Florida Keys and Christmas Count Fever
After Merritt Island, I began thinking about Christmas Bird Counts. These counts, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, began in 1900. The rules are simple. Count individual birds in a prescribed 15-mile diameter circle in one day during a period around Christmas. There are about 2,000 such circles dotted over North America, with more than 50 in Middle America and elsewhere. Additional circles join the fun every year. Participants pay a fee to help support publication of the results, which, in 1962, was only 50 cents. Being in a count is mostly fun, but it can also be hard work depending on the seriousness of the observer. It can also be numbing cold, wet, hot, buggy, disappointing, great and educational. Marshall Howe, one of my former museum bosses, and I froze from icy wind howling along the Maryland shore of the Potomac River on Christmas Counts. He, along with Chan Robbins and others formed a panel to make recommendations to enhance the scientific value of Christmas Counts. Published in 2004, their good ideas would have been lost in the brain of my skinny youth. Having met Allan Cruickshank, Mr. Christmas Count Editor himself, the heat of the moment swept me on to a goal to enjoy as many counts as I could. I was especially excited to be on the Cocoa Count–it always tops the nation in number of species. December 1962 would be for Christmas Counts, for the fun of it and for new species to add to the trip list.
Nearly freezing temperatures did not exactly make crawling out of bed pleasant, and I was feeling a little self-conscious as the traffic zipped past. Travel along the barrier islands, with the Indian River to my right and Atlantic Ocean to the left sometimes came to a halt by a raised drawbridges. On 10 December, I arrived at Ft. Pierce, picked up my general delivery mail, showered, changed clothes and got a haircut. Trusting that I was presentable, I located Indian River Drive and the Hubbard’s, who I had not seen since July after we found Kirtland’s Warblers in Michigan. Unfortunately, Lyle was homebound while recuperating from recent minor surgery.
The next morning, 11 December, was busy with writing letters, visiting and checking bird feeders around the house. In the afternoon, Jenny, Lyle’s daughter, guided me around Hutchinson Island, a barrier island just across Indian River from Ft. Pierce. The Hubbards invited me for Christmas, and because Lyle and I planned to bird so many Christmas Counts, I accepted. We talked birds into the night, made plans for field trips and went over some of Lyle’s notes about birds in southern Florida.
Weather on 12 December began pleasantly warm and sunny. Of course, it might have felt cooler if I slept in the car, but thanks to the Hubbard’s, I had a warm bed and hot meals. By noon, clouds grayed a windy sky. The temperature plummeted 15 degrees. Some squeaking along the vegetated sides of a nearby railroad track brought in six Scrub Jays. I wanted to hear their sick grackle call again. These amazing birds perched in plain view and one hopped to within arm’s length. The Hubbard’s told me the jays would take peanuts from a hand, but I had nothing to offer. Swiping its bill back and forth, the bird seemed to say, “We were eyeball to eyeball, then somebody blinked.” It saw me blink and took off. I then realized I was replaying a televised quote from Dean Rusk who was talking about the Cuban Missile Crises.
The remainder of the cold day was spent planning a trip south, knowing I would be safe from Cuba and could go to Key West. I was also in and out birding the Hubbard property that once belonged to a prosperous citrus packing company. For some reason, unknown to Lyle, the business was abandoned many years ago. The slowly dying fruit trees attracted many Red-bellied Woodpeckers and those trees still fruiting provided tree ripened oranges and grapefruit for birds and humans. I even liked the grapefruit, a flavor I could not tolerate earlier. Edges of the property are thick with palms, vines, a few scrubby deciduous trees, palmettos and spiny cactus. The front yard offers a wide view of the Indian River. In 16 years, the Hubbard’s tallied 175 species on their property.
After a leisurely morning with the Hubbard’s, I headed south to Lantana, home of Howard P. Langridge. We had previously exchanged letters a couple of times beginning in January 1961. Howard teaches high school English and is the compiler for the West Palm Beach Christmas Bird Count. He invited me for dinner and later offered the guest room, supplied maps for finding birds tomorrow and asked me to participate in the local count.
