Western Spindalis was the star birding attraction in Miami during the 2015 holiday season.
For most people, Miami conjures up images of great Cuban food, tropical beaches, palm trees, and vacation. For birders, however, Miami means introduced exotics and Caribbean vagrants. From a zoogeographical perspective, extreme south Florida is like a Caribbean Island. Before people arrived and started channeling water and planting trees, the high ground in the greater Miami area was disconnected from the rest of eastern North America by vast open marshland, which may as well be water from a forest bird’s perspective. There is a long list of birds typical of Caribbean islands that occur in the ABA region only in the vicinity of Miami and the Keys such as Smooth-billed Ani, Mangrove Cuckoo, Cave Swallow (Caribbean subspecies), White-crowned Pigeon, Antillean Nighthawk, Great White Heron, Short-eared Owl (Caribbean subspecies), and Shiny Cowbird. There is an even longer list of Caribbean birds that occur only as vagrants, appearing in South Florida every few years. It gives most birders a lot of species to chase when they venture south of Orlando.
The star vagrant of this holiday season is a Western Spindalis (formerly called Stripe-headed Tanager) in Markham Park, first discovered in the third week of November. I saw the original postings of this bird on the Florida Rare Bird Alert in November, when my planned trip to Florida to visit family was a full month away. It seemed very unlikely that the bird would still be around when I made my trip. But this beautiful male spindalis proved to be a star. It is, in my opinion, the best stake-out bird I’ve ever gone after because it has the fantastic combination of being 1) a beautiful male in definitive plumage, 2) a wild bird not tied to a feeder, 3) at one general location for a long time, 4) not a snap to find but always findable, and 4) in an accessible and attractive setting with lots of other birds to look at including especially Spot-breasted Orioles, with which it associates.
After visiting family in Clearwater early in the week, my 25-year-old son Trevor (who is a non-birder) and I set off for a few days of South Florida birding. We only had the last couple of hours of light on Dec 23, 2015 after getting a late start driving across the state from Clearwater, so we stopped to look for a previously reported Smooth-billed Ani, a life bird for me, at Loxahatchee NWR. For months last summer, this Smooth-billed Ani was being reliably found at one spot on the Marsh Trail in Loxahatchee NWR. Unfortunately, the daily sightings of the bird had stopped abruptly in early October, and it had only been reported once in the past three months. I was not optimistic about our chances. Still, it was right on our way to the hotel near the spindalis spot, so we spent the last two hours of daylight Wednesday evening in Loxahatchee NWR watching flock after flock White Ibis, Glossy Ibis, and Wood Stork fly into the refuge to roost. Not surprisingly, the ani was long gone.
We looked for Smooth-billed Ani at the Marsh Trail in Loxahatchee NWR but we missed it.
We drove down to our hotel a block away from Markham Park, and I was at the Western Spindalis spot 30 minutes before sunrise the next morning. Trevor is a non-birder who came along for an adventure and to see the region, so he slept in. In the dim light of pre-dawn, I could already hear orioles chattering. Another birder pulled in just before sunrise and we spread out to cover the area better. Within about 2 min he was calling me over to see 6 Spot-breasted Orioles in a tree next to the dog park. I think he was interested in the orioles mainly because the spindalis was known to hang out with them, but I had only seen Spot-breasted Oriole one time previously in my life and I had no photos of the birds. The orioles were a photo lifer for me, so I was almost as excited about Spot-breasted Oriole as I was about the spindalis. The light was still pretty dim, but I managed a decent photo.
Spot-breasted Oriole next to the dog area in Markham park, December 2015.
Twenty minutes after sunrise as we were trying to locate the spindalis, Angel and Mariel Abreu arrived leading a tour with a couple of clients. They quickly found the spindalis by its chip note, which sounds like a Black-and-white Warbler. Over the next 20 minutes we followed the spindalis around the edge of the thicket between the dog park and the butterfly garden and on several occasions it came right out in the open. I was able to get several nice photographs of the Western Spindalis and I added some OK shots of the orioles. I asked Angel about some of my other target birds—Red-whiskered Bulbul, White-crowned Pigeon, White-winged Parakeet, and he was not encouraging. He told me that they were all local and hard to find. He had no specific locations to suggest. I had my eBird locations, however, so I was still optimistic.
Western Spindalis in Markham Park, Miami, Florida in December 2015.
eBird is a fantastic resource for the type of birding we faced looking for exotics in Miami. All of our target birds have relatively small populations, and they tend to be very local. You have little chance of running into birds like Red-whiskered Bulbul or White-crowned Pigeon randomly driving around Miami for a day. eBird, however, gives you targeted places to search. In eBird, you can enter your target species and all recent sightings in an area are flagged with red. You can then check each recent sighting to see if it was a one-time event or if the species had been repeatedly seen at the spot. Using this technique, I focused in on the King’s Creek neighborhood for Red-whiskered Bulbul. Bulbul sightings there seemed to be in a community green space that ran behind houses, and there was a parking lot at a community pool. Bulbuls had been seen in the green space every week stretching back months and the most recent sighting was only a few days old. For White-crowned Pigeon, I focused on N. Snapper Creek Drive near where 72nd street crossed a canal. The White-crowned Pigeon had been see on telephone lines at that spot many times over past months according to eBird. In the entire Miami area, there seemed to be only one reliable spot for White-winged Parakeet—the front courtyard to the Ocean Bank building near the airport. And finally, Rangel Diaz had been posting accounts of Scaly-breasted Munia, an exotic newly added to the ABA list, at feeders at the Charles Deering Estate.
