The Big Trip (aka Birder Interrupted), Ch 21, Everglades and a New Plan

Everglades and a New Plan

1-5 January

Today the Hubbard’s and I huddled around their radio listening to Bob Bergan asking me questions about my trip. He taped the interview yesterday during the 11th hour of yesterday’s Christmas Count. It was uncomfortable to be interviewed and embarrassing to hear.

The Everglades called, but Lyle had arranged for me to speak to the St. Lucie Audubon Society in five days. Until then, Lyle and I were in the field every day. Shorebirds were plentiful and we found the Marbled Godwit missed on the count. One morning I amused myself watching a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher chasing tiny pieces of bread I flipped in the air. Once the airborne bread landed, the gnatcatcher lost interest. Ovenbirds, on the other hand, chased the morsels to their landing-place and ate them. Obviously, there was plenty of time to get my notes up to date, write letters and make notes on my talk.

At 2 pm on 5 January, I began speaking to the St. Lucie group, which was an outline of my trip so far, and where I would go before returning to Oregon. I did not have slides although I had a map of my route. After thirty minutes of talking, I attempted to answer questions. Someone made a motion to help my trip budget, and the treasurer later presented a check for $25.00. I was surprised and very grateful. The amount could cover the cost of about 75 gallons of gas!

6 January

The Hubbards and I were on our way southwest to Lake Okeechobee, a place high on my list. Lyle explained that the number and kinds of birds in and around the lake were diminishing because of various agencies manipulating water levels, and too many people in boats, fishing and hunting. The chances of seeing an Everglades Kite [=Snail Kite] would be slim, but we stopped frequently to scan the marshes for one of the eight kites left in North America.

It is about a 100-mile drive around Lake Okeechobee, further than we had time, but Lyle hoped we would be lucky on the north end of the lake. South of the town of Okeechobee was our destination, at the dikes at the north shore. Excepting Snowy Egrets, all the usual wading birds, a couple of species of ducks, seven species of raptors were busy foraging. We scanned with our binocs then with our scopes until our eyes hurt, but a kite did not appear. Getting nowhere, we drove southwest along the lake to Fisheating Bay, near Lakeport. Still scanning for kites, we also checked vulture flocks for caracara. At one stop, Black and Turkey Vultures were feeding on a dead cow that had fallen into a shallow ditch. Although thousands of vultures help clean the cattle rich region, Florida offers no protection to these beneficial birds. As we later glassed a small flock of Black Vultures a bird flying much faster came into view. It was a caracara, finally a new life bird after so many days. It was a brief glimpse, but as we retraced our route from Fisheating Creek to the town of Okeechobee, a bird flew near the road. Its red face, long legs and striking black and white pattern were impressive.

*****

The Lake Okeechobee region in 1962 is not the same as it is now. The Kissimmee River, the largest tributary of the lake was channelized beginning in 1962, with the result of tens of thousands of acres of marshland converted to agriculture. About 93% of the waterfowl disappeared, and phosphorus and other agricultural byproducts, once filtering through the marshes of the winding river, traveled directly into the lake. Filling the straight channel will help restore the circuitous Kissimmee River.

Although there may have been more than eight Snail Kites in Florida in 1962, the estimate for the early 60s was only 20 to 25 individuals. Populations thwarted by drought and more importantly habitat alteration have yet somehow increased despite continued loss of habitat. In 2005, there were an estimated 1700 Snail Kites in Florida, but that number was down by a remarkable 50% since 1999.

*****

7-10 January

Morning was gloomy. It was time to say farewell to the Hubbards who had been my hosts, friends and invaluable guides for so many days. Deciding not to drive far, I found a narrow dead-end road leading into the pines about a half-mile from busy U.S. 1. At the end of the sandy road, I explored the surroundings before settling in for the late afternoon. A narrow path hacked through a palmetto thicket led to a pile of what looked to be junk. Adjacent to the heap was a table, a lean-to and a few fresh human tracks. A leather shotgun carrying case draped over a bush. Rain fell last night but the case was completely dry.

