I spend quite a bit of time talking about Everglades National Park, and with good reason. I doubt there's a birder in the country who would rank it out of the top five national parks in the country for birding. It's that good.
But my focus is usually on the charismatic birds: the herons, vultures, osprey, pelicans, and gallinules. A more relaxed eye will find some hidden gems in the vastness that is the Everglades.
In early March, I had a chance to spend some time in the park without having my mind constantly consumed by herons. It's been a long and brutal winter up in Michigan and all I wanted to think about was singing songbirds. May still seemed impossibly far away when I left The Great Lakes behind at -5Â°F. The Everglades greeted us with weather roughly 90Â° warmer and a whole lot birdier.
Sure, the park was full of Great Egrets (which will eventually make it to Michigan), Snowy Egrets (which grace us with one or two of their kind annually), and Cattle Egrets (which are entirely unpredictable). The Black Vultures were there, along with kettles of hundreds of their Turkey Vulture cousins. Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills were nesting on Paurotis Pond, which was guarded by closure signs for the nesting season, and even more fiercely guarded by mosquitoes and biting midges. All of that is wonderful to see (except the midges), but it's just the stuff of Everglades picture books. Nice to visit, but somehow it just didn't do enough to warm my winter-weary heart.
Then I heard a song that should have been familiar, but wasn't immediately recognizable. It was not particularly pleasant to the ear, with harsh notes bracketing a jumbled nasal melody. A long winter had expunged the song from my memory banks. Thankfully, the singer emerged from a tangle just long enough for me to see that it was a White-eyed Vireo. They are a common bird in the south, abundant in their breeding range up to a line roughly from Pittsburgh to St. Louis, though plenty can be found into the Great Lakes Region with a little search effort in proper habitat. In the Everglades, there is little need to search. They are everywhere, although not particularly easy to see given their propensity for rapidly hopping around in dense thickets. You'll still hear them easily enough. Stroll up to the bushy edge of any woods and you'll be serenaded by White-eyed Vireos.
The incessant and insistent singing of a vulnerable little songbird was just what the doctor ordered. That's what spring is about up north. It's not Wood Storks and spoonbills. It's vireos and warblers that provide the soundtrack and slideshow of spring that replaces the quiet white-wash of winter. Never mind that I don't really see White-eyed Vireos often in Michigan. It's at least the right genre. That little bird reminded me of seeing several of his comrades along the shore of Lake Erie last May, back when I'd never heard of the Polar Vortex.
Another songbird we don't see much of past that Pittsburgh-to-St. Louis line is the Yellow-throated Warbler. Picture the White-eyed Vireo's range, but sparser, with far fewer excursions into the Great Lakes region.
The Yellow-throated Warbler should not be confused with the widespread and exceedingly easy-to-find Common Yellowthroat. The latter is a denizen of reed and grass-filled marshes and wetlands. The former is a tree-dweller from moist valleys with sycamore-lined streams. I associate the Yellow-throated Warbler with warm spring mornings, the smell of a meandering stream, and a carpet of forest wildflowers. It didn't matter that I found one prancing about in a tree filled with Anhinga nests above a pool full of alligators. The first glimpse of that bird took me back to a late-April day in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Give it six, maybe seven, weeks and they'd be back.
Stops all along the Main Park Road also produced the unique song of the Prairie Warbler, a series of buzzes continually rising in pitch. This is also a southern bird with a breeding range that peters out in the north right around a line that extends from ' you guessed it! ' Pittsburgh to St. Louis. A couple spots in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore represent some of the northernmost breeding Prairie Warblers, but otherwise the species is rare in the Great Lakes.
Prairie Warblers are terribly misnamed, with prairies being one of their least preferred habitats. They like emergent scrub best, or at least the northern subspecies does. It's possible that down in the mangrove habitat near Flamingo, I was encountering the Florida subspecies of Prairie Warbler. That race in non-migratory and breeds in mangroves and live oaks along the coasts of peninsular Florida. Regardless, they don't have much to do with prairie habitat. Prairie Warblers take me back to last year's early June hikes on the scrubby ridges of eastern Kentucky.
So there I was on the Main Park Road, just south of Mrazek Pond, with all the glory of the Everglades around me, and I was standing with eyes closed, awash in the glow of Prairie Warbler song from just off the road. Three little southern songbirds had lifted my spirits like none of the super-charismatic birds of the Everglades could. Who needs big, conspicuous birds?
I opened my eyes to see several Swallow-tailed Kites circling overhead. Within a minute, there were 14 of the large and boldly patterned black-and-white raptors swirling above me. One swooped low over the road clutching an anole in its talons. As I completely forgot about warblers, I had to admit that maybe the bold show-offs were wonderful in their own right. Regardless, I left the Everglades and headed north, hopefully with flocks of millions hot on my heels.