visitor, amongst the many Brown Noddies. Just off shore from Dry Tortugas are a number of other smaller islands including the closest one, Bush Key, home to the largest nesting colony of Sooty Terns in North America. There are estimated to be approximately 100,000 Sooty Terns on Bush Key. Sooty Terns are a pelagic species spending their entire lives at sea except when they come to shore to nest. As soon as the chicks hatch in late May and learn to fly they leave Bush Key and fly to the coast of Africa where they remain at sea for 3-5 years before returning to land to nest themselves. These were the first Sooty Terns I had ever seen. There used to be a colony of Roseate Terns on Bush Key but the last hurricane wiped out all the trees and they no longer nest there, though there are efforts to bring them back by using speakers installed on the island making Roseate Tern sounds.
In the middle of Dry Tortugas is Fort Jefferson, a fort that was built in 1846 to protect our coast from assault. Later the fort was used as a prison for deserters from the Union Army during the civil war. I was so sick all day but I tried to make the most of it. The ranger told us that this big shot birder named Larry Manfreddi had located a very rare Red-footed Booby on whatever key is next to Bush Key and had found two Black Noddies on the coaling docks. So I went to the top of the Fort to see if I could look down on the coaling docks from there. A woman was there with a spotting scope and we looked through it but couldn’t find the Black Noddy or the Red-footed Booby. Her scope was not very good and the tripod was even worse. It was quite windy on top of the Fort and it was difficult to make much out up there. I felt very bad so I returned to my camp site. I walked along the moat to get back and an injured Northern Gannet was in the moat within feet of me. I’ve never seen one so close before. I tried to lie on the picnic table but just felt miserable. I had my little dinner and my two little beers and just went to sleep after the sun went down. My neighbors were very nice and very respectful. Nobody made loud noises or acted obnoxious.
April 28, 2008, I was still sick but I still got up as soon as possible to be awake for sunrise when the birds would be arriving. One of the things that makes Dry Tortugas so special is that it sits out in the Gulf of Mexico 70 miles off shore from Key West and is often the first land a migrating bird returning from South America will see after flying all night long. Song birds migrate at night to avoid birds of prey it is believed and so as the sun comes up they are so tired and so hungry after crossing the Gulf of Mexico that they will stop at the first land they see. Due to their extreme fatigue and hunger they are hell bent on eating and become oblivious to humans. I got out of my tent and a Prairie Warbler was so close that I leaned down with my naked eye and could see individual feathers. I went and stood by the north coaling docks and saw a fantastic sunrise. The sun came up over Bush Key as swarms of Sooty Terns were silhouetted by the great giant orange ball. On the beach behind the campground my new friends, Mark and Mike and I spotted a Brown Booby. I had seen this bird before on the Monterey Coast Guard Pier. Later up on top of the Fort Mike had his scope out scanning the noddy flock. He told me that you could see the Masked Boobies from where we stood. I asked him to show me and indeed there was a nice sized flock of nesting Masked Boobies on Hospital Key visible through his scope, another life bird! There were only the same birds from yesterday around the island. I walked around the Fort with a roll of toilet paper in my backpack for my relentlessly running nose and tried again to look for the Black Noddy. A woman was there with binoculars. She told me her name was Vicki Rothman from Miami, and she was just there on a day trip with her husband. She told me that she heard you could see the Black Noddy from the moat. So we walked down to the edge (the Park Service had roped off this area as it was under construction) as close as allowed and sure enough there was a Black Noddy right next to a few Brown Noddies. You could clearly make out its much smaller size, darker color, and sharply demarked white cap. I had Vicki keep an eye out while I crossed into the roped off area for some video and a picture. Vicki wanted a picture for her records so I promised to email it to her (which I did but she never responded). It was a life bird for both of us. Inside the Fort were the same Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Broad-winged Hawk, Merlin, and Cattle Egrets from yesterday. I walked around the island with Vicki enjoying all the birds until she had to leave on the departing ferry at 3:00 PM. Around 5:00 PM I ran into Mike sitting with his spotting scope pointed toward the island right next to Bush Key. He called me over and let me look through his scope and I saw way in the distance my first ever Red-footed Booby. It was very far away but the reddish feet were clearly visible. I took some brief video even though it was too far away. It was my third life bird in one day. I thanked Mike and then went back to my campsite for dinner. As I sat eating I went through my journal checking how many new birds I had seen in Florida. I didn’t count the Black-hooded Parakeet(although to this day I’m not sure if it’s countable) but with the birds that were certainly countable, the Gray Kingbird, Florida Scrub-Jay, Limpkin, Antillean Nighthawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Black-whiskered Vireo, Brown Noddy, Masked Booby, Black Noddy, Sooty Tern, and Red-footed Booby, I had at least 11 new birds. I couldn’t remember if I had removed California Condor from my list and I wasn’t exactly sure but thought my count before I left was 588 so that would put me at 599, just one shy of 600. I wasn’t sure about the Hill Myna so I went over to ask Mike if it was countable. He was sitting next to bird trip leader, Larry Manfreddi. The question was directed at Mike but Larry chirped in immediately and barked to me “you can’t count Hill Myna and you didn’t even see one, you saw a Common Myna.” I went back to my picnic table and wrote in my journal, “Larry Manfreddi is an asshole.”
