Once we took off from Cuba it was only a 48-minute flight to Fort Lauderdale – I so love short flights.  I would like to have stayed in Cuba a few extra days birding.  I wish we could have stayed at least a day longer at three different places: Vinales, Zapata Wetlands (Playa Larga), and Cayo Coco.  It seems as though all birding trips to Cuba are generally 9 days in duration.  I haven’t learned of any longer trips.

Facing travel fatigue, we decided to stay the night in Fort Lauderdale instead of hopping in the van and driving to a campsite.  We got to catch up on emails and the like, and sleep in an air conditioned room.  Hot and muggy here in Ft. Lauderdale.

Being a dog person, I loved this. Yes, my dogs generally rescue me too.

Now I really want these for our van and pickup truck

First stop of the day –  Arthur Mitchell Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.  To get to the refuge, which is about 39 miles from our hotel, we decided to take the Interstate (95) for a short way, then connect to Highway 585, and finally Highway 441.  Despite which road we took, the drivers in this state at manic.  They speed, cut in front of you with little or no warning and not much room, they run red lights (and some of those lights are very red), they tailgate, and one woman was driving down the road straddling two lanes.  Then she pulled into the crosswalk at a red light.  I was tempted to call the police and alert them to her erratic driving.  I know she upset a couple of drivers.  People like that are dangerous on the road.

The purpose of visiting Loxahatchee NWR again was to see if the Bobolink that had been seen earlier was still there.  If it was, it wasn’t presenting itself.  We did see 29 different species despite it being quiet bird-wise at the park.  When we first started out a woman was photographing a Great Blue Heron and I decided to get a few shots myself.  Then out of the grass an alligator erupts and goes after the Great Blue Heron and a Tricolored Heron that we hadn’t seen yet.  I suspect the herons were getting a little too close to some baby alligators, which a heron would eat.

Little Blue Heron – Juvenile. You can tell by the color of the bill.

Snail Kite (hatch year bird)

An unwelcomed visitor to the refuge – an Iguana (they are not native to Florida)

A portion of the Marsh Trail

Turtle – its shell reminded me of an army helmet

Snail Kite

Tricolored Heron

Swamp lily – so beautiful

Not sure what they were live trapping

I don’t think it was this alligator

We saw this Snail Kite with an apple snail – dinner

We actually saw it take the meat from the shell and eat it

Apple snail shell – they are good sized snails

This was the Great Blue Heron the alligator went after


There are actually two turtles in this photo. Can you spot both of them?

Purple Gallinule

Tricolored Heron


We spent about two hours at the refuge and then headed to Ortano South Locks Campground for the night.  This campground is located along the Caloosahatchee River near Lake Okeechobee.  The campground is owned and operated by the Army Corp of Engineers so we get to stay here for half price – $15.00 per night (senior pass rate).   Once we arrived we decided to check out the birds.  There must have been over 200 Boat-tailed Grackles here.  Amazing.  Within two-hours, we had 27 species, including two Bald Eagles.  One woman said it was nice that this is one of the few places in the United States where eagles can exist in peace.  Hmmm.  She must not know about Alaska’s eagles or forgot Alaska is part of the U.S., but we understood her meaning of what we call the ‘lower 48’.

Lots of people were fishing at the locks

Our campground site

We had a beautiful sunset

We decided to spend the morning birding the Ortano South Locks Campground and it turned out to be quite productive with a total of 29 different species.  We had three Loggerhead Shrikes in the campground.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than one at a time.  They would fly into the trees and the birds in those trees would either fly out or go silent.  I also had about four blue-gray gnatcatchers in the tree at our campsite too.   This is a nice place to camp and bird.

Pair of Loggerhead Shrikes

Loggerhead Shrike

Red-shouldered Hawk

Score – finally got decent photos of a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

A Wood Stork and a Snowy Egret – significant size difference between the two birds

Loggerhead Shrike

We will spend the holidays with family in Lithia, Florida (near Tampa), enjoying good food with our nephew Nathan and his wonderful family.  They are gracious enough to let us stay with them for several days to unwind, relax, and enjoy.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone

Friday, instead of ‘Black Friday’ shopping, we cleaned out the van, did laundry, and took a very pleasant walk with family in the Fishhawk Ranch Subdivision.  This is a really nice subdivision with lots of retention ponds and green space corridors.  We saw 21 different species on our walk, including two Sandhill Cranes (the “Florida” subspecies of Sandhill Cranes are non-migratory).  Not bad for 1.25 hour walk in a developed subdivision.

