Snowbirds Test Flight 2015

crocusI sit here gazing out the window watching the wet snow drift down softly covering what few spring flowers might have been brave enough to poke little green shoots up through the cold hard soil in my flower beds. My mind drifts back to the balmy breezes and warm sunshine of Florida where we were just one short week ago. A lot can happen in seven days. We thought we came home to spring but, alas, there is a just a bit of winter yet.  It’s not quite blackberry winter but close enough for me and too cold and snowy altogether.  I’m thinking we came back from Florida way too soon.

Our plan this year was to do a “test flight” and see how we would like joining the ranks of the snowbirds who flee the cold northeast just about the same time that real birds make their southern migration and much for the same reason – to get out of the cold and spend the winter someplace where it is warmer and, yes, drier. Years ago, I recall thinking how quaint it was that my older friends and neighbors just couldn’t wait to head south for the winter. Let’s get through Christmas (if that) and let’s hit the road.  I would think, “What???!!!  Leave and have no chance to see the beauty of snow falling silently in the yard covering the flower beds allowing the azaleas and hydrangeas and dogwood to sleep through the winter months in their blankets of white?”  Why, perish the thought.

But that was then and this is now.

The years have taken away some of my innocent views about snow and I’ve become a little jaded by the thought of shoveling all that snow and how nasty it gets after being plowed up off of dirty streets leaving a brown/black berm running along the highways and surrounding all the parking lots….not to mention limiting the number of parking spaces available at the grocery stores where you rush to buy milk, bread, and toilet paper before the next snow starts. I still love snow but the aftermath can be a mess. Talk about yin and yang, roses and thorns, clouds and silver linings, snow has it all….great beauty and terrible ugliness.

sebastian inletAdd to this the siren call of the Sunshine State and we were queuing up with every other retired person and heading south. Last year we took our first trip to Florida on the Amtrak Auto Train and I wrote about the experience here.  We only stayed in Florida for two weeks last year but this year decided we’d need a full month for our test flight. If everything worked out, then we’d know whether or not we could join the ranks of the others each winter and schlep out the cold months in a place where we could find warmth and sunshine. So we did some figuring and cyphering and budgeting and decided that we would take the auto train again and our test month would be February. A few reservations and we were ready to go. We left Annapolis on a relatively warm (for winter) day in February, had a marvelous time touring southern Florida, and came back on a nice (for winter) day in March. Here’s what we learned:

