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Winging it: Florida's national parks offer a unique opportunity for bird watchers, as dozens of species migrate to warmer climates.

Southern Florida's Everglades region--consisting of marshes, estuaries, and subtropical forests--is unlike any other ecosystem. Lush ferns, clasping vines, graceful cypress trees, and salt-tolerant mangroves flourish in the warm, humid climate. Wildlife ranges from vibrant butterflies to stealthy panthers, but birds--some sporting flamboyant colors, strange shapes, or curious behaviors--are the region's celebrated ambassadors. Bird-watchers flock to south Florida to discover rarities found nowhere else in the country. Everglades and Dry Tortugas national parks and Big Cypress National Preserve, all designated by the American Bird Conservancy as Globally Important Bird Areas, provide excitement for novice or experienced birders.

More than 350 bird species have been documented in Everglades National Park. Nearly two-thirds of them migrate north in summer or south in winter to find abundant food or proper nesting conditions. Autumn and spring are great times to observe migrant warblers, tanagers, and buntings in forested or brushy habitats. Sandpipers, plovers, and yellowlegs hug the coasts or seek protected marshes as they traverse the Florida peninsula. Hawks and falcons follow the flocks, dining on the weak and the unwary.

South Florida is famous for sheer numbers of birds that bring panache to the flat landscape. At dawn, flocks of ibises and herons leave roosts in the cypress trees and fly in undulating lines above the wet prairies. Egrets crowd coffee-colored ponds in the mangroves, gracefully plucking minnows as they dance across the water. Groups of white pelicans dip and bob like synchronized swimmers as they encircle schools offish in the tidal estuaries. Anhingas perch near basking alligators to dry their wings, lending a primeval appearance to the scene.

The Everglades region today is a shrinking core of wilderness surrounded by a human population growing at twice the national average. Half the original Everglades wetlands have been drained. Urban sprawl, air pollution, agricultural runoff, and exotic species have adversely affected native wildlife. When south Florida was initially explored in the late 1800s, approximately 2 million wading birds resided in what is now Everglades National Park. A century later, scientists estimated 2,200 wading birds nested there. Only by tempering human proliferation, protecting the remaining intact habitat, and promoting greenways to reconnect fragmented natural areas will this extraordinary ecosystem continue to delight birds and birders for centuries to come.

Everglades National Park

One of the most reliable spots to observe birds in Everglades National Park is the Anhinga Trail, a half-mile boardwalk that explores meandering Taylor Slough. Beginning birders can study at dose range great blue, little blue, and tricolored herons, great and snowy egrets, and white ibises; the colors of their bills, legs, and feathers distinguish them from one another. Anhingas and cormorants--large birds that fish underwater, then drape themselves in nearby trees to dry--abound here. Purple gallinules saunter across the pond lilies, flaunting turquoise feathers and candy-corn beaks. Don't be surprised if a vocal red-shouldered hawk grabs a lizard or large grasshopper while you're watching.

The 38-mile park road to Flamingo winds through sawgrass, pinelands, hardwood hammocks, and mangroves. Short self-guiding trails access each habitat and are worth exploring to add flycatchers, warblers, vireos, secretive sparrows, and, perhaps, owls to your list. Many of these birds also appear near pine-shaded campsites at Long Pine Key. From the Flamingo campground, scan Florida Bay for bald eagles (about 50 pairs live in the park), pelicans, roseate spoonbills, gulls, and terns. Also watch for black skimmers, sleek birds whose beaks slice the water to detect submerged prey. Eco Pond, located between the Flamingo lodge-restaurant complex and the campground, is another superb birding locale.

Snail kites, endangered species that feed almost exclusively on large aquatic snails, are sometimes seen along Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) near the Shark Valley entrance to the park. As with most birding quests, early morning is a great time for viewing. Shark Valley visitors hike, bicycle, or ride a tram along a 15-mile loop to view alligators, deer, and wading birds; elusive rails and night-calling limpkins also inhabit the area. Wood storks sometimes shuffle through shallow water, flicking their wings to herd minnows toward outstretched beaks.

Big Cypress National Preserve

Big Cypress National Preserve encompasses 2,400 square miles of similar terrain northwest of Everglades National Park. Nearly 180 species of birds have been observed in the park's cypress strands, sawgrass marshes, and pine forests. Herons and egrets scatter into the sloughs during the summer rainy season. They concentrate around remaining pools of water as wetlands dry up during winter and spring.

Tamiami Trail, Alligator Alley (I-75), and Florida Route 29 cross the preserve, offering brief glimpses of anhingas, cormorants, belted kingfishers, and waders fishing in roadside canals. These thoroughfares have few safe pullouts, but alternate routes provide leisurely wildlife viewing. Loop Road (S.R. 94) is a 26-mile unimproved route through cypress and sawgrass that parallels U.S. 41. Ask a park ranger or a local resident for the latest conditions, because portions often flood. Tree Snail Hammock Nature Trail, located eight miles from the eastern end of Loop Road, offers a self-guided walk through a hammock frequented by great-crested flycatchers, white-eyed vireos, and barred owls.

