Sunday, September 30, 2018

Wildlife in South Florida

     The final destination in our Florida Trip was Miami. We stayed in Coral Gables which has a park that's part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, but our sights were on the Everglades. Over three days, we checked out 3 different places: Everglades National Park, Key Largo, and Biscayne Key.
     We might be the few people who visit Miami and barely hang out in the city itself. As for Miami proper and learning about the city, I recommend HistoryMiami, a museum all about Miami, past and present. They have a really cool Miami Street Tradition Exhibit that I enjoyed and a comprehensive permanent collection that takes you back to Miami when it had direwolves living there to the Native Peoples who settled here before Europe arrived through present.
      We visited South Beach by night... on a weekday, if you like restaurants hawking at you to come eat there, I guess that's fun. To be fair it was also September, it's a lull in Tourist season. I also bought Tim some tickets to see Jerry Seinfeld at the Performing Arts Center. That venue was fairly impressive. A hop over to the Winwood neighborhood made us feel like we were in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood as it seemed to be up and coming and held the local population of hipsters. The buildings all have eye-catching graffiti and there is a whole set of walls that invite artists to create a graffiti installment. That was a lot of fun, looked like a place to do some serious instagramming, as most were.
     But anyway- enough with my very few Miami recommendations- onto the wildlife:
Some mating Eastern lubber grasshoppers.
These are massive grasshoppers and notorious pets that can be hard to control. I'm glad I didn't try to pet them, because when disturbed and distressed they can expel a noxious spray and smell through their spiracles.
You can find these grasshopper on blades of grass, clinging tight and eating.

On the Anhinga Trail, this gator was resting on land, drectly below us, standing on the boardwalk.

Saw lots of snakes, anoles, and tadpoles on the Gumbo Limbo Tree Trail.

At the Royal Palms Center, right outside the bathroom, a crowd gathered. Mom and her Brood!
These babies were so fresh and tiny.

These babies even gave a few chirps, to contact their mother, and stay together. Just FYI, baby gator chirps melt my heart, to the max.

My guess is that mom takes her babies close to the center. People are near it keeps predators away. The area they were sitting was in a thicket, probably to avoid the sun. But herons would devour these babies, no problem, if given the chance. Seems they had a good spot.

Loggerhead shrikes were easy to spot, while driving. Takes a perch up on signs, the car acts as a perfect blind. These birds always seemed super shy, so stay in your car if you see one and put on your flashers and enjoy a little butcher bird.

We drove all the way down to the Flamingo center, the southernmost part of the park. It had a lot of storm damage from Hurricane Irma nearly a year ago, so it looks a bit worse for wear. The ranger in the center was helpful in that she filled up our water bottle for us with cold fresh water and she told us where to look for manatee and American crocodile. We saw a manatee, but no crocs- the heat of the day even gets too intense for reptiles who seek shady cover. I think that was the case for when we arrived there.
But upon arriving and parking turkey vulture, waddled like turkey across the lawns and cattle egrets perused the freshly mowed grass. This young turkey vulture was about as cute as they come.

Presuming the bird it was associating with was a parent. A mature bird with that characteristic pink turkey head that gives them their name, I personally have a big adoration for vultures and their ecological role.

White ibises (pictured) and little common ground doves also hung out on the lawns surrounding the Flamingo Center and parking lot.

On the recommendation of the ranger at the Flamingo center, we drove down to the Eco Pond before the camping area. Saw a mature bald eagle before the pond, then heard it calling later, while walking the pond.

The Eco Pond was a short walk (and thank goodness it was), about an 1/8 of a mile. It was also covered in biting flies and mosquitoes. But, it did have the only roseate spoonbills of the trip!
The mosquitoes were never bad, if you were in an open area, especially if exposed to wind. But once you had wind breakers like trees, shrubs and thicket-- all bets are off, you turn into some good mammalian eating!

We drive back north from Flamingo, stopping at point of interest along the way to spy what we could. To be honest, the heat and mosquitoes got to us and any trails seemed not super interesting after getting assaulted in the Flamingo area by biting insects. And then the typical afternoon rain rolled though.

My recommendation when leaving the park, stop at Robert is Here, pet an emu, feed some goats, (wash your hands!), and get a delicious fruit milkshake!!! That made all the heat and biting insects worth it! I am so glad, my good friend Amy recommended this to us.

Another trip took us underwater. We visited Key Largo and did some snorkeling at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The Park has sandy beaches and reefs just offshore, past the mangroves.
It also has another exotic species- the African Red-headed Agama. We saw a male in his red head and indigo bodied glory, but we also saw some females that resemble baby beaded dragons in their appearance. They look similar because these too are in the agama family with beaded dragons.

