Florida (26 October – 8 November)
We are now in the raining “Sunshine” state – Florida. And, with the rain, is it ever humid – “you can cut it with a knife” as the saying goes. Stifling. Jack said he could never, ever live here. I agree.
We were going to stop at a forest service campground we stayed at when we did our Big Adventure in 2013-2014, but once we got there we thought since it was raining out, why not keep going. So we did, arriving at Alexander Spring Recreation Area (part of Ocala National Forest) around 2:45 p.m, and finding only 10 open camp sites. We had originally planned to be here the following day, but it is probably good we came a day early so we could get a camp site before the weekend rush.
The campground is nothing special, although there is a warm (72 degree F) spring-fed pool (a swimming area) as part of the recreation area. No swimming for us, instead we took a short hike on an adjacent boardwalk bordering a portion of the spring. We didn’t see a lot of birds, but maybe they were hunkered down after the rain. At the end of our hike, we got caught in a downpour but, despite getting soaked, it was refreshing.
Onward the next morning to Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, which was about 30-35 miles from our campground. This refuge has trails, but no auto tour route. I figured the trails would be unmaintained, narrow, and traverse forested habitat. Boy was I ever wrong. We found a nicely mowed and maintained trail system – hooray!!!
We primarily walked the impoundment trails (a loop of around 4.0 miles or so), and was able to see a total of 22 different bird species (and none of them ducks). I did get three new species for the year: Tricolored Heron, Boat-tailed Grackle, and Indigo Bunting (female). All these birds were a delight. We also had a couple of Great Blue Herons (GBH). For some reason these herons seem so much larger here than further north. And we really haven’t seen too many GBH’s on the trip so far. Generally, they are a quite common water-related (think National Wildlife Refuges) bird to see.
I really like this National Wildlife Refuge, which is a new refuge for us. It is a fairly young refuge, created in 1964 to protect, improve, and create habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl. The refuge consists of 21,574 acres of freshwater marshes, streams and canals, cypress and mixed hardwood swamps, wooded uplands, and lakes (or ponds are they call them). They also have a observation tower (not too high), which provides great views of the refuge. I would definitely come back here again.
We had thought about driving to the beach (about 40 miles away) afterwards, but decided to just return to our campground. While this morning was windy and cool, the afternoon is hot and sunny. Now we can relax at our campsite for a couple of hours instead of fighting traffic (today is Saturday and so the beaches are probably busy).
We left the Ocala National Forest and Alexander Springs Recreation Area to travel to Tomoka State Park, via a detour to Daytona Beach to get some items for a Cuba trip at the local Target Store. Along the way we saw two Florida Sandhill Cranes along side Interstate 95 (I-95). These cranes are a non-migratory subspecies. Surprising to see them feeding so close to such a busy interstate. Crazy birds.
The Target store was located across the street from the Daytona International Speedway. You could hear cars racing around the track. Maybe there is some big race coming up, because there weren’t many cars in the parking lot.
We got to Tomoka State Park around 10:00 and found about 10 or so vacant campground spots so we chose one (#65). We then walked the park to check out the birds. We did see a Wood Stork flying high above. This is a FOY (First of Year) bird for me. The last time we were in Florida we only saw Wood Storks at a refuge near the Everglades. So was nice to see the bird elsewhere, even if only in flight.
After a couple of hours walking and birding the park, we returned to our campsite where I spent the rest of the evening finishing my Tennessee/Georgia blog. Luckily we had two bars on the cell phone so I could work on the blog. Woohoo!!!
After leaving Tomoka State Park the next morning, we drove to Merritt Island National Wildlife, which is adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center and Canaveral National Seashore. The refuge is an overlay of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center.
We drove the Black Point Drive (7-mile), and saw a lot of great birds. This drive passes through salt and freshwater marshes. A beautiful area with a variety of habitats. At Stop #4 we had seven heron/egret species: Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, and Reddish Egret. Fun!!! There were also a lot of Belted Kingfishers along the route. In a two-mile stretch of road (not the drive, but still part of the refuge), we counted 5 Belted Kingfishers. And a lot of Osprey. If you want to see a lot of Osprey in one place, this is the refuge to visit, at least at this time of year. Within the same two miles, we had nine Osprey, and six of those were on consecutive utility poles.
