We were on the hunt as soon as we arrived in Florida. Yes, we had other things to do – friends and relatives to visit – but I was determined that somehow or another while we were down there, I was going to get an opportunity to see and photograph a Florida Scrub Jay. Of course, it wasn’t our first trip to Florida and it certainly wasn’t the first time I had been determined to see a Scrub Jay. Just because they are considered by some to be a rare find and just because there has been a whole lot of development in the areas where Scrub Jays like to live making them increasingly hard to find and just because I had tried several times before DID NOT mean I wasn’t going to see a Scrub Jay on this trip. I was determined and that was that.
I had briefly spotted a lone Scrub Jay on the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) way back in May 2007 but I just didn’t feel that I had gotten a good long look at the bird and I certainly did not get a photograph….not even a blurry one. Since we were starting our “month of birding in Florida” at Merritt, I was optimistic that I would get to see one…at least one…and would get that prized photograph and I didn’t care if it was blurry or not….the point was to spot that bird. But, high hopes or not, as the days went by without spotting a Scrub Jay, I was beginning to give up on this bird.
It’s not like we didn’t see birds at Merritt. We saw plenty of birds there…in fact, more birds than anywhere else we visited. And we saw lots of “big” birds at Merritt. One of my daughters who sometimes likes to go birding with us (you know, just hanging out with the old folks meandering around looking at the birds and flowers) once told us that she only liked “BIG” birds. As she went on more birding outings with us and as she saw more and more really nice birds, the definition of “big” expanded. At first, it was all Great Blue Herons – her favorite big bird. And, of course, Great Egrets and Bald Eagles – all plenty big as birds go. But then, I asked her about hummingbirds – nothing big about a hummingbird…although they do look plenty big and fierce when they get territorial and puff up their chests and spread their tail feathers out wide to bully other hummingbirds who might be interested in getting to the sugar water feeders too. Daughter T allowed that maybe “big” could also mean birds that have big attitudes….like the tiny little hummingbird. From that point on, it was all over – absolutely any bird she liked was a “Big” bird.
She would have loved Merritt – plenty of birds there – big and small – everything from Herons to Egrets to Ibises to Roseate Spoonbills right down to American Avocets, Tree Swallows, and Woodpeckers. But no Scrub Jays.
As we traveled throughout the state, we had even gotten so lucky as to see a pair of Sandhill Cranes with babies – two beautiful long-legged colts scrabbling along behind their parents picking bugs out of the grass. But no Scrub Jays.
We checked everywhere. We were nearing the end of our time – a whole month and plenty of birds but we just couldn’t find those Scrub Jays. We met other birders at different preserves and parks who told us all about where they saw Scrub Jays but we just didn’t have any luck. We ran into a couple at Rookery Bay down near Naples who had been coming to Florida in the winter for many years. They told us that Scrub Jays used to be very prevalent right there on Shell Island Road and that birders would flock (yes, pun intended…I couldn’t resist) to the area to see and feed the Scrub Jays. Yep, the birds would come out to the side of the road to be fed every evening. But the refuge managers and rangers, being wiser, stopped the practice thinking that the Jays would become way too comfortable with people. When the people stopped feeding the Jays, the jays stopped coming out to be fed and few had been seen in the area since. Nice story but it didn’t help my quest any knowing I was maybe ten years too late to see those darned birds.
So, on Sunday before we were scheduled to leave Florida (exactly three days left), we headed out from the condo where we were staying and decided to go looking for a state park I had read about but wanted to see mostly because it had a pretty cool name – Catfish Creek State Park. I love locations that have names that give you an idea of what you might see when you get there. I do have to say though that my luck in these places is not so good. Ask me one day about Flamingo Point in the Everglades. But I keep trying and Catfish Creek sounded pretty inviting. In retrospect, they probably could have named the place something like Alligator Cypress Swamp and Scrubby Sand Trails considering what we found there…but I think maybe there is already a place called Alligator Cypress Swamp in Florida.
Truth be told, the creek was a bit easier to find than the state park. We drove south on Route 27 through a quaint but totally deserted town, down through a great many orchards and farmer’s fields with lakes (or maybe ponds) here and there. We finally came to Fire Tower Road, which according to the maps, appeared to end at the state park. But we did not find a state park at the end of the road. The road ended at a gate with a big overhead sign proclaiming this place to be the FFA Training Center. This did not really stop us because we thought maybe the state park and the training center might be the same place or at least one within the other, or maybe the sign was just a mistake albeit a huge one. (Well, if you are going to make a sign that says the wrong thing for a state park, you might as well make a big one.) There was a huge lake, Lake Pierce, at the park and that was a second good reason to proceed right on through the gate…along with quite a few other cars all of a sudden.
We were a bit mystified about all those other cars that had suddenly shown up on what had been pretty much a deserted road just minutes before we got there. One minute there is no one in sight and then next minute we’re in a traffic jam of sorts right there in the middle of nowhere. So to get out of the parade and to find a nice quiet spot to have lunch, we turned down a side road leading to a boat ramp down by the lake. Wouldn’t you know it, several of the cars turned in to this dead end one lane road right behind us..…and the road was a little too narrow to allow everyone to turn around easily to go back to the main road. We managed to park off to the side enough to let everyone else turn around and get back on their way and we also managed to find a quiet spot to eat lunch all the while wondering what the heck was going on and where had all the cars come from.
