Canaveral's other fliers

We enter paradise in a caravan of cars; not paradise, really, but a barrier island of swamps and palmetto-covered dunes. Here, in the morning mist, it is easy to imagine primordial times; the lush garden; fish leaping (they do); fruit-laden trees.

We are on a birding expedition in the Canaveral National Seashore nature preserve, where 280 species have been recorded to date, including the endangered bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and dusky seaside sparrow. Our excitement runs high.

A ranger-guide opens a metal gate across the roadway and locks it behind us. This is NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) restricted territory. The launch pad for the space shuttles (birds of a different kind) is nearby. The ranger warns: no weapons in our cars; guards will check. No one may leave the group at any time.

One other warning: Step carefully. Beware of alligators; they climb banks in seconds.

And beware of snakes.

We drive single file beside a railroad track mounded with white gravel. To either side, shallow ditches of brackish water ripple in a light breeze. Mangrove islands dot the salt marshes. Hammocks of oaks strung with Spanish moss line the lagoons.

Our first sighting is not a bird but an alligator, sunning on a lump of sod a few feet from the road. We lean out our windows, pointing, calling to the cars behind. Then zip - the alligator slithers into the ditch and sinks from sight. We drive on.

Our first bird stop is beside a marsh which, at first glance, seems uninhabited. Telescopes are quickly set in place. Guidebooks are at the ready. Binoculars are raised.

''There,'' the ranger says, pointing to a white blob on the opposite shore. An avid birder calls out the identification:

''A wood stork.''

He is right. He smiles, exultant.

Next, we locate a flock of coots, sprinkled like black pepper on the pond. Then some widgeons. Then some piedbilled grebes.

It is becoming a game.

''A great blue,'' a young woman calls out, meaning a great blue heron.

''White pelicans,'' a man says, explaining that they are feeding from the surface instead of diving from the air like ordinary pelicans.

''Black-necked stilts,'' a woman says. We laugh because their name is so apt; they have black necks and their disproportionately long legs look like stilts.

At our next stop, we spot a glossy ibis and a Louisiana heron. An anhinga swoops overhead. So does a laughing gull.

After each stop, we scramble to our cars to list our findings before driving on. We are very much the scholars, consulting guidebooks and helping one another with spellings. As my own list grows, I feel the thrill of it.

At our last stop (we have been doing this four hours), disappointment sets in.

''There is so much here,'' says the avid birder who identified the wood stork , ''and still, we haven't found anything rare.''

As if to confirm his view, our last glimpse is of a flock of wood ducks. But wait. The ranger spots something odd. He shows us.

In the midst of the ducks, there is one bird that is spinning round and round in the water. We take turns at the scope. It is comic. We laugh.

The ranger and Mr. Avid Birder consult. They leaf through their books. They agree. It is a phalarope. And, even more specifically, a Wilson's phalarope - a bird rare to this area.

We are ecstatic. We head back to the ranger station as if we have won some enormous prize.

Driving along, I glance again at the salt marshes and see again the space shuttle launch pad poking above the palms on the horizon.

I wonder: If it is so engrossing, so exciting merely to find a little bird spinning round and round and to fathom its name, how must it be to soar so high it is possible to look down and see Cape Canaveral and the Grand Canyon in a single glance?

And aren't we driven - the space scientists and the bird watchers - by the same surge of curiosity? The same longing to know? To explore? To poke? To probe? To question? To test?

And isn't that grand?

Is it possible, I wonder, not to wonder?

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