What to do with the day after the big Thanksgiving feast? I suppose, if you like to be traditional, you could trample a Wal-Mart employee to death or shoot someone over a disputed spot in line in Toys-R-Us. Or, you could go birding. I never was big on tradition, myself.
Armed with Nate’s helpful directions (from the apparently quite useful A Birder’s Guide to Florida (Lane Aba Birdfinding Guides Series #175)), the Inimitable Todd and I had two target species for the day: Florida Scrub Jay and Burrowing Owl. The Florida Scrub Jay, as the name suggests, is a canny corvid endemic to Florida*, where it is severely threatened by the decline of the scrub-oak habitat that it depends on. The Burrowing Owl, as the name suggests, is an adorable yet lethal big-eyed bird that lives in holes in the ground; it is notable for being one of the few species of owls that is frequently spotted in the open by day, and like the Florida Scrub Jay, it is being negatively impacted by the development mania that has been strangling the life out of Florida for nearly a century (although unlike the Jay, it has other bits of home range to fall back on.)
The drive from Tampa to Sarasota was a bit tedious, although as with all drives through Florida it was enlivened by massive kettles of Vultures, both Turkey and Black (no doubt scoping out the mall parking lots for the weak and sick among the thundering herds) and roughly 50 million Cattle Egrets stalking the road margins(not a scientific count.) I also spotted a Sandhill Crane, my year bird for the species, along the side of the road; it was only a brief look, but one of the wings appeared to be uncomfortably akimbo, which together with the recently-pegged Wood Stork and other roadkill that we passed along the way, put me in a somber and reflective frame of mind.
Still, once we ditched the Inimitable Parents with their friends in Sarasota (they wanted to hit the outlet stores) things began to look up. The Oscar Scherer State Park turned out to be near at hand, and a helpful ranger pointed us in the direction of the exact scrub where the Jays were given to hanging out. Under a sun that put me more in mind of July than November, we trekked across this fire-sculpted habitat – a landscape that is fascinating to the trained eye, but to the causal observer probably looks like a great place to throw down a mobile home park or a car dealership. Loud, buzzing insects (someone later told us they were Carolina locusts) jumped out of our path with nearly ever step, and a mature Bald Eagle gave us a quick thrill by swooping low over our heads, but the jays were not in evidence until we were juuuuuuuuust about to give up and go looking for water. Then and only then we spotted a single scout bird** standing tall at the top of the shrubbery. After a bit, it decided that we were no threat and came in for a closer look; another bird popped up as well, and a third could be heard rattling around in the bushes but remained more circumspect.
The IT made some goofy noises and pretended to have a peanut, since we’d heard that this would draw them in, but they figured him for a faker and remained aloof. (Later we learned that feeding the birds has been forbidden at the park, since it apparently leads them to breed too early in the season and reduces nesting success, so I guess it’s just as well that we didn’t go the whole hog and actually bring peanuts.) Still, he got one good shot of the scout bird, in an attitude suggestive of the species’ characteristic curious intelligence.
While we watched the Scrub Jays not fall for our ridiculous peanut ruse, our attention was suddenly diverted to a nearby bare tree. Three Black Vultures, looking particularly massive and black due to their unexpected proximity, swooped in and landed on the straggly branches – a picture-perfect tableaux that only got better when they began squabbling in a language of hisses and slow flaps. I got the impression that I was looking at two parents and a well-grown fledgling who was just not getting the message that it was time for hir to move out and go it alone. The fuzzy-headed youngster was not easily dissuaded, though, and the stand-off never did fully resolve; all three birds eventually settled down to scan the horizon for perishing shoppers.
Our way back was punctuated by more of the usual suspects; Catbirds and a few Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, a species that seems to be almost as eye-catching in Florida as it is invisible up in New York! But we didn’t have much time to savor them, for we had promises to keep, and owls to find before we sleeped…
*Although it is in fact the only species of bird endemic to Florida, the Florida Scrub Jay is not Florida’s state bird. That dubious honor has gone to the near-pandemic Northern Mockingbird. Attempts to rectify the situation have so far failed.
**Scrub jays, unlike other North American jays but like some of their larger corvid relatives, are cooperative breeders***; and even outside of breeding season family groups travel together, with one or two individuals standing lookout while the others forage.
*** Cooperative breeding is when young birds remain with their parents for one or several seasons, helping raise their younger siblings, rather than striking out for their own territory. When territory is severely limited (as it is with Florida Scrub Jays, who despite decades of pressure have shown no inclination or ability to breed anywhere except in Florida scrub) it makes a lot of sense for a young bird with limited territory-getting skills to contribute to the ongoing success of hir parents rather than risk making a fatal hash of things on hir own. Why the ubiquitous and seemingly infinitely-flexible American Crow should also partake of such a strategy is less clear, and yet, they do. Maybe they just have family values.