Every fall, the skies over the Florida Keys fill with thousands of birds from hundreds of species heading south for the winter.
The migrating birds follow the land as far as it goes, and that includes the narrow strip that is the Florida Keys, often stopping to chow down before heading over water to the Caribbean or Central or South America.
In the Keys, a remarkable citizen-science project occurs every fall called Florida Keys Hawkwatch.
Headquartered in Curry Hammock State Park, volunteers will staff a viewing outpost every day from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31 identifying and counting birds overhead.
In 2021, the Florida Keys Hawkwatch project in Curry Hammock State Park counted 33,458 raptors!
The Keys Hawkwatch is one of more than 100 conducted around the country in collaboration with the Hawk Migration Association of North America.
Florida Keys Hawkwatch at Curry Hammock State Park
The Hawkwatch project selected Curry Hammock State Park as its headquarters because the Middle Keys are only .62 miles across at the widest point and thus the birds compress into a narrow space overhead.
The Curry Hammock site is famous in birding circles for the number of peregrine falcons that are spotted here. On a world-record day in 2015, volunteers counted more than 1,506 peregrine falcons in one day!
Peregrine falcons feed on other birds — pigeons, doves, waterfowl, parrots. They’re the size of a crow, but are often called the fastest animal in the world because they can reach 150 mph while making a dive.
Florida Keys Hawkwatch welcomes volunteers with binoculars and the birders there will answer questions from visitors. Hawkwatch sets up shop on the second-floor deck of the building housing the campground bathrooms at Curry Hammock. (This area is usually only open to campers and park rangers ask that you respect the privacy of campers.)
If you’re interested in participating, Jeff Bouton posted this on the Hawkwatch website: “We welcome visitors throughout the season from Aug. 1 through Nov. 30 (weather allowing), but the middle of the count season is generally more rewarding in overall raptor sightings, especially on days with Northerly winds.”
Bouton adds: “For those wanting greater species diversity and consistently higher numbers, we’d suggest the period from the last week in September through the third week in October. For our world class Peregrine Falcon flights try the week centered on either side of Oct. 10, which is respectfully referred to as “Day of the Peregrine” or “Dia de los Peregrinos” acknowledging these migrants spend potentially more time in Central and South America than here in the US and Canada.”
In 2022, Hawkwatch began monitoring the skies at Curry Hammock on Aug. 1 in order to monitor the migration of swallow tail kites, a bird whose migration is little understood. Volunteers have counted hundreds of kites. Here are details.
Want to witness the migration on your own? You’ll find advice on identifying raptors here.
Here are three good spots for birding in the Florida Keys.
Curry Hammock State Park in Marathon and Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine offer excellent opportunities to view migrating birds on your own.
Curry Hammock State Park, 56200 Overseas Hwy., Marathon, FL 33050. (305) 289-2690. “If you enjoy watching bird migration then this site won’t disappoint; on a good day it’s one of the best sites in the United States,” according to the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.
The park has a campground, but very few vacancies at this point. In addition to watching the skies, you can kayak around the island and into coves where birds roost. Day-use fees: $5 per vehicle. Limit 2-8 people per vehicle; $2, Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers; $4, Single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle.
Bahia Honda State Park, 36850 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key, FL 33043. (305) 872-2353. Here’s where to look for birds in Bahia Honda. The park has a campground and cabins, but, again, they are very hard to reserve. Day-use fees: $8 per vehicle. Limit 2-8 people per vehicle; $2.00 Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers; $4 Single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle.
National Key Deer Refuge. Visitors Center in the Big Pine Shopping Center, 179 Key Deer Boulevard, Big Pine Key. (305) 304-9625. Explore Big Pine Key and No Name Key by bike should produce plenty of wildlife, or your can take a self-guided tour of Ohio Key and Long Beach ares of the refuge to spot migrating hawks. Here’s advice on where to look for birds here.
More things to do in the Florida Keys
- Print out this mile marker guide to enhance your road trip to the Florida Keys.
- The Florida Keys Wild Bird Care Center is a great stop on your visit to the Keys.
- Florida Rambler’s guide to the best beaches in the Florida Keys
- Florida Rambler Guide to the Lower Keys
- Feed the tarpon at Robbie’s Marina
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- Visit historic Pigeon Key in Marathon
- Kayak or canoe to historic Indian Key
- Camping in Middle Keys: Curry Hammock State Park
- Camping near Key West
More birding resources from Florida Rambler
- Florida Great Birding and Wildlife Trail: How to use this excellent website.
- Flamingoes in Florida: Back for good?
- Birds hold court at Wakodahatchee Wetlands & Green Cay in suburban Palm Beach County
- Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray: Wood storks nesting in spring
- Peaceful Waters Sanctuary, Wellington: Top birding spot in sububan Palm Beach County
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge: Birds, beauty galore
- White pelicans: How to see spectacular birds wintering in Florida
- Circle B Bar Reserve: Lakeland park is terrific for wildlife
- Thousands of birds migrate over Keys in fall
- St. Augustine Alligator Farm bird rookery is thrilling for birders
- Fort Myers Bunche Beach: Heaven for birders, kayakers
- Naples Bird Rookery Swamp: 9 ways it’s great for hiking, biking
- Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge: Wild spot to hike and see wildlife
- Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning a trip, especially to areas hard hit by hurricanes.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.