Birding Old Florida

Once a year we pile into Mel’s large SUV at dawn, grab a quick breakfast and coffee at Panera Bread, and head inland looking for birds in “Old Florida”.  Florida was the last of the southern states to be settled and civilized, in its case centripetally, from the east and west coasts first, and then gradually and progressively inland.  It’s in this sparsely populated inland region where one can still get a feel for what Florida once was in the 19th century and earlier.  You can also find the birds that thrive on the dry flat savanna and open spaces.

My birding colleagues

When I first started visiting South Florida in the 1970’s development along the coasts only extended perhaps 5 miles inland, whereas now one has to travel 15 or 20 miles inland to leave the strip malls, gated communities, and golf courses behind.  The coastal development of the 19th and early 20th century was spurred on by the construction of the 275 mile Tamiami Trail, (Tampa to Miami), begun in 1915, and the Florida East Coast Railway (St. Augustine to Miami, and later all the way to Key West), by Henry Flagler in 1885.  Florida’s history is a colorful account of land management and mismanagement, with the legal disputes still occurring today.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna

This history of Florida is skillfully portrayed in the historical novel “A Land Remembered” by Patrick D. Smith.  It describes three generations of a pioneer family and their struggle to survive on a difficult frontier.  You’d think you were reading about the Wild West instead of the Sunshine State.  It’s a tale of cattle drives, crackers, rustlers, range wars, dust storms, hurricanes, vigilante justice, and Native Americans unfairly confined to reservations.  The narrative begins just after the Civil War and ends with the glass and steel skyscrapers of modern Miami Beach.

Osceola Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo osceola

Our birding technique for this trip was four sets of eyes scanning the, roadside ditches, wires, and shrubs at 30 MPH, calling out for Mel to pullover for any interesting bird.  Then silently lower the window for an initial shot and kill the engine to mitigate vibration if the bird was particularly photogenic.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

You were lucky if the sighting was on your side of the SUV.  If not, after a courtesy few minutes you could try to open your door for a shot, hoping the bird would not spook.  They usually did, especially the frustrating American Kestrel which seemed to know the limits of my 400mm lens.

The big sky, flat grasslands, and grazing cattle could easily be Oklahoma or Texas, that is, except for the alligators lurking in each watering hole and the tropical Florida flora.  The roadside ditches and wet sinkholes were good bets to find Kingfishers Egrets, Herons, Cormorants, Spoonbills, and Anhinga, but we were more interested in seeing and photographing Caracara, Sandhill Cranes, Meadowlarks, and maybe even a Snail Kite.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

Almost at the center of the state, but slightly southwest of Lake Okeechobee you’ll find our final destination, the Dinner Island Ranch.  This is a 21,000 acre wildlife management area of uplands and wetlands with scattered palm and oak hammocks festooned with Spanish moss.

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Calusa Indians frequented the region from 800 AD until the 17th century, but we saw nary a soul on the day of our visit.  Make sure you have a full tank of gas, food, and water for your visit, and don’t get stuck in a muddy sinkhole or sandpit as Mel has learned the hard way.  Tow trucks won’t readily respond to this remote location.

Dinner Island Ranch

This was the start of the breeding season for the Eastern Meadowlarks and they were out in great numbers singing for any potential mate.  They were the consensus photogenic bird-of-the-day, seemingly posing for us on every fence post, as if we were a mate option.  The striking yellow bird in the bright sun gave us dozens of great low-ISO shots, some of which you’ll see here.

Eastern Meadowlark

Add to them the pair of Crested Caracaras on the telephone pole, the Cattle Egrets faithfully following the herd, an unusual flyover of a large flock of White Pelicans, and the engaging banter of fellow birders, and you have a satisfying day in Old Florida.

Cattle Egrets, Bubulcus ibis

To top it off, Mel has a great knack for finding the perfect, out-of-the-way human watering hole to end our day.  Next time you’re in Immokalee check out the “Roma In Havana Ristorante” for great Italian and Cuban cuisine.  It was our chance to imbibe, tally our bird list (46 species), and make plans for next year’s visit to Old Florida.

Book Review: Sea Room by Adam Nicolson

Published by North Point Press, copyright 2001, 401 pages


The ebbing tide over-powered her desperate strokes toward the island and carried the swimmer steadily and surely away from land.  Her distraught husband on the shore knew that her rescue was impossible.  It took two strong adults to launch the heavy scow pulled high up the beach and the only other inhabitants on the small island were their infant children, safely asleep in the cabin.  All he could do was call out his love, over and over.  She did the same until just a speck in the vast sea, finally succumbing to a cold watery fate.  “The sea invites and the sea destroys”.

