Monday, March 4, 2019

The Great Bird Trip of 2019 - Part One

Yes, this is another birding post.

When I was thirteen, my brother-in-law—a Detroit police officer—bought me a 30-30 Winchester rifle and took me deer hunting on his hundred-acre farm in western Michigan. I was less than impressed with the experience, which consisted of going out early on a winter morning and sitting in the woods on a bright orange Hot Seat—a round plastic pillow filled with insulating beads that were supposed to warm your butt as you sat in the snow.

I waited alone for hours in a dense thicket watching a power line that deer reportedly traveled. After a few minutes, my legs started to go to sleep. After an hour, my feet went numb and my fingertips decided to join them. My nose ran, and my mind wandered. I daydreamed, as was my habit, and I made up fantastical stories in my head until I was told hunting was over and I could go home. The whole enterprise was less than stellar. I was cold, wet, cramped-up from sitting still for so long, but most of all, I was bored. I never saw a deer, never fired the rifle—not even in target practice. Even after only one attempt, I realized that sitting on a Hot Seat in the snow and waiting for an animal isn’t hunting—it’s waiting. Hunting is the pursuit, or search for something, and you can’t do that sitting on your ass.

As a recreational sport, hunting left me cold—literally. I would later learn (from more accomplished hunters) that shooting a deer wasn’t so important, but more of a bonus. Most of the enjoyment is derived from just getting away from work and family and having a reason to be out in nature—and then there was the heavy drinking with friends in camp. Being thirteen, and having a cop for a mentor, I was missing out on the best parts. As a result, I never took up hunting.

Until now.

For those of you who are just joining us, this last Thanksgiving, my daughter and I began a contest to see who could photograph the largest number of wild bird species in one year. Why? Because we’re strange people. Given I write fantasy for a living you should already have guessed that much.

If you are thinking “Aww, you should let your little girl win,” be aware my daughter is twenty-nine years old and a ruthless competitor. She will stop at nothing (except cheating) to crush her father. My wife, Robin, tries to be impartial, but that’s hard when we live together and I frequently enlist her aid in my dastardly plans to achieve victory in this completely pointless contest. And in this adventure to slay windmills, she has now become my Sancho Panza in that she’s the sane one.

As of my last posting, the score was Fabulous Fantasy Author: 44, Devious Daughter: 46. I was losing. Sarah was beating me by two birds, and neither one of us had shot a new one in over a month despite my frequent hunting among the hills, mountains, and lakes of the Shenandoah Valley while my daughter scoured the Potomac River. All that was about to change. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, were going on safari.

It’s winter here in Virginia. While not Chicago-cold, the trees are bare, grass—when visible—is brown, and wind gusts are chilling. Those unhampered by work or family and capable of arranging flights to warmer climates usually do so. That includes birds. Most of them are gone. I imagine the lucky ones decompressing with their fellow peeps in the berry-laden bushes at golf course resorts, complaining about how the younger generation feel it’s okay to live off of feeders and no longer even know how to forage.

Clearly, I needed to go south, and the farther the better.

Rules for our contest mimic those of The Big Year, which restricts us to only birds found in the continental United States and Canada. A quick scan of a North American map revealed an ideal solution.

Key West is an island and the southernmost city in the contiguous United States. The island is 4 miles long and 1 mile wide. Most of you know it as the setting for the movies True Lies, License to Kill, and The Rose Tattoo. Or perhaps you know that it's the place where Ernest Hemingway spent his winters, and it's the birthplace of the Key Lime pie. Most importantly—for our purposes—it is also the southernmost end of U.S. Route 1, the longest north-south road in the United States, meaning: you can drive there. This was particularly significant because in October our Tesla 3 arrived.

Similar to buying a book on Amazon, Robin and I ordered the car online and the thing was delivered to our door, which was amazing because our door is in the middle of nowhere. Out here in the Shenandoah Valley, a Tesla is an alien thing. I’ve been stopped in grocery stores and questioned by cashiers asking, “Are you the fella that drives the Tesla?” One woman told me her son loves my car, and explained how he had gone to the Tesla site and after having tricked out his dream vehicle, her son was ready to input her credit card info when she caught him. Her son is eight years old.  So around the Valley, I’m not “The Science Fiction and Fantasy author, famed creator of Royce and Hadrian” but rather “the guy who drives the Tesla.”

Now, for more than a decade, Robin and I never took vacations. Kids, work, and finances made it impossible. Now the kids are all grown, we don’t “work” anymore, and thanks to all of you, our finances have improved. Last year we went to St. John’s in the Caribbean, which took two cars, two planes, a train, a jeep, and a boat to get there. Now, armed with the Tesla, we wanted someplace we could go with it.

Key West seemed perfect. We’d never been there, it was almost the Caribbean, and we could drive to it. So why not? Well, for one it’s 27 hours away—a shocking figure since I felt Virginia was already sort of south. When we were teenagers, Robin and I thought nothing of driving the 20 hours from Detroit to Orlando, but we aren’t teenagers anymore. The idea of pulling an all-nighter, even in a car that almost drives itself was even less appealing than sitting in the snow watching power lines sway in a cold breeze. I was ready to give up on the idea but Robin—being the genius that she is—discovered the Auto Train.

