The Snags at the Long Key Salt Pan
Long Keys State Park (LKSP) is not unusual in the Keys, in that it contains a number of distinct ecosystems within a relatively small area. What is great about LKSP is that it offers foot-access to all its habitats, including mangrove communities, coastal berm and transitional areas, upland hardwood hammocks, and the xeric landscape of an interior salt pan.
The FKH team conducts thorough transect counts in all habitats each morning by collecting species counts, habitat use and behavior data for each avian detection – an arduous task when migration is “on.” The tall snags surrounding the salt pan of LKSP are an quick way of seeing what species are using the area any given morning. It is not unusual to see Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, other raptors and several species of birds perched atop the leaf-less trunks of long-dead mangroves and Buttonwoods.
Raptors use these snags to rest from their long migratory journeys, and as lookout points to scan for potential prey and competitors. The forests of the Middle Keys have relatively low canopies. Tropical storms and hurricanes keep the growth of many trees stunted, affected by strong winds and tides. Additionally, it is an area characterized by little soil, and plants are often growing in hypersaline environments, giving the area a barren appearance. Below, some snags at a distance give warning of perched Merlins, Mississippi Kites and Peregrine Falcons in the area.
Some days, you can see as many as 10 Peregrines perched atop the snags surrounding the salt pan. But raptors are not the only ones using these snags. It is not unusual to see wading birds and passerines of all kinds using these perches. Below, a White Ibis and an Eastern Wood-Pewee are on the lookout. Bottom photo: A Reddish Egret and a Double-crested Cormorant perch on the petrified trunk of a toppled mangrove succumbed to the tides.
Flycatchers of many kinds seem quite fond of these perches. At this time of the year – early October – we are at the tail-end of Gray and Eastern Kingbird movement (below). Although they will continue moving through into November in lesser numbers, we run the chances of seeing Western Kingbirds and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers later in the fall.
Other raptor species that can often be seen using the bare snags for perches include Osprey, Bald Eagle and American Kestrel. However, a number of other raptors rest within this park’s forests during migration, preferring concealment in the fully-leafed trees of the hammocks. Short-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks tend to prefer lesser exposed perches, but every now and then one may catch glimpses of a Short-tail out on the salt pan snags. Below – young dark Short-tailed Hawks digibinned through a Leica Ultravid 8×32 and iPhone 4.
In the darker canopy of Gumbo Limbo trees, it is not uncommon to find Broad-winged Hawks perched at first light (above, adult at left, young at right). These birds can be quite shy, receding further back into the hammock if discovered, where they will wait until later in the day to resume their migrations. Atop these lush trees, one may find White-crowned Pigeons looking for fruit. Photo below of an adult (left) and young (right) White-crowned Pigeon digiscoped with Leica APO Televid 65 / Adapter / D-Lux 5 camera.
Below is a photo of the shell-covered floor of the Long Key salt pan tract. Below that is a satellite image showing this xeric zone surrounded by mangroves and upland hammocks, shown as a white wash amid greenery. The pan is essentially a wetland which becomes a dry lagoon bed seasonally. During the wet months of summer, rains flood these pans. Tides and wind also affect the area, which may be flooded one day, with fish swimming through the sparse vegetation, and may be a desert the next. Few plants can tolerate these conditions; the rapid changes in salinity are too extreme and result in extensive barren areas.
Above left, the salt pan during high tide. Right, the salt pan during low tide. Although it may be at times difficult to find birds in this area due to the flooding, thick underbrush and exposure to the sun, it is a fantastic place to observe the flights of birds arriving into the Keys. Make sure to visit this park during migration!