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Looking up! First U.S. spotting of Cuban bird made in Keys trees

BY GWEN FILOSA KeysInfoNet

This Cuban vireo appeared this week in Key West in a corner of Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.
This Cuban vireo appeared this week in Key West in a corner of Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. For KeysInfoNet

Bird-watchers of the serious stripe ventured to Key West this week to witness the first U.S. sighting of the Cuban vireo — a thumb-sized, yellow-breasted bird — in the trees at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.

To birders, it was a groundbreaking discovery.

"It's sensational," said Sandy Komito, 84, of Boynton Beach, who drove down Thursday morning after he heard of the sighting. "This adds excitement to the game."

Komito is a legend in the birding field, having set a record in 1998 by logging 745 species in one year as he traveled the U.S. and Canada, according to the American Birding Association.

A New Jersey native, Komito inspired the champion bird-watcher Owen Wilson played in the 2011 romantic comedy "The Big Year," a performance he jokingly called "perfect" as he waited for the vireo to dart into sight from the trees.

It's possibly the first Cuban vireo sighting in all of North America, according to Mark Hedden, director of the Florida Keys Audubon Society who was one of the first to lay eyes on the feathered Cuban visitor.

About 14 birders, most clutching high-powered camera lenses, staked out a woody spot aside the parking lot of Fort Zach Thursday morning.

Like a chivalrous band of paparazzi, the birders quietly pointed out the vireo, who zipped about tree branches and was discovered Tuesday morning by Hedden and his pals.

"There were four of us birding," Key Wester Hedden said as the vireo fascinated a group of birders Thursday. "We heard this call we couldn't identify. For 20 minutes we hung around listening for it and at one point it popped up in that tree."

Birder Carl Goodrich then positively identified it as a Cuban vireo, Hedden said.

The vireo's 90-plus mile flight from its homeland was a success, said Hedden, who pointed out the bird was happily finding food in the bushes.

Hedden, who has been hunting birds as a guide, photographer and writer for 15 years, said the Cuban vireo appeared in fine health.

"He could move on or he could live out his life in the park," Hedden said, recognizing the bird's single status. "He's probably not going to find love."

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