Turns out the FFA Training Center was not the state park and has nothing to do with the state park which is an unimproved preserve that had only a small parking lot that we had passed on our way to the end of the road. And it turns out the Training Center has a beautiful lakeside pavilion, a lodge, cabins, camping grounds, and a large training center (of course) that is rented out for weddings and other special occasions. And the day we decided to visit, the facility was rented out for a wedding which explained where all the cars were going but does not explain why they followed us down the lane to the boat ramp. I can only guess that the wedding guests didn’t know their way and just followed us right off in the wrong direction.
After we had lunch and took a look at the boat ramp and floating pier scaring a small alligator we didn’t know was there as we stepped onto that pier, we went up to the lodge and got some information about the state park that we missed and about Catfish Creek which, it turns out, runs right through the training facility and into the lake. So, we were at least getting to see Catfish Creek which include Cypress Trees and a couple nice-sized alligators which explains why I thought maybe the name of the place should be something to do with alligators and cypress trees.
So we missed the state park on the way in but got to explore another park while managing to stay away from the aforementioned wedding festivities. And we spotted a Common Ground Dove and several Little Blue Herons and, on the way out of the facility, a Bald Eagle’s nest. There were no adult Bald Eagles to be seen but there was a small head poking up from the nest so we parked on the side of the road and contented ourselves with checking out the eaglet hoping that an adult would eventually show up. But it didn’t. We moved on down the road stopping here and there to take photos of wild flowers – Lupine I believe – and looking for the state park we’d missed on the way in.
We were counting our blessings and thinking about all the wonderful birds and other creatures we had seen while in Florida and I had pretty much given up on my hopes (and steadfast determination) of seeing a Scrub Jay. It was getting late in the day but we decided to stop in at the state park for a minute anyway – maybe walk down on of the trails a piece – before heading back to Orlando for the night. In the meantime, we were creeping along in the car looking for the park and birding the hedges by the sides of the road.
I spotted a Northern Mockingbird perched on a power line and thought, “another mockingbird” following us all over the state. Of course, it’s not the same mockingbird…they are quite common in Florida and we’ve seen them everywhere….but for the past few years, we’ve imagined that it is the very same mockingbird following us around all over the country. You know there has to be a story behind this.
Some years ago, on a trip to North Carolina, my husband had decided to chop down a bunch of Pokeweeds that were growing at the edge of the field by the house. The pokeweed was heavy with purple berries and the Blue Jays and Mockingbirds and every other bird around had been having a great time eating those berries. There was one Mockingbird who had laid claim to the berry bushes and had stationed himself high up on the top of an old poplar tree snag where he could keep an eye on those berries and head off any other birds presumptuous enough to think they could get some berries too. He, the bird, was not at all happy when he, the husband, came out with a swing blade and started whaling away at all that pokeweed. The mockingbird proceeded to scold and fuss at the crazy human for a good thirty minutes or so until he, the husband, stopped cutting down the berries. That weekend, every time we walked out of the house, the bird was there to berate us for even considering cutting down those berry bushes. Since that time, we’ve been careful to leave the berry bushes alone and I am reminded that the Mockingbird network has put out a “be on the lookout (BOLO)” for the dastardly low good for nothing scoundrel who was cutting down the berry bushes. So, it was only natural, when I saw the Mockingbird, I mentally noted mockingbird and turned to my husband and told him the “boys” were following us again and he’d best keep a low profile.
But the Mockingbird looked odd sitting up there on the wire. He was in bad light against the sun and a long ways away so I thought maybe it was another bird – maybe a Loggerhead Shrike. We had mistaken a Shrike for a Mockingbird before so I figured we should slow down and check this bird out a little closer.
Lo & behold, there was a Florida Scrub Jay in all his beauty and splendor!
We stopped the car and I jumped out to try to get a better look and a decent photograph. The lighting was terrible but the bird was cooperating and didn’t fly away. Even better, he called out to an unseen mate who answered. Then, just like that, there were birds all around us. We must have happened upon a small feeding flock that included Red Bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, Titmice, and not one, not two, but six – SIX – beautiful Florida Scrub Jays. We watched and took pictures for maybe forty-five minutes. I was smack dab happy about finding these birds. I thought it might be nice at one point to maybe have a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker show up and join the group – always another rare bird to find, right? But I decided not to push my luck at this point. The Scrub Jays were good enough for me and I wasn’t gonna do any complaining about any other birds we missed along the way.
So, we never quite made it to the state park – not really. We found the parking area which made a convenient place to park off the main road. We watched the birds until they moved on to another place to feed. As we drove away, I spotted a lone sentry high at the tip top of a cypress tree by the side of the road. It wasn’t a Scrub Jay though.
Nope, this time it was indeed a Northern Mockingbird….and yes, he was giving me the old stink eye as if to say, “Yes, it is me and I know you’re the one who chops down berry bushes and you can best believe I am keeping my eyes on you. Now move on down the road and don’t even bother to look back.”
And so we did.
If you’d like to know more about Florida Scrub Jays, look here.