The 14th was a school day for Howard. Alone, I followed his maps to various places to scout for birds in the count circle. One of the maps was directions for a Spot-breasted Oriole recently reported in the region. The bird was on a residential street. I felt a little uneasy looking for birds where people live; a friend was nearly arrested for accidentally pointing his binocular at a house. Putting on my best nonchalant look and trying not to appear like a molester or peeping tom, I pretended to be a lost tourist. Apparently, the ploy worked; the police did not show. However, neither did the oriole. I waited about an hour before returning for another round of searching. Again, no police or angry mob, but this time I saw the large fire-orange Spot-breasted Oriole. Now, it will not be necessary to look for the oriole in the more congested Miami region where it was introduced a few years ago.
Chuck-will’s-widow was supposed to be in the count circle but I could not find one today. At Boytan Inlet, I scanned for reported Dovekies and Man-o-warbirds [=Magnificent Frigatebird] to no avail. A flock of phalaropes was too far from the beach to identify. A sick Great Blue Heron lying on the ground had a stick through one wing, which I carefully removed. The bird was too weak and starved to fly and soon died. Other than the oriole, the day was not going well for birds or me.
In the afternoon, I noticed a small obscure bird lying on the pavement. I swerved to a stop, jumped out of the car and quickly scooped up the carcass before I or the bird was flattened by a tire. A few hours later Howard measured the find, we looked through references and concluded it was a Black-faced Grassquit.
My last full day in Lantana was an improvement over yesterday. It started with a plan of attack by Howard. He used the term cryp for species that were difficult to find on the Christmas Count. Of course, cryp was short for cryptic, and included, for example, Chuck-will’s-widow, Grasshopper Sparrow and Smooth-billed Ani. Phil Allan would join us to find as many cryps as possible while walking through muck, cold icy water, skirting rattlesnake infested palmetto scrub and trying to avoid being impaled by briars, thorns, and matted with burs and stickers. While running the gauntlet, we found a Barn Owl, a species I thought was ordinary but Howard thought was a great find. Not all the 80 species we saw were difficult. From the comfort of the car, we saw a Greater Scaup. A walk on the beach revealed a flock that we were sure was Red Phalaropes. Later in the evening people reported to Howard of seeing Northern Phalaropes. Pangs of doubt set in. We could not be 100% sure but we were sure of Smooth-billed Anis seen by walking a section of railroad track, and a surprise White-winged Dove.
Howard and I checked the nearby beaches for shorebirds this morning. By 9:30 am, I left Lantana and drove to Ft. Lauderdale, did laundry and found a service station manager who allowed me to park the night.
Florida weather had returned to normal. It was 75 degrees, perfect for a threadbare t-shirt. A quick telephone call to the local bird club provided directions to Blue-gray Tanagers nesting in Hollywood, a town south of Ft. Lauderdale. These birds were either escapees or introduced and nested for two years on Thomas Street. I had the street number but no idea what the tanagers looked like. Just before noon, Mrs. Ida Arnold, who discovered the new Florida species, showed me a picture of them and described their song. Again, I was using binoculars in a residential area, but this time I decided not to worry about police as I paced two blocks for four I/2 hours. During the time, four Smooth-billed Anis relieved my impatience. Finally, a pair of beautiful steel Blue-gray Tanagers appeared.
However, time was not standing still. I needed to be south of Miami before the 5 o’clock rush hour and Kendall before dark. Miami traffic was not bad and Horace Johns in Kendall showed me Red-whiskered Bulbuls. These birds, native to Asia, probably escaped from a local business, and now nest in Kendall. The first bulbuls I identified were too far away to see field marks, but Horace and his wife said that the noisy birds were definitely bulbuls. The Johns showed me pictures, and soon I was seeing real Red-whiskered Bulbul field marks right and left.
Although Blue-gray Tanagers disappeared in the mid-1970s, Red-whiskered Bulbuls continue to breed in Kendall and Spot-breasted Orioles are more widespread than in the 60s. The surprising White-winged Dove was likely an introduced subspecies. I recall mention of introduced Scarlet Ibis, but never saw them. Hill Mynas, established in the 1950s were not in my radar. It never occurred to me to look for Budgerigars in Florida, after all what used to be called dime store parakeet escapees could be found almost anywhere. Florida now has 68 species of non-native avifauna that have confirmed and self-sustaining breeding populations. Many of these include members in the parrot family.