That was enough for me to try a different place. A quick backtrack to the highway and another dirt road, this time near the beach was my new home. I snacked on the Christmas candy and cookies I horded for the New Year, slapped mosquitoes and slept for 12 hours.

The next morning, not far from Jupiter, I woke refreshed. The eastern horizon was bright, and I could hear waves crashing on a few offshore rocks. I wrote Linda about the sunrise and the last several days in Florida. In Jupiter, I found a much-needed laundromat; the washing and drying cost 80 cents. The only way to avoid the expense was doing laundry at the Hubbards, but it was embarrassing because of the degree that my pile of clothes needed washing. Because my boots were wearing thin, I later spent $5.10 on a sturdy pair of shoes. The first sand in the new shoes was on a beach with an immature Great Black-backed Gull.

Late in the afternoon, I arrived at the Langridges, talked birds, ate dinner, and attended a meeting at the Everglades Audubon Society. A couple of members there gave me a contact who might know where to find an Everglades Kite. Howard went over details for finding birds in the Everglades.

On 9 January, I left the Langridges for Ft. Lauderdale where I phoned a contact for information on locating kites. I was anxious and pessimistic about seeing the rare bird. The directions given was to drive west on state 84 to its junction with U.S. highway 27, on to a gas station and restaurant called Andy Town, then to the first left and stop at a parking lot. Once there, I began walking the northern dike to look for the kite seen there last week. A three-hour search brought only darkness. A security guard at the parking lot had given me permission to park in the lot for the night.

The next morning, I drove six miles to another possible location for kites. There, at a flood control pump house setting astride one of the many dikes was two workmen. They looked at me strangely when I asked if they had seen Everglades Kites. “You mean one them paper…” I tried to explain, but got nowhere. My last chance to see a kite required hiking down the dike two miles west to the next pump house. Two kites were there a month ago and I knew finding them was a long shot. All I saw was the vast Everglades.

The day was half over as I rushed back to civilization. I enjoyed televised horse races and wanted to see the Hialeah Race Track in Miami. The track was not open. Following a phone call, I visited Louis Stimson, who had recently published a paper on the distribution of Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows. I took detailed notes. Although I felt certain of finding the bird, I was not certain about getting to Everglades National Park on time. Somehow, I took a wrong turn on the way to Homestead, ending up on Old Cutler Road instead of U.S. 1. By the time I found the correct road, it was too late to get to the park. The back of a service station offered a place to park my mobile VW home.

*****

Howard Langridge had asked if I had heard anything from Smithsonian about the grassquit. I had not. In a 16 March 1963 letter, Howard told me that, in a letter from Smithsonian, George Watson stated that the bird I found was a female Black-faced Grassquit representing the nominate subspecies, a resident to the Bahamas. Howard wrote me that he would send the information to the regional editor of Audubon Field Notes [=North American Birds], “with the understanding that you [Mr. Browning} will write the article for the Auk as suggested by Mr. Watson. Therefore, Ralph Browning added a new species to our local list. Congratulations.” My first publication in a scientific journal appeared in 1964. Had I not been swept up by what I perceived as more important than it was and not felt rushed to get into print, I would have insisted that Howard be one of the authors. After all, it was a tiny note documenting the third specimen for the United States. It was not the first. Howard asked me more than once when the note would be published. That is generally called turn around, and it can be considerable, depending on the journal.

I did not realize the great amount of time between the acceptance of a manuscript and the date it is printed. Fortunately, the manuscript on the grassquit was short and uncomplicated. Usually, once a manuscript is drafted, authors usually ask colleagues, especially ones familiar with the subject matter, to comment on the manuscript. Several drafts may follow. The draft submitted to the editor may be returned to the author for revision, and after the author produces a new draft, the manuscript will then be sent to referees. These are people who the editor deems expert enough on the subject to judge whether the manuscript should be published. Referees also make recommendations for improvement. This is part of the peer review process. If the manuscript is accepted by the referees, the editor may return the manuscript for further revision. Once the author is satisfied, the author sends in a revised manuscript. If the editor is happy, the manuscript will eventually appear in print, maybe years later. Multiple authors may create longer delays while various drafts are sent back and forth between the authors. Often, to save time, the senior author is left see the manuscript through. Of course, institutions employing authors may evoke their internal evaluation and editing policies before an author ever submits anything to a journal editor.

