Monday February 18 was President’s Day, which meant I did not have to return to work quite yet. For two months I had been monitoring the North American Rare Bird Alert (“NARBA”)….and the presence of a mega-rare female Western Spindalis frequenting the interior of the Key West Botanical Garden. That bird used to be called a more familiar “stripe-headed tanager”….why the birding authorities changed its name I haven’t bothered to google. But I do know that it isn’t supposed to be in the USA. Home is Cuba or the Grand Cayman’s or somewhere far south. I had to see one. So I contracted a local hotshot birder from South Florida and prepared for a long day of driving, hopefully capped by a stunning sight and photograph of this little gem. Late Sunday night I learned my guide missed his flight out of the Bahamas so I had to scrap the trip (are you kidding!?)….. or go solo.
3:30 am came quickly as I needed three hours drive time, absolutely obeying the island speed limits the entire well-policed way, to coincide sunrise with the best chance of seeing this bird. I arrived at the Key West Botanical Garden promptly at 6:45….only to learn that its gates did not open until 10 am! A lap around Fort Zachary Taylor, a brief peak into the biker’s world at the crowded Waffle House and a bold use of the Island’s fanciest hotel’s lobby for free WiFi use – killed two hours. But I finally broke down and ordered a breakfast at a Denny’s with tables that had not been wiped since Hurricane Andrew (1992). That was hard to stomach….even more difficult to admit to you.
10 am finally arrived and the next three hours I searched in vain for a six inch, non-vocalizing, gray-brown drab bird with a thin high-pitched call infrequently uttered. Females don’t need to sing to attract attention…that is the male’s burden. The Gardens were “natural” which meant no paths and tons of tangles and even worse…it was actually popular with humans. Talking humans. I did not have a chance. No Spindalis. I needed to make it to Palm Beach by evening so I commenced the 200 mile return drive more than disappointed. Florida City is an unsightly growth on the edge of the Keys and the Everglades. But it has plenty of rest stops and starling-like birds perched on wires squawking at the RV’s.
Only recently I had learned that the Common Myna, an invasive bird from another continent, had not only established a viable population in South Florida but those birding authorities would let me count it on my life list. A quick glance at the hordes of grackles, starlings, and pigeons produced, I couldn’t believe it, two Mynas! #637!! Not a bad day .