Just as enticing to me was the prospect of seeing other wildlife, such as butterflies, dragonflies, lizards, snakes, mammals and more. Having spent the past 8 years birding and wildlife-watching in Ontario, I was eager to visit a place where almost everything would be new to me.
My fiancé and I made a last minute decision to fly down on May 20th. Although not the best time to visit – migration would be over, leaving only the resident breeding birds – we both needed a break. Florida was our mutual choice as we both wanted to see the Everglades, a unique ecosystem that covers the southwestern-most part of the state.
Despite our carefully chosen flights, things went wrong as soon as we got to the airport. We were told upon checking in that our 2:30 flight to Washington was delayed an hour, meaning that we would miss our connecting flight to Miami. We had to be re-routed through Chicago and although we were originally supposed to arrive in Miami at 7:40 pm, the Chicago flight didn’t even leave until 7:30 pm! This meant that we had three hours to kill at O’Hare Airport. At least it was a clean, beautiful airport – the terminal looked more like a shopping center with its glass skylights, and there was an amazing light display in the tunnel connecting concourse B to concourse C (the two parts of Terminal 1).
We managed to survive the three-hour wait, but as our boarding time approached the sky grew darker. A violent electrical storm swept in, and our plane was refused clearance for take off. We sat on the runway for two hours before the plane was allowed to return to the gate so we could get up and stretch our legs back in the terminal. An hour later, we were allowed back on the plane, though it didn’t take off until after 11:00 pm. Though tired, I barely dozed on the plane; I never sleep well when my regular routine is disrupted. Once we began descending I sat up and looked down at the sparkling lights of Miami and the vast, black abyss of the Atlantic Ocean. I was even able to make out the shapes of the palm trees once we got close to the ground!
Miami International Airport was deserted when we arrived after 2:00 am. We had to take several moving walkways and an LRT to get to the car rental center. It was 3:00 by the time we got our car, and 4:00 am by the time we arrived at the Best Western in Florida City. I got my first U.S. bird in the parking lot in the middle of the night when I heard a Common Nighthawk performing a flight display somewhere nearby – both the nasal “peents” and sonic boom were audible. I also heard a bird singing but didn’t recognize it; it was likely a Northern Mockingbird, as these common birds sing at all hours of the day.
I didn’t sleep at all, and finally got up at 6:30. After a shower I went out to get my first good look at Florida. The air was warm, the sky was blue, there were palm trees right outside our hotel room – and I saw my first life bird as soon as I stepped out onto the balcony! A Eurasian Collared Dove was sitting on a street light in the parking lot. It was paler than the Mourning Doves I am used to, with a little black collar on the back of its neck. I went back inside to get my camera but it had flown off by the time I returned.
Something about the palm trees captured my imagination. I could hardly believe they were real, after only seeing them in miniature on TV (both real and fake) and as tacky plastic lawn ornaments. I was also pleased to see some green space surrounding the motel, instead of pavement and city shopping plazas.
I spotted a pair of birds on the wires close to the back exit and walked closer to take their picture. I thought they were both mockingbirds at first, but on closer inspection, neither the bill nor the body of the second bird seemed right. I took some pictures as I didn’t have my binoculars; after spending some time with my phone apps I identified it as a Gray Kingbird. This was a bird I knew could be found in Florida, though I didn’t expect to see one!
The kingbird flew off, but another interesting bird foraging in the grass caught my attention, a female Boat-tailed Grackle. This was a species I had made sure to look up ahead of time as I knew they were plentiful in the Sunshine State. Males look like large Common Grackles with longer tails and dark eyes, while the females look a lot like our fall-plumage Rusty Blackbirds with dark eyes.
I was thrilled with all of these finds – three life birds and I hadn’t even had breakfast yet! I quickly remedied that, eating outside by the pool, then went back to the room and grabbed my binoculars while I let my fiancé sleep a little while longer. I heard a Killdeer calling from what looked like a gravel parking lot beyond the motel lawn and went to investigate; I didn’t see the Killdeer, but I saw a grassy wet area surrounded by a fence with several Red-winged Blackbirds calling from within. I also saw a couple of Eurasian Collared Doves walking around just like the Rock Pigeons in downtown Ottawa.
A couple of Northern Mockingbirds were fluttering from tree to tree, showing off their white wing patches. This is another really common bird in Florida, but it was still awesome to see them as they are rare in Ottawa, the northernmost part of their range. One flew in and landed on a post right in front me, and I was happy to take its picture before it flew off.
It was getting late in the morning, and I didn’t want to waste too much of my first day in Florida hanging around the hotel, so I decided to head back to our room and wake up Doran. On my way back I stopped to photograph another Eurasian Collared Dove walking around the parking lot.
Movement at the edge of the lawn caught my attention, and I was surprised to see a large dark bird with a fleshy red face walking around. I was flummoxed by its appearance – was it a vulture of some sort? No, the body looked more like a duck. It was the strangest waterfowl I had ever seen, and when I got back to my room I had to do some research in order to identify it as a Muscovy Duck.
After identifying the strange-looking duck, I was faced with another question: could I count it on my life list? Muscovy Ducks are not native to Florida, having been released by individuals and organizations (illegally, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) in order to “enhance” local parks and ponds. Others were pets released into the wild by owners unaware of the impact such actions have. In most cases, species that have been released into the wild through the actions of humans are not considered countable in the areas where they have been released; they are countable only within their native range. However, after they become established through decades of successful breeding they may be added to the official checklists, and considered countable under ABA (American Birding Association) rules. This includes birds reintroduced into their native range after extirpation, such as the Trumpeter Swan and Wild Turkey in Ontario – these were not countable a decade ago.
Another factor I had to consider was whether the duck was a truly wild bird, or was it a domestic or escaped individual. When it comes to adding birds to my life list, I don’t count captive birds (i.e. the Barnacle Goose in Kingsville or the Mute Swans on the Rideau River) or birds whose origin is doubtful (again the Barnacle Goose). It seemed odd that it was hanging around the motel, but it did seem free to come and go as it pleased; there are no fences to keep it in. I also learned later that they are very friendly, personable creatures often found in urban areas that are used to people (and to being fed).
I later found a couple of links about the status of the Muscovy Ducks in Florida through more internet searching. In this link, someone states that Muscovy Ducks are ABA countable for one’s life list, noting that once introduced birds become very established in a state, they’re countable in the entire ABA area. Indeed, Muscovy Ducks are such prolific breeders that it didn’t take long for them to become established, or for them to be considered nuisance birds (they are thought to compete with native species, cause damage to property, transmit disease, and interbreed with native ducks).
While the author in this blog post states that these ducks “just feel like aquatic pigeons and are not a bird that I would have gone out of my way to see”, he notes that they are countable. The Florida Ornithological Society Records Committee reviewed this species as well as a few other exotics in 2012 for delisting and agreed to keep it on the the official state checklist as this species “is now known across the state in settled areas”.
After reading what other birders had to say, I was thrilled to count it, warts and all. I hadn’t even left the motel grounds and already had four new birds on my life list: Eurasian Collared Dove, Gray Kingbird, Boat-tailed Grackle, and now Muscovy Duck. It was a fantastic beginning to the trip!