It's a Great Day to Bird

Month: October 2018

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


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


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


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

Plenty of Gray Catbirds along the boardwalk trail

Spanish Moss, which isn’t a true moss, but rather a member of the pineapple family (bromeliad)

Brown Thrasher

Wild Turkey …

… feeding alongside the White-tailed Deer

Our campsite

After a restful night we hit the trails again starting with the Fitness Trail, which runs along the backside of the campground.  The morning birding here was fantastic.  We had 12 species in this birding ‘hot spot’, including five woodpecker species:  Pileated, Red-bellied, Yellow-bellied (sapsucker), Red-headed, and Northern Flicker.  We also had three vireo species: Blue-headed, White-eyed, and Yellow-throated, as well as numerous Gray Catbirds and Northern Cardinals.  The birds definitely like to flock together.

Fitness Trail – great birding

Pileated Woodpecker – these birds when they drum are loud. Can’t mistake it for any other woodpecker in the U.S.

Luckily no activity at this nest – it was a big nest

The Trading Post and boat launch area

From the Fitness Trail we headed back to the nature trail near the Trading Post.  We walked the entire trail today, and were happy to see a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  We found this bird, when we heard another bird calling. If there is movement in the trees we check it out because otherwise we probably would not see many species as most are not calling or singing at this time of year (molting and not breeding so no breeding plumage or mating behavior).

Nature Trail

Beggar’s Tick Sunflower

Lots of Spanish Moss in a cypress swamp

After lunch we took our 1.5-hour park sponsored boat ride ($15.00 per person) with the park naturalist.  We did see at least 24 alligators along the slightly greater than one-mile waterway we took through the swamp.  We could see areas where the 2011 Honey Prairie Fire had burned and areas left unaffected by the fire.  And the yellow native flowering Beggar’s Tick Sunflower was prominent in these burned areas.  The seeds like to hitch-hike onto birds or insects and then disperse later by falling off the animal.  The flowers do not attract ticks, luckily.  This flower is very pretty.

Heading out a channel into the swamp

Luckily they have directional signs

We were told that this tree was almost 1,000 years old

Alligator cooling off

You can tell the length of an alligator by measuring (okay estimating because you don’t want to get “that” close) the length between its eyes and its nostrils. For instance if the distance is 10 inches, then the alligator is 10 feet in length.

It truly is an amazingly beautiful area

We flushed these two White Ibis into this tree

This Eastern Phoebe was hawking for insects over the swamp waters

I’ve never seen a phoebe clinging to the side of a tree

An adult Little Blue Heron

Anyone can put in their own boat and paddle away.  There are over 70 islands within the swamp, and luckily for boaters (motors limited to less than 10 horsepower) there are signs directing you to different parts of the refuge via water trails.  You can get a permit to camp throughout the refuge, but access is by boat only.  The only campground you can drive to is the one we are staying at: Stephen Foster State Park, operated by the state of Georgia.  The naturalist said if boaters get lost they only need to follow the flow of the water as the water exits the refuge through one of two rivers: Mary’s River or the Suwanee River.

With such a peaceful existence at the park, we decided to stay another night at the campground and visit the east side of the refuge with its visitor center and auto tour drive.  To get there we needed to drive 60+ miles.  Along the way we did see a number of hunters with dogs.  We suspect they were hunting wild boar.  An agricultural agent (we had to stop for an inspection as we enter into Florida for a short portion of the trip), said the hunters use mutt dogs because if the dogs gets gored or badly injured they just leave the dogs out there to die.  He said he has seen a number of injured dogs just wandering the roads.  We later saw a dog walking along side the road.  He didn’t look injured, but he obviously got lost or left behind.  I love dogs so I guess I have a hard time seeing them used cruelly or merely as a tool to an end.  Most of the dogs we saw were a Beagle mix.

The weather cooperated and didn’t rain on us while we were checking out the eastern portion of the refuge.  At the main entrance (near Folkston, Georgia) we stopped to pick up information, watch a movie, and a purchase a magnet at the visitor center.

This jutebox plays calls for some of the various animals found in the Okeefenokee Swamp. Cute.

The prescription bottle reads: Take 1 Forest Fire every 3 to 5 years or as needed.

