Winter’s Winged Wonders
Living in the Gables definitely has its advantages. Most neighborhoods have their own little parks where we can reconnect with nature, and we’re blessed to have the wonderful Matheson Hammock county park within our borders.
The 630-acre sanctuary is a birder’s paradise comprised of two key habitats: Coastal Mangrove Forest and Tropical Hardwood Hammock, the latter an upland “tree island” once common along the Miami Rock Ridge before development leveled most of them. The few that remain attract and nurture a wide array of birds and other wildlife.
Matheson Hammock Park opened in 1930 on 80 acres donated by William J. Matheson. He wanted the land to be used as a park “to preserve the wild and natural beauty.”Setting aside a natural oasis along the shores of Biscayne Bay had the effect its benefactor intended: The park is a stopover for migrating birds every spring and fall, and serves as a winter home for myriad avian species.
Birders have been flocking to Matheson Hammock for nearly a century now, and over the course of the last 50 years, the Tropical Audubon Society has been leading bird walks there. That’s where I come in.
Many folks don’t realize there are two Mathesons, one inland and one bayside. For the inland preserve, take an early morning hike through the Tropical Hard- wood Hammock lying just west of Old Cutler Road (and slightly south of the park’s main entrance) between now and May and you’re bound to encounter an array of bird species.
During high winter especially, you may hear the squawking of Orange-winged Parrots or the lighter sounds of Yellow-chevroned Parakeets as they fly overhead. The beauty and post-dawn coolness of the hammock are reasons enough for getting up early, but you may also catch a glimpse of the stealthy and reclusive White-crowned Pigeon perched in the canopy. This rare and threatened stately gray pigeon with iridescent feathering and a stark white cap is found throughout the Caribbean, but in the U.S., it favors South Florida exclusively. It’s therefore a bucket-list species for any birder visiting our neck of the woods.
Wander further into the heart of the hammock (staying on the established trail) and listen for the zee zee zeet of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. This small, active, long-tailed woodland bird with a white eye-ring is often seen leading a mixed flock of companions.
Keep your senses tuned for the red flame-like flickering movements and the ex- plosive chip of the American Redstart, aptly known as “Candelita” by Spanish speakers. It will be flitting high and low within the foliage foraging for its breakfast.
The number of species spotted on any given fair-weather winter morning can really climb if you remain attentive. Be on the lookout for the yellow throat and breast, and bright white wing bars on a blue-gray body, to identify the Northern Parula, an innately curious bird who will often branch-hop to get a closer look at you.
Deeper into the hammock canopy, you may encounter the distinctive Black-and-white Warbler creeping along a tree trunk, gleaning insects from the branches. On the hammock fringes you may detect the slow, methodical movement of the Blue-headed Vireo or delightful Yellow-throated Vireo. At the hammock’s edge, where it opens to grassland, look for the American Kestrel as it hunts for insects, small reptiles, and small rodents in the open field. This sleek bird of prey is North America’s smallest falcon. You may also spot a Short-tailed Hawk circling for slightly larger prey. The Great Horned Owl is another hunter who can be seen in West Matheson, where it is known to nest. Look for it at dawn or at dusk.
For the bayside preserve, go east of Old Cutler in the main park, where wading birds and shorebirds can be readily spotted on winter days along the rocky shoreline and sand beaches; chief among them are Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Plovers, and Semipalmated Sandpipers. On just about any given day, elegant Great Egrets and Great Blue and Little Blue herons can be seen fishing in the mangrove shallows and more prominently along the beach that rims the atoll pond. Look skyward for Ospreys, Double-crested Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, and Royal Terns scanning the bay waters for breakfast.
After a full morning of birdwatching, find a palm-shaded bench to sit back and tally up your list of winter wonders spotted at this local treasure of a park.
To learn more about each species, download the Merlin or eBird apps, and be sure to tell me all about it on the Tropical Audubon Society Bird Board, located on the tropicalaudubon.org website. Here you will also find an Events calendar that includes our society’s April 29 Matheson Hammock Bird Walk. Join us!
Coral Gables resident José Francisco Barros is an endodontist and president of the Tropical Audubon Society.