alaskabirder

Its a Great Day to Bird

Category: Uncategorized (page 1 of 7)

Florida – Part I

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.

Alexander Springs

Cute little lizard – no more than 2 inches in length

The wet and slipper boardwalk

Some type of grasshopper??? This guy was probably as big as the lizard.

Yes, more fungus

Turtles on a log

And then the skies opened up. It was a wet walk back to our camper van.

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).

Gray Catbird – it liked the purple berries on this plant

I think this is “Red Bayou” Lichen

Another new wildlife refuge for us

Map showing refuge boundaries and location of trails

Close up of trails. We essentially walked around Pools 1 and 3.  Pool 2 closed to hunting.

The start of the trail

I think this nest box has been here awhile

Love the wide trails

Boat-tailed Grackle

Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk

Tricolored Heron

Observation Tower

Impoundment/Dike Trail

Don’t Fly from Me Turkey Vulture

I Never Thought I See

All Through My Bird Days, My Mad Obsession

You Kept Your Distance, I Kept On Searching (sung to Evita)

We think it was for muzzleshot guns. We didn’t hear anything.

Probably the same Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk

A “White Peacock” I believe

There were a few alligators present, including this momma alligator

One of her four babies

Anhinga …

… cooling off

Great Blue Heron (aka GBH)

This grass was pretty, especially blowing in the wind.

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!!!

Tomoka State Park

You can picnic, boat, fish, camp, and bird at the park

Trail

A statute to Tomoka (an Indian Chief for which the park was named)

We are starting to see a lot more lizards. I like lizards.

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.

Refuge Map

Wilson’s Snipe

Great Egret

At Stop 4 along the drive there was a trail to two observation platforms, but when we got to them they were boarded off.

Green Heron

Green Heron

There were a lot of these Tricolored Herons at the refuge – a lot.

For such a small heron, it has a rather large bill.

Palm Warblers – a very common warbler in Florida.  This bird winters here.

Belted Kingfisher – Male

Pied-billed Grebe

Turkey Vulture

Great Blue Heron

Common Gallinule (former known as a Common Moorhen)

Mother and Juvenile Common Gallinule

So ugly it’s cute

Snowy Egret

Jack thinks this might be a mud turtle

Belted Kingfisher

The same turtle???

And yet another Belted Kingfisher

Florida Scrub Jay

Osprey

Glossy Ibis

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.

Our campsite

Wood Stork

Tricolored Heron

Ruddy Turnstone – fun to watch them actually “turn” stones.  I had to climb on some rocks to get a photo.

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.

This stork is on the roof of the restroom

Wood Stork on top of utility pole

Black Vulture

Ruddy Turnstone

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.

That’s me – I Love National Wildlife Refuges

Paved trail from the parking lot to the “Centennial Trail and Joe’s Trail

Trail Map

Okay what’s wrong with this picture? I know, NO BROCHURES.

This sign needs to be replaced

Strangler fig – strangling the tree

Paul Kroegel photo

View of Pelican Island from the observation tower

Centennial boardwalk – lists all the national wildlife refuges and when they were created

The Alaska Maritime NWR has its base in Homer, Alaska (my hometown).  It was established in 1909.

A form of bird yoga?

Joe’s Trail

View from the observation tower located at about mile one along Joe’s Trail

There were a lot of waterbirds present

Roseate Spoonbill, Great Egret, Snowy Egret

Roseate Spoonbill

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.

Political Signs at the Indian River County Library in Vero Beach

And more signs

Okay which is scarier?

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’.

Roseate Spoonbills – such a colorful bird

A birder’s delight

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.

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park ” dry prairie”

A Great Blue Heron with a Sandhill Crane (Florida subspecies)

Eastern Meadowlark

A rather tame “Wild Turkey”

Our campsite at the park

View from our campsite of adjoining campsites

Dry prairie

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).

Trail Map

Beginning of the trail

Crested Caracara

I got a number of shots of the bird yawning

Red-shouldered Hawk

Vulture Roost Tree – at the Equestrian Campground in the park – where the Prairie Trail starts

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Turkey Vulture in this position before

Dry prairie habitat

We did walk through a palm tree grove

There are a fair number of seasonal wetland in the park – like this one

Northern Cardinal (male)

Pretty purple flowers on this wetland plant

A type of goldenrod

This dragonfly was hanging on for dear life – we welcomed the breeze

I think this is a golden-silk orb spider (or weaver) – big sucker.  Luckily their webs were off the trail.

