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Birding in Florida: Ocala National Forest

 There are rare endangered species, and then there are endemic species. Both are in need of humankind’s help if they are to survive, but they are not quite the same thing. Endangered means there’s not that many, endemic mean they only exist in one area. Endemic can be a broader term (Northern Mockingbirds are endemic to North America) or, in the case of the bird I was chasing, narrower. We were on the hunt for a bird endemic only to the scrub oak habitats of central florida. That’s not a lot of space for the Florida Scrubjay. There are other birds in our country that are more endangered, the Whooping Crane and the Californi Condor come to mind, but few are limited to so narrow a geographical area. 

The Florida Scrub Jay lives in the oaks of central Florida. Furthermore, it prefers to live in oak forests that periodically undergo fires. That this creature still exists is more than a miracle. It has taken decades of luck for the habitat it resides in to have not been developed. We are in Florida after all, the third most populous state, and one of only four states with more than 20 million people. That this part of the state is not condos means a lot to the Florida Scrub Jay.  There are some towns in the Okala forest, but after driving through it, I can attest, there’s not many.

But it’s not just disinterest that has saved this creature. Humans have realized that the habitat it prefers needs periodic fire, and rather than suppressing these fires, people have taken the once extraordinary step of setting proscribed burns to clear out the underbrush. This is also done for Red cockaded woodpeckers, who also prefer open forests, though there tree of choice is pine, not oak.

I was tangentially aware of all this, but it came home to me when we arrived in the Ocala forest, turned down a dirt road that led between open forest of oak and pine, and found that the left-hand side of the road was on fire.

Not a lot of fire, mind you, just enough to completely char every inch of the forest floor. The pine needles were long gone, the twigs, turned to ash. Here and there the fire still smoldered, often in incongruously burning piles that seemed to have been stacked there.

Because that was in fact what had happened. These fires had been set by park rangers, for the express purpose of supporting the native birds. Elated to be witness to a proscribed burn, I continued down the road, then turned left when hit the dirt road that followed the power lines.

And by dirt, I mean sand. Thick, deep sand. The kind of sand that one cannot always get out of… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Down the road we went. On our left, were pine trees and oaks, and a blackened forest floor. Here and there fire still smoldered, but it was clear that the work of the flames were nearly done. The forest had been refreshed. As Leo pointed out, the phoenix grasses would come soon.

On the right, there was thick prickly undergrowth, a mix of tiny pines, thick evergreens, palmettos, and flowers that would be burned later this season or the next.

I stopped the truck, got the kids out of the car, and dared to hope that we’d see the birds I was looking for here, amongst the habitat that central Florida, and later humans, had endeavored so hard to create for them.

And then the scrub jays appeared. Just one, at first, but soon another followed, and then a third. They perched on the tops of the scrubby bushes, peering into the blackened forest across the sandy road, perhaps wary of the humans who had come into their family’s territory.

While the kids played in the sand, I watched their furtive movements, the way they communicate to each other, the flicks of their long tails that had to mean something. It was awesome. Their family, and my family (Minus Mama) all hanging out.

More birds showed up and whiles the kids continued to dig even further down into the deep, fine sand, I scanned the trees for the identities of these new birds. I was shocked and delighted to see that a red cockaded woodpecker had flown in and was working its way up the longleaf pine trees.

This is another bird that is endemic to the southeast, specifically open pine forests. I would later find that this wood was being burned primarily for this woodpecker, and that some of the trees were even marked as nest sites, and that when they did these burns, they paid special attention to those trees, so as not to disturb the birds too badly.

Wild stuff. Amazing stuff. Stuff that I think many of us forget is going on all the time, and being carried about by dedicated volunteers or county workers. I don’t know how successful such efforts will be in the long run—climate change could very well make this the last time my children ever have the chance to see these birds, especially the Jay—but for the time being, they seemed to be working just fine, since both endemic species were going about their business in this habitat that has supported them for tens of thousands of years.  

I was thinking about this as I loaded the kids back up into the truck and proceeded to drive through this smoldering landscape. According to the map, we had already travelled more than half way down the road we were on, so it made sense to continue rather than turn back… or so I thought.

A minute later, I was thinking how serious a mistake this was when I found that my truck would no longer drive forward.

We had come to a hill, and the sand was even thicker here than it had been where Leo and Xander had been digging.

“Just call for help, Daddy,” Leo implored, as I threw the truck into reverse and proceeded to go nowhere at all.

The thing was, I couldn’t call for help. I had no phone signal. Even worse, there wasn’t really much for me to do except walk back along the road we came in on. Would it be safe to cut through a still burning forest with my five-year-old and his one year old brother? I did not think so.

Which meant I wanted to get the truck unstuck.

The first thing I did was adjust the settings on the dash. Rear wheel differential? Locked. Traction control for sleet and ice? This seems appropriate. Alas, I did not have four-wheel drive, because I had not planned on taking the RV down any roads as treacherous as this. It felt like a mistake, in that moment.

But with these settings activated, I found that if I moved the wheel all the way to the right, I would move back about an inch. All the way to the left bought me another. Back and forth I went, left then right, left than right, slowly, painstakingly moving the truck backwards and out of the sand that I had found myself trapped in.

Finally, we hit hardpacked earth, and I was able to turn around, and drive us out of there.

Leo cheered the whole way back.

“I’ve never seen something like that, daddy! That was such a big challenge that the Thor F 150 couldn’t handle it!”

Hey! I countered, patting my truck on the dash, “We’re moving, aren’t we?”

On our way out we met some of the people in charge of the controlled burn. The guy we spoke with was ecstatic that we had seen the birds we were looking for, and I thanked him for the work he was doing. I also paid attention to the truck he was driving, and the winch on the front of it. Maybe I’ll have to add one of those to my Xmas wish list.

Nah. I’d rather just see more birds. 

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