So far this winter, Florida has had an incredible spree of West Indian vagrants turn up. One of the most interesting is an adult White-cheeked Pintail that was discovered by Molly McCarter at Pelican Island NWR on January 29th. White-cheeked Pintails are residents of the West Indies and Caribbean, commonly occurring year-round as close to Florida as Cuba and the Bahamas. In fact, from Pelican Island NWR to West End on the Grand Bahamas is only 108 miles! Although this species is known to be kept by collectors in Florida, most birders are in agreement that the Pelican Island bird is a natural vagrant. The pintail shows no signs of previously being held in captivity – it is free-flying, does not have any leg bands, and generally acts like a wild bird.
On March 1st, after stopping by La Chua Trail to see the Groove-billed Ani, I drove down to Pelican Island NWR to try for the pintail. The bird had not been seen in a day or two at that point, but I couldn’t pass up the chance at seeing such a beautiful species (not to mention it would be a lifer). My friend Josh Lefever and I arrived at the refuge a little after 2:30pm and headed straight for Centennial Pond, where the pintail had been seen foraging with Blue-winged Teal and Northern Shovelers. The pond isn’t that big, and a quick scan around with binos confirmed that the bird was still missing. There aren’t any other publicly accessible bodies of fresh water nearby, so we were out of luck. I was a little bummed out, but I had high hopes that it might return and we would have a second shot on our drive back north after we birded southern Florida for a few days.
Lucky for us, the bird did return and on March 10th, Josh and I were at Centennial Pond again – this time by 8:30am. Based on eBird reports that we had seen during the past week, the bird seemed to magically appear between 8:40am and 9:00am most days, when it would be spotted flying in and joining the teal to forage around the pond. At 8:50am, right on schedule, Josh spotted the pintail fly in from the northeast and land on the far side of the pond! It joined up with a pair of American Wigeons briefly and then paddled its way over to the large flock of Blue-winged Teal. Over the next hour, the duck slowly made its way around the shoreline of the pond and ended up right in front of us – at times within 20 feet! I couldn’t believe our good luck – sure it took two visits, but we were able to watch our lifer White-cheeked Pintail at incredibly close range and also obtain some photos and iPhone video (best viewed in HD) that I am very happy with.
To make matters even better March 14th, 2013 was the 110th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System which just happened to get its start at Pelican Island NWR! Pelican Island started off as a 5 acre refuge (now 5400 acres) and now there are over 150 million acres of National Wildlife Refuge land across the country, consisting of 561 refuges in total! If you live in Florida (or even if you don’t), what better way to celebrate our refuges than to visit Pelican Island NWR and see the stunning White-cheeked Pintail?