Lucky Hammock, an Improbable Magnet for Western Vagrants
Lucky Hammock, an assuming fragment of a tropical hardwood hammock set amongst abandoned farmland, is a veritable magnet for birds more typical of the Great Plains and western United States. On the surface, this site just outside of Everglades National Park would seem to be an unlikely location for offering good birding opportunities. The first two words that came out of my mouth when I first drove up to the hammock were “that’s it?” Nonetheless, no other place in south Florida so consistently attracts birds that would otherwise be considered as vagrants or irregular to the state, including Swainson’s Hawk, Lesser Nighthawk, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, and Dickcissel. In fact, I once had a Dickcissel, a Lark Sparrow, a Vermilion Flycatcher, and a Western Kingbird all perched on the same wire within the same binocular view — not a line-up you would usually think of when birding Florida. In this article, I introduce to you the cast of characters one is likely to encounter on a visit to Lucky Hammock during winter.
A small population of Swainson’s Hawks winter annually at Lucky Hammock.
Amongst the large variety of raptors at Lucky Hammock, Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) is most unusual in that the vast majority migrate to South America for the winter. Although an increasing number of birds spend the winter at sites in western Mexico and Central America, Lucky Hammock might be the only site east of the Mississippi River that hosts a small wintering population. In good years, anywhere between thirty to forty birds can be seen feeding on grasshoppers in the agricultural fields or circling above with kettles of vultures. Interestingly, most Swainson’s Hawks at Lucky Hammock are neither light nor dark — intermediate juveniles predominate.
Bell’s Vireo, an annual winter visitor, is quite at home in the scrubby islands of vegetation.
The scrubby islands of vegetation scattered throughout the area known as Lucky Hammock host a wide variety of wintering species not commonly found elsewhere in the state, including various sparrows, Least Flycatcher, both Painted and Indigo Buntings, and Yellow-breasted Chat. Bell’s Vireo (Vireo bellii), now known to be an annual winter visitor in small numbers, was one of the first “rare” birds discovered at Lucky Hammock. More than any other species, this demure bundle of activity placed this site on the map and prompted other birders to make repeat visits, leading to even more regularly occurring western species being found. Joining Bell’s Vireo in the same microhabitat, Dickcissel is another annual winter visitor whose core breeding range is in the Great Plains — most birds spend the winter in the marshy Llanos of Venezuela during that region’s dry season. Among the half a dozen or so regularly occurring sparrows, Lark Sparrow probably has the most unusual local movements in that they appear in August, over a month earlier than any other species, and tend to become inconspicuous or leave altogether by the end of November — their migratory movements after November are a mystery.
The lovely Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a more widespread winter resident in Florida, by Trey Mitchell.
Lucky Hammock has a penchant for attracting more western flycatchers than any other bird family. Species such as Brown-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus tyrannulus), which would cause quite a stir elsewhere in Florida, have made Miami-Dade birders jaded due to their regularity. More distinctive and flashier species such as Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Western Kingbird are usually present in multiples. In 2011, the site hosted the second documented county record for Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinarescens) which has been repeated this year with the third. Currently, this location is also hosting both a male and a female Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) and potentially two Tropical Kingbirds (Tyrannus melancholicus). In the past, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (Myiodynastes luteiventris) has also made an appearance. It seems that Lucky Hammock attracts a wide variety of western flycatchers year after year.
No one is quite sure why Lucky Hammock attracts so many of these birds. Perhaps it is the favored, scrubby vegetation coupled with the warm climate that makes wintering here a successful endeavor for many species to keep returning again and again? Whatever the reason, this is a special place for local birders and for better understanding the avifauna of Florida if one takes all the unusual winter visitors mentioned in this article into consideration.