The elderly lady in the Win-Dixie checkout line was wearing a white knit sleeveless top that had yellowed to the color of curdled cream with darker yellow crescents at the bottom of each armhole. It and white pedal pushers (which had also seen better days) were part of her Florida wardrobe, mothballed for the past nine months.
”I’m so glad to see you”, she told the cashier. “We got in last night. I’m so exhausted from the trip. Three days since we left home.” She transferred several items from her cart to the checkout belt. “It was just terrible coming through Georgia. Two hours of stop and go traffic on I-85.”
She turned to her husband, at the helm of the shopping cart. “Wasn’t it just terrible, Phil? Wasn’t Georgia terrible right after Atlanta?”
Phil agreed. “Terrible, just terrible. They should do something about that Interstate if they want us to keep coming down here for the winter.”
’Tis the season. Snowbirds. They spend Christmas with the grandkids up North, then descend on the Sunshine State in flocks. You can identify them by their plumage.
BettyAnn is one of the snowbird members of our local AA group, her home group away from home. A Canadian with a pied-à-terre studio in one of the condo towers that form a fortress wall along the beach, she walked into our meeting the other morning wearing flip flops and cutoffs. It was 7:30 a.m. and certainly not any warmer than 68 F. outside. The rest of us had switched to long pants in early October.
BettyAnn’s problem had been I-95 in South Carolina. “Bumper to bumper traffic”, she reported. “And I didn’t see any license plates except Canadian. You think they’d make that state a little wider so there can be more lanes in the highway.”
Snowbirds. They are a big part of our economy. Thanks to them we have condos along the beach, miniature golf courses, and bagel shops. We have seasonal employment when it’s too cold for full-time residents to spend their days on the beach. Not that we could use the beaches, even if we wanted to. The sands are bumper to bumper snowbirds.
As August sees Parisians swarming to the French Riviera, December sees the mass migration of snowbirds to Florida. But on the last day of 2006 I was privileged to witness the arrival of another end-of-the-year visitor. A flock of robins descended on the band of mixed forest behind my home.
The robin, harbinger of Spring in northern states, is not a winter resident of Central Florida, merely a transient. An offshoot of the Atlantic Flyway branches from the main southward flow and cuts diagonally across the Florida peninsula. Central Florida provides a rest stop for migratory birds between the Gulf Stream and their passage over the Gulf of Mexico.
This flock, perhaps 300 strong, arrived in mid-afternoon. My back yard is canopied with live oaks and Southern Pine. The forest bordering it is made up of more pines, palms, and a few deciduous species. The line between manicured turf and creeper-draped trees is marked, not with a fence, but by 75 feet of Nature trying to reclaim domesticated land. Palmettos surge head high, ferns send their tendrils toward the grassy areas, and flame bush and beautyberry abound.
Beautyberry is a native Florida bush that has insignificant springtime blossoms nestled in the juncture of a leaf stem and a branch. After the blossoms disappear, clusters of tiny white berries appear, like sea froth clinging to the bark. These take on a pinkish tone as they grow, and eventually turn to mauve, then a brilliant fuchsia hue. Most of the leaves have disappeared from the bushes now and only the clusters of berries remain on the branches, like oddly-colored apples widely spaced on kebab skewers. These berries were the attraction for the robins.
There is always bird chatter in the canopy and squirrels use the branches of the live oak as an arboreal highway. But suddenly the volume increased; there was a sense of euphoric movement in the undergrowth. Large, heavy-breasted birds were darting about in a wren-like manner. Branches were dipping and swaying as if the resident squirrels were on pogo sticks. Hypertension was in the air.
The beach is roughly five miles away, a beach lined with condos, then acres of single-family homes on tiny plots. The forest mentioned above is the first bit of massive green the robins sighted as the flock winged southwest across land. It was impossible to know how long they had been traveling on this particular section of their journey, but they had all the exhilaration of a group of teenage marathon runners at the finish line.
There had to be a great number of “teenage” robins in this flock, the chicks born earlier in the year in northern states. This was their first migration. Obviously many of them had never seen southern vegetation before. Landing on a palmetto is not the same as landing on a lilac bush. A palmetto bends and sways, the robin slides off, and the palmetto springs back to an upright position with a clacking of stiff fronds. The bird tries to land on another palmetto and the same thing happens again.
One robin ventured into my neighbor’s yard and discovered the birdbath. Soon a dozen redbreasts were perched there, dipping their beaks into the water, tilting their heads back to let cool drops slide down parched throats. At least part of the flock were urban dwellers, familiar with a birdbath.
After 30 minutes or so they started feeding, stripping fruit from the beautyberry bushes. As sunset approached the birds disappeared. First appetite sated, they went off in search of a roost for the night. They will remain in the area or a day or two, feeding hungrily, and then continue their journey. This visit from the robins was a nice way to mark the end of the year.