The grassquit sent to Smithsonian, too deteriorated to be prepared as a study skin, was injected with formalin and placed in a jar of a solution of alcohol. It was in what many of us at the museum call the pickle collection although some used terms such as wet or spirit collection. More importantly, the Black-faced Grassquit from Florida was the first specimen in Smithsonian that I ever collected.

*****

11 January

Passing Homestead, I was soon walking the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm Hammock in Everglades National Park. The hammock, the island of trees in the ocean of saw grass, was crowded with people and birds. Also known as Paradise Key, the region is a bundle of life, royal palms towering over wet tangles, and butterflies, herons and Anhingas. A huge alligator, known as Old George and estimated to be 14 feet long, dozed in the sun, unconcerned with human noises across the water. Safe on the wooden boardwalk, I joined the amazement of the tourist as gallinules and Snowy Egrets and several other species of herons squawked and croaked with the chorus of frogs as silent snakes slithered from sight. Fish sometimes splashed to the black surface, concentrated by winter’s dry season, and many fed the avian and reptile menagerie. More than one Anhinga impaled fish, their sharp bills pierced through the side of a fish’s abdomen. A water-soaked Anhinga flipped a fish off its bill, positioned the prey so that it could be swallowed head first, gulped several times, then proceeded to spread its wings and tail to dry in the sun.

Hours slipped by before leaving Royal Palm Hammock and finding a campsite at Long Pine Campground. One or more of the 50 species of mosquitoes inhabiting the park sampled me during the evening while attending a naturalist talk. The naturalist said that during the summer, rains bring the water level of the park to the edge of the paved park road. He hastened to add that the water also produced many more mosquitoes than what the audience was slapping now.

12-13 January

The temperature and humidity raced upward, pushing the morning from hot to miserable. The humidity won. I decided to find a shady spot, write a few letters, and plan the rest of my time in the park. A few pines provided little relief from the weather. Birds around the campground were the same species I saw in other pine forests in southern Florida. No new birds and unbearable weather was not what I had dreamt. Sundown was welcomed.

The next morning, I left Long Pine Key Campground to drive to Flamingo, at least 30 minutes away at the end of the main park road. Stops along the way, including Pinelands Trail, took me through a section of Caribbean pines, short leaf figs, buttonwood and bayberry. I made the summit to Rock Reef Pass, 3.1 feet above sea level. The vastness of the park, 1,400,533 acres, could only partially be appreciated. The river of grass, what Indians called pa-hay-okee stretched for what seemed forever. It felt lonely being the only human on the road and boardwalk at Pahayokee Overlook. Every direction was open, virtually flat, and hopeful that wilderness could exist. To the south, I entered Mahogany Hammock, an area containing the only mahogany stand in our country. The tree branches held orchids and ferns. Huge strangler figs encircled its thick branches around ill-fated trees. A sign along the boardwalk stated visitors might hear Barred Owls. I tried to imagine owls calling in the night, as I tripped over strangler figs and trees downed by Hurricane Donna in 1960. Leaving the Mahogany forest, I enjoyed the beauty of a stand of paurotis palms. Their graceful trunks, covered with a fur like matter, made them look soft and delicate.

Late in the afternoon, I met Richard Cunningham, author of 1961 “A field list of south Florida birds.” His publication, along with Pettingill and local bird watchers were my sources for finding birds in Florida. Since entering the park, I had not seen any new trip birds. Dick had two leads. With a key that he loaned me, I drove through the gate and down the narrow shaded road to Snake Bight. Slightly over an hour of daylight remained. A brant was there last week, but not today. Plans to search for Mangrove Cuckoos on the way back to the main road ended abruptly as black clouds of mosquitoes entered the open windows of my car. Stopping was out of the question.

