Florida, the Early Miles
After the barrage of billboards at the border crossing, I entered Jacksonville, Florida. Many Carolinians insisted I look up enthusiastic Mrs. Edna Appleberry, better known as The Fabulous Mrs. A. I phoned, and got directions to her home. She also gave me several names and addresses of people to see down the coast. Unfortunately, a field trip was not possible; Mrs. A and her husband did not have car and my thoroughly packed home on wheels had stuff right up to the bottom of the windows. We talked birds into the night.
The next morning, at the Jacksonville Zoo, I had a surprising conversation with an employee of one of the concessions. A merry-go-around operator saw me and asked why I was wearing binoculars. I told him I was looking for birds. He said, “You mean you’re a birdwatcher?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Oh,” he blurted, adding, “I ain’t never seen one before, but heard a lot about’em.”
I laughed. “Well, how do we look different?”
He stammered. Evidently, he did not expect me to say what I did. Finally, he said “No, I didn’t mean that, I just can’t see looking’ at birds that’s all.”
After some questions, I found his hobby was watching baseball games. After exchanging comments on our passions, I think he realized that bird watchers were not so strange people after all.
As earlier arranged through Mrs. A, I arrived at the home of W. C. Davis. Hardly had I gotten out of the car when I began seeing birds. Pine, Black and White and Myrtle warblers joined 27 other species found on the property in 45 minutes. We then walked toward Fort George Island, once land for a small fort, plantations, a country club and finally a state park. North of the St. John’s River huge heaps of shells along the road were possibly once large sturdy burial vaults of whole oyster shells mixed with sand that Indians called Tabby Houses. Indians also used oyster shells for money. Today the shells are important for road surfaces, chicken grit and more. Four Ground Doves [=Common Ground Dove] were life birds. These small doves were reluctant to fly, allowed close examination of their pearly necks, and hear their deep monotone. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were still missing from my trip list, but the growing wind made it difficult to hear or to see bird movements.
The sun was going down as we arrived at the Davis’s neighbors who were hosting an oyster roast, a novelty for the Davis’s and certainly new to me. I tried a couple of raw oysters and did not care for more. Getting roasted oysters was a slow process since only two people could eat at a time. When my turn came, I increased the food value by adding tomato sauce and crackers. Probably everyone there, and certainly the Davis’s and myself, hurried home to bolster what was really an appetizer.
Before we left, a hunter fired a gun near the house. Mr. Davis, 54, was in bad health. However, he walked with long purposeful strides as he stormed out of the house. The property had “No Trespassing” signs and it was, I was informed later, against the law to shoot near a house or a road. I noticed Mr. Davis had been gone a long time and stepped out of the house to survey the situation. Mr. Davis, upset about firing a gun, called the shooter, who looked to be about 25, a liar. The young man called Mr. Davis a SOB. In heated seconds, Mr. Davis jumped the man who defended himself by socking the 54-year-old. Both were scuffling when I tried to stop the fight. It is not easy to try parting fighting men. I squeezed in and out between them, pulling, tugging and talking to them as I hoped to calm them. At first, they did not seem to realize I was between them, but eventually they calmed down. No one was hurt. The young guy even apologized for unlawfully firing a gun near the house and for fighting Mr. Davis. In the fracas, I thought I heard a Barred Owl.
My third day in the Jacksonville region included a hike on the two-mile long north jetty of the St. John’s River. Horned Grebe or a new tern seemed possible. Sunday fisherman decorated the huge boulders. Ocean waves colliding against the huge granite rocks sent spray across my path and on to the placid riverside of the jetty. Constantly wet, some of the rocks were green with slippery algae. The wind blew hard, softened only by a sea mist picked up from the growing white caps. Brown Pelicans and gannets seemed unconcerned as fishermen and one birder struggled on the narrow knife reaching seaward. Even though some of the jetty stones weigh up to 7 tons, I felt vulnerable as I inched back to the sandy beach. There were no grebes or terns on what was, only figuratively, a dry run.
