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Migrant Movement: Middle Keys Snapshot

September 23, 2014

Black-and-white Warbler at Long Keys State Park by Rafael Galvez. Leica V-Lux 4.

The Florida Keys aren’t just a special place to observe migrating raptors – there are opportunities to observe large numbers of migrating shorebirds, herons, and of course, passerines. Starting in 2011, the counters at Curry Hammock began recording all non-raptor species detected at the site. And in 2012, standardized morning surveys at Long Key State Park also were set into motion.

Since beginning our surveys September 2 of this year, we have been watching migration build and continue to gain momentum. Early September saw high numbers of swallows, Eastern Kingbirds, and Prairie Warblers, but overall diversity just wasn’t there yet. Gradually, diversity began to increase as the month moved along, but it wasn’t until the morning of September 18 where a large pulse of new arrivals made landfall in the middle Keys. Early that morning, dozens of thrushes and hundreds of Bobolinks could be heard overhead at Long Key State Park. As dusk turned to day, passerines aloft began to put down in the tropical hardwood hammock. Numbers of Red-eyed Vireos rallied around fruiting Poisonwood (Metopium toxiferum) while Veery “quivered” nervously in the understory. Warbler numbers appeared to have increased compared to those we had seen over the past few days. Although the composition of species was that typical of that of mid-to-late September, a late Louisiana Waterthrush ran among the prop roots of Red Mangroves (Rhizophora mangle). A couple Prothonotary Warblers, another species which often favors mangrove forest during migration in coastal Florida, blitzed into the mangroves as we left the park for Curry Hammock and the hawkwatch.

BOST comp for ALHA B

Left: Blackburnian Warbler. Right: Chestnut-sided Warbler. Photos by Bob Stalnaker at Curry Hammock State Park.

It wasn’t until we reached Curry Hammock that we realized just how many passerines had moved into the Middle Keys in the morning. Diversity was high, although the individual numbers weren’t. Just in the vicinity of the hawkwatching platform, we would tally eighty species for the day. Seventeen of them were warbler species, and among them were species we often get in low numbers throughout the season: Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Hooded and Prothonotary. Also in the mix were the first Tennessee Warblers of the season and an unseasonable Palm Warbler. Two Dickcissels made a brief appearance in the campground, giving themselves away with their unique call. Buttonwoods (Conocarpus erectus) dripped with orange Baltimore Orioles, Red-eyed Vireos, and a variety of warblers. Also of note was another large nighthawk movement. Although a few thousand shy of a single-day count from earlier in the month (Sept 10, 2014), we would tally a healthy nine-hundred seventy-two for the day.

PAWA fos2013

The first Palm Warbler of the season was seen on September 18, 2014.

Curious to see what the day brought as it progressed into late afternoon, a return to Long Key State Park was in order after leaving the hawkwatch. This time around, we would observe a relatively new set of birds. Maybe new birds had made landfall after we left earlier in the morning, or perhaps they were overlooked. Or more likely, it was a bit of both. In the same stretch of trail we had been earlier there were parties of strutting Ovenbirds, and easily-overlooked Empidonax species came in the form of Acadian and silent “Traill’s” Flycatchers. A vocal Hooded obliged us with a hollow and metallic “dink” call from thick undergrowth, and finally an Alder Flycatcher announced it’s identity with insistent “pep” calls. The last highlight of the afternoon came in the form of the day’s nineteenth warbler species, a male Kentucky Warbler that hopped furtively through a heavily-shaded hammock.

Hooded Warbler field sketch by Rafael Galvez.

Hooded Warbler field sketch by Rafael Galvez.

Several reasons contribute to the opportunity to observe high diversity of migrating passerines in the Keys. For one, the Middle and Lower Florida Keys appear to get species from two different flyways. With a heavy influence of Atlantic Flyway and Caribbean-bound migrants, the Keys also make up the easternmost boundary of the Gulf of Mexico. This often means Trans-Gulf migrants make landfall in the Keys, especially after western winds over the Gulf. The farther south one goes in the island chain, the more likely one will stumble upon Trans-Gulf migrants. Secondly, there is a bottle-necking effect. Birds travelling down the Florida peninsula have the luxury of spreading over a large swath of landmass. As they move into the Keys, their options diminish, and they funnel down the islands until reaching their jump-off point to Cuba, the Yucatan, or elsewhere. Lastly, the insect-laden hardwood hammocks and mangroves also offer a variety of energy-rich fruiting trees. All of these are important ingredients for a show-stopping fall migration in Florida’s unique coral archipelago.

A Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher at Long Key SP

September 20, 2014

9-17-2014 LKSP Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher

The Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (Myiodynastes luteiventris) is currently in the Review List of the Florida Ornithological Society‘s Records Committee (FOSRC). Review species are those whose status is poorly known or documented in Florida. Normally, a species with 10 accepted records will be removed from the list, but the committee may remove species from the list, or retain species on the list, as it believes best serves the interests of Florida ornithology. Anyone who finds this species in the state of Florida is encouraged to submit a report to the FOSRC.

- September 17, 2014 - As we were about to finish our daily transect count at Long Key State Park at roughly 9:45 am, Moe Morrissette and I came upon a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, perched in the canopy of the rockland hammock sector of the Golden Orb Trail. The bird was within a cluster of mature Gumbo Limbo and Poisonwood trees. Seconds after being detected, it moved gently into a deeper nook of the hammock and was lost from sight.

We tried for several minutes to relocate the flycatcher, but if you have ever birded in a West Indian hardwood hammock, you know how dense the vegetation is, and how easily birds get lost in this jungle-like habitat. My fear was that we may not have the chance to relocate the bird to obtain a photograph for documentation. The occurrence of Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher in Florida is not well understood, and very few documented records exist for the state – none to my knowledge from the Florida Keys proper – although there are records from Cape Florida and reports of Myiodynastes sp. from the Upper Arsnicker Keys in Florida Bay. Familiar with the challenges presented in Florida by a small group of occasional and/or hypothetical “streaked” flycatcher species in the genera Myiodynastes, Legatus, and Empidonomus, I realized I had to quickly put on paper every detail I remembered from the brief encounter with the bird in question to secure documentation.

Out of habit, my immediate reaction was to draw as detailed a sketch of the bird as my memory allowed, before too much time elapsed. Within ten minutes of having last seen the bird, I drafted the sketch above.

Kerry Ross - SBFL comp

Not until later in the afternoon (9-17-14) was Kerry Ross able to return to Long Key and obtain photos.

Alex Harper - SBFL

Alexander Harper managed to capture the large bill of the species, the dark malar markings joining below the chin, and the yellow wash on the relatively unstreaked belly that help separate Sulphur-bellied from Streked Flycatcher.

Unable to relocate the flycatcher during the morning, it was not until the afternoon, after the hawkwatch was over, that members of our team were able to go back to Long Key and look for the bird. Kerry Ross and Alexander Harper did not take long in finding the bird within the vicinity of where it was first detected.

Separating Sulphur-bellied from Streaked Flycatcher: Although this flycatcher was difficult to photograph through the canopy, Kerry Ross and Alex Harper were able to capture the field marks that allow us to separate the bird in question from its similar congener, Streaked Flycatcher (Myiodynastes maculatus). Both Streaked (19.5 – 21 cm) and Sulphur-bellied (20.5 cm) Flycatchers are rather large, with strongly marked plumage. All members of this genus exhibit large bills with flesh-colored bases to the lower mandible, bold facial masks and varying amounts of rufous on the tail and/or wing feathers.

