Sunday, March 22, 2009
How to get ahead in Florida Scrub Jay conservation.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is known as a mecca for birders and bird photographers. Glenn had wanted to go there in the biggest way, and had signed up for an instructional photo tour there last year. Unfortunately, he had to back out for work-related reasons. But we knew that we'd make it there someday—and that day was now upon us.
Had we been really hard-core birders, we would have left Gainesville before sunrise to arrive at Merritt Island at first light, for the best birding and shooting opportunities. But (1) we were on VACATION, which means the right to sleep in; and (2) we had a whole three days planned in the area. So when we pulled into the parking lot of the refuge's somewhat touristy Visitor's Center, it was almost 1 p.m. Truly disgraceful by serious birding standards.
The first thing we did upon arriving was ask about recent bird sightings. "Oh, there's an Osprey nest you can see from that scope out on the boardwalk, " said a friendly volunteer at the information desk. "And the Painted Buntings are still around. See, there's one now!"
She pointed her chin at a feeder just outside the window behind her desk. A little blur of red and blue and green flitted about, then shot off.
I thought my odds of getting a Painted Bunting here were pretty good (they are known to winter here regularly), but I figured I'd have to work at it. And here we were, getting one of the best lifers ever only five minutes after arriving. During the birding doldrums of the lunch hour. In the freaking gift shop of the visitor center.
This was just too easy.
We got our cameras from the car, and camped out at a close-but-respectable distance from the feeder, waiting for the bird to return. The volunteer said it had been flying in and out fairly regularly over the past few days, and we hoped we'd get lucky again.
And we did--within 10 minutes, a female flew in. She's not nearly as flashy as her male counterpart, but that shade of green is still pretty flashy compared to the subdued greys and browns of typical backyard birds.
Her companion returned a few minutes later, to the delight of the small crowd of birders who had gathered to wait with us.
We explored the wooded area surrounding the visitor's center, where I got my first sighting of a non-road-klll armadillo. They look much cuter moving around in one piece than rotting by the roadside in two or three!
I used to think that armadillos got hit by cars so often because they rolled up into balls in the middle of the road at the sight of these large "predators". But a local birder/biologist told me that in reality, their instinct in such a situation is to jump about a foot into the air. While this may be effective in discouraging normal animal predators, it unfortunately puts the poor armadillos—SLAM!—right at bumper/front grill height of any oncoming car. Yikes.
The trails were thick were birders, and word was spreading that Florida Scrub Jays had been numerous and easy to find along the appropriately named Scrub Trail, a few miles away. This was another bird we really wanted to see, so off we went. And this was one of those lucky occasions in which popular wisdom and gossip actually contain useful information, as the photo above can attest.
(The guy in the photo wasn't trying to attract the birds—he wasn't feeding them and wasn't even pishing. But for whatever reason, they just decided on their own that he'd make a good perch.)
Florida Scrub Jays look almost exactly like the uber-common Western Scrub Jays, which are known for monopolizing West Coast bird feeders. Unlike their western counterparts, however, Florida Scrub-Jays are seriously endangered. There's not much scrub land left in Florida, and the birds have not adapted well to human encroachment. This is ironic, since as the photo above shows, they're not terribly afraid of people. Maybe they should be.
Most of Merritt Island was closed off because of the upcoming Space Shuttle launch (Cape Canaveral and the launch site are only a short distance south of the reserve). Some of the space geeks we met told us that there might also be a few other rocket launches before the shuttle took off, so there was a chance we' d get to see one of these. We hoped we would: there's no shortage of interesting things in the skies above the Space Coast.