The ferry crossing the St. John’s River to Mayport was uneventful. South on highway A1A, the road closest to the beach, brought me to a wide shoulder for the night. Before sunset, I hiked over the dunes and down the beach for about a mile looking at terns. Most of them were in small flocks mixed with larger gatherings of Ring-billed and Laughing gulls. The terns were all Forester’s. Then I got lucky. While glassing over another gathering of gulls and terns, a strange bird flew into view. My trusty 20X scope on its rifle stock magnified a small crested tern with a yellow-tipped black bill. At last, I had a new tern, a lifer, a Sandwich Tern. The name and the hour reminded me to get back home, my VW parked on the sandy shoulder of the now deserted highway. It was time to eat and sleep to the rustle of the wind and surf of a growing storm.
Ever since arriving on the Atlantic coast I marveled at the numerous jetties formed from dark chunks of rocks standing seaward. How did they get there? The north jetty of the St. John’s River juts from the sandy beach of Huguenot Memorial City Park, named for the French Huguenots that landed in the region in 1564. The north jetty sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean about two miles. Built in 1892, it has since been repaired and extended in length and width and repaired again. Standing between 6 to 14 feet high, it is 10 feet wide at its top or crown. Its base, like that of an iceberg, is much wider. Originally, brush and wood made a matt for the heavy rocks. Later, jetty builders realized that the rocks would not sink without the matt, and besides, invertebrates were eating the matt. They discovered that it was best to start with smaller stones and place larger ones on top. The stones are called rip rap and armor stones. Larger stones, during the early building weighed about 4 tons, and by 1928, they were using 7 ton boulders. The north jetty was repaired several times, when, in 1934, 25 to 100 pound rocks were placed on the ocean side, and in 1938, a concrete cap was added. Some repairs were made the year before my visit. Around 21,500 tons of stone at a cost of $398,000 dollars was added to the jetty in 1969. Most of the stones were dumped from rail cars driven on a temporary track.
A wind woke me in the gray light of early morning. It shook the VW, palms above swayed overhead and stiff palmetto leaves rattled together as a definite northeaster breathed its damp chilly air on the cloudy sunshine state. Discouraged, I went through the motions of eating, stowing my bed and headed for the nearest bathroom. The road now carried a few cars by; otherwise, I would have reversed the last activity with the first.
Dubious about looking for birds in this weather, I drove south to meet Mrs. Victor Rahner, the club president of the St. Augustine bird club. I hoped to join a field trip planned for tomorrow. While waiting, I strolled around the old Castillo de San Marcos, Castle of Saint Marks, built to protect St. Augustine from raids by the English pirate, Sir Francis Drake. The castle, constructed in the late 1600s from shell and mortar from shell lime stood under several flags, first under Spain, then British for 20 years, then again by the Spanish from 1783 to 1821, the United States and briefly by Confederates in 1862 followed by the Union flag. The U.S. flag was now straining at the flagpole as I waited for my contact and details for the field trip tomorrow. I walked around the castle, reading plagues, and wondered what birds had passed by during its history. There was not anything to see today. I also wondered where I would spend the night, and found the information center parking lot was perfect.
The next morning’s weather was not an improvement. The temperature was too, too cold when I crawled out of bed. In a few minutes, I was at a grocery store parking lot waiting for the field trip group to arrive. The wind continued to bluster. Finally, a car arrived, and a little old lady walked up and asked who was leading the trip. A car from New Jersey arrived. They said they heard about the trip on the radio. At last, Mrs. Rahner arrived. She had a regretful expression when she announced that the trip was called off because of weather. She then approached me and asked questions about my trip. The wind continued to continue its blustering, carrying stinging sand through my denim jeans. We continued talking for an hour in the shelter of her car, and poured over a local map where I would try my luck.