Florida Sandhill Crane

Wood Stork at one of the subdivision retention ponds

Wood Stork

Anhinga drying its wings


Red-bellied Woodpecker

Little Blue Heron (Adult)

Great Egret

The different neighborhoods in the subdivision have bird names

Here are a couple example of the houses in the subdivision

On Saturday we drove to nearby Hillsborough River State Park to hike and bird.  We saw 33 different species, although on one trail (a mile long) we didn’t have any birds.  Most of the birds we saw were near the parking lots – in the more developed areas.  This seems to be the case in many places.  We hiked both the Baynard and the Wetland Trails.  In all, we hiked about 6.0 miles during a 4-hour period of time.  This includes stopping to eat at a convenient café in the park.

Pileated Woodpecker


Hillsborough River

Young alligator

This is actually a suspension bridge – very sturdy

Baynard Trail

Yes, more fungus

In the park store you can even buy flavored crickets. I didn’t see any takers, although the clerk kept trying to get young kids to buy some and try them.

Someone said Hispanic kids like these suckers. Jack said “no way”.  Again, no takers while we were in the store/cafe.

Now if people would only use them

A (Eastern) Phoebe a day, helps keep the blues away … have you seen a phoebe today

This is the wetland trail

… and the habitat adjacent to the trail

I finally got my Cuba blog completed – woohoo!!!  I had ‘published’ it earlier by mistake – I wasn’t finished with it yet.  Dang it.  From now on I will schedule a publication date about a month in advance and then go back in and change it when I’m ready to actually publish it to the world.

On Sunday, we said goodbye to our gracious hosts – The “Wonderful” Nathan Wiles family.  They are good people as the southern saying goes.  We already miss them and their precious dog Reese.  We headed north to Manatee Springs State Park, our campground for the night.  We stayed here in 2014 on our Big Adventure.  I went back and checked my journal from that trip and found that when we were here in early March it had been a very wet winter.  Today was actually quite pleasant.  We walked to the springs and spotted at least five Manatees in the pools fed by the warm spring water.  The Manatees migrate up the Suwanee River to winter in the spring-fed pool.  The park has a boardwalk, which leads out to the Suwannee River.  In the trees across from the boardwalk there must have been over 200 Black and Turkey Vultures roosting.  Every once in awhile the birds would flush – the birds erupting from the trees.

We did bird the park area and found several nice mixed flock of songbirds.  We even had an American Crow that made a very strange, whistling-like sound after its caw call.  At first I thought it might be a child making noises, but Jack pointed out it was the bird.  Sure enough.  I recorded the call.  Not sure how I can get it on the blog, but I will try.

Tomorrow we will visit the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge just south of the park.  We’ve visited this refuge in 2014.  Not sure what birds we might see there, but it’s always a good day to bird.

Boardwalk at Manatee Springs

Suwannee River … the trees on the right were the roost trees for the vultures

The American Crow making the strange sounds

Green Heron

Swimming or snorkling anyone? Actually this pond is only for scuba diving and it leads to caves

Overcast, cool, windy, humid today.  I saw a ring around the sun yesterday, which means the weather will turn bad within 24 hours – rain.  And did it ever rain.  Luckily it held off while we were at the Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge doing a short hike and checking out Shell Mound Unit.  It did rain during a portion of the 9-mile nature drive.  But the worst of the storm hit once we left the refuge and headed north towards our campground for the night.  At times it seemed as though even our windshield wipers at full strength weren’t good enough to keep the window clear so one could drive.  A little nerve-racking.  And we had thunder and lightning as well.

River trail boardwalk

Dead and eaten Nine-banded Armadillo.  We saw a Turkey Vulture near the animal when we arrived at the refuge.

Due to the weather, there were not a lot of birds at the refuge today, although there were several large flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers.  They didn’t seem to mind the rain.  I wanted to get to Shell Mound during the rising tide, and high tide wasn’t until around 4:30 pm.  We got to the parking lot/boat launch around 12:30 pm and I’m glad we didn’t arrive much later.  There are several near-shore gravel/sand bars and the birds were concentrated on those.  As the tide came in, those areas were covered and the birds disappeared.  Timing is everything and we got to see a lot of shorebirds;  American Oystercatcher, Willet, Semipalmated Plover, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin, and Short-billed Dowitcher.   There were also a fair number of Black Skimmer, along with Forester’s, Royal, and Caspian Terns.  This area was my favorite birding spot today, and we spent less than an hour here because of the rising tide and the winds.  So glad we got here when we did.

