The tropical heat is building and the watering holes are crowded. There’s an undercurrent of sniping between the permanent residents and migrators competing for food and space. Many of the migrators are donning their finest garb in preparation of the trip north, hoping to find a mate, build a nest, and raise a family. The older crowd is also anxious to return to the land of their roots, renew friendships, and enjoy the cooler breezes. For them the trip is more strenuous but also a highly anticipated yearly event. The full time residents left behind are anxious for them all to leave, no matter the reason.
We’re both observers and participants in the great spring migration. The crest of both the songbird and human waves have already passed us by in south Florida, but we plan to join in and catch up this week.
So often we search out the remote birding sites, but reliable sources alerted us to a passerine fall-out in the heart of downtown Naples. “Just go to Cambier Park, find the stage, and nearby you’ll se a blooming bottle-brush tree full of birds, with smiling birders positioned below”.
This was great birding for old bones–I only wish I had brought a chair. Just find some shade, adjust your camera settings, aim upward and shoot. The only obstacles were “warbler neck”, the speed of the hyperactive birds, and an obnoxious Northern Mockingbird who was openly hostile to the more photogenic migrators passing through.
The Cape May Warblers were the most numerous birds, along with a good showing of Prothonotary Warblers, Indigo Buntings, and Orchard Orioles. Fewer Black-and-white, Blackpoll, and Black-throated Blue Warblers were also seen. Throw in an occasional Northern Parula, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, Chimney Swift, and a flock of Cedar Waxwings and you have a very productive tree and day.
Somehow I had never seen a Cape May Warbler prior to this day; it was a nemesis bird no longer. Although first described by Alexander Wilson at Cape May, New Jersey in the early 19th century, it was not reported there again for 100 years; but the name has stuck. This interesting bird winters in the West Indies and briefly stops here on the way north. It has a unique curved tubular tongue for feeding on nectar in the tropics. Up north it breeds in the forests of the United States and southern Canada and nests almost exclusively in spruce trees, feeding on spruce bud worms. Populations and success of the bird varies proportionally with abundance of this worm.
We also visited the famous Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to check on the spring migration there. It’s my great fortune to have the knowledgeable Corkscrew guides, Nancy and Don, as neighbors in Naples. They were on duty that day and reported that the colorful male Painted Buntings had already left but a few females still lingered.
The sanctuary was relatively quiet for songbirds, but they encouraged us to check out the ponds. It has been a dry winter and spring in south Florida and the cypress swamp was unusually arid. All the remaining water was in a few shrinking water holes, concentrating the fish, alligators, and wading birds together, not entirely peacefully.
You heard the guttural sounds of the waders and uhhs and ahhs of the spectator crowd, even from a great distance. The boardwalk was packed with observers, fixated on the spectacle of life and death on the pond. It reminded me of the childhood “Wild Kingdom” television shows of the Serengeti Plains of Africa and its watering holes, with wildebeest, zebras, giraffes, and others risking life and limb for a drink as lions skulked nearby.
At Corkscrew the concentrated jumping fish had no where to escape, and the opportunistic wading birds were reaping the reward; that is as long as they could dodge the gators who were the “lions” of this scene at the top of the food chain. The prowling gator’s only dilemma was whether to grab a fish or sneak up on a distracted bird for a larger feathery meal. There must have been 100 or more storks, herons, egrets, anhingas, and spoonbills at the feeding frenzy. As Andy said, “It’s a bad day to be a fish”.
Whereas the migration of birds has occurred for millions of years, migrating human snowbirds to and from Florida is a relatively new phenomena. In 1902 25 year-old Willis Carrier of Buffalo, New York invented the first “modern” air conditioner. I doubt that the massive population growth of Florida and the South could have taken place without AC. Even with it, Easter seems to be the signal commencing the human migration to the north.
The wide boulevards, 8-lane highways, and glass and concrete high-rises now seem empty. There are no longer lines at the best restaurants and theaters, and you can make it through an intersection with one turn of the light. It’s almost eerie. The infrastructure here is built to accommodate the huge population of winter and not for the fewer year-round residents.
I visited the flowering bottle brush tree in Cambier Park one last time. It was now quiet. The itinerant migrators had all moved on and even the Mockingbird seemed more relaxed. The resident birds had once again reclaimed their territories and until next fall, all was well.