Occasionally the Smithsonian staff was asked to identify specimens of introduced birds. It was often possible to determine the general origin of some by matching the specimens to those from native populations. Fran James looked over some of our specimens while working a 1997 publication on introduced species in Florida. House Sparrows and starlings, species most of us love to hate, are only two of the players that plunder natural ecology.
A large vacant lot hidden by tall grasses and covered with palmetto and pines was home last night. In the distance, I could hear the rushing traffic of the Miami megapolis. Soon joining the fray, the VW hummed down the main drag, U.S. 1, crossed a bridge on to Key Largo and the trip to Key West began. In 1935, a hurricane destroyed the 1912 railroad to Key West. A road, built over the bones of the railroad opened 1935. Ahead lay 113 miles and 42 bridges.
Allan Cruickshank told me to look for Roseate Spoonbills at the tiny resort of Jewfish Creek. None was there. It was snack time and I downed several peanut butter and cracker sandwiches followed by a few coconut macaroons and a glass of water. The nearby bridge keeper said he had never seen the pink birds and that I should ask the fishing camp manager. He also had not seen such a bird, but as I walked, back to the car a large pink bird with a scarlet shoulder patch flew over distant mangroves. It is amazing that so many people are blind to so much.
By mid-morning, I pulled into Tavernier on Plantation Key, and down a gravel road to a small house, the residence of Sandy Sprunt. A tall lanky man, dressed in an Audubon Society uniform, came to the door. His huge smile under thick red hair welcomed me indoors. He was waiting for a phone call and I excused myself for some outdoor birds. While I waited, a strange dove landed in a tree at the edge of the driveway. I could not identify it until turning to the back of Peterson where a few accidentals were described. Meanwhile, the dove stayed in the same tree. According to the description, I decided, the bird was a Zenaida Dove. I ran back and knocked on the Sprunt’s door. Sandy had just completed his call, walked below the tree, glanced up, smiled, retrieved his camera and took about five pictures.
Finding a Zenaida Dove paved the way for a boat tour to Cowpen Sanctuary, about a three-acre mangrove island protected by the National Audubon Society. The small outboard pushed our skiff less than a mile over the mirror flat Florida Bay. As we approached Cowpen Sanctuary we could see, perched about three or four feet on a sturdy mangrove a Magnificent Frigatebird. It seemed to fall from its perch, catch a breath of air and sail away. What a great new lifer. We also found Great White Herons [=Great Blue Herons] and four species of egrets including a Reddish Egret staggering in water up to its knees. We cruised around some of the small mangrove thickets where more egrets, herons, Wood and White ibises, gulls, shorebirds and more spoonbills graced the bow.
Last night I parked on a deserted road near Tavernier, and at 5:30, I crawled out of my bunk. By six, Sandy and I were driving southwest to meet Mrs. Francis Crane, the compiler for the Lower Keys Christmas Bird Count. There we talked strategy, said hello to Margaret Hundley, met Everglades biologist Bill Robertson and picked up the rest of our team, George Avery, bridge keeper on Seven-mile Bridge and Russ Mason.
We were assigned Big Pine, Middle and Big Torch Keys. Our first good bird was a dark phased Short-tailed Hawk. That was a life bird for me. A Chuck-wills-widow was found but it was dead. I wondered if I was ever going to find one alive. Russ and Sandy’s abilities to identify birds were amazing and I felt badly that our total for the day ended with only 56 commonplace species. A tiny key deer jumped from a narrow dirt road. The six-point buck was the second key deer for Sandy and a first for Russ and me. Our team did find a species no one else in the count saw, an immature Cedar Waxwing that brought cheers during the compilation of 91 species.
