Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Gullywasher & Merritt Island (Part Four)


Here at the Sullivan household, we are still embroiled in the fallout from my mom's passing last month, but this is a blog post I wrote many moons ago, and I just haven't had the time to post. It's the final installment in the trip Robin and I took to Florida in February -- oh how the time flies!! I hope you enjoy it.  If you missed any of the prior posts, you can find them here.


  • The Great Bird Trip of 2019 - Part Three (The Everglades Adventure)
  • The Great Bird Trip of 2019 - Part Two (The Old Man and the Sea)
  • The Great Bird Trip of 2019 - Part One (Yes, this is another birding post)

  • Yellow-Breasted Birder

    That night I dreamed Robin had purchased a stroller for Josh and it rolled with a squeak, squeak! “I’m just not comfortable leaving him in the car, and those big trees, well, they intimidate him. He’s just a little tree.” I heard her saying.

    When I awoke, the blue sky had turned dark and clouds blanketed the world. It started raining before I got my first cup of coffee, and when it came, it came hard. All hopes of a day spent like Clint Howard and Dennis Weaver flying through the grass of the Everglades on a fan boat were drowned in an all-day rainstorm. Consulting a weather app’s satellite map, we spotted a short break in the cloud pattern.

    “We should go for it,” Robin declared. She took out a pen and grabbed a napkin to diagram the approach. “We'll make a surgical strike. Here, here, and here. If we time this right and nail the window, we can be in and out with photos of Wood Storks and Spoonbills.”

    “How?” I asked.

    She held up a park map. “I know where they nest!”

    We plowed through the cats and dogs (yes, that's a rain reference - there were no actual pets falling from the sky), and arrived at the park gate early in the morning. Interesting side note, Everglades is open 24/7, and if you get there before the gate guard, there’s no one to pay the entry fee to. And they’re okay with that. We’d bought a three-day pass on the prior day, so it didn’t matter, but still.

    At that time in the morning, in the middle of February, and in a driving downpour forecast to last all day, you’d be surprised how few tourists you’ll find on the back roads in a 1.5 million acre wetland wilderness—or maybe not. I think there were four cars in the whole park.

    Then it happened. The rain stopped. The window had arrived, the only problem was we still weren’t at the nesting site. I did manage to shoot a red-shouldered hawk on the side of the road, but I already had one of those. By the time we arrived, sprinkles began to hit the windshield once more.

    “We’re running out of time!”

    We reached the little pond with signs that warned: Nesting site, do not disturb birds!

    Pulling out a plastic bag from the backseat (that we received when purchasing Starburst and Reeses' Peanut Butter Cups for the road), I covered my camera and we crept up on the pond. Sure enough. Wood Storks and Spoonbills! They were far away, and the sky was so cloudy I hardly had any light, but I ripped off the plastic (thankfully I have a big hood to protect the lens) took aim, focused, held my breath and…click.

    Normally, if this were a western, or a thriller, pulling the trigger and hearing a click would be a bad thing, but with a camera the sound was perfect. I actually had the camera on Sport/Action mode making it into an automatic rapid fire: click, click, click.

    Spoonbills and Wood Storks
    “Work it, baby, work it,” I whispered to the spoonbill. I suppose, standing in the rain taking pictures of oblivious birds across a swampy pond in an empty park pull-off while my wife, and quest side-kick, babysat our insecure lime tree just brings out the Annie Leibovitz in me.  Although now that I think of it, I doubt Annie ever uttered those words in her life!

    But I digress, the bottom line is I got them, and none too soon. The rain came back angry as ever, perhaps displeased that it hadn't foiled us.  The great eye of Sauron had found us.

    We tried to escape, but that’s when the Prowler went lame.  The car began to scream. Honestly, that’s the best way to describe the shrieking sound—okay shrieking is also a pretty good way. A horrible metal on metal noise emitted from the rear driver-side tire that made our skins crawl. Imagine a child raking their teeth across a microphone hooked to a stadium-size band-amplified speaker system, and you’d—okay so now there are at least three ways to describe this.

