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A Bird’s Eye View: December 11, 2009

Heading South

In two weeks, my wife and I will be going to Longboat Key on Florida’s west coast for the fifth consecutive winter. Last year on the long drive, which we both dislike, we realized that we had gained a sense of some of the places we passed on the trip. Here’s what some of those places looked and felt like.

Day 1, 12/28/08, approximately 8 a.m. - On the ocean side of the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn there’s a salmon-colored horizon above gunmetal gray water. A tidal creek appears as calm as an early Sunday morning. A dozen fast-flying Canada geese are winging it toward Kennedy like they’re late for a flight. A red-tailed hawk perches on a light pole. Looking for a vole? A starburst of starlings springs into the air scattering overhead. Bent-winged gulls circle near a landfill. This is good birding habitat. Heavy clouds begin to part. As the Verrazano Bridge comes into view, a stream of light on one of its tall towers resembles a biblical scene.

In Delaware a low-flying turkey vulture is flapping fast like it’s also on its way to Florida. Near Baltimore another large bird, possibly another turkey vulture flies low into an opening in a heavily wooded area. A lovely mystery disappears into its silence. Above glacially moving traffic two sleek crows are in an aerial duel. The chase is soon broken off. One flies low across the highway, carrion hanging from its bill, the other will go hungry for a while.

The skyline of the port of Baltimore is filled with loading cranes; a Red Cross ship is anchored; giant coal piles are on the sides of the highway, which rises above the harbor. Washington is not far from here and after that is Virginia, where the South begins.

Day 2, 12/29/08, 6:42 a.m. - We leave Petersburg, Virginia, as the sky is starting to turn dark blue. There is a marsh whose water is black. Tall trees in it are swathed in fog that spills over to the roadside. Going around a gradual curve we see that the fog extends for half a mile. The sky now turns to shades of salmon, silver and gray and a few crows fly across the road. A Denny’s sign is lined with pigeons waiting for the sun’s warmth. On a flat stretch of I-95 in North Carolina a white breasted hawk perches in a bare tree. As we get closer the raptor slowly turns its head as if it could care less and looks out to a field perhaps watching for a small four-legged breakfast. “How ya doin’ birdie?” I say out loud. It relieves the tense monotony of the drive.

Along a large farm field are rolled bales of hay. The 19th century French Impressionist, Claude Monet painted cone shaped haystacks in the colors of every season. I always wonder what some places in America would look like if he’d painted here. How would he have painted these rough textured bales? In my mind’s eye I see Monet standing there in his trademark hat and jacket examining the light. The image helps relieve the monotony of driving.

That night we stay in a motel in Santee, South Carolina, in which we stayed the previous year. In the rear there’s a field that stretches a quarter-mile to tall trees. Some small fast-flying birds cross in fading light. Soon the trees are shrouded in orange and light tangerine from the setting sun. The sky is a spectrum of blue from palest to darkest. A thin crescent moon glows brilliantly as does a lone star that is probably not a star but a planet. A thicker moon and a palmetto tree appear on South Carolina’s state.

Day 3, 12/30/08, Dawn - Dawn is nature’s silent symphony of color and we are on the road not long after it. Traffic is light at this hour, I like to drive a hundred miles before breakfast and we want to enjoy the symphony. Sunlight spills through the woods illuminating dark, tall stately tree trunks. Shafts of light are invitations to wonder what is in the woods. Are birds and little creatures still asleep? A lone crow seemingly floating through the 40-degree morning air, drops onto a treetop to wait. But for what?

In Georgia a tall stately tree drips with Spanish moss. It hangs like a woman’s faded party dress from another era but retains a touch of elegance. Dark marsh water meanders through brownish grasses to the distant ocean. A vulture floats in a tight dihedral and pulls out of it flapping. I assume it’s a turkey vulture but lifting its wings, the bird displays billowy white wing patches. It’s a black vulture whose chunky shape reminds me of a Spanish galleon.

Before noon we are in Florida and the weather has warmed considerably. My wife says that we’ve yet to see our first Florida bird. By a lake we see it. A tall white bird with black legs and a dagger-like yellow bill: the great egret. We will see hundreds of them this winter but this is the one I’ll remember best.

Every year we spend our last night out in the same Days Inn in Ocala Florida some 150 miles from Longboat Key. In the motel parking lot we watch a red-shouldered hawk, stand on a metal pole above the speeding traffic below on I-75. Its dark rust shoulder and the bright yellow base of its hooked beak glow in the late afternoon sun. Just after 5 p.m. we walk into the small, homey Italian restaurant, Lorenzo’s, where we’ve eaten dinner the last two years. One of the owners, a woman, is there. Mozzarella cheese-topped entrees and pasta covered with marinara sauce sit on plates in front of diners as the aroma of food tantalizes my senses. Tonight it feels like home.