Midway through a corner on a shady street of a pleasant Miami suburb, Paul Bithorn stopped the car short. In front of us, planted impractically in the middle of the road, was a silver thatch palm, its slaty fronds fanning out like the rays of a colorless sun.
The tree took a step forward, and I realized it was not in fact a palm, but a peacock.
His backside was toward us, his front angled at a pair of peahens that stood closely together in the shadow of his tail feathers. The peahens were not wowed by his height or his splendor, and when he advanced they sidled away, wary as debutantes at a truck stop.
After several sallies, he stopped and tried a new move — a full body quiver that produced a dry rattle. The hens stepped farther away. The woo pitching continued, despite the lack of results — he’d advance, he’d rattle, they’d retreat. The hens fell back until they were pushed against a dirt pile, and then they climbed up on it.
Bithorn put the car into gear as the peacock moved to the base of the pile, below his reluctant Juliets.
As we passed from his back to his front, he changed from a gray silhouette to an ornate, bursting filigree of emerald and sapphire, and you had to wonder how they could resist. Maybe they were playing hard to get. No doubt, we were missing subtleties of mating behavior that had been worked out thousands of generations ago in the jungles of India but were still functioning in the land of ranch houses, mailboxes, and lawns into which they’d been transplanted.
Torpedo in a tube
A few hours later, just after passing what Bithorn described as the boyhood home of Ted Hendricks — “NFL Hall of Famer, University of Miami great, winner of four Super Bowl rings” — he stopped the car again. This time, he pointed to a round terra-cotta scupper that angled from the facade of a stucco house, out of which hung, like a torpedo in a tube, a Green Parakeet.
We stared at it. It stared at us. I got out of the car to take a photo, and it retreated.
We’d dubbed the trip Exotics-a-Go-Go. It’s not like we wouldn’t acknowledge native species. In Kendall, a suburb southwest of Miami, we’d seen a White-crowned Pigeon, remarked upon how it was an unusual place to see one, even slowed the car a bit. We’d pointed out the first half-dozen or so Loggerhead Shrikes we’d seen, too. But the excursion was planned as a marathon of introduced species – mostly parrots, but with a mix of other target birds thrown in. The peafowl were a bonus.
There were three of us on the mission: Bithorn, myself, and Gallus Quigley, a birder from Orlando midway through an all-Florida Big Year. Gallus was good company and excellently named. When repeated, his first name makes up two thirds of the Latin name for your basic barnyard poultry — Gallus gallus domesticus — yet he’d never developed any sort of chicken-oriented nickname.
To understand a place, you need to learn about the landscape. In urban Miami this can be a challenge, as most of the landscape is gone. Gone might not be the completely right word — it’s still there, but the glades, marshes, mangroves, and hardwood hammocks of yore have been reshaped, replumbed, paved, filled, built upon, sodded, and graveled. Few areas in the United States have been developed so rapidly.
Wild South Florida still exists, but it’s marginalized. You can see it in its modern glory and try to imagine its former glory in places like the Everglades and the backcountry of the Florida Keys. The difference between the old and the new is startling. It’s most visible when you fly in — the vast expanses of sawgrass, mud, and slow-moving water suddenly giving way to urban and suburban sprawl. It’s like somebody flipped a switch.
Newly created niches
Native bird species are still common in Miami, but the strongest in number are the urban-savvy ones — Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, Northern Mockingbirds, White Ibis, Loggerhead Shrikes. Many of the species that occupy the newly created niches are non-natives — birds that were imported as pets, escaped, met up with other members of their species, and began new lives in a new world.
According to Bill Pranty, author of A Birder’s Guide to Florida (American Birding Association, 1996) and keeper of the exotics-reported-in-Florida list, more than 200 human-introduced species have been seen in the Sunshine State, including 76 species of parrots. The bulk of the birds have been in Miami-Dade County.
If you keep your life list according to American Birding Association rules, many of the birds aren’t countable. A number are, though. Some, like European Starling, House Sparrow, and Rock Pigeon, are everywhere in the ABA zone. Others, such as Red-whiskered Bulbul, Spot-breasted Oriole, White-winged Parakeet, and the recently-added-to-the-list Common Myna, are Miami specialties. A number of other species meet the criteria for the ABA-list inclusion, except for the requirement that they be well and formally documented.
