March 2nd, 2013 was the second full day of a Florida birding trip that I took with my friends Josh Lefever and Mark Mizak. Josh and I drove down from PA and planned on meeting up with Mark (who currently works in the Florida Keys) at Stormwater Treatment Area 5 and go in for the tour at 8:00am. Josh and I had stayed in Clewiston the night before and woke up early to start driving south towards the STA. On the drive down, the sun was rising and birds were everywhere. A Great Horned Owl was perched on a pole along the road; cormorants, Anhingas, both vultures, and all of the herons and egrets were flying from their roosting and nesting sites, to where they planned to forage for the morning. American Kestrels were perched along the powerlines, spaced out every half mile or so. We started to see harriers cruising the phragmites for breakfast and massive flocks of blackbirds flying off their roosts. Perhaps the biggest surprise was spotting an immature “Krider’s” Hawk perched on a pole along the road! I knew there was a small wintering population of Krider’s in that area but couldn’t believe our luck in actually seeing one! Unmoved by the whole sight were my first-of-year Black-crowned Night-Herons - we spotted a few huddled up and ready to go to sleep for the day, tired after a long night of hunting frogs in the ditches along the road. We turned on to Deer Fence Canal road and drove back towards the parking area for the STA. Another Great Horned Owl was perched in a tree next to the road and Cave Swallows were mixed with 40 Tree Swallows, circling around attempting to land on the fine gravel road ahead of us.
Stormwater Treatment Area 5 (aka STA 5) is one of a series of water filtration wetlands that are open for birders to visit. STA 5, however, has more restricted access than the others and is only open on weekends and with tour leaders (link to schedule). The tour was over-booked on the 2nd, but we were scheduled to go in a smaller group with a second tour leader. We pulled in to the parking lot a little before 8, signed in, and grabbed a walkie-talkie. Mark pulled in right behind us and we were ready to head inside. For the past month, we had been using eBird to plan out our trip and had been drooling over the reports coming from STA. The lifer potential for Josh and Mark was high, with many species they needed seeming to be fairly common here. However, our main target was Fulvous Whistling-Duck. I have birded Florida extensively, and I have even lived and worked in the state but Fulvous Whistling-Duck has eluded me. Finally I was getting the opportunity to bird STA 5, where they are perhaps more abundant than anywhere else in the state.
For the next five and a half hours, my friends and three other cars worth of birders winded our way around the dike system of the STA, carefully sorting through the thousands of birds in each impoundment. By far the most common species were American Coot and Common Gallinule, with literally thousands around the area. Purple Gallinules and Purple Swamphens were also everywhere you looked – in higher numbers than I have ever seen in my life!
Cormorants, Blue-winged Teal, and Northern Shovelers were also in high numbers around the STA. I picked out a distant male Snail Kite, but it was a scope-view only kinda bird. Luckily we re-found it about an hour later, feeding on a snail and got much better looks. Our first whistling-duck species of the morning was a group of 12 black-bellies…awesome, but not our lifer Fulvous. Luckily, a few minutes later, we spotted our first Fulvous Whistling-Ducks! There were small groups of 3 to 6 foraging around the edge of one of the impoundments. Soon we began to see more and more everywhere we looked. Ironically, considering none of us had ever seen a single Fulvous Whistling-Duck in our lives, we ended up seeing 120 by the time we left the STA!
Many typically difficult-to-find birds in the northern part of the country are in incredibly high densities in Florida, among them American Bittern and Sora were easy to see or hear as we drove around the impoundments. American Bitterns were actually quite common around the wetlands, and we were able to watch 4 very well. Least Bittern, however (one of Josh Lefever’s top nemesis birds) was proving to be difficult to find. Past weekend’s eBird reports showed incredibly high numbers of Least bitterns but we just couldn’t find one! We didn’t let that keep us down thought, after all there were loads of other great birds around! Below is a collection of digi-scoped videos we took while birding the STA showing some of the highlights, including an American Bittern, distant video of the Snail Kite, a Glossy Ibis, Purple Swamphen, and a nesting Red-shouldered Hawk – be sure to play the video in HD!
We tried for a Tropical Kingbird where one had been reported during past weekend tours, but it didn’t seem to be around. On the opposite side of the STA, there was supposed to be a Cassin’s Kingbird. We stood and looked for the Cassin’s for a while, eventually hearing it call a few times but unfortunately it never came out in to view. Red-shouldered Hawks and many other raptors were around the area, including at least 3 Peregrine Falcons. Needless to say, the birding was great – we ended up with 77 species in the STA! For a complete list of the birds we saw, check out this link.
By 1:30pm, we were finished birding STA 5 and began the drive down to Alligator Alley and across to Fort Lauderdale. Along the highway we spotted multiple Crested Caracaras as well as a female Snail Kite, which offered some nice photo opportunities. Once we made it down to Alligator Alley, we booked it east, hoping to still have enough daylight left to try for the La Sagra’s Flycatcher and Neotropic Cormorant. Be sure to check back for more info and stories from our trip!