Chasing Florida State Vagrants in January 2020
Birding has many facets, as many of us know. It gets us outside, exploring new and fascinating places we wouldn’t normally visit. It connects us with people we may never interact with otherwise. But one part of the hobby that really drew me in nearly 11 years ago and continues to do so now, is searching for and chasing vagrant birds.
Anywhere in the world I go, I always try to put myself in the mindset of a local and shift my thinking to encourage myself to be fascinated with rare species that shouldn’t be in that region. From looking for an American Tree Sparrow in California (a bird common in Illinois in winter) to seeing a Spotted Redshank in Hawaii (after already having seen one in Indiana of all places), I always am up for a chase.
Florida has always been a state of fascination to me as a birder. Obviously it has the natural draw to anyone from the states that does not live there because its regularly occurring avifauna are so special. From breeding Brown Noddy’s and Masked Booby’s on the Dry Tortugas to the endemic Florida Scrub-Jay, Florida always has something neat to offer. Even when it comes to rarities, the state often has more than enough for anyone interested in building up their state list.
My experiences in the state have been rewarding albeit fragmented. I first visited in High School back in March of 2011, and added many of the expected waders and specialties. This included a roadtrip through the state from the Everglades up to the Panhandle and over to New Orleans with my dad. My next visit and actual focus on state listing came a bit later, as I was on vacation in the Jacksonville area during the winter of 2013-14. During this trip, I joined Dan Irizarry and friend Kyle Hickman to see some absolute mega rarities for the state including 3 Snow Buntings, a Snowy Owl, adult male Harlequin Duck, and two Purple Sandpipers. You can actually read the blog posts I wrote (for NemesisBird!) from the ’13-’14 trip here and here.
Following these two trips, I headed back down with Ethan Gyllenhaal in May of 2016, as we wanted to clean up the remaining specialties we were missing for our ABA lists. Tracking down all the Miami exotics with help from Carlos Sanchez, seeing a Mangrove Cuckoo, and a visit to the Dry Tortugas were more than enough for us and we left quite happy with our progress. An additional brief chase I did in late April of 2017 landed me some absolutely great birds for the US: two Western Spindalises, a Bananaquit, and a Thick-billed Vireo all in the span of two days.
Between these four trips, I felt somewhat comfortable with the state but still wanted to explore more as well as to clean up some easy missing species. Fast forward to last week, and I found myself in state once again for a work conference in Orlando.
I was able to fly down a bit early and stay a couple of days late after the conference which allowed me to rent a car and do some birding. Looking at the eBird Florida Rare Bird Alert, I realized I would have my work cut out for me. 2020 certainly is shaping up to be a year for the books for state listers – there currently are numerous very rare (for the state) species throughout Florida, all showing well and sticking to their locations.
I was drawn in two major directions while planning my trip, south Florida for many of the state vagrants, and the Panhandle for the American Flamingo that has been present for months at St. Marks NWR. It turned out that with the holiday on MLK Day I would have some friends spending the weekend in Naples, so I decided to fly in to Fort Myers and drive down for a couple of days before the conference and try to see a few birds while relaxing in the Naples area.
Monitoring reports, I decided to target the Hammond’s Flycatcher that was at Corkscrew Swamp, and has been since roughly November 2019. First identified as a Least Flycatcher, the correct ID soon came to light and many Florida birders were able to come get incredible views of this bird as it perched only feet away from the Boardwalk in the Lettuce Lakes region of the swamp. Only the third record for the state, this would be a nice beginning to what soon would be an amazing trip.
Arriving mid-morning with my non-birding friend Maddy, we were eventually able to track the flycatcher down after I found the right spot to look for the bird. With all the non-birders and visitors to the area, it was hard to figure out who was looking for the flycatcher and who was simply looking at all the other things. From gators, to Purple Gallinules and a Pileated Woodpecker, it’s no wonder people come here to experience and explore nature. We even were able to get great looks at some male Painted Buntings, always a great species to show someone new to birding.
The Hammond’s Flycatcher offered incredible views, and I was stunned by how unfazed it was by all of the people around.
Though a not-so-small reason for flying into Naples was the continuing White-cheeked Pintail only 20 minutes from my friend’s house, I decided to not waste time and look for it after there were continuous negative reports for four days. I simply chose to relax and spend time with my friends. Heading to Orlando the morning of the 21st, imagine my despair when I learn that the bird actually was there once again… It sounds like the bird simply switched the pond it was visiting, but was refound and proved to be regularly seen throughout the week. Cue the wheels turning to make a plan…
I spent Tuesday through Friday at the conference in Orlando, at the Racquet & Paddle Sports Show as I currently work for the Tennis Industry Association. We had a great time, and the conference was quite successful. After we finished packing up the booth on Friday afternoon, I was able to eventually get on the road with enough light to go after my next target – a male Mountain Bluebird. I decided against going north for the flamingo as there were no reports throughout the week, so I chose to stay in south Florida and blitz the rarities present in the region.
