This is Report No. 3 of The Lutman's Tropics 2000 Trip. It finishes up Florida.
We wake up near the Ocala National Forest to overcast skies. I am jazzed because we are heading into the area that I figured was the highest probability for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers on the trip. And this is the first place where we might see the Florida Scrub-jay, cousin to our Western Scrub-jay. We see the National Forest sign and I reset the trip odometer. WILD TURKEY hen on the right side of the freeway.
The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are cool. They have "ladderbacks" with no vertical white stripe in the middle. They have a large white cheek-patch. The male has a tiny red mark at the top of the patch, behind his eye. This red mark is not visible all the time, and we will be happy birders, thank you very much, if we can just see one of these birds.
Another characteristic of the RCW is that they stay in family groups. They have one or more trees with nest holes, and several more trees around those, where they drill holes to let sap come out. The set of trees associated with one family of woodpeckers is called a cluster.
As we are driving out, I see a great home-made sign, tacked to a stick, stuck into the ground by the side of the road that says, "Crazy Bob Ahead." I guess that means Sharon is in second.
I won't go into great detail at this point, other than to say that for the next five hours, we get lost, unlost, relost, re-unlost (etc.) and drive a lot on National Forest corrugated roads again-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n. It rains steadily most of the morning.
While searching and wandering, we see a couple of pairs of Catbirds, more Blue Jays, and get a great view of a pair of RUFOUS-SIDED (EASTERN) TOWHEES. No white spots on them, like those of California. We got our first ones when visiting Uncle Hiram, in North Carolina, a couple of years ago.
We find Hopkins Prairie, but no scrub-jays. Later, we find the two RCW cluster locations marked on our map, but none of our target birds. It is raining, and we are frustrated from bad maps and bad instructions, so we decided to bag it and drive to a location south of Ocala NF that a fellow told us about, where we are guaranteed to see Scrub-jays. We immediately get lost, and decide that we just weren't meant to find those places today. Mama said there'd be days like this (Mama said, Mama said). We head out to the Florida Turnpike and turn south, Sharon picking up two Nutria (plus a mashed one) on the way. We thought they were beavers at first, but that seemed unusual down here. I catch a Swallow-tailed Kite drifting over a line of trees on our left.
We park in Cocoa Beach's Lori Wilson Park, having turned south where we could barely see launch vehicle platforms up at Cape Canaveral. Sharon steps out with her binoculars while I'm collecting the scope and my other gear. "Do you want your umbrella?" I shout out the door? The clouds are very dark. "Bring the scope, quick," she says. "OK, but do you want your umbrella too?" "No! Bring the scope, AND HURRY." I speed up a little, get outside, set down the scope and hoist my binoculars in the direction she is looking. I see a great FLORIDA SCRUB-JAY* on a wire. We get the scope, and there's no doubt. It flies away from us and we walk over to where we thought it landed, across the park.
We can't find it, but suddenly see it about 20 yards behind us, where we had just walked. We get great views through the scope, and I get some great video. This bird is similar to the Western Scub-jays in our back yard, but has a white forehead. In addition, whereas the Western's call is often multiple, this jay does a single call. It is very similar in quality, though.
We get into the RV and drive to the Savannahs Recreation Area in St. Lucie County, hoping for King Rails. There is a large fresh-water marsh, with a large observation tower. We check it out and get a LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE. Tomorrow will be a great chance for the rails.
We have beef stew and it is great. How come camping food always tastes better than home food?
About 10:15 pm, we hear a cry from the marsh, but it is not the King Rail, dangit.
Today's Lifers: Florida Scrub-jay.
Totals: Today 1, Florida 16, Trip 16.
We are up at 6:30 am, and up on the lookout tower by 7:15. Sharon spots a pair of Common Yellowthroats across the channel. Sandhill Crane chicks have hatched at this location, and we see an adult out in the marsh. Sharon sees more of the family, flying out there, but I don't. Common Moorhens are common. Sharon spots another Limpkin, her 4th, my 3rd. A little DOWNY WOODPECKER lands on a very small branch and starts hammering away. We see MOTTLED DUCK and AMERICAN COOT. An Osprey flies over as well as an Anhinga. A couple of Blue-winged Teals are swimming around near the Coot.
We wrap up the tower watch, having dipped on the King Rail, and begin walking back to the rig. A pair of BROWN THRASHERS follows us out, and we have breakfast before taking off. Cheerios and peaches, with non-fat milk and Equal.
There was a time when I thought of non-fat milk as "blue" milk, because it had a very pale blue, watery appearance. I didn't think I would ever drink it, but I love it. And I like Equal better than sugar, so there you are. Sharon has fruit -- pineapple, bananas, strawberries, good stuff like that. We clean up a little and take off another of our target birds.
We saw Groove-billed Ani in Texas, a couple of years ago, and we are hoping for Smooth-billed Ani here. The Florida Rare Bird Alert (RBA) says that there are four being seen at Loxahatchee Wildlife Area, further south.
