Michele and I had one of the nicest weekends we’ve spent in years, and I’d like to tell you about it.
For a couple of years I’ve been friends with Julie Zickefoose, writer, artist, NPR commentator, and well-known birder. Julie’s husband, Bill Thompson III, is editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, and both he and Julie lead birding trips all over the world.
When Julie mentioned that she would be in Titusville, FL, for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, my conversation with Shel was like, Me: “Honey, Julie and the kids are going to be at the birding festival in Titusville. Want to go?” Her: “Sure!” Reservations for a room, the festival, Julie’s keynote talk, and a nature walk on which she and her son were co-leaders ensued rapidly — like within minutes — and arrangements were made to hook up with Julie, her daughter Phoebe and son Liam at the festival.
On Friday, Shel and I hopped in the Hyundai and I-95’d northward. We checked into the motel and got to festival HQ at Brevard Community College just in time for the social hour (which probably would have been, if we’d known a soul there). We poked around the exhibition hall, where there was enough birding paraphernalia — from $6000 spotting scopes to tee-shirts — to destroy six month’s worth of budget. I was quite taken by a pair of binoculars to replace my much-used and ancient Nikon waterproofs, but I forbore (for the moment).
The Raptor Project was probably the highlight exhibit. There we were able to visit with twenty or so rehabilitated hawks, owls and eagles that for various reasons were not able to be released into the wild. For people who live in the city and have a hard time even seeing raptors, let alone getting up close and personal, the Raptor Project was a real treat. It’s against the rules to add captive birds to your list, or I would have had several “lifers.” (I haven’t kept a list in years, but I did pencil a couple into my aged Peterson’s Guide, albeit parenthetically.)
No Thompsons being in evidence, we drove over to Dixie Crossroads, a well-known local restaurant, to grab a bite. (Rock shrimp: delicious, but teeny. You need a dozen and a half at least, and you still feel as though you didn’t quite have enough.) When we got there I checked my email, and discovered a previously-overlooked Facebook message from Phoebe, telling me to call her mom. She answered just as they were driving past the restaurant — literally — but, alas, they had dinner plans and couldn’t join us. So we made arrangements to go birding the next morning.
On Saturday morning we met Julie and the kids at their hotel.
After a quick bite, we headed south on 95 to the Viera Wetlands, a water reclamation marsh a bit southwest from Rockledge. This is a great place to bird, with automobile access to the entire 200 acres along berms between the embayments. That’s great for a couple of reasons: it allows access to folks who aren’t able to hike long distances, and it provides great viewing because birds don’t grok cars, and thus they make excellent blinds. Birding at Viera is so good that the wetlands were recently added as part of the east section of the Great Florida Birding Trail.
We had a wonderful time. Julie is the kind of person who, after twenty minutes, you feel as though you’ve known all your life, and the kids are delightful. Phoebe (yes, named after the bird, her mom’s favorite) is a lovely redhead of 14, already taller than her mom and destined to break hearts all over Southeastern Ohio. Liam is all boy, albeit a bit more subdued than some 11-year-olds I’ve known. (That is not a criticism; quite the contrary.) Both kids are a credit to their parents, and we totally enjoyed our time with them.
The birding was excellent, not so much in variety but definitely in numbers and accessibility: all the usual suspects of a Florida marsh, along with somewhat less-usual Hooded Mergansers, American Bitterns, Sandhill Cranes and a variety of ducks. Weather was all we could have asked for, with temps hovering around 70, a mild breeze, and bright sun. It’s a great spot for seeing waterfowl, and the good news is that it will only get better as the vegetation and ecology of the ponds mature.
After grabbing a quick slice of pizza, we were off to Enchanted Forest Sanctuary for the Gopher Walk. When we got there we found Raymond Powers (Florida Cracker, from the blog “Pure Florida), who had driven over from his home in rural Levy County to meet Julie. Raymond and I discovered that we have a lot in common and, since he lives only a few miles from my sister and brother, we’ll no doubt meet again.
We watched an excellent half-hour presentation in one of the classrooms at the nature center on site, and then hiked down paths through scrub and mesic forest. The young man who co-led the tour works at the sanctuary, and did a great job of explaining the intricacies of gopher tortoise ecology and that of the surrounding territory.
Julie, who is fond of referring to herself as the Science Chimp, gave a running commentary to the hikers on the things she was seeing, from mysterious damage to palm fronds (that she determined was caused by moth larvae), to a — well — turd in the path, which was determined to be that of a bobcat. We dedicated it to our friend Murr, an extremely funny lady and first class writer. Read some of her stuff, and you’ll understand why. (Regarding the commentary, keep in mind that Julie had never been to the sanctuary before, and you get an idea of this woman’s grasp of things natural.) Phoebe and Liam sort of took the other kids on the walk in hand, and they seemed to have fun trying to shake wild oranges out of trees and other appropriately kid things.
After leaving the sanctuary, we went our separate ways, they to change clothes for Julie’s presentation and us to grab a snack. We got back to the college in time to have another brief look at the raptors, and to purchase the binoculars. We were served, at the Alpen exhibit, by a very knowledgeable fellow named Tom, and I handed my credit card to one of the company founders. Alpen believes in personal contact with their customers. So far I’m totally pleased with the binos. They’re well-made, bright, the contrast is phenomenal due to the multi-multicoating, BAK prisms, and ED glass in the lenses, and I got them at a really good price, well below MSRP. They don’t quite come up to the performance of Julie’s Swarovskis, but they give very little away, and only cost about one-quarter as much.
Julie’s presentation was based on her book, Letters From Eden. She read excerpts to accompany a slide show of her own photographs, shot on the 80-acre wildlife sanctuary that she, Bill, the kids, Chet Baker, Boston Terrier and Charley the macaw call home. The talk was moving and enjoyable, especially for those of us who had read the book. Julie’s personality and enthusiasm come across in her talks, and by the end I think we were all wishing we could have our own little corner of Indigo Hill. I know I was.
After Julie finished signing copies of her book, we all drove over to Dixie Crossroads for dinner. Unfortunately, Raymond had to drive home and wasn’t able to join us, but we were accompanied by another of her friends, Mark Hedden. Mark works for Caligo Nature Tours, out of Key West. They have an exclusive on the Asa Wright Lodge in Trinidad, which Julie tells me is “an amazing destination that you and Shel would adore. Big veranda with feeders all around, and everything from toucans to hummingbirds and agoutis coming to eat…mmmm. Easy walking on the trails to manakin leks and the like. Potoos hangin’ around…you’d love it.” Maybe you would too. We enjoyed getting to know Mark, and as far as Trinidad goes, you never know…
There were hugs all around in the parking lot, and then the Ohioans headed back to their hotel, planning to see the manatees at Blue Springs State Park on their way to the airport the following morning. (I understand that they deplaned in teen-ish temperatures, and Julie says that she now “gets” Florida.)
Shel and I headed back home the next morning, making a leisurely detour down US 1 to have lunch at a waterside restaurant and take some pictures. Then it was back on the superslide and home to Boynton Beach, where we were greeted by two very enthusiastic cats, happy to see their people but even happier to have something besides dry food to eat.
As I said at the beginning, this was one of the nicest weekends we’ve spent in a long, long time (excluding visits to relatives, of course). The company was great, the birding was good, we took lots of nice pictures, some of which I’ve shared here, and we made new friends. What’s not to like? As for you readers, go get some birding under your belt. It’s loads of fun, and you won’t meet finer people anywhere.