I tried to get to HQ a little early, but the old-timers still beat me, and I was again relegated to the back of the bus. Fortunately, I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting in front of me, a nice lady from Delaware. We compared smartphone birding apps and swapped stories about some of the cooler birds and weirder people from our previous trips. It made the time pass. After as quick a bathroom stop as a bus full of senior citizens can make, we got to our destination, the Lake Apopka Restoration Area.
Our next stop was a lake covered with waterfowl. It was here that some of the more distinctive personalities in the group became evident. We were using spotting scopes to get close-up views of the ducks, and when someone would call out a new species they’d found, reactions varied. There was one old guy, let’s call him Bob, who made it clear he was working on a trip list – in other words, his focus was entirely on checking off as many species as possible for the day. When someone called out a Wood Duck, he proclaimed that he “needed that,” marched over to that scope, cutting the line of people waiting to use it (perhaps unknowingly, but heedlessly), looked through it just long enough to register that it was a Wood Duck, and marched off contentedly to check it off and forget about it. No savoring, no real watching – just listing.
Then there was a little old lady who demanded a lot of help. Curiously, she wanted to see everything through her scope, spurning offers from others who already had their own scopes trained on the birds she was trying to find. When I’d located the flock’s lone Green-winged Teal, she wanted me to find it in her scope for her, but quickly grew impatient when I struggled to pick it out of the sea of ducks. Judging by her attitude, you’d think she had hired me as an expert guide. Great, lady. How bout you find your own damn birds?
But even those two were generally friendly, like everyone else. I also started talking with a couple ladies who were stuck in the back of the bus with me, and we sort of became buds as the day went on. So that was nice.
We took a break to eat the sack lunch provided by the festival, and while others rested, I went looking for birds. I managed to hear a Barred Owl calling in the distance – the only one anyone heard or saw that day, and thus good for a precious checkmark on the trip list. (When I told Bob about it, he offered to play a recording of the owl’s call on his portable audio device to try and lure it closer. Then he offered his racist theory of what had happened to the two portable audio devices he had previously owned and misplaced. Heh. Awkward.)
The afternoon was spent chasing specific birds, following up on recent reports of rarities in the area. First, the Florida Scrub-Jay: one turned up after a few minutes, calling loudly and coming in close. It was undoubtedly a lifer for many, though far from it for me. Still, they’re always nice to see.
Finally, as we were well behind schedule, Gian declared that we would take just five minutes to look for the Red-breasted Nuthatches. So, at the prescribed location, those of us who were physically able marched into the woods, blasting a recording of a Red-breasted Nuthatch call. After a couple false alarms – Downy Woodpecker, Pine Warbler – boom! Two or three of the little buggers showed up, performing their usual acrobatics high in the pines. We cheered and got back on the bus for the long ride back to HQ.
Upon counting the checkmarks, someone realized our total was seven species less than that of the previous day’s group. So naturally it became our mission to see eight more species before arriving back at HQ. A bit silly, IMHO, but it did give us something to do during the ride. (I would’ve rather slept, but it was once again way too cold for that, thanks to the ridiculous air conditioning that was now blasting me.)
We became absurdly interested in seeing boring city birds like pigeons and starlings, as we needed them for our list. We saw a House Sparrow, and a pigeon, and a Loggerhead Shrike, and it was looking like we might get it done. Then there was a roar from the front of the bus – a rare Crested Caracara was flying over the road! That was actually awesome – maybe the fourth or fifth time I’d ever seen this crazy-looking bird. And as we rolled into Titusville, we finally saw our starling, bird of the day #108. Hallelujah, we had done it. Victory was ours.
And that was pretty much a wrap on yours truly. I took a quick look into the trade hall to see if I’d be inspired to talk to anyone or shop for anything, but I wasn’t. Back in the lobby, I snagged a festival t-shirt for my special lady and another for me. I felt good; I had an extra bounce in my step. I’d gained a new appreciation for the area I grew up in, improved my birding skills, and sort of re-affirmed my love for birding. I was excited to take my new knowledge and perspective back into the world, as it were.
Walking out toward my car, I saw what I thought was an adult Bald Eagle circling in the warm late-afternoon light. After a few seconds of staring, though, I realized it was some sort of motorized toy, like a remote-control airplane. It must’ve been deliberately painted in the colors of an eagle, though I’m not sure why, or who was operating it. Oh well. I shrugged and kept walking, as I still had an hour’s drive to my sister’s place ahead of me. Driving out, I saw the friendly ladies from the back of the bus, and we exchanged warm smiles and well-wishes through my open window.
The way out took me past the front of the building, and my very last experience of the festival was the two old men that I braked for as they crossed the road to go inside. They looked up at the “eagle” and smiled. The older one was so taken that he stopped in his tracks, still in front of my car, and pointed at the fake bird, saying “Isn’t that nice!” His companion replied, “You gotta walk, Artie!”, but as I pulled into the opposite lane to go around him, he just stood there smiling, looking right at me, as if to clue me in – as if expecting – and we were all birders there, after all – that I’d want to stop and see what he was looking at, to share in the wonder of a wild bird’s presence.
I returned his smile, but I didn’t look back. I knew he would soon suffer the same small disappointment that I had suffered. And I drove off into that old, familiar sunset and felt glad anyway, and I figured that Artie probably would too.