Friday, January 16, 2015

Quail-Dove Quest

Back in late September, I saw on the ABA Rare Bird Alert page that there was a Key West Quail-Dove at Long Key State Park. It was the first North American record since 2002.  I already had a sketch of a December Florida trip planned out, and all I could do was hope it would stick around. Reports fizzled out, then in early December, a Quail-Dove was once again being seen consistently at Long Key. I had to go for it. My mom and I arrived mid-afternoon, and after setting up camp at the park's beautiful campground, I began my search.

I don't really know what I was expecting the Quail-Dove chase to be like. I'm used to chasing rare ducks and shorebirds, where you basically just scope a field until you see the bird. This method usually doesn't take that long. It's pretty easy. This, however, is not how you find a Key West Quail-Dove. The preferred search technique for this bird, I learned, is to slowly wander the section of trail where the dove had been seen, in the hammock-type habitat. While ambling in dead silence, you peer into the dense tangle of foliage, hoping, by some remote stroke of luck, to spot it. I soon settled into an uncomfortably-tense, hyper-alert state. Every time the tiniest animal took a step, I heard it, and immediately whipped around to see what it was. I was finding giant hermit crabs scuffling deep within thickets. I saw more anoles than I've seen in my life. But no Quail-Dove. It was a bizarre and surreal experience. This went on for hours, until the park ranger showed up and told myself and half a dozen other birders to wrap it up because it was getting dark. No bird.

Golden Orb Trail, prime Quail-Dove habitat. 
I had the next morning to search again - it was my last chance. Luckily, the bird was being seen with more regularity early in the morning, before the park gates opened (I was already in the park at the campground). So around 7 AM, I resumed my slow meander up and down the Golden Orb Trail with other birders. After forty five or so minutes, still no luck. I eventually worked my way back toward the trailhead. Along the edges of the mangroves, I heard a rustling sound. I began looking around, trying to identify the source of noise. I took a few more steps, and I heard a bird take off. To my amazement, a large, chunky dove flew low across the trail, five yards away. It was a beautiful rufous color, and the undersides were a light grayish-buffy. My heart skipped a beat - it was the Key West Quail Dove! It landed out of sight, I heard it scurrying through the underbrush, and it was gone. I alerted the other nearby birders, two of whom had seen the bird(s) just a few minutes earlier. I stuck around a little while longer to try and re-find the bird with the rest of the birders, but I eventually just decided to head out - now that I had seen the bird, I wanted to see more of the Keys than that short patch of trail! Later that day, however, two Quail-Doves were seen and photographed together, proving that there was more than just one at Long Key. This is a historical discovery - the last time two were reported together in North America was in 1832, by none other than John James Audubon. There is a chance these doves bred at Long Key!

I read Audubon's account of the Key West Quail-Dove from 1832: "The flight of this bird is low, swift, and protracted...  it is fond of going out from the thickets early in the morning, for the purpose of cleansing itself in the shelly sand that surrounds the island; but the instant it perceives danger it flies off to the woods, throws itself into the thickest part of them, alights on the ground, and runs off with rapidity until it thinks itself secure." This is almost exactly what I saw on this day - the dove was somewhere along the shoreline in the mangroves in the early morning, and flew in this exact manner as soon as it perceived human presence into the dense hammock. I could hear the bird scurrying after it landed, but could not re-find it - I guess it found a nice hiding place.

Despite my mediocre and somewhat unsatisfying view of the bird, I left the park happy. Others had pored hours and hours into trying to see that bird. I was lucky.