Saturday, October 23, 2010

Life Goes Ani

Fall migration has been great. So great, I've been too busy looking at birds to write about it. But I hope to make up for this shortly.

Last weekend was supposed to be the peak of fall migration for north-central Florida, and I was determined to squeeze in as many sightings as possible. But Saturday's Alachua Audubon field trip to Bolen Bluff-- where I had a record fifteen-warbler day this time last year--was pleasant, but uneventful: lots of Black-and-white Warblers and American Redstarts, but not much else.

The most memorable bird of the trip was several miles away. We had worked our way to the bluff and down into the prairie basin when the news arrived.

"GROOVE-BILLED ANI! GROOVE-BILLED ANI AT THE OBSERVATION DECK AT LA CHUA!" yelled one of the hard-core birders, holding up his cell phone. He had just gotten a call from the local birdhead who had just found it. We watched in puzzlement as he sprinted away from the rest of the group.

"Hey, where are you going?" our trip leader asked.

"GROOVE-BILLED ANI!" he yelled back.

As we progressed down through the prairie looking at Indigo Buntings and early Savannah Sparrows, we talked about the Groove-billed Ani. First, we explained what it was for the beginning birders present, who were beginning to think that the rest of us were insane. Then, we marveled at its presence in Paynes Prairie: these birds are rare visitors to our neck of the woods and this would be only the tenth sighting on record.

On the next morning's trip to Palm Point, everyone was still talking about it. We learned that our friend from the day before had shlepped two miles back to the Bolen Bluff trailhead, driven across town, then shlepped another two miles down the La Chua trail--only to find that the Ani had flown the coop. Meanwhile, Palm Point was yielding a terrific assortment of warblers, including a very bold Magnolia,

a strangely bland-looking Cape May,

and a third warble that Glenn managed to photograph, but couldn't ID.

"What is this?" he asked me, pointing at his viewfinder.

I looked at the bird. Some faint stripes on the head. Wing bars, A bit of streaking on the flanks. Definitely a warbler, but what? I called over our trip leader and asked him.

"Wow, that's a Blackburnian!: he exclaimed. "Where did you see it?"

Another confusing fall warbler for our collection--and Glenn had captured a life bird without knowing it!

But everyone was still talking about that Ani. The next morning, I opened my e-mail and found a message saying it had been seen on Sunday morning, while we were looking at warblers at Palm Point. It was still early. I showed Glenn the e-mail.

And then we went to La Chua. One of the great things about being self-employed is that you're free to make stupid decisions. Yes, I should have been making cold calls to potential clients or going to some shmooze breakfast with the Chamber of Commerce, but this was a Groove-billed Ani we were talking about here.

We got to the observation deck around 9:30 and met some local birders on their way out who said they had seen it about ten minutes earlier! So it was still there! Cool.

So we waited.

And waited.

Another birder showed up with a spotting scope. "So you're looking for it too?" I asked. "Looking for what?" he asked.

He hadn't heard about the Ani. But once I told him, he was all in.

An hour later, another birder arrived, an extroverted older guy who immediately introduced himself to the three of us on the platform. "Well, since we're going to be here a while, we might as well get to know each other," he said.

As the day progressed, it got hotter and hotter on the platform, and my lust to see the Ani was rapidly losing out to my lust for a hot pressed Cuban sandwich. The two other gentlemen on the platform with us were great company, but this whole experience was beginning to suck.

By 1:30, we gave up and headed home.

The next morning, I got another e-mail: the first guy who joined us on the platform -- who didn't even know the Ani was there -- had gotten a video of the bird and posted it on YouTube! Apparently, the video was taken around 4:40 that afternoon, which meant that guy had been waiting there a good five or six hours. Holy cow. Well, I guess he was more deserving of a sighting than we were.

And here's what we would have seen if only we waited around another four hours:

Okay. So the Ani had been there for a few days. It tended to show up either early in the morning, or late in the afternoon. So we'd try for an afternoon sighting.

On Tuesday, we got to the platform around 3:30. La Chua is invariably silent and birdless in mid-afternoon, and this was seriously depressing. But as the sun went down, the chorus of Red-winged Blackbirds got louder, White and Glossy Ibises began flying in, and things began to look promising. But no Ani. We waited until 5:00. The park closed at 6:00, and it would take over half an hour to walk back to the trailhead. So we left.

On the way back, we ran into a ranger in his truck, no doubt headed to the observation platform to herd any late lingerers back to the trailhead. I recognized him: he was not only a ranger, but also a serious birder. He stopped his truck and rolled down a window.

"So, did you see it?"


We saw him again on the way back, parking his truck near the trailhead. We asked him if he had seen anything. He smiled and looked apologetic.

We had missed it by fifteen minutes. Again.

We decided to give the Ani one more shot. But not until Thursday. On Wednesday morning at sunrise, we were meeting with a friend who'd show us where some of the last locally nesting Burrowing Owls were. And unlike the Ani, the Burrowing Owls were right where they were expected to be. Who doesn't love a Burrowing Owl, especially with a face like this?

We resumed our Ani hunt on Thursday morning. When arrived at La Chua, just before eight, it was foggy and cool out, and Palm Warblers and Indigo Buntings were everywhere. But our goal was the Ani, and we didn't stop until we got to the observation platform.

And there, about thirty feet off the trail in the fog, was a mid-size black bird with a long tail--not a crow,nor a grackle. I had brought my scope, and I focused it on the bird: it had a thick beak and shaggy head feathers: our Ani!

We spent the next two hours watching it. Some other local birders joined us on the observation platform, and we all watched in delight as it flew in and landed low in a shrub just off the trail. In books, the Groove-billed Ani looks fierce and predatory, but in real life, it's downright cute -- its vocalizations are gentle and sweet and the bird itself has a weirdly wistful face that reminds me of a Muppet. One of the other birders told me Anis are social birds, and this one looked like it wanted company. We all felt a little sad that it was so far away from others of its own kind. But its generous display for us more than made up for its elusiveness earlier in the week.

And it only took me a week of waiting to get the bird.