Cute bench

We then drove the 7-mile Swamp Island Drive.  Along the drive we did the 0.25-mile upland trail hike (last time we were here, we saw an Eastern Screech Owl and we were hoping that four years later the tree was still there and an owl would also be at the hole – no luck with the owl, although the tree was still there).  We also stopped and toured the Chesser Homestead (learn what it is like to have lived in the area in the early 1900s), then walked the 0.75-mile boardwalk (one way – now that’s an expensive boardwalk with Trex decking and a sprinkler system to protect it from a future wildfire).  The trail leads to the 40-foot Owl’s Roost Observation Tower.  This very secure tower gives you an almost 360-degree view of the refuge.   We did see several alligators along the drive.  Back at the visitor center, we did a short hike – the Cane Pole trail that parallels the canal from the visitor center into the waters of the refuge, before heading into Folkston, Georgia for dinner.   The refuge volunteer at the Chesser Homestead told us the Thai restaurant in Folkston was very good.  We had to check it out.  Although it was good, I still like the one in New Hampshire better.

Swamp Island Drive

Water lily in a canal along side Swamp Island Drive

This is when it is nice to have a point and shoot camera with a zoom len, as my iPhone camera could not have captured this water lily very well.  I didn’t want to get too close to the canal as there could be an alligator lurking nearby.

We were told this plant was the Florida Paintbrush. The plant was at least 2-3 feet tall. Tallest paintbrush I’ve ever seen.

Artificial nest box for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. They are seen here in the park, but we didn’t see them unfortunately.

House Wren

House Wren

Trail to the Chesser Homestead

Chesser Homestead Cabin

This little guy greeted us upon arrival at the homestead. I was even able to touch its tail.

I love this saying – “The Earth Has Music For Those Who Listen”

Blue Goose bike racks at the Boardwalk Trail

This boardwalk was quite wide. Not your typical boardwalk.

View from the Owl’s Roost Tower

View of the boardwalk from the observation tower

I love the spanish moss – so southern

This guy was along the road.  What a big alligator.

More cypress knees

Little Blue Heron near the visitor center

Little Blue Heron

Cane Pole Trail

Canal that leads out into the swamp from the visitor center

View of the “prairie” from a platform at the end of the Cane Pole Trail

If we ever return to the Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge for another visit we will stay longer (at the Stephens Foster State Park) and rent kayaks or a motor boat to really get out and explore the refuge.  I really hated to leave.

Next up is Florida – the Sunshine State.  I hope so.  Until then …



New York to North Carolina

New York (9 October – 11 October)

New York, New York (the state, not the city).  We will avoid the city like the plague.  Way too many people and traffic.  Now if we had a small car and not the van that would be a totally different story.  I would love to bird Central Park.  We haven’t been there since 1989.   And I wasn’t a birder then.

We left Gifford Woods State Park in the wee hours of the morning – okay it was around 8:00 a.m., but no one else in the campground (our loop anyway) was stirring.  We stopped for breakfast at Sugar and Spice Restaurant on Highway 4, near the campground.  The food was good and hearty.  I had the pumpkin pancakes.  Yum!!!  The restaurant featured a lot of Vermont products (want a gallon of maple syrup?) and had a former maple distillery.

March of the Pink Flamingos

The truck had pink “Breast Cancer” ribbons

We then headed to New York, traveling down scenic Highway 22 south for most of the trip.  This part of the state is very pretty, with pastoral scenes and quaint villages, although not a lot of “fall colors”.  I guess they don’t have as many sugar maples or red maples as New England.  We eventually made our way to the 700,000 acre Catskill Forest Preserve.  We are staying for two nights at the North and South Lakes campground.  Yes, this is the site I mentioned in the last blog that has supposedly 219 campsites, although we are in campsite #218 and I sure don’t see a #219.  Maybe because they start with #0.  We are in the ‘quiet’ loop, which is located away from the lakes.  All the other loops are near North Lake.

After setting up camp we headed to the lakes (on foot) so we could hike the foot path around the two lakes.  The day was perfect – sunny, mid 70’s, slight breeze.  We couldn’t ask for a nicer afternoon.  Oh it is so, so, so nice to see the sun again.  I am a sun worshiper.  I need the sun.  When the sun shines, I feel like a million bucks.  Can’t beat that feeling.    So, the hike was about 2.5 miles in length, but we walked an extra mile as we walked to the trailhead from our campsite, about ½ mile each way.  Tomorrow we anticipate doing some more hiking around the area.