During the next five hours, I searched for birds in an unsuccessful housing project called St. Augustine South. Roads, some of them paved, were laid out in right angles, but inside the blocks live oaks, pines and dominating palmettos. Although I was about a mile inland, the northeast wind blew cold and harder than at the beach. The vegetation shook. Finding a dainty, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was not going to be easy. In the end, I identified only 14 species and let one possible life warbler get away. It was either a Connecticut or Mourning Warbler but I could not get a sufficient look at its eye ring, if it had one. The plate of confusing fall warblers Peterson illustrated were confusing.
Leaving the night’s roadside parking, I arrived at Crescent Beach on Anastasia Island where submarine springs 2.5 miles offshore discharges 10 to 300 cubic feet of fresh water per second. Mrs. Rahner suggested I might find a stray Wilson’s Plover there. The wind carried the white beach past my feet; smaller grains of sand bit into my skin. The damp gauze that shrouded the car overnight was heavier at the beach and it clung to my clothes making them heavy with cold moisture. High tide was now four to six feet above normal. Six species of shorebirds huddled together in a flattened cove of sand dunes. Even the robust Sanderlings were not charging back and forth at the edge of the surf. Gulls and terns stood in rows, facing into the wind. Black Skimmers were grounded as the northeaster bore its brunt.
At the Matanzas Inlet Bridge more gulls, terns and skimmers sat out the storm. A Brown Pelican turned its back to the wind only to have its feathers stand on end, nearly pushing over the hapless bird. A feisty Sanderling was keeping other birds, especially other Sanderlings, away from it until a Ruddy Turnstone seeking shelter, landed. The Sanderling scuttled toward the turnstone, but the larger bird pointed its turnstone beak at the attacker quickly ending the Sanderlings little dictatorship.
Timing could not have been better today. It was almost too windy to see birds and Marineland was just down the road. Coughing up the $2.75 for admission and a booklet on the facility was hard on my budget. Forgetting that the amount could buy a tank of gas, I immediately began enjoying the 2,000 species of fish, turtles, porpoises and whales. The porpoise show started a few minutes before my arrival. Portholes allowed viewing the animals before they jumped out of the water for their fish reward. At one tank were sharks, nosey black drum, a member of the croaker family, angelfish, black and yellow spots and strips, rock beauties full of gold and black hues, the yellowtails and my favorite, the queen triggerfish. This oddly marked reef fish is striking, with its several brilliant blue lines in contrast to its charcoal upper parts that blend gradually to a soft cream-colored breast. I toured and revisited tanks and the water show for three hours. On the way back to the car I found 15 Palm Warblers crowding a bush just out of the force of the northeaster.
St. Augustine South’s failed housing project did not last forever. By 2000, 5,035 people lived in the once quite palmetto and pines. Crescent Beach in 1962 seemed desolate; by 2000, 985 people lived there and the region thrives with places to feed and house the throngs of tourist. Florida, like so many states, loses scores of acres of natural habitat per hour. The bulldozer brigade plunders on. Marinland has also grown, as has its admission fee of $14.00. As for sleeping in a car along A1A or any other highway, I would not try it today.
After another roadside stand for the night, I spent the morning typing the notes for last couple of days. As I wrote, I was surprised to hear a strange noise sounding similar to a sick grackle. I turned toward the sound and saw a Scrub Jay [=Florida Scrub-Jay] sitting on a palmetto. If I had not seen the bird, I would not have believed it was the same species as the western birds I watched stealing almonds from my backyard in Oregon. The morning also was occupied with trying to clean the worst of the inside of the car, including sweeping out about two cups of sand, inventory my food supply and determining how many more days I could go before having to do the laundry.
On the way to my south, I stopped at Flagler Beach, where by great luck an apparently storm driven Sooty Shearwater skimmed near the shore. At Daytona Beach, I called a person Mrs. Rahner had recommended. Unfortunately, the contact did not have a car, and, if I made space for a passenger, where would I temporarily store all that filled the jump seat? I did not want to miss Daytona Beach birds, but I apologized that I couldn’t make the room in the VW. I drove back to Ormond Beach where I met George Williams, director of the Halifax River Audubon Society’s weekly field trips. An English accented voice directed me to a small house where George and his wife Kay asked me to be their guest. It was soon revealed they were from Boston, not England.
