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

3 comments:

  1. Love your new hobby. It is rubbing off, too. I am much more careful of keeping my feeders full since you started posting. Mostly house finch, wrens and the occasional goldfinch. This morning, however, I saw a Lazuli Bunting for the first time. The ruby-throated hummingbirds should be showing up any day. Unfortunately, except for the rare lost tanager, that is the extent of the exotic variety we get here. Love the posts. Looking forward to the next.

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  2. Thanks so much for sharing the wonderful pix.

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