The Florida Big Week
The Miami Herald - Florida Travel
By Chelle Koster Walton
In a state that’s a major stop on birds’ fall migration route, here’s a guide for spotting some of the 485 species that Florida claims.
An Indigo Bunting in St. George Island State Park near Apalachicola did me in.
I was on a morning birding tour in the Florida Panhandle, and we racked up 46 different species within a few hours. A Big Day for me, but they had me with the brilliantly hued, hopping little bunting: I was officially hooked on birding.
It gave me a small taste, 1/365 to be exact, of what a Big Year must be like.
The Big Year, a movie now in theaters starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin, and the nonfiction book by Mark Obmascikit on which the movie is based, follow the often comical chase by three obsessed birders trying to break records for the most species spotted in the United States from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 1998.
Sandy Komito, one of the book’s birders, won the Big Year that year with 745 birds. He continues to hold the record for the number of species spotted in any given year.
The men’s slap-dash travels around the country bring them often to Florida, with its important way stops along the great American flyway migration route.
“Since Florida is a peninsula, it offers a long landscape to birds traveling south to the Caribbean and South America,” said Tara Wertz, biologist at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, one of the state’s most renowned birding sites, on Sanibel Island.
“This is especially important for the fall migration because of the abundance of tropical storms that form during the migration time,” she added. “Birds can find shelter and make landfall easily when storms hinder their flight south.”
Florida claims 485 species of birds, many of them rare in the United States, because of our range of climates and the state’s positioning. Birders the world over have flocked to the state since the days of John James Audubon (1785-1851) and before.
Bird-hunters came on their heels in the late 1800s, shooting birds for their plumes — worth more by the ounce than gold — for use in women’s millinery.
Other pressures, including egg-collectors in the Dry Tortugas and statewide development, have diminished the numbers Audubon once described as a “cloudlike mass.”
Still, Florida holds some of the nation’s top birding refuges and parks.
“We think the neo-tropical migrants crossing the Gulf of Mexico each year — things like warblers, orioles, flycatchers, cuckoos, shorebirds, etc. — may have only half the numbers they did 50 years ago,” said Paul N. Gray, science coordinator with Audubon of Florida.
“The Dusky [Seaside Sparrow] was a Florida specialty that was lost just in 1987. The last Carolina Parakeets were seen in Florida, with reports continuing until the 1930s. And the infamous Ivory-billed Woodpecker probably is extinct.
“But amongst the bad news, there still are many great birds that are doing fine, and Florida is a unique place to see specialties.”
During spring migrations, Florida is the first rest stop the birds reach after a long flight, and a phenomenon known as fall-out often occurs, where birds drop exhausted onto beaches like hail from the sky.
As fall migration now reaches its peak here in Florida, it’s a good time to spend a Big Week circling the state and starting or adding to your birding life list.
The Great Florida Birding Trail lists nearly 500 “hot spots” for finding birds. However, if you use the strategy of Big Yearers, you’ll head first to the places where you’re most likely to see rare birds, then chalk up whatever species you find while there.
Here’s an itinerary to guide you on your Florida Big Week. Birding hotlines exist where you can call or log in to see what’s been sighted where.
Starting in Key West, you will follow in the footsteps of The Big Year birders by hopping aboard the Yankee Freedom catamaran for a cruise through the seven keys of Dry Tortugas National Park, with some time on main Garden Key, home to historic Fort Jefferson.
It takes an entire day, but as even one seasick-prone Big Year birder understood, it is crucial to a high-digit list.
Because of its southernmost U.S. latitudes, the park hosts a number of pelagic and rare-for-the-U.S. birds including the Bridled, Sooty, and Roseate terns; Brown Noddy; Magnificent Frigatebird; and Masked Booby.
It is home to the only U.S. breeding population of Sooty Terns – some 100,000 fly in March through September to Bush Key. The other rarities might be seen year-round or at least, in the case of the Brown Noddy, into October.
September through October, large flights of raptors such as Sharpshinned and Broad-winged Hawks, Merlins, and Peregrine Falcons appear.
