Yesterday morning, I slipped away from work with a friend and took a stroll in an urban wooded area. My friend is a much savvier birder than am I. While I enjoy watching the birds that come to a seed feeder outside my home, my friend actually knows where to go and at what time of year to see specific birds and migration events. I was at the Univ. of Florida for work, and so we went to Lake Alice, a centrally-located man-made water body that has become a refuge for many alligators, turtles and birds.
We walked around a trail rimming the lake’s edge and right away spotted a snowy egret and an anhinga. A gator lazed in the water, eyes millimeters above the surface. My bird identifications are rusty, and so I soaked up what my friend had to say about how to search for warblers. I have never been good at identifying warblers. I like the water birds in part because they are so large and easily visible. Warblers, on the other hand, flit through the canopies like tiny ballerinas with an attention disorder. They never sit still. They twirl and leap, flutter and spin, and leave you zig-zagging your binoculars in search of their next aerial splash.
It was late morning, and I was afraid we’d missed all the forest birds. There didn’t seem to be much activity other than cardinals and wrens. It was windy too, the air made the Spanish moss jiggle and loose leaves vibrated. My friend told me about how he’d sighted a Kentucky warbler at Paynes Prairie south of town a week or two earlier — and he now held a record for the latest fall sighting of this migratory species.
The trail at this lake is pretty well-worn; 50,000 students attend UF. We came to an area where the trail ducked into a patch of hardwood trees and was a bit muddier, and my friend said he normally continued down this part though not many people know it is there. He looked apologetically at my work shoes: white pattent leather thong sandals.
“You probably won’t want to go back there,” he said.
“No, it’s fine,” I assured him, stepping into soggy grass and onto the moist soil of the trail.
We walked past the fist low-hanging vines and into the hammock’s filtered light. The day was gray, and the light was much dimmer in the hardwood hammock. We craned our necks looking up at the canopy top, trying to discern vibrating leaves from bird flits. He spied a bird darting from branch to branch, and I tried to follow it too with my binoculars. I couldn’t keep it in my field of view. He knew what it was instantly but toyed with me a bit. I could not get a good look. Finally he told me, it was a female American redstart.
A second bird darted around, and my friend became very excited that this gray day had offered up two forest birds on the campus lake. This time, I got a clear look at the birds gray-flecked underbelly and screaming yellow neck. A yellow-throated warbler, my friend exclaimed. We watched it for about 10 seconds, then it too was gone. We ventured further down the path, where low-hanging palm fronds displayed a patterned blight I’d never before seen; it looked like a brown sea fan growing on the frond’s surface. We watched and waited, but did not see any more birds. My friend heard a gray catbird calling — I mistook it for a squirrel. We began heading back.
Near the entry to the hammock, we paused. I looked up and saw a streak of black and orange moving through some vines. We put our binoculars back up to our eyes, and saw the most beautiful male American redstart. Its orange and black tail flashed open and closed as it foraged among the branches. We drank in a long look at the bird, which oddly reminded me of a checkerboard.
“It doesn’t get much better than a male redstart in late fall here,” my friend said as we turned to tramp back across the soggy trail and out to the parking lot.
Settling down back at work, it amazed me to think of all the people at work across campus, and all the students passing through, that might never pause long enough to walk down the side trails and search for birds.