September 18, 2020
THE FLORIDA SPRING OF CARIBBEAN VAGRANTS
By Rafael Gálvez
After basking in the glory of a stunning male Western Spindalis that blazed in colors under the Florida Keys sun, we were soon drenched in a Seagrape forest, looking for an elusive Bananaquit during a storm. We walked in a tight group with water up to our ankles. Migratory songbirds dashed everywhere in the canopy: Cape May Warblers, Blackpolls, Black-throated Blues! A swarm of kingbirds peppered snags overhead. Dozens of Gray and Eastern kingbirds competed for a perch. Suddenly Jean asked, “One kingbird looks different. What is it?” I was surprised to hear that from her. She had been on point throughout the tour. Jerry kept his bins fixed on the gap in the canopy through the onslaught of raindrops, and I quickly joined him. “A Fork-tail!” I exclaimed, “a Fork-tailed Flycatcher!” The spindly bird remained perched for several minutes, and we were all granted fantastic views. It turned out to be the 3rd record of the species for Miami-Dade County and a rarity hundreds of birders went out to see after we reported it.
South Florida in the spring is a magical experience filled with untold avian possibilities. Hundreds of migratory species stop over the region during northbound flights before continuing into the North American continent. While returning Caribbean breeders settle in their South Florida territories, the prospect of vagrants from the tropics remains in the air. During the spring of 2017, the region experienced an extraordinary record of Caribbean vagrants, matched by no other season in recent history. Vagrants that turn up once in a blue moon all showed up at once, and the rarities reports were flooded with a dozen top-notch possibilities. With relatively little effort, we saw three vagrants during our “South Florida & The Keys” tour, all found while looking for other reported vagrant species that we missed. It seemed that if you did not find a new rarity while searching for a previously reported rarity, you were not birding South Florida in the spring of 2017.
The chasing of vagrants during any tour can be a dangerous game capable of dismantling a carefully organized itinerary. During typical circumstances, South Florida and The Keys offer plenty more than can be covered in a single week. From the tropical to the temperate, the lowest portion of the peninsula allows us to delve into habitats found nowhere else in the country. This tour is a great way to experience a mix of regional specialties such as Black-whiskered Vireos, White-crowned Pigeons, and Antillean Nighthawks returning to nest in South Florida, contrasted with various established exotic species in urban realms.
However, as we traversed five of the largest counties in Florida that spring, it seemed inevitable for us to arrive at locations along our itinerary where vagrants had been freshly reported. During several times, I found myself at a tempting crossroads. On our first day of the tour we typically make a mad dash from Key West to Homestead—130 miles—stopping at select locations with not a second to waste. Halfway through that day in 2017, I received a notification of a La Sagra’s Flycatcher from a hardwood hammock a couple of miles away from where we were! That location was not in our itinerary, but we had to give it a try. Unfortunately, that bird turned out to be a “one-minute wonder,” and only the initial observers got to see it, delaying us 45 minutes. Unbelievably, other birders at the site told us of a Bahama Mockingbird that had been seen earlier at Windley Key, our next stop. I gulped. I have chased Bahama Mockingbirds during two past tours, ending empty-handed!
Soon we arrived at Windley Key, where a handful of other birders were ready to give up on the mockingbird, which had not been seen in many hours. “We are looking for a gray-brown bird folks.” I maintained optimistic as fewer and fewer eyes searched the designated tree. But lo and behold, a boldly patterned bird gleaned in the depths of the foliage, black and white stripes and patches of fiery orange! We never saw a Bahama Mockingbird, but an unexpected male Western Spindalis—a vagrant from the Bahamas—emerged instead as the best consolation prize ever! This scenario would repeat two more times during the tour. Uncharacteristically encouraged by the Spindalis, we would take risks on reported rarities, only to miss out on them, yet finding others!
On our third afternoon we found ourselves ahead of schedule after successful encounters with elusive Snail Kites in the westernmost reaches of our tour. After a half-day in the remote vastness of sawgrass prairies in the Everglades, we stopped for a restroom break at the sole gas station for miles. Once again, my phone lit up with notifications of rarities as I refueled our van. An Arctic Tern was being seen 45 minutes south of us! That would certainly be an impressive first for this tour. All we had to do was take the crossing road at that intersection straight down; but would we make it to the parakeet roost all the way to the northeast in due time? Then I noticed that a Bananaquit was being reported to our east, in Key Biscayne not far from the roost we would visit. Now that we could do.
As we ventured east, thunderstorms were building along the coast, but there was no turning back now. We arrived at a thick Seagrape hammock by the beaches of Key Biscayne. The parking lot was quickly vacating as beachgoers attempted to evade the rain. “Darn, maybe this was a bad idea.” I decided to run into the hammock to check out the conditions before dragging the entire group on a wet-and-wild chase. At the reported spot, I heard the Bananaquit through the sprinkling on leaves. I ran out to get the group but blew out a flip-flop, so I had to continue the day barefoot. By the time we started back into the trail it was pouring rain, but everyone was enjoying the refreshing respite from the heat. As we walked through the coastal forest dominated by large and colorful Seagrape trees, our path was quickly flooding to our ankles, yet no one thought of turning back. There were countless warblers of a dozen species, one surprise after the other. It was evident that the rain had suddenly brought them down, and there was a constant shift in the species composition. We were having so much fun! Unfortunately, the Bananaquit was nowhere to be seen, and the incessant pelting of the rain on the thick leaves prevented us from hearing vocalizations. We had been there a half-hour, soaked to the bone, and felt it was time to give up on the Bananaquit. Some of us were already starting back on the trail when Jean remarked about the unusual flycatcher, and history was made. This wet adventure in a tropical hammock ranked as the favorite experience of the tour by most participants, and is one I will always cherish. The Fork-tailed Flycatcher remained in the area for a second day, and many other birdwatchers saw it after I reported it that night. The Bananaquit never turned up again, but on the third day, folks that were ready to give up on the flycatcher after it had apparently gone found a Thick-billed Vireo—another spectacular vagrant! Amazing!
We found the final vagrant of our tour outside of Everglades National Park while stopping to check an agricultural expanse where a Shiny Cowbird had been seen days earlier. First encouraged by many Eastern Kingbirds perched on cables, we were pleased to find that there were no less than five species of tyrants present at this location, allowing for some fantastic comparisons! Stockier Gray Kingbirds were also there and already familiar to all of us. Here too were a few Western Kingbirds, similar in proportions to the Eastern. But what caught most eyes were several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers streaming by with their long tails, always a beautiful sight. The cream of the crop, however, was a single flycatcher that was stocky like a Gray, but bright yellow below—yellower than a Western. This proved to be a Tropical Kingbird, the third rarity of our tour and a handsome bird at that!
The spring of 2017 in South Florida was one I will never forget. I remember all the members of that particular group with singular fondness. Most participants continued with me onto the Dry Tortugas extension, aboard a private charter for three days to explore the coralline islands 70 miles southwest of Key West. There we saw many species seldom seen elsewhere in the continental U.S. including Audubon’s Shearwaters; Brown and Masked boobies; Sooty, Bridled, and Roseate terns; Brown and Black noddies; Antillean Nighthawk; and a total of 18 warbler species!
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