Florida’s Scrub Flats

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A tri-colored heron stalks the shore. (Photos by Michael Givant)
A tri-colored heron stalks the shore. (Photos by Michael Givant)

When I saw the email that said that there were four seats left on a tram ride through Oscar Scherer State Park sponsored by the Venice Audubon Society, I immediately called and got two of them. There my wife and I saw the rare Florida scrub jay and felt the charm of old Florida.

The Landscape

The trip’s leader, Joyce Leary, was an excellent, highly knowledgeable guide. When we get to the 1,331-acre park early, the sun is coming up shedding an ethereal light over a small lake. An immature little blue heron flies in and lands joining a tricolored heron both of who start to walk around the lake looking for small fish. In the process they flush a hidden green heron on shore awaiting unsuspecting “swim by fish.”

Our first stop is at South Creek, which is long, green and mysterious over which Spanish moss silently hangs. This plant is symbolic of the deep south while the scene exudes tranquility. At another stop the volunteer guide, Russ, shows us the entrance to a gopher tortoise tunnel which during one of the controlled burns here will be used by hundreds of insects and animals as a temporary refuge. There are silhouettes of three dead trees against a sky with large swaths of blue/gray sky between stretches of long clouds. The blue sky is a color that I’ve never before seen. The trees all have sections of trunk that are narrower than what is above and below them. Perhaps in a year or less those sections will fall away from decay and the trees will not look the same. It feels like being in east Africa except there are no big cats or animals to be seen.

The Scrub Jay

The Florida scrub jay was our major attraction in going to the park. It is the only bird endemic to the state of Florida where it has been for at least 2-million years. It’s also one of only 15 birds endemic to the continental US. Birders fly from all over the country to see it, while we drove 27-miles. There are 5,000 of these birds who live in the Florida scrub habitat. The Florida scrub jays spend their lives in the same small tract of land not even going a few miles away. It is bold and curious and will come close to people and be fed from the human hand. This isn’t good for their survival. There are two families of these jays in the park. Russ tells us that unfortunately there are 14-16 total in the park, which is down from 137 when he started 15 years ago. Joyce pointed out one sitting on some scrub. It was far off and the bird beckoned for a closer look. As I walked toward it with three women, I realized listening to them, in a cacophony of accents two Floridian and one German, that these women were knowledgeable and serious birders.

The jay left or couldn’t be seen from our new vantage point. Back at the tram I saw a bird the shape of a crow but white and smaller, fly in to the top of some scrub. It was a scrub jay and the color, perhaps effected by the bright sun, confused me. But there it was with a thick bill looking around and not going anywhere. As Joyce had told us before the scrub jay goes toward people. Curious or bold or both? It makes no difference, this one is in good view. I note what I think is a faint blue neck band but study the body for clear identification marks. Meanwhile there is a sighting of another one and I see a body fly into the scrub. Later to my surprise I see a blue scrub jay on a deep sandy path and follow the bird as it moves along the edge going in and out of the scrub and the sand.

A male red-bellied woodpecker works at its namesake.
A male red-bellied woodpecker works at its namesake.

Sightings

Serious birders don’t “see” a morning dove. They “have” a mourning dove. If a tree is a bare trunk with a snag on top it’s called a snag.” We “have” a downy woodpecker on a live tree which looks like it was shaving the tree rather than pecking the bark to get at insects. It’s replaced by a bigger male red-bellied woodpecker which Joyce says “every second house in Florida has one.” This one’s red cap is orange/red and seems aflame in the bright morning sun.

Our last stop is an eagle’s nest, which can be up to eight-feet wide and weight around two tons. This one is in the wide crook of a thick tree. Mama eagle is home and through a hi-powered birding scope I marvel at the length and thickness of her hooked beak. Looking very closely I can see the fuzzy form of a two week old chick barely perceptible above the nest.

Most of the tram rides we’ve taken in Florida parks have a story about a founder. This one also had a chilling tale about a local. There’s an invasive plant here that is called the “rosary pea” because native Americans made into rosary beads. It’s harmless to birds but when consumed by humans, can be deadly. A local man, age 19, sold some to a woman in Germany who wanted to use them to poison her husband. Turns out reading the internet stories that the country and intended victim were different. Who cares? The story was part of the experience of being there. I’m going to do a walk with our guide there next month.

Getting the feel of the sand underfoot, knowing where birds like to feed, finding scenic spots, experiencing the vegetation and getting the “feel” of a preserve is getting to know it. Maybe there’ll be some good stories. I’d also like to have little sticky vegetation stuck to my shorts and sneakers. It’s all part of discovering.