WILD THINGS: YOU’VE GOTTA HAVE STANDARDS

It’s not that my wife hates birdwatching. She just has very stringent standards for when she will go.

The idea of walking around for hours, staring into bushes, hoping to see feathered things, does not appeal to her the way it does me. She has far more interest in sitting on the couch, reading, half-watching Premier League soccer on TV.

She will tell anyone who asks that I was not a birdwatcher when we got married, that I was in the closet, that she got duped. But she gave me my first pair of binoculars. She knew what she was getting into.

If she goes birding with me, certain criteria have to be met: 1.) It must be within five miles of the house. 2.) We have to be looking for a bird that has been seen fewer than five times in North America. As a result, she has one of the more exacting bird lists in North America.

The first bird to meet this standard was a loggerhead kingbird, a Caribbean member of the tyrant flycatcher family never before recorded in North America. It was found by Carl Goodrich and Ron Hamburger at Fort Zachary Taylor in 2007, and she stood with me in the parking lot for a half-hour until it flew over our heads.

The second bird on her list was a Cuban vireo in 2016. I’d just been booted out of the county jury pool for expressing strong opinions about native trees (I’m for them) when I ran into Carl Goodrich, Tharon Dunn and Lee at Fort Zach. We’d walked a little distance, heard an unfamiliar call, and saw the Cuban vireo pop up in a bush by the staff campground. This was another bird never before seen in North America. My wife came over later that afternoon, the bird made a 10-second appearance, and boom, she had two birds on her list.

The third bird was a Stygian owl in 2018. Emalyn Mercer tagged me in a video on Facebook because she wanted to know why some bird was standing in a tree screaming its head off. It was June and the bird, I could tell, was a Cooper’s hawk, which wasn’t supposed to be here that time of year. So I went over to Seminary Street and there was not one, but two Cooper’s hawks. They took off as soon as I got near to them, which was disappointing. But then I noticed the target of their screams — a bird called a Stygian owl. They’re elusive even in their native South American and Caribbean habitats. In North America there had been two brief sightings in the Texas hill country in the 1990s, and then this one. So I called my wife and she and about 20 other people saw it that day. The folks who showed up at dawn the next day, to peer into the same tree, did not. In scientific terms it was what’s called a one-day wonder.

Last October some out-of-town visitors found a red-legged thrush at the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. Red-legged thrushes are common in Cuba, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands. They’re usually hopping in gardens, or on lawns, or under landscaping bushes. They occupy the same visual niche, and a very similar ecological niche, as American robins up north and blackbirds in England. Their plumage is mostly gray, which would seem dull if it wasn’t for the dramatic red eye rings and the slash of white feathers across the throat. And, oh yeah, the red legs.

There have been four records of red-legged thrush up on mainland Florida. The bird at the botanical garden was the fifth one seen in North America — just below my wife’s willingness-to-bird threshold.

I got in to see it the afternoon it was found, just before the botanical garden closed for the day. They weren’t long looks, but it was clear that it was, in fact, a red-legged thrush.

I worried it was going to be a one-day wonder, like the Stygian owl, but the bird stayed, moving around the garden, and getting reported regularly. So eventually I went back with my wife.

It was the first time the bird wasn’t seen in a week. It was also the first time she’d gone to look for a mega-rarity seen within fives miles of the house and missed.

After that we kind of forgot about it for a while, what with work, home repair projects, a misbehaving dog, a global plague, high-tension elections, and the near-collapse of democracy.

I was at the botanical garden with some folks during the recent Christmas Bird Count. We spent an hour or so looking into every bush, not finding the thrush. At least not until Mark Songer stood by the entrance and said, “Oh, there it is.”

We all stared up. The red-legged thrush stared down. There was a solidity to that moment, the sense that the improbable had been made manifest, that if I just brought my wife out there one more time, she would no doubt be able to add the bird to her highly rarified list.

A few days later, this turned out not to be the case.

I don’t think the bird is gone. I think it’s just going to make us work a little harder to add to such an august list.

Mark Heddenhttp://www.markhedden.com
Mark Hedden is a photographer, writer, and semi-professional birdwatcher. He has lived in Key West for more than 25 years and may no longer be employable in the real world. He is also executive director of the Florida Keys Audubon Society.

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