14 January

The inside of the car heated quickly the next morning. I crawled quickly from of my bunk to escape to the relatively cooler outside air at Flamingo. Slathered with mosquito repellent, I was ready to take on all 1.6 miles of Mosquito Bight Road. Walking the dirt road might increase my chances for birds. I parked near the gate, walked a few feet along the dirt road, and stopped, squeaked and listened. Clouds of mosquitoes swarmed all around my invisible barrier of repellent. Snowy Egrets and Wood Ibis fussed at my intrusion. I walked 20 more feet, stopped, squeaked and listened. The salt-water mosquitoes followed. About 450 feet from the beginning of the road, something moved in the otherwise still vegetation. Searching, I saw a cuckoo skulking 25 feet away. It peered around a thick branch, revealing its black face patch. The bird seemed as curious about me as I was interested in it. We both did not change perches, and eventually I could see its buffy belly and white-tipped tail feathers. Sweat was beginning to wash away the mosquito repellent. Satisfied I had seen a Mangrove Cuckoo, I walked further through the tunnel of frustrated mosquitoes that were getting closer and closer. Before it was completely unbearable, while it was possible to see beyond their hungry bodies, something much larger than an insect stopped me in my tracks. The horde of mosquitoes hovered, waiting as sweat washed away my shield. A Red-eyed Vireo foraged just off the trail. What? I thought. That species should not be here now. Ignoring increasing blood loss, I strained to see the needed field mark, which was there. The aptly named Black-whiskered Vireo and the cuckoo were observed within minutes of each other. Now less concerned about a remotely possible Brant, I hurried back to the car.

Dick had suggested another place to look for birds, and on my way, I ran into Bill Robertson. I must have been the first one to speak. “I saw a Mangrove Cuckoo. “ He congratulated me but did not seem terribly impressed. We chatted about Christmas Counts and birding in the Everglades.

Bill asked where I was going. I told him Dick Cunningham suggested Bear Lake. Bill said, “While you are there count the number of adult and immature Roseate Spoonbills there, something funny is going on there.” He explained that most of the spoonbills are adults, which is not encouraging if the species is expected to continue to live in the park. It was noon after hiking to Bear Lake, about one and half miles from the main road. A few peanut butter and cracker sandwiches, along with rising temperature and humidity, kept hunger away. I found only 19 spoonbills, which all were adults. On the way back to the car, I met a birder who was looking for Mangrove Cuckoo. I proudly told him about my sighting.

15-16 January

The morning at Flamingo was filled with writing several postcards to people north of Florida. Missing the Brant at Snake Bight and several northeastern species Allan Cruickshank mentioned I would be missing, called for new plans. After Florida, I would drive north as far as coastal Maine during February. There would still be enough time to make it to Texas for the spring migration. I wondered what my parents would say.  Actually, I knew what they would think, but I was determined to see a New England winter.

At noon, I met Dick, who I thanked for information on the cuckoo. He wished me luck on my venture. By late afternoon, I was at Long Pine Key Campground.

Heavy dark clouds obscured the next morning sunshine. I aired out my bedding, made sure I had winter clothes, cleaned the inside of the car, and repacked for the trip north. While cleaning, collections of crumbs, mostly ex-Christmas cookies, were spread out on the picnic table. Common Crows [=American Crow], mockingbirds and even a Palm Warbler visited the table.

17 January

On my way from Long Pine to park headquarters, I stopped for a second look around at Royal Palm Hammock. The usual herons, egrets and gallinules clamored for food, an eight-foot alligator was sun bathing 20 feet from the boardwalk and, surprise, an Anhinga had just caught a fish. Only its neck, wet and clinging feathers, was visible. It truly looked like a snake. I noted its metallic green skin around the eyes.

Nearby Gumbo-Limbo Trail was fascinating, but not for its birds. The half-mile winding trail was under a deeply shaded canopy of oaks, mahogany, poison wood and gumbo-limbo. Lush ferns, mosses and epiphytes were everywhere. This was a place for a botanist, but I imagined it crawling with birds during migration.

