Taking the Auto Train

auto train signIt is oh so cold and we are in sore need of some warm weather. It is only January and I’m wondering how I can ever survive the rest of the winter. Fortunately, we have neighbors who are snowbirds and who have a lovely place in Florida (land of the forever warm) who graciously invited us down to visit this cold snowy winter. If ever there was a reason to stay in good with your neighbors, it is winter in Maryland. So just about three weeks ago, we loaded up the Scooterbug (aka our car) and headed to Lorton, Virginia to the Amtrak AutoTrain station.

This would be our first trip to Florida on the auto train so we were a bit skeptical and I, for one, was a bit excited. It should be fun – an adventure – but it takes a long time and costs a pretty penny and I’m wondering about the size of those little roomettes that do not look so roomy in the diagrams on the website.  We had compared prices with the airlines and rental car agencies and the train came out pretty good considering the prices for flights and rental cars these days.  It would be good to have our own car and be able to pack summer clothes and binoculars and backpacks and cameras for birding in the car and not have to lug it all along with our winter coats on a plane. Besides, even if the roomettes are small, you can sleep anywhere for one night, right?

lorton stationWe arrived at the station early or so we thought.  The waiting area was already full to busting with folks just like us who couldn’t wait to get out of this cold miserable weather and down to sweet sunny Florida. But the sooner you get there to check in, the sooner you get your dinner time slot. You see, I didn’t know all these nuances to traveling by auto train before. There are things to consider that the old-timers know about that will make your trip smoother.  Seems there are three dinner times on the train – 5:00 PM, 7:00 PM, and 9:00 PM – and it seems like everyone wants the 7:00 PM time slot. We didn’t get there in time for that but we did manage to get a 5:00 PM reservation so at least we wouldn’t be eating so late as to miss the free movie in the lounge car…..that is, if we could find the lounge car and find an available seat in time to actually see the movie.

But getting to the station earlier means you have to spend more time in the waiting room because the train absolutely does not leave before 4:00 PM.  You can do the math – if you get there before noon, you’ve got about 4 hours to spend wandering around the waiting area watching the automobiles being loaded onto the vehicle carriers or sitting on those nice cold metal waiting room chairs pretending to read or trying to nap.  But all too soon we were on the train and the locomotive was headed out of the station pulling some 43 train cars, about 200 people and maybe 100 or so automobiles including motorcycles.

One last bit of information about the auto train. If you pay extra to get a roomette or one of the other sleepers, you get the pleasure of eating in the dining car with cloth linens and glass wine glasses and real breakable plates. I wouldn’t go so far as to say china or stemware but they were train quality plates and cups and glasses.  A more experienced rider told me that the people who opted to go “coach” and sit up all night in the regular train seats had a separate dining car where it was all paper plates and plastic cups.  I’m just telling you this so you will know what all that extra value was when you pay extra to sleep in a closet on a two inch pad in a tiny berth with no headroom the pursers affectionately call “the coffin”.

frozen potomacSoon we were chugging along enjoying the scenery along the Potomac River flowing down through southern Virginia. And soon, I was thinking about more things than the size of the roomette (which was very small) and whether or not we’d be able to get any sleep at all in the little berths (which turned out to be okay but, no, we didn’t get much sleep that night).   I found myself wondering about those old rusted cars and trucks you see in the woods down by the railroad track. There doesn’t seem to be any roads to those areas or even hiking trails but there always seems to be an old rusted abandoned vehicle or two down by the tracks somewhere. How do they (whoever dumps them) get them down there? And, why do people feel the need to abandon cars down by the railroad track as opposed to, say, dumping them off the Interstate? You don’t suppose one just bounced right out of the back of an auto train and ended up in the woods where no tow truck could get to it, now do you?  Nah, probably not but it still leaves me wondering.

frozen riverBut the railroad tracks seem to be the ideal place to dump things – the place to abandon broken and dead things that no longer fit in the modern world.  As we moved along, we mostly got to see the back side of each town down by the tracks…..not the pretty parts you see in tourist guides and on post cards.

factoryold factoryIn the early days when the country was settled, people first built their towns by the rivers and canals since the rivers brought boats and goods and commerce to the outlying areas. Then, the railroads came through and they were faster and better and the land down by the tracks (sometimes right alongside the rivers) became the very best place to build your towns and main streets. Then, finally, automobiles and trucks became the way to go and interstate highways bypassed the towns with their narrow streets and crowded storefronts.  The railroad stations and the businesses and homes down by the tracks sort of got bypassed too.  What was left became mostly industrial – factories and huge warehouses – and the underpinnings of the town and its commerce were all abandoned down by the tracks.

graffitiBut the trains still run day and night still moving people and goods but no one pays them much attention unless they have tires to dump or a pressing need to fill the walls and trestles with graffiti.  Have you ever noticed that it always seems to be tires and mattresses and old cars that seem to get dumped the most? The main streets that used to bustle with stores and cafes and people buying and selling and lingering over coffee now seemed to be boarded up and deserted. But the train whistle still blows and the crossing guard’s lights still flash red and the few cars that go through town still slow down and stop to watch the train slowly rumble on by.