Catesby Lily (Native)

Swamp Buggy – only $17.00 for a ride

View from our campsite

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.

Peavine Trail

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

This alligator was awfully close to the trail – made me nervous. They can move fast when they want to.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo – looking down to see if any food is available

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Eastern Meadowlark – one of many we saw and heard

Great Blue Heron with a fish in its mouth

They must have very flexible necks to be able to swallow such a large fish

The wetland pond where the alligators and waterbirds were hanging out

Ah, the Tree of Life

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!!

I think many of us can relate

Sign at the park. I like the golf cart – only in Florida

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).

A new refuge for us

Stairs down to the Indian River Lagoon – Florida Intercoastal Waterway

Indian River Lagoon

Willet

Nature Trail

Beaches are nice and sandy

This “vine” on the plants is a native, semi-parasitic vine called the “Love Vine”. I guess it loves to spread and cover the vegetation. It does not have roots or leaves.

Native Sand Pine Scrub

I saw this sign and told Jack “Yeah, like we will see a tortoise crossing the path”

Turned the corner and found this one along side the patch. Woohoo!!! Our first Gopher Tortoise.

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.

At the visitor center they have live animals. One of the Volunteers (Richard Block) got a few out for us, including this 2 month old alligator.

I love the expression on its face – like its smiling. When he first took it out it was wiggling, then he turned it over on its back and rubbed its stomach. Calmed the alligator so it stopped fidgeting.

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.

The Atlantic Ocean. There sure was a lot of plastic on the beach. And I forgot to bring a bag to pick it up. Shame on me.

Ruddy Turnstone

This one was trying to get out of the wind

Sanderling

And a few of his Sanderling friends. There were probably 50 or so on the beach when we were there.

Black-bellied (Grey) Plover

Road to the ocean portion of the refuge

Boardwalk to Hobe Mountain Observation Tower

Sand Pine Scrub habitat (state park)

One of the views from the observation tower

Loxahatchee River

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

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!).

This is how much rain we got – approximately 1.5 inches

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.

Trail map

Trail

Swamp lily

Common Gallinules (formerly known as Common Moorhen) – this bird was quite common

Limpkin – they eat apple snails

Great Blue Heron

Water lily

Black Swallowtail Butterfly

Gulf Fritillary

Apply Snail shells

Limpkin

Purple Gallinule

Killdeer

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.

Cypress Swamp Boardwalk

Definitely a cypress swamp

Leather Fern – this fern is the largest fern in Florida. The fern can grow as tall as 12 feet.

Juvenile Snail Kite – note the hook bill good for getting the goodies out of an apple snail shell

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.

Mosquito monitor at the fee booth at Collier-Seminole State Park

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.

Wood Stork – climbing up a tree

 

The trail is pave to the viewing platform

Northern Parula

They winter in southern Florida

Green Heron

This one was a little agitated

Views from the Observation Tower

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).

Lots of fences areas to try and keep the panthers away from the highways. Their biggest threats are being hit and killed by vehicles.

Trail

Yes, now I am wearing my head net

Same trail, different habitat

And believe it or not, this is the trail. Not well maintained, but still passable.

There was actually a bird in this cavity. The bird was a newly hatched bird. It could barely peek over the hole. We only saw a downy head, and eye, and a wide gaped mouth.   Not sure what kind of bird, although we suspect a woodpecker.

Eastern Lubber Grasshoppers. Looks like one is giving the other a piggy-back ride.

And you don’t want to touch these guys because they emit a foul smelling substance when touched – so we’ve heard. We weren’t going to test it.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – these birds are quite prevalent in South Florida.

W saw these signs frequently – on Highway 29.

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).

Jack thought this looked like a squirrel holding a nut

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Bald Eagles – Florida has the highest number of Bald Eagles in the lower 48.

