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Psst! One of the best places to go birding in South Florida is... the dump

alex harper sunrise dump marsh.jpg
Jenny Staletovich
Birder Alex Harper searches for birds at Dump Marsh near the Miami-Dade County landfill at sunrise, a time of day birders refer to as the dawn chorus, when many songbirds begin to appear.

Ask Alex Harper why he loves to go birding, and he’ll start at the very beginning of the story.

“My parents tell me that birdie was my first word. I don't remember. I was probably one at the time. But that's what they tell me,” he said.

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Harper lives in Las Vegas, where he works for the Red Rock Audubon Society roaming the Mojave desert in search of birds. But he grew up amid the sawgrass prairies and mangrove forest of the South Florida Everglades, begging his parents to take him birding with his grandfather’s binoculars.

He identified his first bird when he was four: an ornament-size warbler called the common yellowthroat.

“I remember going into a bird book and going through all the different plates and the illustrations and identifying this male common yellowthroat,” he said.

Harper Black Point Prairie Warbler.jpg
Alex Harper
A prairie warbler near Dump Marsh and the Black Point Marina.

This month and January, Harper will be among the thousands of birders in North and South America, the Bahamas and other parts of the world participating in Audubon’s century-old Christmas bird count.

The pandemic briefly slowed the count beginning in 2020, just after Harper took part in the South Florida counts while home visiting his parents for the holidays. But last year, participation rebounded with a vengeance, with more than 75,000 counters, the highest in a single season.

One of the more unusual — and popular — bird counting spots in South Florida is Dump Marsh.

The marsh sits in the shadow of Miami-Dade County’s south landfill, near the Black Point Marina. Despite the 300-acre landfill, the football field-sized marsh has become a hotspot for bird watchers with its wide array of birds, from the tiny warblers Harper still loves, to owls, hawks, turkey vultures — of course — and a chorus of songbirds.

jef weber dump marsh.jpg
Jenny Staletovich
Birder Jeff Weber searches for birds at the Miami-Dade County south landfill during an Audubon Christmas bird count.

The bird count started on Christmas day in 1900 amid growing concerns that the planet’s birds were vanishing. The planet’s last passenger pigeon died 14 years later.

While environmental protections and pollution laws have helped since, birds have continued to dwindle.

In 2019, scientists using data from the bird counts and the North American Breeding Survey estimated that nearly 3 billion birds had vanished since the 1970s. An alarming discovery was the unexpected steep declines in common birds, like black birds and sparrows, suggesting a profound loss of habitat.

The bird counts, organized around 15 mile wide circles, now number in the thousands, from as far north as the Canadian arctic to Tierra del Fuego. This year’s count runs through Jan. 5.

To find a count in South Florida, visit audubon.org.

Harper DumpBlackPoint Loggerhead Shrike with anole.jpg
Alex Harper
A loggerhead shrike eating an anole near the Dump Marsh and Black Point Marina in South Dade.

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.