Last week, I was able to enjoy my annual week of relaxation in the Florida sun and see my feathered friends from the north as they migrated down for the same winter reprieve. This year didn’t disappoint as flocks of gnatcatchers, palm and pine warblers accompanied by an occasional white-eyed or blue-headed vireo were readily found. However, this year provided a unique experience I thought I would share.
I had the fortune of meeting my sister in Jacksonville for lunch. She now lives in South Carolina but was in the area on business. After good company and conversation, my mother and I swung down the Atlantic coast to a place called Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. This amazing reserve is along the north Florida coast, easily accessed by the coastal A1A highway. With the vast expanses of tidal marshes, it could a very likely location for one of my nemesis birds, the seaside sparrow.
Seaside sparrow lives and feeds in vast expanses of tidal flats consisting of spartina grass, rushes and tidal reeds, often running along the muddy edges at low tide. At high tide, they can be pushed up into the edges making them slightly more accessible. It is not a flashy bird, sporting a dark brown plumage with a lighter eyebrow and flash of yellow in front of the eye.
I had heard of this preserve many times in my quest for seaside sparrow. It is a regular reported location, but the area includes thousands of acres of salt-marsh, so where do you start? After contacting a local who visited the area recently, I thought: Aha, here is my chance.
I thought the directions were quite vague, but I hoped it would make sense when I arrived. From the last parking lot it says there is a trail leading into the marsh, and the birds are found in the “Y.” This trail we did not find, so I led my mother down a woodland trail to the south hoping for another boardwalk along the way.
After a short walk, I returned to retrieve a trails map in case we wandered far. As luck would have it, a naturalist appeared at the kiosk. He says, well, that trail you were just on is closed as we use it only for Halloween — oops! Also, this location described is used by researchers only, but since you come all the way from North Dakota, I will lead you over there.
Mother and I stood watching over the grasses, hoping for any sign of life. The sun was getting low in the late afternoon, and the wind was gently swaying the grasses as far as we could see. As we stood watch on the 1-by-8-inch planks covering the tidal mud, I suggested playing a tape to draw it in.
I found an audio clip on my phone and played the clip as we watched. Nothing was apparent at first, but after several minutes had passed, I noticed a sparrow sitting halfway up on the edge of some distant reeds. After pointing it out, I slipped the phone in my pocket and reached for my binoculars. The bird was gone, slipping out of view. Despite waiting another 15 minutes and retrying audio, the bird would not reappear again.
My mother consulted the book and agreed it was a seaside sparrow. I saw the bird but did not observe it through binoculars myself. Shall the bird count on my life list? Or was it another unfortunate experience with the very elusive species? This is a question all birders wrestle with as their life birding experiences unfold. The bird was observed, but not well. Some people don’t even count heard only birds such as night rails, though easily found. “It is your list,” as mother always says.