April 29, 2008, I woke up early and finally felt better. The West Nile Virus was nearly gone. As I stepped out of my tent it was still dark with dawn approaching; a Short-eared Owl flew right over my head. On the beach behind my tent I found the Northern Gannet dead on the shore. One leg was broken leaving it unable to paddle out of the water to get into the air and it had died of starvation. There was a beautiful sunrise over Bush Key. I walked behind the campground to the north coaling docks and I could see the birds flying in and literally crashing into the shore with exhaustion. It turned out to be an amazing day with hundreds of birds flying in all day long and eating at my feet. I got so close to a Veery that it was walking between my feet. There were Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Wood Thrushes, and Swainson’s Thrushes. At the famed fountain were Tennessee Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Palm Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Northern Parula, Black-throated Green Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, and Hooded Warbler. A Scarlet Tanager set up house keeping right behind my tent giving me eye popping close up views of this gorgeous scarlet and black bird. I also saw Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, Summer Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Larry Manfreddi arrived with a group of about 20 birders who had paid him $1600 a piece to be lead by him to these birds that were so easy to see and find. At the end of the day they went back to his 64 foot boat to sleep at night and some evenings he took them to some of the other keys to look for birds not visible from Garden Key where my campsite and Fort Jefferson were. Manfreddi waltzed right into the campground oblivious to the campers, most of whom were not birders at all but there for relaxation or snorkeling, and put out a pan of water for the birds under some trees. Since the only other fresh water for the birds is from the fountain, the birds were very attracted to this make shift bird bath. And if you sat quietly nearby you could see just about all the birds on the island at ultra close distance. After a few minutes a Dickcissel in breeding plumage flew into the pan for a drink. After the daily ferry arrived at 10:30 a new group came and set up two tents in the site right in front of mine. It was two ladies from Orlando, Marcia and Cynthia, and a fellow named Steve who told me that he was a professional videographer for a TV station. At first when I asked why he wasn’t videotaping he said he was on vacation but later he confided that he wished he did have his video camera but that the station wouldn’t let it leave Wisconsin. Marcia told me that she was very impressed that I was brave enough to come out there and camp all alone.
At lunch a camper next to me, Kelly from Key Largo, offered to let me use her kayak to kayak out to Bush Key. I took her up on her offer but was too scared to take my camera along. I paddled out as close as possible to get a better look at the Sooty Terns. While paddling out I saw a huge Loggerhead Turtle in the water. Another kayaker paddled up and showed me how a Brown Noddy was perched on the end of his kayak and had been there for 15 minutes.
That evening as I sat at my picnic table for dinner Steve pointed out a male Bobolink in breeding plumage in a tree just above my campsite. Some nice people were leaving the next day and gave me their extra water which I gladly accepted. I didn’t need it to drink as I had plenty for that. I got into the Ocean to wash away the sweat and then used the fresh water to bathe in and rinse off the salt water afterwards. I love bathing outside! My ice had all melted but my daily allotment of two beers was still plenty cool. Since I now had extra water I used some to wet a towel I placed on top of my cooler and this functioned to keep the cooler extra cool. I used a rain poncho as a tarp during the day to keep the sun off of it. During the night I could hear the rats the park service had mentioned but they never bothered me or my stuff at all.