The Catskill Forest Preserve could occupy a lot of time, but we will only see a small portion of the area, although we are not in any rush as we don’t need to be in Fort Lauderdale, Florida until November 8th  – five weeks away.  The following day we catch our plane to Cuba, where we will participate in a bird survey.

Hudson River – on the Rip Van Winkle bridge

Jack at the “north” lake at North and South Lakes Campground – Catskill Forest Preserve

The fall foliage is starting to appear

Looks like fun. Something I want to try.

Trail along the north side of “South Lake”

I thought this was neat. We should have something like this in Homer.

Large Hydrangea bushes everywhere

Finally a duck in plumage that is easily recognizable – okay for you non birders this is a Mallard (drake – male)

You can see that the roots like to hang on for dear life

Trail markers to show us the way

We loved how someone saw this large rock as a type of monster and added “teeth” and an “eye”.

Here is another one – people are so creative and imaginative

American Goldfinch

There’s got to be seeds in there somewhere

Mushroom and Fungi photos for the day – some really interesting stuff out in our forests.

A type of “bear’s tooth” fungi

Our first night here we had campers close by who decided they wanted to party starting at 9:00 p.m. and ending around a little after 2:00 a.m.  They insisted on playing a boom, boom, boom, music and mixed that with alcohol.  Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep.  So, after filing a complaint, we decided to find a new campsite in a different loop since the party group wasn’t leaving anytime soon.

After we set up in a new campsite (different loop), we were off on a 5.0-mile hike on a loop trail with views of Ashley Falls, Newman’s Ledge, Sunset Rock, and Artists Rock.  The trail was very rocky, muddy, had a lot of exposed tree roots, but stunning views at exposed rock ledges and outcroppings.  The going was slow.  One could easily get injured on this trail and not be discovered for some time since it wasn’t very busy with hikers.  Despite the treacherous trail conditions, the day for the hike was perfect – partly cloudy skies, light breeze, and temperatures in the low to mid 70’s.  At Newman’s Ledge we had some beautiful views of the Hudson River valley.

Our van in our campsite

We did encounter an interesting mix of people along the trail.  One guy said he was training to hike up Mt. Washington with his grandkids (his wife sort of rolled her eyes).  They wanted him to join them after he turns 70.  Mt. Washington in New Hampshire is notorious for it fierce weather and wind, and difficult/strenuous trails.  Funny, but you can never really tell how old people are because I would pegged this guy for being in his mid 70s at the youngest.  I wonder how old he was.  He looked a lot older than Jack, who has already passed his 70th birthday.

View of “North Lake”

Yellow-rumped Warbler

When leaves litter the trail it is sometimes difficult to see what is below – rocks, tree roots, wet soil …  Well okay maybe you can see the rocks.

Ashley’s Waterfall

Another waterfall just up from Ashley’s Waterfall

The trail goes under the rock overhang

Trail marker


View looking down from the trail

Jack climbing up the trail

One of the few bridges along the trail – it was wet and slippery

Trail signage as there were several off-shoots from the trail we were on

Yes, that is our trail – up, up, up

Yes, this is the trail too

And this …

… and here too (trail)

View of the Hudson River Valley – not much color yet

Another slate of mushrooms and fungi observed while hiking.

Well all good things must come to an end, so the saying goes, including our beautiful sunshine and blue skies.  We woke to rain.  Luckily it held off to allow us to prepare breakfast and then hit with a force just after we left the campground.  And boy did it rain – remnants of Hurricane Michael.  In some places we had to put the windshield wipers at full strength just to be able to see out the windshield.  There were flood warnings for parts of New York and Pennsylvania, but nothing in our path.

Before leaving we did have to check out Katterskill Falls in the Preserve.  Katterskill Falls is the highest in New York state.  They have a viewing platform where you can walk near the top of the falls.  You can also take a path to the foot of the first drop (the falls has two drops).  We chose not to take the path because of the rain.  We weren’t sure how safe it would be since the trail is considered steep.  We did take one of the scenic routes out of the Catskill Forest Preserve.  Very pretty, although not much fall color – yet.

