When I was growing up in landlocked Tennessee, our family spent summers in Florida. Our annual pilgrimage to the Sunshine State involved loading up the Country Squire “Woody” Station Wagon to the hilt with beach towels, bathing suits, pots and pans, cooking spices, and groceries. I felt a “Lewis & Clark” kind of pioneering adventure each June as our family set out on our 12-hour drive toward the Redneck Riviera, a southerner’s affectionate term for Florida’s Gulf Coast. Apparently, my mother was terrified that there might not actually be grocery stores in this backwoods state, so we brought everything with us but the kitchen sink.
This experience was reminiscent of Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo’s Vacation movies, featuring my young, fearless parents singing songs in the front seat while three stairstep kids fought over which of us had to sit in the middle seat (purgatory), and whose turn it was to have the coveted “way-back” all to themselves. Because the drive was so long, and our parents’ patience for us was so short, my mom in all of her Dr. Spock-era parental wisdom would drug each of us with the maximum child-safe amount of Benadryl, hand out pillows and blankets, and play audio books on the wagon’s eight-track player at max volume featuring British narrators with hypnotic voices reading Agatha Christie novels aloud. (I’m sure Dr. Spock would not have endorsed this parental road-trip crutch, but my brothers and I survived it unscathed.)
I can hear it now in my memory as I slowly drifted to sleep. The familiar, posh voice of Sir Alec Guinness would lull me into slumberland with, “The Mirror Cracked from Side-to-Side… by Agatha Christie…” and I was out like a light. When we woke from our Anglophile-driven dreams, we happily discovered we’d slept during most of the long journey, then measured the remaining drive time not in hours, but in “Sesame Streets.” I distinctly remember my mom explaining that we only had two or three “Sesame Streets” left to go before we would reach the promised land—our very basic-but-affordable little condo on the beach.
As my head cleared from the Benadryl fog, I immediately scanned the highway landscape. My young eyes were searching for two things that defined Florida for me at that age. I was not yet a birder, so, unfortunately, I was not looking for birds, but I hoped to see two other things that would assure me that we were indeed creeping closer to Florida: The Gulf of Mexico and Spanish moss.
As a result of my childhood summers in Florida, I’ve adored Spanish moss most of my life. To me, it represents Southern Gothic imagery and Coastal–South culture, and it brings back my fondest childhood feelings. It conjures memories of long walks along white–sand beaches, grilling seafood under the stars on warm summer nights, card games by the condo pool, the sights and sounds of the sea, and yes, my first looks at waders, gulls, and shorebirds. But long before I fell in love with Florida’s birds, I fell in love with Florida’s water and its Spanish moss.
I’m not a botanist, biologist, ornithologist, naturalist, nor any other kind of “-ist,” but like most birders, I’m eager to learn more about birds and nature. Over the past decade, as I’ve become a more experienced bird watcher, I’ve made the trek to Florida dozens of times for birding. It’s amazing now to see Florida through my grown-up birder eyes. I wish I had known what a treasure trove of birds and habitat were right under my nose during my childhood Florida vacations. Birds were not on my radar back then, however, I’m making up for lost time in my adult years, and I’m taking in as much as I can with each and every visit. I adore Florida’s birds, along with trees dripping with my beloved Spanish moss, the brushy brambles, the beaches, the bays, the lakes, and the marshy wetlands that grace every corner of the entire state.
My most recent trip Florida was about a month ago, in December 2020. Because I’m cautiously driving, rather than flying, for work travel as much as possible right now, I drove from Ohio to Florida in early December to attend the North Shore Birding Festival in Lake Apopka. (Rest assured, there was no Benadryl involved on this road trip, and no Agatha Christie audio books. And, in case you’re wondering, if I had driven straight through, the trip would have taken 14 “Sesame Streets.”) I birded my way to Florida, taking my time, stopping at state parks and wildlife refuges in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia along the way. One of my favorite spots was the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, which was full of woodpeckers and hawks, gorgeous trees and trails, and Spanish moss! Although the site’s buildings are closed now due to pandemic restrictions, I highly recommend this beautiful spot for birding, walking, and scenery. If you can visit, you should!
