For the Birds Radio Program: Florida in May (UD)

Original Air Date: June 18, 1997

Laura and Russ went to Florida in late May, and saw some interesting birds.

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Last month my husband Russ and I went to Florida for a few days’ getaway. Normal people don’t go to Florida in late May—you’re just escaping pleasant weather and peak spring flowers in the north in order to get Florida’s hot, muggy summer weather. Few birds sing in Florida in late May or early June—it’s past their breeding season. But I didn’t mind, because the birds I most longed to add to my lifelist are both found there this time of year—the Swallow-tailed Kite and the Magnificent Frigatebird. And as it turned out, there were several other cool birds around, not only adding 12 species to my lifelist and dozens to my Kowa list, but also giving me views of birds I’d only seen once or twice in my life.

One of the coolest sights of the trip was when we were walking along the Anhinga Trail in the Everglades. I’d been hearing the familiar coo-coo-coo call of the Least Bittern. This call is familiar not because I’ve heard it often in the field, but because I hear it on my bird recordings a lot. Anyway, it was calling from pretty far away, and I figured the probability of actually seeing this small, secretive bird in the vast expanse of the sawgrass was minuscule, but suddenly we turned a corner on the boardwalk, and there it was, right out in the open, its throat puffing out with every coo. It was one of the neatest sights I’ve ever seen, and only the third time in my life that I’d ever seen one of these tiny herons. The first time was unusually memorable. I was taking a field ornithology class, and when we arrived at a cattail marsh on a class field trip, the professor said that bitterns were extremely difficult to ever see. He said they blend in with the cattails, often raising their beaks to perfect the camouflage. Just then, I spotted a Least Bittern doing exactly what he was describing, and asked, “Like that?” It was a case of my eyes being pointed at exactly the right place at the right time, but that moment of good luck raised me in the estimation of not only the professor but the whole class.

The other cool heron sighting I had was of a Green Heron sitting on a nest, shading her baby with her open wings. The little chick was still panting with the heat, but her shade was keeping it more comfortable than it would have been in the direct sunlight. Baby herons are fluffy and white, but somehow still very ugly birds, with their funny beaks and beady eyes set on the sides of their heads. The kinds of babies that only a mother could love. We saw this on Big Pine Key, a place where the US Forest Service maintains a refuge for the endangered Key Deer. These are actually a race of White-tailed Deer, but very, very tiny. We didn’t find any on Big Pine Key, but did find three different ones, including one who tried to climb into our car, on No Name Key. We drove to the dead-end road on No Name Key where we came upon a couple of birders who were trying to find a Mangrove Cuckoo. They were prepared, armed with a tape recorder and cuckoo recording. They played it a couple of times, and suddenly a Mangrove Cuckoo answered! They played the recording once more, and the cuckoo flew right down where I could see it through my Kowa scope. The only thing that spoiled the sighting was that Russ didn’t get to see it before it flew the coop.

We also saw three different Snail Kites darting and weaving over the Everglades, and an enormous flock of Roseate Spoonbills hanging out together on Sanibel Island. Spoonbills have bizarre faces and beaks, but are strikingly beautiful from the neck down, with rich pink and salmon plumage. Florida is filled with exotic species at any season, and I sure don’t regret spending the end of May down there enjoying hot temperatures and plenty of cool birds.