Bill Robertson was waiting at park headquarters. He was standing over a large table examining specimens of birds collected over the years in the park. These were small samples of the 206 regularly occurring species recorded in the park began in 1947. I was embarrassed that I saw only 75 during my short visit. I reported finding only adult Roseate Spoonbills at Bear Lake. Bill said he was not surprised, and told me the green-skin of the Anhinga becomes more noticeable during the progression of courtship of the species.

The next couple of hours were spent driving, first to Homestead, then due north to the famous Tamiami Trail, the only highway, the only road, across the Everglades. My home for the night was a few miles west at a wide spot along the highway.

18 January

Limpkins calling during the night kept me pleasantly awake part of last night and lulled me to sleep the rest. Mosquitoes found their way through the cracked windows during the cooler morning hours. The sun quickly warmed the car, and the mosquitoes searched for darker and cooler nooks and crannies in the car. After the heat from the sun roused me out of bed, I rolled up the windows of the car to let the sun heat the car to kill any trapped mosquitoes. That way, I could start fresh, with a new and annoying population of mosquitoes for the next night.

Just west of the western sign announcing the boundary of the hamlet of Ochopee, I turned left and parked. As instructed by Mr. Stimson, I walked about a quarter of a mile. I began flushing sparrows, but I could not identify them. Walking back and forth through broom grass panned out when one of the wily birds stopped long enough to identify it as a Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow. Feeling great about a new life bird, I drove to Marcos Island on the Gulf of Mexico. I drove a short distance down the beach, then, because the tide was in, waded through waist deep water to the north bar of the island. I walked about a 100 yards, dripping warm water on the dry pale sand, stopped and looked at my first Snowy Plover.

My second crossing was slightly drier; the tide was going out. The warm marine breeze dried my clothes while I photographed some of the attractive shells I had read were on the Gulf beaches. At nightfall, I pulled to the side of the highway. What a great day.

19 January

Not far inland was Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Sanctuary, a small region of virgin forest, saved from the ax of loggers. Thousands of acres of cypress and pines had been cleared from southern Florida in the 1940s and 50s. By 1954, the National Audubon Society began acquiring what untouched land remained. When I arrived, Hurricane Donna had blown hundreds of trees to the ground, but the guide I met seemed optimistic. As for birding, I was not optimistic, but the experience reviled only my time in Okefenokee. While leaning on the rail of the boardwalk, I felt the whole structure first vibrate slightly then it began to shake. I looked up. The heavy footsteps were those of Sandy Sprunt. He said the Zenaida Dove was still hanging around his home. Alexander Sprunt was in the swamp, somewhere, busy leading a nature tour. Leaving Corkscrew Swamp reluctantly, I drove north to Ft. Myers where I parked for the night.

*****

Years later, I began doubting my identification of the Black-whiskered Vireo since the species is not known to winter in North America. However, I think I can recall that bird back in 1963, including how it looked, what it was doing and how it reacted by my approach. Did I really see a Black-whiskered Vireo or should I remove it from my list of birds observed in Florida?

In 1963, I was oblivious that a year earlier the floodgates along the Tamiami Trail were closed, further restricting water flow to Everglades National Park. The mighty Everglades have naturally changed. Some of the obvious changes, for example were in 1971 when Congress set the minimum water flow to Everglades National Park at 315,000 acre-feet per year following several years of extreme dry conditions. In 1979 storm water from the Everglades Agricultural Area that should have been pumped into Lake Okeechobee was pumped into the northern Everglades resulting in the spread of cattails into the normally saw grass habitat. The complex chemical balances of water flowing from agricultural and urban regions continue to evolve. Interstate 75, which makes a northern path from Florida to Sault Ste. Marie between Lake Superior and Huron in Michigan, further impeded the southern flow of water to the Everglades.