On the ferry ride out the Yankee Freedom had offered everyone snorkeling gear but I was so sick I couldn’t even think of doing such a thing. Most people come to Dry Tortugas for a day trip and spend the day snorkeling the coral reef that surrounds Garden Key. I never did any snorkeling on account of my West Nile Virus but I did get to see some outlandishly colored fish from the moat including the brightly colored Parrot Fish and the little yellow and black Sargent Major fish. I also saw a Portuguese Man-of-War in the water.
April 30, 2008, was my last day on Dry Tortugas. The ferry would take me back to Key West at 2:45 PM. There was another beautiful sunrise to admire but there weren’t nearly as many birds the last day. Inside the Fort were the usual Broad-winged Hawk, Merlin, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk waiting to pounce on the tired hungry arriving song birds. Manfreddi and his paid customers came in later in the day. Manfreddi had another birder helping him lead his birding trip whose name I think was Nigel. Nigel found a Chuck-will’s-widow on a low branch behind the fountain. He pointed it out to the paying birders and of course I wanted it for my video I had been working so hard on but I didn’t want to scare it so I stayed back. Well, Nigel walked up to me and said you should get closer to get a better shot. I thought that was so uncharacteristic of most birders and I was so grateful at his kindness. I took him up on his offer and got as close as I dared. There were also two Nighthawks sleeping up in a Gumbo Limbo tree. You cannot tell a Common Nighthawk from an Antillean Nighthawk unless they sing. But these two wouldn’t make a peep for us. After the paying birders left I was able to stand quietly at the fountain and get some fantastic shots of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo coming in for a bath plus two male Magnolia Warblers, a Tennessee Warbler, and some other neat things too. I also got some nice shots of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird eating at a Sea Grape. Before the paying birders left Nigel gave me some tips on where to find Snail Kite and White-crowned Pigeon. I really did not want to leave Dry Tortugas but departure was quickly approaching. I saw Mike and Mark and I told Mike that I didn’t think there were any other birds possible to see on Dry Tortugas that I had not already seen except for White-tailed Tropicbird. He said “oh Mark and I saw about five of those on the way out here.” I was crushed. I had been so sick I guess I didn’t notice them. I demanded that Mike produce one on the ferry ride back to Key West as I thought it would take me up to 600 birds on my ABA approved North American Life List (although I actually wasn’t really sure but it made for a fantastic plot line). I reluctantly boarded the boat and Mike, Mark, and I stood out on the upper deck the entire 2.5 hours back to Key West looking for a tropic bird. Nearly back to shore, Mike yelled out “large white bird.” We all stared at it intently with our binoculars but it was just a Royal Tern. Back on shore in Key West Mike said he was sorry he couldn’t conjure up a White-tailed Tropicbird. I told him I remained sanguine and would probably hit 600 with a White-crowned Pigeon and then we departed. My number one priority back on Key West was to replenish my depleted ice, so I did that. And then I was starving and so I went back to Ft. Zachary Taylor to eat and try for White-crowned Pigeon. I ran into a nice birder who said the best place was Indigenous Park but it was now closed or the cemetery but dark was approaching and there was no time for that either. He asked if I was staying the night in Key West and I said I had a reservation at John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo and he said “oh that’s close to Dagny; two Mangrove Cuckoos were seen there today.” The ranger let me into Ft. Zachary Taylor for half price after I told him about my bad luck in not being able to find the White-crowned Pigeon. He said the best place was in the middle of town. Nobody thought Ft. Zachary Taylor was a good place for them, although the Birding Florida book by Brian Rapoza said it was. The sun was about to set so I went to Sunset Beach and watched it and then left Key West on the boring horrible Overseas Highway all the way up to Key Largo where I camped for the night. The campground was atrocious. My site was probably 10 feet wide with a trailer on both sides of me. The only good thing about it was that I was able to recharge my batteries in the electrical outlet. I set up my tent and went straight to bed.
