Feathered Friends

Any birder would find this spot on the western shore of Lake George to be a birder’s paradise. The variety was simply endless, and at first we counted on a large “Birds of Florida” poster to help guide us in identifying the bewildering varieties on the wing, floating on the lake, flitting about and flapping and squawking overhead. It didn’t take us long to get a really BIG bird book and pull out the binocs so that we could really get down to business understanding all of the fowl that surrounded us.

At some point in the year, depending on the season, we could spot and study many water fowl, including herons, egrets, coots, Red-winged Blackbirds, ibis, cormorants, ducks, kingfishers, and kites. Besides the waterfowl, there were the woods and uplands birds, ranging from Southern Bald Eagles, Ospreys,  hawks, vultures, turkeys, Wood Storks and Sandhill Cranes, to Cardinals, Grackles and all manner of woodpeckers, including the Red-bellied, Downy and amazing Pileated varieties. Of course there were the owls, and the wrens and other song birds. And then there were the juvenile and gender coloration and behaviors to learn to identify, as well as a plethora of calls and vocalizations.

A whole new world opened to us– of bird behavior, migration patterns, of learning to recognize the difference between the hammering cadence of a Pileated Woodpecker versus, say, a Red-Bellied woodpecker. (Hint: they both call out during tree-drilling sessions, so once you have their call down, it’s pretty easy to make a good guess as to who’s doing what over on that tree, even without spotting the bird.)

We also became rather adept at recognizing birds by their silhouette and how they flew (rapid wing beats, soaring, slower wing beats and so forth). As the seasons progressed, we came to recognize where the nearest mated pair of eagles had their fishing grounds. We often watched lengthy aerial displays and fights when an interloper Osprey or an eagle that wasn’t a member of the family came into the fishing ground. Mostly the dust-up would end quickly but sometimes the battle would last for hours.

Our growing knowledge of our feathered friends and their habits came into amusing play one winter’s evening, when we were sitting around the campfire that Jack’s two buds had blazing out in Jack’s back yard. Every deer hunting season his chums, who, like Jack, were retired DEA agents, would come up to the forest from Miami. They’d unload their truck, set up a tent in Jack’s back yard, and hang out for a week or so, sometimes actually hunting, but mostly just sitting around, drinking beer into the wee hours, and swapping remembrances with Jack.

One evening we were hanging out with Jack and his pals, exchanging tales of drug interdiction in the Caribbean with stories of living on the lake. I think Jack was riffing on one of his tales of the momma black bear that often moved through the area in the early winter, and his friends were rethinking sleeping in the tent versus squeezing into Jack’s compact home. About that time there came an awful, ungodly growling-kind of screeching cacophony, very loud, and it sounded like it was all around us.

For older guys kinda relaxed on a few beers, it was amazing how quickly Jack’s pals jumped up, snatched at their rifles and, bug-eyed, went on the defensive.  Jack, Anni and I remained seated in our camp chairs, laughing our butts off as we explained that the din (which was still going on) was from the colony of nesting Great Blue Herons that surrounded Jack’s cabin.

The guys weren’t convinced that birds could cause such a racket, so Jack went into his cabin and came out with a powerful hand-held spotlight. Motioning to his friends he said “OK you two pussies, come with me and I’ll show you the Boogie Man!”

We all went out to the road and from that vantage point, Jack’s big light illuminated the canopy formed by massive loblolly pines, long leaf pines and old oaks trees just abutting the southern edge of his property. The light clearly outlined the big clumps of twigs that formed the birds’ nests among the leaves and pine needles overhead. We could readily distinguish the bird shapes as they stirred in their nests, some flapping wings, some balancing precariously on the edge of their nests.

“Well, I’ll be damned!”, one of the guys snorted. “Man, I haven’t been that scared in I-don’t-know-when!”

The howls of laughter and the teasing went on for some time, even after we all settled down near the fire again. Jack wasn’t going to let his pals get away easy for being so spooked by “a bunch of birds!”

Later, as Anni and I walked down the graded road back to the cabin, we remarked that it was ironic that two tough DEA agents could have been so frightened by the event. I mean, earlier they had told us tales of some pretty hairy stalks and arrests they had made to catch some serious drug cartel types. I was certainly convinced that these two were pretty macho fellas. Still– we concluded that the fear of the night and wild animals was just too compelling for these urban dwellers who only visited “the outdoors” once a year.

In subsequent years, that tale would be re-told and embellished, and Jack would never fail to bring it up when his friends came to hunt and camp in the wilds of the Ocala National Forest.

Great Blue Heron nesting colony.

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