I like those blues in her face- remind me of the waters we snorkeled in!
While we didn't pack the underwater camera, now having worked in an aquarium for almost 5 years, I was able to identify many of the fish! 2 Species of parrot fish, Spanish hogfish, doctorfish, porkfish, yellow goatfish, yellowtail snapper, trumpetfish, barracuda, spotted eagle rays, among many others were spotted! The reefs themselves look like they are not doing as well as they should, beyond each little bit of reef is just dead and crumbled corals, bleached and lifeless.

On Key Biscane, which is just a short drive from Miami and has some super fancy real estate has a park on its southernmost end. We walked there, hiked up the light house and walked the beach. We spotted small needlefish in the shallow water. But on land, we spotted these black spiny-tailed iguanas. Some were quite hefty and threw their weight around. Those who were the smallest, minded their business and stayed out of trouble, but those in the middle size range, really liked to push the buttons of the bigger individuals.
On our drive back I spotted a magnificent frigate bird over on the the bridges that connected us to the mainland.
If heat and humidity is your thing- then Florida is your place. In winter many of these places would probably be even more fun to bird, as many use these parts as wintering grounds. If you do go in the heat, water is your friend, but also, so is a salty snack. I have never sweat so much from just turning head to look at something. But Florida is a fun place to bird and observe wildlife, especially if you enjoy going for a swim after!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Loxahatchee NWR

     Birding on vacation with a non-birder can be challenging, but Tim is very forgiving and humors me by coming along to explore new places. And we both have things that are unique to us, he is training for a marathon so when he goes out to run, I go out to bird. It works really well.
     While Tim prepared for a run in the heavy Florida heat, I drove off to Loxahatchee. A National Wildlife Refuge that is part of the marshes and waterways that connect and flow into the Everglades. Also, it is found along the Great Florida Birding trail, no surprise!
     It is a likely place to find snail kites... I only found the remains of snails, no kites. But if you can, there is a canoe trail to enjoy and probably find more birds and gators. I wish I had a little more time to explore it, but honestly it was so hot and the Everglades awaited our arrival...
Before I even made it in, I did a double take, hit the brakes, snapped into reverse, window down. Hello life bird!
A Limpkin!

Limpkins get their name because of their high stepping walk that makes them appear to limp. 
This leggy wader is not related closely to herons or ibises, but rather cranes and rails.
It is a very handsome bird and fairly tame, this bird didn't as much as flinch when I pulled up next to it. Apparently European settlers noted this too, so much so, they were able to just grab them off their nest when they wanted to hunt one.

This is one of two gators eyeing some fishermen, possibly waiting for them to catch some fish to toss back, or reel in past those snouts.

It's almost like this gator posts itself nearest to the fishing spot often.

I also learned that the empty snail shells were very much so a result of the limpkin. Limpkins have a special, tweezer-like bill that curves slightly to the right to snag an apple snail right out of its shell. And they feed exclusively on these hefty snails of this wetland.

Giant lens and close proximity gator = extreme close up!

A lovely surprise! An adult common gallinule with one of its two chicks.

Ever so gingerly, picking up aquatic plant pieces to feed its chick. It was so sweet watching this.
I then watched this chick exit the water with its huge feet that it looks like it needs to grow into-- but they just are huge. Gallinules have large, twiggy, splayed out toes used for walking atop aquatic plants.

Another non-native, the Northern curly-tail lizard.
Originally from the Bahama Islands, they were intentionally introduced to control sugarcane insect pests. They do curl their tail up over their backs, giving them their name.

In my return home, just where I saw the Limpkin on my way in, I pulled over to view this bird- a red shouldered hawk. They are such lovely looking raptors! 
Come winter, these hawks are abundant in Florida.
Like all Florida wetlands, herons, ibis, egrets, and gallinules were very present. Also enjoyed sights of a loggerhead shrike, or better affectionately known as a butcher bird. Known for its habits of preying upon small lizards, birds, or mammals and skewering them to help them tear them into bite-size bits. I love seeing them!
Also lots of pileated woodpeckers flying about and vocalizing. I'm sure with more time, this place could turn up some great finds!