And there are tracks snaking off in different directions. Some are tidy and obviously still in use heading out to parts unknown connecting towns and cities to the main line. But other tracks are weedy and overgrown, their destinations long gone and forgotten.  What happened to all the people who needed to take the train to the next town down the line? They all bought automobiles and drive the Interstate now, I suppose.

James RiverBut it was not all so provocative or sad. There are forests and wetlands and farms and lakes and rivers and houses.  And where there is water and there are forests, there are birds.  In Virginia, the ponds were frozen and the rivers wore an edging of frosting around a skim of glassy ice.  Where there was open water, the Canada Geese and American Coots and Double-Crested Cormorants seemed to congregate. The Cormorants and Coots had gathered by the hundreds in the cooling ponds at the Possum Point Power Plant.  And overhead there were hawks and eagles. We found ourselves trying to quickly count the birds as the train passed through each area.  We counted three bald eagles soaring over one stretch of river near Quantico Marine Base.

quantico 2As we passed further south, farms dotted the landscape with hay and grass adding gold to the evening view as the sun began its slow descent somewhere over in West Virginia.  I realized that for all the debris there, a whole lot of America lives and works down by those tracks. And there is a whole lot of beauty down there too.

house by the tracksAs evening turned into night, the views became more lonely and isolated with golden globe street lights casting a feeble beam down on to empty parking lots in seemingly deserted towns.   Since I found it difficult to sleep, I found myself watching these towns wondering about the people who still lived there.  I lay in the dark watching all these un-named towns flash by.  We passed one larger city with a good sized rail yard and I noticed a sole pick-up truck snaking through the yard between the trains. I was reminded that this country has a massive infrastructure that is supported by thousands of workers on a 24×7 basis who are up at all hours of the night making sure everything keeps humming along while the rest of us sleep unaware of what it takes to keep the country going. As the train rumbled on and the truck’s headlights faded into the darkness, I had another thought……..maybe, just maybe, that old truck was being driven by some ne’er do well come down by the tracks at 3:00 AM to dump another load of tires or, maybe something worse. All sorts of creepy ideas flashed through my mind at that point.

rr yardIn the morning, we wedged ourselves, sore and stiff, out of the tiny cots in the roomette.  Did I mention that I have closets at home bigger than these roomettes?

sleepetteBut even tinier than our room was the bathroom down the way which I calculated to be about the size of a high school locker.  I think it might have even been smaller than an airplane bathroom if that is even possible.  I do not think I need to say more about that situation.

The scenery was now all sunshine and sand. We were just south of Jacksonville, Florida and the terrain is all scrub-lands and pine trees with a few palms here and there.  This was the uncivilized Florida with cattle ranches bordered by swampy looking areas that might be filled with alligators and panthers and snakes…..nothing at all like the manicured golf courses and groomed parks where the civilized people go when they come to Florida that you see in travel brochures and on web-sites. Out here by the tracks, it is still old Florida and the birds are strange and tropical and wonderful – White Ibis’s and Snowy Egrets and Coots….hey, wait a minute, weren’t there Coots back up there where it was cold and everything was frozen?  Yep, the same……those guys seem to be all over the place this winter.

Sanford bridgeBut it was warm and we were nearing our destination at Sanford and, oh my, I could hardly wait to get out of this train and into the sunshine.  Okay, a cold front passed through and the first part of our stay turned out to be colder than we had imagined but that’s a whole ‘nother blog for tomorrow or the next.  For now, we had made it to Florida and the temperature was 80 degrees when we got off that train.  It took about an hour to get the car unloaded and then we were on our way. We were looking for some great birding and we were not going to be disappointed.

Birding On Board — Netherlands Trip Notes

tufted ducksFirst there are gulls – there are always gulls.  Of course, if you are near the water anywhere in the world, you will see gulls.