The next morning and the last day of November started with a few fleecy clouds and sunny blue sky. It was a relief after the northeaster. At a designated meeting place, the bird club gathered for a half-day trip in the Daytona Beach region. At last, I would see the famous beach boy racetrack and could claim the famous sands as a place I looked for birds. George wrangled us in four cars, with the lead car piloted by Conrad Ekdahl, the car I was riding. Of several stops, one was at a slaughterhouse. Doomed bovines were surrounded by Cattle Egrets, an alien species wandering to the New World under its own power. The egret’s yellow bills flashed in the sun as they walked as barnyard chickens, their heads moving back and forth in perfect unison with each step. On our way back to the car, I mentioned hoping to see gnatcatchers and Yellow-throated Warblers. As I finished the sentence, something moved in a palm nearby. A couple of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher foraged high overhead. Several more were seen before the trip ended. Back at the car, someone yelled “Yellow-throated Warbler.” I hurried toward the observer, got directions where to look, and was soon looking at my third life bird for the day.
The last stop was at Orange Point where a Bald Eagle was seen circling over the water and the milling gulls and tern that followed a shrimp boat into the harbor. We were about to leave when someone saw a Horned Grebe. I aimed the scope and found a second bird matching the other by its winter plumage. Most of the cars then drove back to the original meeting place, but George, not ready to give up, was not present. I thanked the group for showing me the new birds and waited alone for George, who showed up an hour later. While waiting, I tallied the list of 72 species, a total not too bad for a few hours birding and then planned my next few days.
The kitchen at the Williams home had been freshly painted and friends, knowing this thoughtfully invited everyone to dinner. It was a fish fry.
Yesterday must have been a lull in the storm. Today the wind was from the northeast and it was cold, accompanied by a mist tumbling down from the heavy gray clouds. It was a day to stay indoors. However, by evening, we left to brave the weather and a dinner invitation of one of the group on yesterday’s field trip. I felt hesitant to join, but the Williams’s said they considered me a grandson. That embarrassed me, but I was grateful for their friendship. We dined in what I consider a formal cafeteria, even though the establishment let me in. After dinner, we joined our host in his home where he served tequila and coffee brandy he purchased in Texas at a National Audubon Society convention. I was interested in the birds seen in Texas. As we were leaving, our host asked what I was going to do for a career. I told him ornithology. Very seriously, he said that he was sure that everything about birds had already been learned, and that the only thing to expect is changes of opinions. I hope that I did not offend him or humiliate the Williams when I told our host, very seriously, that he was wrong.
The next morning’s weather looked good for the trip to the interior of Florida from Ormand Beach to Osteen Marshes and Wikeva River north of Orlando. We also stopped along the St. John’s Rivers, the same stream that terminates at Jacksonville and originates 310 miles to the south. Limpkins were promised. We stopped several times, once when five Hooded Mergansers floated into view. I had missed them on their breeding range. Anhinga, ibis, two species of vultures, Tree Swallows, Eastern Meadowlarks and more were checked off. By 2 pm, our stomachs began to protest not being fed. When on a bridge spanning the narrow Wikeva River we hear an unforgettable call. I had to see it and a large brown bird with a slightly downcurved bill fluttered from one riverbank to the other. Then another bird landed on an island and began searching for what I knew to be snails. It was joined, but not by the first bird, which called a loud “kra-ow” from the opposite bank. Limpkins, their look and sound, made me feel I had entered the tropics.
Kay and George Williams and I stood at the edge of the driveway. Before saying goodbye, they invited me for Christmas. I thanked them for taking me into their home, showing me the local birds and for the invitation. I said I would, but was not sure where I would be at that time. We were all a little teary eyed as I crawled in the car. I drove only about 10 miles out-of-town, found a wide pullout and bore down on getting my notes up to date. Tomorrow I hoped to be at Audubon House in Maitland. Laundry was still on the to do list.
