A Tropical Treat

“You’re going to do what?… You guys are insane!” That was my response when my buddy Brant Julius told me he and friend Jeff Fisher were planning on leaving at 10 PM Friday night and driving through the night to arrive at sunrise. It was madness… but it was also an insanely beautiful & rare bird they were going to chase.

Plus, those images being posted daily were mind numbing. I committed to a possible maybe, and held out until Friday evening before making my final decision. After dinner Friday, I went back online to check if the bird had been seen that day and was met with a whole slew of new amazing images. It was at that instant I knew I was a maniac as well, and called Brant and Jeff to confirm my spot on the great chase or “twitch” as my European birding friends would say.

night drive

It was a 9 hour drive to Gulf Breeze, Florida and we’d all been up for an entire day before we began our journey. I managed to doze off for an hour somewhere near Tallahassee, but the other guys were too excited to sleep. We stopped to refill our tanks in Gulf Breeze at 4:53 AM, (the car with gas, and me with an all important, very tall coffee) before continuing to Shoreline Park. We’d arrived a good half hour before official sunrise and the first birds were already greeting the dawn. Northern Cardinals and a Carolina Wren sang from the dark woods here as Common Grackles & Red-winged Blackbirds called overhead.

the sun rises over Shoreline Park in Gulf Breeze, Florida

We made our way to the best vantage from which to view the water, a raised landing on the boardwalk system which provided an unobstructed view of the water and comfortable benches. This would become a familiar perch for many hours to come as our bird tally continued to climb: Great Blue Heron, Great Crested Flycatcher, Brown Pelican, Brown Thrasher…

Brant scans the water for our bird

Broken cloud cover kept it darker longer, but it also kept us from baking in the sun as we watched and waited. “There’s the local Mallards under the dock to our left… adult Red-headed Woodpecker just landed on the big pine… Northern Parula singing behind… another Common Loon over here…”

Jeff Fisher & Brant vigilantly scan the waters south of Shoreline Park

Near 8:00 AM the sun peeked out and our open air perch began to heat up. This was also when the next birder joined us on our big twitch. He explained that he’d left Jacksonville, Florida near 3:00 AM and was in for the long haul as well. Given this was a long holiday weekend I’d expected there would be more people here by now, but the bird had been present for quite a while and most reported sightings were from the late afternoon so maybe other birders were waiting it out. Sanderling… Snowy Egret… Laughing Gull… Royal Tern… Least Tern… Yellow-crowned Night Heron flying east the bird parade continued.

Ruddy Turnstones visit us at our perch making a brief stop on the handrail to check us out – Leica V-lux (typ 114) camera

Another hour passed and our list of bird species broke 40 species to include flocks of unexpected White-rumped Sandpipers, Black Terns, and Common Tern among others. The temperature had climbed now as well, forcing us to relocate to a shaded gazebo a bit lower on the same boardwalk. Shade was a welcomed friend even at the expense of a bit of elevation.

By 9:20 AM there were 10 birders present, including long time local residents Bob & Lucy Duncan who were telling us when the bird was initially found and offering other locations it had been seen over the past weeks. As they were talking, I scanned the water with my APO Televid spotting scope from East to West as I had dozens of times over the past four hours. I paused when I came across a distant white object bobbing up and down on the water. It was a white bird facing away from me and the light chop made it so only the bird’s head was visible at first. I increased the magnification on the zoom eyepiece from 25x to near 40x… white head and bold black eye stripes… The bird turned slightly to its left as rose over a large swell and showing its thick red bill and a strongly curled long tail streamer!

Red-billed Tropicbird digiscoped with iPhone at a distance of over 1 mile, distant but still a thrill

A sure fire way to make new friends on a bird twitch is to be the one who first utters the phrase, “I’ve got the bird!!… sitting on the water about half way across the channel.” Birders excitedly scampered toward me from all corners of the boardwalk as I continued with the directions, “to the left of the red channel marker in front of the green beach umbrella on the far shore.”

One after another, the birders present took their spotting scope views of the sought after Red-billed Tropicbird drifting in the current and were elated from seeing a magnificent bird after a long wait. High fives all around! After 20 minutes the bird lifted off and went straight away and out of sight. Even though we’d all “seen” the bird, it was more than a mile away over water, so even with the best optics, the view was diagnostic but not really satisfying. Everyone present knew that at some point the bird would come close, for phenomenal views. So we resigned to patiently wait t out, although this time with less nervous anticipation.