    We pulled over, into another pull-off where—believe it or not—two other cars of tourists were parked and trying to quietly coax a look at a bird. Dirty looks greeted us as we shrieked our way in.

    What the hell was making that racket? Their scowls asked.

    To help describe why this was so odd, you have to understand how ridiculously simple the Tesla is. There is no engine, drive train, timing belt, pistons, camshafts, radiator, exhaust system, axles, or transmission. Like a health snob, it doesn’t drink oil or needs transmission fluid. Heck for all I know,  the only liquid the Prowler has is windshield wiper wash. When we first visited the Tesla showroom we saw a stripped-down display of the car. It consisted of four wheels, four little electric motors attached to them and the bed of the car. I assumed this was done so potential buyers could see the wheels or something. What it actually showed was the whole working car minus the irrelevant interior and exterior body—you know, the seats,  doors, roof and such. In other words, the whole car is just four little electric motors, four wheels, and a battery that looks like the bed of the car. With so few parts to the thing, what could possibly go wrong?

    “Back up,” I told Robin, who was at the wheel.

    Slipping it into reverse we rolled silently backward. And I do mean silently—electric cars make no sound except the tires on the road.

    Pleased to hear nothing, I said. “Forward?”

    Robin went ahead and once more the screaming resumed, and plastic hooded heads standing in the rain near the water turned and scowled once more.

    “What now?” Robin asked. “This sounds serious.”

    We were, at that moment, deep in the Everglades. So far in the wilderness, in fact, that I couldn’t recall the last time I had spotted a Starbucks. And it was raining. At the moment it was just a pleasant sprinkle, but we knew from the satellite recon images that the vicious gullywasher was going to be returning at any moment.

    Complicating all this, it’s not like a Tesla can simply be towed. You can’t even jack it to change a tire because the bottom of the car is one huge battery. For that reason, there’s no spare tire. If you get a flat you’re supposed to call Tesla, and they will come out and take care of you…no matter where you are.

    Okay. Let's try that.

    I called Tesla.  I described the situation, then held the phone to the wheel as Robin rolled forward, once more testing the patience of the tourists near us.

    “Yes, yes!” the voice on the phone yelled. “I can hear it. That sounds really horrible.”

    I explained where we were and how hopeless it all seemed.

    It was obvious we were screwed.

    “So, what do we do?”

    “Is it raining, or has it recently rained where you are?” the voice from my phone asked cryptically. 

    “Ahh, yeah.”

    “Okay. This is going to sound…well…odd.”

    “At the moment I’m open to odd.” We really didn’t have a lot of options besides waiting all day for a flatbed tow truck to be sent from Miami.

    “Right. If you are in a safe place and feel comfortable doing it…floor your car, then slam on the breaks.”

    One more thing about Teslas. They are ridiculously quick. There’s even something called the Ludicrous Feature that helps the car accelerate at, well, ludicrous speed. Anyway, a Tesla doesn't pull on a mechanical linkage, pump gas into a carburetor, and create explosions under pressure to push pistons that crank a shaft to get it moving. When you press the accelerator on a Tesla, the car goes that speed, period. If you "punch it," you’d better have your head against the headrest. And this will happen even at high speeds. Flooring a Tesla isn’t something you do lightly—although it is something you do quite often for fun.

    “What has happened,” the voice in my hand told me, “is that debris has gotten caught in the wheel case. I know the sound it creates is monstrous and scary, but it isn’t at all harmful. Nothing bad will happen to you or the car as a result. To stop the sound all you need do it jar it loose. If you were near a car wash or a hose, you could spray it out. Given your situation, just a good slam of the brakes should do.”

    I looked at Robin. We both looked at the tourists. We both smiled.

    “Hang on, Josh, we going for a ride.” (Okay not the best quote from the worst Indiana Jones movie ever, but it was fitting).