The drive is truly a great place to see waterbirds – finally. Waterbirds, in addition to the herons and egrets, included Glossy Ibis and White Ibis, Common Gallinule, and Roseate Spoonbill. Along the drive, which is one-way and narrow, we let a guy pass us (because no one goes as slow as we do), and he stopped to talk about Alaska (everyone sees our Alaska license plate and wants to engage us in an Alaska story or are curious – “did you drove the whole way here?”). He said he spent part of a winter in Wasilla with his retired father. I think Wasilla is the last place I would want to spend winter. He mentioned he had been on this drive earlier and has seen 5 different raptors. He also mentioned the mosquitoes at the refuge, which he claims are as big as a vulture. Funny guy. I mentioned our Bald Eagles, and he said he wasn’t going to mention them since he knew about Alaska and our Bald Eagle population. Yeah, I told him we try to act interested when we are down this way and people go on and on about the Bald Eagles they are seeing. Good to get excited about a bird – just need to get excited about saving them…
After the drive we did the Scrub Ridge Trail looking for the Florida Scrub Jay. Unfortunately, the only thing we found were thousands of mosquitoes, although none as big vultures. We learned the salt marsh mosquito can lay as many as 45,000 eggs per square foot, which figures out to be two billion eggs per acre. Yikes!!! Can you imagine what it must be like if all those eggs were to hatch at once? And they say Alaska’s mosquitoes are bad. Go mosquito-eating birds, bats, and insects.
From the Scrub Ridge Trail we drove to the Bio Lab Road – essentially a drove one-way road – hoping we might see some new birds. We did see a lot of the same waterbirds (herons and egrets). Once we were off this road, we drove back towards the refuge’s visitor center. When we were there earlier inquiring about where we might find the scrub jay, the refuge visitor staff member mentioned an area along the road between Kennedy Parkway and the ocean (road that continues after Highway 406 ends (see the map). We were driving this area on the way back to the visitor center and Jack spotted a jay-looking bird in a tree adjacent to the road. So we stopped – luckily a wide road shoulder. And there was the Florida Scrub Jay. Yay!!! The lighting wasn’t the best for a photo, but I had to try and capture this threatened bird on a digital image.
In all, this refuge drive revealed 38 different bird species (not bad for ‘windshield birding). We had a couple of fly-by birds – small birds – but they disappeared into deep shrubs and never reappeared. We also had a hawk which we suspect was a Red-shouldered Hawk, but it was too far away to tell for certain. It truly was a “Great Day to Bird”, due in part to the beautiful weather. Merritt Island NWR definitely makes my top 10 list of favorite refuges.
Unfortunately, there are no public campground near the refuge so we reluctantly left the refuge, as I would love to spend more time here, and headed to our campground for the night – Sebastian Inlet State Park – about 70 miles south. We got there around 5:00 pm and as we were checking in we saw some Brown Pelicans and Ruddy Turnstones, on the breakwater. Jack was happy to seen the turnstones and I was happy to see the pelicans. And then, surprise surprise, we saw two Wood Storks walking through the parking lot and headed towards two fishermen. The fisherman ignored the storks and the storks ignored the fishermen. I, however, got several photos of the birds.
This isn’t a bad campground, however, right now the gnats are horrific. These small monsters (think smaller than a pinhead) are driving us nuts. Luckily we are only here one night. To escape the gnats is when you really want a fully contained camping unit – no fun to try and cook outdoors with gnats all around.