Consider the following when separating Sulphur-bellied from Streaked: a) The extent of the dark malar markings across the chin; b) the amount of streaking on the belly and undertail coverts, and the yellow coloration of the underparts; c) the coloration of primary feather edging; d) the overall whiteness of the “background” of the facial region; e) the extent of rufous on the tail and uppertail coverts.

a) Sulphur-bellied shows broad dark (blackish) streaks across the malar region that join below the bill, therefore it often appears to show a black and/or streaked upper chin. The malar markings of Streaked are thinner and extend to the base of the bill, but do not join, therefore the chin appears pale. The austral migrant form of Streaked (M. m. solitarius) may show streaking on the throat and chin, as in Sulphur-bellied.

b) As its name indicates, Sulphur-bellied shows a yellow wash from the undertail coverts through the belly and fading into the breast. The austral form of Streaked shows a paler yellow tinge throughout its underparts that rarely reaches the intensity of Sulphur-bellied. Most importantly, the yellow belly and undertail coverts of Sulphur-bellied are mostly unstreaked and clean, except perhaps towards the flanks. By contrast, Streaked Flycatcher shows bold streaks throughout the flanks and into the belly and undertail coverts.

c) The color on the edge of the primary feathers varies between both species. The primary edging of Sulphur-bellied is whitish, while it is rufous tinged or yellowish in Streaked.

d) The “background” color of the facial region and throat plumage, including the supercilium and moustachial stripe are white in Sulphur-bellied, rarely tinged with yellow. These are tinged yellow in Streaked.

e) While both species show a significant amount of rufous on the tail and uppertail coverts, this is most prominent on Sulphur-bellied. The “expected” form of Streaked Flycatcher – the austral migrant solitarius – shows thin rufous-tinged edges to an otherwise dark brown tail. By contrast, the tail of Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher appears largely rufous, with dark centers and a rufous uppertail with sparse streaking.

The markings captured in the photos by Alex Harper and Kerry Ross show the necessary traits for the elimination of Streaked, and in favor of Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. While Streaked Flycatcher has never been documented in Florida, beware of the smaller yet similar Piratic (Legatus leucophaius) and Variegated (Empidonomus varius) Flycatchers, both of which have been documented in the state.

The TeamLeft: Rafael Galvez sketching the bird on site, within 10 minutes after the first detection. The possibility of not relocating the bird made this exercise useful for identification. Right: Alex Harper celebrates the relocation of the flycatcher later the afternoon of Sept. 17, while Kerry Ross and Brehan Furfey focus on the bird.




240 OSPREYS: Top 3rd Day Count!

September 13, 2014

An Osprey migrating over the Middle Keys. Photo by Rafael Galvez. Leica V-Lux 4.

South-bound migration was the agenda for Ospreys moving through the Florida Keys today. Inclement weather and unfavorable winds appeared to have had a bottleneck effect on migrating raptors the day before. The total number of Ospreys detected at the hawkwatch on September 12, 2014: one. And the day before that brought a respectable thirty-eight.

Ospreys migrating over the Middle Keys. Photos by Rafael Galvez. Leica V-Lux 4.

Ospreys migrating over the Middle Keys. Photos by Rafael Galvez. Leica V-Lux 4.

Ospreys wasted no time making up for a day spent hunkered down farther north the day before. When the hawkwatch opened at 9:00 am, Ospreys were already on the move; in the first two hours, 135 were detected. Numbers of them would remain consistent throughout the day, and as thermals began to form, we began seeing birds at higher altitudes. Small groups could often be seen riding thermals with Magnificent Frigatebirds, gaining height with every wide turn. Then, one-by-one at the most favorable height above Earth’s surface, they would follow the same trajectory for landmasses farther afield. Once in a strong glide, one could watch an Osprey disappear to the south, all without one beat of a wing. The birds also seemed to be following two different flight lines. The majority appeared to be following the Keys, island hopping possibly until reaching the Lower Keys before making the jump to Cuba or Central America. But as the day went on, we saw more and more making a bee line for Cuba. Apparent Cuba-bound birds also seemed to be the highest-flying on average. Birds following the Keys appeared to be cruising at lower altitudes.

Osprey High Counts Chart

By the end of the day, the hawkwatchers would tally 240 Ospreys. This number makes for the third highest day total for the Florida Keys Hawkwatch, and only nine behind the second highest (249 on 9/25/2002). A lull in southbound activity around 4:00 pm made beating the second highest total seem a bit more distant. It wasn’t until driving north on US-1 towards Long Key that we could see just how many Ospreys were still moving through the Keys. Forty-six more were located between Marathon and Long Key, most of which were southbound. Yet another storm had been keeping these birds from moving south as the afternoon went on, so who knows what the end-of-the-day count could have been?

