Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Chasing Miami Specialties

The idea of doing a Florida Big Year - seeing as many different species of birds in the state as possible in one year - has always been intriguing to me.  However, its demands are more than my time or my wallet can bear.  As a result, I've never pursued that goal at all.  Then back in December, Elliott Schuncke of Tallahassee suggested a new form of the Big Year.  Noting that the multiple demands keep most people from ever attempting one, Elliott suggested compressing the Big Year into twelve days comprised of one Big Day each month (the 12DBY).  To add a little spice to the effort, he further suggested that participants would be required to announce their Big Day efforts in advance by posting it to a Facebook page.  He also created a shared spreadsheet where we would post our cumulative bird lists.  I thought this was a great approach to doing a Big Year, so I decided to give it a shot.

Mangrove Cuckoo (Photo by Toe Torres)
My first four days have been confined to the area around Gainesville and one really rainy day at St. Marks NWR.  I've enjoyed each day, but I knew that to make my 12DBY list somewhat respectable I'd have to get out of town.  Some birds that grace our state simply don't visit Gainesville, so I would have to go to them.  So I planned a trip to the Miami area to search for several species that reside there.  I enlisted the help of Roberto "Toe" Torres, one of the really good people I've been blessed to meet on the birding trail.  Toe has already helped me gain a bunch of lifers, and I even "kicked the bucket" on board his boat while chasing a Manx Shearwater off Key Biscayne (a story I'll save for another blog).  This time I sent him a list of target birds that included what would be four lifers:  Mangrove Cuckoo,  Purple Swamphen, Red-whiskered Bulbul, and White-winged Parakeet.  I also listed five other birds that I hoped we could locate: Spot-breasted Oriole, White-crowned Pigeon, Black-whiskered Vireo, Common Myna, and Cave Swallow.  Toe's answer was almost immediate.  Not only was he willing to help, but he would join me for the entire day.  Then he added two more birds to our list: Connecticut Warbler (another lifer for me) and Bronzed Cowbird.  Honestly, I thought he'd taken leave of his senses with that warbler.  I mean, seriously, wasn't he reaching quite a bit?  Still, that would be a terrific find, so why not hope for the best?

Connecticut Warbler (Photo by Toe Torres)
The Red Van Gang picked up Toe at his home at 6:45 AM on May 8 and immediately headed toward Black Point Marina to look for the Mangrove Cuckoo.  As soon as we arrived, Toe started doing his own imitation of the bird's song.  I expected to spend a lot of time looking for this bird.  I've dipped on it over and over because it's really hard to fi...... Oh, there it is!  Maybe it took five minutes, but I don't think so.  More like three.  So with a lifer and a nemesis bird already on the day list, we headed toward Cutler Wetlands.  We picked off a Gray Kingbird and several Cave Swallows along the way, and saw some Black-necked Stilts, Blue-winged Teal and Mottled Ducks in the marshy area.  What a great start to the day!

Then we reached A. D. Barnes park and began the search for a Connecticut Warbler.  We searched the most likely locale in the park for a long time and saw almost no birds, let alone a Connecticut. But before we left, Toe suggested that we search one more place in the park.  Why not?  So we drove to the new spot, walked in and Toe said, "Let's walk back into this little area."  We took a few steps in and there it was, a Connecticut Warbler perched up on a branch.  I was so startled and so engaged with watching the little guy hop around that I forgot I even had a camera with me.  Fortunately, Toe snapped off the terrific shot you see above, right.

Purple Swamphen, Immature
As far as I was concerned, this was already a successful day, but Toe was certain we could add to the day list.  He led us to a subdivision in the Kendall area where we began looking for three of our targets.  We drove up and down each of the streets of a couple of neighborhoods but at first it looked like this would be out first failure of the day.  Finally we got fleeting glimpses of a White-crowned Pigeon and a Spot-breasted Oriole.  While our looks were unsatisfying, they were enough to add them to the day list.  Unfortunately, there was no sign of a Bulbul, so we decided to come back here later in the afternoon.

As time consuming as that search was, the next one was even easier than getting the cuckoo had been.  We drove over to the Dolphin Mall, parked, and dodged traffic to cross the street.  It actually took longer to cross that street than to find the target bird.  As soon as we reached the retention pond we saw a Purple Swamphen in an open patch right below us.  Check.  That was the third lifer and seventh target bird for the day.

Common Myna (Photo by Toe Torres)
Next we decided to search for the White-winged Parakeet.  We drove to the area around an Ocean Bank building in a very busy, very noisy part of town.  As we searched for a parking place, Toe shouted, "Stop! Look right over there!  Common Myna!"  Sure enough, another target bird was ticked off the list.  Eventually we decide to have lunch outdoors at a Latin Cafe.  We picked a table where we could easily monitor the palm trees across the street just outside the bank building.  The meal was huge and the food was delicious!  Meanwhile we watched parakeets fly in and out of the palms.  Some were Yellow-chevroned and others were White-winged.  After eating we waddled across the street to get a closer look and snap off a few photos.  Unfortunately, only the pictures of the uncountable Yellow-chevroned Parakeet were good enough to include here.  Still, the day's fourth lifer and ninth target bird were in the books.

We next drove to another part of town - no, I don't really know where - and parked at a gas station.  We got out and started watching the skies.  Within just a few minutes we had a Sharp-shinned Hawk skirting the trees across the road and more Cave Swallows darting out from under the nearby bridge.  And eventually we got clear, satisfying looks at a White-crowned Pigeon.

Red-whiskered Bulbul
The afternoon was starting to fade, so we decided to take one last shot at finding a Red-whiskered Bulbul.  We returned to the subdivision we had visited earlier in the day and began roaming the streets again.  After covering nearly the entire neighborhood, Toe did it again.  "There it is!  A bulbul!"  I hit the brakes and we piled out of the car.  We got terrific looks and a few long-distance photos.

That's when the truth hit me.  I turned to him and babbled something like, "We got all five lifers ... I never expected to get all five lifers, but we got all five lifers!"  Yup, that's me, the articulate one with the PhD. 

In the end, the day's list was remarkable.  The group only tallied about 45 species for the day.  However, I may have mentioned that FIVE of the them were lifers.  I'm at 489 now with a big trip to Arizona and New Mexico about ten weeks away.  Also, fifteen of them were new for my 12DBY list putting me at 173.  That's a small number compared to the state's big guns in the birding world, but heck, I'm thrilled.  As to our target birds, we missed only the Black-whiskered Vireo, a long shot at best.  And finally, eleven of them were new for me in Miami-Dade County, breaking the 100 barrier for the 37th time among Florida's 67 counties.  That, my friends, is a successful day!

Toe, I owe you, buddy.  Again.

Another Look at a Common Myna

Purple Swamphen Adult

Yellow-chevroned Parakeet