Pulling out of the lot in Orlando at 4:15 PM, and with an hour and 15 minutes to get to the bluebird location north of Tampa, I was on a tight schedule. A bit of a crazy decision but I had hopes it would work. This was only the third record for Florida (similar to the Hammond’s) after a record from 2002 and one back in 2015. Fortunately, upon arrival the bluebird was very cooperative and I easily located it on the barbed wire next to the road. It supposedly goes to roost around 5:20 PM, so I was very fortunate that it decided to stay put for the evening until my arrival (which was at 5:35 PM).
As if that would have been good enough, I realized I was only 30 minutes from the Hernando County Ruff that was re-reported on the 19th (after a dearth of reports for 5 days). Sunset was at 6:03 PM, so I knew I’d have to hurry to even get to the spot with enough light to look for the bird. With efficient driving and some intel about the bird’s habits from Alex Lamoreaux, I arrived at 6:06 PM with about 15-20 minutes of light left. Incredibly, one of the first groups of birds I looked at on the north end of the pond contained the Ruff – success! With a smile and pat on my back, I was very pleased I was able to pull this twitch off with only roughly 2 hours of light left in the whole day. I scanned over the rest of the pond, got some documentation shots of the Ruff, and then headed off.
The plan for Saturday, Jan. 25th was a bit crazy – can you sense a theme? The goal was to see the continuing Heerman’s Gull, head west for the continuing Pacific Golden-Plover, and then look for the White-cheeked Pintail in Naples. This meant I would have to drive from north of Tampa over to West Palm Beach Friday evening, in order to be poised for an efficient start Saturday.
After 4 hours across the state (not using toll roads, as SunPass charges really do add up on the cross-state turnpike… I learned this on my past trips here) I arrived in the West Palm Beach area around midnight and got a restless night’s sleep. Saturday morning arrived soon enough and I was off.
First bird on the agenda was the aforementioned Heerman’s Gull, only the second record for the state (following a bird that was found in 2000 and stayed on and off until 2004). This individual actually has ranged up and down the eastern coast of Florida throughout 2019-2020. First having been found by birders at Indiatlantic Beach in Brevard County, it then ranged both north to Port Canaveral and then south to the Miami area before being found once again in Lake Worth, in Palm Beach County. *edit* I learned on January 28 from Amar Ayyash on Facebook that this gull actually was first found back on August 12, 2019 by a surfer at Lake Worth, so it appears to have returned! It recently has taken up residence in the area around a restaurant called Benny’s on the Beach, both on the beach north and south of the restaurant as well as the pier that juts into the ocean.
Arriving around 7:30 AM, one of the first birds I laid eyes on was a dark chocolate brown gull loafing on the beach. Closer inspection revealed that it was indeed the Heerman’s, and success was had! It then took off, and gave me a bit of a run-around before finally relaxing and allowing close approach for photos. It was also joined by an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull as well as a Sandwich and Royal Tern.
Next up was the Pacific Golden-Plover, first found on January 16th by Richard Crossley nearby the Sem-Chi Rice Plant. Apparently a good area of the state for birds in winter, the rice plant actually attracts a variety of blackbird species. One can presently find both Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Shiny Cowbirds here, though I was unable to on my tight schedule. This plover represents only the second state record, following a bird in Spring 2016 only a few miles away in the sod fields.
Upon arrival at the location, I was disturbed to see absolutely no shorebirds present. Checking and double-checking that I was in the right place only made matters worse, as I didn’t know where to begin to look – the surrounding area was full of potential habitat that extended for miles. I decided to wait it out and see if anything decided to come in.
Eventually, some Short-billed Dowitchers did fly in, and slowly but surely the shorebird flock built up little by little. Eventually, after scanning for other non-shorebird species in the area, I looked back and realized there were some Black-bellied Plovers that had arrived and joined the dowitchers. Bingo – the Pacific Golden-Plover had been associating with these plovers so things were finally looking up. Scanning the flock, I realized I had found a smaller plover with a golden cap, shorter bill, and golden back. The bird was here! I got all the birders present on the plover, and got some decent digiscope shots with my phone. While the lighting wasn’t ideal, it was certainly good enough to get great views of this rarity, my first for the Lower 48 states.
Two for two and it was only 10:30 AM – I got back on the road and rushed over to Naples to catch up with the White-cheeked Pintail. Driving through central Florida was quite different from the coasts regarding the scenery and I really enjoyed the change of pace. I decided to make a short stop along the way near the border of Hendry and Collier Counties, as I saw that Yve Morrell had found a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher earlier in January at a location known as the “Bridges on Oil Well Road”. After speaking with her about the spot, I scanned and searched for about 30 minutes, but unfortunately came up empty handed on the Scissor-tail. However, I did find a Western Kingbird – a good consolation prize – as well as had my first Wilson’s Snipe for Florida plus my first and only Limpkin of the trip.
