Saturday was the second annual “Global Big Day“, promoted by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. Just as a birder’s “Big Year” would be an attempt to rack up as many bird species in a year as possible (usually over a large area, like a country or continent), a “Big Day” is an attempt to identify as many birds as possible, in a smaller area, in 24 hours. It isn’t unusual to see goals of 100 or more species for the day. I’d even seen one statewide (not Florida) goal of 200 species.
My Big Day was a bit more modest. There have been a couple of rare species reported since the winter in Palm Beach County, but I haven’t been able to take advantage of any opportunities to head there all year. Using the Global Big Day as a catalyst, Camille and I decided it would be a good time to go. We’d try for the rare species and tally up as many birds as we would see throughout the day.
In the hopes of catching some shorebirds, we started at the relatively new (and still under construction) Snook Islands Natural Area [map]. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide the level of irony involved in having a natural area under construction.
There were many Rock Pigeons in the area, including the islands. Rock Pigeons are considered an established feral species and are known for their plumage variations, probably due to mixture with domestic stock. At least 40 were flocking by the boardwalk’s start, with more walking on or flying over the artificial islands.
There were a few shorebirds, too. While watching a small group of Ruddy Turnstones, a trio of American Oystercatchers flew onto one of the islets closest to the boardwalk we were on. These birds are loud, by the way.
We heard a Black-throated Blue Warbler and saw some other smaller birds we couldn’t identify. There was a surprising lack of larger terns or gulls, and no Ospreys were nearby.
eBird list (Snook Islands Natural Area):
Our next stop was Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge [map].
The boardwalk at the visitors’ center makes its way through a cypress swamp, with a variety of birds singing and calling. A Swallow-tailed Kite soared overhead, and there were Pileated Woodpeckers, Wood Ducks, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, and over a dozen Common Grackles. Several Northern Parulas could be heard singing, too.
Loxahatchee NWR Visitors’ Center and boardwalk:
Loxahatchee is part of the Everglades ecosystem, with some sawgrass, wet prairie, and hammock habitat, interrupted by sloughs and sluices. The areas accessible to the public are primarily former agricultural tracts, and are less expansive than the bulk of the refuge, or of Everglades National Park, but contain ample examples of plant and animal communities native to South Florida. Loxahatchee is separated from the rest of the Everglades by dikes and canals.
Near the Lee Way levee is a large rookery of wading birds. White Ibises were the most numerous, but there were many heron and egret species, with individuals shuttling back and forth with food and nesting material.
Along most of the Marsh Trail there were hundreds of large grasshoppers. There were at least three distinct looking varieties (shown below). They covered the trail and were sometimes slow to get out of the way. I spent a lot of time looking ahead on the ground to try and step around or over them. I did not see many birds eating them, though, so I wonder how palatable they are. The larger individuals of each type were easily about 5 cm (2 inches) long.
There were Limpkins there, too, eating Apple Snails. Snail Kites have been regularly reported, but we didn’t see any. In fact, to this point in the day, we’d only seen one other raptor (besides the Swallow-tailed Kite over the Loxahatchee NWR visitors’ center).
Even after consulting some notes on where to find the Smooth-billed Anis that are regularly reported there, we came up empty.
Loxahatchee NWR Marsh Trail (first visit):
There are two smaller parks not far from Loxahatchee, Wakodahatchee Wetlands (a converted water treatment area) and Green Cay Wetlands. Both are run by Palm Beach County.
Wakodahatchee [map] has several rookeries on it, very close to the boardwalk. Here, there were dozens of Wood Storks, including nests with several chicks each, as well as Double Crested Cormorants, Great Egrets, Cattle Egrets, and Anhingas – all nesting and rearing young.
I’ve never seen Wood Stork Chicks before, so it was exciting to see some youngsters so close and accessible. Whenever the chicks in one nest would start to call out (presumably for food), chicks in the other nests would start begging, too.
There were also many fledgling Tricolored Herons as well as nesting and incubating Black-necked Stilts, as well as several Common Gallinule pairs with tiny chicks.
Warblers were scarce, and had been all day, so it as a pleasant surprise to see a Northern Waterthrush timidly hop out among some grackles and gallinules.
The park is also known for a population of feral iguanas. I only saw a few, including this larger one. It was a hot day, and they seemed to be resting in the in the shaded areas.
eBird list for Wakodahatchee Wetlands:
Just down the road from Wakodahatchee is Green Cay Wetlands [map], which has a more extensive boardwalk and a nature center (which was closed soon after we arrived).
Many of the same species seen at Wakodatchee were present, but none of them were nesting. There were also several White-winged Doves, and one unhappy Red-shouldered Hawk (only our third raptor of the day) getting dive-bombed by families of Purple Martins and harassed by Red-winged Blackbirds.
I got some decent looks at Grey-headed Swamphens (I only got a few glimpses at Wakodatchee in the thick rushes). Grey-headed Swamphens are relatively new arrivals in Florida, competing with Purple Gallinules for food and nesting territories.
eBird list for Green Cay Wetlands:
We decided to give the Smooth-billed Anis one last try at Loxahatchee, late in the afternoon. We cut across the Marsh Trail area up to the levee road. As we got to the western sluice gates a bobcat came out of the brush onto the path, quite a distance away. I watched it in my binoculars and I could see the instant it either saw us or caught our scent, because it jerked its head up and immediately changed direction onto another path and then off into a slough area. About half a dozen egrets and ibises immediately flew up, and a Little Blue Heron seemed to dive-bomb the bobcat (which was out of view) a couple of times before clearing off. That’s the last we saw of the bobcat. You can see from the photo below that it was fairly large.
We worked our way up to the levee road (Lee Way) again and had a look around before crossing back to the parking area. I have to admit it was a little disappointing to miss seeing a Smooth-billed Ani, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
eBird list for Loxahatchee NWR Marsh Trail (second visit):
The last stop was at the Peaceful Waters Sanctuary [map] where a Bronzed Cowbird has been reported since earlier this Spring. The sanctuary is a beautiful, created wetland park with a boardwalk and some nature trails, tucked into a city park. The cowbird, however, had been seen working a chain-link fence around a retention pond adjacent to the sanctuary. Sure enough, that’s where we found it.
In the sanctuary there were numerous Boat-tailed Grackles, some Red-winged Blackbirds, and several large rafts of Mottled Ducks with ducklings of varying ages. There was even a pair of Wood Ducks with a couple of ducklings of their own.
eBird list for Peaceful Waters Sanctuary:
I’ve read that the winter-time birding here is even better, and some nearby parks, including the Wellington Environmental Preserve and the Royal Pine Beach Pines Natural Area, are good spots to check out when the weather is cooler.
That concluded our Global Big Day around Palm Beach County. The big numbers might not be there, but over 60 species for southern Florida after peak migration season isn’t terrible. Besides, I got to see 2 lifers and explore a part of the state I’d only driven through until that day.