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My Life’s Birds: #404

July 14, 2010
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December 25, 2006 – Merritt Island NWR, Fl – The best part about spending the end of year holidays with my wife’s Jewish family is the idea that December 25, celebrated across the rest of the world as the commemoration of some sort of miraculous event, is just another day that you’re fortunate to have off. This means that if you’re lucky enough to find something that’s actually open, there are no ceremonial obligations, no wrapping paper conglomeration, and no exhausting family gatherings.  Not that those things are wholly unwelcome or unpleasant, because there was a certain bittersweet feeling at being away from my Missouri family at this time of year for the first time ever, but the odd deviation from tradition can be freeing as well.  There was, after all, no way in hell my own family would have been up for a Christmas day run up the coast for a bit of birding at Merritt Island NWR and to chase a very special rarity that just happened to be spending some time up there.

Early, early that morning, my mother-in-law, my wife, and I snuck off to make the two hour drive that would put us there not long after the late winter sunrise.  We arrived to a bit of rain, but a wide open wildlife drive that was free of cars and allowed us looks at some of the loveliest wintering waterfowl you can imagine.  My wife is hardly much of a birder, but you’d have to be made of stone not to appreciate bays full of sleek Northern Pintails, dapper Redheads, and the odd Green-winged Teal and Shoveler.  A solitary Roseate Spoonbill was a real crowd-pleaser and a trip to a bridge where dozens of wintering Manatees congregated was a treat to those less bird-obsessed.

If you ever have an opportunity to do some birding in Florida, one of the most desirable species has to be the state’s lone endemic, a charismatic species that requires a very specific type of habitat.  There are better places to find Florida Scrub-Jays than Merritt Island, but we weren’t at those other places.  We were limited to the invitingly named Scrub Ridge Trail which helpfully has pictures of Scrub Jays at the trailhead to urge you forward to what may well be the most difficult place to find Scrub Jays outside of the metro Miami area.  For all the iconic images of Florida Scrub-Jays perched on top of visitor’s hats,  eating peanuts out of people’s hands, and otherwise making a mockery of the concept of “endangered species”, the birds at Merritt Island were not easily found.  In the end, we heard the distinctive call, turned to see a distant Jay atop a beachfront scrub, and barely lifted binoculars before it quickly disappeared, staying maddeningly out of sight.  I thought these birds were supposed to be simple.

In any case, this lifer was not supposed to be the exciting one on this trip.  Merritt Island was an appetizer and once we’d had our fill it was time to head to the main course, being served daily at a water treatment facility just outside of Melbourne.  The bird in question was a Masked Duck, a stunning neotropic vagrant, that had amazingly stuck around for several months since being discovered in the fall.  This was a bird that I had missed at least twice in Texas, one high on my most wanted list.  To have it so near to where I was going to be was too good and I’d been following it well before we left and every day leading up to Christmas Day, when I planned to get myself a fine ducky gift.  Long story short, we spent the better part of two hours combing the marsh for the bird until an afternoon thunderstorm chased us back home.  There were lots of other species of ducks, a fine assortment of waders, but no Masked Duck.  It was never seen that day, some thought it has finally vamoosed.  Until it put on a show two days later

So it goes, Florida Scrub-Jay is a heck of a consolation gift though.

FLSCJA from wikipedia

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One Comment
  1. Danielle permalink
    July 14, 2010 7:20 am

    Ah, I vividly remember the search for the masked duck. 2 hours of peering into the marsh, looking for one single bird. Me: “Is that it?! Is that it?!” Always answered with a disappointing no. Oh well. And it wasn’t a thunderstorm that chased us home, it was a tornado!

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