Ridgway's Osprey video

 CLICK IMAGE TO PLAY VIDEO. Above, a resident “Ridgway’s” Osprey kept an eye on the sky as migratory birds of its species continued moving overhead. Often, as it spotted a migrating Osprey, it would make a plaintive call. To learn more about this Caribbean subspecies, read “Observing Ospreys,” by Jeff Bouton. Video by Rafael Galvez – Leica V-Lux 4.

Osprey Top 5 High Counts ChartTop 5 single-day counts for Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) from the Florida Keys Hawkwatch at Curry Hammock State Park – spanning the project’s entire history at that site.


4275 Nighthawks!

September 10, 2014
IMG_5793 (2)b

One of 4275 nighthawks documented from Curry Hammock State Park on 9/10/14. Photo by Kerry Ross.

A breathtaking total of 4,275 nighthawks – presumed Common Nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) – were tallied today between 09:30 and 14:39 hrs from the FKH observation deck at Curry Hammock State Park, Little Crawl Key.

For the past fall seasons we have been documenting large numbers of migratory nighthawks engaged in diurnal flights due south, detected as they cross the narrow landmass of the Middle Keys and continue southward over open water in general direction towards Cuba.

FKH Nighthawk Video ICON

CLICK TO PLAY VIDEO – Nighthawks in flight taken with a Leica V-Lux 4 camera.

Today we surpassed our high counts of nighthawks from all previous years. Time and again we witnessed the passage of nighthawks in flocks ranging from roughly 70 to 500 individuals each, sometimes coming directly over our count site, other times spotted over a kilometer away. Nearly all flocks trended S to SE, and were tracked as the birds moved towards the ocean, and were finally lost in sight. Our hourly count was 568 (09:00-10:00 hrs), 254 (10:00-11:00), 1739 (11:00-12:00), 1079 (12:00-13:00) and 635 (13:00-14:00) for a total of 4275!

Nighthawk Passage and Weather

The weather was quite variable in the Middle Keys this day, with winds ranging from 2-13 km/h pushing bands of clouds and rain over the region. Cloud cover in general was dense and low, averaging 79% throughout the day (100% 13:00-16:00 hrs), and as low as 1500 ft in altitude. The map above (left) shows blue arrows indicating the general trajectory and line of detection of nighthawks crossing our monitoring area. The radar image on the right shows weather over South Florida from 1pm – 2pm.

Counters were Kerry Ross, Brehan Furfey, Alexander Harper, Moe Morrissette and Rafael Galvez.

Additionally, we tallied an impressive 790 southbound Eastern Kingbirds, 2195 Barn Swallows, and many individuals of numerous migratory bird species – culminating in an unforgettable day of migration in the Florida Keys!!!

Mantengan un vistazo al cielo en Cuba – alla van los Querequetés migratorios!!!

World Shorebirds Day at Long Key

September 6, 2014
Sketch of the lone Wilson's Plover (Charadrius wilsonia) found this day at LKSP. The bird paused and faced the wind as it was about to rain.

Field sketch of the lone Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia) found this day at LKSP. The bird paused and faced the wind as it was about to rain. By Rafael Galvez.

Today we participated in the World Shorebirds Day event at Long Key State Park (LKSP). Although we have been conducting surveys for all bird species at that location, this event gave us an opportunity to highlight the importance of Florida Keys habitats for shorebirds. We joined efforts with LKSP to raise public awareness, and created educational material and opportunities for visitors to participate in our research.

Field sketch of a Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) as it worked the wrack line. By Rafael Galvez.

Field sketch of a Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) as it worked the wrack line. By Rafael Galvez.

Although we had miles of transect counts to run and a hawkwatch to monitor, I took a bit of extra time to sit by the shoreline and do a few watercolor sketches of my favorite plovers. It rained, the wind went from still – perfect for the thousands of sand fleas – to gusty, picking up sand and foam. Finally the sun came out; temperatures rising to 91 F (32.7 C) degrees. All the while, flocks of shorebirds worked the wrack line, and as I sketched, I was allowed brief snippets into the complex lives of a number of fascinating birds.

