Crested Caracara by Matthew Paulson
Birding in Florida's sweet spot

(published 3-11-14)

Traveling to Key Largo on Super Bowl weekend is getting to be a habit. I go there to visit my parents and, if possible, sneak in some birding. Last month, if only for a day, it felt good to be wearing binoculars without four layers of clothing under them.  
I’ve been fortunate to bird many of the Florida hotspots: Corkscrew Swamp, Dry Tortugas, Everglades National Park and Merritt Island among them.  My birding last month, however, was in a region of Florida I’d never experienced.  It wasn’t scenic by Florida standards but the quantity and variety of birds more than compensated for the lack of beaches and ocean views.
This was an inland mission, to the agricultural area south of Lake Okeechobee. It’s a place relatively few visitors to Florida ever see.
My dad joined me on the trip, and I was happy for the company.  He’s a casual birder at best but always supportive of my pursuits. Our birding would take place on his 86th birthday and he was game.
We drove up to Clewiston the night before. “America’s Sweetest Town” is on the south shore of The Big O, in the heart of sugarcane country.  I guess it was sweet but what I’ll remember most is the Clewiston Inn, a local landmark built in 1938. Audubon prints were conspicuous, and a wonderful mural of original art featuring Florida birds and animals covers all four walls of the Everglades Lounge. Any birder with a sense of history would love the place. 
In the morning we drove 25 miles south to join the Hendry-Glades Audubon chapter at Stormwater Treatment Area 5. The birding really began just outside of Clewiston, though, because the road to “STA-5” is known for sightings of crested caracara, the bird I wanted most.  It wasn’t long before my wish came true. Dad and I spotted two caracaras, the second one providing killer views as it briefly flew alongside our rented Nissan.
The caracara is an interesting raptor. It has the head of an eagle, feeds on carrion like a vulture and yet is considered a falcon. A bird of open country, it’s right at home on the cane fields and ranches of south central Florida.  Caracaras also are found in parts of southern Arizona and Texas.  I was thrilled to add the species to my life list.
Birding tours inside STA-5 are guided by Hendry-Glades Audubon in partnership with the South Florida Water Management District. The 7,700-acre constructed wetland is a buffer, designed to protect the Everglades ecosystem from damaging agricultural runoff.  So the six-unit STA network is all about saving the River of Grass. But as we were about to witness, its creation 15 years ago was great for the birds, too.
The STA-5 parking lot was packed with vehicles and eager birders—106 birders to be exact.  A trip leader announced that a chipping sparrow had just been spotted, a new bird for the all-time site list, species No. 203. That was cool, but we had Florida specialties in mind, like the ones on that mural in Clewiston.  We took our place in the car caravan and headed out onto STA-5’s man-made dikes. 
Wetland species are naturally the big attraction at STA-5 and right out of the gate we enjoyed close views of purple gallinule, purple swamphen (a lifer for me), American bittern and several snail kites.
Wonderful birds surrounded the group at all times. When the cars were moving the leader in front pointed out notable birds via walkie-talkie, a nice service.  “Black-bellied whistling ducks flying right!” The vehicle train stopped about every 100 yards so we could get out and gawk at the avian magic.
American coot was the most abundant bird, followed by great numbers of tree swallows darting about the sky. Anhinga, black-necked stilt, black skimmer, limpkin, and all manner of heron, egret, ibis and waterfowl tempted our eyes. More secretive birds stalked the vegetation where palm warblers also flitted about.
The airspace over the mile-wide “cells” of open water included cruising American white pelicans and wood storks, Caspian and Forster’s terns, red-shouldered hawk, caracara, kingfisher, peregrine falcon and a wide variety of fast-flying ducks.       
Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher by
Carlos Escamilla
I expected many roseate spoonbills, a Florida classic, but we spotted only one. Thankfully the pink beauty flew directly over our heads. 
Dad and I would see 60 species at STA-5 but the official day list totaled 85, since multiple birding parties were moving about the dikes. The rarest spotting was tropical kingbird, a stake-out bird wintering at the preserve for a third straight year.  It was a lifer for many, including me. Cinnamon teal was another eye-popping rarity.
I could have birded all day at STA-5 and the next day, too. It was that good. But five hours on the muddy dikes under a hot sun take their toll and the tour was winding down. It was time to motor back to civilization, get cleaned up and give dad a proper birthday dinner.
Alas, the birding gods had one more gift in store.  Two miles outside the STA-5 gate, I noticed a pale bird perching on a fence wire. Or at least thought I did.  A quick U-turn confirmed it to be a scissor-tailed flycatcher!  I’d seen this striking species only once before, in 1998, when a vagrant bird visited the Batavia Riverwalk.
The flycatcher wrapped up a shared birding experience I’ll always treasure. Driving back to Key Largo it hit me: Trips, not just birds, can be lifers, too.
Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.