I wasn’t going to chase after the yellow-green vireo that showed up at Dagny Johnson State Park in Key Largo late last week. On the one hand, I didn’t expect him to stay. I had heard of two sightings in the Lower Keys and they were both brief looks at birds that disappeared within minutes, never to be found. No one even got pictures.
I don’t really like chasing after rarities. See them, of course. But giving up the rest of your life to travel a long distance in search of a bird that you might or might not see doesn’t hold much charm for me. Also, you tend to get up too early. Moreover, the traffic on the 4th of July weekend would undoubtedly be reminiscent of the fifth, and possibly the ninth circle of hell.
When Kevin Christman asked me if I wanted to go yellow-green vireo hunting on Saturday, I said, maybe, if I could get up in time. What I thought was a polite way to say no. And then, weirdly enough, I was awake at 6:30 a.m. Saturday, so I texted Kevin. I think nostalgia partly drove me, which is strange for a bird you’ve never seen.
The first sighting in the Lower Keys was of sharp-eyed Brennan Mulrooney in 2002. The second was of bird whisperer Carl Goodrich and extremely grumpy Murray Gardler in 2008. I used to birds fairly regularly with the three of them, but Brennan moved to California a while ago, Murray passed away a few years ago, and Carl sold his house in Key West when his wife could no longer travel from Cape Cod. Honestly, any time I look around Fort Zach or the native park and don’t see any, I’m always disappointed.
Chasing after a rarity they had all seen and I hadn’t seen wouldn’t be the same as birdwatching with them, but maybe it would feel somewhat adjacent.
The first recorded yellow-green vireo in North America was seen in Quebec, of all, in the spring of 1883. (North America, for the purposes of ornithology and birdwatching in general, is defined as anything north of the Mexican border.)
Yellow-green vireos are a Central American species, breeding from Mexico to the southern tip of Panama. In winter, the entire species migrates to South America.
The working theory of the Quebec bird was that it traveled with a flock of closely related red-eyed vireos, which also winter in South America, but breed throughout North America, as far south as the Territories. from the northwest, and when the red-eyes began to move north, the yellow-green got a little excited and traveled with them.
The next yellow-green vireo recorded in North America was seen in California in 1887.
And then nothing. Until 1958, when we showed up in Pensacola. The bird was described as perched in a live oak tree, alternately singing and eating caterpillars. The spotters did what many people who found rare birds did at the time – they shot it.
This is not as despicable an act as it seems. At the time, it was the only real way to prove that such a rarity had been seen. And the stuffed skin was sent to a university collection for further study of ornithology. Better optics, relatively affordable cameras, and changing social mores have made these practices much less common.
What got me thinking is that the observer/collectors also saw a second yellow-green vireo, which was not singing, probably a female. So there was a chance that two birds outside their normal range had bred. This is how range expansion occurs and, at its lowest level, how new species appear (although speciation tends to take a few eons).
Since then, yellow-green vireos have become more common in North America. They sneak across the border into Arizona and occasionally into New Mexico and California, and they now breed quite regularly in the southernmost parts of Texas.
I found a dozen records of them in Florida on eBird.
Dagny Johnson Park can be buggy, but mosquitoes were oddly absent when we got there. At the entrance arch we met a few bird watchers who were leaving and asked if they had seen the vireo. They said yes, told us where to look and said to be a little patient. Then one of them recognized me from Key West and asked me if I knew how Carl Goodrich was doing. I said he fell a few weeks ago and hit his face badly, but reports said he was on the mend.
Further in the park, we heard the vireo quite quickly. He was high in a mahogany, singing loudly. The folks at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology rather uncharitably describe the yellow-green’s two-note song as monotonous and “like a house sparrow that’s taken singing lessons.”
I thought the bird could have enunciated better, but there was a strength, a solidity in the notes. What was both amazing and frustrating, however, was the way the bird could cast its voice. We watched this tree for five, 10, 20 minutes as it sang at the top of its voice, and we couldn’t find it. The song would sound like it was coming from different parts of the tree, but if the bird was moving, we would have seen it. For a moment I was almost convinced it was two birds.
There are bird watchers who will consider a bird a lifer if they have heard but not seen it. I’ve never been one of those people, but as the stiff neck in my neck has built up from watching, I thought about it.
Then Kevin said, “I can see his butt.”
“It pooped,” he added.
There were layers and layers of sheets to go through, but eventually I lined up the spaces between them the right way and saw what Kevin was seeing, something similar to what Brennan, Carl and Murray had seen all those years ago. It was high in the upper right quadrant of the tree. His buttocks were turned towards us, but from time to time he moved his head and gave us a profile. It was a pale little thing, half a cigar long, whitish and brownish for the most part, but tinged on the sides with a lemon meringue hue that blended with the green of the leaves.
We stayed there for a few hours, losing the bird and finding it several times, the bird singing most of the time, but rarely betraying itself.