September may still feel like summer in the Gables, but “snowbirds” flying south for the winter are already arriving. Many of the very same neotropical migrants we encountered in spring are now returning from their northern nesting grounds, making Fall Migration pit stops in our exceptional “Tree City USA.” A great many will simply rest and refuel in our expansive tree canopy as they navigate further south to the Caribbean, Central or South America, but for some notable exceptions, subtropical South Florida is their final destination.
Because of our prime location at the southern tip of the North American leg of the Atlantic Flyway, millions of birds following southerly flight paths – through the Shenandoah or Tennessee valleys, over Appalachian Mountain ridges, or hugging the Atlantic coast – funnel down the Florida peninsula and converge here. Just as Miami serves human travelers as the nation’s “Gateway to the Americas,” it is also the
Atlantic Flyway’s busiest hub, with birds of nearly every feather (among them hummingbirds, raptors, flycatchers, vireos and warblers) touching down and taking off from August through November. Among those who stay for the winter are the conspicuous Turkey Vultures (nature’s janitors), riding our thermals, dining well and enjoying our mild temperatures.
Along with the weather, it’s the hospitable vegetation native to our region that makes our yards (and Coral Gables’ 63 parks) so attractive to the songbirds who winter here.
The somewhat elusive Painted Bunting is practically a sure thing in a thoughtfully considered native landscape (a millet-filled feeder helps, too). And who doesn’t love hummers? You’ll soon be welcoming the Ruby-throated Hummingbird when you plant the enticing Firebush. Landscaping with it and a mix of other native fruit-bearing shrubs (consider Wild Coffee and stoppers), along with a water source as simple as a clean birdbath, will transform your yard into a paradise that proves irresistible to these avian jewels of winter.
If your yard lacks shade, establishing a high tree canopy will provide birds with habitat for foraging, roosting, and sheltering (consider the indigenous Gumbo Limbo, Live Oak, or Short-leaf Fig). As exotic plantings and monoculture lawns are increasingly replaced by bird-friendly landscaping, area birders are spotting flycatchers, vireos, and warblers wintering in our parks and natural environs who were otherwise rarely documented here.
My birding buddies and I are now regularly counting 20+ warbler species on any given winter day. Sometimes we even spot a rare western species such as a Black-throated Gray Warbler or a Vermilion Flycatcher who found their way to a sun-drenched meadow and decided it was a good place to hang until spring. And the more we look, the more birds we find. This is a sure-fire technique for novice birders, too.
We can all enjoy an active Fall Migration by simply getting outside in the early mornings or late afternoons with our field binoculars, listening for the source of birds calling out and scanning the canopy to watch them flitting among the branches. But the fun doesn’t stop in November. Providing an abundance of native “food and lodging” amenities can convince more of our feathered friends to spend the winter with us.
Because of our long season of temperate to cool days and the concentration and variety of birds who already congregate here, South Florida is also a winter mecca for international birders. For us locals, though, we only need to step outside with our morning coffee, listen, look and be rewarded.
Coral Gables resident José Francisco Barros is an endodontist and president of Tropical Audubon Society