I had left the table cloth on the picnic table overnight and was surprised how much moisture there was on the cloth in the morning. Lots of humidity, despite the breeze. We quickly made breakfast – don’t want to linger too long with the gnats buzzing about and biting – and went to the a fishing access parking lot adjacent to the Sebastian Inlet to check out the birds. Today, a crazy Wood Stork was on top of the restroom building and another on a utility pole. It was fun to watch the Brown Pelicans diving for fish. We also saw Royal and Forester’s Terns likewise diving for their meals, whereas the herons and egrets simply stand along the shoreline and wait for a fish to swim by before spearing their meal. There were a lot of Osprey out hunting for fish as well. When they catch a fish they usually take it to a perch (tree or utility pole) to begin feasting.
We left the park and made our way south about ten miles or so to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. This was the birthplace of the wonderful National Wildlife Refuge System. Pelican Island was the very first established National Wildlife Refuge (Thank You Theodore Roosevelt and Paul Kroegel). This 3.0-acre refuge was created in 1903, when Paul Kroegel fought off market hunters who wanted the bird plumes to sell for women’s hats. Luckily woman don’t wear those kinds of hats anymore (except for maybe during the Kentucky Derby). Paul was the first game warden on the island and was paid the sum of $1.00 per month. The refuge has since grown in size to 5,376 acres, due in large part to the efforts of other conservationists to protect mangrove islands and submerged lands from development.
We walked out to the observation tower with a view of Pelican Island. The Trex boardwalk up to the tower has boards listing when each of the national wildlife refuges were created. We started to identify which ones we’ve visited and I told Jack this could take awhile, so we continued on with only making an occasional note about a specific refuge. We didn’t see much from the observation tower except we could see Pelican Island itself. It is totally covered in Mangrove and upland trees.
We then walked Joe’s trail (named after Joe Michael, another person responsible for protecting the area). This 3.0-mile trail is quite open and it was quite hot out (80 degrees with full sun, which is very hot for us Alaskans). There was observation platform about one-mile into the hike and it was here that we saw the majority of birds on the refuge. The herons, egrets, storks, osprey, and spoonbills loved this area for some reason. Again, looking at both the Great Egret and Great Blue Heron they look so so big.
After the hike we got into the van, cranked the air conditioning to high, and took off for Vero Beach and the Indian River County Library. We want to vote in this election so we got set up so we could download the ballot and then mail it in. That is what we did at the library. Florida allows early voting and there were lots and lots of political signs outside the library claiming “Vote for Me”. We were lucky to find a parking space. Next stop – the post office to mail in our ballots. Woohoo!!! I’m so glad that is done.
On the way to our next campground – Kissimmee (pronounced “Kis-sim-me) we spotted a small pond in a field where there were literally over a 100 waterbirds (total, not 100 species): Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, Anhinga, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret (there were horses in the field), and several shorebirds: Greater Yellowlegs and peeps (either Western or Least Sandpipers). And to top that off, throw in a Belted Kingfisher and several Palm Warblers. Fun to watch all the birds. Despite their numbers, they are very territorial and will chase each other out of a certain area or ‘personal space’.
We made it to the state park around 4:30 p.m., although it took us about another 30 minutes to drive the 4.6 miles from the entrance gate to the campground – there were birds to observe you see. We did see a Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Meadowlark, Sandhill Cranes, and about 100 Turkey Vultures circling overhead. There were Thanksgiving-style wild turkeys at the campground feeding among the very tame deer. The campground itself is in a wooded, peacefully quiet prairie view setting, with only 5 of the 20 camp sites occupied. Once the weekend comes the camp calendar shows a full-house. Floridians apparently like to get out and ‘fall’ (if 80* is fall!) camp. Can’t say as I blame them.
We got up to a warm, muggy morning with standing water on the camp stove (lots of moisture in the air). It was relatively cool so we decided to go for a 4.6+ mile hike – the Prairie Trail. Remember this place is called the Kissimmee “Prairie” Preserve State Park, so a lot of open country. As the day progressed, the ‘relatively cool day’ became HOT. But, the prairie (dry and wet prairie) landscape is beautiful. There was some shaded copses of trees and an occasional cloud, so some relief from the sun. Despite the prairie atmosphere we had some great birds – probably because of the seasonal wetlands. We observed thirty (30) birds in all, including the roosting location for all those hundreds of Turkey Vultures. One of the highlights was another Yellow-billed Cuckoo and several Crested Caracara. Oh, and we saw and quietly passed a few alligators too.