Back on the road, I arrived at the pintail location at around 1:15 PM. Thinking this would be fairly straightforward, my heart sank when I began searching and couldn’t find the bird anywhere. Realizing this would take a bit more time than expected, I began meticulously checking every nook and rock of both the east and west ponds. Eventually, I walked the edge of the west pond, where the bird was last seen (even as recently as this morning) and noticed an area that I couldn’t see from the entry road I had been birding on. To my surprise and excitement, the pintail was sleeping there with two Mottled Ducks, hiding in the shade of a palm tree trunk. I called over Theresa Schwinghammer (later joined by her husband Tom), both visiting birders from Indiana who’d been looking for this bird back when it first went missing as well, and we got great looks at it our scopes. Eventually it actually woke up and flew right to the shore closest to us to feed with the nearby Blue-winged Teal. Belly-crawling a bit closer, I was able to get some very satisfying shots of this vagrant.
Saying our goodbyes, I looked at the time and realized I could make a very logically poor but highly desirable decision. I had enough time and light left in the day to theoretically make it to the Everglades and chase the La Sagra’s Flycatcher that had been seen on and off through the winter since late November 2019. If all went according to plan, I could be at the bird’s location by 4:20 PM, leaving me with a little over an hour and a half of light before sunset. The unfortunate part of this plan was that I would have to do the same drive in reverse afterwards as my destination for the evening was Tampa and I had a flight out the next morning at 9:00 AM.
Deciding to give it a shot (cause why not…), I headed east across the Tamiami Trail through the northern edge of the Everglades and through Miccosukee Tribal Lands. Having visited this area back in 2011 with my dad as well as in 2016 with Ethan Gyllenhaal, it felt funny that I could be this far from home and yet feel as though I was in a familiar area. The two hour-ish drive went by reasonably quickly, and soon I was at the location the La Sagra’s had been frequenting along with a vagrant Brown-crested Flycatcher.
I did get a bit lost when I arrived, trying frantically to figure out exactly where the “third and fourth poles” were since the birds had been in the vicinity of them ever since it was first found. With my head a bit scrambled from all the driving and rushing around, I ended up ranging a bit far away from the spot before finally running into some other birders who pointed out the telephone poles I had somehow missed – a nearly 30-minute distraction. However, while ambling around I did run into a flyover dark-morph Short-tailed Hawk, a state bird and secondary target for the area – additionally only my second ever (my first was a light-morph bird in Arizona back in 2010).
After much searching, I did eventually heard the La Sagra’s calling from within the dense Everglades hammock. Much to my depair I simply could never get eyes on it over the course of an hour while it called sporadically but regularly… I foolishly even went into the dense hammock near the end of the evening to try to lay eyes on the bird, but couldn’t track it down.
Even worse, I also heard the Brown-crested Flycatcher call but couldn’t see it either and decided that this experience did not warrant me counting either birds for my state list. Yes, an arbitrary call on the Brown-crested (La Sagra’s Flycatcher was a lifer and I don’t count heard only lifers anymore) but I wanted to have a more satisfying experience with these birds in order to add them to my Florida list. One highlight of the time spent looking was that I located a White-crowned Pigeon perched in a nearby tree for all to see, a lifer for some birders present.
As evening came, I headed over to the Lucky Hammock area only to run into a couple of birders who were at the Pacific Golden-Plover earlier in the day. I learned from them and the Fish and Wildlife Commission representative there that I had just missed a White-tailed Kite that had been hunting in the field, and probably was there when I passed by hours ago on the way into the park. Another sad miss, but definitely overshadowed by the incredible day I had just had. The final bird of the evening was a Great-horned Owl perched distantly on a telephone pole. Now officially dark, the exhaustion began to set in followed by the cringe of realizing I had a nearly four-hour drive ahead of me up to Tampa for the night.
Hopping in the car, I got some food from a local Mexican restaurant on the eastern outskirts of Miami/Kendall and then headed back across the Tamiami Trail and up I-75 north to Tampa. I made it around midnight, packed in the morning and made my flight back to Chicago to end one of the most intense and enjoyable birding days I think I’ve had in a long time.
A recap of some numbers: I did 940+ miles between 4:15 PM Friday and 12:30 AM Sunday morning – totaling ~32.25 hours. I got my Florida state list to 201 species, increasing it only 25 species but adding 6 very rare birds to the list. Additionally, I boosted my county lists throughout the region and added two new counties (Hendry and Polk), helping add more color to my state map. Finally, I got to see lots more of the state and created some wonderful memories to look back on.
I also must thank Sulli Gibson for his immense support (even from Alaska) through both the planning and execution of this agenda. His help while I was driving all over, supplying me with coordinates for birds and locations to check, was very much appreciated really made this trip a success. Hope you can join me again in the field soon!
Till next time Florida.