Wednesday, September 26, 2018


     What is Boynton Beach, Florida? Well it's close to Palm Beach, a stone's throw away from Delray Beach-- but I think of the whole trip it had some of the best birding. My favorite place was 20 minutes of a drive from our Airbnb, Wakodahatchee Wetlands. It was perfect for a walk, its an easy to walk boardwalk, with Gazebos along it for shade. The trail snakes you through each wetland, an old utility site, and some wet forest. It was perfect for bird viewing and the perfect amount for any folks traveling with you who are more into seeing gators, iguanas, and not staying out too long.
     Also, did you know Florida is full of bird signs?! Capturing my eyes with its swallow-atiled kite emblem, arrows point you in the direction of the Great Florida Birding Trail. This is on the South portion of the trail, that snakes along the Atlantic Coast for those birds traveling by way of the Atlantic Flyway, this trail highlights places along that route.
     So anyway, I rate Wakodahatchee as my favorite spot for the trip....
The sight of this bird startled me. So electric in the sun! This is a grey-headed swamphen and holy crap!
It's like 3 times the size of the common gallinule.  It was damn beautiful. And of course, Florida-- it's an introduced species.
It was disturbed by a common gallinule. This was one of a pair, and it came out of the reeds to size up the minuscule disturbance.
And then when I finally get it in focus, it was gone.
In the same family as rails, coots, and gallinules, it is originally from the Middle East, India and Southern Asia.

A bird I really like, mainly because they are just so weird (and hard to pronounce), the Anhinga!
Also known as the snake bird or, delightfully, the water turkey.

A beak for stabbing and securing a good meal of fish.

The trees sprouting from the pools of water hosted little rookeries of herons, egrets, and cormorants.
These are cattle egret youngsters. You could tell who were the youngsters as they had a few stray downy feathers dangling off their noggins.

Here is a fresh fledged little blue heron. Little, but still needs to mature to earn that blue!

Love that downy fuzz!

If you love herons, then you'll love Florida. Because they are everywhere, all the time.
Here a great blue atop a nest.

Also, if you love iguanas, you'll love Florida, they are everywhere.
(I LOVE iguanas)

To the point, these invasive exotics earned exterminator rights.
As we drove south bound, I saw a sign, "Got iguanas?" A big stupid smile crept across my face as I made my excited gasp sound that while driving usually terrifies Tim because he thinks something awful happened/is about to happen. And then I frowned and made a sad noise as I continued reading the phone number and "Iguana extermination, call today!"

A bird I missed last year in Brooklyn! A Least Bittern! So little and so handsome!

The one gator we spied in this walk. Just hanging with a group of white ibis, presumably escaping the heat by seeking refuge in the shade and on the grass that's probably more refreshing than the water.
Also hanging around were iguanas. ANd I didn't note the big guy in the background until I reviewed my photos! Looks Spike-worthy in size (Spike was my late iguana of 15 years).

Anhinga in allllll it's glory!

On this visit we also got to see black-bellied whistling ducks, tricolored heron, green heron, white-winged doves, glossy & white ibis, cattle, great, and snowy egrets, belted kingfisher, and never-ending common gallinules.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Beach Birding... in Florida

     Tim and I headed south, just like birds, but we were migrating with purpose - a huge, exciting, and celebratory event, Nannie turned 100 years old!
     Before we get to birds, I want to celebrate this amazing, progressive, badass woman. Nannie, Mabel Kepler, was a Brooklyn gal- grew up in what we now know as Ozone Park. She was a nurse, she reads the New York Times daily, and she has some baking secrets that we all got access to each Christmas, and she had direct lineage to a descendant who traveled to this country on the Mayflower (yeah, an actual pilgrim!).
    We adopted her a matriarch elephant from an orphan herd in Africa and I am so glad she was so tickled by this. She is the matriarch of a huge, amazing family and I couldn't be more grateful for that! So before I get to birds, here is Mabel, getting her birthday wish-- a ride on a Harley:

     After much needed catching up with family, and still, after over 10 years of being with Tim, even meeting some folks for the first time-- and after countless beverages, swimming in the ocean, then the pool....and the ocean, I did get some birding in while in New Smyrna Beach. And even more after Tim and I departed the area for Miami and the Southern parts of the state.
     In New Smyrna Beach I found that just 2 miles from where we were staying is Smyrna Dunes Park, equipped with Ocean and Bay side access, beach and dune access, via a very easy to walk boardwalk, and if you wanted to swim, I'm sure you could- although the currents look precarious where the waters meet.
     One thing I learned about many Florida parks- which I suppose I take for granted here in New York City- in a car, you have to pay to go to most parks. But I suppose that's because many of them have beach access and that can get out of control without a fee.
     Smyrna Dunes is not just good for birds- but if you are a reptile enthusiast, there are things there too that will leave you smitten...
The boardwalk trail is just a touch over a mile, and from it are meny access point to the beach. Where I began my walk, was a lot of, I suppose you would call it a thicket? With vines, brush, and palm-y type plants. Thick so that you know there are birds in there- you can't see 'em, but boy can you hear!
Birding by ear would be a good way to go in Florida, and it is something I suck at-- although I was stoked to recognize a vireo-like call and was able to ID a white-eyed vireo by ear.
Beach birding was a bit more clear and straight forward, like this juvenile reddish egret. Who is very elegant, it's hunting style has a lot of poise and looking very calm while trying to obtain your meal.