After the walk we came back and just hung out at the campground. It was fun to watch the Turkey Vultures flying low over the trees. Maybe they were waiting for free food from the campers.
Happy Halloween … (oh and no kids at the park so no trick-or-treaters).
Time to leave this quiet, idyllic campground. I would definitely like to come back here and spend more time. There are a lot of trails we didn’t hike. And speaking of trails, we did stop off and hike a short portion of the Peavine Trail. There is a nice seasonal wetland along the trail and we knew we would see some great waterbirds. Yup. Plus, there were six alligators including two ‘Big Daddies or Mommas’ that were about 20-feet from the trail. Let’s just say that walking that part of the trail was nerve-wracking, at least for me. One large guy (the males are generally larger than the females), got a little upset with us on the way out. Luckily he only moved his head, but that action was quick. Yikes!!!
We did get to watch a Great Blue Heron swallow a good sized fish – about 6-8 inches in length. We first saw the fish in its mouth sideways. The heron would then dip its beak into the water and swish the bird around. The heron did this several times before raising its beak and swallowing the fish whole. I think when it moves the fish in its beak it is breaking down the fish’s bones to make the fish easier to swallow. Fascinating. And the alligator nearby didn’t see to have a care in the world. I wonder how many trusting birds get eaten by alligators?
As we began our early-morning walk, we heard and saw about a dozen or so Eastern Meadowlarks singing from the adjacent prairie, perching on shrubs, wire fencing, or posts. Some were quite yellow, whereas the ones we saw two days ago where much paler. Their song is very melodic.
It really was hard to leave and make our way to the eastern shores of Florida and the tourism masses. It seems like one town melds into another. Not much of a break in traffic. I had hoped to visit Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge today, but we decided it would be best to wait until morning when it is hopefully much cooler outside. It gets dark here about 6:30 p.m., and with daylight savings ending soon it will get darker even ‘earlier’ so will need to adjust our travel schedule. Looks like dinner then will be at 4:30 p.m., so we can cook in the light, either that or buy a lantern.
Tonight we are at John Dickenson State Park. This state park is only two miles south of Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge – sweet! We will be here for two nights. On their website they warned tent campers that there wasn’t much shade. I thought this might be because of Hurricane Matthews that hit the eastern coast of Florida in 2016, but nope just scrubby lands. But what likes scrub habitat? The Florida Scrub Jay, and we did get to see the jay sitting on a tree not far from our campsite. Doubly sweet!!
We woke up to a muggy, already hot day. Hard to get used to this humidity – everything is wet! We headed out to Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge located a scant 2.0 miles from our campground (Jonathan Dickenson State Park). This is a new refuge for us. We got to the visitor center and went on the nature trail, which I estimated was less than a mile in length. We went backwards as the trail goes along a stretch of the Indian River Lagoon and we thought that might be best (save the shade for last) before it got too hot. What we didn’t expect was such a short trail, so it probably didn’t matter which end we started from. Most of the trail went through open scrub habitat anyway, so by the end we were melting from the sun (it is the ‘Sunshine State’). Heat + Humidity = Misery (at least for us Alaskans).
We retreated to the visitor center to cool off and check out the exhibits. They have a lot of live animals and we were there when they were cleaning their cages and/or feeding them. The volunteer at the front desk was more than happy to give up stuffing envelopes to introduce us to some of the critters, including a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach, a scorpion, a tarantula, a baby alligator, a ball python, and a striped skunk. We actually got to touch the alligator and the snake. The two-month old alligator liked to have its tummy rubbed – calmed down right away. The volunteer said the youngster’s bite is like a pin prick – we didn’t test that observation.
