For those of you that know me, you know that I am not a firm believer in bad luck. There is, undoubtedly, circumstances of poor timing, misfortune, and just plain being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lot of times, bad luck, to me, is simply foisting responsibility for poor decisions onto some nefarious entity of the cosmos. The feeling something is plotting against you. In terms of travel, there is another whimsical word that I do not care much for. That word is adventure. It was Roald Amundsen who said that "adventure is just poor planning." Well, by many definitions, this all sums up last weekend. I went on an adventure and had bad luck. Which roughly translates as "I did not plan well and missed both my targets."
The targets? Large-billed Tern and La Sagra's Flycatcher. I was practically on my way out the door for a planned long-weekend in St. Louis when I saw news of the Large-billed Tern in Florida. I say "the", but I really mean "both". Two insanely rare South American birds that showed up in two parts of Florida on the same day. It seems crazy. I have seen this bird in South America, but, to state the obvious, not in the ABA. Also in Florida is a La Sagra's Flycatcher. La Sagra's is a member of the myiarchus family of flycatchers. I really like this family, and it contains one of my favorite species, Great Crested Flycatcher. La Sagra's is normally found in Cuba and the Bahamas, and this bird would actually be a life bird for me.
Not so uncommon this time of year in Florida is my brother - on his annual vacation with his family in the sunshine state. By the time we hatched our plan for me to come down, he had already seen the tern but still needed the flycatcher. The easier to access tern (the other requires a 15 mile round-trip hike to see most days of the week) is an hour from where my brother and his family are staying. The flycatcher is 4 hours away in the Keys. We came up with a plan, which was more along the lines of a mission statement. I bought plane tickets. Friday afternoon, I was on a plane. We would meet up in Ft. Myers, drive to Miami, hit Long Key in the morning, return to Ft. Myers, and then try for the tern on Sunday morning before I had to fly home. I will say that this is actually the first time I have done something like this. I am not a big chaser; definitely not the type to fly somewhere just to see a couple of rare birds. I have driven a few hours, but this is a lot different. Having my brother there and close-by made this a good opportunity to visit him and do some birding together; something we rarely find time for anymore.
Things went south immediately. Well, not immediately. My flight from Indianapolis was delayed. No problem, I had enough layover to easily cover the half hour later departure for Atlanta. The Atlanta flight was on-time. Almost. We got on the plane. The pilot announced there was no luggage on the plane and that it would be 20 - 25 minutes before the loaders could get to the plan. 45 minutes later we were on our way for an hour late arrival in Ft. Myers. We still had to drive 3 hours south and then would have to get up about an hour later to arrive at Long Key State Park at sunrise. I made an audible to just head back to his rental and try for the tern in the morning.
Saturday morning, we were up and out the door an hour before sunrise. We got to the tern location and were the second car there. The tern was frequenting a set of large puddles at a construction area. It was also being seen nearby at a golf course. You could walk a ditch nearby that overlooked some ponds at the golf course. We spent the next 6 hours hanging out in the Florida sun waiting for the bird to show. Lots of birders showed up. We even spotted Larry Peavler, a local birder, there. No tern. I did not do a lot of shooting here. Mostly, we were just hoping for the bird to show up. A true "joys of the hobby" type morning. There were a number of Black-necked Stilt hanging around along with some Killdeer. Both had young that they were keeping herded well away from us. Northern Mockingbird were plentiful, and I saw the most Black-bellied Whistling-Duck that I have ever seen. High count was 40 birds flying over at once. Lots of activity. No tern.
We left; thoughts scrambling for a way we could come out of this weekend with a "win". Our plan? We would head south for the flycatcher. It was seen that morning. We could spend the night outside Miami, drive to Long Key in the morning, arrive at sunrise, and, hopefully, find the bird in the three hours we had before we had to leave for the airport. If this sounds risky, that is because it was.
We got into Homestead with a couple hours of sunlight left. We headed over to Everglades NP to do some evening birding. This really turned out to be poor timing. The park had very recently done a prescribed burn. We drove in and headed down to the Anhinga Trail, but half the area was recently burned. There was practically nothing there other than the ever-present mosquitoes and gianormous grasshoppers. We drove back out to the road near the entrance and looked for Chuck-will's-widow. No joy there, but there were tons of Common Nighthawk and a Loggerhead Shrike. We drove to a canal just outside the park and listened to several Chucks calling in the dark. A Great Horned Owl silhouetted in a nearby tree for a bit. We finally headed back to the room for a decent night of sleep.
We got up a little after 5:00 AM and raced out the door. We made it down to Long Key SP and pulled into the entrance... only to see that the park does not open until 8:00 AM. We had an hour and a half to wait. This severely hampered our chances of finding the La Sagra's Flycatcher. The park, for its part, opened promptly at 8:00. We went in and headed to the boardwalk. The place was very quiet. A few Green Heron were loudly calling. Red-bellied Woodpeckers moved from tree-to-tree in the mangroves. No Great Crested or La Sagra's could be heard. The La Sagra's was frequently seen with a Great Crested, and I was hoping to hear a familiar call to help track down our target. We walked down to the beach area and took the path east. We saw very little down the path. A pair of Black-whiskered Vireo dashed into a tree, and I was able to pish them out for some photos. We headed back and got in the car to drive down to the campground, where the bird was seen at times. The road is closed about halfway down due to hurricane damage. Back to the boardwalk. We pretty much staked our luck on hanging out there. That is where the bird was most frequently reported. Jeff wandered back into the parking lot while I waited. My phone started buzzing, and I anxiously answered. Jeff had a Great Crested in the parking lot. I quickly joined him, but the bird was definitely alone; feeding quietly in the branches of a tree. By this time, it was 9:30, and we needed to leave.
I wish I could say things went better from there. They did not; culminating in the luggage conveyor getting stuck to the plane for my flight home out of Atlanta. Twenty minutes later, it was unstuck, and I was on my way home.
The La Sagra's showed up about an hour after we had to leave Long Key. The tern also showed up at its normal location that morning. Looking back, it is easy to see where the planning broke down and turned this trip around. There is really nothing I could have done about the flights. They are out of my control. The best advice there is to always take the earliest flight you can. Having to work on Friday, my options were limited. This is not where things went wrong, though. The true breakdown was in not looking at the time Long Key SP opened (i.e. bad planning). We just assumed it would open at sunrise. We noticed that all the sighting posted in eBird were later in the morning, but we never questioned why. The later opening time would have gave us an extra hour and a half to two hours of sleep that first night. Knowing that, we would have stuck to plan and had all day to look for the flycatcher before heading back to look for the tern, which showed, on Sunday morning. The second bad decision was heading to look for the flycatcher on Sunday. It was risky and, again, poorly planned.
Knowing about the park hours at any point prior to arriving at the gate would have taken this from an 0 and 2 weekend to possibly a 2 and 0, or at least a 1 and 1. This could have been a much different post. Less pedantic. More jubilant. In the future, may we all have less adventures (but better experiences) and less bad luck (through better planning).
Thanks for reading,