The last couple of days have been all about meeting new people and avoiding the mosquitoes long enough to have some very interesting conversations. After writing my last post, I went back to Flamingo to meet up with Woodie and see if he’d had any luck finding Black Rails that morning. He and another birder were sitting by the water scoping out shorebirds on the exposed reef when I arrived, and we spent the evening chatting and watching a peregrine terrorize the birds on the reef and having a grand old time. The other birder’s name was Liz (her last name starts with an S but I forget what it was) who was a serious chaser and was in Florida just for the Key West Quail-Dove, which she got infuriatingly quickly with a beautiful picture to boot. She also got a Black Rail in close range to make 749 North American birds. Woodie is a 50-or-60-something with a child-like enthusiasm for birds. He is a bit of an old-schooler, refusing to update to eBird and maintaining a very conservative listing attitude. He calls his girlfriend his “squeeze” and constantly exclaims, “oh my, my, my” when watching a bird or talking about birding. He led nature tours for the majority of his career and studied manatees in graduate school, and had a quirky habit of attempting to see every bird in exactly five different locations before being satisfied. He and Liz had been planning on going for the rail that morning, but when she couldn’t find Woodie, Liz went out on her own and naturally got as good a view of a Black Rail as one can be expected to get. I told Woodie about my nighthawk sighting at Eco Pond the night before and we discussed the fact that Common Nighthawks are only found in Flamingo in the summer so the ones I saw were, in all probability, Lessers. However, when I said that was good enough for me and that I was going to count it, Woodie guilted me out of it, making the case that I couldn’t really be positive and therefore shouldn’t count it. We had a marvelous meal at the Buttonwood Restaurant in Flamingo and Liz shared all of her knowledge about the quail-dove, giving me her extensive list of notes and her map of the park. I planned my departure for 3:30 AM to get there before sunrise with the hopes of sneaking along the trail right at dawn and hearing the bird feeding in the leaf litter. We planned to either celebrate or commiserate with margaritas upon my return and with that wished each other good luck and good night.
Everything went swimmingly up until about 7:59 AM. I drove down to the Keys with terrible jitters and sat in the parking lot for about two hours, having arrived obscenely early as usual. Liz had warned me to be wary of the park rangers, who were very anti-birder due to some recent bad experiences. Apparently birders had been going off of the trail to search for the bird and sneaking into the park using the gate code given to them by other birders (who would do such a thing…). Right around 6:40, I saw something fly over that looked very dove-like with a short, rounded tail, and watched it fly into the hammock at the back of the parking lot. I took that as a cue to begin my search, and walked silently, fearing even to breathe too loudly, searching through the dim understory for any sign of movement. Eventually, when the sun rose enough for me to see into the trees, I started down the nature trail, my ears on high alert for anything moving around in the leaves. A couple Ovenbirds took a few years off my life, and the Catbirds seemed to be out to torture me, but I kept going, creeping ever-so-slowly past the different places the bird has been previously seen. Eventually I made it past the sign for the Poisonwood Tree to a small offshooting trail in front of which the rangers had placed broken branches to warn people to keep on the designated path. I paused, listening, and heard something about 50-60 feet back in the trees moving around on the ground. I knelt down and fixed my eyes where I thought I had heard the noise, seeing the slightest change in sunlight as what appeared to be an animal moved back and forth rather quickly. I fixed my binoculars on it and my heart just about stopped. The white cheek stripe, the iridescent ruddy feathers…I was looking at a real live Key West Quail-Dove. I got my camera ready, but the bird was so far back I knew I would have to wait for it to move into clearer view. It was walking pretty fast and luckily began moving towards me. I took a picture as soon as it moved behind a branch, and as I was focusing my camera to try again, the bird only about 25 feet away, two park rangers came waddling up to me from the direction of the parking lot. I quickly motioned a “be quiet” signal to them and pointed into the woods, trying to refocus my camera. They whispered (although whisper is a generous term) “Oh you have the bird? That’s great but is that your car in the parking lot?” Fearing imprisonment and startled by the sudden intrusion of authority figures, I got totally flustered and missed the bird entirely in my only opportunity to get a decent photo. I have gone over this moment so many times in the past 24 hours, and have never been more filled with frustration, regret, self-loathing, you name it, about a stupid bird and some stupid rangers. It was just one of those moments of the most imperfect timing imaginable. If they had arrived one minute later, none of this would have happened and everyone would be happy
Side note: I’m sitting in my tent in Naples and I left a box of trash I’ve accumulated like a foot away from my tent, and I just looked out to see a raccoon stealing my empty Parmesan cheese container mere inches away from my face. He is currently crinkling away with it in the woods nearby and I’ve hidden the box away inside my car. Peevish masked devil. The foreign tourists at the campsite next door are not amused.