We bought a few things (our magnet collection) at the gift store – the proceeds go to help feed the critters. We then drove a couple of miles to the ocean portion of the refuge where we walked the beach for about a half-mile, enjoying the Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones, and one lone Black-bellied Plover. It was windy, which we didn’t mind because it cooled us down somewhat. However, the birds weren’t too happy with the blowing sand and many were hunkered down to wait out the wind. Despite the wind, it was still HOT outside so we got into the van and drove back to the campground. We decided to check out an observation platform located within the park at Hobe Mountain, elevation 86 feet. Yeah, big climb.
I asked Jack what state he thought was the flattest. I said Florida. Everyone always seems to think Kansas, but via Google I learned that I am correct. Florida is, by any measure, the flattest state, and that Kansas doesn’t even make the top ten. Go figure. Hobe Mountain is the highest elevation in Florida south of Ochekobee (the town, not the lake).
We also checked out the (Loxahatchee) river area of the park. There is a nice bike path from the entrance to the park to the river, a couple of miles away. This park used to be a military signal training camp (emergence of radar) during World War II with over 1,000 buildings. At the end of the war, the camp was decommissioned, buildings were removed, and in 1947 the lands (11,000+ acres) were transferred to the state of Florida for a state park.
When we got back to the campground around 3:00 pm, I decided to work on my blog before the impending storm. And did it ever storm – starting around 5:30 p.m., (luckily we had just finished cooking dinner and with threatening skies decided to eat in the van) the sky opened up. I think it was even hailing for a short time. The rain was really coming down – our ‘tin tent’ was like an echo chamber. Later we had thunder and lighting to add to the mix. I really felt sorry for anyone who tent camping (ah, the Great Outdoors!).
In the morning we left the park and headed to Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. This 143,924-acre refuge was created in 1951, with a license agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the South Florida Water Management District pursuant to the Migratory Bird Conservation Act.
This is not a new refuge for us, as we visited the refuge in 2014 during our Big Adventure. We loved it then, and we loved it today as well. My goal was to see the Limpkin and Purple Gallinule (probabilities), and the Snail Kite and the Short-tailed Hawk (possibilities).
This a marsh trail we took, or at least a portion of it (see map). Last time we saw a number of alligators, but this year only one – might be the time of year. We did see the Limpkin and the Purple Gallinule. In fact, I think we saw more Limpkins this trip than our previous trip. That is good.
After the marsh trail, we drove to the visitor center to walk a cypress swamp boardwalk. We did enjoy the walk along the boardwalk, but we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife. Very little, in fact. We stopped at the visitor center to check out the exhibits and gift shop. I went out to the car early while Jack was perusing exhibits and a birder (guy) approached me and asked if I had seen the Bobolink and Clay-colored Sparrow. I said no. He then told me where to go look for them. He mentioned it was in the area where the Snail Kites always hang out. I then asked him if he had seen the kites. He responded in the affirmative. Well that got my attention. We hadn’t seen the Snail Kites yet. He said he would be happy to take us back to the location where the sparrow and bobolink were spotted. So, off we went in hot pursuit. We didn’t get the sparrow or Bobolink, but we did see two juvenile (hatch year) Snail Kites. The birder who showed us where the Bobolink, Kite, and Clay-colored Sparrow were seen was super excited to learn we were from Alaska as it is a place he badly wants to visit so was anxious to learn more about birding Alaska.
We finally left the refuge after seeing a total of 37 different species (and none of them were ducks). We then drove to our campground for the night – Collier Seminole State Park near Naples. We had been here before, but we could not remember which campsite we had. Well I went back and checked my records and we had stayed in the tent loop because the rest of the campground was under reconstruction. Today, we are in the reconstructed portion (Site #39). The campground sites seem really close together and there is no vegetation separating each campsite. Feels more like an open-field parking lot. Despite it being relatively full, it was pleasantly quiet. No noisy kids running around, no drinking or campfire parties, and no music – just nice and quiet as I like my campground to be. My friend Bob knows what I mean.
