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

    5 comments:

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      ReplyDelete
    2. I'm quite partial of the sanderling in the surf picture. A great image.

      However, I must take issue with you on one small thing:

      "Okay not the best quote from the worst Indiana Jones movie ever, but it was fitting"

      Them's fightin' words! Not because I think The Temple of Doom is the best but because The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is so utterly bad.

      ReplyDelete
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    5. Michael,
      What do you use to track your sightings? I was just poking around the web and came across eBird. Thoughts?

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