Green Heron Pond – missing the Green Heron

But this Black-crowned Night-Heron was present

As was this balancing White-faced Ibis

Strangler Fig – I wonder how that plant got its name?  Ha ha ha.  This tree generally starts as an air plant or epiphyte.  Once it reaches the ground it changes from an epiphyte to a terrestrial plant.  Amazing.

Alligator Flags (aka fireflag or arrowroot). Birds like them for cover.

I think the red colored lichen is called “Red Bayou” lichen

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.

I needed to mail a card so we spotted this post office, which has the designation as the smallest post office in the U.S.

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 “Loop Road”

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

We saw a lot of Great Egrets along the loop road

But not as many alligators as we saw in 2014

Up close

Adult Black-crowned Night-Heron

Unfortunately we saw this dead Anhinga. It seemed to be hanging from a fishing line.

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.

Site #8 at Mitchell Landing

This is where you can put in your airboat and take off from the campground

Epiphyte

Tree snails

Black-throated Green Warbler …

… working the trees in search of food

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).

Tram Trail

Lots of Great Blue Heron

Limpkin – we didn’t see any when we were here in 2014

Trees full of White-faced Ibis

An alligator hole

And yes, alligator scat (poop), and  some we came across was quite fresh and foul smelling

Tram Trail

Anhinga -drying off its wings

This looks like a happy turtle – looks like yoga pose

Florida Gar, I believe

Yes, a sea of grass

Red-winged Blackbird

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.’

Boardwalk

Sea of grass …

… but lots of water too

Another couple pointed out this snake to us

I think it is a Copperhead Snake – venomous

Looking down from the boardwalk

Northern Parula looking for food – always

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.

Eco pond

Solitary Sandpiper

Trail around the pond

One of my favorite shorebirds – American Avocet (non-breeding plumage)

Swimming or walking in water past its legs?

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!).

Boardwalk at West Lake

No birds other than an American Crow in the parking lot

They must have lost part of this boardwalk in a hurricane and haven’t replaced it yet

Site #108 at Lone Pine Key campground

View from the campground …

… at sunset

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.

Iguana

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.

Tamarind Trail

Gumbo Limbo Tree

Grove Trail

Historic Citrus Grove

Spider Web – this was huge – at least four feet wide and three feet high (and off the ground)

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.

View from our bungalow

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

 

Tennessee and Georgia (on my mind)

Tennessee (17 October to 19 October)

After doing laundry and buying groceries, we made our way to Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  We decided to take Interstate-40 (I-40) for about 48 miles because we wanted to get to the park at a decent hour in order to get a campground spot.  Wow, talk about a lot of 18-wheelers on the road.  And they could only use the right hand lane of the divided four-lane highway.  And despite a 50 mph speed limit for the trucks, they were passing us when we were going between 55-60 mph.  Crazy.  I’ve never been so glad to get off an interstate highway.  We exited at Hartford, Tennessee and then pretty much traveled a number of backroads (thanks Google Maps – not) to get us to Gatlinburg, which borders one of the entrances to the park.

For the most part I like Google Maps.  What I don’t like is some of the routes they suggest to get from point A to B.  Some just don’t make sense.  And then when you do chose the route you want, that voice may later say “We found a faster route.  If you do not want to take this route, then press no, thanks” or something along that order.   I selected the route I wanted.  If I want something different, or faster, why not say “We found a faster route.  If you would like this route, please press yes.”   Are you listening Google?

Welcome to Tennessee

If you have never been to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, then let me warn you – it’s a very touristy place, at least the downtown area.   We had stop and go traffic (not sure why), and there were hundreds of people along the sidewalks and coming out of various shops selling cheap tourist crap to expensive crap.  Lots of restaurants too.  We didn’t stop, in fact, I’m not sure anywhere to park.

Stop-n-go traffic on the main drag in Gatlinburg

The Great Smoky National Park was quite busy as well – a constant stream of traffic.  We were lucky to get a campsite in the park.  I guess this is the prime season for tourists in this part of the country – cooler, sunnier weather, the beginning of fall colors, and free park admission helps.  I wish I had known about the high traffic season.  I’m not one to visit a park when thousands of others have the same idea.  Not my idea of enjoyable.

