I went for a long walk in downtown Key West on Wednesday, September 14 – wearing flip flops because I had gotten my sneakers wet in a mangrove swamp that morning.
My first stop was the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, where colorful and exotic birds and butterflies are so easy to see and photograph that they are pretty much served up to you on a silver platter.
But I had set myself the goal of finding and photographing a particular bird native to the Caribbean and southern tip of Florida, the White-crowned Pigeon.
I practiced taking pictures of Key West’s gypsy chickens. They are all over the place. This one was nipping tiny flowers from weeds.
The story behind the Key West chickens? Read it HERE…
There have always been chickens in Key West.
When people stopped the laborious process of turning live chickens into Sunday dinner many decades ago, some backyard chickens gained their freedom. Other roosters were released when cock-fighting became illegal.
Cock of the walk.
Roaming chickens remind me of islands I’ve visited in the Caribbean. When you are in this southernmost U.S. city, you are just 75 miles north of the official latitudinal start of the Tropics.
I did finally see the Caribbean bird I was looking for.
Quick, there it is! Out of focus, bummer.
The debonair White-crowned Pigeon is a large, slate-gray pigeon with a neat white cap and striking white eyes. Widespread around the Caribbean, it crosses into southernmost Florida, where it feeds on fruit in trees near the coast and on islands, including the Keys. White-crowned Pigeons make long-distance morning and evening flights high over open water between islands, as they commute from mangrove forests to areas with fruiting fig and other tropical fruit trees.
See its white “crown” or cap?
I had seen a WCP fly over when I was on Long Key the day before and decided to try to get a photo of one when I realized it would be a new bird for the bird blog. I remembered having seen one before, but where?
I rummaged around in several places I keep old words and pictures and got it. In March of 2014 my husband and I rented a one-bedroom villa in Caye Caulker, an island in the Caribbean off the coast of Belize. We lived in New Hampshire then.
(March 2014) The upper deck of Villa Gemma puts you at eye level with tropical birds. You are drinking Travellers Classic Gold Rum with papaya, pineapple juice and coconut water, purchased at a sandy-floored grocery store in town after a morning swim at The Cut at the northern end of the island and transported in a bike basket over potholed dirt roads back to the hardwood kitchen countertop and perfect-sized fridge.
That upper deck is shady in the afternoon and faces east to the ocean and its trade winds, beyond the trees, a few streets away. You can hear the single-engine arrival of a Tropic Air Cessna Caravan at the small airport just to the south. Children in uniforms are biking past, returning to school after a long lunch at home. You have eaten an omelet with fresh eggs, black beans and rice for lunch. Plus a dash of homemade hot sauce purchased on Day One at that little restaurant next to the beachfront cemetery.
“I’m in a hammock, drinking rum, listening to the call of doves, and not shoveling snow.” This is one of the small perfect moments you are here for.
I started blogging birds in May 2015, so the White-crowned Pigeon never got “counted.” But finally in September of 2022…
I swear it is a White-crowned Pigeon.
Clearly I need a second-floor porch and hammock to really get a good look at this bird. Just add a rum drink to complete the ideal Amy-birding scenario?
I celebrated bagging my pigeon with a visit to the tasting room at the rum distillery named for Ernest Hemingway’s fishing boat Pilar: Papa’s Pilar Rum. I tasted three kinds of rum then had a daiquiri.
They are at all times extremely shy and wary, more so in fact than any species with which I am acquainted. The sight of a man is to them insupportable, perhaps on account of the continued war waged against them, their flesh being juicy, well flavoured, and generally tender, even in old birds. Never could I get near one of them so long as it observed me. Indeed, the moment they perceive a man, off they go, starting swiftly with a few smart raps of the wings, and realighting in a close covert for awhile, or frequently flying to another key, from which they are sure to return to that left by them, should you pursue them. It is thus a most toilsome task to procure specimens of these birds.
The dining room, where many types of birds were consumed, in many ways. Out back in the garden is a cook house with information on how food was prepared back then.
Portrait of John James Audubon next to the parlor.
With no other prospects, Audubon set off on his epic quest to depict America’s avifauna, with nothing but his gun, artist’s materials, and a young assistant. Floating down the Mississippi, he lived a rugged hand-to-mouth existence in the South while Lucy earned money as a tutor to wealthy plantation families. In 1826 he sailed with his partly finished collection to England and began to attain his fame as an artist. His life-size, highly dramatic bird portraits, along with his embellished descriptions of wilderness life, hit just the right note at the height of the Continent’s Romantic era.
The dressing room.
The White-headed Pigeon exhibits little of the pomposity of the common domestic species, in its amorous moments. The male, however, struts before the female with elegance, and the tones of his voice are quite sufficient to persuade her of the sincerity of his attachment. During calm and clear mornings, when nature appears in all her purity and brightness, the cooing of this Pigeon may be heard at a considerable distance, mingling in full concord with the softer tones of the Zenaida Dove. The bird standing almost erect, full-plumed, and proud of his beauty, emits at first a loud croohoo, as a prelude, and then proceeds to repeat his coo-coo-coo. These sounds are continued during the period of incubation, and are at all times welcome to the ear of the visiter of these remarkable islands. – John James Audubon
On the way back to my car, I was still looking up at roofs for pigeons and I stumbled and stubbed my bare toe on a curb, punctured the flesh near the nail, and started bleeding profusely into my flip flop and all over. Slippery! Disgusting! Impossible to walk. And it had started to rain.
