Saturday, January 10, 2009
What everyone is looking for.
The infamous Harris' Sparrow is still being seen around La Chua Trail, and a number of Whooping Cranes have been spotted among the wintering Sandhill Cranes there as well, so I thought it would be a good spot for my first Florida birding trip of the new year.
When I arrived, something seemed definitely odd: there were tons of birders. A group of over a dozen people, all with binoculars, was gathered at the trailhead when I arrived, and took off shortly thereafter. More groups of people with binoculars and bird guides arrived and disappeared down the trail. And I didn't recognize a single one of them.
This was weird. La Chua is a popular birding spot, but I'd never seen that many people here before. And I thought I had a passing recognition of most of the hard-core local birders. Who were all these people?
I worked my way along the trail, stopping to look at a Gray Catbird and a Hermit Thrush in a tree by the trailhead. Further along—by the now-infamous dead tree where the Harris' Sparrow occasionally perches—I finally spotted some familiar faces. Yay! They said the sparrow had been seen shortly before, but the flock it was with had just taken off.
Meanwhile, more and more people with binoculars continued to slog past us down the trail, some pausing to glance at us curiously. Who were they?
The rest of us chatted while waiting (in vain) for the Harris' Sparrow to return. A large and promising-looking flock of White-crowned Sparrows flew in and worked the bushes in front of us—then a hungry Cooper's Hawk dove in and sent them flying.
"Excuse me," a passing power-walker asked, "Every time I've been here recently, there have always been a bunch of people standing exactly where you are, looking into the bushes. What are you looking for?"
This reminded me of something David Sibley said at the Sea and Sage Audubon annual dinner last year: There is a fine line between bird watching and standing around looking like an idiot.
It was time to move on.
My next goal was the Whooping Cranes. And the others told me that this was the goal of the hundreds of other people on the trail as well: there had been an article on the wintering Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes in the Gainesville Sun , and birding La Chua Trail was apparently on their weekend list of Things To Do For Fun Now That Football Season Is Over.
This was impressive—I remembered how hard we had to work back in Orange County to get any media or public attention at all for bird-related matters. And here, all that's needed to get hundreds of people out of bed and into the field with their borrowed/secondhand bins on a cold Saturday morning are a few column inches of type? Wow. Either Gainesville has the most inquisitive and open-minded population of any place I've lived in, or it's the world capital of peer pressure.
No matter. The birds (except for that Harris' Sparrow) put on an excellent show for all comers. The Sandhill Cranes were out in huge numbers. The gray lumps that look like big rocks in the photo below are actually Cranes:
There were literally thousands of them: huge lumpy grey plateaus of feeding flocks out in the distance, flocks of dozens flying overhead, calling loudly, other equally large flocks feeding and fighting in the fields just off the trail.
The Whooping Cranes weren't hard to find, either: one of the other birders I knew said that they had been feeding not far from the trail a few days earlier. Today, they obliged us by doing the same, and I got my first lifer of the year!
The birds are apparently a mated pair; the female has the blue and yellow leg bands; the male has two yellow leg bands.
The Cranes weren't the only birds out. Among the other birds out were several adult male Bald Eagles, about half a dozen Red-shouldered Hawks, an American Bittern, Wilson's Snipes, Snow Geese, Swamp Sparrows...lots of good stuff.
Just as fun to watch as the birds were the awed reactions of the flocks of new birders when they finally got to the top of the observation deck at the end of the trail. "Oh my God--it's so beautiful up here!" "Look at THOSE BIRDS!"
Yup, it really is beautiful out there, and those birds are really something to see. As a teacher, one of my favorite things is that amazing way people look when they finally get it.