Black Headed GullWhen you are on a river boat cruise, you spend a good portion of your time either on the boat or on a walking tour of the towns where you are docked for the day. And I found out that you do not spend as much time birding as you might have planned to do back months ago when you were planning the trip. Prior to the trip, I had ordered guides for the area from Amazon.com® – actually I ordered three guides.  Now that might seem like it is at least one guide too many but I have never been known to walk away from a good deal. I found two great deals on used guides at Amazon….when you can get a used guide for less than $5, then you pretty much just have to buy it just in case you might need it…and think how much money I saved by buying three discounted guides rather than one at full-price (Joannie logic for sure).  One turned out to be too technical with not enough color photos but the other two turned out to be just right – right size, right number of photos, right amount of technical information for a more casual birder like me. So those two went into the suitcase and were carried on the trip with me.*

I also went online to birdingpal.org and tried to make contact with birders in Amsterdam.  We had a free day before the ship sailed and I was looking for a little help in doing just a little birding and asked for suggestions of places to go to in/around Amsterdam.  I sent several messages but, alas, got no responses.  So my first experience with birdingpal turned out to be… not so good.  But, knowing that even common birds in Europe would be new to my husband and me, we decided to wing it (pun intended)….when it comes to birds, you mostly have to wing it anyway and timing is everything.

Tracking IdeaBefore I move on, one little travel hint.  I have a little trick I use to keep track of the birds I see while on a trip.  I tuck little Post-It® flags in with my guidebook and when I see a bird, I add a flag to the photo and description in the guidebook.  I add the date and location of the sighting.  Later when I am back at the hotel room or, in this case, the boat, I can go through the guidebook and note down all the birds I have seen that day and check descriptions against the photos I might have managed to take during the outing.  Ultimately, when I am back home again, I can flip through the guidebook and prepare my trip bird listing and I remove all the little flags from the book before stowing it away until next time.  Now, I know that more serious birders would have already uploaded their daily lists to eBird and may not need this hint but it is a little trick that I have found helpful for me when traveling.

But getting back to gulls, we didn’t see as many as I thought we would see.  Or at least, I didn’t see as many different kinds of gulls or other seabirds as I thought I would see.  For the most part, there were Black Headed Gulls (Lorus ridibundus) which were new to me and therefore okay by me.  I am more used to Laughing Gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla) with black heads back on the east coast in the States so getting to know another gull with a black head was just fine.  I did see quite a few Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) which were very familiar to me and a few Greater Black-Backed Gulls (Larus ridibundus) but there just didn’t seem to be as many other kinds as I would have expected when taking a river cruise.

Wood pigeonThere were tons of pigeons and, being pigeons, came in all shapes and sizes (mostly big) and were absolutely everywhere.  Every tour guide we met seemed to have a complaint about the pigeons. Among them were Wood Pigeons (Columba palumbus) and Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto), both new to me.  Although people complained a bit about the number of pigeons in the cities, I just tried to enjoy the view and pick out the ones that were different from the rest and were new to me.

barnacle gooseBirding while cruising turned out to be rather difficult considering the boat is moving down the middle of the rivers, channels, waterways which was usually some distance from the shorelines where most of the birds were hanging out.  Add the 6 knot cruising speed of the boat…which sounds very slow until you try to focus on a bird on the shore before it is long gone…and you have a challenge.  But we did okay in spotting birds notwithstanding the difficulties.  We got distant views of a good sized flock of Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) and closer looks at several Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) that were spotted on a grassy area near a lock along with numerous other Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), Coots (Fulica atra), and other ducks.

Gr Crested GrebeNow, the Mallards are pretty much the same as those we have back home in Maryland although there seemed to be quite a few hybrids.  This is not unusual since Mallards are known to breed with American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes) but the Mallards here seem to have intermixed with domestic ducks so we saw many brown splotched Mallards. It reminded me of the pigeons with all the variation on basic colors possible.

OystercatcherOn the other hand, the Coots and Oystercatchers were very similar to their American counterparts but were different enough that you can tell they are an old world species.

Speaking of Coots, don’t you love the blue feet on that bird?  I cannot remember ever seeing a Coot out of water, so was very surprised at the size and color of their feet.

Coot with feet

It was the same with the Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) which looks remarkably like the Great Bearded Heron (Ardea herodias)  in America but is decidedly different when photos of the two birds are viewed side by side.

Grey HeronMost of our birding luck on the trip came in the towns when we managed to squeeze in time before or after a walking tour.  I have written already about our visit to the Amsterdam Botanical Garden several weeks ago in the post, Birds in a Garden, so I won’t go back over the birds we saw there in this post. (Except for adding a photo of the Ring Necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri), of course.)

Ring Necked ParakeetWe did manage to find birds also along the way as we followed the tour guides through the towns but one of our best birding moments came in the town of Hoorn when we found a wonderful park by a canal totally by chance when we sort of got lost looking for something else.