For the unschooled, finding your way around Miami, and finding birds while finding your way, can be a daunting task, which is why I called Paul Bithorn.
Bithorn is a hard guy to sum up.
The cocktail-party fact about him is that he is the former mayor of Virginia Gardens, a very human-scale enclave of working folks just north of Miami International Airport. He is also director of training for Plumbers Local Union 519. He is capable, on the deep ocean, of unhooking a live barracuda and throwing it back in whilst keeping an eye out for storm-petrels, and he tends to thinks of Belgian ales the way sailors think of women.
Similar to most Miamians, his forebears came from everywhere — Cuba, Puerto Rico, New Jersey. (His uncle Hiram Bithorn was the first Puerto Rican to play Major League Baseball. A stadium in San Juan is named after him.) Unlike most Miamians, he was born there and has lived within the same two blocks all his 55 years. He bought his current house 30 years ago from a retired Cuban diplomat who’d been present when Archduke Ferdinand was shot. He pronounces Miami “mime-uh,” not “my-am-me.” Most germane to this story, he’s been a birder all his life and is the go-to guy for finding exotics in South Florida.
Catch them loafing
We started the morning in Little Havana, driving slowly through empty bank parking lots, around car dealerships yet to open, and in and out of residential neighborhoods. Paul and Gallus had birded the neighborhood the day before with no luck, but parrots are hyper-peripatetic creatures. Looking for them is often an exercise in checking a large number of spots multiple times. “You have to catch them loafing and hope they’re calling when they’re loafing,” Bithorn said.
We stopped in front of a small pink house behind a chain-link fence. There was a large mango tree in the yard, a clothesline full of shirts, and a few feeders. On the feeders were three or four White-winged Parakeets, crawling around, chomping seed, acting as sly as parakeets can.
The White-winged Parakeet and the Yellow-chevroned Parakeet used to be considered subspecies of the Canary-winged Parakeet but were split. Between 1968 and 1972, an estimated 230,000 White-wings were imported into the United States as pets. Enough birds got loose in hospitable climates like Miami, San Francisco, and Las Vegas that breeding populations began to form. It is both an exotic and an ABA-countable bird.
Getting into the car, we heard a ruckus. We drove down the block, windows open, and heard it again, but from a different direction. We turned around. Then we heard it from a third direction. Finally, we found them, high in a flowering sausage tree, an ornamental from tropical Africa known for its long, sausage-like fruit (and far more beautiful than the name implies, unless you really like sausages). There were dozens of White-winged Parakeets, some standing upright on branches, some sideways, some hanging upside down, all of them squawking.
“They weren’t around here yesterday,” Bithorn said, taking in the spectacle.
“No, they most certainly were not,” Gallus said.
An hour later, we were in Coral Gables, one of Miami’s first planned communities, now grown wealthy, old, and lush, famous for its banyan-lined streets and an ordinance making it illegal to park a pickup truck in your driveway overnight.
Matheson Hammock Park
We parked across the street from Matheson Hammock Park, on Biscayne Bay, and started down a dirt trail. Dogs passed us, then their owners did. The only birds we saw were cardinals. At the end of the trail, we entered into a large open area, several acres of grass dotted with big-trunked royal palm trees that rose 30 or 40 feet into the air, a garden of frozen giants.
Overhead came the sound of a car alarm. We looked up to see a pair of Hill Mynas, transplants from Asia, loping across the sky. They were dark birds, black with traffic-safety-orange bills, white wing patches that flashed as they flew, and yellow wattles that encircled the backs of their heads like Roman laurels. They landed in one of the palms and disappeared into a cavity.
From a nesting hole in a different royal palm, a Lilac-crowned Parrot complete with red forehead, green cheeks, and lilac crown poked a head out to survey the scene.
Bithorn pointed out a Chestnut-fronted Macaw hanging from a dead frond on a royal palm standing farther away.
Despite it being a foot-and-a-half-long bird with green, blue, and red plumage and a broad white face patch, we had trouble finding it.
“There,” Bithorn kept saying, pointing at it.
“Where?” Gallus asked.
“There, near the bend,” Bithorn said. “You got 10 seconds to find it before I take your binoculars.”
