Monday, October 5, 2009
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a male Summer Tanager...
Five fun facts I learned this weekend:
1. Cats are not only predators of nesting Northern Mockingbird chicks, but also take their eggs.
2. Squirrels are likewise known to feed on Mockingbird eggs.
3. Monk Parakeets build ginormous colonial nests on electric poles in south Florida, which causes birds, people, nests, and random other stuff down there to occasionally get zapped into oblivion. Many people find this problematic.
4. Ghost Crabs are major predators of Snowy Plover chicks in Florida.
5. Warbler lust can lead to physical and spiritual ruin.
I gleaned all this important information from the fall meeting of the Florida Ornithological Society , which took place this weekend here in Gainesville. If this year's meeting and last year's fall meeting in St. Augustine are any indication, FOS meetings are great fun, in a seriously weird way: they're a cross between a small birding festival and a low-budget academic conference, with a laid-back vibe unexpectedly generated by some of the most intense birdheads imaginable. Almost all the attendees were professional biologists or wildlife managers (a guy at my table at Saturday's banquet proudly showed off a scar from a California Condor bite); the few other amateur birders there other than myself all had life lists approaching four digits.
Nope, I had no idea what I was doing there, either.
Everyone else was there to either share their latest research or network with like-minded professionals. My goals were more modest: (1) to have fun and (2) to improve my birding skills by learning at the feet of the masters. Both goals were easily attainable: there was lots to do (social hours! field trips! PowerPoint presentations with lots of bar graphs! Beer in the parking lot of the hotel where FOS was held! (Don't ask...)) And the other birders there were AMAZING.
But their awesomeness didn't help me see any birds. And uncooperative migrants nearly ruined the weekend for me.
I scored a lifer on a Saturday field trip (a Magnolia Warbler) and got several good birds overall (a Blackburnian Warbler and a couple of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks), but the whole weekend, I felt hollow. I hadn't found any of these birds myself, I would never have been able to ID them by myself, as all were tiny backlit silhouettes darting through the tops of dense 4-story high trees. I could barely see most of the birds we found, let alone get any photos of them.
The thrill of the hunt is all about the satisfaction of skills rewarded, and here I was getting spoon-fed like a baby. The kind of colicky baby that gets more food on the floor than in its mouth at mealtime.
On Sunday, a kind couple from Tallahassee patiently tried to point out the Ovenbird and Hooded Warbler in the brush about 30 feet in front of us. "See that branch over there? There's another branch behind it leaning to the left and there's some Spanish moss near that? The bird's just behind it—do you see it?"
"Yes, thanks," I lied after about 10 minutes of their careful tutelage.
I was sleep-deprived, covered with bug bites, and plagued with serious warbler neck and self-loathing. The number of birds I'd actually seen and IDed myself that day was in the single digits. My big weekend of migrant hunting, which I had been looking forward to for weeks, was shot. And now all I wanted to do was crawl into a big hole into the ground.
Luckily, there was a big hole conveniently nearby: Devil's Millhopper , locally known as the Biggest Sinkhole Ever (or at least, the biggest sinkhole in the greater Gainesville area). People kept telling me that it was really awe-inspiring and worth checking out. Why? Because it was a Really Big Hole! And there are stairs leading to the bottom of it! Ooh!
The inside of Devil's Millhopper was pretty—lined with ferns and what would have been nice little waterfalls in the rainy season—but it was not the vertigo-inducing thrill-fest I had envisioned. And it wasn't all that deep either—it took me all of 10 minutes to walk to the bottom and back up again. Maybe this is exciting here in Florida, where there are no mountains or canyons to speak of, but for someone who grew up surrounded by canyons and hills, this was seriously lame. And there were no birds in there, either.
But when I emerged from the Really Big Hole, on the rim were several birders from the field trip, who had been told they had check the place out before heading home to Jacksonville or Tallahassee or wherever. We chatted, and I learned that everyone on that trip had been frustrated by the uncooperative birds—about half the group had given up and left early. So it wasn't just me.
And the trips weren't a total loss: I learned a few more cool factoids about birds and plants, and I still saw more birds with the FOS posse than I would have seen on my own.
Which begs the question: is it possible to see a negative number of birds?