You can have dinner at one of the white cloth-draped tables in the dining car, a drink in the lounge, then get a good night sleep in your own private room in the sleeper car. The next morning, you arrive in Orlando…with your car. There are no security lines, no luggage restrictions (people stuff their automobiles like Thanksgiving turkeys). They serve wine with dinner, have coffee bars in every car, and you are taken care of by a steward wearing a neat uniform and a friendly smile.

This is old-world civilized travel. Sancho had saved the day!

My daughter was not at all pleased. “You’re going to get a ton of birds,” she frowned, arms crossed, tapping her foot.

“Maybe,” I replied, and smiled. “Three at least.”  Most birds were still in South America and wouldn’t make the harrowing flight across the Gulf of Mexico for another two months, so my expectations were that I hoped to nail ten. A dozen would really make the trip worth it—that and I suppose there might also be some nice weather, good food, and rum drinks.

I packed my 70-200mm telephoto lens, the new waterproof Nikon binoculars that my wife got me for Christmas, my giant National Geographic Birds of North America coffee table book, my Kaufman Field Guide, and my Birding Journal, along with my beloved fountain pens that I can’t ever bring on planes because of the pressure changes makes them explode. Usually, I travel extremely light. Just a little carry-on and a messenger bag so as to avoid checking luggage. Yet being that this time I could pack like Rose voyaging on the Titanic, I thought, what the heck, and tossed in some clothes and a swimsuit as well—hey, you never know.

Boarding the Train
Now, one of the many strange things about my wife and I is that ever since we were in our twenties, we always found ourselves on vacation with old people—not older people mind you, but truly old people. All the things that interested us: steam-boating down the Mississippi, Alaskan cruises, boat trips down the Rhine—were all filled with the walking dead.

Arriving at the station near Washington D.C. We found nothing had changed. Granted, I recently received an AARP card in the mail, so we now blend in a lot better, but we were still two of the youngest passengers. There are several advantages to this. Older people tend to be more interesting to talk to as they have a greater repertoire of stories.

At dinner, we met a fellow who insisted he had a system to beat roulette in Vegas, and his near-deaf friend who listed his dog as a dependent on his tax returns. The most interesting person I talked to was a little seventy-seven-year-old man who sat across from me at breakfast and whose appearance revealed no hint of his past. The man had been a navy seal who, in his youth, had trained in Key West. After leaving the service, he became a New York City fireman and was there when the twin towers fell. “They had more men than equipment, so I waited outside,” he told me over bagels and coffee. “Thing is, everyone who went in—my friends—they knew the building was coming down. We just thought we had more time.” This navy-seal-turned-retired-fireman was on his way to The Villages in Florida where everyone drives around in golf carts.

The only issue with being on a generationally handicapped train was the momentary hassle of needing to reach the bathroom and becoming trapped in the narrow jostling corridor while tailgating a snail using a tennis-ball-equipped walker. This was a minor frustration, and given my mind was on birds rather than any exotic railroad liaison of the mysterious sultry type, I was fine. After all, I wasn’t looking for a twenty-three year old Lauren Bacall from Key Largo—I was going to Key West.

The roomette
For the most part, the train was like entering a good Agatha Christie novel—that one about the train, anyway. Lots of interesting characters, intriguing overheard conversations, and the world racing by a massive window that panned Americana’s finest eastern landscapes. Our roomette was upstairs, two big seats that faced each other until night when the steward magically transformed them into upper and lower bunks. Robin worked on last-minute edits for Age of Legend, while I drank a pair of Sam Adams Winter Lager and studied my bird books, brushing up on those species I was likely to see. After dinner, we went to sleep and woke up near Orlando, Florida.

Maybe its the flowers being in bloom, or the sudden change from bare trees to full foliage, but whenever I arrive in Florida and step out into the warm air, the state always smells faintly sweet and fragrant as if perfumed by hidden sprayers. Tall coconut palm trees and massive spiky green plants filled a flat landscape where islands of shopping malls were connected by the broad gray lines of superhighways.

The first bird I met was a loud black thing the size of a crow, very active with a vast songbook.  I shot it, only to realize it was a Common Grackle. I already had one of those, dang it!

Common Grackle
The trip from Orlando past Miami to the keys can be summed up in one word: Traffic. Miami has the density of a black hole and that gravity creates a nightmare of congestion. Luckily, we had the Tesla. Aside from the ridiculously painless purchasing process, the Tesla is the best car I have ever owned. It handles so well on Shenandoah’s Mountain roads that we named it the Prowler because it feels like being on the back of a panther. Some of this has to do with the sports car tight handling, but mostly it is due to the strong energy reclaim that occurs when you let up on the accelerator, which slows the car so much, you almost never need to touch the brake, even when going downhill. In stop-and-go traffic, the auto-drive feature stand out. In particular, the smart cruise control that maintains a specified distance between you and the car ahead. This made the long slog around Miami tolerable as we listened to the audio version of Nick Eames’s Kings of the Wyld. Once past the black hole, we hit Route 1 and left the tip of Florida. The world changed: traffic eased, skies cleared, the temperature rose, time slowed down, stress dissolved, and all the ickiness of the world slipped behind us.

We had entered the Keys.

NEXT UP: Key West


  1. I have lately become a big fan of these bird posts.

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