  • First and foremost – we absolutely loved spending the month of February in Florida. The only problem we had was in coming back a little too soon. We think that next year, we will go for at least two months (Good Lord willing and the numbers crunch out just right).
  • Our original plan had been to wander around like birding vagabonds going from place to place birding during the day and finding a hotel where ever we happened to be come evening time. This practice had worked on many of our birding trips in the past and had worked splendidly on last year’s Florida trip. Two things caused a problem with this plan in 2015 – snow and a holiday. We just didn’t account for a holiday right smack dab in the middle of the month. Yes, we remembered President’s Day but we sort of forgot how much it means to people who are not retired. We also forgot that this long weekend gets extended by most folks to include Friday and, this year, by a couple of states who tagged on a “teacher work day” on Tuesday. Combine that with Valentine’s Day and nothing but snow in every state north of Georgia (and actually some snow in Georgia) and there is absolutely no reason for anyone not to grab a flight or jump into the car and head south. I kid you not, starting on Thursday evening, February 12th, we found ourselves searching high and low for a room. We had a couple of moments there where we weren’t quite sure if we’d be able to find a room. When we found a room, we booked it for three nights and then booked a few miles down the road for another two nights to get us through the long weekend. So we liked being vagabonds but we decided that we needed to do just a bit more planning. Always good to know where you’re going to bed down for the night even if you’re free roaming vagabonds. palms
  • Along the same lines, we learned that we liked being in a stationary location and having a “home base”, as it were, to come back to in the evenings. We stayed in some of the nicest hotel rooms, and, unfortunately, some showing lots of wear & tear that weren’t so nice. There was one hotel where our room was on the ground floor with outside access right by the ice machine. It was apparently the best place ever for smokers to congregate at all hours of the night so that at any time you awoke during the night, you could hear the rumble of the ice machine along with a smattering of talk just loud enough to be annoying but too low to be entertaining. Although it was short notice, we called a travel service and found a three bedroom condo for just about the same price we would have paid for a hotel room for a week (the room prices increases exponentially when the hotel gets booked up – Economics 101 – supply & demand just like the textbook says). The condo was luxurious compared to hotel rooms. We weren’t so much taken with the view of the golf course(s) in the resort community but we did like the space and the kitchen and the washer/dryer and…..did I say space already? And we were able to visit and bird most parks and preserves within a fifty mile radius with no problems. So we gave up some our vagabond freedom for a little comfort and stability….good trade all in all.
  • We just do not like navigating in heavy traffic and city neighborhoods so we didn’t delve too deeply into Miami or the surrounding cities. There was great birding west of the city so we were good but we did miss the parrots and parakeets that make their homes nowadays in and around Miami. We will return someday and brave the dangers of the city to see the birds there but we bypassed the city this trip. On the other hand, we found a condo near Orlando for our last week in Florida so did manage to get to downtown Orlando for a little birding and the traffic wasn’t so bad. Two different cities with different characteristics, I suppose. jantzen
  • Daylight Savings Time (DST) totally slipped up on us. You sort of lose track of time when you’re being a vagabond. We were able to keep up with the days (had to know check-in and check-out dates) but sometimes the hours flew by with almost no notice at all. We mapped the next day’s birding (and some other tourist type activities) each evening after supper. There were no hard stops and starts so we just took things as we got to them. It did mean we got to some hotspots at less than optimal birding times but it all worked out okay. When we got tired in the afternoons, we headed back to the condo or hotel room. Each morning we packed the cooler with crackers and cheese and raw vegetables and water/soda….when we got hungry, we ate. In late afternoon or early evening, we’d find a restaurant to eat or we’d fix something at the room. One day began to flow into another relatively quickly so I decided we needed to declare a “rest” day on Sundays. We would catch up on washing clothes and rest and we’d find a church for the morning services. That was working okay until DST caught us. We were heading out to attend a church we’d found online that was supposed to be about five miles away but our GPS kept saying it would take about an hour and a half to get there. We just couldn’t figure out why the GPS arrival time was so late until we realized it was about an hour off our mental calculations. Yes, it was our watches that were wrong and not the GPS. SO, no church that day. And, yes, the calendar on my smart phone did indeed have a reminder to reset my watch to “spring forward” and it did play that annoying little song to let me know I had a reminder….I just didn’t listen, as usual.
  • Speaking of the trusty GPS. Turns out that Garmin does not really recognize National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) or most Preserves or any parks that do not have a street address. But Google Maps on my smart phone does. So, I ended up using both in combination to get to the NWRs. There were still a few wild places that neither GPS nor Google could find for us but, for the most part, we found them all eventually. In 2014, we had started adding Florida State Parks to our birding venues and were delighted at how nice some of the parks were. We continued to visit state parks on this trip and were not disappointed. Let me add that, in the planning stages each evening, I found Bing Maps to be very helpful. Since I did not know Florida very well, I did not know which places were nearby or which were further away from our base hotel. Bing allowed me to look for directions for different sites showing distances and adding destinations so that I could see how best to lay out the sites to minimize the driving and also save time. I could set up an itinerary on Bing on my computer, note down the best order in which to visit the sites, and then enter the sites in that order on the GPS in the car the next day without having to try to mentally calculate which site to do first while we were on the go. It saved quite a bit of running back and forth and covering the same highway territory getting to new sites as we roamed. birds in bay
  • I learned to use eBird to find hotspots and turned on the “Alerts” for Florida so that I got daily updates on where rare birds were being spotted. Using that in conjunction with my list of sites I had compiled using the Florida Birding Trail before our trip was very helpful. And I joined Florida Birds on Facebook. I saw daily postings from birders and photographers from all over the state that helped solidify our plans over the month we were in the state.
  • We learned that Murphy’s Law will prevail….something will go wrong. There will be times you get lost and the GPS will not seem to know what country you are in let alone what county and state. There will be times you get cranky and aggravated…..nuff said, you get through it. Your car (or train or whatever) will have a problem……it started small with the trusty Scooterbug….the radio stopped working. Just like that, it stopped. First thought was that a fuse was blown so checked that – wasn’t the case so we headed to the dealer where it started again, just like that. It’s like taking a kid to the doctor with a fever…you walk in the door and the fever is gone and the kid is fine. But you get back home and the fever is back. Likewise, the radio stopped again on the way to the hotel. And then the car wouldn’t start at all, but then it did, and so back to the dealer we went. Unfortunately, that particular dealer was swamped so we were directed to another one….you guessed it, deeper into Miami during some of the worst traffic ever. So, the day’s plans were scrapped and we spent the day at the dealership. On the other hand, Mother Nature handed us a small consolation prize….on our way out of town, we stopped at a Burger King and, when we least expected it, we found a life bird – a Common Mynah. Guess it’s like the commercial – getting a new starter – $400 plus and 4 boring hours – finding a life bird – priceless! But Murphy prevails – we still haven’t figured out the radio problem. mynah
  • Finally, we learned that you cannot do and see everything no matter how well you plan. We took beach and snorkeling gear but never really made it to the beach. But it was good to be prepared just in case. And, when birding, the old lessons come back. Sometimes you just have to find a bench and sit and wait for the birds to find you… can walk around forever and never see the birds until they decide to let you. And sometimes when you’re looking for something or some place, you have to drive around a bit and see what else you find. You have to realize that some people build and name roads in crazy ways that totally mess up your GPS so having a paper map for back-up is always good. Sometimes the best things (like our mynah bird) are found quite by accident when you’re on the way to something else. Guess the poet, Robert Burns, was correct in saying –

“The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!”

Robert Burns, To a Mouse (Poem, November, 1785) Scottish national poet (1759 – 1796)

Will we do it again? Absolutely! I am already planning next year’s winter trip to Florida…or, maybe, Belize or, maybe Panama, or maybe Texas, or maybe Arizona.  Good birds there too and lots of sunshine and heat….at least, that’s what I hear.

fl pan