I was wondering why it got light at around 6:15, rather than 7:15. Forgot it was time to fall back and change our clocks. Glad my phone does that automatically. I was also wondering why I got up so early (around 4:00 am standard time). It’s been so hot muggy that it is actually a little hard to sleep. I find it easier to get to sleep when it is around 40-50 degrees, rather than around 70-80 degrees and clammy humidity. We have a ceiling fan and small battery fans but maybe we need a dehumidifier? I wonder if you can get a small, portable one?
One of the refuges I like in Florida is the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge has a marsh trail – 2.2 miles out and back. There is also an observation platform to get panoramic views of the refuge and its wildlife. We got there before anyone else and walked the trail – slowly. The observation tower is less than 1/8 mile from the parking lot. When we got close to the tower we saw a Green Heron, then another, and another, and another. They were everywhere. We counted about 10 at one time, but I’m sure we missed one or ten. They were the most predominant heron/egret at the refuge (that we saw anyway). We climbed the observation tower and checked out the birds and enjoyed the marsh view. The view was great and we kept discovering birds so we spent some time at the observation platform just enjoying the birds and their antics. They like to chase each other off their favorite feeding sites. There was a lot of bird action and, a few alligators mixed in.
We then decided to continue along the trail, however, the flies were driving me crazy. They essentially ignored Jack, but I must have had some scent that they loved. So after about 20 minutes or so of fighting off the flies, I surrendered, had enough torture, so we turned around and headed back. . I had sprayed on bug repellant, but obviously it wasn’t working. And I had left my head net in the van. Once we got back to the van in it went into my birding carry bag – prepared for the future.
We then drove towards the town of Naples to get a few groceries, ice (it melts fast in this heat), and gasoline. Our next stop: the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. This is another new refuge for us. This 26,605-acre refuge was established in 1989 to protect the Florida Panther and its habitat. The refuge is closed to the public except for a small section with a 1.3- mile loop trail. We walked the loop trail. Unfortunately, or maybe I should say fortunately, we didn’t see a panther. We did see about 15 different bird species, which surprised me because it was just after noon and HOT outside. We had several Brown-headed Nuthatches. They were fun to watch as they worked the trees. And we had a Northern Flicker, which surprised us. I’m not sure why because they are common birds in Florida. We just hadn’t seen many in Florida (or any, really).
After the refuge, we stopped at Fatahatchee (hatchee means “river”) Strand State Preserve. A “strand” is a type of wetland – water-filled channels where trees grow. Vegetative Strands are unique to southwest Florida. Fatahatchee Strand is the world largest, longest, subtropical strand swamp. This strand extends for 22 miles and consists of a Royal Palm/Cypress canopy. The cypress here is “Bald Cypress” compared to the “Pond Cypress” we had at Okeefenokee NWR (Georgia). The preserve has a nice trail and boardwalk. During the walk we encountered 17 different species, including five species of woodpeckers all in one location: Pileated, Red-bellied, Yellow-bellied (Sapsucker), Downy, and Northern Flicker. There were also a fair number of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. If they eat gnats, then we love those birds! (okay I love them no matter what).
We got back to the campground and found we had a lost a fewer campers. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean a better camping experience. Last night was pretty quiet after 7:00 pm despite the campground being almost full and there being a lot of families with kids and dogs. No music that I could hear surprisingly. When we returned today there was thumping music coming from somewhere, and the people across the road from us were playing country-western music. Not my cup of tea. They are new campers. Jack thought he spotted a deep-fryer at the campsite so maybe an early turkey day (currently Nov. 4) as they can only camp in this campground for two weeks consecutively.
Today we head to the Big Cypress National Preserve. The preserve isn’t too far from the campground. The preserve was created in 1974 to protect the natural fresh water flow from the Big Cypress Swamp into the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands (NWR). The preserve is 729,000 acres with five distinct habitat types: Hardwood Hammocks, Pinelands, Prairies, Cypress Swamp, and Estuaries.