Turner River (C.R. 839) and Birdon (C.R. 841) gravel roads combine for a 17-mile swing through the preserve near Ochopee. Here former canals are plugged with earthen dams, returning water to the marshes through culverts under the roads. The resulting wet habitat hosts green, little blue. and tricolored herons, great and snowy egrets, white ibises, wood storks, elegant sandhill cranes, and common moorhens.

A visitor center on Tamiami Trail provides information about camping within the preserve, as well as access to 31 miles of the Florida Trail. which passes through pinelands where elusive and endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and wild turkeys reside. If you plan to hike this trail, be prepared for submerged sections during the summer.

Biscayne National Park

Southeast of Miami, several narrow islands divide shallow Biscayne Bay from deeper Atlantic waters. Dense subtropical vegetation blankets the largest of these keys. Prop-rooted mangroves and graceful coconut palms line the shore, giving Biscayne National Park a distinctly Caribbean ambiance. Less than 5 percent of the park protrudes above the sea. Beneath the waves lies North America's northernmost coral reef.

Visitors can sample Biscayne's nearly 225 bird species by boat or from a trail. Ospreys hover over the bay, diving to impale prey with sharp talons. Brown pelicans cruise above the waves, plunging to gulp fish into expandable throat pouches. Reddish egrets and an unusual white form of the great blue heron ply the mudflats, while yellow-crowned night herons hug the shoreline searching for crabs. Cormorants, herons, and egrets nest on the Arsenicker Keys at the southern end of the park. Last year, the park was host to the first North American sighting of a red-legged honeycreeper, a dazzling blue nectar-eating bird from tropical America.

Tour boats depart the Convoy Point visitor center east of Homestead for Elliott Key and snorkeling on the reef. A short mainland trail accesses bayside vegetation and a jetty frequented by seabirds. Birders usually explore trails on Elliott Key by day, searching for Caribbean specialties such as black-whiskered vireos, gray kingbirds, or white-crowned pigeons. But adventurers can spend the night camping near the harbor, being Idled to sleep by trilling screech owls or the hum of a million mosquitoes.

Dry Tortugas National Park

For an unforgettable birding experience far from the beaten path, consider visiting Dry Tortugas National Park. Seven sandy islands surrounded by azure waves lie 70 miles west of Key West. Discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, the islands had no fresh water, but their sea turtles (tortugas) translated into meat for hungry sailors. Fort Jefferson, a huge brick fort, dominates Garden Key. Overnight camping is permitted on its beach, but visitors must bring all of their own food, water, and supplies.

Access to the park is gained via ferry, seaplane, or private vessel. Observant birders traveling by boat may see seafaring terns, shearwaters, tropicbirds, and gannets en route. The Tortugas lie on an avian flyway that links South America and Caribbean regions to the United States. Each spring and autumn migrant songbirds drop in, especially if unfavorable winds buffet their journey. Birders gather around the only fresh water--a fountain on the fort's parade ground--to be rewarded by close-up views of thirsty warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers, and buntings.

Each spring, more than 80,000 sooty terns and 5,000 brown noddies settle onto Bush Key. Rookeries are closed to visitors, but the top of Fort Jefferson provides great views through binoculars. The incessant chatter and whirring of wings that accompany the terns" flight is unforgettable. Oceangoing frigate-birds that nest on Long Key are truly magnificent when they soar in formation over the fort's ramparts.

If you've never visited or birded in such a remote location, join a tour group and let the leaders handle transportation and bird identification. All you'll need are sunscreen and binoculars to savor a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Travel Essentials

In south Florida, warm humidity prevails much of the year. In the summer months, thunderstorms are frequent and mosquitoes are abundant, and mid-winter cold fronts will put a temporary chill in the air. In addition to binoculars and bird guides, bring drinking water, sunscreen, and insect repellent. You'll find bird checklists for each park at:

A multitude of motels, campgrounds, restaurants, and outdoor supply stores are located in gateway communities of Homestead, Everglades City, Naples, Miami, and Key West. For information about park facilities and activities, check the following sources:

Everglades: 305-242-7700

Flamingo Lodge, Restaurant, and Marina: 239-695-3101

Shark Valley Tram Tours: 305-221-8455

Big Cypress: 239-695-1201

Biscayne: 305-230-7275

Boat tours: 305-230-1100

Dry Tortugas: 305-242-7700

Ferry Services:

Seaplanes of Key West 800-950-2359

Sunny Days Catamarans 800-236-7937

Yankee Fleet 800-634-0939

Birding Tours:

Connie Toops is a freelance nature writer and photographer based in Marshall, North Carolina, and a contributing editor for Birder's World magazine.
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Author:Toops, Connie
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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