Wednesday, 21 March 2012

A Tale of Two Places

It was the best of days, it was the worst of days, it was wonderful birds, it was terrible seasickness, it was an amazing day, it was a very long boat ride, it was the horror on The Yankee Freedom, it was the splendor and joy of The Dry Tortugas.

It started with a very long drive to within an hour of Key West, where at 1am I found a quiet parking area just off of US1 South, and slept in the backseat of my car with a pillow and blanket I had procured from my hotel before I left.  I slept fitfully and awoke at 5am.  I took my first two seasickness pills.  I drove into Key West, stopped at a McDonald's for breakfast and free Internet and afterwards drove the streets of Key West, noticing how many people were up and jogging, walking and biking at 6 in the morning while it was still dark.  Must have been the roosters that practically litter the streets of Key West and cock-a-doodle-do before the first break of dawn.

Too bad I can't count them toward my Year Birds.  Oh, but there would be others.

I headed to the ferry docks and took two more seasickness pills.  I was ready for the Cat, The Yankee Freedom high speed catamaran.  Or so I thought.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  I had been on a Cat once before, going to Nova Scotia from Maine, and had suffered some symptoms, but stayed inside the boat and sat quietly with my eyes closed and managed not to throw up.  Only in my dreams this time around.

But that was the least of my problems, at the time.  As soon as I boarded the ship there were photos to take and I discovered that the Compact Flash card in my Sony SLR wouldn't function or format.  Oh No!  This was bad.  The only chance I had was to find another birder or photographer on the boat who had an extra CF card.  No luck there, but I did meet three other Birders, Jean, Scott and Sheryl, who I was to spend the day with on the Island.  Without my SLR I was only able to use my pocket camera and iPhone to take pictures, but I left my e-mail address with Jean, who did have a working SLR with a good lens and hopefully she will send me photos of the birds I missed photographing.

But as the boat set sail from Key West to the Tortugas, the lack of a working camera turned out to be the real least of my worries.  I wanted to sit on the top deck, as there were pelagic birds to be seen, but about half an hour into the two and a half hour boat ride, I started to feel it.  It wasn't good.  I had to run down to the main deck and in the tradition of many birders on pelagic boat rides before me, contributed to the sea.  Well, it wasn't that prosaic.  One of the crew handed me a white bag and told me to stand at the back of the boat and face outwards.  It was the best place to be if you were seasick.  Well it turned out, for me at least, that the seasickness pills literally did their job.  I was seasick.  It wasn't so bad.  I filled a couple of bags.  There went breakfast and coffee.  I actually felt a little better afterwards and was able to join my new birding buddies back up on deck.

And as we approached the island Jean pointed out Magnificent Frigatetbirds, (are there Kind'a Nice Frigatebirds?), Masked Boobies and a Sooty Shearwater, flying over the boat.  Three new birds before I even set foot on the island.  And thankfully, once I did set foot on the island I started to feel better.  Had I known how the day would end I might never have ever left the island.

We started seeing birds right away, Brown Noddy and Sooty Tern were flying in large flocks on the adjoining islands.  Within the parade grounds of the old fort, there was a large group of Palm Warblers on the grass and a Northern Rough-winged Swallow flying high on the walls.  We took a tour of the island with our guide, Chelsea, an ornothologist who later helped with some bird identifications, and learnt the history of
Fort Jefferson.  It was amazing to be following in the footsteps of such history, including Dr Mudd, who was imprissoned there for aiding John Wilkes Booth.  It was even more thrilling to be following in the birding footsteps of so many birders who had made the same trip, from John James Audubon to Sandy Komito and most recently, John Venderpoel. 

It was a great morning and if I knew what was to come, I'd have never eaten lunch on the boat.  It was good food and good company eating with Jean, Scot and Sheryl, but I was feeling queasy and left the boat as soon as I finished eating and awaited them on the dock.  After lunch we got really good looks as the Brown Noddy and Sooty Tern through my scope and we were able to spot and identify a Northern Gannet flying over head.  We also saw even more of the Rough-winged Swallows and more warblers and a blue-grey Gnatcatcher before it was time to leave, but no new species.  I was hoping for 5-10 new birds on the island, so six was good.  The only miss was the Roseate Tern, which just hadn't yet arrived on the Tortugas.

It was a fantastic day and one I will remember for a life time.  I made new birding friends and saw a few birds that can't be seen anywhere else on a North American Big Year.  So there was the wonderful fulfilment of my first big year dream, mixed with the worry about the trip back.  I thought I'd be okay.  I really did.  I had been sick on the trip over and had taken 4 more pills and even felt fine as the Cat pulled away from the island.  I was on deck hoping to seen one or two more pelagic birds on the trip back.  It was not to be.  The horror show was about to begin and for the next two and a half hours I did not care about seeing new birds.

I could go into gory details about the voyage, but suffice it to say I was not alone.  There were a dozen of us lined up at the back of the boat with our little white bags and the staff was nice enough to supply me, at least, with extra ones and a green garbage bag to put the full ones in.  I looked at the poor woman standing next to me, after she finished filling one of her bags and said, "We're all equals here."  She smiled grimly.  It didn't matter where you were from, what you did for a living, what your status in the community was, how much money you made, at the back of a boat filling a white bag or contributing to the water when your aim was off, you've reached the point where there is no shame and no reason to apologise to your neighbour, who was, literally and figuratively, in the same boat as you.  It was like the vomit scene in "Stand By Me."  The more one of us retched and hacked the sicker the others became.