May 1, 2008, I got up at 5:00 AM. It’s just a short drive from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to Dagny Key Largo State Botanical Site but I wanted to arrive at dawn to look for the ever elusive Mangrove Cuckoo. Two birders from Pennsylvania arrived just as I did so we walked in together. We walked up and down the trails and I was about to give up as we headed back toward the middle where the kiosk is. One of the fellows, Kevin said he thought he heard one. Just about then a Mangrove Cuckoo flew into a tree right in front of us! I got my video camera on it very briefly and then jumped up and down for joy. I could not believe that a Mangrove Cuckoo was bird number 600! We admired it for a while and then I told the other guy, Dave, that I had been unable to find a White-crowned Pigeon and just about then he yelled out “White-crowned Pigeon!” I looked at it but it just looked like a Rock Pigeon to me so I couldn’t “count” that one. A few minutes later though a flock flew right over us and I clearly saw the white heads on them but got no video as they merely flew by and away. Oh well, it was still 601 I thought. Dave asked me if I had seen the Smooth-billed Ani. Vicki had mentioned something about it but I had failed to write down the directions as it seemed out of the way and unlikely but since it was only 9:30 AM and I had already seen two new species I decided to give it a shot. Dave walked back to my car with me and wrote out very detailed instructions to the spot and also a place to see Spot-breasted Oriole and Red-whiskered Bulbul. I thanked him profusely and then headed north to the Fort Lauderdale Airport. The Ani spot is just south of the airport in a run down section of town with large electrical towers and over grown abandoned lots. I pulled the car up very leery about having my camera stolen. I had just gotten out of my car when I saw an all black bird with an unmistakeably long tail on the ground just feet away with a bug dangling from its mouth! My god a Smooth-billed Ani just like that. I went back to the car and got the camera out but it had flown away somewhere. I waited and waited but it would not come back. All other black birds there were Grackles. I decided to have my lunch out of the back of my car while waiting. I drove around the block and still nothing. I was about to give up when I pulled over and saw it again perched on a telephone wire. I yanked out my camera and got an awful hand held shot just in case it flew away again. I parked the car and got out my tripod and was able to video tape it and get a photo. There were two of them actively feeding for their nest somewhere nearby. After satisfying myself I decided I better get out of there and left driving south to this residential area Dave had recommended for Spot-breasted Oriole. I felt weird walking around the neighborhood even with just my binoculars. I was not about to carry around that huge camera with neighbors staring at me like I was insane. Also I felt a little odd looking for another introduced species. Spot-breasted Oriole. Though much more colorful it is no different from the European Starling introduced in New York about a 100 years ago and long ago established all across North America. This oriole had been introduced from Central America and was now a year round resident around Miami and apparently according to Dave this neighborhood I was walking around in Hollywood, FL. After walking around it three times I gave up. I drove to a Miami neighborhood called Kendall across from the Baptist Hospital looking for a Red-whiskered Bulbul on the recommendation of Dave. I only saw Loggerhead Shrike, Monk Parakeet (countable but I already saw one in Dallas a year ago) and White-winged Dove. I was a long way away but I figured the only realistic chance I had left of yet another new bird was to drive half way back down the Keys to the Marathon government buildings where Roseate Terns are known to nest. Roseate Terns are a pelagic species and spend their entire lives at sea, only coming to shore to nest. On my way from Hollywood to Marathon, I made a detour to Everglades National Park to recycle my beer bottles. I knew the national park would recycle whereas the state of Florida does not. Shame on Florida! Anyway, I lifted the green recycle bin at Royal Palm and put in my bottles and some empty water jugs I had been saving up and then lifted the trash can to put in some little bit of trash I had accumulated and was shocked to see about 10 plastic water bottles. INEXCUSABLE! What is wrong with people? It was getting late but there was enough sun light left for me to clearly make out several Least Terns flying over the Marathon State of Florida Regional Service Center Building. I saw one that was larger and got my binoculars on it. It had a black cap, an all black bill, and an incredibly long all white deeply forked tail, definitely a Roseate Tern! The only other tern it could have been was a Sandwich but I’ve never seen one with such a deeply forked tail. It was nearly dark by the time I left the government buildings but unbelievably I had added four new species in one day. Since I was so close I stopped at the Marathon Airport, a known spot to hear and see Antillean Nighthawk. The only nighthawk I saw or heard was a Common Nighthawk but fortunately I had already added this species at my campground at Long Pine in the Everglades. I drove the long boring drive back to Key Largo to sleep at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Most people go there to snorkel; I only chose it because it was close to Dagny and it’s a good thing I did.
