If birds were cast in a Broadway show, vireos would play the strong supporting characters, hitting their cues but letting the flashier actors command the spotlight. Still, there are certain species that deserve a starring role. Take the endemic Cuban Vireo, for instance: Wherever it turns up in the States (which doesn't happen very often at all), the birding paparazzi follow. On the opposite coast, the Least Bell's Vireo has carved out its own celebrity status, largely because it's endangered and a pain to identify.
So take a break from your local neighborhood vireos and strive for one that's still exotic to your life list. Here are four species that should be the focus of your next birding adventure.
With a bold hood that contrasts its bright white mask and red eyes, the Black-capped wins best-looking vireo in my book. Specific habitat needs, however, limit its North American breeding range to just a few scrub-choked hillsides in Oklahoma and central Texas. Most birders get their lifer in the Texas Hill Country, where they can also find the Golden-cheeked Warbler. Try Lost Maples State Natural Area, which is about a two-hour drive from San Antonio and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever birded.
Since landing on the federal endangered species list in 1986, this subspecies of the Bell’s Vireo has increased tenfold from its low point of around 300 pairs. The bird is slowly reclaiming parts of California where it once bred, including the San Joaquin River in the Central Valley. Yet it remains vulnerable to development and climate change, so don’t wait to go see it. Look for nesting pairs in willows along rivers and keep in mind that someday the Least Bell’s might be split into a separate species.
The Cuban Vireo is an extremely rare visitor from the tropics—so rare that it wasn’t seen in the United States until April 2016. I was one of the few thousand lucky birders who nabbed the lingering vagrant at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park on the tip of Key West, Florida. The species was seen in the area again this year, so it’s worth a shot. The worst that can happen is that you’re hanging out in Key West—enjoying a cocktail and doing some birding.
While you’re down in south Florida, keep an eye out for the Black-whiskered Vireo, a common but local specialty. It can be found right on the coast in mangrove swamps or even a little farther inland in patches of live oak. The bird looks a lot like its cousin the Red-eyed Vireo, save for the namesake streak on its face drooping down like an avian Fu Manchu. Its song apparently sounds like whip-Tom-Kelly, making it the second-most terrible torture mnemonic after whip-poor-Will.