The compilation dinner was a new experience since I had never been in such a lavish residence. We drove into a driveway wider than most streets and got out of Sandy’s car. I followed 6’6” Sandy through an open tile floored garden to a ramp leading to the front door. A smiling uniformed woman opened the door. Inside, I could see a formally dressed man, who I was told was the busy butler. The maid was just taking up the slack. The house was huge. The ashtrays were so large I was afraid to use one until I noticed some of the other nervous guests stubbing their butts. The butler asked what I would like to drink. I settled on bourbon, and long before my drink was empty, someone was there to fill it. Some sort of fishy appetizer covered with what must have been green colored shredded coconut was passed around. When the delicious appetizers were served to Sandy he gasped, “What are those things? The look like they’re camouflaged!” I think I was the only one who laughed. I was disappointed that the butler did not announce that dinner was served. Someone did though, and I was ready to enjoy a meal. Finally, Sandy and I said good-bye and thanked our host. The round doorknobs centered in the middle of the oversize door were unfamiliar and I narrowly missed tripping as the opening door grazed the tip of my nose. I kept walking as if nothing happened.
Key West beckoned, I left my overnight parking site outside Tavernier, and headed further out to sea. I could not help but feel a little vulnerable to the long ribbon of highway, hopping from tiny island to island. A few too many stops along the way made a late arrival to Key West. A new trip bird, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher made the stops worthwhile. I looked up my only contact, Mrs. Francis Hames, who drew a map where I might find Mangrove Cuckoos.
It was getting late and I needed a place to park for the night. Spotting the sheriff’s office, I asked if I could park on the beach for the night. The hesitant clerk asked for my driver’s license, picked up a microphone and proceeded to bark a code number and information from my license. Anxious minutes dragged by. What had I stepped into this time? Finally returning my license, the clerk provided directions where I could park. I asked what the code number 49 meant. Unsmiling, he said it was routine to check someone like myself since the office found out too late about a young fellow who asked about sleeping on the beach. He was wanted for robbing a bank in New York.
The beach lodging worked out. The morning was hot, humid and beautiful. Mrs. Hames and I met as arranged, and birded several places on the island. Our first stop was a surprise. We were greeted by a reporter from the Key West Citizen, the local newspaper. A photographer wanted me to pose with binoculars at the ready while I searched the sky. It was all a little silly, but I really was searching the sky. One skyward search later did reveal White-crowned Pigeons, but we never found the cuckoos. Near the end of the field trip, we toured Audubon House, a two-story mansion built by John H. Geiger, a wealthy harbor pilot and salvager. John James Audubon stayed there in 1832 when he visited Key West and the Dry Tortugas. A tree in the elephant folio of a White-crowned Pigeon grew in Geiger’s front yard. Unlike Audubon, the Dry Tortugas were regrettably beyond my budget.
Mangrove Cuckoos demanded a stop on Stock Island, just east of Key West. Searches for the birds on my way to Marathon were also without a cuckoo. Mrs. Crane and a friend had baited a Zenaida Dove, and wanted me to verify their identification. A soaking deluge that began earlier in the day accompanied the confirmation. While looking for and finding the dove, a young woman continually tried to get my attention. She finally began screaming that I must see her unusual find, hustled me into her car while telling me the bird talked to her. We drove a short distance and the bird was a first year Herring Gull. I kept a straight face and feigned wonderment, primarily to get a ride back. I finally saw a cuckoo.
The rain poured as I crept along the highway, barely able to see the car in front. Fortunately, I took a picture of the Seven Mile Bridge yesterday; the bridge was now out of sight. The emerald-green water lost its color as big drops hammered the formerly still surface. The wind increased and sunlight diminished and increased again. Tavernier had not felt a drop. I pulled into my familiar parking place for the remainder of daylight to write and read.
Sandy had convinced me that I should help in the Key Largo-Plantation Key Christmas Bird Count. I agreed, but wanted to be in Lantana by the afternoon. Sandy piloted our boat out to see where we saw frigatebirds and two Portuguese man-o-wars, a graceful but toxic jellyfish. We landed on Tavernier Island and waded through mangroves where we found Yellow Warblers. These were the Cuban Golden Warbler. Our best bird was what Sandy called an “eyebrow raiser.” It was a Holboell’s Grebe [=Red-necked Grebe]. Robert P. Allen greeted us on our return to the boat dock. He and Sandy would finish the count. Regrettably, I dashed north to meet Howard Langridge, who showed me two new birds, Purple Gallinule and Grasshopper Sparrow.