Not all the changes were bad, although the good ones appear to have happened to avoid more catastrophes. In 1968, a proposal to build a jetport in the Big Cypress was defeated. Big Cypress National Preserve was established in 1974. Everglades National Park has been designated as an International Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site, and Wetland of International Significance. Unfortunately, these designations may not save the Everglades, the endangered wood stork, and other birds living in it. Wading birds nesting in colonies in the southern Everglades have dropped from 265,000 to 18,500 since the 1930. That is a 93% decline. Declines in Roseate Spoonbill populations that Bill Robertson worried about in 1963 were not ill-founded. Several sources have concluded the decline is a result of current water management practices.

William B. Robertson, who I have enjoyed visiting on his trips to Washington, DC, worked almost 50 years for the betterment of Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks. He died at 75 in 2000. I still recall Bill laughing when Howard Langridge hit his thumb that early morning looking for rails. The late Dick Cunningham, who began working in Everglades the year we met, sent me an email in 2004 about working on a book on the birds of Everglades National Park. One of his coauthors was Bill.

*****

20 January

Wind driven waves sprayed high over the long causeway at the mouth of Tampa Bay. The high bridge across the bay, the Sunshine Skyway, was 15 miles long. It was a 150 feet above the bay, and a buffeting west gale made for a difficult crossing in the light VW. St. Petersburg was a breeding location for introduced Ringed Turtle Dove [=Ringed Turtle-Dove]. The AOU check-list stated the species breeds in Los Angeles and Miami. Florida birders told me St. Petersburg was the place to look, and I did not want to wait until Los Angeles. They said I “would have little trouble finding the doves in the city parks and that they practically feed out of your hand.” I fought Sunday traffic into town and checked a couple of city parks. No turtle doves were in sight. Three different birders I phoned were not home. Apparently, I missed one of the easier birds of the trip.

*****

In May 1980, a freighter crashed into the southbound part of the Sunshine Skyway. More than 1,000 feet of the bridge, with cars and a passenger bus, fell into the mouth of Tampa Bay. Thirty-five people died. By 1987, a new bridge replaced the one crossed in 1963.

Ringed Turtle-Doves, a common cage bird worldwide, was breeding in St. Petersburg in 1953. Sandy Sprunt’s father, Alexander, documented that occasion. The dove was more recently confirmed to breed in two other counties in Florida by the Florida’s breeding bird atlas, a publication, full of old acquaintances including benefactress Helen Cruickshank, friends, and colleagues in its bibliography. As for not finding Ringed Turtle-Doves, in 1992 the American Birding Association removed it from their official list. It turns out that the doves, which may or may not have been derived from the African Collared-Dove (Streptopelia roeogrisea), are completely domesticated. According to the ABA, anyone leaving Ringed Turtle-Dove on their life list should add Barnyard chicken. Now, I don’t feel so bad having missed my St. Petersburg target bird.

*****

21-23 January

The night in Lakeland, away from the warming Gulf of Mexico, was cold. Arriving at Orlando, I was to meet my aunt and uncle from Indiana who I last saw in July. They had been delayed for a month. Continuing eastward, I picked up my mail at Cocoa. I paid $9.61 for a mechanic to winterize the VW by installing new points put in the distributor and adjusting the timing. He also sandblasted carbon off the four sparkplugs. The transportation budget, starting at $185.00, was now down to $60.65. For some strange reason the transmission no longer leaked. The car was ready for northern weather, but the waves of cold fronts sweeping south worried me. Also troubling was the trip list total. Standing at 340 species, I hoped that the gamble to return to Maine would be worth the pain of cold and risk driving in ice and snow.

Before heading north, I had a few stops left in Florida. One was fulfilling a promise to an aunt in Oregon that I would look up her sister and family could no longer be avoided. They lived in Eau Gallie, which I was told is pronounced Oh Golly. It was a good name since it was hard to locate on a roadmap. My hosts insisted that I stay a couple of days, one of which was for a visit to Patrick Air Force Base a few miles south of Cape Canaveral. It was interesting, but I would have rather witnessed a missile launch or another Dusky Seaside Sparrow.

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