The Bahamas-to-Biscayne Breeze

For the entirety of my vacation in Florida, the forecast was remarkably consistent. I awoke every morning to strong easterly winds blowing in from across the sea. This weather pattern certainly had an effect on the trip, impacting the movements of migratory birds and roughing up the waves for my journey to and from the Dry Tortugas. I even encountered a group of Key West locals who had sailed out to the national park on the wild winds and become stranded when it proved impossible to fight them and return home. The gusts died down slightly during the night I spent camping in the Everglades, which meant it was quiet enough for me to hear a singing Chuck-will’s-widow in the wee hours of the morning. The unfortunate side effect of these milder conditions was revealed to me when I stepped outside my tent at dawn and was immediately greeted by swarms of mosquitos. Flamingo is infamous around the world for its concentrations of these bloodsuckers, and they gave me a run for my money despite my years of experience swatting the suckers. I drowned myself in DEET as soon as I got the chance, and it did little to prevent the onslaught. I was considering a morning hike at the Snake Bight Trail or a kayak paddle on Florida Bay, but the ferocious attacks I endured upon arrival at these sites convinced me to move on earlier than I’d planned. I’d certainly gotten my money’s worth out of the previous day in the Everglades, so I couldn’t really be disappointed in the itinerary change.

I’m actually rather thankful to the mosquitos, because their irksome antics put me back within range of cell phone towers around breakfast time. When I checked my device, I discovered a minutes-old report that a male Western Spindalis had been discovered at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne. Apparently the winds out of the east had blown the colorful bird all the way from the Bahamas, a fairly regular occurrence at this time of year. April is a great month for rarities in Florida, but most of the finds from the previous week had been one-day wonders which failed to show for subsequent observers. Cuban Pewee, Loggerhead Kingbird, and Cuban Vireo all went missing before I was able to enjoy them, but I now had the opportunity to chase the flashy spindalis immediately after its presence became public knowledge. Like Wayne Cochran and the Blues Brothers, I was goin’ back to Miami.

A shot Brian a message that I was headed his way again and that there was a hunt afoot. He was off from class for the day, and so elected to meet me at Bill Baggs to search. I parked the car, and Brian led me to the area where the bird had been reported. It was Easter Sunday and the weather was nice, so the park was full of folks celebrating and enjoying the outdoors. We worked the fenceline by the lighthouse compound, listening closely for the high-pitched “seet” calls of the spindalis. We kept hearing tantalizing vocalizations, but there were many other birds calling as they moved actively through the foliage. It was difficult to keep track of everything going on, and an additional distraction arrived with an update that a female spindalis had also been located in the immediate vicinity. Brian and I redoubled our efforts, passing a number of Black Spiny-tailed Iguanas, or Ctenosaurs, as we explored the trails.

As so often happens, we were just about ready to call it quits when we heard a promising “seet” ringing from a nearby tree. We stopped in our tracks, trying to get a visual on the source of the repetitive calls. Something flew out and passed directly over our heads, smaller than a cardinal but larger than a warbler, with black, white, and orange plumage. It quickly ducked into the foliage again, but even with such a brief glimpse we knew what the bird had to be. A few feet further ahead, I was treated to a clear visual on the handsome male Western Spindalis, and Brian’s quiet exclamation told me that he had a good vantage point as well.

As North American rarities go, this species is somewhat reliable. Spindalises have a pattern of occurence in South Florida, and it is not uncommon for multiple individuals to show up at the same time. They’ve even been recorded breeding in the state before. That being said, this common Caribbean bird is still a great find in the United States, and even staked-out, long-staying birds can be difficult to pin down. We were lucky to find this guy without too much difficulty, and he was a little stunner, too! I watched as the snazzy-looking songbird picked fruit from a strangler fig, bolting down morsels before taking off and continuing along the fenceline. I sent out word that the vagrant had been refound, and birders almost immediately appeared as if out of thin air to pursue their quarry and thank us for the update. It was time for a celebratory lunch. I picked out a Black-whiskered Vireo before we left the spindalis spot, and we encountered a pair of Common Ground-Doves along the trail to the Boater’s Grill Restaurant.

After lunch, we decided to head back to Brian’s place and set up a makeshift bed for me on the floor. Now that I was back in Miami, it didn’t make sense to go wandering off when I was staying here the next night anyway. We relaxed and caught up on some responsibilities before going out for dinner at Al Carbon. Back at Coconut Grove, we swapped stories while drinking El Dorado 15 Year rum and I introduced Brian to Rick & Morty. I returned to Bill Baggs on Monday morning while Brian was in class, but the park had gone dead quiet with many migrants moving onwards overnight.

I walked the beach for a while and grabbed a bite to eat at the local Lighthouse Cafe, departing the area around midday. A pair of White Ibis foraging in a nearby puddle provided a nice photo opp as I pulled out of the parking lot.

I continued on to Crandon Park, passing additional groups of ibis and some Egyptian Geese on my way to the shoreline. Myriad waterbirds were assembled at the edge of the surf, including Royal and Least Terns, Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, Laughing Gulls and quite a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls. This European species seems to be progressing with its colonization of North America at an impressive rate.

I’d heard there was a nesting area for shorebirds at Crandon, but I wasn’t sure which direction to go. Fortunately, there were only two options, and I chose right. A roped off enclosure hosted flocks of Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderlings, and Least Sandpipers. There were a few Piping Plovers thrown into the mix, but I was searching for a reported Wilson’s Plover after my failed efforts at Bahia Honda. I couldn’t find anything on my first sweep, but shifting my viewpoint revealed a big-billed bird hiding behind some beach plants. Observing the Wilson’s in direct comparison with the other plovers was a treat, and the experience made for a lovely final lifer of the trip.

I scattered crows and vultures from the picnic area as I made my way back to the car, texting Brian so I could swing by to pick up the house keys. I was pretty close to birders out: I’d seen almost everything I’d gone looking for in the past week and was eager to kick back and rest.

I’d been nursing a crave for some barbecue, which I satisfied and exceeded at Swine Southern Table & Bar. The staff were incredibly friendly, the ribs were great, and they had an IPA called Hops 4 Teacher, but the real highlight was the appetizer: Black Angus Burnt Ends. Delectable chunks of brisket with blue cheese fondue, tater tots, and pickled chili peppers…just perfection. I staggered back to Brian’s place for one last night of good times before returning to New York the next day. Start to finish, this was an incredible, amazing trip. I met Miriam for a quick dinner in Manhattan and rolled into grad class with my luggage and a sunburn, resulting in a warm, somewhat incredulous welcome from my professor and fellow teachers. I wouldn’t have changed a single second of this vacation. Here’s to the next great adventure, whenever and wherever it may be!

Year List Update, April 17 – 248 Species (+ Western Spindalis, Black-whiskered Vireo, Least Sandpiper, Wilson’s Plover)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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One Response to The Bahamas-to-Biscayne Breeze

  1. Pingback: Adventures at the End | Studying Life

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