Birding on the Florida Keys seemed like a dream. I hardly had time to soak the strange journey crowded with Christmas Counts, rain and fear of arrest. Sandy certainly made my time not only worthwhile but also enjoyable. He seemed happy when I told him one of the books I had in the VW was a tome on birds of prey by Alexander Sprunt, his father. Sandy, who in 2005, lives on the same street that he did in 1962. He retired after a 43-year career with the National Audubon Society where he was a respected research official and conservationist. Sandy’s introduction to Robert P. Allen left me speechless. Meeting the man who wrote the National Audubon Society monographs on Roseate Spoonbills, Whooping Cranes and Flamingos, and the 1957 McGraw-Hill “On the trail of vanishing birds” was meeting the author of four old friends that I repeatedly checked out from my local library. I should have stayed to talk.
Several kinds of birds that I had been seeing have changed in terms of their distribution and taxonomy. The scrub jay in Florida was later realized to be specifically distinct from interior birds and those on Santa Cruz Island off California. By convention, they also gained a hyphen, becoming scrub-jays. Zenaida Doves were common in the early 1800s when Audubon found them breeding in the Keys. The AOU, in 1957, considered the species as “formerly” in the Keys, but regarded them as “casual” in 1998 based on photographs of the bird I found on Plantation Key and one on Key Largo in 1988. The Great White Heron, a bird with a dwindling population, was considered by the AOU, in 1973, to be a subspecies of its dark brethren, the Great Blue Heron. The committee is still out concerning whether the Cuban/Golden Warbler is a species distinct from the Yellow Warbler.
Mangroves provide habitat for the warblers as well as many other kinds of birds and organisms, including commercial fish, and protect shorelines from erosion and slow the brunt of waves driven by hurricanes. Despite the importance of mangroves to man and beast, destruction of mangrove habitat has been considerable since 1963. Florida laws, enacted in the very late 20th Century protect mangroves.
Cowpen is split by the Intracoastal Waterway. The western part is inside Everglades National Park and as of 1990 the eastern part, no longer administered by the Audubon Society, is in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s). Peter Frezza at the National Audubon Society’s research office and just across the street from Sandy’s place wrote me recently that most of Cowpen’s nesting birds moved to the Everglades National Park side and that spoonbill populations have declined since the 60s.
Howard and I were up early to spend a couple of hours in local pine woodlands west of Lantana searching for Bachman’s Sparrows. We succeeded and Howard returned home. I spent the last two hours of morning searching for a female Black-faced Grassquit reported by a reliable observer. The only interesting bird found was a confusing fall warbler.
Back at Ft. Pierce, the Hubbard’s handed me a stack of mail that included Christmas cards and letters. There was nothing from Linda.
On Christmas Eve, Lyle, Jenny and I scouted part of the Ft. Pierce Count area. Most of the morning was spent at a residence where a Black-headed Grosbeak, and White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows were reported. Lyle had already confirmed the grosbeak. The White-throated Sparrow appeared just before lunch back at the Hubbard’s. A telephone message reported a rare Dickcissel seen at a feeder with House Sparrows and Redwinged Blackbirds. I missed Dickcissels in the summer and had not expected another chance to see them until possibly Arkansas or Texas. The new bird held its ground as it ate among the larger blackbirds.
That evening we enjoyed a sumptuous dinner and entertained with a slide show on birds by Grant McNicols, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist and regular on the Ft. Pierce count. Later, the Hubbard’s asked me to join them at church from 11 pm to midnight. I wore my only suit, the one my mother insisted I pack. The air-conditioner, if there was one, was off, the windows were shut and it was hotter than Hades. Christmas Day seemed strange; it was my first away from home. I gave the Hubbard’s a book on Audubon in Florida. They gave me two pairs of socks, candy, pencils and a carton of cigarettes. Part of the day was used to scout the region for the Ft. Pierce count. The next morning I birded around the Hubbard’s property, feeling the pace quickening as multiple Christmas Counts loomed on the horizon. In the afternoon, Lyle and I drove to Lantana. Excited Howard Langridge welcomed us for the night where Bill Robertson had earlier staked a claim in the corner of the living room floor.
