Eco Pond is a freshwater wetland that was created as the final stage of the waste-water cleansing system to treat sewage from Flamingo. It has been described as a “must-see” for birders, as many migratory and resident birds can be seen hunting for fish and aquatic invertebrates in the food-rich water. Although the viewing platform was removed after sustaining heavy damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, the 0.5 mile trail that circles the wetland provides excellent views of the pond and the small island in its center. Unfortunately the hurricanes also resulted in a flood of sea water entering into the wetland, which changed the pond’s salinity and affected the wildlife living there. I have heard that it is no longer as good as it used to be. Then again, I was aware that I was birding “out of season” and that there would be far fewer species than there would be in the winter or during migration.
The first thing I noticed was not the birds, but the dragonflies…there were hundreds of them flying through the air! I noticed lots of Needham’s Skimmers flying about, as well as several dragons with red saddlebags. I am not sure whether they were Red Saddlebags, Carolina Saddlebags, or a species I’d never heard of, and none of them landed so their identity would have to remain a mystery.
The water in the pond was very low, and it smelled just like a sewage lagoon. It looked perfect for shorebirds – one of my favourite groups of birds – and indeed there were a few around. The first bird I noticed was a Black-necked Stilt probing for food in the water. Although not a life bird (I had seen one at Hillman Marsh in Ontario in 2013), I got a much better look at this stunning black, white and pink bird – and better photos! There is also something special about seeing a bird on its home turf, rather than as a vagrant in a faraway land.
The next bird I noticed was a pair of large bluish herons. Then I spotted a third one off to the right. At first I wasn’t sure which species of heron they were – Reddish Egret? Little Blue Heron? Tricolored Heron? – but after checking my field guide I realized they were Tricolored Herons. Their bills were unusually long, and the Tricolored Heron is the only dark heron with a white belly. I was hoping to get some better pictures, but they preferred to hunt for fish and amphibians close to the island.
We walked around the pond for a bit, trying to get closer to the herons, and found a small lookout. Along the way we heard a Northern Cardinal and a Prairie Warbler singing. I would have loved to have seen the warbler, but it was hiding somewhere in the dense vegetation.
After seeing nothing walking counterclockwise around the trail we turned around and went back to where the shorebirds and herons were. Near the trail entrance we spotted an altercation between an American Crow and a Gray Kingbird. The kingbird landed in a tree right in front of us for a moment before flying off again. The only other non-wading bird we identified in the area was a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the parking lot. We did see a couple of pigeon-like birds in the distance (White-crowned Pigeons?) but they didn’t stay long and I didn’t get a good look at them.
We continued our way walking clockwise around the pond, and came across a flock of 12 American Avocets roosting together. This was not a life bird for me, as again, I had seen a pair in Hillman Marsh in 2010. It was nice to see a large group of them, although this was not a bird I expected to see in Florida at this time of year; they breed in the west and winter along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Apparently small populations spend the summer in Florida, so I am guessing this might be one of them.
All of the birds except one were wearing their rusty-coloured breeding plumage. The one in non-breeding plumage appears to be a female based on the strongly upturned bill (males have a slightly straighter bill). I had never noticed before that their legs are bluish-gray.
We left Eco Pond after about half an hour and headed for the Flamingo Visitor Center. Doran spotted a road heading south and decided to drive down it to see if it went to the water. It didn’t – in fact, it seemed to go nowhere – but we found a beautiful young Red-shouldered Hawk sitting in the trees where the road came to an end. Best wrong turn of my life!
At Flamingo we found a shady spot beneath the trees – not too difficult as ours was the only car there – and got out to look around. The building and the washrooms were open, but nobody was around.
We walked down to the water where I spotted two large Brown Pelicans swimming quite far out. On the shore, two Great Crested Flycatchers flew back and forth, calling, while I saw another Red-bellied Woodpecker fly by and heard a Prairie Warbler singing in the huge trees covered in Spanish Moss.
Doran pointed out a large flock of blackbirds foraging on the lawn; they were Brown-headed Cowbirds, and although I checked the flock for either Bronzed or Shiny Cowbirds I didn’t see any. We drove over to the store to get some food and cold water, spotting a pair of Ospreys flying overhead (one of which was vocalizing loudly) as well as the ever-present vultures circling high up in the sky. In the store we found out we could buy tickets for a two-hour boat tour; while this sounded highly appealing, we were worried about leaving the park in time to drive across the peninsula to our next destination. And thus it was with a mixture of regret for the lost boat ride and satisfaction at seeing so many cool life birds that we left Everglades National Park.