Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Birds of Gulf County Florida (part one)

The Great Florida Birding Trail, Shells and Relaxation...

Spring break 2010.  Time to journey as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, as fast as possible...well, in a car anyway.  Tickets to fly the four of us round-trip would have been much too prohibitive, so I grabbed the wheel and two bottles of 5-hour Energy and off we drove.  20 hours later (non-stop other than fuel) and we had arrived - Cape San Blas, Florida.  The townhouse property we had rented was "Pristine" and so was the scenery on this white sand stretch of gulf beach.  The weather was perfect all the while we were in the great state of Denial...I mean Florida...(it was only denial until we had to pack it up and drive back to Milwaukee, but then I am way ahead of myself.)  St. Joseph's Penninsula, which the Cape is located on is a strip of sand snuggled up under the panhandle of the Sunshine State, close to St. Joe Beach.  It is about mid-way between Mexico Beach and Apalachicola and off the beaten path on highway 30A, down 30E or Cape San Blas Rd.  This was where "home" was for one week of sun, sand, and birds!
I took the comfort bicycle along so that I could get a bit of much-needed exercise.  The Great Florida Birding Trail had a convienient trailhead to the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve about 3.5 miles from the townhouse, so off I went pedaling away into the sunshine.  Parking my bike (and locking it up against the wooden covered bench area...hey a birder can't be too careful unless he wants to WALK home) I started to read the informational signage.  The "parking area" was deserted on this Friday morning when I began to "gear-up" for my hike.  Bugs are not really an issue at this time of Florida's year (outside of the typical evening blood-sucking no-seeum invasion), so walking the sand dune trail was quite pleasant from that angle.  First the Bushnell's were strapped on, the camo-fanny pack containing my ID books and bug-repellent affixed to my waist, and finally the Fuji Finepix was looped around one shoulder and head.  Yeah, I'm a bit nerdy looking, but who the hell cares right?  Perhaps birding is a lot about fulfilling the "goal" and not much about fashion, so if this is a sport (hobby) that you are thinking about engaging in; drop the vanity okey-dokey?

The first 3/4 of a mile along this trail was rather quiet.  Anolis carolinensis carolinensis darted across the sand between the palmetto bushes, scurrying out of my way as I passed.  The sun was beating down strongly, heating up the white sand.  I watched and listened as I walked haltingly in my stop-start birding fashion.  My vision is not what I wish it to be when it comes to spotting color and unidentifiable blobs that are not a part of the local fauna.  My "gifts" are in spotting movement and identifying auditory sound cues.  Not bad for a 48+ year old I guess, but I have always suffered from what I call "crowd blindness" meaning that when I walk into a crowd of people, hoping to spot a family member, I can stand there looking and looking, mouth hanging open, drool building, completely dumb-founded until someone take pity on me and does a little wave or something.  Meaning you can really screw with me if you want to...I can be a few yards from you in a large group and you can cruelly watch me pitifully scanning the masses over and over again for long periods of time if you so choose to...but for the love of GOD, please help me!  So, I am usually watching for "movement" as I walk, and listening for clues to which bird may be in the area.  That's what I was doing this day when I saw and heard the scramblings of something in the dry live oak leaves.

I stood still and waited.  I was treated to the bi-pedal scratchings of two Eastern Towhees as the birds made themselves known by eventually walking into the open.  The cheery "drink your teeeee" song of the male accompanied their mutual emergence from the underbrush.  Only this guy sounded a bit different than the towees I had heard in Michigan's Warren Dunes area, with a kind of "extra" note being sung prior to the "drink" portion of the song.  Interesting.  This area of the trail was totally amazing.  The many live oaks with their individual crops of sage green hanging Spanish Moss juxtaposed with the bright green of the palm treess and blue sky above was truly breathtaking.  It was here that I spied my first Black-whiskered Vireo in amongst the tree tops, gathering its breakfast in a flurry of activity.  Many Great-crested Flycatchers could be heard  belting out their unmistakable "Mreeeps!" but not seen (by my pair of eyes anyway) as I made my way to the base of the fenced-in (keep the hell away) fire observation tower.

The right fork of the trail led to an enormous concrete pier.  Unfortunately the pier was posted to stay the hell off of it as well...drat!  Apparently the Willet that had landed on the deck of the pier was unable to read?  Hmmpf.  I doubled back to the fork and went left this time, eager to see where it led.  After a few hundred yards, the trail abruptly ended at the bay side of the gulf with a big sign leaning crookedly in the sand proclaiming that people who made it this far should just leave their hands the hell off anything they encounter in the name of preservation for future ages.  A good reminder I decided.  I walked out onto the shoreline and noticed the cast away carcasses of countless enormous bone-white whelks lying in the sand.  The broken soil topography at the shoreline also revealed partially buried shells and such.  I assumed that this was what the signage was warning against; digging up the fossilized conch and whelks and other shells for souvenirs. 

I refrained from collecting my own, heeding the sign's potential for big trouble (perhaps "shelling" out big fines) if caught poaching long dead mollusks.  I took a few pictures (take only photos, leave only foot prints) and decided to do the State of Florida a favor by leaning my body into the listing sign to stand it upright and proud once more.  (Gosh I hope it wasn't supposed to be that way on purpose...)

Much More Florida to Follow...