For birdwatchers and the bird curious, April in South Florida is the jackpot month – the time of year when almost anything with wings can show up.
Largely this is because of migration, the bi-annual cycle of animals moving themselves around the planet, usually in search of an ample enough food supply. Last fall, hundreds of thousands of North American birds traveled from the northerly part of our continent to the bug- and berry-rich places of the Caribbean and South America. Many of them passed through Florida, which is both their funnel and their launching pad, the last chance for rest and fuel before a 90- to 400-mile life-or-death water crossing. Life or death because most of these birds don't swim, and if they splash down, they drown.
April is the month when most of the birds reverse their route, and the Keys and South Florida are the first safe place to land after power-flapping all the way from either Cuba or the Yucatan.
There is always something a little more lively about the spring migration. Maybe it's that birds all look sharp in their bright Sunday best breeding plumage. Maybe their drive to get home — motivated by ambitions for prime real estate, licit sex and successful offspring —makes their actions a little sparkier. And maybe it's the fact that there are so many of them.
There are so many birds moving that you can see it on the weather radar.
On their site you can watch the radar action almost every night in April and early May. You can see a cloud of birds lift up from Cuba at sunset and move across the Florida Straits. Sometimes the cloud disappears just as it hits the Keys, meaning the birds are landing, most likely to avoid wind or bad weather. But sometimes the cloud keeps moving, across the Keys and Florida Bay, the birds dispersing into the Florida Peninsula.
The Abreus try to post every day during migration – not just the raw radar feed, but some analysis of how big the nightly flight might be, how the weather might affect things, and where the birds might land.
There are places in South Florida where these birds tends to congregate. They are known as migrant traps, though they aren't traps so much as oases of native plants surrounded by development.
There is also Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, which not only gets good numbers of migrant birds, but also has historically been a good place to find Caribbean accidentals – stray birds that sometimes show up but which, according to their species' usual habits, shouldn't be here.
This week a Bahama Mockingbird – native to several Caribbean islands – showed up there. It is what the American Birding Association calls a Code 4 rarity. (Code 5 is the rarest.) The Bahama Mockingbird at first glance looks similar to the Northern Mockingbird, a bird that can be found singing its fool head off on almost every telephone pole in almost every neighborhood in the South. But it is browner and streakier, and a little less inclined to mock.
The Bahama Mockingbird may not be the most exciting bird in the world to look at, but this is the thing about birding, especially during migration: if you go out looking for one bird, you never know what else you might see.