After a bit of a drive, we're at Loxahatchee, and it's gorgeous. The weather is nice, there is lots of grass, water, and birds. We ask a couple of apparent birders if they have seen the Smooth-bills. We get an affirmative, British response. Hot Dog! We get directions, and head over there. The one possible hitch is that we earlier asked a man near our car the same question, in the parking lot, and he said that people inside had seen them, but he couldn't find them. I make the odds out to be 50-50.
We find a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks building a nest. I get video of one bringing in a branch, and she is a little upset with me being so close. Luckily, I don't get a video of her attacking me.
We are all over the area, and it is beautiful, but there are no Smooth-billed Anis to be seen. We have missed them by a half-hour. We could stay the rest of the day, and probably get them, but we are beginning to run short of time, so we have to move on. Always leave something for later.
Common Moorhens are everywhere. There are Coots, Mottled Ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, Cattle Egret, and something we've never seen before -- a hovering Osprey, over the water. Anhinga and Blue-winged Teal round out the birds there.
We get back to the parking lot, and see Blue Jays and a couple of Gray Kingbirds -- one with nest material, on the way out. Sharon spots a CANADA GOOSE.
And oh, yes, a tooth fell out of my head. I was munching some Cracker Jacks (I know, I know, it's Cracker Jack, not Jacks, but I am going with the "world-of-the-commonly-understood.") It was an $800 capped tooth, covering a $1000 root canal, and it just broke off at the gum line. The good news is that there is no pain whatsoever.
I say that now I look like the hillbilly I really am. Sharon laughs and covers her face, because she thinks it hurts my feelings. Then she says that when I laugh, I should be the one covering MY face, so people won't see my tooth space. That makes us both laugh, and I cover my face. I don't mind a bit, because of the lack of pain. She detects my new lisp, but it'th a little subtle.
Until further notice, do not tell me any good jokes. Unfunny ones are ok, because I'll just politely smile. But I don't want to do a big grin, because I look like Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman, when they portrayed him with a missing front tooth and a black eye.
The tooth is the one just to the right of my two front teeth -- the uppers. It's too late to have a dentist look at it before our trip. Oh well.
We give up on the Anis, and switch our target bird to Spot-breasted Orioles. We are following Pranty's "A BIRDER'S GUIDE TO FLORIDA," which has been pretty good most of the time. We transmigrate to Miami for more birding.
We enter Greynolds Park, and stop at the entrance to pay our $6. I ask the 70-or-so-year-old guard if he knows what a Spot-breasted Oriole looks like. "Don't got NO MORE birds in here. They all flew away. They took the alligators, and the birds all left. A lady used to come over every Tuesday night, charged everybody $1.50 each, but not any more. We even had ingrets, but they left too. No more ingrets.
I was going to U-turn without checking, until he said "ingrets." Then I wasn't sure if he knew what he was talking about or not. As Gary Senise's character says in Mission to Mars, "I didn't come 10 million miles to turn around in the last 10 feet."
We go in and verify that "all the birds" meant the Spot-breasted Orioles. He DID know what he was talking about. Onward and upward to more Spot-breasted locations.
3:49 pm and we have just hit "Parakeet Central" at the nursing home on Navarre Avenue in Miami Springs. We get our lifer MONK PARAKEET*, and there are many pairs building nests. We get video of them flying to trees, biting off small branches, and bringing them back to the nests, them inserting them into place. The further-along ones show that there is a side entrance. The parakeets have creamy-white foreheads and cheeks, and are otherwise overall green, except for some beautiful blue on the wings.
We walk around the nursing home, then up a sidewalk and back (looking for Spot-breasted Orioles without success), then the rest of the way around the home. More squawks turns into two pairs of RED-MITRED PARAKEETS*, but they look like parrots to us. We have found that we expect all parakeets to be the size of those little birds you used to win at carnivals, but those are in reality "budgies." The average parakeet is almost twice that big.
We decide to wind up the birding for the day, and make our way to the Miami/Everglades KOA (Kampgrounds of America) southwest of Miami. We get there, and it's a nice KOA, although it's a long way out.
Lifers Today: Monk Parakeet, Red-mitred Parakeet.
Totals: Today 2, Florida 18, Trip 18.
I try to dump the tanks, but the sewer drain is stopped up in our site. It is a mess. I shut off the valve between the RV and the connector hose, then I lift both ends of the connector hose. Sewage seeps out a little from each end. I drag the filled hose across the gravel road to the main dump and stick the correct end into the sewer drain hole. I hose the area down, then tell one of the employees who was driving by on a golf cart about it, and he says he was in a hurry to a meeting so couldn't help. I'd have a meeting too.
I finally get dumped, clean up and we head out. When you stay at a private RV park, you usually have a choice of electric & water only, or sewer, electric & water. The "full" hookup costs perhaps $25, while E & W only might be $21, for example. I leave a note on the KOA entrance door that says I think it is stretching it a little to call our site a full hookup site. I could camp out here and probably get $3 or $4 back, but it's only 7:30 am or so, and they don't open till 8:00. We can be birding by 8:00 if we leave now. So we're off.
