Feathers of Florida: Part Seven

Posted by ardeidae on July 15, 2007

In the fall of 2006, I assigned myself the task of photographing all the birds in the heron family, over 60 species of birds. I look forward to the travels in the coming years to achieve my goal. I chose southern Florida as my first stop since it is home to about a dozen species of herons, and they're pretty accessible. Plus, southern Florida boasts two morphs of the Great Blue Heron known as the Great White Heron and Wurdemann's Heron.

(...continued from Part Six.)

Now that Carol and I were in the Florida Keys, we could relax just a little and enjoy our surroundings. And we didn't really have a choice anyway; the vibe of the Keys doesn't really allow for anything else. The trip so far had produced all the herons I'd hoped for except the Least Bittern, but the chance for that bird had passed. The only birds left were two morphs of the Great Blue Heron known as the Great White Heron and Wurdemann's Heron, found only in southern Florida. (The Great White also appears in the Yucatan Peninsula, and in the Caribbean.)

Broad-winged Hawk
Broad-winged
Hawk


Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler

Iron Chicken
Iron Chicken
A month before our trip, someone mentioned to me that a Loggerhead Kingbird, a rare vagrant to Florida, had popped up in Key West. I'd been following Tropical Audubon's Birdboard throughout our trip, and since the bird had been seen the day before, we decided to head down to Key West. It was only about a 45-minute drive from our place in Little Torch Key. When we arrived at Fort Zachary Taylor around 10am. At the entrance gate, we were directed to the trash bins. When we arrived, there were several people wandering around with binoculars in hand. The bird hadn't been seen that morning, and a Merlin that flew past provided a possible explanation as to why. (A perched Broad-winged Hawk we saw as we came in could be another reason.) I noticed a big white bird with a yellowish beak near the fort, so I headed toward it. Could it be the Great White Heron I was looking for? Nope. As I got closer, I was able to make out the black legs, which instead indicated a Great Egret. I wasn't disappointed though, we still had a few days left in the Keys. Along the fort's moat, we spotted Tricolored Heron and Belted Kingfisher. Nearer to the ocean was an Osprey sitting on a high platform, and a Palm Warbler perched itself on some bare branches and preened itself. Taking advantage of my stealth stalking abilities, I was also able to get close enough to another rarity...the Iron Chicken, a an art exhibit vagrant.

Laughing Gull
Laughing Gull

Ruddy Turnstones
Ruddy Turnstones
With no signs of the Loggerhead Kingbird around 1pm, we decided to head back up the coast, making a short stop at Bahia Honda State Park. There were quite a few people taking advantage of the great stretch of beach. The only birds we saw were a few Laughing Gulls looking for a handout and a flock of Ruddy Turnstones. There was more of Bahia Honda to check out, but we decided to see what was going on at the Marathon Wild Bird Center, a place for rescued and rehabilitated birds. When we got there, it was threatening to rain, and since we hadn't called ahead of time, we didn't know they were getting ready to close for the day. Carol and I decided to head back to Little Torch Key and get some dinner. On the way back, I called the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center and got some great news.

On March 29th, Carol and I woke up at 5am. We stopped at IHOP for some breakfast and arrived at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier around 8am. The sky was grey and there was a slight rain that soon subsided. The FKWBC is a rescue and rehabilitation center that began in 1984 and has grown considerably.

Great White Heron
Great White Heron

Brown Pelican
Brown Pelican

Reddish Egret (Juvenile)
Reddish Egret
(Juvenile)


White Ibis
White Ibis

Great Egret (Breeding Plumage)
Great Egret
(Breeding Plumage)
There are a lot of temporary and permanent residents penned in the center, but there are also plenty of wild birds that stop by for a handout. The first volunteer visitor we spotted as we entered the boardwalk was the bird we'd come to see...the Great White Heron! It was quite a sight, and I was excited to finally see this bird I'd looked so forward to. It slowly wandered around in some brush and didn't make itself too available for photos, but I snapped off what I could get. After about 20 minutes, we continued to the water, where a canopy of trees protected a cage full of rehabbing gulls. A small group of Black-necked Stilts flew in and waded around in a small pond next to the water. As the cloud cover started to burn off, we walked back toward the clearing where we'd seen the Great White Heron. One of the caretakers had finished feeding the caged birds and had a few leftovers. Great Egret, Snowy Egret, and White Ibis covered the trees waiting for handouts, and when a fish was extended out, one of those birds was successful in snatching it as it flew past. Brown Pelicans were aplenty, perched on the cages and waddling on the boardwalk. One pelican waddled by and looked up at me as it started passing. Apparently I was in its way. I gave it a little more room, and it was good thing I did too, because it was slightly less patient with the next person and gave them a little nip as it passed by. The sun was much more cooperative and so was the Great White Heron, and I was able to get some better shots of this awesome huge white bird. I asked one of the caretakers about the Wurdemann's Heron, but he replied that they hadn't been around lately. I guess I'll just have to come back another time!

Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret

Chuck-will's-widow
Chuck-will's-widow

Belted Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher
The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center is doing an amazing job rescuing and rehabilitating (and hopefully releasing) distressed birds. Many of them involving fishing mishaps like getting caught in fishing line, being stuck with a hook, or being fed fish bones. If you're ever in the area, it's definitely worth a stop. And be sure to throw them a little donation...it's public charity and a worthy cause. Check out their Guidestar info.

With the addition of the Great White Heron, my heron list was as complete as it was going to be for this trip. Though I missed the Least Bittern and Wurdemann's Heron, I considered the trip a huge success. And we still had one more full day in the Keys. Carol and I were both really hungry, so we headed to No Name Pub and celebrated with their gourmet pizza and No Name beer.

On Friday, our last full day in the Keys, Carol and I decided to make one last trek to see if we could find the Loggerhead Kingbird. We'd missed it on Friday, but it had been seen again on Thursday. We arrived at Fort Taylor at 10am. Some of the birders we'd talked to on Wednesday were there, but the Loggerhead Kingbird was once again missing in action. We searched the area and all we came up with was Osprey, Palm Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Great Egret. It was also a treat to see another Great White Heron. Carol noticed something strange in some bushes...a snoozing Chuck-will's-widow. The brush wasn't very thick, but the bird was right in the middle. It was difficult to find the right angle, but I was able to snap off a few decent shots. We went into the fort and looked out the ebrasures. In the moat, we spotted Great Blue Heron, American Coot, Blue-winged Teal, and Belted Kingfisher. Around 1pm we were getting a bit hungry, so we threw in the LOKI towel and checked out the rest of Key West. It turns out that the Loggerhead Kingbird hadn't been seen since.

On Saturday, we said goodbye to the Keys and made our way back to Miami to catch our plane. Our trip to Florida had been a wonderful experience and a great success. Carol and I had seen and photographed a lot of great birds, including ten species of herons and also one of the two white morphs of the Great Blue. Like many places throughout the world, Florida's habitat for herons (and other birds) is slowly shrinking due to development. If you want to see herons, Florida's definitely a must. And if you want to continue to see them in the future, please make sure to do all you can to help ensure their survival.


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