Question: What is your greatest birding mishap story?
I, Frank Izaguirre, do swear the following account is entirely true.
I grew up in Miami, and as many birders know, South Florida is blessed with many special birds to be found in its interesting tropical landscapes.
Finding some of them is fairly straightforward—it’s usually not too hard to turn up a white-crowned pigeon or black-whiskered vireo in the right season, and sometimes gray kingbirds can feel like they’re on just about every street corner with a tree.
But one South Florida specialty has a reputation for evading the gaze of eager visitors: the mangrove cuckoo. South Florida birders in the know will typically have a spot or two with a good chance for success, but even then, a tape is often needed and still doesn’t guarantee the bird.
I’ve heard mangrove cuckoo isn’t as hard in other parts of the Caribbean, but in South Florida, the only part of its range in the ABA Area and with few vagrant records elsewhere, the black mask fits this phantom of the mangroves.
I needed the bird, and something about it enticed me more than the other specialties. Its wild croaking, its reputation for staying hidden deep in its mangrove haunts, the evocative name. Even the black mask, which along with its buffy underparts is the most differentiating plumage detail compared to the yellow-billed cuckoo, adds allure, like the mangrove cuckoo is some kind of rogue cuckoo defector, hiding out in the tropical wilderness. Maybe that’s exactly what it is.
My sense is that young birders today have fairly good prospects for meeting and birding with other young people while in middle and high school. Although I’ve heard of birders older than me that knew and birded with other birders their age in their high school years, for me, the choice was either bird with folks several decades older on organized walks, or bird alone. So I often birded alone.
And I went to some pretty cool places that way, not always the kind of places that might be recommended to go to alone. Among them, by far my favorite is Snake Bight, a trail at the tip of the Florida Peninsula deep in Everglades National Park, where I would years later propose to my wife.
I learned about Snake Bight after reading about it, like so many dangerous things, on the internet: it was a recommended spot for the mangrove cuckoo.
Snake Bight is a really good birding spot. Perhaps most famously, it used to offer decent chances for American flamingo, but is well known for its spectacular views of hundreds and sometimes thousands of wading birds and shorebirds feeding on the mudflats, especially when exposed, as art by Rafael Gálvez depicts on the April 2018 cover of Birding.
But there’s a catch. The trail that leads out to Snake Bight is fairly long, a little under two miles, and notoriously mosquito-y—many birders will not make the trek for that sole reason, and it’s common for people to turn back in terror after just a hundred meters once the blood-sucking hordes descend. There used to be a tram that would take passengers out to the point, but that was long gone even when I was in high school.
I didn’t have a good sense of how to find a mangrove cuckoo at that time, but I did have a fairly good sense of what I was up against mosquito-wise. I wore long sleeves and pants, sprayed myself with 100% DEET, and walked quickly and deliberately down the trail.
The mosquitoes were bad—really bad—but they mostly hovered in close before pulling away from my DEET-soaked clothes and the little bit of exposed skin on my face. The swarm did make it impossible to properly bird the trail, but it was ok. Before I knew it, I’d reached the end.
The great thing about Snake Bight is if you’re bold enough to brave the entire length of the trail, the small boardwalk at the end offers the most pleasant relief: the seabreeze keeps the mosquitoes at bay, and you are often surrounded by loads of birds, one of the grand spectacles of birding the ABA Area. The sunset is beautiful there, but don’t stay long: the bugs get even worse after dark.
On this first visit to Snake Bight, I had two glorious lifers: a clapper rail moving through the red mangrove pneumatophores and a flock of a couple dozen marbled godwits. Herons flew overhead and called from the mangroves. A pair of the South Florida subspecies of prairie warbler, Paludicola, trill-buzzed nearby. I stayed for a long time, doing my best to ID the distant birds and trying not to agonize over those too far out. No cuckoo though, and I had to head back.
The view from Snake Bight, complete with quite distant shorebirds and wading birds.
I braced for the bugs, and they came hard and fast. I don’t know why—maybe I was just tired—but they irritated me a lot more. I was walking really fast, but they were unbearable. And that made me do something stupid. Really, unbelievably dumb.
But of course, I thought I was being smart. In mid-stride, I reached into my pocket and produced the DEET, and I began spraying it over my shoulders to thin out the clouds. It kind of seemed to be working a little, so I kept occasionally spraying over my shoulder, until I tripped on a root and sprayed 100% DEET directly in my eyes.
Like, it really, really burned.
A throbbing, needle-like sting, hot and everywhere.
The only thing that offered even mild relief was to close my eyes really tight. I tried holding them closed for a while and then opening again, but it was too painful to keep them open for more than a second.
Get ready for the kicker: I didn’t have any water left on me to wash out my eyes—I’d have to wait until I got back to the car, from which I was probably still between 1.5 to 1.75 miles away.
So I started running Snake Bight Trail with my eyes closed and burning horribly. Fortunately, the trail is a fairly straight shot, and every now and then I could just open my eyes for a split second to make sure I wasn’t about to trip on a mangrove root or run into the canal alongside the trail or step into an alligator’s mouth.
You may have been wondering this whole time if there are any snakes at Snake Bight—absolutely, it’s quite well named and there are lots of racers that often lie on the trail. They usually slither away when they hear you coming, but from what I understand the racers can be fairly quick to bite if threatened, like if you, say, step on one because you can’t see.
So it wasn’t the best situation ever, but the blind running technique was actually working pretty well. I didn’t even have to open my eyes often, only when I started to feel nervous that I wasn’t running straight anymore, and it was one of those times that…it happened.
Above me and a little to my right, perched on a mangrove branch: a cuckoo. With a mask. A mangrove cuckoo. Yes. Mmhm. A mangrove cuckoo was staring right at me, its neck craned downward inquisitively.
And it hurt—it hurt so, so much to keep my eyes open so I could see this gorgeous mangrove cuckoo, and I kept them open as long as I could, staring at this excellent bird, until I couldn’t stand the stinging anymore and shut them tight for a few seconds of relief. When I opened them back up, the bird was gone. I looked around for an extremely brief moment, hoping to at least catch another glimpse, but all I could see were clouds of mosquitoes and my eyes were burning again so I closed them back up and kept running.
Eventually, I got back to the car, washed out my eyes, took a breath, drove home, and absolutely did not tell my parents what had happened.
Birders love adventures—the birds make us go on adventures. And on these adventures, mishaps are inevitable. Sometimes we see great birds that way, and sometimes we don’t, but we often come out with memorable stories.
The Snake Bight mangrove cuckoo is my greatest birding mishap story. What’s yours?