Nearly 300 bird species have been spotted within the park, so chances of checking off dozens of other birds such as the Brown Pelican and Double-Crested Cormorant are excellent.
The boat returns to Key West around sunset, giving you time to try spotting birds coming to roost in the mangroves, or watching another form of wildlife at Mallory Square. Or head to the Everglades for an early start on the morrow.
Because of its vast acreage, the Everglades commands another day of your bird-chasing. Everglades National Park claims 366 species that have been spotted within its 2,400 square miles, among them a dozen of the state’s most sought-after species.
“This is one of the biggest birding parks in the world,” said Linda Friar, park public information officer. “It’s because we get the birds going back and forth from the Caribbean.”
Start early morning at the park’s main entrance outside Homestead. Several trails between the entrance and Flamingo, 40 miles down the road, travel into the habitat of the Gull-billed Tern, Purple Gallinule, Roseate Spoonbill, Snail Kite, White-crowned Pigeon (typically seen March through September), White-tailed Kite, Wood Stork, and Yellow Rail.
If you’re really lucky, you may even spot the increasingly rare Smooth-Billed Ani, a Caribbean species once found in South Florida in four-digit figures.
Big Year birders found Greater Flamingoes on the Snake Bight Trail, close to Flamingo. They’re scarcer since the 2004 hurricanes, but if you use a scope (and bug juice) at high tide, you may have some luck spotting them.
It’s also where you should look for (but you probably won’t hear this time of year) the secretive Mangrove Cuckoo.
At the Flamingo Visitors Center, the Short-tailed Hawk is commonly sighted October through March.
Head across Tamiami Trail with a stop at the park’s Shark Valley entrance, where you may pick up some of the birds you missed at the main entrance.
Here and at the Gulf Coast entrance, you’ll be able to tick off a great number of spectacular, but more common shore and sea birds such as the White Ibis, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Anhinga, Osprey, and Bald Eagle.
Between one entrance and the other, you will pass through Big Cypress National Preserve, another good birding area, particularly for Snail Kites. So keep one eye on the sky while you drive.
If you have time, fit in Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, an Audubon facility north of Everglades National Park’s Gulf Coast entrance. Known for its winter Wood Stork breeding colony, it sees the bird year-round, along with Limpkins (which breed only in Florida), Purple Gallinules, Painted Buntings in the fall, and about 200 other species throughout the year.
“It really is such a large diversity because of the temperate-tropical climate,” said Rebecca Beck, Corkscrew’s director of education. “That makes it great for the general tourist as well as the avid birder.”
Today you’ll be focusing your binoculars and scopes on coastal species; head to West Coast beaches for shorebirds from plovers and terns to sanderlings, sandpipers, and the Willett, Red Knot, Marbled Godwit, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, and perhaps even a Long-billed Curlew.
Start at first light on Sanibel Island at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Known for its great populations of Roseate Spoonbills, it also hosts, among its nearly 230 species, other specialty birds such as the Mangrove Cuckoo, Belted Kingfisher, Black-whiskered Vireo, and Gray Kingbird, plus easily accessible charismatic species like the Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron, and Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
Starting in mid-October, White Pelicans begin their winter vacations here. Pileated Woodpeckers, Red-shouldered Hawks, Purple Gallinules, and Common Moorhens populate the refuge and its off-campus Bailey Tract branch.
To the north and inland enough to change the birding landscape, stop in at Myakka River State Park east of Sarasota to look for the Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Limpkin, and Purple Gallinule.
Just south of Sarasota, Oscar Scherer State Park is prime habitat for the Florida Scrub-Jay, Florida’s only endemic species.
Next stop: Fort de Soto Park near St. Pete Beach. With both beach and mangrove habitat, it hosts rare shorebirds such as the Piping and Snowy plovers, Black Skimmer, and Roseate Spoonbill. Look to the sky for Magnificent Frigatebirds.
The twin islands of Honeymoon Island State Park and Caladesi Island State Park north of St. Petersburg are another hot spot for finding Black Skimmers and plovers if you have the time.