Maitland, a small town northeast of Orlando was home for the Florida Audubon Society. Margaret Hundley, director of field trips, publications and research outlined where I might find Dusky Seaside Sparrows, good places to visit in the Keys and introduced me to Russ Mason, the boss of the place. A live White-bellied Stork, an African species that someone caught in Massachusetts had been sent for rehabilitation. There were other birds worse for wear, the worst being a supposed Cory’s Shearwater that was dug up from its grave. Mrs. Hundley wanted to open the packaged corpse, but was afraid. I was curious, but several tiny and possibly hungry gnats buzzing the package seemed a good sign that the carcass would stink up the whole place. The job of feeding the stork was offered so long as I kept my hand clear of the long bill. By the end of the day, someone suggested I could find a corner in the building for my sleeping bag. That seemed to be a fine idea.
The next morning brought a surprise. Russ and Margaret, as it now seemed ok to call them, wanted to interview me for a taped radio program. Stage fright was immediate, but I agreed. The interview started: “This is Margaret Hundley and the program is Audubon Highlights presented by the Florida Audubon Society in cooperation with the Rollins College Radio Department and coming to you through the courtesy of your local radio station.” After being introduced, Russ and Margaret alternately asked me questions such as what am I doing, where am I going, what outstanding species were seen, how much time in Florida and elsewhere and are you keeping records? The last question gave the opportunity to plug the book I planned to write when I returned home. The broadcast was statewide, but I never heard it.
The remainder of the day was much easier. I spent time browsing the wonderful library and earning my keep by carrying boxes, sweeping and totting for the hard-working staff. Being slightly embarrassed was not over. The day after the radio interview Russ surprised me by introducing me to an Audubon benefit. There I stood in my faded sports shirt, worn jeans and ragged shoes. Thank goodness speaking was not required.
That was certainly not the last straw; I enjoyed everyone and every minute at Audubon House. Still, I needed to move on.
Margaret Hundley talked to me about birds being killed from collisions with various manmade impediments ranging from radio and TV towers, lighthouses and buildings. She joined Herbert W. Kale, II, in a 1969 paper reporting tower kills of birds from Grand Bahama Island. On the morning of 22 October 1966, they found 137 dead individuals of 22 North American breeding species. Many of the birds were sent to the National Museum to be identified by Roxie Laybourne. Years later, Roxie was still receiving packages arriving via the post office of dead and decaying birds found below the guy wires of a communications tower, a cattle trough, embedded in an airplane windshield, you name it. Sometimes the whole of the Division of Birds would reek of some fowl odor. During the years when my nose weathered these olfactory attacks, I had the pleasure of knowing Herb Kale, who dropped in or phoned the museum regularly. Those lucky enough to meet Herb knew of his voice impediment; treatments for polyps on his vocal cord damaged his speaking voice. One day, when I should have been discovering a new scientific theory, I called Carla Dove, then Roxie’s protégée. Our offices were separated by several rows of museum cases. Pretending to be Herb in my best bird whisperer voice, I explained to Carla that I was unhappy with Roxie’s work and wanted to speak to Roxie’s supervisor. My pretend voice must have cracked when I mentioned supervisor. Carla and I began to laugh, she recognized me, and we both realized that Roxie’s expertise was beyond supervision.
Besides holding directorships of the Massachusetts and Florida Audubon Societies, Russ Mason was an extraordinary conservationist in numerous countries in Central America, and helped establish the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad. He also helped start the Cerro Punta Sanctuary in Panama, and founded Audubon Societies in Mexico, Belize, and Panama, the latter a birding destination for Linda and I in 2005. Russ was also probably the first to initiate natural history tours in Central America. In 1962, I met a gentle and humble person. I had little inkling of the important force of the man.
My arrival on Merritt Island yesterday was early enough to look for birds in the nearly 40 degrees and strong wind. That did not discourage an attempt to find a Dusky Seaside Sparrow. The effort was futile.
Temperatures rose and the wind slowed in the morning. Again, searching for the sparrow was unsuccessful.
