Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas Tour 2014

A Wrap Up from HMANA’s Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas Tour

October 6-12, 2014

By Phil Brown

A group of eight participants joined HMANA tour guides, Phil Brown and Rafael Galvez, this past October for an autumn bird migration and natural history experience in south Florida. Our group traveled to such mainstays as Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and the Florida Keys, and we also had a unique experience of touring the Dry Tortugas National Park for a one-day trip. Being that this was a HMANA tour, the local raptor migration scene was a feature of the tour, and we spent parts of two days at the Florida Keys Hawk Watch at Curry Hammock State Park. Our tour was diverse in habitat exploration with visits to slash pine rocklands, live oak forests, West Indian hardwood hammocks – including the largest in the US, – mangrove estuaries, tidal mudflats, sloughs, sawgrass meadows, and cypress domes, among several others. It was through this immersion of Florida’s vast natural areas that we were able to find some of the specialty birds that call these areas home, as well as accumulate a species list of 140 species of birds.

Among the 140 species of birds tallied during the six-day tour were some incredible birds. Florida specialties included hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds over their breeding colony in the Dry Tortugas, Masked and Brown Boobies, Anhingas including several of these ‘Snakebirds’ swimming underwater, Great White Heron (not a true species…yet), Reddish Egret with its wild hunting antics, the stunning Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Snail Kite – a fantastic representation of the Everglades, Mississippi Kite, Short-tailed Hawks of both color morphs, Sandhill Crane, Wilson’s Plover, White-crowned Pigeon (a mainly Caribbean species), Monk Parakeet, Mangrove Cuckoo, Burrowing Owl, Gray Kingbird, Common Myna, the mangrove subspecies of the Yellow Warbler, and Painted Bunting.

Raptors were plentiful, particularly at the hawk watch, with 16 diurnal species tallied (if you include vultures AND falcons). Falcons stole the show, both at the hawk watch with a never-ending stream of Peregrines, and at the Dry Tortugas, where several individuals of all three falcon species were on constant songbird patrol within the astounding brick structure of Fort Jefferson. Being a HMANA trip, one would expect nothing less in terms of raptor excitement. We studied many Short-tailed Hawks, a buteo rarely seen outside of Florida in the US, and we found single Mississippi and Snail Kites – but the quality and durations of these sightings more than made up for the lack of numbers. In particular, a most memorable and exciting experience was watching the female Snail Kite hunt and extract three apple snails through binoculars and scopes. This was the last bird of the tour, too, so it was extra special…not to mention the scarcity of Snail Kites in the Everglades nowadays. Invasive snails that outcompete the native apple snail and an imbalanced water management regime are threatening what is left of this wonderful icon. Burrowing owls were another highlight and represented our most interesting owl species of the tour.

The tour’s primary focus was on birds, but our group stopped to observe and enjoy creatures great and small including West Indian Manatee, American crocodile, key deer, green anole, Julia longwing, great swallowtail, bottlenose dolphin, Halloween pennant, zebra heliconia, Florida red-bellied turtle, and even the venomous and highly elusive coral snake! We also didn’t neglect the Pomacea snails (both invasive and native) and tree snails, nor the diverse tree and plant species with names like gumbo limbo, Paurotis palm, pond cypress, and Tillandsia (bromeliads).

Our south Florida tour was full of adventure and learning, and in just six full days, provided a memorable, in-depth look into the region’s varied habitats and birdlife, as well as some insight into how these residents live. Between Rafael’s in depth knowledge of the ecosystems, the pace and organization of the tour, and our group’s ability to find most of our target bird species, it was agreed that there was little left to be desired in terms of what could have been observed and experienced in such a short amount of time.

Photos below courtesy of Phil Brown.