Saturday morning dawned grey, cold and overcast. I had driven through the night nearly all the way down the Florida Keys for a single bird, a vagrant Antillean Palm Swift, the ABA area's second record, and a long-stayer at around a month. News had been a little sporadic on the days leading up to my trip, but on landing at Miami on Friday evening I saw that there had been a sighting in the morning. My plans were now firmed up, and so at around 6am I found myself wandering around the golf course on Sombrero Key in the town of Marathon. Being at work in Canary Wharf on Friday morning to being on the Keys on a Saturday morning I find simply wonderful.
The weather was not playing ball, but there were still plenty of birds to look at. A Greater Yellowlegs was feeding near a puddle created by the heavy overnight rain, a flock of around 60 Mourning Dove pecked beneath some trees, and the first birds of the morning were beginning to get up. Brown Pelicans, Great White Egrets, Snowy Egret all flew of over the eighth tee, but of the Swift there was no sign. Gradually I was joined by a number of other twitchers, all had travelled a long way although none had come as far as me! I guess the concept of flying thousands of miles is a 'normal' concept for domestic American lists. As the morning went on I carried on birding, with several circuits around the small course. American Kestrels were very common, as were Palm Warblers, and a Cooper's Hawk glided from tree to tree. A few Swallows - Tree, Barn and Northern Rough-winged raised our hopes briefly, but it was not a morning for insect feeders. At around 10, and with golfers beginning to arrive, I packed it in and went to a local diner for a much-needed breakfast and toilet stop. Hash browns, eggs, bacon, coffee....I love America.
Back near the eighth tee at around 11am and the sun was out. It was now or never. I had hoped to be birding elsewhere in the Keys by now, but I had come too far to come away empty-handed. And then suddenly there it was! I called it immediately as it came in high from from the south. Jubilation from the small crown present. Photographs were next to impossible, but at times it was directly overhead. The whole experience lasted perhaps two minutes before the bird vanished again as suddenly as it had appeared. This was apparently the norm, but I was elated - possibly my longest distance twitch ever. Of course I was not here just for this one bird, but when I travel to the US I do like to try and add a couple of interesting extras.
With this major prize now out of the way, I headed back east - Key West would have to wait for another time. I birded from the car all the way back to Key Largo with frequent stops. As usual I had a long list of targets and their most likely sites gleaned from eBird, and the first of these to fall was a Short-tailed Hawk from the car almost at Key Largo. I quickly pulled off the road into an Arby's and popped my scope up. It is at times like this that having a large car and being able to have the tripod fully extended really helps. The bird came out of a large kettle of Turkey Vulture before heading north over the Overseas Highway and being lost to view. As I was trying to relocate it my first Magnificent Frigatebird drifted over south.
I birded Key Largo Hammock State Botanical Park briefly, but it was very quiet. A Broad-winged Hawk, Norther Harrier over, and other than that just Palm Warblers and Catbirds. Likely the wrong time of day, but I was rather disappointed as the Keys was the only place I expected to be in with a chance of White-crowned Pigeon and this was my last stop as I had had to wait for so long for the Swift.
My next stop was Lucky Hammock, just outside Homestead. This had a fantastic cast list of birds right next to the road. There is a small car park and a track leading south, and on the other side of the road, a track heading north. This was the most productive, with Western Kingbird, eight Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, a Loggerhead Shrike and lot of raptors flying over including three Red-shouldered Hawk, two Osprey, and a Northern Harrier. The real draw however was two Smooth-billed Ani in the bushes alongside the road, calling repeatedly as they flew up and down. This is another ABA rarity, most frequently turning up in Florida. I spent a long time birding here it was so good, and with the sun getting lower in the sky I decided to explore further along the 9336, into the Everglades NP itself. There is entrance fee to pay but it is for a week and I knew I would be back the following day. I drove down to Nine Mile Pond to walk what sounded like a good trail. Here is where some inadequate research let me down - you need a canoe! The trail actually starts at the other side of the pond, and you have to paddle across. Oops. I retraced my steps and instead walked the short boardwalk at Mahogany Hammock - very quiet. Far better was simply slowly driving the road, stopping and looking at Kingfishers, Egrets and Raptors across the vast expanse of swamp.