The last thing I'll say about this episode is that if you are looking for a reason NOT to buy an RV, this is it.
You see lots of canals and channels of water in Florida, and sometimes you see a big (maybe two-foot diameter) pipe going out from one side of the channel, across the channel, and into the other side. There are two large metal fan-shaped things, one welded to each side of the pipe.
I ask Sharon if she thinks it's to prevent alligators from crossing, and she says no, it's to prevent teenage boys (the prime example, don't you know) from doing a macho walk-over from one side to the other. Some fraction of them would slip and fall in, and some fraction of THOSE would be alligator food. So, as in lots of cases, it's all about insurance and liability, we suspect.
By 7:49 am, we are on our way to Matheson again, just like we did on our first day of Florida birding. Sharon wants me to say "loose tooth" three times fast, but I ain't gonna do it.
She blames my mom (in a kidding way) for allowing me to get away with saying "ain't" all the time. I tell her that Dad's motto was "Don't Say Ain't For Tain't." You see, the correct contraction for "It Ain't" is "Tain't," and Dad didn't want you to get it wrong. Of course, "ain't" itself is the proper contraction for isn't, aren't, weren't -- all kinds of stuff. An Ozark wild-card that is most useful at the right times.
We go past a sign that says Burger King Corporation, World's Headquarters. It is surrounded by fencing, trees and bushes -- they clearly want privacy. They want to keep people like me out, who want to ask them about the flies in the Burger King in Campbell.
Sharon says to tell you all about some backyard swimming pools, enclosed in huge cages, as large as the house. We can't agree on the size of the mesh openings (They are way behind us). I think they are large -- perhaps 1 inch square. I think they are to keep alligators and birds out of the pool. Sharon thinks they are covered with screen, and are to keep insects out. We didn't notice mosquitoes, birds or alligators in any of these pools, so there is no settling this big world question.
She also says to remind you about the KOA sign that said, "Unattended children will each be given a kitten."
By 8:18, we are birding Matheson. We get a catbird and a squirrel. Then Sharon finds and we identify a great BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLER, near the picnic area. Also a Black-and-White Warbler, and a Prairie Warbler.
Sharon finds a trail guide, and there is a discussion of lizards. It says the most common lizard in Florida is the Brown Anole, from Cuba. "The male has a red throat fan, lined with yellow. They extend the fan to attract mates, to define territory, or to show off for the Lutman video."
At 9:02 am, we are finished, and move next door to Fairchild Tropical Gardens, $8 per person entry fee. Sister-in-law Loretta would absolutely love this place. Earlier, in Matheson, we bumped into a couple of joggers. One said, "What are you looking for?" We told him we were looking for anything we could see, but we had just heard an intriguing sound, and tried to imitate it. "Oh, yes, those are Indian Hill Mynas, and they are all over. You can't miss them." Uh-oh, the KISS OF DEATH, and he had uttered it before we could put up our talismans. Dangit.
Sharon reads a brochure she picked up next to the Palm Tree area, and it talks about this stuff they make by mixing oil from the Palm Trees with oil from Olive Trees. Get it? Palm Olive? Palmolive?
We begin our walk around this beautiful place, and quickly hear squawking birds approaching, then flying over. They are green parakeets, and they are almost certainly Canary-winged Parakeets, but we can't see them well enough to ID, so we have to leave them. There are also some humongolonious big lizards.
9:25 am. We are having the distinct pleasure of looking at three lifer HILL MYNAHS* in a palm tree. The tram comes around, and the lady driver mouths to Sharon through the windshield, "What are they?" Sharon tells her, and we are shocked that she has no idea that these birds live here.
We are proud because we have checked out about 500 black Starlings in a row, and we identify these immediately -- both of us. They are just the next black birds in line, but are our bulls eye. We complete the loops at Fairchild, go out to our RV and have lunch, and decide we are finished birding! We are both relaxed and extremely content. Ah, we did a great job.
We get lost trying to find the Days Inn, south of the International Airport, and when we DO get there (after two phone calls to them), we learn that not only did AAA leave off one of the streets on which they are located -- they left off BOTH of the streets of their intersection off the Miami map. Classic.
We pack everything we have up to our room, and clean up the RV. I drive it over to where we picked it up, stopping along the way to fill it up to exactly the half-full mark (as it was when we picked it up), and call the taxi service to bring me back.
They are prompt, and I video tape the RV to document that we didn't wreck it or put any new dents in it, while I'm waiting for them to come. An uneventful (read relaxing) ride back to the hotel, and I join Sharon in our room.
She has had a great swim in the pool and a shower, and is feeling chipper. We order pizza delivered to our room, and watch TV, just like normal vacationers again. It's kind of fun. We used to do it this way all the time, if you can believe that.
Lifer Today: Hill Mynah.
Totals: Today 1, Florida 19, Trip 19.
We are planning to leave for Trinidad tomorrow morning, as I'm writing this. I don't know if I can hook up to email in Trinidad, Tobago or St. Lucia, but as Houdini said, "If I can, I will."
See You Later, (Florida) Alligator
Sharon & Bob
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