On a breezy winter morning at Crandon Park Beach on Key Biscayne, Roberto Torres carries his spotting scope, a thick telescope, to spy on winter visitors that have escaped the blustery north.
But these snowbirds are not just any guests. The plump, tiny visitors, known as piping plovers, are tan shorebirds with white underbellies. They run like skittish chicks as they search for small crabs, shrimp and the occasional bivalve mollusk in the seaweed and moss draped along the shoreline.
Torres is guiding two team members from the Nature Conservancy on an urban birding trip around Miami-Dade County. The purpose: to see how migrating and local birds are adjusting to South Florida’s urban lifestyle.
“Roberto is an expert birder, and it’s winter time, the best time time to go with him to see how these rare birds on this public beach are doing,” said Rocio Johnson, marketing manager for the Nature Conservancy.
Once common along the Atlantic Coast, piping plovers have dwindled to the point that they’re listed as threatened on the federal endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services places the Atlantic numbers at fewer than 2,000 pairs.
“There’s only 6,000 of these individuals worldwide. We’ve had as many as 43 spend the winter on this beach, which is a good chunk of their population. It’s pretty exciting to come here because you’re not going to find these guys anywhere else in Dade County and most of Florida,” said Torres.
Torres should know. A birder for 15 years, he is the record holder for spotting 303 species of birds in Miami-Dade County.
“Bird-watching people are happy just seeing birds. When you’re urban birding, the excitement is in the discovery of looking for birds that have to make do in an urban environment,” he said.
As a field representative for the Nature Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group, Torres is mainly charged with helping to help buy wetlands in partnership with Miami-Dade’s Endangered Lands Program, which protects more than 20,000 acres.
“The last remaining long stretches of wetlands are in private ownership in South Florida, so it’s very important that we try and preserve those lands,” he said.
Historically, South Florida’s topography was divided into three areas: pinelands, which dominated the higher ground from Everglades National Park to northern Florida’s Atlantic coast; mangroves on the coast, and freshwater prairies, or Everglades. Development has diminished much of the wildlife habitat, and birds, like many other animals, are taking advantage of slivers of areas that mimic their traditional homes. Torres calls this the “edge effect.”
“Birds love living on the edges of different habitats,’’ he said. “At any given moment we will get a few hundred species coming through South Florida on their way to another stop. Me personally, my favorite are pelagic [ocean] birds because they’re on the edge of where the land meets the sea. Plus you have to be an advanced birder to distinguish one from the other because they look very similar.”
Urban birding means finding birds away from their natural environment. An outing earlier this week started in the predawn darkness at a field near a landfill in South Miami. It’s difficult to see anything but silhouettes of vegetation, but Torres unfolds his scope thinking he has spotted a giant bird perched on a palm tree. He’s not wrong. Far off on the horizon, the outlines of two great horned owls, with their pointy ears and sharp beaks, are clearly visible as they move their heads in the moonlight.
“They’ve probably been hunting all night and now they’re getting ready to roost. These owls stay hidden in the day so it’s hard to see them except at night. But this place close to the landfill is perfect for them since there are snakes and rodents they like to eat,” said Torres.
After hitting Crandon Beach and the wetlands, the birders visit Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables. Three years ago, Torres sighted a rare yellow-green Vireo there.
“It was very quiet. There weren’t too many birds around and I spotted it,’’ he said. “I immediately called some friends of mine and it turns out that it was the first one in Dade County and I think the third or fourth ever photographed in Florida.”
Last winter, another event piqued the interest of the Florida birding community: Thousands of razorbills, which resemble flying penguins, showed up all around the peninsula.
“These are cold-water Canadian birds, which typically winter in New York,” Torres said. “For some reason, the juveniles flocked to Florida by the thousands. Imagine penguins flying over a Miami tropical background.”
The group wraps up its outing near Black Point Marina in South Miami-Dade, driving past endangered large white wood storks that look like feathery statues, their long black beaks poised over the water as they hunt in a narrow ditch behind a residential neighborhood.
“What’s significant is what we didn’t see, and those were ducks’’ Torres says. “It’s been an unusually warm winter here so the ducks have already left. It just shows you how birds, living on the edge, are always looking for their best habitat to survive.”
Before heading to the parking lot of the marina, Torres points to the landfill: Standing on the ground behind a chain fence is America’s mascot, a bald eagle.
“Here we see a bald eagle that normally likes to stay a couple miles from the coast,” said Torres. “South Florida is so important to the survival of bird species all over this hemisphere.”