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National Perspective | Environment

Accidentals Happen, to Birders' Joy

February 08, 2001|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FLAMINGO, Fla. — The stranger has been hanging around Eco Pond for weeks. The curious have been flocking from all over to see him. And he seems to love the attention.

As cameras clicked and binoculars zoomed in on every move, the yellow-faced grassquit flitted from fence post to cattail, disappeared behind a bush and reappeared to preen and pose again.

"It's a thrill," said Paul Baicich, 52, the editor of Birding magazine, who last weekend left his home in Maryland, flew to Miami and then drove 90 minutes south, all the while hoping the sparrow-sized visitor would not take off. "There aren't many people who have ever seen this in the U.S."

A native of the Caribbean islands, the yellow-faced grassquit has shown up in Florida only a handful of times in the last century--most recently in 1990.

When the bird was first spotted here Jan. 20, deep within Everglades National Park, few took notice. But thanks to the Internet and a network of rare-bird-alert hotlines, hard-core birders soon were atwitter. "It's a real biggie," said Orlando birder and tour guide leader Wes Biggs. "When people start coming from California and Oregon, it's a biggie."

More than 60 million Americans spend more than $30 billion annually on travel, equipment and books about birding, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reports. "Birding is one of the unsung popular sports in America, rivaling golf," spokesman Chris Tollefson said.

For people like Baicich and Biggs, who have traveled the world in search of birds to add to their life lists--a count of all the species they have seen--birds are a passion. And accidentals, or vagrant birds, pop up all the time.

In California, the big news among birders this week remains the shorebird, sighted at Bolinas Lagoon in Marin County, that has been identified as a Mongolian plover from Asia. "Hundreds of people from the East Coast have come out for that," said Bruce Deuel, a biologist for California's Department of Fish & Game.

Among those who jetted to Florida for a look at the grassquit was Gary Stitzinger, a 911 operator and ski patrolman from Ketchum, Idaho. "I had planned this trip around the flamingo, which is a bird I need," he said last weekend. "But the grassquit is a bonus."

For Stitzinger, the grassquit boosts his North American life list to 751--the number of species he has seen in Canada and the United States, excluding Hawaii. "That means Gary has the birding disease bad," Baicich said. Only a handful of birders in the country have more than 800 birds on their North American list.

Why the solitary male grassquit--an olive-colored bird with a yellow throat and eye stripe--turned up here is unknown. It could have been blown north from Cuba by a storm, or it may have obeyed a territorial instinct to expand its range.

But the commotion over its visit has been an economic boon for the park. Last weekend, all 103 motel rooms and 23 cabins in the Flamingo Lodge--the only housing in the park--were taken, and hundreds of other visitors were in tents and trailers in the campground.

How long the grassquit will stick around is anybody's guess. "Every day, people show up and heave a sigh of relief that it's still here," said ranger Timothy Downey. "Some are what we call white-knuckle listers. They come in on the run, clutching their binoculars, desperate to see it. And they check it off and go."

That was Monday. On Wednesday, park ranger C.J. Grimes said that the bird hadn't been spotted in a couple of days. But that doesn't mean he's not out there. So still the birders come.

There is a wide range of nature on display in the park--from alligators in saw grass water holes to American crocodiles and manatees in Florida Bay. But the avifauna is the prime attraction.

Even though the spring migration of warblers from the Caribbean and South America has not yet begun, wading birds--including roseate spoonbills and white ibises--hawks, ducks, shorebirds and various songbirds are abundant. Ospreys nest on the roof of the lodge, bald eagles soar over the mangroves and mockingbirds sing at all hours.

But for the last three weeks, the yellow-faced grassquit has been the star of the show.

"To me, every bird you see is like a new acquaintance," said retired National Park Service biologist Richard Cunningham, who traveled 60 miles from his Miami home to see the grassquit. "In this case, the attraction is what may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this bird in the U.S."

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