The Hebrides                                    photo courtesy of A. Sternick

This, and many other accounts of life and death on the Shiants, three small isolated islands in the Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland, form the basis of this wonderful book.  The author knows of what he speaks since he owns the Shiants, inheriting them from his father, who bought them for a meager sum as a young man in the 1930’s, and then passed them on to his son 40 years later.  Who would want them, four miles from the nearest port across an unpredictable and dangerous passage, bordered by steep cliffs, rocky shores, and poor anchorages?  For the author these islands “at times…have been the most important thing in my life”.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

This book represents the author’s twenty year quest to uncover everything about the 550 acre Shiant Islands.  How were they formed and will they survive?  Who were their Stone Age, Viking, and more recent inhabitants?  Did they thrive or merely survive?  He sought to understand the flora and fauna, especially the birdlife with myriad seabirds nesting on the steep cliffs.  Although this is not a birding book per se, the birds figure prominently in the author’s love affair with the islands, “moated by the sea”.  Nicolson enticed archeologists, geologists, ornithologists, and social historians to help him reconstruct the island’s colorful past.

Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctic                            courtesy of A. Sternick

His initial excursions to the islands were on fishing boats but Nicolson needed his own boat, something in the Norse tradition, that he could sail single-handedly.  He found John MacAulay, a salty shipwright, who designed and built him “Freyja”, a sixteen foot, stout, open cockpit, rowable sailboat, perfect for his needs. The only problem was that the author did not know how to sail.  As a sailor, I shake my head in amazement as Nicolson relates his crash nautical education and solo ventures into the rip-tides and dangerous waters of the Minches.  History reports dozens of shipwrecks and lost seamen here, but the author and “Freyja” surprisedly prevailed.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

Birders will enjoy the descriptions of the abundant avian life of the Shiants.  The Skua are the “Viking birds, heroic, bitter northern, aggressive, and magnificent modern invaders whose nests are littered with bits and pieces of Puffin and Kittiwake”.  He describes the graceful headfirst dives of the sharp-billed Gannets, one piercing the floorboards and hull of one unlucky fisherman who was smart enough to keep the bird and bill plugging the hole until safely in port.  There are descriptions of Eagles, Ravens, Falcons, Guillemots, Shearwaters, and Fulmars, “the most effortless of all the seabirds” while the social wintering Barnacle Geese mark spring each year when they leave for their nesting grounds on Greenland.

Brant, Branta bernicla

The quizzical Puffins are the island’s avian stars, wonderfully portrayed by the author, whereas the Shag or Cormorants with their evil green eyes are his “trash birds”.  I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that the Puffin is still one of my nemesis birds (a life bird yet to be seen).  This book has inspired me to head north, at least to the coast of Maine and the maritime Canada provinces to correct that deficit.  Someday I may even make it to the Hebrides, if not the Shiants themselves.  We’ll see.

John J. Audubon’s Puffins

The Shiants have many abandoned ruins of various ages.  The study and excavation of them allowed the author and others to begin to reconstruct the social history of the islands.  It’s amazing how archeologists can discern patterns of human behavior from mere fragments of pottery, tools, stone ruins, or a bronze age golden torc dredged up by a Hebridean fisherman.  A discovery of special importance was a loaf-sized stone found buried beneath the floor of some ruins.  Upon rolling it over the archeologists discovered it was a deeply carved four-armed cross with circular border, likely the work of a saintly hermit of the first millennium seeking shelter, solace, and peace on the island.

Buller’s Shearwater, Puffinus bulleri

Sheep herding and even cattle grazing occurred on the grassy plateaus.  At its peak some 50 people inhabited the Shiants but by the late 19th century only one family remained.  The Campbells were a hardy clan of father, deaf mute son, and two beautiful daughters who were the toast and envy of the Hebrides.    The staid and determined mother tried, but failed to guard her daughters from visiting fishermen.  Even the Campbells left in 1901, leaving the islands to the sheep and birds.

Common Murre, Uria aalge

This is a fascinating book about eons of birds, plants, and later humans including the author, all eking out a spartan existence in this beautiful but challenging land.  There is a somewhat melancholy conclusion as Nicolson’s trips to the islands seem to be numbered.  Will his young college-aged son accept and cherish his inheritance as his grandfather and father had?  What will be the effects of climate change and progressive civilization on the island’s ecosystem?  For me, the lesson of the book is the inevitability of change.  Nothing ever remains the same, but life in some form will cope and persist, even on the weather-battered Shiants.