The park was created in 1934, following the purchase of over 6,000 tracts of private land in the 1920s and 1903s, by the states of Tennessee and North Carolina as advocates for a national park.   Once a threshold of 250,000 acres was obtained then the National Park came into being.  Today the park consists of 522,000 acres, and lies in both Tennessee and North Carolina.

The plant and animal life is quite diverse.  The park is home to over 924 species of lichens. Eh gads, I didn’t know there were that many lichen species in existence, let alone in this small part of the U.S. The park also boasts over 1,500 different flowering plants, over 200 species of birds (Yay birds!!!), 60 mammals, and dozens of fish species.  And just recently, the 1,000th species unique to the park was discovered.   To top that, in the past 20 years, over 10,000 different species have been discovered in the park.  Wow!!!  This park is definitely species rich.

Since the park does not charge an entrance fee, it’s not hard to imagine why an estimated 11.0 million people visit per year.  Fall (yes now) is a popular time to visit the park.   There are nine campgrounds in the park, of which two stay open year-round: Cades Cove and Smokemont.  Some of the roads through the park are closed in the winter due to snow. Note: many roads are narrow and their winding nature makes for some white knuckle driving.

There are four visitor centers, two historic grist mills, several restored farmsteads homes with accessory buildings, and plenty of trails – but if you want to know where the trails are and a little bit about them you will need to buy a hiking guide book at one of the visitor centers or spend $1.00 for a park trail map.  There is a lot more I could say about the park, but just plan a visit here sometime.  You won’t regret it.

Our route

Cute

Donations are critical

Once in the park, we drove down the Little River Road towards Cades Cove hoping to get a camping spot at the Cades Cove Campground.  No luck.  We turned around and went back to Elkmont Campground.  Luckily they had about 20 (out of 220) sites left.  We got a good one (G-25).   I talked Jack into staying here another night so we went back and had to get a different campsite for the second night, but still within the same loop (G—23), although not as nice.

The road to Cades Cove – quite narrow

The “Little River”

Little River

This flower we’ve seen a lot in the eastern states along roadways.

Our campsite (G-25)

We did a quick hike of the nearby nature trail (had to find mushrooms to photograph), then came back to camp to fix dinner and retire for the evening.  Tomorrow we plan to drive Newfound Gap Road, which traverses the park in a north-south direction.

Start of the Elkmont Nature Trail

The trees here are tall. Makes bird watching difficult since the warblers seem to like the tops of the trees.

This bush is called “Dog-Hobble”. It produces purple berries.

Not sure what this plant is, but cute. – small twin leaves with red berries.

One of the 900+ lichens in the park. Or are there more than one on this log? Only the lichenologists know for sure.

Interesting type of lichen

One big mushroom – my hand for size comparison.  I think this is one of the largest mushrooms we’ve seen yet.

These guys on the other hand were quite small

I didn’t “pose” these mushrooms. Nice to have a top and side view of the same species.

Not sure if this is a type of fungi or lichen – I would think fungi

Spindle Coral

We left the campground around 9:00 am the next morning and headed towards the Newfound Gap Road, about five miles away.  Already the traffic was heavy.  At one trailhead – Alum Cave –  the parking lot was full and they were already parking along side the road (and this was before 9:00 am, and it doesn’t start getting light out before 7:30 am).  One the way back, I counted over 100 cars at this trailhead, and I know I probably missed at least 50 or more cars in my count.  Crazy.  A popular spot even though the trail is rated strenuous.

We drove to Clingman’s Dome where there is a short, uphill hike to an observation tower with a 360-degree panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains.  And what a beautiful, spectacular view.  When we arrived there were probably 30 cars in the humongous parking lot.  We parked our van in a spot to enable an easy exit and then walked the paved path to the tower.  This is not an easy hike, even though it is only ½ mile (one-way, and all uphill).  This is a very, very steep path.  I worried about some of the people walking up the path.  The tower is at 6,643 feet elevation so the hike takes some exertion beyond just its steepness.  The elevation really adds to the difficulty in hiking up from the parking lot, but the views are worth it.

When we returned to the parking lot we were amazed to find it was full of vehicles and many people were already parking their vehicle along the side of the road.  To get to the dome you take a seven-mile side road off Newfound Gap Road.  Coming down this side road, I counted over 150 cars going up.  We wonder where they all parked.  Crazy, crazy, crazy.