    I can’t tell you if our roadside neighbors were shocked or upset because the moment Robin pressed the pedal to the floor we were gone. I regretted not having a car safety-seat for Josh as she then hammered the brake. At this point, I was certain the other park visitors figured we were insane or screwing with them. We never looked back because the Screaming Eagle was back to the Silent Prowler once more.

    With my stork and spoonbill adequately bagged, I was up to 72 birds. Time to head north.  We still had a few more days before we needed to catch the return train, and we had two options.

    On my very first birding expedition to Occoquan Bay Wildlife Refuge on the Potomac, I met a genuine birder. Birders are without exception very nice and friendly people. The man’s name was Scott and he took me under his…um…wing.

    Besides explaining all sorts of things, (and upon hearing we would soon be going to Florida) he told me I should go to a place called Merritt Island, which was halfway down the Florida Peninsula on the Atlantic side. This birding Mecca was only an hour away from the train station, which made it appealing. Also, close to the train station: Disney World.

    Having had three children, Robin and I have visited the Magic Kingdom many times. First as teenagers, then as parents, but we haven’t seen Mickey and Minnie in years. The real draw was the new Harry Potter World at Universal. We’d been birding for six straight days. Tomorrow was Valentine’s Day. Robin deserved to have some fun on this trip, too.

    “Nope,” she replied when the idea alternative location was raised. “Let’s go to Merritt.”

    “You sure?”

    She nodded, then got quiet.

    “What?”

    She shrugged. “I used to love Disney and Universal. The fact that I don’t want to go makes me feel old.”

    I wanted to say something poetic like, “You're not old, you're like a fine wine and get better with age.” Instead, I nodded sympathetically and replied. “Me too, but that's not such a big deal.”

    That night in the hotel room, we worked on a few minor changes to Age of Legend so Robin could send out the ARC. We ended up working until nine-thirty and at that hour were forced to grab an awful dinner at the hotel restaurant. We were the last seated table. We might be too old to jump at the chance to visit Disney World/Universal Studios, but Florida was used to serving an even older crowd who were asleep after Jeopardy.

    The next morning we were up at dawn. We checked out of the hotel and hit the local Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and a half-dozen pastries, and drove past the Kennedy Space Center and on up onto Merritt Island.

    Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge shares the Atlantic coast of Florida's largest barrier island with NASA's Kennedy Space Center and visitor complex. The refuge consists of 140,000 acres containing over 1,000 species of plants, 117 fish, 68 amphibians and reptiles, 330 birds, and 31 mammals. Merritt Island provides hiking and driving trails for the public, and it's a 'gateway site' for the Great Florida Birding Trail. Birders, we were told, travel from all over the world to visit the refuge, and in particular one specific road.

    “Black Point Wildlife Drive,” a wonderful, elderly lady and volunteer behind the counter at the Refuge’s headquarters said. “They come for all over—all over the world to go on this road. You should take the bus. Our guide is the best! He’s just the very best!”

    Robin and I stood in the little building that was part wildlife museum, part admissions center, part souvenir store (which hadn’t opened for business yet). The bus tour guide was waiting for his customers to arrive. The tour was full up, but if we wanted to stick around we were assured there were always empty seats.

    “Folks wake up at dawn,” the wildlife guide explained. “and they look out the window. After remembering they’re on vacation, they reconsider going out so early.”

    Robin and I aren't one for "group tours," so we thanked them, paid our admission fee, and started what would be the closest thing to an African Safari we're likely to go on.

    Black Point Wildlife Drive is a seven-mile, one-way gravel road that winds through the coastal refuge. Cars roll at a crawl and stop frequently with people climbing out to peer with binoculars or take photos. If the cars were khaki-colored land cruisers instead of Hondas and Ford SUVs, we could have been in Kenya.