I was saved by a nice man who had been sitting on the front porch of his liquor store, watching the passersby. He stepped inside to grab me some paper towels and bandaids. “Blew out my flip flop, stepped on a pop top…” he sang a few lines of Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” to me. “Bet you don’t know that one.” I laughed and said, “Oh yes, I do know that one.”
Lesson learned. Combining rum with bird-watching is most safely done in a hammock.
According to the Smithsonian Institution, moths have feathery or comb-like antennae and butterflies have thin antennae with a club shaped tip on the end. Moths are generally drab in color, as they are more often nocturnal and want to be camouflaged against tree bark as they rest during the day. A butterfly’s brightly-colored wings warn predators that they contain nasty-tasting chemicals. Butterflies fold their wings back to rest, while moths flatten their wings against their bodies.
There are exceptions to the rules, of course.
I photographed the skipper butterfly-not-moth on the Golden Orb nature trail at Long Key State Park. I went for a walk there as soon as the park gates opened at 8 a.m. when I was down in the Keys a week and a half ago.
Pretty, huh? The trail started off Just What I Was Looking For. Nice morning walk, hard packed trail surface, potential for birds of the morning, beautiful birds.
But by the time I was far enough out that the only way back was forward to complete the loop, it turned into mosquito hell. Special hungry saltwater mangrove Florida Keys mosquitos.
Then the trail started to go damp, and I tried not to step on the thousands of fiddler crabs scurrying at my feet and hiding in their crab holes.
Some type of Sulphur butterfly, probably a Large Orange Sulphur. Wings folded, it looks a lot like the flowers on this plant. So, sort of camouflaged?
Butterflies have been associated with freedom, spiritual growth, and the human soul. Observing and studying them can definitely improve your physical and mental health.
Then the trail went fully underwater, but at least I saw a bird.
This Green Heron was wary, but I managed to keep comfort-distance and it did not fly away.
What does it say that I got better pictures of bugs than birds while I was in the Florida Keys? I guess it says SEPTEMBER in way-south FLORIDA. Not all hope is lost though, as it was also the beginning of migration season.
I saw what I thought was a Peregrine Falcon, while driving south over water from Long Key to Curry Hammock State Park (still not finished looking for trails to walk and mosquitoes to feed). At Curry Hammock, I found that the Florida Keys Hawkwatch was set up for a day of keeping an eye on the skies.
It was early in the season, but these are the migrating raptors they tally.
A nice young Hawkwatch woman named Mariah explained that the migrating birds follow the land along the Upper Keys then as it bends around to head west toward the Lower Keys and Key West they pick a spot in the Middle Keys to set out over water. Curry Hammock is ideally situated.
Unlike warblers and other small birds, raptors migrate during the day when the sun heats the land and creates thermals to ride.
Curry Hammock State Park is the largest undeveloped parcel of land between Key Largo and Big Pine Key. Curry Hammock provides vital habitat for many local and migrating species and hosts record numbers of peregrine falcons every fall.
Mariah said that record numbers of Peregrines are tallied each year most often on October 10, which she said they call for fun El Dia de Los Peregrinos. They set a world record in 2015, with 1506 peregrines counted that day. Wow!
It’s a pretty place and out near the water the breeze was keeping the bugs away. You can camp at this park too.
Bucket list: rent an RV and park it there for a few days in early- to mid-October and hang out with the hawk-watching nerds.
One more trail: this one had few bugs but hot sun.
It’s part of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. It uses the old railroad viaducts next to the newer highway. Great spot for fishermen and people who love to rest their eyes on the horizon, like I do.
You have to watch where you walk in the conservatory, because the doves get under your feet. Also check yourself for butterflies in the mirror near the exit.
This is a brush-footed butterfly called a Malachite, named for the green mineral malachite. Malachites live mainly in Central America but there are some in the southern tip of Florida, says the internet.
The conservatory is a tropical habitat under a glass dome, with hundreds of butterflies and little birds winging around. It’s magical, and intensely peaceful. If they checked your blood pressure at the beginning of the looping walk and at the end, I’m sure it would be lower.
It’s located near the southern end of world-famous Duval Street in downtown Key West, Florida, not far from the “Southernmost Point” in the U.S. and a bit more than five hours away from my home.
I’m blue, da ba dee da ba daa.
The Blue Dacnis is a member of the tanager family of birds, and lives in parts of Central and South America. I’d love to see one in the wild, but will settle for a climate-controlled mini-paradise in Key West followed by a walk through downtown and stops at Mel Fisher’s Treasures, Mangoes for fish tacos, Pilar Rum Distillery and the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens (more on Key West “birding” in a post to follow).
This is a Clipper, Parthenos sylvia, native to Southeast Asia. (I had help IDing all these birds and bugs on iNaturalist.)
Also a lovely blue (da ba dee), this is an Opal-rumped Tanager nomming on some tanager food.
Tanagers (Thraupidae) are the second-largest family of birds, often brightly-colored, and live only in the Western Hemisphere, mainly the tropics of Central and South America. (The largest family of birds are the tyrant flycatchers, Tyrannidae.)
Speaking of families, I recognized the family of this butterfly. It reminds me of the Zebra Longwings I see often in my neighborhood, the State Butterfly of Florida. This fine fellow is a Red Postman, aka red passion flower butterfly, or crimson-patched longwing – a member of the longwing or Heliconius family of New World butterflies.
And last but not least, an enchantingly weird bird the Guinea Turaco from West Africa. Very dinosaur-like, don’t you think?