Trail to the Katterskill Waterfall

Upper fall of the Katterskill Waterfall

View from the waterfall viewing platform

Pennsylvania (11 October – 13 October)

After traveling on backroads through Pennsylvania, we finally got to our campground (Locust Lake State Park) around 5:00 p.m. and made ourselves a sandwich.  Too wet outside to set up the stove and cook.

Locust Lake State Park is a large campground (277 sites), however several of the loops were closed.  The campground officially closes October 23rd.  Despite the weather – rain, and more rain in the forecast, much of the campground was booked for the weekend.   We had thought about staying here two nights, but the campground seemed so dark and dreary we decided to find another campground for the next night.

Wet, wet, wet

In various towns in Pennsylvania they have these banners commemorating hometown military personnel  that served in various wars

In the morning we were off to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary – Pennsylvania (  This sanctuary is a well known site for raptor migration.  We hit it on a nice day (sunshine), although windy.  Along with a hundred of our closest birding buddies, we watched as raptors soared into view and overhead.  We saw a total of 11 raptor species:  Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle (loved by most people there – but not us), Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Osprey, American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, and Red-tailed Hawk.

We spent about two hours at the North Lookout hawk watch site with its commanding view of the valley. We even had two school groups of eager children joins us.  The only birds to get real close were the vultures, and since these are big birds the kids really enjoyed watching them and got all excited.  A Black Vulture even decided to sit on a stump within spitting distance of the kids.

Eastern Phoebe near the campground

Pennsylvania countryside – on the way to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

So how big is that raptor?  This sign shows the wingspan for each the raptors that might be seen there

This is a good primer for people – they need this as a handout

A very rocky trail. Good thing they mark the trees.

South Lookout. Not many people here. More action at the North Overlook.

North Lookout. As you can see there are a lot of people here. There were at least twice this many (and that was before the kids showed up).

A Black Vulture posing for the kids, well the adults too

Black Vulture

Mounts of the “Passenger Pigeon”, a bird that went extinct, due to overhunting, over a century ago.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary got its start in 1934, when Rosalie Edge saw photos of hundreds of dead raptors killed by gunners.  She leased the land (1,400 acres), installed a warden and a gatekeeper, and the killings stopped.  Ms. Edge opened the sanctuary to the public and later purchased the property and deeded it to the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association.  This association was incorporated in 1938 as a non-profit organization and has been in operation since.  The sanctuary has since grown to 2,500 acres and now their mission is international.   Way to go Ms. Edge!  We need more people like her.

On the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary website you can get a count of the different raptor species seen during spring and fall migration (that day, total, and highest day count).  Fall migration is when most of the birds are observed.  In one day this year (September), 3,308 Broad-winged Hawks were observed.  Now wouldn’t that be fun to see.  We had a slow, but steady stream of raptors passing through.  The staff observers are amazing with their ability to see and identify what often appears to be specks in the sky.

Oh, and at the gift store, I bought a book on mushrooms of Northeastern U.S. and Eastern Canada.  Now I can go back and try and identify some of the mushrooms species I have been engrossed in photographing.  But don’t expect identification of my mushroom/fungi photos.  I still find identifying mushroom much, much more difficult than birds.

After we left the sanctuary we took the backroads to Gifford Pinchot State Park, our campground for the night.  Several things I like about Pennsylvania State Parks – no alcohol and quiet hours are from 9:00 pm – 8:00 am.  Okay maybe 8:00 am is a little late since that is when we generally leave most campgrounds.  We had a sweet campsite.  Lots of bird activity, although it was getting dark and thus hard to see the species when backlit and high in a tree.  I was able to identify American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, and Yellow-rumped Warbler.

And guess what – we woke to rain at the park.  I had thought about staying another night, but the forecast for Virginia – our next destination – was partly cloudy skies.  Rain or partly cloudy skies, well that is a no-brainer, so off we went to Virginia.

Virginia (13 October – 15 October)

To get from Pennsylvania to Virginia we actually had to go through Maryland and West Virginia.  Once in Virginia, we decided “why not take a really scenic route – the Shenandoah National Park Skyline Drive”.  So we did.  This is a 105-mile long drive along the ridge tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Along this 105-mile drive there are 40 lookouts/overlooks.  We didn’t have the time to stop at all of them, but we did get in about 10 overlooks.