    We spotted ducks on the water and stopped. I don’t have many ducks yet, so these were likely to be new birds. We stopped and I got out to shoot every time we saw a bird, which in hindsight reminded me of the opening scene in Ghostbusters where Ray Stantz describes with rapture his excitement of witnessing the undersea mass sponge migration to Peter Venkman, then the three professors walk into the stacks of the New York Public library and are blown away by the full-torso apparition.

    Robin and I were about to enter the stacks.  Merritt Island is full of birds.  Around every curve were ibis, herons, teals, terns, osprey, willets, shovelers, pelicans, egrets and more—not one or two, but flocks of them. Groups of cars would converge, and occupants stepped out to talk in hushed tones, identifying the various groups.

    One person we met was a science writer who happened to come to the island and turned on that road with no idea what she was getting into. “This is great, but I don’t know anything about birding. I should have brought binoculars!”

    Others were longtime birders who helped me I.D. several of the harder to recognize waders.

    The bus eventually came through and deposited its brood. The guide pointed out the roseate spoonbill. “Yes, yes everyone look at the brilliant pink spoonbill. Go head, get it out of your system. When you’re done I’ll tell you about the Blue-wing Teals and Northern Shovelers.”

    I shot coots and tons of glossy Ibis, and another gallinule, this one a commoner.



    Afterward, we went to town, had a wonderful lunch, then returned and took another jungle-like trail followed by a Savannah-like path searching for the infamous Florida Scrub Jay. We failed to see it on either path. Neither did anyone else we ran across, and it became a running joke, especially since the trail we were on was called the Scrub Jay Trail!

    At the end of the day, as we were passing out through a gate, and there it was! I spotted a Scrub Jay. We pulled over and caught the bird on a branch to the applause of our fellow hunters. At the end of the day, I had a full camera and we packed up for the return trip.

    I spent most of the train ride home going through photos that I downloaded to my iPad, identifying them with the use of my books and the Merlin App, and adding each to my journal. When the numbers were finally tallied, Robin said, "You might want to lie when you get home. You don't want to crush Sarah's spirit."

    Of course, the first thing Sarah said when we returned was, “How many?” No inquiries about how our trip was, did we have fun, or why was there a small potted tree in the living room. She was only interested in one thing.

    My wife cringed.“How many would be too many, do you think?” Robin asked.

     “Did you get over a hundred? A hundred and forty would be a lot.”

    Robin and I relaxed.  “Didn’t break a hundred,” I admitted. 

    “How many then?”

    “I more than doubled my list. Total is now 92.”

    Sarah nodded. “I expected well over a hundred. That’s doable. But now I have to get serious and go to High Island for the spring migration.”

    “Why don’t you both go to High Island?” Robin suggested.

    “You know a father-daughter thing.”

    “Don’t you mean a Gamora-Thanos thing?”

    “Okay, I’ll come too,” Robin said.

    “If I go to High Island,” I said. “I might as well go ahead and get the big lens. So many of the birds were just out of range for a clear shot.”

    “Then it’s settled,” Robin flipped open her computer. “I’ll book it.”

    “On one condition,” I said. “ Josh stays here.”

    Robin nodded. “I’ll get a sitter.”

    Blue-winged Teal

    Common Gallinule

    Glossy Ibis

    Great Egret

    Roseate Spoonbill

    Sanderling

    Non-Breeding Tri-colored Heron

    White Pelicans

    Friday, May 3, 2019

    TIL: I'm a USA Today Bestselling Author

    Today I got up like any other day and had myself a cup of coffee. Upstairs in the cabin's loft, Robin was entering some sales data form Del Rey in her spreadsheet and she said. "Huh, there's a new button in the author portal which indicates bestseller status. Guess what. You're a USA Today Bestselling Author -- twice!"

    Yep, apparently, Age of Swords hit the 8/3/2017 list, coming in at 102, and Age of War hit the 7/12/2018 list. They came in 102 and 68 respectively. A little digging also shows Age of Myth hit the Amazon ebook bestseller list for 3/19/2017--a nice little surprise!

