The first sign that something unusual was happening was when Smooth-billed Ani reports started popping up all over the state of Florida in late fall 2016.
Historically this unique member of the “cuckoo” family could be regularly found breeding all across the southern half of the Florida peninsula, but as I said that was ancient history. Two decades ago these birds moved from extremely difficult to find in Florida to near impossible over the past decade. Most years just a single reported breeding pair in the state or worse in some years in the 2010’s none were reported. A single family group bred in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in spring / summer 2016.
The first report was of a single bird in West Palm Beach (not far from Loxahatchee NWR) on November 3, then another report on November 19th, in Hendry County to the West. Initially it seemed plausible these birds were radiating out from the Loxahatchee group, but as we moved in to December and the new year, it became clear that something else was happening. in mid December Ani reports started bubbling up rapid fire. Two birds in Everglades National Park & Preserve and a third from West Miami on December 11th. A fourth in Miami on December 12th, two more birds were located in Dry Tortugas National Park at the western end of the Florida Keys on the 14th, and then one on Fisher Island off of north Miami on the 17th. Then at Lucky Preserve, and at Big Cypress National Park in Collier County, and another pair in Palm Beach County well up the east coast, on Sanibel Island, Naples, Apopka, Viera Wetlands, STA 5, Fort Desoto Park in St Petersburg… Over 20 individuals reported in all scattered across the entire southern half of the state through the late fall & winter.
At this point, it was clear something odd was happening and some long time Florida residents (author included) now started theorizing that these birds were transplanted by Hurricane Matthew which swept slowly and churned over the nearby Caribbean Islands including the Bahamas as a Category 4 storm causing major damage to native habitats here.
Lending great credence to this story was an adult male Kirtland’s Warbler located at Bill Bagg’s Park, on Key Biscayne due east of the Leica Store Miami on February 11th, 2017. This is significant because this endangered species winters in the Bahama Islands and had never been recorded in winter in Florida before. This again was but one indicator that the Caribbean express was open though.
Each fall Florida birders fully expect an occasional Caribbean vagrant or two, so no one was surprised to see Western Spindalis (a striking Caribbean Tanager species) turn up at Miami’s Deering Estate (found by naturalist / friend Rangel Diaz) on November 11, 2016. When two additional females were first reported on Bill Bagg’s on Key Biscayne, we thought, “…3 individual Western Spindalis, it’s a good year!” But this was only the beginning more and more would continue to show up throughout the winter and numbers would peak throughout the following spring. By April & May 2017, no fewer than 20 individual Western Spindalis had been reported and FLOCKS of Western Spindalis were being encountered at multiple locations. The group at Bill Bagg’s had grown to at least 4 individuals with three females and a male seen on a single day, another single flock of three Western Spindalis was found in a single tree on Elliot Key, Biscayne National Park on April 28th. This improbable flock had a single female bird and two males of two different subspecies (one of the expected black-backed race and one rare green-backed male)! To the south in the Florida Keys another flock of at least three Spindalis were being seen daily in residential neighborhoods. In fact it seemed Spindalis were being seen all up and down the east coast in Tropical habitats from near the Spacecoast way up near Melbourne, Florida to the North all the way through the middle Keys.
In the decade prior, there were three Bananaquits reported in all of Florida, but in the 4 months between late December 2016 through spring 2017, no fewer than 9 individual Bananaquits were reported from the east coast of Florida. Much like the Western Spindalis, these birds were located in Tropical habitats from Northern Broward County (Fort Lauderdale) to the north all the way through the central keys and often seen side by side with Spindalis and other vagrant species. The park at Windley Key near Islamorada, Florida held multiple Spindalis, a Bananaquit, and a Bahama Mockingbird all at the same time. A few lucky observers saw this Caribbean trifecta on a single visit!
La Sagra’s Flycatchers, (occasional in Florida) were reported through the period from both Bill Bagg’s Park and Long Key State Park.
A report of a White-collared Swift was reported over the Key West airport on April 29th!
Loggerhead Kingbird made an appearance with Eastern & Gray Kingbirds in Hialeah, Florida west of Miami on April 9th!
Three Cuban Pewees occurred March 13th at Crandon Park, April 8th at Bill Bagg’s Park, and May 5th (Cinco de Mayo!) in Miami Beach, Florida.
Three individual Fork-tailed Flycatchers were located. The first an adult by our Leica Birding Team member Rafael Galvez while guiding a Victor Emanuel Bird Tour at Crandon Park near Miami on April 23rd, then Leica fan and guide Wes Biggs found an immature near Lake Okechobee that many saw and the last digiscoped at top by Leica user Jim Eager in Apopka which has lingered through most of June now!
The spring prior, the first record of a Cuban Vireo in North America occured at Fort Zachery Taylor Park in Key West, FL on April 19th. In the spring of 2017 TWO separate individual Cuban Vireos were reported, the first from the Key West, Florida Indigenous Park on April 10 and the second in Key Largo (very near the Western Spindalis flock) on April 29th.
Speaking of vireos, what would Florida’s most amazing Caribbean invasion be without a smattering of Thick-billed Vireos?… The first in fall on November 30th and two subsequent reports of the same or different individuals on April 24th and April 26th from Crandon Park and Bill Bagg’s respectively!
Earlier in the post I mentioned Bahama Mockingbird, a species typically only seen in Florida once every other year on average. During the unprecedented Caribbean invasion of 2017, up to NINE individual Bahama Mockingbirds were being seen along the east coast of Florida between Fort Lauderdale and Key West, all found between April 20th and May 8th (Evergreen Cemetery, Hugh T. Birch Park, Crandon Park, Elliot Key, Windley Key, Lower Matecumbe Key, No Name Key, and Key West). With such unprecedented numbers of rarities popping up at every turn, the report of a potential first US record of a Tropical Mockingbird in Lake Worth and Florida’s potential first Brown-chested Martin near the small town of “Christmas”seemed almost expected.
You’ll learn more about the icing on the cake, the first Bahama Woodstar hummingbird to occur in Florida in nearly 30 years, in a blog post written by contributing writer Jim Eager. All combined the sheer volume of Caribbean vagrant bird species seen this past winter / spring represents a rarity fallout for the ages. Something that most of us may never see the likes of again in our lifetimes! As to the exact cause we may never know but destruction of the native habitats on the nearby islands again seems a very plausible contributing factor that is hard to deny.