We continued on the main Newfound Gap Road stopping at the Mingus (grist) Mill and then the Oconaluftee Visitor Center (say that fast even once or at all), which includes a Mountain Farm Museum.  There are signs to stay out of the fields if elk are present.  Well elk were present, but people seem to think the signs don’t apply to them.  This is a pet peeve of mine.  If someone were to get attacked by an elk then they would blame the park service for their injuries, despite the signs.  People want to disobey the rules, but they don’t want to pay the consequences for their actions – whether it is injury or simply a fine.  People – take responsibility for your actions.

This photo doesn’t really show how steep this trail really is – quite steep. “Everyone” was huffing and puffing.

The walkway up to the observation tower. I guess the old tower was wooden with steps that went straight up to the top.

The observation Tower where you can get a 360 degree view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – I could see both Tennessee and North Carolina (which is quite easy since Clingman’s Dome is almost on the border of the two states.

Jack on the walkway up to the top of the observation tower

View from the top

Nature Trail we took on the road down from Clingman’s Dome

This is actually a bench. I don’t think it’s been used in quite some time.

Mingus Grist Mill

Inside of the mill

Meadow Farm Museum

Yes, then even had live pigs

The one on the left was wondering if the one on the right had found something good to eat in the mud – yuck…

Now if you have a point and shoot with a zoom lens like mine then you can get the photo without having to get too close

We finished the drive and returned to our campground – no more fighting traffic and congestion.  But it was still early so we decided to hike the Little River trail near the campground.  The trail is relatively flat and wide, and parallels the Little River, which is quite a beautiful, boulder-strewn, scenic stream.  We even spotted a river otter swimming, diving, and emerging to feed while sitting on the rocks.  At one point it was bashing some food item on the rock before eating it – a crayfish perhaps?

Nice wide trail (former road) for the Little River trail

Little River

Don’t know the name of this falls, but just off the trail

Now this is a tenacious tree

Chimney from one of the old homes

When we stopped at the campground office to get our tag and sign the form agreeing to keep a bear- free campsite (no food items or odors left outdoors, subject to an $80 fine), we were told they didn’t have a record of us having reserved the site, despite our receipt showing payment.  Come to find out the ranger put in Jack’s name as “John Miles”.  That could make a difference.  Luckily we caught their mistake and got it straightened out.  The campground was full so not sure what we would have done otherwise.

The next morning we decided to drive the Cades Cove Loop Road, which was just as busy as the Newfound Gap Road.   We started out earlier on this road (about ½ hour) and had little traffic on the way to the loop road, but once there it was like all the cars just came out of the wood work (or woods…).  Again, bumper to bumper traffic.  Most people were nice and would let you out if you stopped to check out some of the historic buildings of the area.

In Tennessee vernacular “cove” essentially means a flat valley between mountains or ridges.  This was a good sized cove and in its heyday (1850s), there were 685 residents (consisting of 132 families).  We did make several stops, including several homesteads, one owned by John Oliver and another by his son Elijah Oliver.  We stopped to check out the Cable (grist) Mill at the Cades Cove visitor center.  They have interpretive panels and a person in the mill talking about how the mill was built and operated and even selling cornmeal and whole wheat.

The day started out foggy once we got to Cades Cove

John Oliver’s Home

You really don’t realize how many spider webs are out there until they are covered in dew or the sunlight hits them.  There were a lot.

The loop road through Cades Cove is one way

The Cable Mill

Cantilevered Barn

Jack liked this use of horseshoes

Elijah Oliver’s House

Jack checking out the old buildings

This barn was on the property owned by Elijah Oliver

Barn at the Cable Mill

Spring house at Elijah Oliver’s homestead. They got water here, but also kept items cold.

This is one of the old churches remaining from when the cove was occupied by homesteaders. This is a Methodist church.

A lot of the gravestones where for infants.  Many died on the same day they were born.

After leaving the loop, we headed out of the park and into Townsend, Tennessee to gas up and get a few groceries.  I ran out of coffee so we stopped at the IGA store.  I like Starbuck’s Café Verona Decaf.  The store had five different kinds of Starbuck’s coffee, none of which were Café Verona let alone Decaf Café Verona.  Will need to try a larger store.