Today the pace of birding intensified as the West Palm Beach Christmas Count started. Bill Robertson and I were up, flushed, dressed at 4:15 am and out of the house and stopped down a darkened road. We listened in silence, but the quiet was suddenly broken by a rough voice coming from a nearby darkened house. The voice told us where we should go. We left but thankfully did not end up where we were directed. Instead, we were back to Howard’s place for an allotted 45 minute breakfast. At 5:30, Howard, Lyle, Bill and I rushed to a nearby marsh where Howard, while banging on a garbage can lid with a steel pipe, hit his thumb. His yell or the banging produced a King Rail. Bill kept mumbling that if the police came he would be the one arrested. Dawn found Phil Allan and me in a large cypress forest, accompanied by five yelping coon hounds and their master, a grizzly old man leaning over his shotgun barrel as he tied a loose shoe lace. We were more concerned that he would shoot himself than us. His crazed dogs ran into a thicket where a woodcock had been seen yesterday and near a site where an American Bittern and a Redstart had been staked out. Soon more dogs and hunters tramped through, each barking in their own way.
Noon was approaching; we had missed our three cypress birds, now we could not locate the Burrowing Owls. We had met with Howard, who was now peering into every culvert he could find for the wayward owls. We then scurried to the beach for gannets, and then rechecked a pinewood for Bachman’s Sparrows and a small cypress area for woodcock. No luck. We took forty minutes to eat lunch and to go over plans for the afternoon. Unfortunately, Lyle and I would have to leave by 3 pm, but before departing, joined a party of three people to check a couple of places for shorebirds. Missing Dunlins, we were stuck in loose sand, dug out and headed north to Cocoa for Cruickshank’s count. Lyle and I later arrived at Allan’s house to get our orders for tomorrow’s big day.
A hazy ring of the alarm clock shook us at 3:45 am. Somehow, we staggered out and met Allan and crew at an all-night café in downtown Cocoa. Almost every seat was taken by birdwatchers. Actually, the first bird had already been recorded by Allan when he left home. Soon the preplanned parties began forming. Allan quickly introduced me to my party leader, Joseph Howell, professor at Knoxville, Tennessee, his son and another fellow, who, with me, formed the team.
Our party soon sped in Dr. Howell’s car to a designated spot somewhere east of the café. We parked to listen for owls. No one said a word for several minutes, and then Dr. Howell asked me the usual questions, such as where is Phoenix, Oregon, where will I go to school, etc. It was still pitch black as we waited in the pines, hoping to hear some identifiable bird. To speed things up, Dr. Howell gave very good imitations of screech, Barred and Great Horned Owls. The chilly air carried silence until a cacophony of two Barred Owls broke the calm. Morning light revealed a marsh that gradually came alive with King and Virginia Rails, Soras whinnying, American Bitterns, both marsh wrens but nothing particularly critical to the count.
We were assigned to bring back Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Bachman’s Sparrow so we headed further west into the pine forest. Failing, we began working our way toward the Atlantic. During one stop, I acted as bird dog looking for a Tufted Titmouse. Although I heard one several times, I was too engulfed by vegetation to see only a few feet in front of my face. The tide was out at Turn Basin. Unlike my mid-tide visit there on 9 December, birds were scattered over the vast mud flats. I picked out a Marbled Godwit, which I tried to show Dr. Howell. He spotted a Long-billed Curlew, which he thought was the bird I found. I began to worry that he would say that I could not identify a godwit from a curlew. Shortly, Allan’s team arrived, and, armed with scopes, picked out curlews and godwits.