    In other news...both Age of Myth and Age of War popped up on the Washington Post's Hardcover bestseller list (for the week ending April 7th).  That's the 3rd time for Myth and 5th time for War.  Age of Swords has been on the list at least once, maybe twice.


    All that is some pretty nice surprises to wake up to.  Thanks all for your continued support!


    Thursday, May 2, 2019

    The Great Bird Trip of 2019 - Part Three (The Everglades Adventure)


    Everglades

















    I remember when I first got my driver’s license. Back then, I would drive just for the fun of it. But when I was sent to the store to get milk, I discovered the experience was so much more fulfilling. Having a reason to do something made a difference. Manhattan is built for business, and when I first visited it as a tourist it was nice, but when I go there now, as I do for audio recordings or to meet with publishers, the visits feel more satisfying. It’s the difference between going to Aspen just to visit, or going to ski.

    Walking in the wild is nice. It is pleasant, calming, stress relieving, but without a purpose beyond getting your steps in, it can also feel a tad pointless. People like points. We like purpose and a sense of accomplishing something. Hunting birds give reason to the journey, making a quest out of a mere walk. Using a camera rather than a rifle means I fail to bring home a freezer full of meat, but I also don’t need a license. I do, however, get a souvenir I can hang on my wall. I get pictures. Stalking with a camera provides most of the same joys. I get exercise, see beautiful places, and of course, there is that heart-pounding moment when you actually see something—something great. For a deer hunter, that might be a rack of antlers; for me, it’s a new bird for my list.

    By the time we left the Florida Keys, I had shot 23 new birds for a total of 67. I was feeling pretty good, and we still weren’t done. Turns out, Everglades National Park is right at the tip of Florida. I set the Prowler’s GPS to the main gate of the park and settled back into Eames’s Kings of the Wyld, when all of a sudden—

    “Stop!” Robin shouted, her eyes fixed on the side of the road.

    Assuming a small child was in hot pursuit of a bouncy ball rolling into my lane, or more importantly, she had spotted a new bird, I politely asked the Prowler to come to a stop.

    “Look! Look! The sign!”

    On the side of the road, there was a propped up, hand-painted wooden board marked with the words: Key Lime Trees 4 Sale!

    “Really?” I asked.

    “I could make Key lime pies at home!”

    “It’s snowing at home.”

    “Josh can stay inside until spring.”

    “Josh?”

    She nodded. “That’s his name.”

    “Whose name?”

    “My Key lime tree. Josh Lyman.”

    Seven minutes later I had a two-foot lime tree in the back seat. We were also on our way to a birding hot spot. What I didn’t know was that up north a huge winter storm was pushing down and the weather was about to change.

    The Seminole call it Pahokee, meaning "Grassy Water,” and the Everglades essentially means River of Grass, as noted by famed journalist and writer, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who concluded that cartographers substituted the word “ever” for “river” with glade being an old-fashioned English word for grassy open space. Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. established in 1947 and is comprised of 1.5 million acres. So, of course, Sancho and I figured a day and a half would do it.

    The half-day started as soon as we returned to Florida proper. We drove up to this very indistinct, out of the way gate that seemed more like the service entrance to the Magic Kingdom. Then we drove to the Anhinga Trail. I already had shot one of these snake birds on Key West, but rumor held I could get a better one here.  We parked in the sun, so Robin took Josh out and placed him in the shady eaves of the nearby jungle where he wouldn’t feel so hot or isolated and perhaps might make a few new friends. For a tree, Josh was already quite the world-traveler.

    Anhinga Trail

    The Anhinga Trail is mostly a raised boardwalk through wetlands, and it is filled with Anhingas, who are as friendly as seagulls in a coastal MacDonald’s parking lot. There are also alligators. These often thousand-pound lizards napped in the sun on the side of the trail. In August of 2018, the news was awash with a story about a woman in South Carolina who was killed by an alligator while walking her dog. This left me less than comfortable when at one point a pair of “napping” gators lay on opposite sides of the path. Fellow tourists, mindlessly snapping photos, often spotted one, then began to back into the other. I wondered how long before the trail was renamed: “Gator Lunch Path.” The safari was getting a bit real at this point, and Don Quixote forgot about the birds for a moment to keep a better eye on Sancho Panza. 