The Nature Drive road

Boardwalk at Shell Mound Unit

Areas where the shorebirds and gulls/terns were congregated

We made it to our campground: Ochlockonee River State Park.  I really like the area (Pine Flatwood habitat), but not the campground.  There are 30 sites scattered over a small area.  The bathrooms are a little dated.  We only plan to stay one night and move westward.  We will bird the area in the morning to see what birds are around – there are white ringed trees indicating Red-cockaded Woodpecker nests.  There are several trails we thought we might check out.  The temperature tomorrow is supposed to be cool – in the mid 50s.  More than 20 degrees cooler than today.  And tonight it is supposed to get down to 37 degrees.  Brrrrrrrrr.  But we do prefer sleeping in the cooler weather than the hot, humid weather.

This morning was cold – 37 degrees Fahrenheit at 7:00 a.m.  I think my toes froze.  I told Jack that if I needed to grasp anything with my toes, it wouldn’t happen.  If something fell on my toes, they would probably break off.  I should have put on my fake Ugg boots to keep my toes warm.  Will do that tonight if it gets this cold again, which is supposed to happen.

We birded the campground hoping to see the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, instead we saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Yellow-breasted Sapsucker, but alas no Red-cockaded, just the white rings on the trees marking their nest sites.  Several of their nest trees looked as though the tops were snapped off during Hurricane Michael this past October.  There was some evidence of storm surge material on the trails and in the campground and day-use areas.  We tried hiking the Pine Flatwoods Trail, but a portion of the trail was covered in water.  That might have been from yesterday’s rain.  It did come down pretty hard and for a long period of time.

Pine Hardwood Trail

Chipping Sparrow

Two Brown-headed Nuthatches clinging to the tree and each other to stay warm???

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Outdoor shower – cute use of an old canoe

Storm surge debris from Hurricane Michael (October 2018)

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

We left the park around 11:00 a.m., and headed west.  We decided to drive the Gulf Coast scenic route – Highway 98.  What we saw was not scenic, but rather a lot of debris piled up on the sides of the road from the Hurricane.  However, it wasn’t until we got to the towns of Port St. Joe, Mexico Beach, and Parker that we really saw the destructive force of the Hurricane.  Mexico Beach is where the Hurricane made landfall and it looked as if the entire town had been destroyed.  My heart just broke for all those people affected by the storm.  It was really hard to see all that destruction.  I took photos as we were driving through these towns.  Later I realized I should have rolled down my window despite the cool temperatures (re: better photos).  Tyndall Air Force Base was hit hard too.  And the stands of pine trees along the road looked like match sticks snapped in half.  Miles of trees destroyed.

We are on the Florida Panhandle, and after passing through Panama City Beach, it seemed like on long continuous strip – developed with resorts, hotels, businesses, and winter homes.  We are staying the night at Henderson Beach State Park, near Destin, Florida.  This is a nice campground, at least Loop D, Site #49.  Our site is heavily vegetated so you don’t see much of your neighbors, which is what we like.  And the site is long and level.  At some campgrounds the sites are so short we wonder why some of these big rigs even bother showing up.

Site #49 – Henderson Beach State Park (Florida)

We only wanted to stay here one night and when we drove up we saw the “Campground Full” sign.  I told Jack to ask anyway since the web site showed openings.  Come to find out they did have one site left.  So we snagged it.  So glad, as we didn’t feel like driving to another campground. There were actually several sites in our loop that weren’t filled when we arrived at our site.

We changed time zones today (now in Central) so the sun sets earlier – like 4:45 pm.  So we either eat an early dinner while it is still light or cook in the dark.  Not having to cook outside is one nice thing about having a fully-contained camper, but we still like our ‘tin tent’.

Another cold morning.  Since we are at Henderson “Beach” State Park we thought we would check out the beach before heading north.  There is a trail from the campground to the beach via a boardwalk.  Once we got to the beach we were nearly blinded by the white, white sandy beach.  Beautiful.  We walked the beach and birded.  I was hoping to see a Snowy Plover, but no go.  As for shorebirds, we only had Sanderlings.  But I so love these charismatic birds.  Run, run, run, stop.  Run, run, run, stop.  Up and down the beach they go darting in and out along the surf’s edge in search of food.

Trail from our campground loop – leads to the beach

Boardwalk trail – they don’t want people walking on the dunes and destroying the habitat (its against Florida law to walk on the dunes, or so the signs said)

Henderson Beach

Brown Pelican, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern


The larger tern is a Royal Tern. The other terns are Sandwich Terns.