We took the park’s Foothills Parkway and headed south.  At the end of the parkway, we turned left and shortly entered the road from hell – Highway 129!  If you get car sick (luckily I don’t), then this is NOT the road for you.  An eleven (11) mile section of road has so many turns (318 to be exact)  – first left, then right, and up  then down, and on and on and on – you got dizzy.   Some of the drop offs were quite steep and without guardrails, which added to the nerve-racking experience.  And despite the 30 mph speed limit (15 mph on the corners) there were people who wanted to go faster.  Not me.  And there must have been over 100 motorcyclists on the road.  Luckily most were coming from the opposite direction rather than on our tail.  Jack thinks the motorcyclists like the road because they can go fast on the banked curves.  We saw a lot of sports cars on the road too.  I was never so happy to get off a stretch of road as I was that one.  I did see evidence where at least two people didn’t make a turn (crosses along the roadway).  They do have pull-off areas so you can pull over and let others pass.  At five of these pull-offs there were people there with cameras taking commercial photos.  I guess if you want a photo of yourself screaming around a corner (in my case with a grimace on my face), they will sell you one.  There were two different companies:  129 Photographs and Killboys.  Oh, and we didn’t know about this road before we decided to go this way to reach our campground for the night.

We had to buy a sticker to commemorate our achievement.

We re-entered North Carolina and found a campground (Chetoah Point) in the Nantahala National Forest.  The 23-site campground has flush toilets, showers, and six electrical sites (on-line reservation required).  Not a bad little campground.  Tomorrow we headed into Georgia.

Like the sign – no spraying or mowing

View of our lake from the campsite

We didn’t really spend a lot of time in Tennessee, nor did we see much of the state.  All of the National Wildlife Refuges are located in the western portion of the state.  And since we are headed towards Florida, I decided to catch those refuges on another visit when we can also go to the sole Kentucky refuge and visit some refuges in Arkansas as well.  Ah, so many refuges yet to visit…

We woke to a very wet day.  Well, we did go three days with full on sun or mostly sunny skies so I shouldn’t complain.  We left the campground without making breakfast because our picnic table was surrounded by about an inch of water from all the rain we had during the night.  Off we went.

I took this photo when I opened our van door to step out

Georgia (20 October – 26 October)

Most of the day was spent driving.  About two hours after leaving our campsite we entered Georgia – the Peach State.  We went through the town of Helen, a Bavarian themed town with buildings and business names along that theme.  There were lots of people out celebrating Oktoberfest.  We kept going.  Jack wondered where everyone parked – maybe at their hotels???

We stayed the night at a U.S. Forest Service campground – Lake Sinclair.  We didn’t care for this campground.  Most of the camp sites weren’t level, nor well-maintained.  Of course we didn’t mind the fee – $4.50 per night senior rate.   We spent one night here.

Despite the lack of level ground, there were a lot of trees and water, and thus some good birds: Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Eastern Phoebe, Belted Kingfisher, Turkey Vulture, and Northern Cardinal.  I was (bird) happy.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Our campsite – Jack at our picnic table in the morning fixing coffee.  The picnic table was under a tree where cones kept dropping.  You almost needed a hard hat.

We visited the 35,000-acre Piedmont National Wildlife Refuges, which was established in 1939.  The refuge was about 30 miles from our campground.  I really like this refuge.  Lots of mixed hardwoods and pines.  Just beautiful.  Of course it helped it was sunny.  We hiked the 2.9 mile Red-cockaded Woodpecker Trail hoping to see one of these endangered woodpeckers, but no luck.  We have seen these woodpeckers on several occasions on previous trips, but always nice to see them again.  Despite the lack of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, we did have some nice mixed flocks that included a family of Wood Thrushes.  None of the birds, except a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, were very accommodating for the camera.  We did see a number of large spiders.  Luckily their webs didn’t cross the trail.  I usually walk ahead of Jack on trails because I see and hear the birds more than he does, but then I get the privilege of running into spider webs.  Luckily most of them are single threads across the trail – a bridge between two large webs???