    Gauntlet of Many Teeth
    Once past the Gauntlet of Many Teeth, I spotted one of the birds I was after. The famed Purple Gallinule--noted as the most colorful bird in the Everglades. Gallinules stand on lily pads, walking from one to another like floating platforms. Using its beak, it lifts and searches underneath for food. I spotted one far across a lily-padded pond. Easy to identify as it is bright purple, blue, red, white and yellow and the size of a big quail or small duck. Problem was it stuck to the shadows and was over forty yards away. Once more my 70-200mm managed a provable, though hopelessly blurry, photo. Robin was able to see it clearly with the Nikon binocs just before the bird retreated into the undergrowth. Others came up excited, but the bird had vanished. 

    Purple Gallinule
    We found another trail that went into the jungle, and after checking on Josh to make sure he wasn’t being bullied by the other trees, we went exploring. This was where the hunt really shined. The two of us crept slowly, silently sneaking through the shadows avoiding the twigs and brittle leaves that might make noise. I held my slung camera at the ready, while Robin had both hands on the binoculars. Then she raised a hand indicating a halt. She’d heard something.

    I listened and heard it too. A very distinct, very unusual whistling song the likes of which neither of us had ever heard. We waited, held our breaths, listening. Then down the path came a couple with their child in a stroller making more noise than a herd of rattling cans. We frowned at each other and waited for the couple to move off.  They didn’t. Instead, they stopped to look at the nearby pond.

    After what seemed forever, during which we battled malaria-carrying misquotes, they finally packed up. Robin, impatient, moved around a clump of trees certain she’d heard the bird on the other side. If nothing else, she hoped to frighten it toward me. I waited, watching the little family load up their stroller and then off they went pushing their daughter and—squeak, squeak! It was the bird! Robin spun to search the leaves.

    “Robin!”

    “Shush!” She waved at me to be quiet.

    “Robin!”

    “Quiet, I hear it!”

    “I do, too, but it’s not a bird.” I pointed at the family moving down the trail. “It’s the stroller.”

    The voice of British naturalist David Attenborough returned: The baby stroller or Baby Trend Expedition Premiere Jogger Travel System, is a large gray and black monstrosity, which can easily reach 18 kilograms, and have a 30-centimeter wheel-span, and exists almost exclusively as a curse to parents, and Everglade birders.

    We’d had enough for one day. I only added three more to my list, but I was up to an even 70 birds, and tomorrow we’d come back. Our plan was to charter one of those big fan boats and go deep into the park. At the very least we’d be able to see the Wood Stork and the Rosette Spoonbill, and maybe even a flamingo.

    What I didn’t know was that the winter storm was almost to Florida.

    Anhinga

    Anhinga

    Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

    Great Blue Heron

    Green Heron

    Mockingbird

    Yellow-throated Warbler
    NEXT UP: The Gullywasher

    Sick and Tired

    As expected, the flu got me. Good news: I’m now immune to at least that strain, most likely for life. They should sell t-shirts. The flu nearly killed me and all I got was this lousy immunity. I shouldn’t complain. According to the CDC: 80,000 people died of flu last winter in the U.S., making it the highest death toll in 40 years. Robin and I are still feeling the after-effects, but everything is mostly back to normal. More importantly, we are back to work.

    Age of Legend has gone out to Kickstarter backers. The print file is in process. The audio production is moving, and I am back working on Book 2 of the Fall, which I am rather pleased with now that I am re-reading it to remember where I left off.

    Perhaps most importantly, my daughter and I are in a virtual tie in our birding contest. And as I am way behind with regard to posting about it, I must now put up the final post from my trip to Key West to complete that story.