Sketching shorebirds at Long Key State Park.

Thank you to all those that participated, and I hope to see you there again tomorrow!

Shorebird Species tallied during World Shorebirds Day – September 6, 2014 at Long Key State Park:

Spotted Sandpiper
Black-bellied Plover
Wilson’s Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Piping Plover
Ruddy Turnstone
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Marbled Godwit
Short-billed Dowitcher
American Avocet
Greater Yellowlegs
(Western) Willet
Solitary Sandpiper

The FKH 2014 Full Season Counters

September 5, 2014

photo xv

It is very exciting that we are in the midst of another fall migration season. This will mark the 17th year of standardized full-season counts in the Middle Keys, and I have no doubt it will be another successful one!

During the 2014 fall season, the FKH team will be conducting morning transect counts for migratory birds at Long Key State Park and point counts from Curry Hammock State Park for all bird species, with a focus on diurnal birds of prey.

The FKH Full Season Counters

photo 1B

We have a fantastic team lined up this year! With great pleasure, we welcome Kerry Ross back to the project for his third season! He has worked with birds ranging from plovers to goshawks, including raptor migration projects, avian recapture and rehabilitation. We could not do the project without him.

photo 3B

Kerry is returning to the Keys from his native California with his long-time colleague Moe Morrissette, who has years of experience working with Marbled Murrelets, shorebird surveys, and various projects along the Pacific coast and western forests. We welcome Moe to the project and to the Florida Keys!

photo 2b

Another fantastic addition to the team is Bree Furfey, a South Florida researcher with experience ranging from Black Skimmers to Swallow-tailed Kites and Magnificent Frigatebirds. We are fortunate to have her join FKH this season, and we will greatly benefit from her knowledge of the region and its avian specialties!

photo 4b

We are also thrilled to welcome Miami’s own Alex Harper to the team. Alex is an avid and sharp birder with experience in many parts of the world. Following field opportunities out west, we are fortunate to have lured him back to his native habitat. We will sure benefit from his wealth of knowledge about Florida birds!

I will also be participating in the counts, and look forward to welcoming visitors to our sites throughout the season, during the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival, and during the many planned activities this fall. Happy Migration to All!

Kingbirds on the Move

August 28, 2014


Migration was certainly evident today in the Middle Keys, with ten warbler species making appearances within hardwood hammock and coastal habitats. But it was the Eastern Kingbirds that stole the show! 

Eastern Kingbirds - Curry Hammock

While I had noticed an influx of this flycatcher species over last weekend in Big Pine, it was not until I spent much of the afternoon today along Curry Hammock’s bay side that I saw flock after flock of them (6, 10, 12 at a time) heading SW, typically flying low just above tree tops. At some point around 2 pm, there seemed to be Eastern Kingbirds on every other wire and snag, much to the curiosity of the many Gray Kingbirds in the area. 

Gray Kingbird and Swallow 2

Gray Kingbirds at the Blue Hole seemed particularly preoccupied with the many swallows in the vicinity.

Gray Kingbirds have also been seen in congregations – I counted 89 on visible perches while I drove from Islamorada to Big Pine a few days ago. However, many of these may have bred in the Keys – as they are known to do. They still seem very much preoccupied with their territories and neighbors. The Eastern Kingbird presumably does not nest in the Keys, but does in the Everglades. While we typically account for a decent number of Eastern Kingbirds every fall, our early start this year seems to be revealing that we have been arriving late for their show.

Other migrants today included several American Redstarts, Ovenbirds, Prairie Warblers and Worm-eating Warblers. Less numerous were Black-and-white, Black-throated Blue, and Northern Parula. Singles were seen of Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes, and Hooded Warbler.

Today was a tremendous day of Barn Swallow movement – thousands. At midday, many Purple Martins were also coming through. And the swallow flights have been going strong for weeks.

While raptor migration is just beginning to unravel, an absolute highlight was seeing two Northern Harriers on the move at high altitudes. This is a species that tends to peak in October. Hopefully this will be a good fall for them.


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