There is a much sought after bird in Florida and I was going to try my damnedest to add it to my life list. This is the snail kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis), formerly known as the Everglades kite. It’s a much sought-after bird because it is only found in the United States in southern Florida and it specializes in feeding almost exclusively on apple snails. The apple snails depends on water and the depletion of the Everglades means that the population of snail kites has suffered. The kite is currently listed as a Federal and State endangered species because of it’s small population and extreme population specialization. It is estimated that there are currently less than 400 breeding pairs in Florida.
I wanted to see one out of those 400 pairs and according to my Falcon Guide, Birding Florida, there are a few spots on the Tamiami Trail, across the highway from the Shark Valley entrance to the Everglades to check for this bird. I tried there, scanning the marshes for the bird. No kites. I read in my guide:
“A more reliable spot in recent years for this sought-after species has been an abandoned airboat concession across from the Tower Market. . .The kites may be seen coursing over the marsh or may be perched on distant trees. If it’s your lucky day, one may be perched on a cypress tree directly in front of your vehicle.”
I returned to my rental and drove a mile west to the airboat concession on the right. I pulled into the parking lot and bingo, today, April 1, 2015, was my lucky day! A male snail kite was perched across the canal on a cypress. I was able to take a few photos and I returned to my car to grab my sketchbook and pens. When I returned, the bird was gone. This kite was not to be as accommodating as the black vultures of the Anhinga Trail, but it certainly was one of the easiest Florida life birds to add to my list.
The two other Florida specialties I sought on this trip was the endemic Florida scrub-jay and the red-cockaded woodpecker. Both birds are listed on the state watch list, which includes species most in danger of extinction without significant conservation action.
According to e-bird and my Falcon Guide, Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area (just north of Fort Myers) was the hot spot for red-cockaded woodpecker. You must arrive at dawn near their cavity trees (which are ringed with white paint by field biologists). The birds gather near their cavity trees before dispersing to forage for the day. The painted trees were easy to spot and a car was already parked along the dirt road. A snowbirder from Michigan was already there, waiting for the show to begin. As if on cue, a single red-cockaded flew in and perched on a tree for less than a minute, enough time to see the identifying white cheek field mark, and then was gone. The show was over. North American life bird #472.
I followed the snowbirder, (Dave) and we made our way around Babcock-Webb. With his help I picked up three more lifers: brown-headed nuthatch, northern bobwhite, and eastern bluebird. He offered to show me where to find Florida scrub-jay at the Prairie/Shell Creek Preserve near Punta Gorda. After a short walk, Dave led me to the area where they are seen. I spotted the rare jay flying to the top of an oak. Life bird #476 was mine!
One of the photos I was able to get of the male snail kite that was handed to me on a platter, just before he flew off.