When I was asked to join two of my favorite birders for a trip to the hinterlands of central, south Florida, the decision was easy. Visions of Crested Caracaras, Florida Panthers, and large alligators kept me awake the night before and the 5 o’clock alarm was not even needed. This was not a trip to the popular and great birding hotspots along the coast, but rather an ad lib trip to the non-populated interior–yell to stop the car when you see something. For those of you not familiar with this region it is a vast, flat, grassland, interrupted by small copses of palms and live oaks with water in roadside ditches and canals. It occupies hundreds of square miles north of the Everglades and south of Lake Okeechobee. The large cattle ranches and cowboys reminds you of the Great Plains or Big Sky country of our west, but the palms, other vegetation and wildlife are so very different.
We got off to a stuttering start. I left home in shorts and tee shirt expecting another hot Florida day, but by the time I reached the car realized it was only 49 F. After changing into more practical garb we stopped for coffee and food at Panera Bread, and gas at the last station we’d see that day–even they were out of everything but hi-test.
We never intended to do a “Big Day”. None of us are very competitive or ardent listers and just liked to bird, take pictures, and enjoy the company, banter, and puns that seemed non-stop. But as the day progressed and the bird list grew I got the idea to use today’s list as a baseline that we could try to exceed on future trips. Our “Big Day” was on.
So what is a “Big …” in the world of birding? It could be a day, month, or year, and could include a county, state, country, or world, or something as small as your yard or a 25 foot circle. A “Big Sit” may appeal to some. Just stake out a lawn chair in a promising location with plenty of food and cold beer, have your binoculars and scope ready and see what flies in. The point is to see (or hear) as many bird species as possible in that time and space, usually competing with others on a similar quest. There are no referees or judges–you are on your honor. These events apparently started in New Jersey in the 1920’s and were formalized to the “World Series of Birding” by the NJ Audubon Society in 1984. Last year the winning group at that event covering the whole state for 24 hours, listed 229 bird species.
This type of birding was made famous by several publications. Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand, by Kenn Kaufman is his true account of dropping out of school at age 16 to chase birds and break the American big year record–626 at the time. He hitchhiked 69,000 miles on a shoestring budget but didn’t break the record. He did become one of our most accomplished birding experts and lecturers. The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik describes 3 birders in close competition to beat the American record in 1998. It later became a successful movie. My wife likes to point out that both of these books have the word “obsession” in their title.
Our trek eventually brought us to the Dinner Island Ranch, east of Immokalee. I’m still not sure about the “island” in this name since I saw very little water except in the ditches, but the birds and scenery were marvelous. We birded for miles on the dirt roads crisscrossing this flatland, stopping the car and scrambling out at every siting or flyover, real or imagined. Since we have seen and photographed these birds before, we’re now looking for the unusual pose, action shot, or bird-in-flight. Gators were everywhere but one in particular made us stop the car for a closer look. This large one was laying there with its eyes and mouth wide open–a unique shot, especially with a telephoto lens which allowed us to keep a safe distance. They say gators are very fast over short distances, but you don’t have to out-run the gator–just the person next to you. We took many great pictures but were puzzling over the bulging eyes, (do alligators get hyperthyroidism?) when the only non-physician in the group informed us that the gator was dead. Birders are astute observers of nature, or so they say.
145 miles and many bottles of water later we headed home, having seen 48 birds, a good number for the habitat, and a number low enough that we should be able to exceed it next year. But some of us didn’t know when to quit. We took a detour past the waste water management site to bag some ducks, but only added a Brown Pelican. I was finished and dropped off, barely awake, but one companion soon called reporting a Muscovy Duck and Coot in his backyard and then set out for the beach in waning light to add some more. Our 48 became 61 due to the unexpected second wind of this birder who unfortunately set our bar even higher for next year. But you know, I can’t wait to do it all over again. We still didn’t see that Florida Panther.