Giving up, but only momentarily, I drove south to Rockledge and the home of Allan and Helen Cruickshank. He had suggested in a letter that I stop by. He had just returned two hours earlier from New York. Although he did not say at the time, he was attending the funeral of Mrs. Rosalie Edge, founder of Hawk Mountain. The Broun’s must have been there. It had been a little over three months since seeing them. My world seemed smaller.
At first, it was Mr. Cruickshank, but soon Allan seemed appropriate. He went over my trip list while keeping an ear open for a Painted Bunting, a species not yet seen. Allan told me that I had seen most of what should be expected in this area and named off several species I could pick up if I was further north. I commented that I should have reversed my route and he assured me that it was impossible to be in all the best places at the right time, a paraphrase of advice Peterson wrote me. Suddenly, Allan stood up, and told me to follow him to the scope aimed from the living room to a bird feeder in the yard. Squinting through the scope, I saw my first Painted Bunting, a species I dreamt about since I was a fledgling teenager. The bird was mostly green, not the bright male I thought it would be.
The bird feeder, which was called a cage feeder, was a wooden frame about 20 X 20 inches draped with one-half inch mesh wire. Wary House Sparrows stayed out because they apparently felt enclosed, and larger birds, of course, could not get to the food. Buntings could slip through the wire and did not seem bothered by being enclosed.
Allan invited me to take part in the Cocoa Christmas Bird Count, the count he led and that has for many years, recorded more species than any other count. Last year the Cocoa group found 191 species. Chances of seeing any new trip birds were remote, but it was an honor to be a member of the group. Just before leaving the Cruickshank’s, Allan went over a few details of the count and urged me come back a day ahead of the count to “get our signals straight.”
Allan called W. Foster White, resident of Merritt Island, the hamlet, to arrange for me a tour of the northern end of the Merritt Island, the island. The next day, I met Foster at his home where three male Painted Buntings were at a feeder three feet away. What a brilliant spectacle. Within minutes, we were traveling north on A1A and back to state 402 where I had earlier searched for Dusky Seaside Sparrows. The wind calmed to a breeze for a warmer day today. We followed the dike into the Merritt Island marsh another mile and stopped. A bright yellow truck belonging to the mosquito control division drove up and a fellow leaned out. “You don’t look like duck hunters to me.” Chuck Trost, the youngish driver, was locally known as the leading authority on the Dusky Seasides. The three of us began scanning every piece of marsh dominated by juncus and other short saw grasses, spishing between about two dozen hunter’s periodic shotgun blasts. Chuck said that in the summer squeaking would bring the birds up, that is, if they were not already singing in plain view. He had completed an ecological study on the sparrows and mosquito control, and said that by next year the birds will be protected, even from birders, when the Bureau of Aeronautics-Space Division will restrict public access to Merritt Island.
Several times, we glimpsed birds that could have been our quarry. Suddenly something dark fluttered across an opening in the grass and as quickly dropped out of sight. I was practically on top of it when the bird flushed. Luckily, I saw the black plumage and rufous nape. A Black Rail was not a bad bird to find, but I was intent to find the sparrow. Eventually, we turned back towards the vehicles where a pair of hip boots might help me find the elusive main event. The idea of wading in the marsh was not appealing, but I was still high from seeing the Black Rail and had hopes for the sparrow. On the way, back two Mottled Ducks flew in for a landing runway between the saw grass, unnoticed by the platoon of great white hunters.
Pulling on the hip boots loomed, but Foster yelled out “Dusky.” With binoculared stares, a bird, not exactly dusky, filled the lens. The striking bird was practically identical to the regular Seaside Sparrow that I first observed on the New Jersey coast months ago. However, the Merritt Island bird lacked the blended hues of the northern sparrow. The dusky bird’s plumage was an obvious black and white pattern, but it had the ’seaside mark, the yellow line in front of the eye. Although it may someday be regarded as a subspecies of the regular northern birds, I feel lucky to see it.