Another refuge to add to my refuge “life” list

Sign for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Trail

There was actually one gravestone here for a person, not a woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker nest tree

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Nasty looking spider

The refuge did include an auto tour route, but there wasn’t a lot of bird activity except at the very beginning – lots of Chipping Sparrows alongside the road, plus a female Northern Cardinal.  We did see a Palm Warbler on the road hawking for insects.  This little warbler likes to flick its tail so that helps in identification especially during the non-breeding season.

We left the refuge and headed to High Falls State Park for the night.  We took a wrong turn right before the park and ended up at a recycling facility.  However, we were told ONLY Monroe County residents could deposit recyclables there.  Even with no one around, the guy was very adamant about the rule, but handed us a flyer showing what could be recycled. I tried joking with him, but he took his job very seriously.  I asked him whether I should write the Governor to complain, but he mumbled that wouldn’t do much good. I guess the county would rather we contribute to their landfill?

The High Falls State Park campground has two loops – Lakeside and Riverside.  We chose the Riverside as it offers more camp sites.  We selected #37, which is located near the restrooms, but still gives us plenty of privacy.  And speaking of restrooms – you get flush toilets, HOT showers (Yay!!!), and laundry facilities.  Unfortunately, I had recently done laundry so no need for the coin-operated washer and dryer.  Each campsite has electricity and water.  Of course for all that you pay $37.45 per night.  Georgia doesn’t charge an out-of-state fee, which is nice, nor do they add on a day-use fee.

One of the “MANY” Grey Squirrels near our campground. This one was either digging something up or burying it.

Our campground site

Our next refuge to visit was the Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) – another new refuge for us.  This refuge, located just south of Macon, Georgia, was established in 1989 – so a fairly new refuge.  This is a small refuge – only 6,500 acres – with several trails, but no auto route.  We walked/birded the Longleaf Pine Trail (1.9 miles).  We did get some good birds including an Eastern Towhee, Carolina Wren (gotta love those wrens), and a first for the year (FOY): Northern Mockingbird.  I would have thought we would have seen mockingbirds before now.  In some places they are actually a nuisance.  This trail wasn’t as well maintained as the Red-cockaded Trail at the Piedmont NWR.  Also, no one had been on the trail recently as there were a number of webs across the trail.  Luckily the sun was shining and we could see the webs before we ran into them.  Now these spiders were really big, so not something you want to get ‘tangled up’ with.

Longleaf Pine Trail

We weren’t quite sure what this was?

These little fungi were quite pink

Northern Mockingbird

There always seems to be an Eastern Phoebe

We saw a lot of these spiders along the trail – they’re big

While we were making our way south I luckily had internet connection.  We thought we should try and book our campground reservations for Florida.  All those snowbirds and locals might result in full campgrounds if we don’t book ahead, and it is good we did.  At two of the four campgrounds we booked there were only a couple of sites left to chose from.  One reason we prefer not to book ahead is that we like to see what a campsite looks like before we chose it – is the site level, how close are one’s neighbors.  That type of thing.  And we were hoping to spend some time camping on the Florida Keys.  No luck there.  There are three state parks on the Keys.  One is closed for reconstruction, and the other two are booked already – no space at the inn, so to speak.  We did decide to spend at least one day on the Keys and booked a beachside cottage/bungalow near Key Largo.  If we like the Keys area, then maybe we will come back sometime.

After the refuge we headed to General Coffee State Park near Valdosta, Georgia.  This is a nice little park with plenty of hiking trails.  They also have a heritage farm with goats, horses, donkeys (I love donkeys), sheep, chickens, and domestic ducks.   While I said this was a nice “little park”, it is actually good size as it was almost 1.5 miles from the park office at the entrance to our campground loop.  In Georgia they call their visitor centers/parks offices “Trading Posts”.  After setting up our campsite, we visited the heritage farm and did a short hike.

We saw this store in a small town that probably had a population of less than 1,000, and we wondered how it could stay in business

General Coffee State Park “Trading Post”

One of the “domestic” ducks

Turtle

Isn’t this donkey just the cutest, most precious thing you ever seen? I wanted to take the donkey home.

Goat

This one was hoping I had some food for it to eat. You can buy pellets, but the dispenser was empty.

