We’ve all been there: halfway through a long chase, a big day, or birding at a local patch during spring or fall migration, you hear your stomach growl, and you can’t remember the name of a common bird, all because you forgot to eat. But gas station snacks and Subway sandwiches quickly lose their luster.
(This premise does not apply to Rogue Birders editor-in-chief, Christopher Collins, who is the Blackpoll warbler of birders and who, miraculously, does not need to eat for long periods of birding.)
Bird Local, Bite Local
The other flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, eating-between-birding option is the “locavore” approach. If you’re geographically in one area because of a certain ecosystem, find nearby dining that offers some mix of good, inexpensive, and scenic. That was our modus operandi during a recent visit to the Florida Space Coast.
If you haven’t been birding in central and southern Florida, or are hoping to go there, we’ve got a semi-secret local dish for you. It’s semi-secret because it’s rarely on the menu, so you’ve got to ask your server nicely. We’re talking about rock shrimp. And the only reason why rock shrimp is on few menus is that it’s not a regular catch. They’re the lobsters of the shrimp world, but dare we say they’re tantamount?
Better still, most of Florida’s restaurants serving fresh rock shrimp are on scenic waterways, where, let’s say, a Magnificent Frigatebird might put on a show when you’re dining.
But first, the birds
Florida is a convenient holiday destination for us. We’ve been visiting the Space Coast together since college – and longer for Jonathan, whose grandparents had been living there many years before we met. We have a safe and comfortable place to stay, casual familiarity and curiosity with the area, and a lot of “specialty birds” we still need to see, Limpkin being one of them, though Florida birders say they’re ubiquitous.
Sure enough, it was easy to find a Limpkin on this visit. We noticed a recent eBird sighting that was 20 minutes away. The checklist comments led us right to the corner of the lake, where we saw one slowly stroll along the water’s edge with its crazy-looking, snail-extracting bill. Jonathan was still staring at his Sibley app when I said, “Limpkin!” He looked up from the illustration to see the bird in an almost similar pose.
The next specialty bird on our wish list was Florida Scrub-Jay. We’ve seen them before, but because it’s found only in the sandy scrub-oak lands of the state, and nowhere else in North America, we can’t resist better looks. The first time we saw one was near the pay station after entering the Canaveral National Seashore on the way to Playalinda Beach. So, of course, we wanted to try that spot again.
The trail was so wet and overloaded with deer flies (ugh – and yes, we had bug spray) that we gave up, dipped, and walked back to the car. I scanned the sky on our way and saw something dark and hawkish soaring high. I said to Jonathan, “This isn’t a Black Vulture.”
It was hovering. No, it was kiting, and I thought, “Hmm, weird Red-tailed Hawk behavior.” That was my initial thought, but the uncertainty set in as we saw it tuck in and gracefully dive fast, headfirst. “Uh, yeah. That’s really weird,” we both agreed.
Later that night, we sent a couple of Jonathan’s distant photos to our birding friends to chat through the ID. Was it a dark morph juvenile Red-tailed Hawk … or a Short-tailed Hawk? Short-tailed in Brevard County in September is rare but not super rare that time of year, even though the Space Coast Audubon Society lists it as “accidental” on their checklist. Still, the western subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk would be rarer. The hawk we saw had no red tail. Also, there wasn’t a thick band on the trailing edge like what you’d see on a Short-tailed.
After a lot of discussion and a post to the What’s this Bird? group on Facebook, we had an ID. It was confirmed: Short-tailed Hawk — a lifer! I’m glad we took the time to watch the hawk for a few minutes and take photographs of it. And we’ve learned something, thanks to the American Birding Association’s Greg Neise who wrote in the comments of our post, “Note the white oval patch on the underside of the outer primaries.” Now we know what to look for in the future, in addition to that kiting and diving behavior.
Two days later, we tried another popular spot for the Florida Scrub-Jay, Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary in Rockledge. The recent checklists looked promising. Little did we know that, aside from the travel time and mileage to get there, this was also an easy birding experience.
We heard the harsh calls of a few scrub-jays after a short walk down the trail to the sandy clearing between the scrub. One of them landed on a scrub bush to our left, and another flew to the pine tree to our right. There was a third, then a fourth. We counted seven surrounding us! And one landed on my head.
As a species, jays are fairly gregarious, but this behavior seemed unusual. Unfortunately, we think people are feeding the scrub-jay population. In the parking lot, you can find signs that say, “DO NOT FEED THE SCRUB JAYS. IT IS ILLEGAL AND NON-NATURAL FOODS CAN AFFECT THEIR HEALTH.” If people actually feed them at Cruickshank Sanctuary, it’s a major bummer for Florida’s only endemic bird that is federally classified as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Please don’t feed the wildlife, folks. Feed yourself instead. 🙂
There were opportunities for us to bird and eat our way up and down the Space Coast. After looking for shorebirds and terns along the beach, we found a restaurant within ten minutes of our birding that served fresh seafood catch. Another favorite food stop of ours is Brix Project at Playalinda Brewing Company in Titusville. Their slogan says it all: Where creative craft beer, fresh food and good vibes collide. (We hope Birds & Brews author Adam Wilson would approve.) Third Culture Kitchen is another excellent choice, but I digress.