Chuck later drove Foster and me into a more inaccessible parts of the Merritt Island marsh. Our bumpy ride put us a few feet from a nesting pair of Bald Eagles. Chuck hoped the rare eagles could successfully produce young but the use of insecticides had caused low reproductive rates in birds, especially birds of prey. We also found numerous individual wounded ducks, carcasses of less edible coots, and dead and wounded gallinules, a Great Blue Heron, a Red-shouldered Hawk, various other birds of varying degrees of decomposition and empty shotgun shells. Most of these were victims of hunters failing to recognize differences between legal and illegal targets. Insecticides, some thoughtless hunters, flooding, draining and road building left little chance for non-human survival on Merritt Island.
Later, I drove just outside of the town of Cape Canaveral near the restricted southern boundary of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. On a dike just off a sandy road, I found an incoming tide and finally, a Wilson’s Plover. It was alive.
Energized Allan Cruickshank was an icon. He told me he hoped to photograph every North American breeding bird. He had a good start in 1962 and by 1974, when he died; he had taken over 40,000 good quality pictures. His career with the National Audubon Society allowed him to teach millions. I was lucky for the brief moments we shared.
Twenty-five years after visiting Merritt Island, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow was extinct. It was a subspecies then, being officially relegated to that status by the AOU in 1973. Deciding whether it is a species of subspecies has been slow, and Bob Zink and my late friend Herb Kale commented in 1995 that the absence of genetic differences found in morphologically distinct subspecies of Song and Swamp sparrows lend little basis to argue against species level determination of a morphologically distinct taxon. Even in death, its taxonomic standing is grinding slowly.
Besides Chuck, Ivan Tomkins, who I birded with in Georgia, talked about researching the sparrows. He studied from the ground, but some census takers later used helicopters to find Dusky Seaside Sparrows. I am not making this up. Supposedly, the chopper thumps 30 mph and 100 feet over the marsh causing every flying thing to flush. An experienced observer then identifies what is described as the distinctive dorsal pattern of a flying for its life Dusky Seaside Sparrow. However, the method admits that carelessness might lead to confusion with female Redwinged Blackbirds. On my walk to the Pentagon day job many years later, I had to walk under the flight path of approaching helicopters. I felt the need to take flight also.
The hapless bird’s demise was rapid, especially when impoundment of the salt marshes of Merritt Island began in 1957. Optimum habitat, 10-15 feet above sea level where cord grass (Spartina bakerii) grows was drowned. Chuck’s hope that the marshes might be better protected by what is now the Kennedy Space Center were not realized. It did not take a rocket scientist long to realize that gnawing mosquitoes gnawing were not fun. The sparrow population spiraled to only 70 pairs by 1963. Pettingill once recommend Merritt Island was the place to see Dusky Seaside Sparrows. By1968, only 33-34 males were found on the island.
The Dusky Seaside Sparrow was a charter member of the Endangered Species Act, but attempts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were a day late and several sparrows short. Through the dogged persistence of Allan Cruickshank, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, on the north end of the island, was established the year the marshes were flooded. A population of 372 males was discovered in the marshes of the St. John’s River west of Merritt Island 1968. St. John’s National Wildlife Refuge was finally established in 1971, but eventually critical marshes of the St. John’s were drained, more roads were built, more marshes drained to fulfilled real estate ventures, leaving fires, introduced pigs and Boat-tailed Grackles to reduce the crippled population to six birds by 1979. Five were captured and brought to Discovery Island at Disney World. A captive breeding program ensued, but the five birds were males. Cross breeding with other subspecies of Seaside Sparrows might have preserved some of the genetic diversity of the dusky birds, but the experiment failed. The last male Dusky Seaside Sparrow died in 1987.
Charles H. Trost was in fact Mr. Dusky Seaside Sparrow. In 1968, Bent’s Life Histories included Chuck’s chapter on the doomed bird. He recently wrote me that “the whole affair [of the sparrow‘s extinction] leaves me saddened and wishing I could go back and change the past.”