A side trip south,
One of the worst parts about working in retail is searching for new products at boring trade shows. (You might think it’s easy to find puffin-shaped toothpick holders, but it’s not.) One of the largest, and my least favorite, trade shows is the one in Atlanta. The show is massive and tedious and since women run the majority of the world’s gift shops, the crowd typically consists of ten billion middle-aged ladies, me and occasionally one other guy. My reward for dragging through one of these shows is to take a short birding trip when it’s over. This year I decided to visit eastern Florida and make my third attempt at finding the elusive Florida Scrub-jay. Sadly, this scrub-jay appears to be headed for the endangered species list and can only be found in a few scattered areas, all of which are in the Sunshine State. My two previous trips to find this bird came up empty, even though I was told exactly where to go. (I must have been misled by some alternative facts.) Here’s what happened on try number three.
On my arrival at the Orlando Airport, I was immediately distracted from the task at hand when I got word that a Smooth-billed Ani was being seen at the Viera Wetlands. Cool beans! With their black feathers and huge bills, anis look like a cross between a crow and a parrot, yet they are actually in the cuckoo family. They are quite common throughout parts of South America and the Caribbean, but not Florida. So, this sighting was a big deal and I decided to check it out.
The Viera Wetlands, near the town of Melbourne, is my new favorite birding spot in eastern Florida. Like many good birding locations, these wetlands were created by a wastewater management project. (I know it sounds gross, but the birds don’t mind and neither should you.) The entire area consists of four small ponds that we are allowed to drive around or if you are ambitious, walk around. And it’s free to enter, which was important since I spent all my money back in Atlanta on puffin-shaped toothpick holders.
I was there on a Sunday morning and the paths were filled with families, joggers and lots of beginner bird watchers. My trip around the Wetlands produced good looks at American Bitterns, Reddish Egrets, Crested Caracaras, spoonbills, courting Hooded Mergansers, nesting herons and a huge flock of handsome American White Pelicans, but no sign of the Smooth-billed Ani. Then, as I was leaving, I came upon a group of serious birders standing by the side of the road. I took this as a good sign, but I was wrong. They were all staring at a large patch of weeds (the last place the ani was seen) and they all had glum looks on their faces (which is the standard expression for most birders). I asked about the ani and they all just shook their heads. I’m not the most patient person in the world, so after about five minutes of staring at weeds I was outta there. Seeing a Smooth-billed Ani would have been cool, but I’ve seen them before, and the real purpose of this trip was to see a bird I had never seen, ever.
About ten miles north of Melbourne is a very small and rather obscure park called the Helen & Allen Cruickshank Sanctuary. (Many young birders probably never heard of Helen and Allen Cruickshank, but they were both important promoters of birds and birding during the middle part of the last century; this area was thoughtfully preserved in their memory.) I had read online that scrub-jays were being seen there. That seemed promising, but I have been chasing these tips for years, so we’ll see.
The Cruickshank Sanctuary is the antithesis of the Viera Wetlands. The Wetlands were filled with cars, people and a huge assortment of birds, but this place had none of that. The tiny parking lot was nearly empty and there was not a bird of any kind to be seen. The only wildlife I found was a lowly gopher tortoise. I was busy talking to the tortoise when a bird flew over my head. I could tell by its harsh call that it was indeed a scrub-jay. I chased after it until I came to a small bridge. I stood on the bridge and watched the squawking bird settle onto the edge of the stream below and start bathing. What a sight. I was about to thank the birding gods for rewarding my efforts when another jay landed near the first one, and then another. Soon there were six scrub-jays squawking and splashing in the water, like a bunch of frat boys on spring break. Wow!
Then the craziness was cranked-up another notch when a seventh jay flew in, but this bird apparently didn’t need a bath. Instead of joining the others, it landed on the top of my head (really). I had read that Florida Scrub-jays were tame, but I never expected one would use me as a perch. With the bird still sitting on my head, I slowly reached into my pocket, took out my iPhone and snapped a series of selfies of my new blue friend. Eventually, the show ended and the birds all flew away to dry off. With a smile still on my face, I sent the photos back home to my son, Casey. He had been with me on earlier failed scrub-jay searches and I knew he’d be jealous. (Good ole’ dad still loves to rub it in.)
As I walked back to my car I thought about the brief but wonderful day of birding I had at both the Viera Wetlands and the Cruickshank Sanctuary. I sure wish I could have stayed longer, but alas, I had to get back to Cape Cod and deal with all the new items I bought at the trade show. After all, those puffin-shaped toothpick holders weren’t going to unpack themselves.