From Highway 41 (aka Tamiami Trail) we took the less-traveled, more casual, 24-mile loop road – well 19 miles of it since we are camping the night at Mitchell Landing. We camped here in 2014 when we did our Big Adventure trip. Jack recalls there wasn’t a fee booth and we ended up giving our money to the Park Ranger. Today isn’t any different re: no fee booth. The kiosk at the campground says to make a reservation on line at or by calling Recreation.gov. So we called (luckily we had one bar on the phone). The person helping Jack with the reservation couldn’t find the campground in the system. I mentioned to Jack that the park’s website says it is first come, first serve and you pay at the site. So maybe a park ranger will be coming by to take our money and there was no iron ranger present that we could see. Who knows???
The loop road is a narrow, gravel road which takes you along (most likely the road construction material borrow ditch) and over (strands) waterbodies. The area is a magnet for alligators and birds. Most of the birds we spotted were waterbirds: Herons and Egrets and Anhingas. At the campground we did get some land-birds, in particular four warblers: Palm (or Palmers as we call them), Black-throated Green, Black and White, and Black-throated Blue. Each of these species winters here.
The campground isn’t bad, although $24.00 per night (unless you have the old geezer pass) is kind of high for a government campground that doesn’t have electricity, water, or flush toilets (well okay three sites had electricity). There is one other camper and he is from Washington state so we commiserated about Washington and Oregon and our travels getting to Florida.
We woke to another muggy morning. The heat and the humidity are relentless. Our first stop of the day was Shark Valley Visitor Center at Everglades National Park. Everglades National Park was established in 1947 to protect the significant biodiversity of this subtropical wetland; a wetland providing habitat for plants and wildlife. Development of the surrounding area was beginning to degrade the important habitat that make up the Everglades. I’m glad someone had the foresight to protect this vitally important resource. The everglades is considered a “Sea of Grass” and is mostly flat. The Everglades’ elevation is measured in inches, rather than feet. We did drive over Rock Reef Pass, Elevation 3 feet. Yes 3 feet.
From the visitor center you can hike/walk, bike, or take at tram along a seven-mile (one way) tram loop trail with an observation deck/tower at the end. They even rent bikes if you decide not to walk or take the tram, although I didn’t realize that until after we started back. I started noticing all these people on yellow bikes. They all looked the same – the bikes, that is. I’m not sure what the cost is to rent bikes, but I would do that if we ever came back again. You can also take the tram for $25.00 per person. Seemed a little steep to Jack and I so we walked instead. It was HOT out. Even though the temperature was only 77 degrees Fahrenheit when we got back to the van, it seemed much hotter than that outside. Full on sun, little or no shade, sparse wind, and the ever-present humidity made for a grueling walk, but lots of good birds. We walked about two miles before giving up and turning around to head back to the air-conditioned visitor center and something cold to drink. I wish we had brought more water on the hike.
There weren’t as many birds or alligators here today as there was when we were here in March 2014. At that time, I had counted 20+ Green Heron along the walk (one way) – and most of those were within the first 1/4 mile. This time, I think I had about five Green Heron total. But, we noticed a big difference in the vegetation – denser and more overgrown along the pathway.
When we got back there was a yellow VW van parked next to our van. The people must have shipped their vehicle from Europe as it had foreign license plates. They also brought their dog, which they left in the van. It was super hot in our van and their windows were only slightly down so the poor dog must have been miserable. I reported the situation to a park ranger and he seemed like he would take some action. People, don’t leave your pets in the car even with the windows partially rolled down. If there isn’t any air movement, the car heats up fast in the sun, (okay if its freezing, but sunny outside, that’s another story – the car doesn’t heat up quite so fast).
We left Shark Valley and headed to the Everglades National Park’s eastern entrance. For some reason I thought we would be at the park campground for two nights. Luckily Jack corrected me as we are headed to the Florida Keys and have reservations at a bungalow in Key Largo tomorrow night. The State Park campgrounds on the Keys were completely booked when I checked several weeks ago. At Everglades, there are two main campgrounds via the eastern entrance (unless you want to canoe/kayak into the other sites): Lone Pine Key and Flamingo. In 2014 we stayed at Flamingo and it was very crowded – few available spaces from which to choose (although one loop was closed), and Lone Pine Key didn’t have any available campsites. We decided to check out Lone Pine Key first, as it is closest to the park entrance and will give us more time checking out the Florida Keys tomorrow. We got to the campground and it was virtually deserted. I’m not sure it technically opens until November 15th. We only saw one other camper in the 108-unit campground – at least I think they were campers. At least one other camper came later.
