Every birder has different species that elude their every effort to see them – that owl that is just too hard to find at night, that passing migrant warbler that only briefly flits through the area, or that confusing shorebird that never gives a good enough view for proper identification. For me, one such nemesis bird has been the snail kite, a distinctive raptor that is found in central and southern Florida but is very rare and difficult to spot.
While I do live in Florida, these birds are not residents in my area, and it takes a two-hour trip to visit their preferred open wetland habitat where delicious apple snail populations are abundant. But, like all raptors, snail kites are few and far between, and in Florida especially, these birds are considered endangered (they’re a bit more abundant in the Central American and Mexican portions of their range). There are only a few hundred snail kites estimated to live in Florida, and they are often target birds for birders visiting the state.
Several times I’ve traveled to southern Florida, and each time I’ve stopped at a particular preserve well-known for its populations of snail kites. The Grassy Waters Preserve in West Palm Beach is part of the northern Everglades, and features 24 square miles of watershed with boardwalks, trails, viewing platforms, and a nature center. It’s easily accessible from I-95 and the Florida Turnpike, free to visit, and open seven days a week. There are several parking areas at different trailheads, with restroom facilities available, as well as printed trail guides.
I have always visited the Cypress Boardwalk, the smallest of the preserve’s trails but the one most easily accessible after a two-hour drive. The boardwalk is well-maintained and there are several quaint viewing areas along its one-mile length, including wooden rocking chairs, benches, and an elevated viewing tower at the kayak launch at the trail’s southern end.
Walking along the boardwalk is a convenient way to experience the Everglades, including its dense vegetation and varied wildlife. I’ve noted alligators, snakes, turtles, fish, squirrels, and river otters in the area, as well as a number of birds – limpkins, egrets, ducks, cormorants, ibises, herons, spoonbills, woodpeckers, and swallows among them. What I’ve never managed to see, however, is that elusive snail kite.
Finally, my third visit to Grassy Waters was the magical new lifer moment. I’d walked the entire boardwalk, out to the kayak launch, and was scanning along the open marsh to see what could be seen. There were plenty of American coots and common gallinules, with a couple of gators lounging nearby. Spoonbills were off to the southeast, and grackles were all over. Then, flying swiftly and straight at the viewing tower, came a low-coursing raptor focused intently on the swampy ground below. Its head was lowered, its broad wings outspread, and as it came closer, I could even see the distinctly curved, sharp bill. The markings were visible, including the mottling on the body – this was a female – and the boldly pied tail with a paler tip. No birder could ask for better views, and in that moment the snail kite became my 461st lifer bird.
For several minutes the kite coursed around, before flying to the northwestern edge of the marsh clearing and perching on a snag. There it stayed for several more minutes, looking about for prey, before flying back again to the southeast, providing even more good views and being joined by a partner. Two snail kites in one visit!
It’s a remarkable experience to get a new lifer, and even more fulfilling when it’s a bird you’ve sought for some time without success. But when you finally do have that sighting, particularly a detailed and lengthy one, it’s something you never forget. I won’t forget my first (and second) snail kite, and I’ll gladly visit Grassy Waters every time I’m in West Palm Beach, hoping for another stunning view.