For the Birds Radio Program: Florida Trip
Yesterday I talked about the trip my family made to Disney World in mid-January. Fortunately, we didn’t limit our sightseeing to Orlando—Russ, our daughter Katie, and I spent one day at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, on the outskirts of Cape Kennedy. Unlike the vast majority of the Florida coast, Merritt Island has been protected from development, not so much because the powers that be recognized the value of natural coastal habitat but because NASA needed a large buffer zone for security. But when it comes to pockets of nature, we take what we can get.
Merritt Island used to be the best spot in the universe to see the rare Dusky Seaside Sparrow. But even without development, the area succumbed to the pesticide and fertilizer overload that has affected Florida, and now the species is extinct.
Other endangered species are still hanging on in Florida, and can be seen at the refuge. We saw one Florida Scrub-Jay, a few Wood Storks, and a couple of dozen Roseate Spoonbills. I’m especially fond of Florida Scrub-Jays. This species has been studied extensively by a scientist named Glen Woolfenden for decades, and its complex and fascinating social system has been thoroughly examined. Young scrub jays often remain with their parents for a year or two, helping their parents raise babies. This gives young birds sharing many of their siblings’ genes a better chance at survival, plus it gives the helpers experience that will in turn improve their chances of successfully raising babies when it’s their turn.
The Wood Stork is North America’s only stork. When my children were born, the announcements I sent to our friends and relatives were drawn by a friend of mine, showing a Wood Stork carrying a newborn baby who is looking through binoculars at the stork—the cards simply say, “It’s a lifer!” At the time I sent them out, I hadn’t yet seen a Wood Stork myself—I saw my first one ever at Merritt Island in 1988. So it was lovely watching them fly over as I walked with my now 19-year-old daughter towering over me.
Roseate Spoonbills have to be one of the most peculiar birds on the planet. I suppose the expression “beautiful from the neck down” was written about these birds, with their exquisite pink and carmine plumage and bald, warty heads with piercing red and yellow eyes and ridiculous bill shape. But I am one of the people who find even their faces cool and lovely, even if funky bordering on the ridiculous. We got pretty close to a few of them, but no where near as close as when I was in Hans Suter Park in Corpus Christi, Texas, several years ago—There we were on a boardwalk only a few feet from a spoonbill, which was walking behind a pintail nibbling on its tail feathers as the poor duck kept trying to scoot out of range. Unfortunately, the pintail was swimming on squat little duck legs while the spoonbill’s long wading legs could take a single step to the pintail’s dozen outraged little paddlings, but the spoonbill’s tweaking seemed more to tease the pintail than actually hurt it. Nothing this dramatic happened on this Florida trip, but watching spoonbills fly overhead and wade and fish singly and in groups spread the pleasure wide.
The rarest bird of the entire trip wasn’t at Merritt Island. We saw that our last night, when we went to Universal Studios to see a movie. While we were walking around in the garish lights, I spotted a Lesser Nighthawk hunting in bright spotlights. A nighthawk anywhere in Florida in winter is a hotline bird, so I certainly wasn’t expecting to see one after downing a hurricane at the Hard Rock Café. But despite the effects of the drink, there were enough people who saw the bird with me to make me sure it wasn’t my imagination. As usual, birds are everywhere, popping into our lives when we least expect it, if we only keep our eyes and ears and hearts open to the possibilitites..