Red-billed Tropicbirds are a magnificent seabird found in Tropical waters. About the size of a large tern or medium-sized gull. They have a seemingly over-sized head and bill compared to their body and adults like this bird, show an amazing wire-like tail streamer. They are almost never seen from land unless you visit a tropical island where they nest, and even on full day pelagic trips traveling far off shore in tropical waters off of the United States, seeing any Tropicbird is an incredibly rare experience. Of the three Tropicbird species, White-tailed Tropicbird is the bird you are most likely to see off the coast of Florida. So a reliable Red-billed Tropicbird you can drive to see from land in the ABA (American Birding Association) listing area is an occurrence that happens next to never (the stunning Red-billed Tropicbird is actually the Logo for the ABA). Most present (and those who chased this bird before us and since) realized this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this bird in this manner, myself included.

a tiny white flying speck with a long tail streamer

Near 10:30 AM Brant broke the doldrums, by spotting the bird distant to the West of our position coursing back and forth between private docks. In the spotting scope all of the bird’s features were obvious, the light horizontal bars across the back and upperwing coverts, red bill, black eye stripes, but in this image taken with the V-lux camera at over 1/3 mile away you get little more than a white spot with a thin white streamer trailing. It coursed back and forth parallel to our position for nearly ten minutes, never getting any closer before finally disappearing behind trees heading to the north west (apparently passing right by Bob & Lucy Duncan’s house as they returned home giving them an unheard of “yard bird”). This was a definite improvement on the view we’d had but not the one we’d come to see. We’d wait.

the Tropicbird teases us ringing our position always at great distance

Shortly after 11:30 AM, I spotted the bird much closer to our east heading away. It had seemingly come in from behind us and each time it spiraled, camera shutters could be heard clicking in bursts. It finally landed on the water near where I’d first seen it, but not quite as far away.

back on the water over 1,000 yards away – the image is definitive for documentation but far from a “pretty” image.

While closer than before, the increased heat meant more heat distortion in the turbulent air over the water. I wanted to see the bird without the distortion from “heat haze” and suggested, “Let’s see if we can get one of these boaters to take us out there for a quick pass”. I folded my tripod and shouldered my scope then made my way toward the boat launch. I met a man with gray hair, beard and mustache as he was walking back from the launch to his truck which read “Full Net Fishing Charters”. I began, “Captain we’re looking for someone that will take us out to photograph a rare bird sitting on the water and wondering if you had a bit more time.” He looked at me with one brow slightly raised and asked, “you mean the white bird with the long tail?” I was impressed, his name was Captain Eddie Woodall, a local fishing guide for 15 years. “C’mon, I’ll take you!” he said.

It seemed the Captain was as eager to learn more about this rare bird he’d seen as we were to get a better view. We described the bird’s natural history and typical range as we motored toward its location. However, when we got there the bird was nowhere to be found. I knew we were in line with the docks we’d just been standing on and the marker on the opposite shore so knew we were on the correct line. The bird should have been right where we were but it wasn’t. I apologized, explaining the bird had must have flown, so we headed back to the boat launch. On the return Captain Eddie offered, “it flies fast” and again I was impressed. He’d not only noticed the bird on multiple occasions over the past weeks but had clearly watched it enough to recognize some of its behaviors.

We were about 1,000 yards from the boat launch when I spotted the bird cruising along the shore, criss-crossing directly above the boat launch. “There it is”! Captain Eddie pushed the throttle forward and we closed the gap rapidly.

Red-biled Tropicbird descends toward the water just over the boat launch

It was amazing watching the bird hovering mere feet off shore clearly eyeing the boats and docks here. I tracked the bird with my camera taking rapid shutter bursts each time I got a focus confirmation, at 16 frames per second the camera sounded like a very quiet machine gun, “BEEP, BzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZzZz”. The bird circled back and forth at times passing directly over our heads barely 20 feet up and then it would backwing toward the water near the docks, hovering briefly before sailing by and swinging around again!

Jeff Fisher takes an image of the Tropicbird passing between us and shore

long tail streamer bounds behind!

backlit but showing the large head and bill well

It was fun to watch the action of the action of the tail streamer as the bird flapped!

The yellow legs with little black “booties” was something I’d not seen in field guides but had noted in the images birders had been posting daily over the past weeks. It was images like these that eventually inspired me to join the expedition.

After maybe 5 minutes the bird gave one last turn and then returned south heading back toward the spot where we’d seen it sitting on the water for much of the morning. Elated and in a state of euphoric shock, we stepped back on to the dock and thanked Captain Eddie for his assistance. He refused to charge us but we insisted on at least offering a modest tip all the same. Then we loaded our gear and headed back toward home. It was just after noon and we’d not make it back until near 10:30 PM but the adrenaline from such an amazing, almost surreal, experience with this amazing bird carried us all the way back and the drive seemed to pass in no time at all as we continued to recount the thrilling and memorable adventure. I’d been dreading the thought of the drive at first, but have to admit I am more than glad I did it now and will treasure the memories of my time with this very special visitor with friends.