Monday, March 23, 2015

Third Thursday, Part 2

Part of the Third Thursday crowd stretched along La Chua Trail

Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland.
As I read my last blog, two thoughts struck me.  First, I did an okay job of summarizing what happened. I organized this thing, we went here, we saw that, we ate at this or that place.  Good time had by all.  Blah, blah, blah!  Second, I did a lousy job of expressing what I experienced throughout the seven months.  There were anxious moments, nervous moments, frustrating moments, silly moments and and just plain fun moments.  Make that hours of fun!

Let me clarify something that I glossed over in my previous blog.  My intent was NOT merely to plug in a mid-week birding experience here and there.  Rather, I wanted to build something that would be both a birding AND a social experience.  I really like the birders in Gainesville, and the retired birders in the area are such great people.  Yet, unless I did a weekend field trip, I rarely saw them.  And aside from one or two Audubon-sponsored social events, I never saw them in a non-birding context.  I wanted to fix that.

A bubbling spring feeding the Suwannee River at SRSP
The mid-week birding idea is not a new one.  Alachua Audubon did it years ago with organized field trips, and a group in Tallahassee is doing it now.  The latter group is very flexible in that they can decide where they are going to bird on the morning of the event.  I wanted to take a little from each and see what would happen.  As I said, I wanted to have both a birding experience and a social one.  Meet for breakfast and then go birding.  Or go birding and then go have lunch together.  Let the group decide where to go each month and suggest restaurants for the meal.  I wanted to organize, but not make all of the decisions.

Some of it worked out better than others.  I picked out more of the birding destinations than I wanted, but not all.  Others in the group suggested restaurants, but I ended up making the call.  I guess that was to be expected, and I'm fine with it.  In fact, I think the whole experience was fantastic, and I'm eagerly looking forward to repeating it next year.  Why?  Judge for yourself.  Here are some of those moments I mentioned above:

Sweetwater Sheetflow Project

Looking pretty on the prairie
•What if I organized an event and no one showed up?  My first fear was that the whole project would die for lack of interest.  Those early fears began to ease after the first trip was announced and the lunch reservations started coming in.  Fifteen for lunch?  Okay, 15 is a good start.  Then about 25 people showed up on the morning of the first Third Thursday trip.  Relief!  Validation!  Yay!!

•Minutes after I met Jim and Lil O'Donnell, I was chatting away with them like we were old friends.  Were they really that nice and easy to get along with?  Well, actually, yes.  They're great people.  But we also share another connection that came to light when we discovered our joint connection to northeastern Pennsylvania where I was born and raised. What a pleasure to talk about home with people who have been there.

•My birding life flashed before my eyes as I watched my Leica Televid scope topple over and smack into the gravel at Circle B Bar Reserve.  Silently, I uttered one blistering cuss after another at myself.  How could I be so careless?  And then relief when I saw that the optics were just fine.  A piece of the plastic was a bit out of alignment, but no serious damage done.  Thank you, God!
The Withlacoochee as it joins the Suwannee at SRSP

•I laughed out loud as I listened to Lee Yoder and Bill Pennewell toss playful insults back and forth at each other during lunch at Peach Valley in Gainesville.  They reminded me so much of my brothers, especially of my oldest brother who teased me unmercifully - but always in a way that let me know it was in fun and never hurtful.  The same was true for Lee and Bill - all in good fun and no harm intended or done.  They were just funny, and I soaked it up.

•I had no idea where to eat in Lakeland.  I was completely at a loss.  Up stepped Howard Adams with a link to TripAdvisor that forever changed my way of searching for somewhere to eat.

•The frustration leading up to the January trip was getting a little intense.  The destination was still an active construction zone, and we were told that all participants had to wear safety vests.  They had 10 we could use.  We had 37 birders coming.  Even my math skills were sufficient to suggest we might have a problem brewing.  Then Debra Segal stepped up and got a bunch.  Next Bubba Scales at Wild Birds Unlimited chipped in a few more.  Soon other people wrote to me offering us the use of their extra vests, and others who weren't planning to attend sent me theirs just to help out.  Birders are just good people!  And then the night before the event the construction company backed off and said no vests were needed.  I thought some bad words.  The next morning as the group gathered in a Winn-Dixie parking lot, I was greeted by Charlene Leonard who had baked some orange muffins for me to say thanks.  All was good again.
Alachua Sink on Paynes Prairie

•The first bird on the La Chua trip was a Barn Owl in her nest.  So as not to disturb her, we backed off and used my scope to try to peak into the nest.  We were rewarded with a clear view of a beautiful bird.  Slowly, we got everyone a moment with my scope and all participants saw her.  As the last person walked away, I decided to take one more look for myself.  Suddenly I was calling to everyone.  "Holy Lord above!! There's a baby in there!  No ... there are two of 'em!!  Get back here!!"  People scrambled back and those who were closest got to see at least one of the cutest little owlets I've ever seen.  Momma soon pushed them down and away from view, but I felt really blessed and sent a quick prayer skyward in thanks.

