A western spindalis, of the green-backed subspecies, seen in Key West on New Year's Eve. MARK HEDDEN/Keys Weekly

Ellen Westbrook and I were pretty much finished with the Christmas Bird Count. We’d spent the morning riding our bikes around Old Town, dutifully marking on the clipboard every bird we saw, even the chickens, though honestly we were counting them by the tens, because there are just so many damn chickens in this town.

In the afternoon we’d driven up the highway to the top of the count circle, just south of Bay Point, then turned around and counted everything we could see on the wires and in the salt ponds along the road. We finished up at Indigenous Park on White Street, home to the Key West Wildlife Center. Although it was officially closed at the time, Ellen volunteers there a lot and has a key. 

We’d stopped in the office to say hi and Debbie, one of the staffers, told us she’d just seen a house finch, which piqued our interest, because they are not common in the Keys.

In a technical sense, house finches are an exotic species, meaning those that have been released by humans into ecosystems in which they did not evolve – chickens, house sparrows, rock pigeons. I tend to think of exotics as having been moved across some large body of water – between islands, or more often, continents. But there are other natural geographical barriers besides water.

House finches are American exotics. They are streaky brown birds, bigger than warblers but smaller than catbirds. Males have scarlet faces, though they do not look embarrassed. Their natural habitat is the western side of the Great Plains. But in 1939 a group that had been captured in Santa Barbara, California and shipped to a pet store in Long Island, New York escaped. The first nest was found in Babylon on Long Island in 1944. The first mainland sighting was 1948. By 1993 they had pretty much spread across the continent, connecting all the way back to their historic range and filling in the map.

Florida was one of the last zones on the map to fill in, but they have mostly populated the peninsula. They are not common in the Keys, but they are seen occasionally. According to eBird numbers, individual birds were reported in Key West in 2009, 2013, 2018, 2021, as well as last October.

Neither Ellen nor I had ever seen a house finch in Key West, though, and seeing one would be a nice addition for the count’s species list. So we went to the picnic table near where Debbie had seen the bird and waited. Honestly we were killing time, waiting for Mark Whiteside and Mark Songer to finish up the count in their territory, so we could all get together and sum up the day’s tally. 

After about 20 minutes of nothing but gray catbirds, we wandered deeper into the park, checked out the pond (nothing) and then sat on a bench and stared into the small grove of gumbo limbo trees, where we continued to see nothing, but were trying to be zen about it, by which I mean kind of zoning out, listening and looking at nothing and everything all at once. Then we went back to the picnic table in case the house finch decided to come back. 

Someone came to the gate worried about a white ibis in the parking lot with a broken leg, and Ellen was telling her that broken legs were nothing unusual in bird world, and not usually life-ending. If the bird could still fly and hunt on its own, which this one could, they tended not to intervene. That turned into a conversation of wildlife and resiliency and, at some point, the woman’s recent foot surgery.

Meanwhile, I sat at the picnic table, further trying to be zen.

There’s a phenomenon in birdwatching called the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect. It’s named after a picnic table at the Patagonia Reserve in southeastern Arizona, where a rare-in-the-U.S. rose-throated becard was found in 1977, leading to an influx of birdwatchers peering into the bushes to find the becards, but then also finding a number of other rarities.

It’s generally believed that this is because the first rare bird draws more – and, often, more highly skilled – birders, to an area. But I also tend to believe that once you approach a place with a heightened sense of awareness, you are more likely to see other things. Even if it’s not what you were looking for in the first place.

A bit of cold water was thrown on the theory in 2020 when a group of biologists published a paper analyzing eBird data of rare bird sightings and finding the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect to be more of an urban legend than an observable and repeatable phenomenon. But then a bunch of birders started analyzing that analysis, and pointing out why it might be a flawed study, and then, honestly, I stopped following the whole subject because I was an English major and statistical analysis is not my strong point.

I’m not sure if zoning out counts as a heightened sense of awareness, but while Ellen was still talking to the woman, I was sitting at the picnic table, staring off into the bushes when a bird with a zebra-striped head and a flaming orange breast and rump popped into view and sat on a branch in front of me for about 10 seconds. It wasn’t a long look, but there was no mistaking what it was – a western spindalis, a Caribbean species that shows up in extreme South Florida on a semi-regular basis. 

One had actually been seen at Fort Zachary Taylor back in October, and that one had a green back, making it a member of a subspecies that had only been seen in North America once previously. This was notable not just because it was a cool bird to see, but it was also thought that subspecies might someday be considered its own species, making it even more of a rara avis

Ellen finally came back, and together we re-found the bird. Mark and Mark showed up and we re-re-found the bird, but this time got very clear looks at its green back, meaning we’d either re-found the bird from Fort Zach in October, or this was the third sighting of a green-backed western spindalis in North America. (As we’ll never know for sure, I’m just going to consider it to be green-backed western spindalis 2.5.)

It was a fine last bird of the count. And proof that the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect is a bunch of hooey. Until it isn’t.

I still want to see that house finch, though.

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.