After spending two years surveying for and capturing Yellow-billed Cuckoos along the Lower Colorado River in Arizona and California, I really fell in love with the Cuculidae – they are such uniquely strange birds. Perhaps the strangest are the anis – a group of large, black cuckoos with massive, vertically-flattened bills. I was able to see my lifer ani in Costa Rica back in 2008, when small family groups of Groove-billed Anis were a daily treat. When I heard that there was a Groove-billed Ani hanging out at La Chua Trail in the Paynes Prairie Preserve SP, I was stoked! My friends and I were planning on heading south to Florida for our Spring Break and La Chua Trail is one of my favorite birding locations in Florida. Having not seen an ani in 5 years I knew that we were going to have to go look for the bird. We left State College in the afternoon of February 28th and drove straight through the night, arriving in Gainesville at daybreak on March 1st. The gate to get into La Chua trail doesn’t open till 8am so we first birded nearby Newnan’s Lake from Earl P. Powers Park, spotting 46 species in a half hour (of which 15 were new year birds). From there we drove over to Paynes Prairie and parked in the lot for La Chua trail at 8am and began our search for the ani.
It was hard to stay focused on just searching for the ani when there were just so many birds around – in a little over 2 hours we saw 54 species. Ospreys were tending to their nests, vultures filled the air, 8 species of waders were present in good numbers, newly-arrived Northern Parulas were singing from the oaks, multiple species of ducks were gathering to forage in the marsh, and three Soras were sneaking around the edge of a small wet area alongside Common Gallinules, and of course there were American Alligators all over.
After a while we made it over to where the ani has been hanging out. My friend Josh Lefever spotted the ani perched in the top of a short tree, being mobbed by a few Blue Jays. The ani noticed us and flew over to a nearby bush, where it climbed around offering great looks through binos but making it impossible to get a clear photo. Then the bird disappeared into a tangle of blackberries. A few other birders arrived and we had to tell them that the good news was the ani was here, but the bad news was that it was being an ani – hiding in a bush and out of view. After about 15 minutes, the ani crawled up to the edge of the brush and began sunning itself in the early-morning light. We were all able to get great looks at the bird, but once again it was difficult getting a clear photo – the shot below is the best I could get.