The challenge was timing. The bulbul and pigeon spot were close together. The munia feeder was about 15 min drive from those spots. But the parakeet spot was about 30 min (with traffic turned out to be 40 min) drive from the munia. It was unusually hot for our December urban birding adventure, and it was already hot by 900 that the morning when I left the spindalis spot. We got to the Red-whiskered Bulbul area around 10am and few birds were active in the heat. We hiked around the little green space for 30 minutes with no hint of bulbul. Dang. So we zoomed over to the pigeon canal area. It was hot and breezy, traffic was heavy, and there was no sign of White-crowned Pigeon. Dang. After a fast start in Markham Park, I had two straight misses. We next headed for what I thought was a high probability bird—munias at feeders in Charles Deering Estate where they had been seen the day before.
The White-crowned Pigeon site was a bleak in the heat of mid-day with no target birds.
Charles Deering Estate is a large cultural and nature preserve. It would be a fun place to explore at length sometime, but we were in birding mode and very happy that the feeder was on the side of the nature center, right next to the parking lot. We were set up and waiting for munias within minutes of arriving. It was getting close to noon by this point, about 86 degrees, and bird activity had tanked. The feeders were birdless. At one point, a huge raccoon ambled out from under the Nature Center, sniffed at the seed under the feeders, and then ambled off into the scrub. I am an extremely impatient birder, but I really wanted to get photographs of Scaly-breasted Munias so I waited. The setup was very nice with a wide porch to hang out on and watch the feeder. All we needed were some birds. Finally, after about 15 or 20 minutes, just as I was getting ready to give up, the munias came in. I think there were six birds, with one male in definitive plumage with a chocolate brown hood, scaly breast, and black bill. A couple of other birds had a few breast scales, so they were likely subadult males. The rest were drab uniform brown—probably females. With Scaly-breasted Munia well seen and photographed, Trevor and I headed for a mid-day break and some great Cuban food.
Scaly-breasted Munias came to a feeder at the Charles Deering Estate.
We were done with lunch and headed for Ocean Bank near the airport around 2:40 pm. It was already starting to cool off a bit as shadows lengthened. After fighting traffic for about 40 minutes, we pulled into the parking garage in the Ocean Bank building. We found a space on the ground floor (it said "Ocean Bank customers", but we thought that since Ocean Bank was our destination we qualified). The parking garage was bit confusing and we accidentally came out a door on the wrong side of the building, facing north instead of east. It turned out to be a fortuitous mistake, however, because there were parakeets calling. There were only two palm trees in view in a sea of asphalt, so it was obvious that the parakeets had to be in those trees. And there they were, two Canary-winged Parakeets. I say "Canary-winged", because at this point we couldn’t tell if they were Yellow-cheveroned or White-winged. I took a couple of photos and then we watched the birds. I could see no white in the folded wing, but I knew that that didn’t mean much. White-winged often show no white when perch. After a few minutes, the birds flew, and the white in their wings was obvious. The were White-winged Parakeets, a life bird and life photo.
The only reliable place lately to get White-winged Parakeet seems to be the Ocean Bank/Cinema complex near the airport. We found ours by going out the wrong door from the parking area.
By this time it was 315. We had about 2 hours to try to find our pigeon and bulbul, so we went back to the King’s Creek neighborhood where we had missed the bulbul in the morning. We pulled into the parking lot near the pool, and I had barely stepped out of the car before I heard a bulbul. We raced over to some bushes in a backyard 100 feet away and there were two Red-whiskered Bulbuls hawking insects in the branches. I got some photos and we watched the birds for a few minutes before they flew out of the tree and over our heads. But it wasn’t just the two birds flying over us. Thirteen bulbuls flew over our heads. Then, 30 seconds later, 6 more bulbuls flew over. There were nineteen bulbuls in the trees around us in the same spot where we couldn’t find a single bird in the morning. I got some nice photos of the birds as they foraged and chased each other.
On our second trip to the King’s Creek neighborhood, we found 19 Red-whiskered Bulbuls.
After we enjoyed the bulbuls for a few minutes we headed back over to the White-crowned Pigeon spot along the canal. I wasn’t that hopeful—it was a pretty bleak location. Nevertheless, as we pulled in there was a cluster of dark pigeons on the wire. I stopped in the middle of the road and through the windshield I could see that they were White-crowned Pigeon. I pulled onto a side street, got my camera out and got a few quick photos. Then I took the time to set up my 500mm lens on its big tripod, and Trevor and I walked under and around the pigeons to get the best angle and light. They didn’t budge. For the next ten minutes we studied the 8 White-crowned Pigeons on the wire right in front of us and took photos of them. Seven of the birds were in definitive plumage with dark blue-gray body plumage and gleeming white caps. The eighth was brown instead of black with a buff-colored cap instead of white. I assume that this was a juvenile individual. I was quite happy to have a chance to get sharp photos of that species. White-crowned Pigeon is a fruit-eating mangrove bird that can very hard to see, let along photograph, in it’s native mangrove forests. To have eight White-crowned Pigeons sitting out in the open in afternoon sunlight was a treat.
Eight White-crowned Pigeons perched on wires along N. Snapper Creek Road. Seven birds had dark plumage with a white cap but one, presumeably a juvenile, had brown plumage and a buffy cap.
In the end it was a good a day of urban Miami birding as I could imagine. We got six out of our seven target birds—we only missed Short-tailed Hawk. My advice to anyone going after these species in Miami is to use eBird. As of the winter of 2015, the King’s Creek neighborhood (intersection of SW 82nd and 83rd streets) behind the community pools a reliable spot for Red-whiskered Vireo and the power lines along the canal parallel to N. Snapper Creek Drive is good for White-Crowned Pigeon, espcially in the afternoon. I would go to Markam Park for Spot-breasted Oriole and Ocean Bank (780 NW 42nd Ave) for White-winged Parakeet.