I am typing this in between pauses to curl my fingers around my mug of camp-stove earl grey, the tapping of the keys accompanied by the sounds of the world’s loudest train and “Two-and-a-half Men” laugh tracks emanating from the nearest RV. The last two days were quite a whirlwind, and I made myself a promise that I’d turn in a bit early this evening so I could plan my itinerary for tomorrow. I’ve been thinking about what I want to write all day, but now that it’s actually time to do it all I want to do is go to sleep under mountains of blankets. During my first two full days in Florida, I tore through the Lake Apopka Restoration Area, Tosohatchee (I tried for Orlando Wetlands but it’s closed until February), Daytona Beach, and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. So far I’ve tallied 97 Florida species, including at least 15 lifers if I’ve counted correctly. I awoke unscathed from my first night of camping alone and got an early start over to the Lake Apopka Restoration area to see about some Groove-Billed Anis. I’ve been following the emails about them for about two weeks now in hopes that they’d stick around until I got here. My chances seemed pretty good being that they had given other birders a fabulous show, sitting right by the trail every day for the past two weeks. I arrived at the same time as two English birders who pointed me in the right direction and had seen the birds several days before. When I got to the correct location, there were a few birders milling about looking downtrodden and fielding questions about whether they’d seen them yet. Someone said that they had not been seen the day before, but that it had been rainy and cold and that maybe when the sun came out they’d show themselves. We scanned the surrounding trees for a while, providing me with a faraway look at my lifer Vermillion Flycatcher. Some Sandhill Cranes flew over, there were plenty of Ibises (Ibi? Ibis?) milling about, the Common Yellowthroats began to drive me crazy, lurking in the brush and tricking me into thinking they were something more exciting, and a couple of Red-Shouldered Hawks called constantly throughout the morning. It was pretty gloomy early on with a cold north wind and I didn’t even see the sun until about 10:00 AM or so. In fact, a Scottish birder lamented that it was “cold as stepmother’s breath” when discussing where the Anis could have gone. I wanted to try my luck over at Orlando Wetlands before it got too late, so I dipped on out of there and dipped on the elusive black devils as well. Naturally I just received an email saying that the Anis were seen today. Looks like I’ll be making another stop on my way back up this dastardly peninsula.
Seeing that Orlando Wetlands was closed, I started to make my way towards Daytona Beach and passed right by Tosohatchee WMA. I remember hearing someone mention it was nice, so I spent some time driving through the pine stands and along the canal. I found a Yellow-Throated Warbler, B&W Warbler, White-Eyed Vireo, Blue-Headed Vireo, and all the woodpeckers I could ask for (except the only one I am asking for, which is Red-Cockaded). After that I high-tailed it over to Daytona Beach to meet up with the rarest of Parrot Flocks, Tom Johnson, Doug Gochfeld, and Glen Davis. Naturally, they managed to scrounge up the Facebook-famous F05 Lesser Black-backed Gull and my lifer Thayer’s Gull. There were also plenty of Willets, Royal Terns, Sanderlings, Red Knots (several flagged), a Sandwich Tern, and an escaped Chimpanzee. After a dinner of great seafood and even better company, I set off for my next campground (which I have been warned to keep more secret by my loving mother) and set up camp in the dark. Dangerously close to getting my car stuck in the mud surrounding my campsite, I fretted for about an hour and dirtied my beautiful new tent and shoes before going to sleep. At the crack of dawn I made my way to Merritt Island NWR, one of the many hotspots I’ve been looking forward to for a while now. I spent the next 8 hours accumulating 75 species plus vindicating my otter dip in Virginia Beach twofold! I inched around the wildlife loop, glad to have gotten there early to avoid the worst of the traffic. Lifers include:
- Roseate Spoonbill
- Wood Stork
- Reddish Egret
- Florida Scrub-Jay
- Mottled Duck
- NINE-BANDED ARMADILLO!
- River Otter
- Southern Black Racer
- Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake
- Some neat salamander that I have yet to ID
I could spend weeks traipsing through that refuge. The two otters I saw were swimming around each other playfully, apparently fishing with quick, fluid motions. I was hoping for some rare sparrows, but all I got were Swamp and Savannah and the ubiquitous Yellowthroats making me think they were rare sparrows every chance they got. At one point I looked up to see a flock of Killdeer booking it over a small impoundment. Two seconds later, I heard a rapid WHOOSH that I knew could only mean one thing. Where the Killdeer had just been, a Peregrine Falcon flapped off with a limp figure dangling from its talons. I will never get over that noise and the fact that it saw those Killdeer from a height at which it was invisible to the naked eye. Still my favorite bird, hands down. When I went to walk the Scrub Trail for Scrub-Jays, I had the creepiest encounter of the trip thus far. I got about a quarter of a mile down the trail when I realized someone was behind me. I slowed down and pretended to look at some nonexistent birds in order to let the person pass so I could take my time and not feel like someone was following me. Christmas miracle that it was, Santa Claus waddled up to me (i.e. a morbidly obese, tattooed man in the shortest shorts I’ve ever seen) and introduced himself as Tom. He shook my hand, holding it for just a moment longer than I’d have liked (which was no moments because he was a stranger on a remote trail) and immediately asked where I was camping when I told him I was making my way around Florida. I avoided his question and booked it down the trail away from him after he made it clear he didn’t want to part ways any time soon. When asked if he was just out here to enjoy the scenery, he replied, “Something like that” and gave me a look I would think is most often reserved for brothels. It kind of put a damper on my Scrub-Jay excitement feeling like I couldn’t look at them for too long in case my new friend showed up with something more in mind. When I got back to my car, he was sitting in his truck next to me with his hand situated in a precarious location that I did not investigate too closely. He asked me if I’d seen any birds and with a one-word reply I high-tailed it out of there to search for some manatees. Upon reaching the Haulover Canal Observation Platform, I noticed that the woman who had just showed up had left behind two cats in the front seat of her car. We got to talking and she said she was from Massachusetts and was just on vacation with her cats. She snuck them into her hotel room and everything. I have glimpsed my future and it is bleak. Now it’s a solo trip to Florida, but someday soon I fear I will be the crazy cat lady toting around her Siamese to the Everglades. The water was proclaimed to be too cold today for the manatees, and indeed I did not see a single sign of the gentle sea giants during the hour and a half I waited. What I did see was arguably better, however. I was sitting on the bank of the canal in the shade when I heard a strange guttural sound from the woods behind me. With Anis still on my mind (even though I know that’s not what they sound like) I raced back there to investigate and came across the cutest snuffling leprosy vector this side of the Mississippi. Sir armadillo was not bothered in the least by my paparazzi-like frenzy, and went about his business as usual. All in all it was a most exceptional day, and I am more excited than ever for the days to come.
My fingers are just about frozen solid right now, so I’m going to call it a night and try to lock down my plan for tomorrow. I will add pictures to this post tomorrow…it’s way too much effort to get them off my camera or phone right now. Sorry, my beauties. Goodnight, all! May armadillos visit your dreams and creepy Toms be limited to your nightmares.