•And when my oldest brother passed away near the end of February, it was hitting the birding trail with this same group that helped me out.  Talking with Rick Drummond and Santiago Salazar on the drive to Suwannee River State Park; getting teased by John Hintermister for my complete lack of knowledge about trees; hearing Mercedes Panqueva and Santiago talk about their homelands of Columbia and Ecuador; tearing into a terrific meal at All Decked Out in Live Oak and thinking, "Life is good" - all of these things helped me stop cursing the stars and start thanking God for the many wonderful things and people that fill my life.

So this has been an extraordinary experience.  I think I took far more from it than I put into it.  The April trip is coming up soon, and I can't wait to see what's going to happen.

That's me on the left.  My theory is to lead from behind.

"Are you lookin' at me?  Are YOU looking at ME?"

"Hey dude, can ya do this?"

"Giddy up, horse!  I ain't got all day!"

"I do love frog legs for dinner.  Don't you?"

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Third Thursday, Part 1

A small part of the inaugural Third Thursday
As I approached my retirement from 41 years in teaching, I often joked that I was retiring to become a full-time birder.  I'm trying very hard to meet that goal.  But one of the obstacles was a complete lack of organized birding activities during the traditional work week.  My idea was to do something about that.

I'm a member of the Alachua Audubon Society, one of the most active and (in my view) best Audubon chapters in the state.  From September through the end of May we sponsor about 45 birding field trips, all on either a Saturday or Sunday.  During nearly every weekend over a nine-month stretch, I have one or two field trips I can attend and share the birding experience with a lot of really great people I've come to think of as friends.  But during the week?  Nothing.  My friends and I were on our own. So about a year ago I approached the Alachua Audubon officers about sponsoring a mid-week birding field trip once each month.  I also suggested combining the field trip with a social activity - lunch at a restaurant.  The result has been a series of terrific days that have come to be known as Third Thursday.

Yellow Rat Snake at Bolen Bluff
We started in September with a walk around Bolen Bluff in Gainesville.  The crowd was enormous; too big, in fact.  We split into groups, took opposite directions on the trail, and agreed to meet back in the parking lot three and a half hours later.  Initially, the birding was slow, but a waterthrush here, an owl there and (eventually) a few warblers resulted in a really nice day.  A Yellow Rat Snake (right) also added to the excitement.  Afterward, about 15 of us descended upon Blue Highway in Micanopy for some of the best pizza I've had since leaving Pennsylvania almost 30 years ago.  It was an encouraging start, but could it be sustained?

The October Third Thursday visited San Felasco Hammock State Park in Alachua, known locally as Progress Park.  This time the group was smaller, as I had expected.  I had originally pictured this as an activity for retired birders.  Our initial group had attracted a number of retirees as well as several college students and a few people playing hooky from work for a day.  The October group was all retirees.  The pace was a bit slower, but the birding was really good.  For a quiet day, we tallied 35 species then found our way to Conestoga's in "Beautiful, downtown Alachua" for a fantastic lunch.

Black-crowned Night-Heron at La Chua Trail
November's trip was a gem.  We walked out the La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie State Preserve, one of my favorite spots on earth.  Essentially, I forgot I had a camera with me as I scurried this way and that to see a Barn Owl, a White-crowned Sparrow, a Common Yellowthroat, a Black-crowned Night-Heron (left), a Swamp Sparrow, a Bald Eagle, a Green Heron, a Wood Stork, a Ruddy Duck, a Northern Harrier, a Purple Gallinule, an American Bittern, a Vermilion Flycatcher or any of the 40 species we saw.  The group was bigger this time, and stretched out along the trail quite a bit.  That made a large group feel smaller, but kept me busy trying to touch base with everyone.  Truthfully ... I loved it.  So much fun!

