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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Everglades Birding

Wood Stork
          Last year in spring we made a day trip to the eastern part of the Everglades National Park  through the Earnest F. Coe Visitor Center. Since it was only a half day visit we made a limited number of stops, the most memorable of which was the Paurotis Pond rookery. When we arrived last year we were greeted by large numbers of nesting Snowy, Green, Tri-colored and Great Egrets, Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills and Anhingas. It was definitely a case of needing an extra set of eyes to take in the sights of all these birds coming and going, squabbling among themselves and feeding their young. Although we arrived a month earlier this year in early April we were surprised by the reduced number of nesting birds. There were still good numbers of nesting Storks but only a few Roseate Spoonbills and Anhingas and not much else.           
              We made up for the disappointing showing when we visited the Flamingo area(the last stop on the park road). We stopped at the visitor center there and a distant sand bar in the bay revealed a White Pelican, a feeding Reddish Egret and a small group of Royal Terns. Fortunately as we were driving out of the parking lot I spotted a flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds. Getting out of the car and scanning the flock I discovered a dark blue-black Cowbird slightly larger than the other birds and more aggressive toward its Brown-headed cousins. The Shiny Cowbird was a lifer for me and got my juices flowing. 
A Florida Specialty

We spoke with a couple of birders who had gone on an early morning bird walk with the park ranger and had good looks at a Painted Bunting and Clay-colored Sparrow at the Eco Pond just a half mile down the road from our present location. We were running out of daylight so we came back the next morning to investigate Eco Pond and found it to be a small gem.  Immediately we spotted approximately 30 Black-necked Stilts and a single light-colored wading bird actively feeding with its head submerged. It disappeared behind some mangroves but as we continued walking along the path we rediscovered the mystery bird  in the weeds.  It turned out to be a lone Avocet hanging out with the flock of Stilts. 

Basic plumaged American Avocet

Walking another 20 feet we passed an adult pale Red-Shouldered Hawk sitting on a branch at eye level  just 10 feet away. It did not budge as we walked by and Susan reminded me of the recent attacks on humans by a single nesting Red-Shouldered Hawk in downtown Fort Meyers. Several people were attacked with resulting minor lacerations of their scalps and the event made the evening news. The locals placed traffic cones around the tree where the hawk lived to caution passer-bys of the threat of a hawk attack and most of the neighbors took to wearing hats when outdoors.  Another 50 feet and safely past the raptor Susan pointed out another bird hidden behind the leaves just a few feet off the path. With some difficulty I could make out its head and told Susan it was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. As the bird came into a small clearing I saw the striking yellow chest and belly and could make out an extensive black mask. It was a Mangrove Cuckoo. Although not a lifer it afforded me a much better look than the one I saw years ago in the Dominican Republic. This turned out to be a great morning in spite of not finding a Clay-colored Sparrow or Painted Bunting.     
A super find - Mangrove Cuckoo
                Early the next week we made a trip to the northern part of the Everglades Park at the Shark Valley Visitor Center. As we pulled into the road leading into the park we saw a sign announcing that the parking lot was full. It was mid morning and we had driven an hour and a half to get there so I was in a bit of a huff by the time I reached the entrance gate. Expecting to be turned away leading to a futile argument with a government employee which would go nowhere,  I was pleasantly surprised by the ranger’s  humorous attitude.  He assured me that like most things with the government  “don’t believe everything you read”. There was enough parking for us but he was working the gate without backup so he put up the sign anticipating a closure of the lot later in the day!  That’s your government at work.      
                 There is a single road in the park and the majority of the visitors took a guided tour via a motor tram. It is a 15 mile road but some folks rented bikes or walked. We took the tram ride but with the bikers and hikers and the narrowness of the road, things were pretty congested. The road was built by an oil company decades ago for oil exploration. They found oil but because of its high sulfur content and the primitive state of refining oil in those days, they gave up on the site. Lucky for us the government bought the land and road and it’s now part of the Everglades National Park.                   
                   My target bird was the Snail Kite.  Wherever we traveled and asked about locating this rare raptor, we were usually diverted to another spot far from our present location. A few days earlier the ranger in the Big Cypress Preserve pulled out a park map and pointed to an area along an old abandoned road as a likely spot to find the bird.  She cautioned me however that the last time she had explored the area she came upon four snakes three of which were “poisonous” and alerted me to the fact that although it’s the dry season we would be”up to our ankles in muck”.   As an alternative she said the “area south of Fort Lauderdale” was a good bet. Ultimately there seemed to be some agreement among the folks I questioned that the Shark Valley area was one of the best places for seeing Snail Kites.  Our tram guide agreed but after our 2 hour tour viewing lots of alligators, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Tricolored Herons,  Anhingas and Double-crested Cormorants there were still no Kite sightings.       

You can see it in her eyes - "Mmm alligator burgers"
                    Once back at park headquarters we walked along the tram path for a few blocks hoping to get a look at the Purple Gallinules that live there. I spotted one in some dense vegetation on the far side of a stream that paralleled the road but the bird never fully revealed itself. There were lots of young fuzzy Anhingas and Green Herons who looked like they just left their nests.  As we walked back to the parking lot a very large white bird landed in the stream about 100 feet away. I thought it might be a Great White Heron and closed in on it. Turned out to be a Great White Egret instead, but behind it was a very cooperative Purple Gallinule in full view.        
A stunning bird
                      Feeling invigorated by the photo opportunity with the very colorful bird, I decided to try one more time for the Snail Kite. The driver of the tram suggested checking out a restaurant several miles outside the park and on the way back to Naples.  He said we might want to “get a Coke” and sit out on their back deck to scan the marsh.  A short drive north and I spotted the restaurant and pulled into their parking lot.  Surveying the place I understood why the guide suggested bottled soda and not the food. Neither Susan nor I had any desire to enter the establishment but fortunately only a block away was an opening in the trees and a boat launch. I pulled up to the boat launch and got out of the car. While standing there debating whether to grab the Cutter’s repellant as the fly population seemed pretty intense, three Snail Kites flew by the opening just 30 feet away. At this point Susan was “birded out”  and playing “Candy Crush” on her cell phone when I yelled at her to drop everything and grab the camera. Luckily the birds cooperated and only flew a block or two away into the middle of the field and one even landed in a tree. We watched as it proceeded to eat an Apple Snail( their sole source of food) and discard the large shell.  Sibley says the birds hang out in these loose family groups. What a great end to our Everglades adventure:  the birds were much more cooperative than I expected and all close enough for decent photos.  With the loss of snail habitat these animals are losing ground, so it was a rare and satisfying experience for both of us.    
Endangered Snail Kite

Apple snail in talons

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