A sea cucumber – there were lots of them on the beach

Sea Cucumber

Lots of bird tracks

I think he was hoping we wouldn’t notice him sitting there quietly. I love how their tails fold over their backs.

There must be an air force base nearby as we had fighter jets flying overhead regularly.  Now that is a job I would love to have.  I know, sounds funny coming from someone who doesn’t like to fly commercial airlines.  But I think flying at high speed in something like an F-16 jet (or whatever the current version is now) and being at the controls would be a total mind rush or, very tense.  But, back to earth.

Military doing loop-de-loops

We decided to take a shower prior to leaving the campground.  Didn’t want to take one first thing in the morning as it was cold and we wanted to enjoy the beach.  After our showers, we headed north to the Gulf Islands National Seashore and our destination for the night – the Fort Pickens campground.  We didn’t have reservations, but looking online there were plenty of sites to choose from.  We are meeting our friends Pat and Bob (from Washington state) here.  We first met Pat and Bob in 2014 in Louisiana at the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.  They were looking for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, as were we.  We’ve been friends ever since, connecting at various birding spots over the years.  They plan to stay here four nights, we only two.  Jack and I, well I anyway, always wants to be on the move.  Maybe if we had a big, humongous motor home, I too might want to stay put.  If for no other reason then the hassle of moving such a big rig and setting it up from one campground to another.   I could relax more in something large and luxurious; watch a little TV – ha!

I had thought about making reservations ahead of time and found two sites (C-13 and C-33) I thought might be good sites (based on the on-line photos for these sites).  Yeah right.  Always better to check out the sites first, if possible, and find one you want.  We ended up first in C-37 because we didn’t look close enough to see that it had a lot of standing water and the electric hookup was about a mile away.  So we went back to the campground registration office and successfully moved to C48.  Not the most ideal site, but then none of the sites in this campground are ideal – mostly open space.  Our friends Bob and Pat have a great semi-sheltered site in Loop A (site #34).  I would be more than happy to trade with them.

After getting settled in our campsite, we headed back to the beach.  And this time we scored with the Snowy Plover.  In fact, we had about 8 of them in all.  Not many other birds around however – a few Sanderlings, an Osprey and a Royal Tern that flew by occasionally – an individual we think liked to patrol the beach.  We did see some Brown Pelicans off in the distance and Common Loons.  This is our first sighting of loons in Florida.

Florida National Scenic Trail

A surprising number of wetlands on the island. This one near our campground.

Boardwalk from Loop A to the beach

Jack on the white sandy beach

My 8.5 size shoe next to the bird tracks

We suspect this was made by a Great Blue Heron (GBH). Lots of them on the island.

Snowy Plovers …


Moon (sea) Jelly

Part of the fort armory

This morning was much warmer than the past two mornings.  Nice.  Yes, I am climatically challenged.  I like temperatures for sleeping in the van between 40-50, and during the day between 60-70.  Kind of hard to find those temperatures year-round.  So I complain about both the heat and the cold.

Today was nice though, and after we birded an hour in the morning, we met our friends Bob and Pat for more birding.  This time we went to the actual “Fort” Pickens and birded a short section of the Florida National Scenic Trail and the beach.  No new birds, but then all birds are great birds.  The Northern Mockingbirds for some reason really like this area.  They seem to be everywhere.  We’ve also had a lot of Great Blue Herons and even found some roosting in the pine trees.  So strange to see such a large bird sitting in a tree.

Bay side of the island

Dead Needlefish or Ballyhoo

Dead American Shad – there were a lot of these fishes on the beach

Part of the fort

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

We went to lunch in Pensacola Beach, a short distance (6+ miles) from our campground at a place called Flounder’s Chowder House.  The chowder here has clams, shrimp, and flounder.  The chowder lived up to its award-winning claim – it was quite good.  After lunch we went to Shoreline Park, but saw very few birds, and this is an eBird hotspot too.  Oh well, just not today at this time of day.

We stopped at one of the National Seashore beach access points on the way back to the campground.  This area has really beautiful beaches with amazing white sand – so glad  there is a section protected.  It was getting late so not a lot of birds about, except for a few Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones.  While in the parking lot, there was a single Snowy Plover drinking water from the pooled water in the lot.  Bob and Pat were happy to see the bird – a First of Year for them.  We saw several yesterday and they were First of Year birds for us too.  Such cute little plovers.

