Dreaming about Florida, or was it real?

Sarasota Florida, Sarasota Bay
Sarasota, FL. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I dream a lot, vivid, colorful, goofy dreams. I often remember details of what I dream, too, including people and places.

Recently, I dreamt that my wife and I were in Florida, Sarasota to be exact. It was a very real and an unusually long, Rip Van Winkle type dream.

I must have lapsed into an uncharacteristically deep sleep. This dream seemed to last a week. At my age, sleeping through the night without waking at least once is rare.

But there I was, snapping photographs at my niece’s picture perfect wedding. The setting was on a lush lawn that separated an old money estate from the placid gulf waters.

At the open-air reception, we enjoyed tasty hors d’oeuvres, and a scrumptious, multi-course meal. A crescent moon hung at the end of a string of soft white party lights that illuminated the revelry.

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Just like that, the scene switched to the Celery Fields, a popular spot for birders to view beautiful tropical bird species. There I was standing on a platform practically in the middle of the marsh watching colorful species I’d longed to see.

Purple Gallinules, Wood Storks, Ospreys, and Roseate Spoonbills appeared. I saw more shorebirds, hawks, ducks, and even alligators. Only the scene changed again, and I was back at a lovely house where we apparently were staying.

Everything happened so quickly, yet the details were so clear, and the weather so marvelous, I didn’t want to leave. I hoped I never woke up from this surreal fantasy.

As dreams do, one location meddled into another. My wife and I were enjoying a wonderful lunch with my sister and her husband. Eating outdoors in ideal weather conditions just makes the food taste all that much better, even in dreams.

No trip to Sarasota, real or imagined, is complete without tickling your toes in the warm waters lapping onto picturesque Siesta Key Beach. This had to be a dream because the shorebirds out numbered the people on the normally crowded sugary white sands.

Still on the beach, the scene swiftly switched from the hot overhead sun to a magical sunset with golden rays streaming from behind clouds. Was I in heaven?

No, Pinecraft, the little Amish and Mennonite community in Sarasota. I’d been in the alley before between the Tourist Church and the post office, where the buses deliver the snowbirds from the north. Only the parking lot was empty. No Amish or Mennonite souls could be found.

Now I was in a jungle. Ferns, palms, massive trees with sweeping limbs, and crazy roots, and gorgeous flowers surrounded me. Walkways graced by cooling but strangely shaped canopies beckoned me.

In a blink, there was the bay again, teeming with birds, jumping fish, and boats of all sizes. Everything, sky, water, boats, was awash in some shade of blue, with gleaming white and silver buildings as the backdrop.

sugar maple, bare tree
Leafless. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Just as quickly, the scene turned horribly. It was cold, windy and rainy. I had to be back in Ohio. However, I was in a panic because I had lost my precious camera. But even this dilemma had a happy ending. I found the camera on a bench outside an airport.

It must have been that fright and the harsh elements that jerked me back to reality. All I know is that when I lapsed into my deep sleep, our stunning back yard sugar maple was at its peak color. When I woke up, not a leaf was left.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Ready, set, go.

Sandwich Tern, shorebirds, Sarasota Floriada
Ready, set, go. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

On a recent, all too short visit to Sarasota, Florida, I was fortunate to catch this Sandwich Tern on a post in a marina in Longboat Key. The tern looks like it is ready for lift off, but the exquisite bird was only stretching its wings.

I thought the back lighting of the late afternoon sun really highlighted this bird’s beautiful winter plumage, and its distinguishing yellow tip of its bill. Not only that, it was a “lifer” bird for me, meaning I had never seen one before. Sandwich Terns seldom venture into the hills of Ohio’s Amish country, where I live. They tend to stick to the east coast, and especially enjoy Florida’s lovely coastlines.

“Ready, set, go” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

The case of being too fat to fly

Black Vultures hang around a large alligator at Myakka River State Park near Sarasota, Florida.

By Bruce Stambaugh

As the plane sat on the tarmac waiting permission to take off, I filled my idle time peering through the thick porthole. Meadowlarks chased one another and American Kestrels swooped for rodents above the broad grassy areas between the concrete avenues.

I watched other jetliners defy both logic and gravity, race down the runways and lift into the air. Aerodynamically, their appearance belies the fact that they actually can get airborne. The jumbo jets especially seemed too fat to fly. Yet, they taxied, throttled and despite their bulkiness climbed into the sky effortlessly.

When the words “too fat to fly” came to mind, I flashed back a month to our time in Florida. My wife and I and our good friends had taken a boat tour on a lake at Myakka River State Park. The guide filled us in on the unusual appearance of hundreds of vultures gathered all along the shorelines. Most were Black Vultures with a few Turkey Vultures thrown in, their red baldheads making them conspicuous.

We had gone to the park to see alligators, shorebirds, birds of prey, and to learn of the local floral and fauna. The congregations of vultures were an unexpected bonus, present everywhere. To the locals, the flocks of homely birds were a necessary nuisance, even roosting on campers and cars.

Their appearance was easily explained. Prior to our arrival in the Sunshine State, which was mostly cloudy and cool while we were there, an extended cold snap had settled in.

Between the below freezing temperatures and the lack of sunshine, both the water and air temperatures had dropped well below normal for a sustained amount of time. In fact, the Gulf of Mexico had registered 49.6 degrees Fahrenheit, amazingly cool for that expansive tropical body of water.

