The Western Kingbird is not often seen in Florida but has showed up recently in Hendry County.
In 1973, the now famous birder, Kenn Kaufman, at the age of 16, dropped out of high school and hitch-hiked all across the country in pursuit of setting a new Big Year record of bird species seen in North America. He covered over 69,000 miles and spent less than $1,000 total, travelling from Key West to Alaska and Baja California to Maine. He chronicled his exploits in an excellent coming of age autobiography entitled Kingbird Highway. An internet search did not disclose why he chose that title, but his thumbing rides, eating cat food, sleeping under the stars experience certainly qualified him as a “King of the Road,” searching for birds along hundreds of highways. Now finally, to the point of all this – there is a road here in Florida, out in Hendry County, south of Clewiston and Lake Okeechobee, near STA-5, known simply as County Road 835, that truly qualifies as “Kingbird Highway.”
For the past several winters, Western Kingbirds and an occasional Cassin’s Kingbird (above, left) have found this area to their liking. Western Kingbirds are expected to be here in Florida in small numbers most winters. They sometimes appear in St Lucie County on the fences that keep poachers out of the orange groves along Route 70. But Cassin’s Kingbird breeds primarily in New Mexico and Arizona, and winters on the west coast of Mexico and the Baja Peninsula, extending north into southern California. Any that show up in Florida clearly have a mal-functioning GPS.
To top it off, this year a Gray Kingbird (right) , a common summer resident of mostly coastal Florida, stayed for the winter on Kingbird Highway instead of migrating to the West Indies with all the rest of its kin. If you add the Eastern Kingbird (above), a common summer bird throughout the eastern United States, including Hendry County, you have all of the Kingbirds that might reasonably be expected in eastern North America in one relatively small area: Kingbird Highway. Note: Now if the Loggerhead Kingbird (below) that appeared in Key West in March 2007 for one of its very rare North American appearances, ever shows up on Kingbird Highway - that will REALLY be something to write about.
Incidentally, Kenn Kaufman did not set the Big Year record on his try in 1973. His total of 666 was trumped by 669 seen that same year by a student doing a doctoral dissertation on bird conservation named Floyd Murdoch. The current record is held by Sandy Komito at 748 species set in 1996. (5/8/2012)