I spent the next two hours standing at the end of the boat, leaning on the rail, with my head buried in my arm, wondering if it would ever end.  The seas were choppy and the boat was flying over the water, bouncing us off the deck.  At one point I asked if maybe we couldn't slow down the boat just a tad and the crewman told me that I would feel just as bad, but for twice as long. 

Eventually the trip ended, and I was  back on the dock.  I had upped my total to 230 birds and had hoped to find more that evening in some local parks, but oddly enough, all the parks in Key West close between 4 and 6 PM, not at sunset and I was unable to go to any of them.  Just as well, as I still felt pretty horrible.  My throat also felt raw and I sounded like my chain smoking aunt from New Jersey for the next few hours.

I decided to drive most of the way that night up to Everglades National Park where my next destination was the Snake Bight Trail.  Ever since I had read about it in The Big Year, I had thought about it endlessly.  The story of Greg Miller walking the trail to see the American Flamingo, getting "a thousand mosquito bites," was like the legend of King Aurthur and his quest for the Holy Grail to me.  I wanted to experience that, even if I didn't find the Grail, ahm, the Flamingo. 

Before my great quest, though, I took a great walk on the Anhinga Trail, home of the car eating Black Vultures.  I had to cover my car with a tarp to ensure the windshield wipers and rubber window seals would still be there when I returned.  The vultures were everywhere.  On the rails and walking in the paths and on top of decks.  They were close enough to pet them, though I am sure they would have taken off, or bitten my hand off, if I had been dumb enough to try.  They even wanted to steal and eat my backpack when I left it on the boardwalk while I was looking at the  baby Anhingas.  There was no shortage of birds, but my big score on the Anhinga trail, in addition to baby and juvenile Anhingas and naughty Black Vultures, was finally seeing a Green Heron in Florida.  And not just one, but a dozen including a juvenile.

Now it was on to Snake Bight Trail.  Only another 34 miles into the park.  I always envisioned it right inside the park entrance.  Well it's a big park, so maybe 34 miles isn't that far.  Along the way I stopped and saw lots of shore birds and Roseate Spoonbills.   Finally I arrived at the entrance to Snake Bight.  I liberally coated myself in Deep Woods Off, hoping to avoid death by a thousand mosquito bites.  Having now walked the 2 miles each way, they really should rename it the Mosquito Bites Trail, as I had to coat and re-coat myself in the bug spray several times during my walk and still had to swipe away the bugs.

I walked at a brisk pace and stopped every time a bird flew by, or landed in the path, but they were almost entirely Grey Catbirds.  Finally, around the halfway point, a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites flew over, as was confirmed by my National Geographic field guide.  As  I was approaching the end of the path, leading to the boardwalk, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew by, very close to me.

Now the moment I had been thinking about for months was approaching.  I knew that it was a long-shot to see an American Flamingo at the end of Snake Bight.  I had no idea of what I was even going to see when I got there.  It had taken me about 40 minutes to walk to the end, where I found a boardwalk leading out into the marsh.  I had no expectations, I just wanted to make a pilgrimage that so many birders had made before me.

And when I came out into the open area at the end of the boardwalk, I felt as though I had entered Shangri-La.  A large, endless vista, filled with every shore bird and wader imaginable.  But no Flamingo.  It was the journey I told myself, not the bird.  I decided to see what was out there.  I grabbed my binoculars and scanned the water, and the horizon.  Was that a pink blob way out on the water? 

I grabbed my scope and tripod, quickly set it up, and focused in the distance.  Yes, it was now a bigger pink blob, but obviously a bird.  It could have been a Roseate Spoonbill, but it wasn't moving, had it's head tucked in, and if it had stayed where it was, I'd have never been able to make a positive identification.  I did note that it had a very pink, almost salmon coloring.  The Spoonbills were a pale pink with white and a white neck, as I had seen earlier in the day.  I held out hope.

After about 5 minutes of watching the bird, it finally took off, flew slow and low over the water and landed again.  It was a little closer and I could see it was a bigger bird, even further off than the Heron's and Egrets it looked big.  And quite tall, too.  I could see the deep salmon color and no long spoon shaped bill.  It then flew even closer, and directly across my field of view in the scope. It filled the scope.  All deep salmon pink, no spoonbill, no white and a big wing span.

It was an American Flamingo!  It landed once more, so I could get a good look at it, and then flew off.  I waited another 10 minutes or so, but it didn't return.  Alas, no photo, except one I took right when I got there that has the pink blob in the background.  But no doubt here.  On my walk back to the car there was an extra spring in my step and I hardly thought about the mosquitoes.  It was great. 

Two days, two great Big Year places and ten new birds for my Big Year.  Now I can look forward to the rest of Spring Training picking up a few more spring birds and then off to what I hope will be a great day of birding in Arizona on April 4.

And so ends my epic tale.  I arrived in South Florida just looking for an adventure, to feel like I had something in common with Greg Miller.  I left with 233 birds on my list and realized I had more in common with Al Levantin, who was sea sick on every pelagic trip he made during his 1998 Big Year.

 Next time I visit, I may just travel by Sea Plane

The View from the end of Snake Bight Trail 

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