Florida has always beckoned as an escape for winter-weary northerners, but it beckons to birdwatchers, too, especially in spring. It’s perennially regarded as one of the top destinations for traveling birders.
Isolated by water on three sides, the Florida peninsula has allowed the evolution of many bird subspecies found nowhere else in the world. One of the most distinctive races is the “Cape Sable” Seaside Sparrow, limited to the southern tip of the peninsula. It was regarded as a full species from its discovery in 1918 until it was lumped with other Seaside Sparrow races in 1973. Currently it is isolated by both distance and habitat: Unlike other Seaside Sparrows that are limited to salt marshes, the Cape Sable nests in freshwater marshes. However, the “Dusky” Seaside Sparrow, an extinct subspecies, used to inhabit both freshwater and salt marshes in its limited range in east-central Florida.
Southern Florida shares some of the highly distinctive birdlife of the West Indies. Gray Kingbird is a classic Caribbean bird. Populations in Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, and Jamaica are mostly migratory, wintering in northern South America, but elsewhere in the Caribbean, the species is a permanent resident. In Florida, it’s mainly present from the end of March to early October, and it’s strongly coastal, seldom seen more than a few miles inland.
In addition to Florida, a few pairs of Gray Kingbirds breed in coastal Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Wanderers have appeared much farther afield, mainly in summer or fall, in many eastern states and provinces, and even once in British Columbia.
Another Caribbean specialty is Black-whiskered Vireo. It breeds almost throughout the West Indies and on some peripheral islands, but it doesn’t nest on the mainland anywhere except very locally in Florida. Spring records in Florida may begin by early March, but the species becomes common in coastal mangroves from April through July, easily located by the males’ loud, emphatic songs.
One of the most elusive Florida birds is the enigmatic Mangrove Cuckoo. It was long thought to be mainly a summer resident, but we now know that many stay all year and simply become harder to find when they fall silent in winter. Closely tied to coastal mangroves in its limited Florida range, this cuckoo has a wider habitat selection elsewhere. It’s widespread in the Caribbean and on both coasts of Mexico and Central America, where it’s often found in dry, scrubby forest miles from the coast.
A final unique point of Florida birding is the presence of many established exotics. Most of these (like Red-whiskered Bulbul, Spot-breasted Oriole, and various parrots) live mainly in urban areas, but the Gray-headed Swamphen — native to southern Asia and recently established in Florida — is rapidly spreading through marshes of the interior of the state. Concerned scientists are studying this newcomer to see whether it will have a negative impact on native species.
What to look for
Pick your season. Florida birding is great all year, and many people visit in winter for warm temperatures and large numbers of wintering birds. But some of the real specialties are just summer residents and can be hard to find before mid-April.
Be alert for subtleties. Many Florida specialty birds are similar to other species that are widespread in North America, so it’s worthwhile to take a second look at every bird.
Check the RBAs. Before you go, connect with Florida birding listservs, social media pages, or Rare Bird Alerts. Strays from the Caribbean are often present, especially in southeastern Florida, and some may stay for weeks, so you might have a chance at some great rarity.
Like other members of the kingbird genus Tyrannus, the Gray Kingbird is a medium-large flycatcher living in relatively open situations. Compared to Eastern Kingbird, the only other white-bellied kingbird found regularly in Florida, the Gray Kingbird has a noticeably larger bill, notched tail with no white at the tip, and paler upperparts, setting off a strong blackish face mask. Whitish edgings on the wing coverts and flight feathers are usually prominent, but they can be obscure on adults in worn summer plumage. The Loggerhead Kingbird, a rare vagrant to southern Florida from the Caribbean, has darker upperparts and a blackish crown, so that its blackish mask shows no contrast; it usually has pale tips to the tail feathers.
Apparently a close relative of the Red-eyed Vireo of North America and the Yellow-green Vireo of the American tropics, the Black-whiskered Vireo replaces those two as a breeder in the Caribbean region. Visually, it’s quite similar to the Red-eyed Vireo, differing in subtle ways. It averages very slightly larger, with a larger bill. Its overall color is a bit more drab and brownish, and the dark stripes through the eye and above the eyebrow are not quite as contrastingly blackish. The eyebrow itself usually looks dull, not bright white as on the Red-eyed Vireo. The black whisker mark commemorated in the name is a good field mark if it can be seen, but sometimes it’s faint.
It would be possible to pass off a Mangrove Cuckoo as the much more common Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Its underparts are pale buff, not white, but this color can be hard to discern in forest shadows. It lacks rufous in the primaries, but the rufous on the Yellow-billed can be mostly hidden when the wings are folded. The Mangrove Cuckoo also has a slightly grayer back and more obvious dark mask. For a diagnostic mark, check tail pattern. On Yellow-billed, the white spots extend up the outer webs of the black feathers, giving the tail a white outer edge. On Mangrove Cuckoo, the white spots cut off sharply, leaving a black outer edge extending up the feathers.
Recently introduced to Florida from Asia, this bird is called Purple Swamphen in the North American field guides that include it. However, most authorities split the Purple Swamphen into multiple species. The form established in Florida is now called Gray-headed Swamphen in eBird, the database run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the rest of the ornithological community is almost certain to follow that lead. Superficially, the Gray-headed Swamphen might be confused with Purple Gallinule, but the swamphen is much larger, with a huge, triangular, reddish bill. Its legs are red, not yellow, and its head is usually paler and grayer. A few in Florida with bluer heads may be escaped individuals of other swamphen species.
A legacy of conservation
Events in Florida loom large in the history of bird conservation in North America. During the 1890s, elegant plumes of egrets and other waders were popular in fashion. “Plume hunters” descended on Florida, wiping out whole colonies and decimating populations. The plight of these birds led to the founding of the Audubon movement and ultimately to passage of protective laws, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Most legislative action took place elsewhere, but Florida was the real battleground, in almost a literal sense. Beginning in 1902, the American Ornithologists’ Union, supported by the Florida Audubon Society, hired wardens to protect wading bird colonies in the southern part of the state.
The first such warden, Guy Bradley, was killed by plume hunters in 1905. Violence and illegal poaching continued for several more years before the use of feathers in fashion was effectively banned.
The first federal wildlife refuge in the U.S. was also in Florida: Pelican Island, established through an executive order by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, again to protect local birds from plume hunters. It became the first unit in what is now the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Threats to Florida birds today are more complicated, involving things like water rights, sea level rise, and invasive species. But the Florida Audubon Society and other groups are actively facing these threats to ensure the survival of bird populations for the future.
This article was first published in the March/April 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine.