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December 9th PIPING PLOVER LAYOVER
Around 1 PM I'd cleared US customs and was welcomed at the arrivals hall of Miami Airport by Ethan Kistler. This year Ethan had already joined me in Kenya and guided me and Camilla in South Africa and now we will join me in Jamaica and the US. So he is sort of doing a mini big year.
We were picked up by local birding couple Marc Kramer and Eliana Ardila for a couple of hours birding at Key Biscayne. Our goal was to find the endangered Piping Plover of which about 30 winter here annually. Like Kentish Plover in the Netherlands this species suffers a lot from recreational tourism on beaches. Upon arrival we walked up to a fenced off area on the beach which has been especially constructed to protect this species high tide roost. Luckily it was high tide and indeed there were 16 beautiful Piping Plovers standing among some Semipalmateds and a Wilson's Plover. Great! After a quick lap through the adjacent park Marc and Eliana dropped us off at Miami Airport again for our flight to Jamaica. Thank you guys so much for hosting us in Miami today!
Piping Plover Charadrius melodus (Arjan Dwarshuis)
Wilson's Plover Charadrius wilsonia (Arjan Dwarshuis)
December 10th RASTAMAN VIBRATIONS
Last night Ethan and I had arrived on Jamaica, one of the most fascinating islands in the Caribbean and home to 29 endemics. We aimed to track those endemics and all other specialties down in just two days. After picking up the rental we drove up into suburban Kingston where we checked in at the Widcombe Guesthouse where we spent the night.
Around 4:30 AM we commenced with the one hour drive up into the famous Blue Mountains. Here one can find 24 of the 29 endemics. Just after dawn we arrived at the first good patches of cloud forest and as soon as we got out of the car we started seeing endemics. Amazing looking Red-billed Streamertails buzzed overhead while Orangequits and Jamaican Spindalises decorated the trees around us with dazzling colors. By the end of the morning we had found all but nine endemics. Highlights were three endangered Jamaican Blackbirds, fantastic looks at a Crested Quail-dove, several Blue Mountain Vireos and the uncommon Jamaican Elaenia. In the afternoon we drove down across a bendy road to the north coast of the island. An hour before dusk we arrived at the wonderful Green Castle Estate where we saw our only Sad Flycatcher of the trip. We had a great seafood dinner by the ocean at a small local restaurant where we met Duane, the local bird guide. He and his pregnant wife generously decided to join us on our quest for Jamaican Owl, but he took one look at the windy bright moonlit sky and warned us that it would be extremely difficult to even hear the bird. And indeed, after waiting and playing tapes for half an hour without any response, we had to call it a day.
Rufous-throated Solitaire Myadestes genibarbis (Arjan Dwarshuis)
Jamaican Blackbird Nesopsar nigerrimus (Arjan Dwarshuis)
Red-billed Streamertail Trochilus polytmus (Arjan Dwarshuis)
Black-billed Parrot Amazona agilis (Arjan Dwarshuis)
December 11th CLEANING UP JAMAICA
We woke up at 4 AM to try for Jamaican Owl, but unfortunately it was raining heavily which made our quest impossible. Around 5 AM we started heading west towards the famous Ecclesdown Road. We arrived at one of Jamaica's most famous birding sites about half an hour after dawn. Things started a bit slow, but eventually bird activity picked up. We head good numbers of both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Parrot and Black-billed Streamertails were plentiful. We had to work a little harder for Chestnut-bellied and Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo, but after some searching we found both. Another good bird here was the localized Jamaican Crow. After we'd found all our targets we started heading east again towards Kingston. It turned out that the heavy rain had badly affected the road. We had to drive through more than a feet of water and around landslides on several occasions which made this drive quite an adventurous one.
In the afternoon we arrived at southwest of Kingston. This peninsula is much dryer than the rest of the island and it is here that Bahama Mockingbird can be found. We found both the Mockingbird and the endemic Stolid Flycatcher quickly which left us with enough time to drive up into the Blue Mountain one last time. This proved and excellent choice since we found our target - Greater Antilean Elaenia - in the dying seconds of the day. Half an hour later we finished our list of Jamaican endemics with a calling Jamaican Owl. Mission accomplished.
Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii (Arjan Dwarshuis)
December 12th BIRDING THE EVERGLADES
We left Kingston early and the morning and just before noon we arrived back in Miami. Here Carlos Sánchez, one of Miami's top birders, was waiting for us. After picking up the rental we headed towards the Everglades. This place is of course well known for its large population of Aligators, but in addition to this some interesting birds can be found here. We started with some pine forest specialties and despite the fact that we arrived during the heat of midday we managed to find both Downy and Pileated Woodpecker and several Brown-headed Nuthatches. Our real targets however came after sunset. We had great views of both Eastern Whip-poor-will and Eastern Screech-owl and heard Barred Owl. We were kindly invited by Marc Kramer and Eliana Ardila to spend the night and their place. Thanks again guys for your hospitality!
December 13th FLORIDA'S SPECIALTIES
We left Marc and Eliana's place at 4 AM, picked up Carlos and headed three hours north to Three Lakes WMA where we would look for one of Florida's most threatened birds, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. This bird has suffered a lot from habitat loss throughout its range. We were incredibly successful with this quest as we found the woodpecker after just 15 minutes of searching. Another good pick-up here was the localized Bachman's Sparrow. I had my true 'American Moment' when we saw a flock of Wild Turkeys while a Bald Eagle flew overhead, with a trailer-home in the background. Complete with monster-truck parked in front of it and a sign that said: 'Vote Trump; make America great again'. Our next target was the threatened Florida Scrub-jay which was already greeting us as we parked our car. Although very easy at this site, this localized bird suffers from habitat loss due to urbanization along the Florida coastline.
The rest of the day went a little bit slower, but we did get a couple of new birds. We had diner at Graham Williams and his wife's place. They had kindly invited us over for dinner and offered us a place to sleep. Thanks a lot for your hospitality guys!
Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus (Arjan Dwarshuis)
Ethan eBirding (Arjan Dwarshuis)
December 14th WHOOPING CRANE DAY
We got help from local county birders Mike Manetz and Ron Smith this morning. We met them at a lake that sometimes has Wood Duck and after a little bit of waiting a pair flew by indeed. Next they took us to their secret stake-out for the localized Henslow's Sparrow and again our efforts were successful with two individuals.
The real treat today was an adult Whooping Crane that had been found at Paynes Prairie Reserve a couple of days before. This particular bird - identifiable by the color bands on its legs - was bred and raised in the wild by its two parents who originated from a famous reintroduction project. The species was down to just a few individuals, but due to the most expensive conservation programme in history their population is up to 300 birds now. It is still a very rare bird so I felt privileged to be able to add this impressive white Crane to my Biggest Year list. We finished our Florida run with one of the most beautiful Woodpeckers of all, the Red-headed. A fitting end to this leg of our USA trip. At Orlando Airport Ethan and I said goodbye to Carlos and boarded our plane to Minniapolis. Here in Florida it was 30 degrees Celsius, at our destination it would be minus 20 when we arrived...
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Whooping Crane Grus americana (Arjan Dwarshuis)