Then drive north to the Panhandle to be ready for morning birdwatch there.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge south of Tallahassee has counted more than 300 species (98 of which nest) within its nearly 70,000 coastal and wooded acreage.
Fall brings migrations of ducks, birds of prey, and shorebirds. October is also when migrating monarch butterflies blanket the refuge.
One of its most unusual denizens, the Whooping Crane follows an ultralight plane to Florida to winter here, and birders can watch its flyover when it arrives in the winter. Its oversized cousin the Sandhill Crane, too, can be sighted in migration; the uncommon Black Rail also inhabits these parts along with Roseate Spoonbills and Black Skimmers.
The vast Apalachicola National Forest is worth a visit to try your luck at spotting the elusive Bachman’s Sparrow. Around sunrise or sunset, look for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker in pine tree stands.
Continue westward to St. George Island State Park. The Indigo Bunting that cemented my interest in birding is fairly common; its cousin, the Painted Bunting is a year-round resident but rarer.
In fall, you might also see Northern Gannets, plovers, vultures, gulls, warblers, and the Belted Kingfisher.
Jump on Interstate 10, then head down Interstate 75 to reach Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. It may be a little early in the season, but if you’re lucky, you might spot Sandhill and even Whooping cranes in the vast wilderness of 27 different biological communities.
Though rare, fall sightings of the Common Loon, Yellow Rail, and Snow and Canada geese have been reported. More common species include the Black-crowned Night Heron and Black-billed Whistling Duck.
Central Florida’s hardwood and pine forests harbor a set of smaller rare birds all their own. In Ocala National Forest., look on the trails at Alexander Springs Recreation Area for the uncommon Hairy Woodpecker and easier-to-find Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
At the north end of Lake Apopka, between Ocala and Orlando, the 19,825-acre Lake Apopka Restoration Area is a good place to pick up some of the sought-after species you’ve missed to this point, including the Bald Eagle, Black-billed Whistling Duck, and Purple Gallinule. The area, managed by the water district, tallies more than 270 sighted species.
South Central Florida
Below Orlando, Kissimmee’s system of lakes feeds into the Everglades and attracts its own unusual species.
East of Lake Wales, Lake Kissimmee State Park’s undisturbed scrub, hammock, and water habitat encourages visits from Bald Eagles, Hairy Woodpeckers, Sandhill Cranes, Wild Turkeys, and the rare Snail Kite. Other rare sightings: 19th century Florida cowhunters in the park’s re-created cow camp.
Following the Kissimmee River south brings you to Three Lakes Management Area, named for its perch on three lakes that host such elusive and endangered birds as the Bachman’s and Florida Grasshopper sparrows, Crested Caracara, Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, and Whooping Crane.
The day’s last stop at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park can also yield some spectacular and unusual finds, including the endearing Florida Burrowing Owl, Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, Yellow Rail, and Crested Caracara. Look also for Wild Turkeys and Sandhill Cranes.
For some beach time, plovers, and other shorebirds, swing out to the shoreline around Hobe Sound. Because of coastal development, heading inland around Lake Okeechobee and Everglades terrain will make best use of your final day.
On his last day of his Big Year, Komito spent time in a Delray Beach sewage plant-fed wetlands stalking an errant White-cheeked Pintail from the Caribbean. Which just goes to show, competitive birding isn’t always glamorous, predictable, or pretty.
The less-than-glamorously named Stormwater Treatment Area 5 below Lake O, for instance, happens to be one of the state’s best spotting spots, but admission is by pre-arranged birding tour only.
Serious birders report Snail Kites, Glossy Ibis, Bobolinks, Purple Swamphens, Blue-Winged Teals, and other unusual ducks including the Fulvous Whistling, Black-bellied Whistling, and Mottled species.
Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge claims many of the same specialty finds among its 257 species and within the prettier, more natural setting of 221 square miles of wetlands.
Look specifically for the Fulvous Whistling Duck, endangered Snail Kite, and Limpkin. Abundant species include the American Coot, Green Heron, and Magnificent Frigatebird.