On December 28th, 2012 Carl Goodrich and Jacob Cooper discovered a female Western Spindalis at the Key West Botanical Gardens, on the Florida Keys. The bird was seen at the gardens almost daily until the first week of January, when reports of the spindalis were only appearing on eBird every 10 days or so. My friends and I were trying to keep tabs on the bird as best we could, in preparation for our birding trip to southern Florida. It seemed like the spindalis wasn’t really being looked for that often, but when someone did go search for it, they usually found it. However, the most recent report was from February 19th so we were concerned. With how we planned out our birding trip through Florida, we figured Thursday, March 7th was going to be our first chance at searching for the bird….a potential lifer for me!
Josh Lefever and I arrived at the gardens at 10:00am yesterday and promptly started searching for the spindalis. We literally had all day to dedicate towards finding the bird, so we were really planning on going all out. If you have ever been to the Florida Keys in February/March then you’ll know there aren’t many birds around. There are a handful of warbler species, doves, mockingbirds, Laughing Gulls, and a few waterbirds that can be found but its usually so windy that it can be difficult actually seeing any birds. Our plan was to walk around the entire place, carefully searching and scanning, and look at each and every bird until one of them was a spindalis. We ended up getting pretty lucky, and Josh first heard and then spotted the female spindalis just thirty minutes in to our search! The bird was in the company of a female cardinal and Gray Catbird, feeding on small berries in a tree right next to a yoga platform (which was actively being used by about 6 people who seemed very confused why we were staring into a tree near them and freaking out).
We spent the next few minutes watching and photographing the spindalis, admiring its subtle beauty despite basically being a dull green-brown bird to most of the on-lookers and butterfly-watchers around the area. The bird also vocalized very often, which was neat to hear and like I mentioned, was the reason Josh first recognized the bird while we were searching. The Western Spindalis (formerally the Stripe-headed Tanager) is found in the West Indies and Caribbean Islands, which occasionally strays to southern Florida, mainly the keys. This is perhaps the best documented over-wintering of a Western Spindalis, thanks to eBirders. If you are in the area, I would highly suggest paying a visit!