The day before we left for the cruise, I had spent some time working in our garden back home and was tackling the removal of some Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) that had gotten totally out of control and was rambling about everywhere.  Now, what I didn’t realize was that Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) had grown up in the Creeper and was hiding there like some sneaky snake ready to pounce on those of us who are most susceptible to its evil poison.  Only I could get a poison oak rash the day before I left on vacation….and then not realize that I had it.  So, about the second day of the trip, I found out that I had a nasty rash in several places on my hands and arms and a day or so after that I figured out what it was exactly.  Fortunately, it was a relatively light case so I wasn’t totally miserable and didn’t need a doctor.  But I am in Europe with poison oak and I am not even sure that they have the plant over there, let alone any idea of whether or not they had anything resembling calamine lotion with which to treat it. And who takes calamine lotion on a cruise?  Nobody, that’s who.

After about three days, I am thinking I need to find anything that might help the incessant itching.  We found ourselves with a little time after the walking tour of Hoorn but before we had to be back to the boat for lunch and decided the time was right to find a drugstore, or an Apotheek as the locals call it.  We got directions to go down a half a block and turn left and proceed for a couple blocks and the pharmacy would be right there  – has a big green cross on front of the building — couldn’t miss it.  Have you ever noticed how local people have no real idea of distances when it comes to their home town?  Everything is just right there, not far at all, and you can absolutely never miss it, whatever it is.  Well, we went down the block and turned left….so far, so good.  But the distance to the next intersection of any size was more than just a couple blocks; it was more like 1/2 mile.  And, of course, the pharmacy wasn’t just right there – well, it was but it wasn’t exactly what we were expecting.  We stood there a bit before realizing the store was on the corner but just wasn’t obvious…it didn’t look like a pharmacy…it looked like just another building.  Having found it, we went in and inquired about calamine lotion and somehow or another made the pharmacist, who was perhaps the only person in the Netherlands we met who didn’t speak English, understand what we were looking for and why.  Turns out they did carry calamine lotion and had a single bottle left in stock which we happily purchased for 9 Euro – not cheap by any means but I would have gladly paid more at this point. (Note:  I just found out by looking at answerbag.com that poison ivy/oak is a North American native plant and is non-existent in Europe. Now I am wondering what they do with calamine.  Oh well, I am just happy they had that one bottle when I needed it.)

JackdawAs we left the pharmacy and headed back to the docks, we noticed a lovely park that ran along a canal and backed up to the houses and back gardens of the houses along a parallel street. And where there is water and there are gardens and, more importantly, where there is open space, there are birds.  We took the long way back through the park and we did get lucky with views of a Jay (Garrulus glandarius), Jackdaws (Corvus monedula), and a Redwing (Turdus iliacus) and more views of Magpies (Pica pica), Great Crested Grebes (Podiceps cristatus), and Coots (Fulica atra).

JayNow a Jay is one bird you would never get confused with an American Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)….totally different birds.

Mission accomplished with several new life-birds on the list and a bottle of calamine, we headed back to the boat, promptly got lost following my finely honed sense of direction, then got back on track when the husband took the lead and we made it back in time for lunch. But don’t tell him that I ever admitted that I got us lost and he got us back on track…..I might never hear the end of it.

Song ThrushAll in all, without really looking or doing any serious birding, we saw 42 different species that we could affirmatively identify.  We saw several hawks overhead and from a distance, plenty of gulls that were not close enough to see discriminating marks, and other birds we just couldn’t identify so we do not include them in the count. Since this is the first time we have looked for birds in Europe at all, most were life-birds and added to our combined life list quite nicely.  Notably missing from the list were woodpeckers.  We just did not see any woodpeckers although we did hear a bird that sounded very much like a Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) from back home.

I also expected to see Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) everywhere since they are very invasive in the States but I was surprised by how few we did see in the Netherlands.  There were Starlings at the airport when we arrived in Amsterdam but we never encountered them elsewhere. The birds might have been everywhere else….we just didn’t see them anywhere else.  Maybe the pigeons keep the starlings in check. Finally, I expected to see more migrating birds, especially waterfowl but, other than the flock of Barnacle Geese, we did not see large flocks of any ducks or geese although the area is in a migration flyway.

Trip ListIt was an excellent trip and we did see awesome birds although that wasn’t really the purpose of the trip. I do wonder how many new species we would have seen if we had actually gone birding with a guide, found a few more parks and gardens, or had more than 10 days in which to look……something to think about and to plan for on future trips.

unidentified heron

*  Guidebooks:

A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of Britain & Northern Europe”; Peter Goodfellow & Paul Sterry; Beaufoy Books; 2010; (purchased from Amazon.com®)

Birds of Britain and Europe, Photographic Field Guide”; Jim Flegg & David Hosking; New Holland Publishers; 1990; (purchased from Amazon.com®)