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Florida, in a Nutshell

Monday, April 3, 2006

If you look carefully, you can see Chet's slitted, baleful eye. He is not asleep, far from it. He's fuming.

I'm becoming accustomed to having Chet dis me while I pack. In this case, it was a three-day jaunt to Florida to give a talk for Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island. He took up his station by the suitcase and moped conspicuously. That dog has my emotional number. For now, I don't really take him seriously. I mean, he's just a dog, and I can't stay home just because my leaving bums him out. But I can see, after a decade or so, how it could spin out of control; how his constant mind games could convince me that he WILL die without me. But now, I'm fine. I really am. He gets to stay in his own home with a housesitter and his children to love him, and giving talks and traveling is what I DO. Hear that, Mr. Mopey Muzzle?
Oh, it's fun to get away with Bill. He's a gracious and expedient traveler, also a huge romantic. So sunset beaches and nice seaside hotels are just perfect for us. We pretend we're on our honeymoon and have conversations and quiet dinners. We get unsuspecting people to take our picture. Sunset the first night was unbelievably gorgeous. The beach was lined with people, taking pictures, sitting in sand chairs, just appreciating this cosmic event. It was cool. And we cram as much fun and relaxation as we can into three days, two of which are largely devoted to getting there and back. We had dinner one night with Don and Lillian Stokes, who took time out of a busy schedule both to attend our talk and to take us out. I'm sure the waiters thought we were going to camp at the Thistle Lodge all night--we have a lot in common and leapt from topic to topic with scarcely a breath in between. Lillian's photos of birds in flight are irreproachable. She's got some bitchin' pileated woodpecker photos on her blog that should really influence the Luneau video debate!
Our talk went really well. About 70 people showed up, and the staff was incredibly nice and supportive. Susan Merchant, a reader and wonderful blogger herself, came over with her husband and was kind enough to snap this picture of us in action. Only Bill would play a guitar while wearing binoculars and a birding bra.

Ding Darling NWR is a great place. The hurricanes, especially Charlie, have changed it tremendously, taken the overstory off, and made it a much sunnier, more open landscape. The last time we were there was the early 90's, when it was a shady retreat, crawling with herons, wood storks, spoonbills, and egrets. This time, it was almost devoid of wading birds, but there were hundreds of shorebirds. Refuge staff we spoke with said they had never seen so many shorebirds as this year. Short-billed dowitchers, willets, dunlin, semipalmated and least sandpipers, ruddy turnstones and big flocks of black-bellied and semipalmated plovers dominated the flats. What a treat! It's not given to us to understand all the aftereffects of hurricanes, but they are profound.
With my little camera, I crept up on a yellow-crowned night heron prospecting for sticks for its nest.A tri-colored heron (formerly Louisiana heron) strode athletically in the shallows. I like the name Lady of the Lake for this bird.
On the last morning we were there, refuge intern Andrew and his best gal Stephanie took us out on their final mangrove cuckoo survey of the spring. We drove in a refuge vehicle, listening at predetermined spots for the birds. Since it was Friday, a day when the refuge is closed, we had the place to ourselves for three hours. But for a million no-see-ums, it was absolute heaven. Andrew had struck out every other time, and he was hoping hard to find the birds. And we had three come out of the mangroves and sing practically up our noses. What fabulous birds! It was a North American lifer for me, and a lifer for Bill. Thanks to him for this digiscoped picture. I'm now president of the Mangrove Cuckoo Fan Club. Stickers and fan mag to come.


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