Great Egret

Pond near the Heritage Far

A boardwalk we took as part of our hike in the park

Starting to get into “cypress swamp” country – Yay!!!

Cypress knees – do they support the adjacent tree or aerate the tree’s roots

Tangled vines

I like this interpretive sign about what the area may have looked like during four different periods of time

The next morning we stopped at the Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge (another new refuge for us).  This refuge was created in 1985 and is 3,559 acres – they keep getting smaller.  Banks Lake is a natural Pocosin (wetland with deep, acidic, sandy, peat soils), believed to have been created by tidal action thousands of years ago.  The federal government purchased the land from the Nature Conservancy who bought it from the E.D. Rivers Estate in 1980.  The estate had threatened to drain the lake and harvest the cypress tree and stumps.  Go Nature Conservancy.

The refuge has a boardwalk/short trail, which we walked.  We had thought we would see waterbirds on the lake, but no luck.  In fact, there wasn’t a single bird on the lake.  Kind of eerie.  There were several people fishing, and you can rent canoes and kayaks to use on the lake.  Surprisingly, although there weren’t any birds we did find some along the trail, including a White-eyed Vireo (first of year) and one of my favorite warblers: Common Yellowthroat.  And it wasn’t easy finding these birds as the vegetation along the trail where the birds were feeding was quite thick.

Try and find birds in this vegetation

Not sure what this plant is but the Gray Catbirds like the berries

We are now in “Cotton Country”

We drove into Valdosta to get groceries and to print out an online delivery absentee ballot application form so we can have the general election absentee ballot emailed to us.  There are some important races (U. S. House of Representatives and our State legislature and Governor) and a ballot measure pertaining to salmon that we want to make sure we vote on.  Every vote counts and it is one of our rights we should not take for granted and ignore.

After Valdosta we drove to Stephen Foster State Park, which is located in the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).  The 402,000 acre Okefenokee NWR was established in 1937 after the area was heavily logged.  This refuge covers 630 square miles.  That is a BIG refuge (by lower 48 standards).  In 2011 there was a fire (Honey Prairie Fire) here that burned more than 75% of the refuge and burned for over 11 months.  I do remember hearing about it at the time.  The fire was started by lightening.

The Okefenokee Swamp (actually considered a bog) is maintained by rainwater, and births two rivers:  St. Mary’s and Suwanee.  Over 354,000 acres of the 402,000- acre refuge is designated wilderness.  The refuge is also listed as a Ramsar site – a wetland of international importance.

We plan to camp at the park for two nights.  After setting up camp we did take a walk around the campground loop as we heard the loud drumming of a Pileated Woodpecker and wanted to check it out.  And as usual, there were some good birds in the campground.  We then headed towards the “Trading Post”.  We signed up to take a boat tour of the swamp the next day.  We did this same tour in 2014 on our “Big Year Adventure”.   At the boat dock ramp there was the resident alligator with a portion of its head sticking out of the water as if challenging someone to launch a canoe or kayak.

This alligator hangs out where you put in your kayaks and canoes

Near the Trading Post is a nature trail, which called out to us – “Come See What Birds Are Here”.  So off we went and we were not disappointed.  A short distance along the trail is a side trail consisting of a 2,100 feet boardwalk – well part of a 2,100 foot boardwalk.  It was near the end of the boardwalk where all the bird activity seemed to be occurring.  We had two Pileated Woodpeckers, including one drumming in an overhead tree adjacent to the boardwalk.  Great view of this magnificent bird!  There were three Gray Catbirds mewing their protest at the four Red-Shouldered Hawks in the area (I think this was a family).  We also heard a Barred Owl hooting away, and there were also several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and a Little Blue Heron (first of year bird for me).  When we got back to the Trading Post we heard not one, but three Barred Owls.  We tried to locate them, but no luck.  Dinner was calling so back to the campsite we went.

I like how they reuse signs for different purposes – like this nest box

Northern Mockingbird

Nature Trail

Boardwalk – side trail from nature trail

I think they may have lost a portion of the boardwalk and are beginning repairs. We could see the continuation of the boardwalk about a 100 yards beyond these boats.

More cypress knees

This Pileated Woodpecker was on a tree adjacent to the boardwalk

Pileated Woodpecker