Sanibel and the Stokes

On my final full day in Florida I headed out of Fort Myers and drove west to Sanibel Island. I had a few lifers on my wish list and I was going to start at a well known migrant hot spot: Lighthouse Park. I crossed the three mile bridge from the mainland, scanning the deep blue for any life birds. Just some gulls that weren’t worth risking my life to identify.

I pulled into the sandy parking lot and perched on the roof of the car to my left was my first life bird, or was it? American crow vs fish crow can be one of the toughest IDs in North America, that is, until it opens it’s mouth. If you ask a fish crow if it is an American it will deny it by replying “nah-nah”. This crow certainly denied it, life bird #481.

At 7:45, there where already birders scattered around the trees and bushes that surrounded the lighthouse, all hoping for a bounty of birds. Lighthouse Park is on the eastern point of Sanibel Island and it’s trees are a magnet for northern bound birds coming up from the tropics. The anticipation was palpable as we waited for a warbler or a vireo to appear and the park was abuzz with news of what was being seen and where.

Blue-headed vireo, then a northern parula, follow by a white-eyed vireo. Then in the upper branches of a tree was the liquid gold of a male prothonotary warbler, a bird that I had added to my life list in Golden Gate Park the previous October (see the post from October 8, 2014). As I lowered my binoculars I noticed there were even more birders in the park and they had just seen a Swainson’s warbler!

Among these birders were field guide authors Don and Lillian Stokes. They spent half the year on Sanibel Island and they were essentially birding their local patch. A male hooded warbler was seen and the birders with binoculars and cameras circled the tree where the bird was foraging.

I introduced myself to the Stokes and I headed to another part of the park with Don. On the way I asked him if he had seen all the birds in his guide books. He asked me what I meant by “seen”. He noted that there are many ways in which a bird can be “seen”: adult plumage, juvenile, 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year, male, female, etc. In all my rush to add birds to my life list I had sometimes lost sight of the pleasure of simply looking at birds for just the enjoyment of looking at birds. We stopped and looked up into a palm where two birds where foraging. A hooded and prothonotary warbler where giving us nice views as they moved between palm fronds. I had seen both of these birds in California, in two different places in San Francisco and with 11 years between sightings and now I was seeing them together in the same tree with Don Stokes as my walking and talking field guide.

I left Sanibel Island without adding Swainson’s warbler to my life list. But my short experience of birding with the Stokes helped me remember that it really didn’t matter whether I had 28 or 29 life birds on this trip to Southern Florida. It was about the quality of experience. I was a guy with his binoculars and journal and paints, marveling at the the splash of sunshine turning on a palm frond above.

This was somehow enough. And it was.

Fish Crow

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