By KITTY SOMERVILLe Key West Garden Club
In my garden, spring has sprung, evidenced by the abundance of birds darting around the yard. They munch on berries and seeds, and drink from a freshwater fountain. A red flowering Chinese hat plant attracts a ruby-throated hummingbird that stays for a day, then flies on to its long journey. Colorful warblers flit through the Key lime trees. I awake to the mewing of a gray catbird, with its black cap and long tail.
"Think of the Florida Keys as the truck stop on the migration highway," Mark Hedden recently told the Key West Garden Club. "Our islands are the first chance for gas on the way north in spring and last chance on the way south in fall."
An island icon, writer, tour operator and bird enthusiast, Hedden works out of The Studios of Key West. He said he enjoys both migrations. Songbirds in the spring have bright breeding plumage. Fall is spectacular with raptors flying south along the North American eastern coast, funneling into the Florid Keys. This is their jumping off point toward Cuba and further into South America.
Hedden wowed the garden club with a show of 100 birds. An avid birder, he is quick to identify the name of each bird. "Florida Keys Hawk Watch, done yearly, counted 19,000 raptors, which are easy to count as they avoid flying over open water. There are many more songbirds, but they are much harder to count," Hedden said. His passion is raptors, powerful birds that hunt on the wing using their excellent vision to find prey.
The bald eagle -- a raptor and our national bird -- represents freedom and nobility. Hedden said they actually act like vultures, as they are somewhat lazy and eat roadkill or fresh prey. They eat fish and have been known to dive on an osprey carrying a fish, force a release, and catch the fish before it hits the water. There are eight to 10 breeding eagle pairs in the Lower Keys and another 10 that migrate through. You can often see them on a nest near the Blue Hole on Big Pine Key and throughout the backcountry islands.
Ospreys are another raptor that Hedden said "splash hunt." "They have a unique view of their prey. With very long legs, they put their feet in front of their face as they dive to get a perfect view to strike a fish. Over a thousand migrated through our area, some staying here all year. The local ones chase the migrants away as they pass through to insure they don't decide to settle here for the winter."
As for the more colorful birds, Hedden said, "You can't go wrong with pink. We have both roseate spoonbills and pink flamingos. He said the pink flamingos sighted at Wilma Key in the last two winters might be escapees from the now-closed Hialeah Race Track, although there is no evidence to know exactly where they came from. Roseate spoonbills seen in the winter months breed in the Everglades, then disperse to feed where there is more food.
The spring migration is March into early May and fall migration is late August to early November. Hedden is impressed with the mix of birds migrating through the Keys, including about 40 warbler species. Hedden showed an amazing website, www.badbirdz2.wordpress.com, with its new technology to detect bird migration. The website shows radar images of bird migration, similar to weather radar patterns.
It's important to make sure the migrating birds are flying on a full tank of gas. So have your gardens landscaped to contain a variety of blossoms, berries, seeds and especially fresh, clean water.
• Tom Hambright, Monroe County historian, will deliver a lecture to the Key West Garden Club on the History of West Martello Tower, where the club is located, at its monthly meeting at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
• The theme of Floral Design for the month of April is spring fever. Designers are asked to use transparency in the arrangements.
• The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to pull weeds, learn to propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays.
Kitty Somerville is a Key West Garden Club member, master gardener and a birder.