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Birding in the National Parks: Down The Park Road Towards Flamingo in Everglades National Park
A few weeks ago in this column we visited Everglades National Park and stopped at Royal Palm Hammock to walk the famous Anhinga Trail. This week we ramble on down the Park Road toward Flamingo and stop at some other exciting birding spots.
Long Pine Key
To the uninitiated, Everglades National Park is all about water. It’s supposed to be North America’s biggest swamp, right? At Anhinga Trail we certainly got to see that part, but there’s a lot more to the Everglades than swamps and water birds.
Long Pine Key is an “island” of scrub pine forest that plays host to all the birds and animals you’d expect in such habitat. Songbirds are the highlight here, with wonderful views of woodpeckers, bluebirds, finches, and swallows.
Many warbler species winter here as well, though the northerner accustomed to these birds’ plumage during spring migration or nesting will have to learn the “off-season” colors that can make identification a bit of a challenge.
The campground at Long Pine is highly recommended as it makes emerging at dawn to spot the first singing birds easier than a motel in Homestead will.
The road from Long Pine to Pay-hay-okee offers some stunning Everglades vistas. Seeing flocks of wading birds crossing the sea of grass against a rising sun with a line of cypress trees on the horizon is not an event easily erased from the mind.
This stretch of road also offers a good chance to get an up-close view of a resident Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) perched in a snag. Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) also frequent this area, so keep your eyes open for a bright white head on soaring raptors – just don’t get tricked by an Osprey (Pandion halieatus). (Notice how even their scientific names are similar and confusing!)
In a relatively tiny pond just off the west side of the road is a site where birders cluster for their best shot in the Everglades to see the majestic Roseate Spoonbill (Ajaja ajaja….tell me that isn’t a great scientific name!)
The trees on the west side of the pond are one of the few, if not the only, nesting sites for this unique bird in the park. Spoonbills are unmistakable birds, mostly because they’re large and hot pink. If that isn’t enough, they have ridiculous-looking spoon-shaped bills unlike any other group of birds you’ll see in North America.
During nesting season, the area around Paurotis Pond is closed to protect the spoonbills, but there are plenty of viewing opportunities from the parking lot and picnic area east of the pond. You can still walk right up to the water on this side.
Just make sure you’re not afraid of snakes. This area is crawling with brown water snakes, completely harmless but still a bit shocking to stumble into.
The woods around the parking lot is a great habitat for songbirds if you’re in the mood for something not quite as garish as the spoonbills. Flycatchers, swallows, and warblers are common here.
South of Parotis Pond is a area with put-ins for several canoe trails. I haven’t had the pleasure of paddling back to one of the campgrounds along these trails, but I’m told the birding and wildlife viewing opportunities are astounding.
Any body of water in the Everglades is going to have wading birds galore, not to mention a resident alligator. Gators aren’t very interested in canoes or kayaks, but be sensible and give them plenty of room if you encounter them in the water.
There are also some venomous snakes around the park, so it’s wise to watch where you put your hands or feet.
Snake Bight Trail
Speaking of snake bites… Actually this area is named for a BIGHT, meaning a recess in the coastline that’s less pronounced than a bay. It has nothing to with the kind of snake bite you want to avoid.
Missing Snake Bight would be a disappointment, especially if flamingoes are on your must-see list. Many people think of flamingoes as synonymous with Florida wildlife, but they really aren’t an easy bird to find in the wild.
In fact, if you’re a birding purist, the flamingoes often found at Snake Bight shouldn’t even count on your list because they are all considered to be escapees from a large captive flock at Hialeah. (That’s the flock you see on TV all the time. Anyone else remember Miami Vice?)
Still the trail and boardwalk at Snake Bight are worth the walk for the chance to see your second bright pink bird of the day. Along the trail you’re likely to notice some very tiny, dark birds swarming all around you.
Unfortunately you can’t list these either, because they’re actually mosquitoes that are intent on draining your blood until you collapse or go insane. Yes, many areas claim they have the worst mosquitoes, but trust me on this, Snake Bight has some very aggressive and numerous biters. Take your bug spray or a screened hood on this trip.
Here’s another little pond just off the road that offers some great bird-watching. For a couple weeks in late winter, this pond is literally filled with birds. You can barely see the water.
Spoonbills and storks will gather here along with all the herons. This conglomeration is fleeting and its precise time is unpredictable, but it tends to happen every year. Even if you miss that event, Mrazek is great for ducks, grebes, and American Coots (Fulica americana).
There’s a resident female gator, of course, and we got to see the baby alligators cavorting with the waterfowl here.
Flamingo is probably most famous for receiving a one-two punch from hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005 that destroyed its popular lodge. It still offers good birding opportunities with flocks of waders, Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), and cormorants on sandbars and mangrove islands just off-shore.
There’s also an Osprey nest on top of the visitor center that’s easy to observe.
If you decide to crawl over the rocks here to get a better look at a tiny shorebird, I can tell you that the bird is the very common spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius), the rocks are algae-covered and slippery, the rocks are very sharp, first-aid supplies are expensive at the Flamingo marina, and wool socks can absorb a lot of blood while you’re waiting to buy bandages in the same line that sells boat tour tickets. That’s all I have to say about that!
Your birding trip down the Everglades Park Road ends at Eco Pond just past Flamingo. This is a man-made waterhole that attracts lots of herons, ibis, and waterfowl. This is also a good place to hear the elusive rails.
Few birders will get to see one of these super-secretive birds, but their call in unmistakable and worthy of a tick on your life list.
There you have it. Everything you need to know to for your first birding trip to Everglades National Park.
There’s one more thing to look for, though: fellow birders. Everglades is very popular with European birders, not to mention folks from all over this continent. If you see someone with binoculars and a spotting scope, strike up a conversation. The people you meet along the trail can be as interesting as the wildlife.