The North Shore Birding Festival in Lake Apopka was a small, COVID-safe event that was managed quite successfully. I was asked to sell optics for Redstart Birding during the event, and It was a pleasure to spend some socially distant time with other birders in Central Florida, and to drink in the mild temps and sunshine. I enjoyed lodging at Wekiva Springs State Park in a rustic cabin, and felt quite safe and quarantined in that noncommercial location. Each night I fell asleep to the sound of great horned owls and woke in the mornings to the sound of red-winged blackbirds and Carolina wrens outside my window.
When I wasn’t selling optics at the festival, I spent most of my days birding and exploring alone, and I intentionally sought out a few new birding destinations. Another lovely birding spot I discovered was the Green Mountain Scenic Overlook & Trailhead in Minneola. It was a 40-minute drive from my cabin at Wekiva Springs, and it was the jackpot I was hoping for, full of amazing birds and habitat! The overlook platform set the perfect stage for viewing several hawk species, bald eagles, falcons, and vultures. I spent another three hours birding the many miles of trails at the park that included marshy areas, brush habitat, thickly-wooded areas, and wide–open fields. My favorite part of the day was spending more than an hour in one spot watching a handful of blue-headed vireos going about their day, foraging for insects, uttering their squeaky, metallic “R2-D2” mumbles, and toying with—you guessed it—Spanish moss!
I don’t know all there is to know about Spanish moss, but I’ve learned a few things that I find interesting. First, it’s not a moss, and it’s not Spanish! It is a bromeliad, which means it’s in the same taxonomic family as pineapples and some succulent house plants. This flowering plant is not parasitic, but it attaches itself to trees for support. It has no roots at all but derives its nutrients from rainfall, organic waste matter, and airborne dust. Spanish moss grows in warm, humid climates and can be found in the US as far north as coastal Virginia. It seems prefer to cling to live oak and cypress trees, but can be found on a variety of trees and bushes in the coastal south. It provides a home to everything from chiggers to spiders, and rat snakes to bats, but it has also been used by humans for insulation, mulch, packing material, and padding for mattresses and car seats.
Many bird species use Spanish moss as nesting material, including yellow-throated warblers, northern parulas, and orchard orioles. The blue-headed vireos I saw on my recent birding outing seemed quite comfortable snatching the Spanish moss from a nearby bramble and tucking it neatly away. I also saw the vireos foraging for insects in the moss, poking around strategically like humans do to find their favorite nut or chocolate morsel in a bowl of trail mix. It makes me happy to know that birds appreciate Spanish moss as much as I do, even if it’s neither Spanish nor moss!
In a few days I’ll be headed south again to Florida for the remainder of January. This time I’ll be introducing new birding optics to a few different groups in the Tampa area, and visiting lots of new and interesting birding spots. As we launch “Redstart on the Road” events in 2021, we’ll wear masks, carefully sanitize our hands and products, and stay socially distanced. We’ll set up our tables and bird walks in outdoor locations, and we’ll schedule appointments with only one or two people at a time to avoid crowds. We’ll try our best to forge this uncharted path through a sea of pandemic uncertainty. We’ll bring optics and birding to small communities of people in a safe way rather than asking them to meet us at crowded birding events as we’ve done in years before. Some folks will be new or aspiring birders who are just beginning their journey. Some will be parents and grandparents introducing their children to birds and wildlife. And some will be long-time birding veterans and conservationists with years of knowledge and experience. What a privilege it is to help people at all skill and experience levels to connect with birds and nature, and better their personal lives as a result.
I’m learning that sometimes the best things in life are right within my view if I slow down enough to see them. Thankfully, about 12 years ago, someone took the time to show me how and where to look for birds, and it has brought endless joy to my life. And now, nothing makes me happier than to give that same gift of birding to others.
About the Author
Wendy Clark is the president and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, a career communications specialist, and an avid birder. She has three children and two grandchildren, and lives in Marietta, Ohio.