You will find plenty of good, inexpensive, and/or scenic local restaurants, breweries, food trucks, farmer’s markets, and so on, within a small radius of where you’re birding. We’re not talking about farm-to-table food, which isn’t always in the budget; we’re talking about supporting the local economy and the communities. Here’s why: what you see on the menus is probably seasonal, which means that what you consume is tastier and full of nutrients; the food doesn’t have to travel as far, so the cost is lower and there are less preservatives (if any at all); and the servers will tell you exactly where the food has been harvested. You could also come across a more memorable dining experience.
Circling back to the Magnificent Frigatebird story, we’ve got rock shrimp to thank for our first sighting. As we looked out at the Atlantic Ocean while munching on this delicious new-to-us appetizer, we saw an unmistakable outline of angular wings, a sharply forked tail, and a long, thin, hooked bill. We wouldn’t have seen the frigatebird if we didn’t stop at Port Canaveral for rock shrimp.
A tourist place where private charters, commercial fishing boats and cruise ships are launched, Port Canaveral is a good place to spot seabirds and a number of gulls and terns when you’re drinking and eating. Returning there for more birds and rock shrimp once again appealed to us.
About 2-3 inches long, the Brown Rock Shrimp (Sicyonia brevirostris) tastes like mini lobsters but with a saltier punch each bite. In contrast to the typical shrimp that you can find in grocery stores and seafood markets, rock shrimp is hard-shelled. Until the late 1960s, this shrimp had been discarded as by-catch because they were too small and their shells were too hard. Florida’s rock shrimp industry was founded when a local entrepreneur named Rodney Thomas designed and built the world’s first commercial fiberglass shrimp trawler and found a way to cook the shrimp.
You can get around 18-20 shrimp per pound if you buy them fresh from a seafood market, which is plentiful for two people. But if you don’t want to deal with the hard shells, the mess and annoyance of D.I.Y. cleaning and deveining, rock shrimp is available at most Space Coast seafood restaurants. Ask the server or call ahead to find out if the restaurant has any available that day.
For now, it seems like rock shrimp is not overfished, although the size of the population size is unknown. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, if caught in the U.S. with bottom trawls, the sustainability of the species is classified as yellow or “a good alternative.” I was surprised to read that harvesting rock shrimp negatively affects other species as well as habitats and ecosystems.
That said, shrimp of any kind are full of pitfalls about where and how they are harvested. The best shrimp you can eat with the highest good is wild-caught northern shrimp, pink shrimp and spot prawns from the U.S. or Canada. Stay free of farmed shrimp.
A Hard-earned Rock Shrimp Appetizer (and Beer!)
Total time: 5 minutes
Makes 2 servings
- Fresh rock shrimp, cooked to order
- 2+ pints of local craft brew
- Waterside outdoor table
- Wake up. Make Coffee. (See our recent post about bird-friendly coffee brewing hacks.)
- Call a nearby waterside restaurant to ask if they have rock shrimp.
- Plan your birding day around this rock shrimp lunch break.
- Sometime mid-day, when you mix up common bird names or find yourself frustrated for no reason, a.k.a. hangry, make your way to the rock shrimp lunch.
- Order a local beer. It’s fresher and it didn’t have to travel as far to get to you, much like the shrimp.
- Then order the shrimp and the next beer. (Skip the second beer if you want to bird more after lunch. The Florida sun makes you tired, and the beer doesn’t help you stay awake.)
- Enjoy each bite of the delicious rock shrimp.
- Order more shrimp or another menu item of your choice. While you’re waiting for more food, check eBird for new sightings that may have popped up.
- Eat the second serving, then settle up.
- Go chase the next bird(s).
- Peak season for rock shrimp is from late summer through fall, but they’re available year round. I’ve read several articles that say the best time to buy/eat them is August through October.
- If you feel adventurous in the kitchen, buy some fresh rock shrimp at a local seafood market and broil them in the oven yourself. Depending on where you buy them, you can find the shrimp already split, washed and deveined – with or without the heads. Look for translucent, attached shells and clear white shrimp flesh. If the shrimp looks discolored in any way, don’t buy them.
- To broil them, lay the shrimp cut open like a butterfly with the shell side down on the pan (meat exposed on top). Don’t overcook rock shrimp. They’re done when they turn pink, so keep the oven door cracked and watch the change of color. It happens quickly.
- Serve the broiled shrimp with a slice of squeezed lemon, melted butter, hot sauce, cocktail sauce, cayenne pepper, and/or paprika.