Also, note the odd abscess on its leg...

Unlike the reddish egret- the snowy egret don't care how it looks- it just wants to get the job done!
Often running, zig zagging through the surf, wings spread as it runs for balance, to pick up or reduce it's speed, who knows and then diving in like this is going to be the damn tastiest fish ever.

I love shorebirds and residents of the beach- they are so forgiving and bold.
In a world where there are no hiding places, often if startled they run or fly, but then saunter on back when they see you don't pose a threat. These royal terns they didn't even budge as I passed them by.

We left New York in long sleeves, we got to Florida and each day was 90+ with humidity. Despite the fact the temperatures were high, autumn was setting in, sunrise was just after 7am, giving everything a golden morning glow.

Royal terns in the winter plumage, especially when sitting so squat, remind me of Friar Tuck.

This was very exciting for me-- a Gopher Tortoise!
These are some amazing, long-lived reptiles. They are a keystone species, their burrows providing shelter and homes for countless others from other reptiles, to insects, mammals, to even birds!!
Their long burrows shelter animals from floods and fire, it's an amazing important refuge in a place where the natural patterns in climate can be whacky!

So as this species is so important, they are protected by law in Florida- and also listed as a threatened species.

I noticed that prime burrow locations were in the dunes, above where water would puddle and flood. The entry ways were just perfectly sized to the tortoise that occupies it.

And of course, those burrows need upkeep!
Burrows can reach amazing lengths, some nearly 50 ft long. Most are in the 15 ft range- they provide a cool refuge during the heat and generally maintain a constant climate that is beneficial to the tortoise and the other critters it may share it with.
Learn more about gopher tortoises here via Florida's Fish and Wildlife Commission.

On the beach I found 2 burly looking guys- Florida Stone Crabs- who, if you give a google, you know what they are really good for...

Lots of sanderlings here, but learned the dunes are favored by Piping and Wilson's Plovers for nesting.

A willet take a dip to cross  a tidal pool to get over to the other side to forage.

While appearing "plain," I think there is so much beauty in the soft sandy tones of this leggy bird.

In case you were wondering why the reddish egret is so named--- because when it's grown up it's red...ish.

Lucky good shots of an osprey surveying the water for a fish.

Lucky shot. Cool bird. Almost went extinct in the DDT days.

Hard to get any brown pelican shots. While plentiful, they were often out, crusing over the waves.

Pelicans with a picturesque scene: Ponce De Leon Lighthouse, and Florida's tallest lighthouse, at that!

Lots of anoles everywhere- this one gave me a display-- bobbing and dipping the front portion of its body while extending its dewlap. I spent more time than I should have just watching this one lizard.
By his behavior, I can feel confident in saying this is a male.

Some of the more subdued individuals- perhaps younger males or females.

A bad feather day... also known as molting.

Often associated with snowy winter scenes, this bird really only recently has established itself in the north, as recently as the 1950's for New York! And the reason? Us! Due to the way we re-configured habitats (they LOVE yards!) and put out little birdie buffets (feeders may have a lot to do with their successful range spread) so is a Florida cardinal weird? Nah.
Learn more about cardinals and us here via the Nature Conservancy.

Everyone is molting. A flick of the leg to the neck and feathers fly for this Eastern Towhee.

I like towhees, they are bold in color, have a funny little call, and when you catch them off-guard, they look like they just drank the strongest cup of coffee ever.

Speaking of coffee...

I really craved my morning coffee- but in this climate it must be iced. So I drove onto the main drag of New Smyrna Beach, parked there car and was greeted by the valet.

This Cattle egret was just walking the streets- didn't give a care for me, or the street. Just sauntered along-- and stayed for a while. Came out with my iced latte, still there. Drove by 3 hours later, and it was in someones hedges probably feasting on anoles.

As we said goodbye to the egret, we made our way south toward Boynton Beach... and, more birds.