After we set up in the campground, (we put out some gear as we didn’t want anyone to take our coveted spot-ha ha ha), we then drove on towards the end of the road where the Flamingo campground is located. We made a stop at Pa-hay-okee, which sports a boardwalk. From the boardwalk you can look out over the Everglades “prairie”. Shark River slough flows towards the gulf and at Pa-hay-okee it is eight miles wide, but shallow (think of a sheet of water). So despite its appearance, much of the Everglades is a wet prairie, rather than a dry prairie. The Everglades is often referred to as a ‘sea of grass.’
We walked the trail at Eco Pond, which is located just before you reach the Flamingo campground. This short hike was productive bird wise, although we saw substantially larger numbers of birds along the park road. In fact, at one location along the road, when you looked beyond the grass and shrubs into the “cypress/mangrove” swamp, there were many, many egrets, ibis, and spoonbills. I estimate at least a 100+ birds in a small area (mostly egrets). When we stopped to look at them, they got agitated and started to flush so we moved on.
We made a few other stops along the way to check out birds, then returned to Lone Pine Key campground for the night. Oh, and we did drive through Flamingo campground to see how many campers were camped for the night. Of the 234, we only saw about half the sites and there were only three campers total. Maybe its just too hot and humid for most people right now. I think the peak season begins in December (cooler, if 82 degrees F is considered cool!).
We left Lone Pine Key campground we saw that another four campers had joined us the previous night. Once again, it was hot and humid in the morning. We will be glad when we get back to dry country. Everything feels damp. I’m waiting for mold to grow on everything. NOT!!!
We drove to the Florida Keys. This is our first visit, and probably our last. We drove as far as the town of Marathon and then turned around. Lots of homes and commercial enterprises. Lots to do if you are into scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, or boating. There are places to bird too, but we only had a day so we went to John Pennekemp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo where we are spending the night.
At the park – the first undersea park in the United States – we walked two trails: The Grove and the Tamarind Trails. The Tamarind trail was an interpretive trail whereby we learned about the various trees of the Keys. Quite interesting, but to me many of the trees looked alike. Our favorite though is the Gumbo Limbo tree with its red peeling bark. Reminds us of the Madrone trees of Oregon. The Grove trail proved quite productive birdwise. We walked to the historic citrus grove where we saw a Short-tailed Hawk (life bird for us), several Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a Yellow-throated Vireo, a Painted Bunting, and several Indigo Bunting. Of course there were the ubiquitous Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Turkey Vulture, and Palm Warbler too.
We checked out the park’s visitor center where we watched a movie on the various fish life that inhabit the coral reefs of this park – the only coral reefs in the United States. Lots of beautiful fish. Maybe snorkling would be fun here. Or maybe we should have gone on a glass bottom boat tour. There is also a 30,000-gallon aquarium in the visitor center. Many, many years ago when I was living in landlocked Montana I wanted to be a marine biologist and work with Jacques Cousteau. Little did I know at the time he didn’t allow women on his boats.
After we left the park, we drove to the Sunset Cove Resort where we are staying the night. We learned the owner is related to Peter Micciche (Alaksa State Senator from the Kenai Peninsula) and Marie Downing (Anchorage TV anchor) – small world.
After a restless night (can’t seem to sleep past 4:00 pm lately), we packed up and drove to a nearby laundromat to wash some clothes for our upcoming trip to Cuba. We leave Friday around noon. Our flight takes off from Fort Lauderdale so we are staying the night at a nearby hotel. We are excited about the trip – to see new birds, and to not have to worry about packing up the van each day or two or having to cook or plan our meals. Nice to be taken care of occasionally.
Until we return …
IT’S A GREAT DAY TO BIRD