Not sure what bird species this is

Pat, Bob, and Jack on the beach

Bob and Pat

The prize for today however was the Nine-banded Armadillo we saw on the Florida National Scenic Trail.  A friend told us they are essentially blind (can’t see too far) and so you can get close to them if you are quiet.  So I crept up to the armadillo and sure enough I was able to get within 6-8 feet while it continued to eat.  Such interesting creatures.  Its snout was always on the ground searching for and eating food so I couldn’t get a close-up shot of its snout.  And its back looked like an accordion as it moved.  Or course I was just happy to see one, let alone get so close and get a decent photo.  Hooray!!!  We also saw Bottle-nosed Dolphins in the bay.

Nine-banded Armadillo

Jack on the trail of the Armadillo

We decided to stay at Gulf Islands National Seashore another night as tomorrow’s weather is suppose to be decent and there is more yet to explore.  It’s not suppose to rain until tomorrow night.  And speaking of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, it was created in 1971, and it stretches 160 miles long making it the largest national seashore in the United States.  Surprisingly 82% of the seashore is submerged underwater.

We hiked and birded the bayside of the seashore near our campground.  I kept hearing this bird (have for the past several days) and could not find it among the vegetation.  Finally, today we saw the bird – an Eastern Towhee.  Hooray!!!  It’s always nice to put a song/call to a bird.  Now when I hear it again I know what to look for.

Morning has broken …

Brown Pelican – Adult


Hatch Year Brown Pelican (aka juvenile)


I’ve never seen a Willet resting on the beach

One of the fort’s structures

I climbed up and looked down on Jack. This would be a great place during spring migration as you could see the tops of the trees and you wouldn’t get warbler neck.

We met up with Pat and Bob around 10:00 am.  We walked over to the beach and birded the beach  – not much there.  Bob wanted to go inland to the road and back to the campground, so we bushwacked our way back.  When we were almost to the road I receive a text from my sister about the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit about 10 miles north of Anchorage.  Family and friends were safe and sound.  I guess there will be some major repair work to roads and bridges, and other structures.  The neighbor who looks after our house said all was well.  Some friends had to leave their homes and head to higher ground in case of a tsunami.  Luckily no tsunamis in the immediate area.  Awful to be away from home when something like this happens.  You really do feel helpless.

Pat – Bob – Jack – Shell

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstones

Snowy Plover

Sea Star

Ghost Crab – a very small one

What’s left of a fish

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

After we made it back to the campground we went to the local Subway for lunch, then back to the Fort.  Jack and Bob toured the fort, while Pat and I birded the area.  We found several ghost crabs during our walk, one very small – think smaller than a dime.  We also had a large flock of Sanderlings – around 40, with a few Willet and Ruddy Turnstone mixed in.  Up on the beach were five Snowy Plover.  There were also several Great Blue Heron roosting in the vegetation of the sand dunes.  I do like this area with its beautiful white sandy beaches. Tomorrow we head to Davies Bayou campground where we will spend several nights.  Unfortunately rain is in the forecast.  Not sure how much in terms of inches of precipitation.  Guess I should check it out.

Laughing Gull, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone

Brown Pelican – my favorite pelican

Great Blue Heron

There were lots of Common Loon on the bay – we counted 35

Great Blue Heron – they really like the island

The birds really like this structure – no public access

Wow, hard to believe it’s the last of November already.  We’ve been gone from home over 3 months.  We’ve been to several provinces in Canada (both east and west) and have visited or traveled through 15 states (from Montana to Florida).

The first day of December, and it definitely rained last night.  We had almost two inches of rain in the pan we left outside on the picnic table last night.  And there is a lot of standing water in our campground loop.  Now we know why everyone wants to stay in Loop A.  It was drier than our loop. 

We did find a recycle container so we wanted to take our last minute recycle items there before heading into Alabama.  When we were last in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana (especially Louisiana) recycling was practically non-existent.  Sadly.   Surprisingly the only recycle container at Fort Pickens was at the fort itself, not in the campground loops.  After depositing the recyclable materials, we birded the fort area.  I had to get a last minute glimpse of those Brown Pelicans that like to hang out at the piers.  After birding we went to say goodbye to our friends Bob and Pat, then make our way west into Alabama and Mississippi.

Our campsite

Lots of water after the rain

American Kestrel

The Osprey is back on his perch tree

Eastern Garter Snake

Pelicans everywhere

The ocean side did not have much litter, but the bay side — well that is where everyone fishes and they are not good about cleaning up after themselves.

The National Park Service should have their campground hosts clean the beaches. Park staff clean the bathrooms, so not sure what camp hosts do other than put “reserved” signs on campsite posts.

Our friends Bob and Pat’s camper (on Sunday, December 2nd) at Ft. Pickens campground. I’m glad we left yesterday.

Off to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Until then …