Citrus and produce farmers fought the cold conditions by misting their nearly ripe crops. The cold temps effectively coated the fruit with ice, saving most of the delicate commodities. Fishermen had no such option. The unusually cold water killed tens of thousands of fish.

Upper Lake Myakka was no exception. The guide said that at least 30,000 fish had died from the shallow lake’s much reduced water temperature. Of course, the dead fish soon washed ashore and the throngs of vultures voluntarily arrived to clean up the mess. Their sense of smell is truly amazing. The fishy smell we sensed was equally amazing, even weeks after the big kill.

The impressive, black birds had cleaned up most of the carcasses by the time we took the tour. Nevertheless, the pungent odor lingered, as did the vultures.

Days after the fish kill, park officials noticed something odd about the vultures. The unsightly creatures just lay around as if they were sick. Concerned, biologists easily caught and examined a few of the birds to find the cause of their lethargy.

After running multiple tests, the scientists came to a very logical conclusion. The vultures had eaten so many dead fish they were simply too fat to fly or even walk for that matter. All they needed to do was to stop eating, and they would be fine.

By now, it was our plane’s turn to take off. I double-checked my seatbelt, readied myself for the runway sprint and sudden ascent into the cloudless sky. But with the overstuffed vultures on my mind, I didn’t want to take any chances. I said a silent prayer that this particular bird wasn’t too fat to fly.

When the bus comes in, the fun begins

Crowds gather in Sarasota, FL when the bus from up north arrives.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The anticipation was almost tense, the excitement palpable, and the energy contagious.

The crowd gathered early, as if waiting to get into a sporting event. People milled around, talking with their inside voices though they were bathed in bright, Florida sunshine while standing in a church parking lot. But they weren’t going to a worship service.

Welcome to the bus arrivals from Amish country north to temporary Amish country south, also known as Pinecraft, an unincorporated section of Sarasota, Florida. Three times a week in February and March, the snowbirds cram the little parking lot where the buses unload.

By the time the bus pulled in, the attendance had swollen to nearly a 100. The crowd plus the cars, vans, pickups and two-wheeled and three-wheeled bicycles barely left enough room for the bus. In fact, the self-appointed welcoming committee spilled over into the narrow alley, making any passage by motorized vehicle impossible.

The atmosphere was part family reunion, part auction crowd. Some came to meet and greet. Most were there to watch. Men with white beards and denim pants with suspenders and women in pastel dresses and lacy white coverings predominated the scene. A few children in straw hats and long, plain dresses held tight to a parent’s hand. This entertainment was too lame for teenagers. Many of them were already at the beach.

The bus did pull in right on time opposite the tiny, stuccoed Pinecraft post office, and the anticipation grew as the assembled crowd waited for the bus’ door to open. It was as if Elvis himself would bebop his way down the bus’ steps.

Though all the cargo was precious, no one of that fame was expected to be aboard. Rather the murmured questions were simple. Who was on the bus that I know? How long will they stay? And where?

Appropriately enough, the bus had to turn off of Miller Ave. to enter the lot. A number of Millers were among those who waited. An unknown number of Millers were on the bus.

When the bus door did open, the answers appeared as the passengers made their exit one-by-one. With waves and smiles, friends and relatives welcomed the new arrivals to their transient winter home. The passengers returned the favor as they exited carefully down the deep steps.

Some in the crowd were drawn more by curiosity than the need to help carry luggage. They just wanted to see who was on the bus. Would there be people they might know aboard? What news from home would they bring?

In this particular case, “home” is most generally Amish country. Amish and Mennonites flock to this resort home away from home to escape winter’s chilly edge in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states, too.

Many of the Indiana and Ohio snowbirds travel Pioneer Trails buses to the Sunshine state. It’s their most economical, and in many cases, only choice. Their faith does not allow them to fly or drive, so they take the bus.

David Swartzentruber, owner of the Millersburg-based bus business, said Pioneer Trials has been fulfilling the transportation need for these individuals for 26 years. During the two peak months, buses arrive Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Passengers on Pioneer Trials are primarily from the Amish populations in northern Indiana and in Holmes, Tuscarawas and Wayne counties. Buses pick up passengers and their luggage at various locations around each geographic area. Most often, buses from Indiana and Ohio meet up near Cincinnati, combine their loads and continue south. The northbound bus from Pinecraft and the southbound usually connect near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The drivers switch buses and the trips north and south continue.

Swartzentruber said other bus companies also transport people to Pinecraft, especially from Pennsylvania, where Pioneer Trails does not have a route. He said the other bus companies do not travel as frequently as does Pioneer Trails.

As expected, most passengers were Amish, and most in their retirement years. However, some young families, with two or three young children, and a few teenagers seeking fun in the sun exited the bus.

Some in the crowd, like Christ Miller from Millersburg, were surprised to see their neighbors arrive. They knew they were coming south. They just didn’t know when. In this case, Miller welcomed his neighbors Jr. and Fannie Burkholder.

Like the onlookers, the stays of the new arrivals range from one week to three months or more. No matter how short or long their time in Pinecraft, they will make the most of their stay visiting, eating out and enjoying the normally pleasant weather.

Once the last passenger had luggage in hand and connected with friends and relatives, the crowd thinned quickly. In 15 minutes, the excitement was over at least until the next scheduled bus due in from the north. When it arrives, the gregarious process will begin all over again.

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