For the past week I have been in Florida briefly before heading down to the Dominican Republic day after tomorrow (much more on that later). While it has not been a birding trip, I have had a bit of time to do some birding. This has been highlighted by a couple of vagrant chases which have once again proved the great birding potential of Florida.
The first chase was for the two vagrants which have been seen recently at Long Key State Park in the Florida Keys. The two birds there have been black-faced grassquit (code 4) and, even better, a zenaida dove (code 5). I pulled into the State Park a bit after dawn. It took me a couple of minutes to reorient and figure out where I was going as I had last been to the park last year for the Key West quail-dove being seen there.
Even when I figured out the appropriate trail to take to the dove, it took me a while to find the exact location. Eventually, half an hour and a yellow-crowned night-heron later, I found the pink flagging marking the spot for the zenaida, and accompanying birder looking for the bird.
Tragically however he had not seen the bird yet and gave me the news that it was apparently a somewhat challenging bird to find. The lack of doves in general (except for a common ground-dove which kept popping everywhere) didn’t reassure me much. After a while where the only bird to emerge from the brush was a grey catbird, a friend of the birder present called to say that she had located the grassquit at the campgrounds. Figuring the dove might not show and that I could return for it later, I decided to get the guaranteed bird first (after all, a bird in the hand is reputed to be worth a zenaida dove in the bush).
This turned out to be a fruitful decision for I could hear the grassquit calling as soon as I walked up to the campsite it was being seen at. Within ten seconds, I saw it too. Over the time I watched it, it gave fantastic views as it flitted around, foraging on both sides of the road. At one point, it even came within 5 feet of me. One of the easiest to locate and most confiding ABA Area rarities I have ever seen.
Check! and back to the dove. However, before the dove showed itself, I had to return to Key Largo to check out of my hotel which I had optimistically hoped I would have been able to see both birds before having to do. Some hurried packing and a shot of Cuban coffee later, I was back at the park.
In the time I had been gone, a number more birders had gathered at the dove spot. They informed me that the group of nonbirders which had been walking not far in front of me had flushed the bird which had been foraging on the trail. In other words, I had missed it by 15 seconds. Better people than I would have been overwhelmed with shadenfreude. I however was not so entertained and settled down to wait, more determined than ever to locate the thing.
Slowly the birders began to trickle away until there was only 1 left. After about 2 hours, they do left. However, on their way out, they spotted a dove sitting in the brush. They assumed it was just a mourning but they called me over to look at it anyway. Sure enough, there was the zenaida dove staring at me, unconcerned, just off trail.
How little the bird seemed to care about the two birds staring at it gave me a great opportunity to study and sketch my first code 5. However, the Florida heat eventually overcame my fragile, cold-loving British body and I beat a hasty retreat; back to the shade.
As an aside, while I was watching the dove, a couple got engaged on the beach behind me. I felt a bit bad for them having a birder right there staring into the underbrush and a shutter loudly clicking during what was supposed to be one of the most perfect moments of their lives, but I guess that’s what you get when you propose where there’s a code 5!
The next day, I, now relaxing on a beach in Boca Raton got word that a Cuban pewee had been found at a park on Key Biscayne, only an hour south of me. As this was only the fifth ABA record I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to chase. Bumming a ride off of my sister, I headed south.
The bird turned out to be about as difficult to find as the grassquit had been. A number of birders were already on sight and had the bird in their sights. Naturally I couldn’t resist observing the rare flycatcher and taking about a thousand photos as it hawked for wasps within a matter of feet from the admiring crowd.
In the hour or so I watched it, it called once giving a series of three “pip” notes and caught a number of insects. An absolutely cracking bird and one which I will likely not see again for a while. Unfortunately, it would not be seen again after that day, making me extremely thankful for having been able to chase it when I did, for I could easily have missed it.
Already, this trip is hard to beat with two code 5s and a code 4 alright being spotted, but I still have a day left in the peninsula of sun and with it comes a good chance to make this trip even better. Stay tuned for more from Florida as well as Hispaniola!