Travis reaches the Florida Keys

FL Keys Bird Fest

FL Keys Bird Fest 

Last week Travis had the sincere pleasure of visiting our friends at the Florida Keys Hawkwatch in the middle Keys (Marathon to be precise). Since this also overlapped with the Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival, Travis was on hand during the morning field trips where various participants took him for a spin (adding 11 new bird species along the way).

Palm lined beaches in front of the Florida Keys Hawkwatch!

Palm lined beaches in front of the Florida Keys Hawkwatch!

The Florida Keys always hold a special allure for folks, but thanks to Jimmy Buffet, people instantly think of of strolling along white sand beaches in a blown out flip flop with crystalline waters on one side and palm trees on the other. Or of enjoying gorgeous sunsets with a cocktail in one hand under the thatched roof of a Tiki bar!

Middle Keys sunset

Middle Keys sunset

All of this is truly a fair depiction of Keys life. However, for birders through fall migration through the Florida Keys is a true spectacle to behold. NO ONE does a better job at sharing this than our friends from the Florida Keys Hawkwatch through their blog, Facebook efforts, and pure accessibility and friendly outreach and hospitality.

The Florida Keys Hawkwatch crew

The Florida Keys Hawkwatch crew

If you visit be sure to pack your bathing suit and a mask & snorkel if so inclined as that crystalline water is literally 100′ away from you from the platform. Shorts and flip flops are absolutely part of the uniform (just watch out for those pop-tops), and be sure to bring sunscreen and sunglasses and expect fabulous sunsets.

Florida Keys Hawkwatchers hard at work.

Florida Keys Hawkwatchers hard at work.

But also expect some spectacular birding. The morning passerine flights can be phenomenal here and during the festival field trips we had massive flocks of warblers and groups of gnatcatchers numbering in the hundreds descending in out of the sky as we stood with jaw agape.

Hoardes of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers © Rafael Galvez

Hoardes of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers © Rafael Galvez

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers © Rafael Galvez - Leica V-lux 4 camera

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers © Rafael Galvez – Leica V-lux 4 camera

Shorebird migration is always great here too, albeit somewhat different than your typical view likely! (see below).

Willet in front of Palm Trees!

(Western) Willet in front of Palm Trees!

The views from the Hawkwatch are still my favorite though. It’s the Peregrine Falcon Capitol of the World, and last fall they tallied a mind boggling 3,836 Peregrine Falcons with the peak flight of 651 Peregrines on October 10th! So world class spectacle is an understatement here.

Peregrine Falcon @ Florida Keys Hawkwatch

Peregrine Falcon @ Florida Keys Hawkwatch

As of October 2 though, the 2013 count is already 620 Peregrines ahead of the 2012 historic count  (through that period) and the peak is typically near mid October, so LOTS more to come.

an adult Peregrine Falcon streams toward the FKH watch on Sept 27, '13 one of 429 tallied this day!

adult Peregrine Falcon streams toward the FKH watch on Sept 27, ’13, one of 429 tallied this day!

Of course, most of the other expected Eastern raptor species are seen here as well, excluding more northern birds like Goshawks & Rough-legged Hawks. But what they lack here, they more than compensate for with Swallow-tailed Kites and Short-tailed Hawks, plus they get much higher counts of western birds like Mississippi Kites & Swainson’s Hawks than other Eastern hawk watch sites (often reaching triple digit season counts).

immature Swainson's Hawk @ FKH fall 2012

immature Swainson’s Hawk @ FKH fall 2012

Not surprisingly though, the hawk migration through the keys has to be unique as well, and it is the only sight I’ve visited where you have to scan through flocks of soaring Anhingas & Brown Pelicans to find the hawks!

soaring Pelicans mix with raptor kettles

soaring Pelicans mix with raptor kettles

Or how about trying to pick Peregrines out of a kettle of Magnificent Frigatebirds?… it happens every day here. Plus you have added bonus Caribbean species like Gray Kingbirds and White-crowned Pigeons seen near daily from the watch as well.

Magnificent Frigatebird streaming past the FKH watch.

Magnificent Frigatebird streaming past the FKH watch.

At any rate, look for highlights from the FKH crew here in the coming days, and if you’ve not been here, add it to your list… immediately, you are guaranteed to love it!

Check out their blog for more fun content including this incredible video of migrating Common Nighthawks passing taken in mid September!