Finally, I found it. It was hanging upside down but right out in the open, mimicking the arc of the frond.
Gallus protested the unfairness of the time limit, as it was before 10 in the morning.
“Three,” Bithorn said. “Two. One.”
“Oh, there it is,” Gallus said.
In the neighborhood across the street from Baptist Hospital of Miami in Kendall, we drove slowly past undifferentiated quarter-acre lawns, eyeing trees and phone lines for birds with crests. A handful of Red-whiskered Bulbuls, another ABA-countable, was released into the area in the 1960s.
13 established exotics in Florida
1. Muscovy Duck (Cairina moschata)
2. Rock Pigeon (Columba livia)
3. Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
4. Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus)
5. Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus)
6. White-winged Parakeet (Brotogeris versicolurus)
7. Black-hooded Parakeet (Nandayus nenday)
8. Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus)
9. European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
10. Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis)
11. Spot-breasted Oriole (Icterus pectoralis)
12. House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
13. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Sources: Official State List of the Birds of Florida, Florida Ornithological Society Records Committee. North American Birds, Vol. 61 (2007), No. 4.
In the middle of one block, a Monk Parakeet nest spilled over in the gap between a telephone pole and a transformer, one of the residents climbing on its side. Bithorn said the power company kept taking down the nest, and the parakeets kept rebuilding it.
We stopped several times in the neighborhood for bulbuls that turned out to be Blue Jays before finding a real pair of bulbuls. They posed calmly on a wire, giving us great looks at their red and white cheeks, red crissums, and dark crests, until a Northern Mockingbird swooped in to evict them.
Back in Virginia Gardens, Bithorn spotted a friend in a neck brace. He asked what happened, and we got the medical lowdown. Then the friend asked what we were doing.
“Looking for parrots,” Bithorn said.
“You should go over to my yard. They’re all in the old oak tree,” he said. As we were driving away, he added, “How do I get rid of them?”
A few minutes later, we were standing under the oak tree. At first, there seemed to be nothing, and Bithorn noted the challenge of finding green birds in a green tree.
“Over here,” Gallus said, and pointed into the deep shadows of the canopy. Four birds were cozied up on a branch. One of them flapped and revealed crimson and yellow in the wing, making them Crimson-fronted Parakeets. A few minutes later, we found a snoozy pair of Green Parakeets on a different branch.
After lunch at Woody’s, a cool, dark tavern with a Marlins game on the television, we began a search pattern through Virginia Gardens and the neighboring Miami Springs, cruising back alleys, popping up next to small parks and public swimming pools, zigzagging from block to block. Eventually, I began to recognize certain bird feeders, lawn chairs, inflatable pools, and cars, but tracing the routes between the various landmarks would have been impossible.
We drove by a square pond in which a Snow Goose decoy was floating. Bithorn tried to convince us it was a Ross’s Goose in intermediate plumage. We picked up White-eyed Parakeet, Mitred Parakeet, Red-crowned Parakeet, and Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, the last a debatably countable ABA bird, depending on how you interpret the rules.
In an empty lot behind a nursing home, we saw an orange flash shoot by low and fly up into a ficus tree – a Spot-breasted Oriole, a countable exotic from Central America that has spread throughout eastern South Florida but is always a challenge to find. Then a second, brighter bird flew to the same spot. “That one was a male. See the flame-colored head?” Bithorn asked.
I got out of the car to digiscope the pair but lost track of them while setting up my tripod. Back in the car, Bithorn and Gallus were laughing.
“Did you see that?” Bithorn asked. “They were copulating.”
I said no, I did not see that, and then sulked in the vehicle’s back seat for a time.
Late in the afternoon, we dropped off Gallus, so he could head back to Orlando, and then looped around Virginia Gardens and Miami Springs some more. We stopped at the same non-flowering African tulip tree three times to no avail.
On our fourth stop, we spotted three Amazonas high in the branches: One was a Yellow-crowned Parrot; the other three were Orange-winged Parrots. We sat slumped in the front seats for a while, watching and listening to them squawk. Paul said it was a good way to end the day. I agreed.
Then we stopped at three or four more places on the way back to his house.
Mark Hedden is a writer and birding guide in Key West. He blogs occasionally at www.boneisland.com.