Since it was a Saturday, and it was nice out (although cold – 45 degrees F, with winds around 5 mph), there were a lot of people taking a weekend drive (we generally try to avoid major attractions on the weekend).  All four campgrounds were full, and most of the trail parking lots were overflowing with cars.  This drive is beautiful, especially with the sun filtering through the trees.  Surprisingly, there was very little fall color despite the peak fall foliage season being between 10 October and 25 October.

We came to this park with our friend Dave in April 2014.  At that time none of the trees were leafed out yet.  Spring climbs up the mountains at 100 feet per day, beginning in March, with trees on the ridgeline (approximate 4,000 ft. elevation) not leafing out until late May.  While the park in late April has a certain beauty of its own, it is much nicer when all the trees have leafed out.  Today the drive was gorgeous with great views of the magnificent Shenandoah Valley.

We stayed the night at a wayside area along the Blue Ridge Parkway (managed by the National Park Service) because the campground we had hoped to stay at was full (it was a Saturday night).  Hey, this way we don’t have to pay a fee.  It was actually a nice pleasant night – little traffic on the road and the wayside had a picnic table so we were able to cook.

The Shenandoah Skyline Drive leads to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which extends 469 miles along the crests of the southern Appalachians linking the Shenandoah National Park on the north, to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park on the south – what great bookends!  The Blue Ridge Parkway traverses two states – Virginia and North Carolina.  Although the parkway begins at Rockfish Gap, we didn’t start there, but rather about 15 miles to the south (after finding a full campground).

Potomac River

These are photos from the various overlooks along the Skyline Drive at Shenandoah National Park.

Our second day in Virginia, and second day on the Parkway, we only journeyed around 150 miles south.  The scenery was beautiful, when we could see it.  At times we had rain and/or heavy fog.  Kind of hard to check out the overlooks, when one can barely see the road.  And it was weird being in the fog and then suddenly popping out of it from one valley ridge (gap or hollow) to the next.  Kind of spooky in a sense.  We hope to drive another couple hundred miles on the road.

There is no commercial traffic allowed on the road (kind of like the Natchez Trace Parkway) (Yay!!! No big trucks) and traffic is light.  That might be due to the 35-45 miles per hour speed limit and lack of services (food, gas, lodging). Various exits go to towns and highway routes.  And from the parkway you can occasionally see adjacent roads used by locals and the commercial trucks.

We are staying our second night along the parkway at the Rocky Knob campground (NPS).  I was a little frantic thinking we might not get a spot since we didn’t get to the campground until around 5:00 pm. I needn’t worry as there are over 100 camping spots and probably less than 20 of them are filled.  The campground was a little eerie due to the fog.  With luck we will have a nice day tomorrow – at least no rain or fog.  One can hope.

Otter lake, dam, and creek

James River wayside

James River

This pedestrian walkway under the bridge allows access across the James River to view historic locks

The locks

Yes, we did get a little fog. Hard to see much of anything. Not fun driving in these conditions even with a slower speed limit.

Roanoake River and Falls

Our van at Rocky Knob campground

Turkey Tails Fungi – and these really did look like turkey’s tails

Well it wasn’t raining when we woke up, but the wind was blowing pretty hard (approximately 10-15 mph).  Luckily, it was a warm wind.  We continued south on the Blue Ridge Parkway, making several stops along the way for features of attraction.  The first stop was Mabry Mill.  This is an old mill site operated by E. G. Mabry from 1910-1935.  He had a sawmill, blacksmith shop, and a mill where he ground cornmeal and buckwheat (same mill as the sawmill)  He also operated a whiskey still (hidden in the woods), and had equipment to make sorghum (think molasses – similar).

Mabry Mill

Whiskey Still

Inside the mill

Waterwheel – in operation

Press for the sorghum

The pond below the mill held a domestic Muscovy duck family.  The male was snoozing, while the female was tending her brood of ten (so cute) busily feeding adjacent to the trail so a great view.  At one point, mom decided to she wanted to take the young ones across the parkway road.  Luckily the road wasn’t too busy.  She waited until she couldn’t hear a car coming and then quickly crossed with her young ones.  You might be wondering how I know she could “hear” the car coming.  Well I watched for several minutes while she tried to cross the road.   Whenever a car was near, she moved back to the grass.  So maybe she “saw” the cars, rather than “heard” them, but she did know when to go and when not to go across the road.