Then it was time for lunch and we swarmed into Peach Valley in Gainesville.  I had called ahead to warn them that a group of 14 was on its way.  Who would have thought that a second group, also of 14, was just a few blocks away?  They beat us there and got our tables, and we were relegated to the patio on a very cold day.  Problem?  Not for this group.  No one complained, the restaurant manager brought out some area heaters, we plowed into a wonderful lunch, and I was introduced to the delights of apple fritters.  We told stories, laughed ourselves silly, and generally had a terrific time.  How can you not love this group?

Two of the three groups stopped to watch the Forster's Terns.
December was consumed by a combination of the holidays and the Christmas Bird Count, so our Third Thursday group didn't meet again until January.  When we did, it was incredible.  We were allowed to tour the Sweetwater Sheetflow Project, a water treatment facility being built on the edge of Paynes Prairie.  Soon this fantastic park will be open to the public, but that hasn't happened yet.  Nonetheless, through the efforts of Debra Segal and Alice Rankeillor, we were granted the necessary access.  As soon as word got out, I was swarmed with emails from people wanting to join our group.  Eventually we had 37 people attend, and we broke into three groups.  That said, the place is so big that it felt empty.

But there were birds everywhere!  I love looking at ducks, so this was a good day.  There were Gadwall, Ruddy Ducks, Blue and Green-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Lesser Scaup. Bufflehead, and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.  There were White, Glossy and White-faced Ibises.  Eagles soared overhead causing American Coots and Common Gallinules to scurry for cover.  Killdeer and Least Sandpipers probed the mud while Forster's Terns patrolled the skies.  Snipe and Pipits darted by us while Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs ignored us as we walked along the berms above them.  Limpkins and Roseate Spoonbills added their own unique touches to the gorgeous vistas throughout the park.  The day ended with an excellent meal at Chuy's Mexican Restaurant.  I waddled out of there stuffed, but very content.

This Anhinga (at Circle B) is a gorgeous bird!
Our February trip took us far afield from our usual Gainesville haunts.  We traveled to Lakeland in Polk County to bird at Circle B Bar Preserve.  This is always a great birding destination, and this time was no exception.  We had a 40+ species day that included great looks at all of the expected waders and a few ducks as well.  But the day's biggest surprises came from two little warblers.  At almost the same time, I called out, "There's a Prairie Warbler!" while Howard Adams called, "Northern Parula!"  Two beautiful and unexpected warblers on a cold day in February topped off an excellent birding day.  We wrapped it up at Palace Pizza, one of the highest rated restaurants in Lakeland, according to "TripAdvisor" and the twelve of us who squeezed into three tables in their small dining area.  I must say, we did ourselves proud by polishing off a huge amount of excellent Italian fare.  This was the first time I had searched for a restaurant using "TripAdvisor".  It proved to be a really good strategy that I would use again a few weeks later.

After a birding trip to Peacock Springs State Park, "TripAdvisor" led me to a restaurant in Live Oak called "All Decked Out."  I loved it, and as it happened, it was really close to our next Third Thursday destination.  Sometimes, things just go right.

Barred Owl at Suwannee River State Park
Our March destination was Suwannee River State Park in Suwannee County.  We made the hour-long drive to the park and began walking upriver on the River Trail.  The birding was slow at first, but picked up considerably as we encountered two separate feeding flocks.  Mixed with the Yellow-rumped, Pine and Black-and-white Warblers were Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blue-headed and White-eyed Vireos, and the usual Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Chickadee.  On the return trip along the creek, we saw an Orange-crowned Warbler,  three Hermit Thrushes and a very cooperative Barred Owl (right).  Later in the pine forest along the Sandhills Trail we encountered Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Towhee, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Yellow-throated Vireo and a single Bald Eagle passing overhead.  Finally we made our way to Live Oak and All Decked Out where I had my second superb piece of coconut cream pie in under two weeks. 

Our final Third Thursday for this birding year will come in April when we visit Cedar Key.  I hope we are swarmed over by a horde of migrant warblers, tanagers, and orioles.  I don't know where we'll eat yet, but it will be good, I'm sure.  I'm already thinking about next year's trips - which will we repeat and which will we replace with something new.  But most of all, I'm looking forward to renewing the camaraderie of a terrific group of people who have made this an exceptionally good experience.

Some of the Third Thursday Regulars at Suwannee River State Park

Green Heron at Circle B Bar Preserve in Lakeland, Polk County, Florida

Lunch at Peach Valley Restaurant with some of the Third Thursday crowd

A nesting Barn Owl at Paynes Prairie State Preserve.  There were two chicks in the nest as well.

American White Pelicans at Circle B Bar Preserve

Blue-winged Teal at Circle B Bar Preserve