Carlos Sanchez is an excellent birder, a Miami resident, and a polyglot. Corey was lucky enough to meet Carlos while birding in Ecuador, where Carlos was dragooned into accompanying the horde of Queens birders for the day, an encounter that somehow didn’t turn him off of all things New York. If you have been out birding in southeast Florida there is a good chance that you have run into him in the field. Just keep an eye out for the Barred Owl perched on a Mini Cooper and that is where you will find him.
We’re pleased to share this guest post by Carlos, his second on 10,000 Birds.
Matheson Hammock County Park is a special place to many who grew up in the Miami area, filled with the nostalgia of taking one’s first swim in the ocean, seeing their first Brown Pelicans, or dip netting through the seagrass beds to find Pygmy Seahorses (the most coveted and prized catch). Originally created as an 80-acre gift of land by William J. Matheson to preserve the wild and natural beauty of the area , this venerable park is the oldest in Miami-Dade County. Although it is heavily used by locals and none of the habitats are pristine, Matheson Hammock contains a varied swath of habitats ranging from beaches to mangroves to tropical hardwood hammock to brackish ponds that consistently delivers an interesting assortment of birds. It even contains, dare I say, a little bit of history (by Miami standards, anyways) in the form of structures and old walls made of coral. Despite the dogs, leaf blowers, golf carts, and other disturbances, I still find this to be one of the most exciting and reliable places in suburban Miami-Dade to see a varied subset of birds (143 species recorded by myself in just over four years of birding here) with the occassional rarity thrown in.
Spring and Summer
By just getting out of my car near the entrance to the park, I can usually already hear the melodic songs of Northern Cardinals and various migrant passerines at this time of year. It is a busy time, with all the wintering flycatchers, vireos, warblers, raptors, and shorebirds making a rapid exodus for points north much to the chagrin of the local birders. If it were not for the resident cardinals and large number of breeding exotics, Matheson Hammock would be all but silent during the late spring and early summer. That it not to say that the park is dead — far from it. The mangroves are filled with the rising, buzzing songs of a resident subspecies of Prairie Warbler and even a few ‘Cuban’ Yellow Warblers. Although they do not breed in the park, Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, terns, gulls, and waders add interest to the beach and marina. Over to the tropical hardwood hammock, the loud, ringing calls of Common Hill Myna is a reliable, consistent feature at any time of year. The open area (“dog park”) filled with both exotic and native trees on the west side of Old Cutler Road has many dead Royal Palm stumps riddled with cavities dug out by busy woodpeckers (Red-bellied and Pileated). Exotic bird species (Common Hill Myna, Red-masked Parakeet, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, and others) take advantage of these dead trees like miniature condominiums with multiple species often nesting in the same tree at the same time, perhaps a defensive maneuever to prevent predation by the resident family of Cooper’s Hawks. If one is brave enough to stick around until nightfall and face the mosquitoes, Eastern Screech-Owls are absolutely abundant in any patch of tropical hardwood hammock — I usually spotlight a pair right at the entrance around this time of year.
Thick-billed Vireo in Florida’s Matheson Hammock
By the time mid-July rolls around, fall migration is well underway in extreme southeast Florida. Fall migration is a time of peak species diversity at Matheson Hammock. Louisiana Waterthrush is among the first passage migrants to make an appearance, usually around ephemeral rain-fed pools, followed by American Redstart, Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Black-and-white Warbler. It was during this early stage of migration that I found a Thick-billed Vireo on August 6, 2011, which involved a mad drive back to my house and back to document the bird (never thinking I would ever see anything unusual here in early August, a lesson learned). In any case, numbers and diversity continue to build straight through October with the passage of nearly thirty species of warbler, half a dozen flycatchers and vireos, both grosbeaks, both tanagers, both orioles, and various raptors. Fall migration is the time of year when I have the most fun birding this park, quietly stalking the undergrowth of the tropical hardwood hammock for Swainson’s and Kentucky Warblers, flushing Chuck-will’s-widows, and picking through migrant feeding flocks that might contain less common migrants such as Blue-winged or Blackburnian Warbler. The beaches and mangroves also see some of the migrant action in the form of passing shorebirds, with less common species for the park including Wilson’s Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Sanderling.
As October draws to a close and the first cold front pushes through the state, avian numbers and diversity stabilize into a typical warm, dry, and bug-free winter pattern. Shorebirds along the coast of this park will always be composed of a flock of Semipalmated Plovers, Least Sandpipers, and Ruddy Turnstones with the occassional something else thrown in. Ring-billed Gulls will move in on the beach to join the Laughing Gulls for food scraps. In contrast to the leafless and cold forests only a few hours drive to the north, the tropical hardwood hammocks remain lush and verdant throughout the winter, with over a dozen species of warbler, two species of vireo, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Summer Tanager, Painted Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, and Great Crested Flycatcher sticking around. Broad-winged and Short-tailed Hawks patrol the park from the sky while American Coots and Pied-billed Grebes take up shop in the brackish ponds. Despite the apparent stability — and sometimes I feel like every winter visit involves me viewing the same few winter flocks over and over — unusual birds can appear at any time. I had two Brown-crested Flycatchers from January 6 to March 18, 2010 and a Western Tanager for the Kendall Christmas Bird Count on December 23, 2011. By the time Cedar Waxwings finally arrive, which isn’t a given every year, winter is wrapping up in South Florida and the cycle of the seasons at Matheson Hammock starts over again.
Matheson Hammock Trail in winter