Monday, September 6, 2010

Another Red Letter Day in the Everglades

It is Labor Day evening and I am posting this from Miami, FL. That's right, I am back on the east coast. I got a call yesterday morning about 8 AM west coast time from Bob, a birder I know down here in Florida, telling me that a cuban pewee had been found just that morning at Long Pine Key in Everglades NP. I was in Arcata, CA and my initial reaction is that is cool, but how could I get to Florida. I also knew that a plain-capped starthroat had been seen in SE AZ at the Paton's feeders. Both the pewee and the starthroat are extremely rare birds for the US, and are the kind of rarities that I am now hoping will show up in the remaining months of this big year.

I quickly got on the American Airlines website to see what my options were. I found that I could use frequent flyer points and take the red-eye to Miami. I was scheduled to leave at 8:45 PM, and I was a 6 hour drive from the San Francisco airport. No problem since I had about 12 hours before the flight left. I ended up birding around the Arcata area for 3 hours seeing lots of good birds including northern harrier and white-tailed kite in the Arcata Bottoms. At Arcata Marsh I found 200-300 marbled godwits, 40-50 willets, and 20-30 long-billed curlews resting in the grass at high tide.

Enroute to SF, I spoke again with the Florida birder who told me the pewee was still there plus a western spindalis had been seen close by. So now I had 2 very rare birds in the same spot, and both would be life birds for me.

I arrived in Miami this morning at 5:45 and was picked up by Bob and his friend Dex. I wrote about them back in March when we ran into each other looking for a western spindalis (did not see) and a bartailed godwit (did see). They had left northern Florida at 3 AM to be able to get me at 7. We powered down the road to Everglades NP. About 7:45 we talked to another birder who was looking at the pewee. But by the time we arrived at the pewee spot a little after 8 the bird had stopped calling and was not visible.

There must have been at least 25 birders there when we pulled in. My Florida birder friends knew most of the crowd. Since this is only the 3rd confirmed sighting of the cuban pewee in the US, I was surprised that there were only 2 other out-of-state birders there--a couple from Indiana that I had met early in January in south Texas when we were all looking at the bare-throated tiger-heron. They were in Florida when they heard about the bird, so they had seen the pewee yesterday afternoon. They had returned today in hopes of seeing the spindalis.

This morning was a typical hot, humid and buggy day in south Florida which was barely tolerable when the breeze would kick up. We kept patrolling the pewee site all morning, plus looked for the spindalis, but had no success. Since none of us had eaten, we went into Florida City to chow down at my favorite local taqueria.

When we returned to Long Pine Key about 1 almost no birders were still there. One new arrival was a woman who had come in from Houston. Soon after arriving a couple walked out of a side trail and told us that they had just watched the pewee for 15 minutes, but were walking out because it had left. We rushed down to the spot where it had been seen, and after 10 minutes it flew into a tree and proceeded to preen.

The 2 photos above of the pewee were taken by Bob. Notice the tear drop eye ring, large bill and very short wings of this bird. It was initially found on Sunday because of its call which is very distinctive and nothing like an eastern pewee. The top photo is the 3 of us celebrating seeing the bird (left to right--me, Bob and Dex).

We got to watch the bird closely for about 15 minutes. For the woman birder from Houston, this was her 790th ABA life bird--a huge life list total. For me and Dex, it was a life bird. Getting such a long and close look at this rare bird was definitely a highlight of the year, and thus qualifies today for red letter status.

In the intense heat and humidity of the afternoon we decided to drive over to a fruit stand called "Robert is Here" to get one of its famous key lime shakes. This really hit the spot, reviving us to return to Long Pine Key to make one more effort to find the western spindalis. After 90 minutes of looking, and major storm and mosquito clouds threatening, we called it a day.

38 more new birds were seen for the week over the past 2 days, and the pewee brings the YTD up to 677. You may remember that a few weeks ago I was asked when I hit 650 birds seen YTD, what did I expect the rest of the year to look like. At the time I said I thought I would get to 675 birds seen YTD by October 1st. It is only Sept. 6th, so I am well ahead of my projection. As a result, I am raising the 10/1 target to 680. I will be on a flight at 6:30 AM tomorrow to Tucson, AZ. Stay tuned!

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