Domestic Muscovy (female)

The babies were soooooooooo cute

Papa Muscovy

Keeping an eye on me

We journeyed on to make a quick stop to check out the Puckett Cabin.  This cabin belonged to Orelena Puckett who became a midwife in her 50’s, and helped to deliver 1,000 babies; her last midwife delivery when she was 102 in 1939 (the year she died).  She had 24 children of her own, yet none of them survived beyond infancy. Can’t imagine having 24 births.  She got married at the tender age (maybe not then) of 16.

Puckett Cabin

Our next stop was at the Blue Ridge Music Center.  This center is a celebration of Blue Ridge mountain music and musicians (think fiddles and dulcimers).  Each day in the courtyard there are featured local musicians and today the four musicians were “The Buck Hollow Players” playing various instruments.  One of them said they were not re-enacting what happened in years past because the music still continues today.  On summer and fall weekends the Center features concerts, and fiddle contests are popular.

The Buck Hollow Players

Eastern Bluebird

North Carolina (15 October – 17 October)

Shortly after leaving the Blue Ridge Music Center we entered North Carolina, still on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Lands adjacent to the parkway are, for the most part, privately owned.  At the beginning of the parkway (in Virginia), the Parkway passes through national forest land.  There you rarely saw a structure.  Once we began passing adjacent private lands we saw a lot more structures, although it was mostly farms with pastoral patches of green cut out of the treed landscape of the valley views.  This landscape is especially true in North Carolina.

We made several stops along the route, including at Brinegar Cabin and the Northwest Trading Post.  The Brinegar cabin was built around 1880.  They had a photo of Martin and Caroline Brinegar and Caroline looks like a friend of ours – especially the eyes.  The Northwest Trading Post offers crafts from North Carolina’s northwestern counties and China.  Yes, there were many items with “Made in China” labels.  There was a cute wooden plaque that read: Camping is spending a small fortune to live like the homeless.  I almost bought that one.

Brinegar Cabin

I laugh every time I see this

We made it to our campground – Julian Price Memorial Park.  The memorial park is the former retreat of Julian Price, an insurance executive.  This is a good size campground operated by the National Park Service.  We found a good site in loop A (site A-1), and quickly grabbed it.  After setting up camp we took a 2.7-mile hike around the lake, adjacent to our campground loop.  The trail was quite muddy, most likely from all the rain deposited by Hurricane Michael.  Oh, but I found some mushrooms and fungi, so I was happy.  Along the trail there were numerous Rhododendrons, which produce beautiful flowers in the spring.  The Rhododendrons are also common along the parkway so I bet the Parkway and this trail are gorgeous when the flowers bloom in the spring.

Price Lake at Julian Price Memorial Park


… more trail

very muddy in parts (many parts)

Jack walking around some of the really muddy parts of the trail

Song Sparrow

This deer was just off the side of the road and nothing we did could get the deer to stop feeding

There are a lot of great “overlooks/lookouts” along the parkway, allowing the traveler to see distant forested valley vistas, 3-D like mountain scenes, and pastoral settings.  The Parkway is truly a national treasure.  I highly recommend the trip.

Our final day on the Blue Ridge Parkway was foggy, rainy, sunshine outbreaks, overcast skies. – we had a little of each.  We made several stops, including two waterfalls:  Linville Falls and Crabtree Falls.  Linville Falls is named for a father and son who were killed by Indians while out “long hunting”.  Long hunting is where you are gone for 6-12 months hunting for furs.  We walked about ½ mile to the waterfalls – very nice – and then continued on to two additional overlooks of the falls.  Also very nice.  Of course we had to stop for birds along the way.  At one spot, we had 11 different species, including two warblers: Bay-breasted Warbler and a Black-throated Blue Warbler.  These birds weren’t in breeding plumage, but still great to see.  And we had another Northern Cardinal – we’ve seen so few on our travels so far.

Linville Falls trail – the beginning anyway

Linville River

Linville Falls