It’s both a truism and a cliche that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. For instance, when I drove from Key West to Long Key State Park seven times to see the Key West quail-dove and never saw it. That was slightly insane – though I prefer to think of it as the universe conspiring against me.
Driving up to Tavernier for the second time to try and see a gray-tailed tattler, a mega-rarity that had only been recorded three times in the lower 48 states? Even if its appearances were getting more and more sporadic? That was just hopeful persistence and well within the bounds of normal and rational behavior. It would take three or four more trips before it was time to consider the M’Naghten Rule or the “Irresistible Impulse” Test.
Besides, I had backup this time – Mark Whiteside and Ellen Westbrook. If the bird wasn’t there, there’d be two other birders in the car to drive home bathed in that inescapable fug of failure and defeat.
Most times when I go birdwatching I can embrace the more holistic clichés – it’s the journey not the destination, a bad day birding is better than a good day doing most other things, etc. At least until I get goal-oriented about it. Then the terms change and it becomes a rigid dichotomy – you saw the bird you wanted to or you didn’t. It was a good day or a bad day. There is nothing in between.
Also, I worried, how many times could I get away with writing a column about not seeing a bird?
So it was a little bleak when we pulled into Harry Harris Park and the seven or so birders already there were spread out along the shoreline, peering into the openings and mangrove coves. If the gray tattler was being seen, they would have all been clumped together, staring at it.
Here comes the fug, I thought.
I knew at least one of the people there – Gallus Quigley, a birder from Orlando with whom I’d spend some time driving around Miami, looking for exotic parrots and mynas, with the late, great Paul Bithorn.
On the last trip I’d missed the tattler by 45 minutes. The tide had been coming in and was close to high, and the bird wasn’t seen again that day, which meant it was more likely to feed at the park’s shoreline at low tide. And now it was only about an hour past low tide.
We began our due diligence, staking out the big inlet by the hard aground sailboat and the blocked off jetty, where most of the sightings had occurred, and when we got antsy, working our way through the park, keeping an eye on every bit of available shoreline.
It was pretty slow, except for the flock of about 40 ruddy turnstones that kept flying around, landing on the pier, disappearing into the rocks, climbing over the seaweed piles, dividing into smaller groups, then reforming into one big group. Mixed in with them was a lone short-billed dowitcher, which everyone kept re-spotting and instinctively kept trying to turn into the gray-tailed tattler by imagining its bill shorter, its legs yellower, its plumage plainer and grayer. The dowitcher stubbornly remained a dowitcher, though.
When our focus began to flag, Ellen, Mark and I took a side trip over to the nearby under-birded Dove Creek Hammocks, where there were a lot of butterflies, which Whiteside identified, and whose names left my brain immediately.
We went back to the park, resumed the vigil for another hour, then went off to find some lunch. We ran into Gallus in the restaurant, who said he’d spent as much time as he could looking for the bird, so he was heading back north after he finished his vegan cheesesteak and boiled peanuts.
We decided to make one more stop at the park before heading home ourselves. The troops had thinned a bit. The guy from Chicago had headed to the airport. The Oklahoma couple had pulled out some comfortable looking camping chairs.
I looked at the apron of sargasso weed that had floated up with the high tide and despaired.
There was a little traffic in the cove: Sandpipers, a largish willet, ruddy turnstones, short-billed dowitchers, one, then two, then four. When the fifth dowitcher flew in, Whiteside said, “That’s it.”
“What? No, it’s not,” I said, thinking Whiteside was getting kind of excitable.
Looking at the bird, though, its bill shrank to about a third the size of a dowitcher’s, its legs turned a more intense yellow, the feathers in its wings and mantle smoothed into a continuous gray. Cymbals clashed, trumpets sounded, and an ethereal choir began to sing.
It was, in fact, the gray-tailed tattler.
Everyone began to move carefully, shifting around to get better light or a better view. Ellen said something great, which I neglected to write down. I texted Gallus to tell him he should turn around. Then I called him to make sure he did.
A birder named Jim pulled up and immediately saw the tattler after driving six hours from Gainesville. Then Gallus made it back.
We followed the bird for a long time, as it worked from the sargasso weed to the mud to the glass-smooth puddles that had formed near the picnic tables with the rising tide. At one point the tattler strayed too close to the willet, which stabbed at him with its bill, and I yelled something at the willet to the effect of, “Hey, cut it out, that bird is a guest.”
After a while I turned to Whiteside and said, “I can’t tell you the last time I saw a lifer. It’s got to be, like, two or three years.”
“What about the Cuba pewee on Big Pine? And the black-faced grasquit?”
“Okay. It’s been, like, 18 months,” I said.
“What about the red-legged thrush at the Botanical Garden?” Whiteside asked.
“Fine,” I said. “It’s been a year.”
I couldn’t think of anything more recent than that, but also, no matter. Finally seeing the gray-tailed tattler just felt really, really good.