Our next mission was to find seaside and Sharp-tailed Sparrows about a mile from Turn Basin. Grassy tufts bordered a mud flat. I asked Dr. Howell about walking the flat while he walked the dry side. Surely, we would find something. He said that the flat could sometimes be treacherous. I took a few test steps and found it to be solid. It did not seem treacherous today; it must be safe. A few yards further, my right leg suddenly was completely under a mucky sulfurous gray mud. I managed to twist around, throw my left leg flat over the surface and grab a tuft of grass. Somehow, I kept my scope and binocs out of the smelly mess and freed my right leg. I tried to go back but my left leg sunk deep into the soft clay trap. Finally, I managed to get to dry land. A gravel company office was nearby as was a hose and running water. The manager there told me that the area was extremely dangerous and that I could have gone over my head. In the meantime, Dr. Howell, apparently impatient with me, drove down the road about a half-mile to check out a new area. I had taken off my sunglasses after getting out of the mud and laid them on top of the car. Luckily, they had not fallen off when the car was moved. By then I was mad that Dr. Howell had been so nonchalant about the dangerous mud, and driving away and leaving my glasses on the car. I must have shocked him when I told him I was not happy.
The 13-hour day ended with our party logging 109 species. I saw 94, two, Virginia Rail and Short-billed Marsh Wren [=Sedge Wren] of which Dr. Howell refused to believe. The compilation party at the Cruickshank’s was noisy and crowded. I knew I smelled like a rotten lagoon. Allan called off the species, beginning with loons and ending with finches. The 100 species mark came quickly. Then 150 and finally 46 more species were checked. We reached 196, more than last year, and ranking second to the highest count of 200 set by Cocoa in 1961.
Before leaving, I had a nice chat with Dr. Howell, but wonder if he still thinks I do not know the difference between a godwit and a curlew. I talked briefly to Margaret Hundley, Russ Mason, Foster White and others before driving south to be ready for the next Christmas Bird Count.
The Vero Beach Christmas Count was the first for the region. Unlike the other counts, no one got started until around 8 am. I was paired with Grant McNicols and the compiler. The local newspaper sent a reporter to cover the new count. Grant and I covered the western part of the circle, the pinewoods. We searched the habitat most of the day, walked five miles and, although we saw only 57 species, we found 10 that no one else saw. Lyle and I did not stay for the Vero Beach compilation party. We were anxious to return to Ft. Pierce and to get some sleep.
Wakeful morning arrived around 9:30. We were tired but scouted the Fr. Pierce Christmas Count circle and found Eastern Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows and Brown-headed Nuthatches. All were good birds for tomorrow’s count.
Howard Langridge arrived at the Hubbard’s late in the evening. He had been on a count 150 miles to the south. We asked him why no one ever finds snakes during the counts. Howard laughed, and then told us someone actually stepped on an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake during the West Palm Beach Count. Luckily, the person was not bitten.
The last day of 1962 began with early breakfast and a rush out the Hubbard’s door, packed lunch in hand, for owls. I called up Barred and screech-owl, checked a barn that was owless and by 7:45 met my party, Fred Harden, director of the mosquito control unit near Ft. Pierce and Bob Bergan, WIRA radio announcer. We loaded our gear in a small boat when a reporter and photographer from the Miami Herald arrived. We obliged them with a brief interview and made a couple of circles in the boat while the photographer shot away. The tide was coming in fast. A Northeaster had been blowing since yesterday and the brine sprayed off the bow and blew into our faces. It was sticky, and Fred said the salt content was unusually high.
We clicked off the usual four species of gulls, heard a Clapper Rail, but could not find Marbled Godwits that Lyle and I earlier staked out. Bob began birdwatching only a week ago, and was remarkably good. He especially had a knack identifying shorebirds, a group of birds many experience trouble. I finally found a Short-billed Dowitcher I could, with certainty, separate from the Long-billed Dowitcher.
The sun went down. By 8 pm, the compilation began. We missed many of the birds staked out earlier. Lyle noted that hummingbirds were missed and that the only duck found were Red-breasted Merganser. The Indian River is usually full of scaup. I was a little sad that this was my last Christmas Bird Count for the season. Although I did not find, much to my surprise, any new trip birds, the experience was fun. There was a since of accomplishment, even though I did not find many species to add to any of the count totals. The long days and miles driven were behind, and there was a feeling of relief.