When Plans Go Awry
Sometimes Plan B turns out better than Plan A
(Listen to the radio version here.)
Monday, October 16, was Russ’s and my last day in Florida. Our son Joe’s vacation was over, so he was back at work, and Russ and I made plans to spend the day doing the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, partly because it’s a splendid birding spot and partly because Gray-headed Swamphens live there—Russ hasn’t seen one yet.
Just before we were about to set out, I put our destination into my phone GPS and it said the Wildlife Drive was closed for the day. I was bummed but don’t like to waste time on disappointment, so we decided to go to the Rich Grissom Memorial Wetlands, more popularly known as the Viera Wetlands, instead. That splendid birding spot, just next to a large sewage treatment plant, is an array of sewage lagoons with drivable dikes between. It's been my most reliable place in Florida for caracaras, Limpkins are everywhere, and I always remember the lifer I saw on my first visit there in 2010, an extremely rare Masked Duck. This would be every bit as fun as the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive.
Except when we arrived at the entrance gate, it was closed. Driving out, we at least passed a Sandhill Crane family and a fairly cooperative Loggerhead Shrike. But what next?
I looked on my BirdsEye app to see if we were near any places where Florida Scrub-Jays had been seen recently, and saw that we were just a few miles from the Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary. We’d been skunked on the jays when we were at Merritt Island a couple of days before, and Florida Scrub-Jays are one of Russ’s favorite birds as well as mine, so we figured we might as well check it out. I knew that Allan Cruickshank was a celebrated photographer, writer, and educator, but I was thrilled that this sanctuary was also named for his wife Helen, a superb photographer, writer, and educator in her own right. Indeed, over their long partnership, he took the black-and-white photos while she made the color slides that they used in their many lectures across the country. For too many marriage-partnerships like theirs, the name of the male partner is the one that becomes famous—indeed, I’ve long known who Allan Cruickshank was but hadn’t even heard of Helen Cruickshank until this.
Despite its long, impressive name, the Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary is a tiny, low-key gem. Its unpaved parking lot accommodates only 6 or 7 cars, and there are no restrooms or other buildings—just some nice, explanatory signage, including one that warns visitors not to feed the scrub-jays.
Dogs aren’t allowed, but we parked in the shade on a cool morning, so left Pip in the car. It didn’t hurt her birding list—we were already hearing scrub-jays before the car doors were even closed. I got many of my best Florida Scrub-Jay photos ever at this lovely spot.
Even though it was plenty comfortable in the car, we don’t like leaving Pip alone for long, so as soon as we’d gotten our fill of the jays, we went to Merritt Island. I was hoping for some better photos of the gorgeous male Painted Bunting we’d seen at the feeders by the Visitor Center on Saturday.
We struck out yet again—the refuge office and the boardwalk and trails around it were also closed. We didn’t see anything we hadn’t seen on Saturday, but I still had some nice photo ops along the Blackpoint Wildlife Drive.
Then we picked up lunch at our favorite Titusville restaurant, Dixie Crossroads, and brought it to a little Titusville city park. There were lots of picnic tables and playground equipment, the park filled with little children and their families. After eating my rock shrimp, I walked over to a pond to watch some gallinule families and a Green Heron.
Right when I was clicking pictures of a baby gallinule, I looked down and WHOA! My foot was less than 2 feet from the tail tip of a fairly large alligator who was eyeing the same gallinule, with gustatory rather than audiovisual thoughts.
It’s not that I’m unaware of alligators throughout Florida, even at this park near a busy highway with so many children running about so close to the pond—I’d seen two alligators swimming in this very pond just minutes before. But this one took me aback. I’ve never before almost stepped on an alligator before I even noticed it. Anyway, I moved to a better angle for a few photos (though I wish I’d taken one of my foot so near the tail!) as the gallinule wandered out of range. All was well, assuming the alligator wasn’t too terribly hungry.
Had Lake Apopka or the Viera Wetlands been open, I’d have missed the best Florida Scrub-Jay photos I’ve ever taken. And had Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge’s visitor center and trails been open, we’d have eaten our lunch much later, probably not at that Titusville park, taking away that cool alligator experience.
Birding really is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you’re stuck with nougat or butterscotch and no one to trade with, but sometimes you end up with the most scrumptious cherry cordial ever.