So the rangers continued to question me about how I had gotten into the park and whether I was camping there, which I answered like a five-year-old with a hand in the cookie jar, feeling utterly flustered and angry. When I pointed out that it was exactly 8:00 AM and that the park was now open, they were not pleased and did the whole, “well technically we’re supposed to accuse you of trespassing and kick you out for good,” but they let me leave, pay, and come back in with the rest of the birders waiting outside the gate. While this conversation was taking place, they had commandeered my kneeling spot and were looking at the coveted bird. They didn’t even have binoculars and clearly did not know a thing about it, and (what really angered me the most) didn’t hang around to tell the incoming birders what had happened to the bird. It couldn’t have taken more than 3 minutes for me to swing over to the kiosk, pay, and return to the parking lot. I ran over to the 10 or so other birders and exclaimed, “I know where the quail-dove is! I just saw it!” Everyone silently fell in line and told me to lead the way, and I excitedly sped down the trail as quietly as possible. Some dude pushed in front of the pack and ran down the trail in front of me amidst whispers of “that’s what NOT to do” and when we arrived at the bird’s location he looked at me and gave an exasperated yet silent shrug clearly meaning “WELL, where is it?” I pointed into the woods and showed them the exact spot where the bird had been minutes before. We all scanned for about 20 minutes without saying anything, but the sounds of leaves rustling had clearly abetted. I finally told them what had happened with the rangers and how I hadn’t had the presence of mind to get a good photo, so we spent the next four hours tediously combing the trail, hoping the bird would make a reappearance. I felt like just about the worst birder in the world, and still have not reached the celebratory “yay I saw the bird” phase. I ruined it for people who have been trying for weeks to see this bird and didn’t even have the proof I wanted that I wasn’t just some deranged hiker hoping to spoil the fun for them. I’ve never been so worked up about a birding situation, and honestly I feel so bad about it that I don’t really feel like I should count the quail-dove. Woodie tried to convince me that there’s no rule saying you have to have a picture, and that the others will see it if they get there early enough, but that was just not how I wanted the situation to play out and it’s not the reputation I’d like to create for myself.
In somewhat of a bird-fueled haze, I sped back down Route 1 (which is absolutely horrific in the middle of the day and I drove way more recklessly than I should probably admit), spent a ludicrous amount of money on a Key Lime Pie and margarita materials, got my oil changed, and went back to Flamingo. I did see my first Magnificent Frigatebirds in Long Key SP and on the road out of the Keys. I found Woodie looking downtrodden in the parking lot of the visitors’ center, not having heard a single peep from the rails, and we proceeded to get shmammed on margaritas and people-watch at the marina for the next few hours. Liz had gotten out of there earlier, promising to stop at Robert’s for a shake and a mango for missing out on margaritas. Woodie and I discussed everything under the sun, and he had some great advice for a young birder after all of his years in the guiding business. I told him I’d try for the rails again the next morning, but I woke up at midnight and suddenly realized that I was a whole day behind schedule on my itinerary. Somehow the people at Flamingo gave me an extra night at the campsite for free, but I didn’t realize it until I saw that I had planned to camp at Big Cypress on the 18th. Realizing I would now miss out on Big Cypress, I rainchecked the rails and drove across Route 41 to Naples, bypassing all the tourist and birding stops along the way. This is sad and very non-naturalist of me, but one of my favorite things about Everglades NP and Florida City was this radio station that played nonstop incredible music. I listened to it every time I was in the car and I think I heard maybe two commercials. They played everything from Father John Misty to Shakira, and I even heard some new songs I’ll have to look up when I get home. Spot on. If you’re ever down there, make sure to listen to 102.1 at least some of the time. I have no idea who can put on a radio show that just goes straight from one song to the next without commercials or even a DJ, but I love them for it and was very appreciative in a place with few other man-made luxuries. I was going to go to Marco Island today, but I was exhausted after the previous day’s 3:00 AM start and a night of margaritas, so I went to see Wild in Naples instead. As expected, it was one hell of a sob story, but they kept to the book pretty well and Reese Witherspoon was great. I might try for Marco Island tomorrow morning, but I have to leave at a relatively early hour to make the 7.5 hour drive to Skidaway Island, GA. I am very ready to be home and watch movie marathons and veg out. It’s been a very introspective trip and I’ve met a ton of great people, but it’s time for some holiday cheer and some old-fashioned Pennsylvania winter. I will now attempt to sleep among roving raccoons and the chorus of my farting foreign neighbors. I would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on the count/don’t count quail-dove debate, and if any of the birders who were there yesterday morning are reading this, I profusely apologize and wish you the best of luck on seeing the bird.