May 2, 2008 was my last day in Florida. I got up as early as humanly possible, took down my tent, ate breakfast, and left Key Largo on a grueling four hour drive north past Miami, past Fort Lauderdale, past West Palm Beach and then inland on the toll road, the Florida Turnpike (oh how I wish I had done that miles ago and missed all that miserable rush hour traffic in all the aforementioned beaches!) to Lake Kissimmee State Park. I chose this spot on the recommendation of Nigel as the best place to see a Snail Kite. It took me so long to get there after that hideous drive that I had blown the best part of the morning by the time I arrived. I walked up to the observation tower to have a look. It had breathtaking views of Lake Kissimmee but I could see right away that any Snail Kite I spotted from up there would be incredibly far away necessitating a spotting scope. So I took one of the trails to the lake’s edge which recedes greatly after the rainy season ends. There were thousands of mosquitoes but they didn’t touch me because this time instead of using poison I smeared myself with Skin So Soft. It really does work! I saw an Eastern Meadowlark and a Common Ground-Dove on the walk out to the lake and an immature Bald Eagle but the only other soaring birds were vultures. So I returned to the picnic area to look around. There was a Summer Tanager, Carolina Wren, Blue Jay, and Great-crested Flycatcher in the pine/oak woodlands along with several Wild Turkeys. In the Kissimmee River I found another Limpkin, a Tricolored Heron, and an Anhinga along with a few large alligators. I had my lunch at the picnic area and continued to scan the skies. During lunch I found an Oak Hairstreak in the Oak woodlands that make up the habitat there along with a gorgeous Zebra Swallowtail. I love that butterfly but they never land and I have never been able to get a doggone photo of one. They are not in California so I have to wait until my next visit south to look for another one.
I finished lunch and it was obvious I was not going to find a Snail Kite there so I drove for miles around the lake to the other side to the Joe Overstreet Boat Ramp where the Snail Kites allegedly perch on the posts. It was mid-afternoon and rednecks were arriving to set up their tents for the weekend. I looked around but found nothing and it seemed improbable with all that noise and redneck activity. So I left. On the drive back down the Joe Overstreet dirt road, I stopped and heard two Bobwhites which brought childhood memories racing back into my brain. I heard some Sandhill Cranes in the sky and one was on the side of the road nearby feeding. Also on that side of the lake is the Three Lakes Wildlife Management where endangered Whooping Cranes are raised in captivity. I didn’t see any but since I was over there I tried near the other lakes that make it “Three Lakes,” Lake Jackson and Lake Marion to look for kites. I drove down to a parking area for the Lake Jackson Observation Tower. It was a .4 mile walk and time was running out so I ran without my camera. When I arrived a Pileated Woodpecker was pecking on the tower legs. I climbed up and had outstanding views of the lake but saw no kites. I raced back to the car and drove back to Lake Kissimmee State Park for one last parting glance from the observation tower. It was nearly dusk and there were several raptors coursing over the lake. I’m sure one of them was a kite because they were much smaller than the eagles out there but all of them were much too far away to count for anything except a nice parting look at Florida as it should look. The park closed at 8:00 PM so I had to get out and begin my long drive back to Tampa for my flight home the next day. It had been an incredible trip for me, reminding me that there still are wild places out there if you look hard enough and have the resources to find them. They won’t be here indefinitely though because man is hell bent on being the only species left on this planet. Going to Florida was a reminder of how lucky I am to have my health, the time and those resources available to experience nature in all its glory, while it’s still here to enjoy.