Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Blue Goose ~ Day 239

January 21, 2015 ~ Miami, FL to Jonathan Dickinson State Park, FL

I left Miami early and thought perhaps I could wait out the morning commuter traffic at a Starbucks, but it was still busy when I left, all the way to the 145,000-acre Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee NWR. Erroneously, I got in an express lane for several miles and will probably get a ticket. I was also on a toll road on Saturday for a few miles, which is monitored by one's license plate. I'll get a bill for that also....eventually.

Ger had warned me of the congestion going north on US1. After what seemed forever, I finally merged onto Interstate 95, and really, these roads are efficient. I don't particularly like to drive them for long distances, but when the alternative is stop-and-go driving that takes twice or three times as long, this option becomes more attractive. The best alternative routes in non-urban areas are the old major roads that run parallel (within 30 miles or so) of an Interstate and which are now seldom used by travelers.

Arthur R. Marshall, who died in 1985, was an ardent conservationist and became a strong advocate specifically for preservation of the Everglades. The refuge named in his honor is an Everglades refuge but is right on the eastern edge, and its boundaries are suburbia, gated communities and agricultural enterprises. There is an powerful and important entity called the South Florida Water Management District with whom this refuge cooperates concerning the canals, levees and pumps built by the Army Corps of Engineers. It's all about the water.....(and in Florida, as in most parts of the country, this historically meant water for farmers and people, not for flora and fauna.)
ARM Loxahatchee NWR - FL

(It is interesting and pertinent to listen to and read about the current issues regarding President Obama's wish to expand a Wilderness designation in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The status of Wilderness means no mining, drilling, logging or permanent roads, altering of landscape, etc. The land is not to be disturbed by man.)

A 0.4-mile loop boardwalk, adjacent to the large Visitor Center, meanders through a cypress swamp. I learned a new word: thigmotropism, meaning when a cypress tree comes in contact with another object like a deck edge or piling, the tree grows around that object. Cypresses were tall and the ferns huge; the habitat was warm, green and sun-dappled, swampy, mossy and very quiet....a tangled beauty. The trees here are the "largest remaining remnant of a cypress strand that once separated the pine flatwoods in the east from the Everglades marshes." (Wikipedia). There is also a 5.5-mile canoe trail into the Everglades. 
White Ibis - ARM Loxahatchee NWR - FL

The refuge manages wetlands and works to remove invasive species, a serious problem here, the "three most problematic exotic plant species on the refuge [being] melaleuca, Brazilian pepper, and Old World climbing fern (lygodium). "

I drove to the nearby open wetlands where warblers and vireos were flitting in the trees in the parking lot (many Palm Warblers now along with Yellow-rumps) and then slowly walked a mile around one of the impoundments. I was rewarded by seeing the second Limpkin of my life and another Purple Gallinule. 
Limpkin at ARM Loxahatchee NWR - FL

A mother and two small boys, aged about 3 and 5, were also walking the square. The little boys had binoculars around their necks. "We saw a snake skin! In that plant over there!...These are our Dad's binoculars; we 'brunged' them...." Their mom had a camera and was pushing a stroller. 

I stayed that night at Jonathan Dickinson SP where the ranger assigned me what apparently was the last campsite, a spot out in the open in the midst of RVs, but very pleasant. I heated a rice-bean thing for dinner. It sufficed but didn't exactly satisfy. The skies were clear; it was a beautiful night. The guys in the adjacent site watched TV which they had set up outside. Most RV campers settle in with their stuff like clotheslines and stoves, chairs and rugs, lights and flags and other decorative objects, and dogs and bicycles. Good for them....

Monday, January 26, 2015

Blue Goose ~ Days 237 and 238

January 19 and 20, 2015 ~ Miami, FL to Key West, FL to Miami, FL

Expectations clashed with reality today. The road to Key West from Miami is NOT one long bridge over open water, occasionally anchored on small idyllic "keys." At least half the route is gas stations, sandal stores, restaurants, marinas, tire shops, bars, tattoo / massage places, grocery stores, tourist attractions, local "museums," resorts, police and fire stations, watercraft-related businesses and on and on...It quickly became tedious. True there are some protected areas, including state parks and four NWRs, only one of which is easily accessible. This is Key Deer; the others are the numerous islands/keys of the Key West and Great White Heron NWRs. The fourth one is Crocodile Lake on North Key Largo (not open to public because of its small size and the desire to avoid wildlife disruption by non-wild you and me.)

Esther is a geocacher, and Long Key State Park had both geocaches and a rare bird: the Key West Quail Dove. Of course we stopped here, paid our $6, easily found her cache at the public beach and drove to the parking lot for the Golden Orb (named after a spider) Nature Trail where the elusive dove has intermittently been seen. I took a boardwalk over shitty-smelling red mangroves and saw a Yellow-crowned Night Heron standing in the mud but soon realized I was not on the dove trail, so I backtracked.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron - Long Key State Park - FL
Esther stayed in the car while I walked a quarter-mile down the trail, mangroves on one side and drier forest on the other. I got to the Poisonwood Tree, moving slowly and peering into the trees and leaves. All was very quiet. Some of the birders who seriously seek out this bird return repeatedly and stay for hours, silently watching between tree roots and dried leaves for any slight movement. The dove is hanging round here though, and with persistence would be seen, often early in the morning. But not by me after my 15-minute chase.

We continued to Key Deer NWR on Big Pine and No Name Keys. After getting information at the VC from the most welcoming and cheerful woman at the desk, ("If you don't see the deer, come back and I will give you your money back..."), we first went to The Blue Hole, a former quarry, in which the saltwater that seeps in through the limestone is overlaid by less dense freshwater (all originating as rain fall) and making The Blue Hole the only fresh water "lake" in the Florida Keys. A couple of alligators live here and a variety of other wildlife visit and can be seen if one has patience. I saw my second Yellow-throated Warbler, and Esther found a clever geocache. We moved on and walked a trail into amazingly peaceful habitat and soon saw a pretty little Key Deer, browsing as it slowly moved through.
Key Deer - Key Deer NWR - FL

The entire population of this deer is estimated at only 800. They are a subspecies of the Virginia White-tailed deer, average 26 inches at the shoulder and weigh 75 pounds.

Why are the Key deer endangered? Low population numbers,development pressures, habitat loss,and threats from hurricanes have all been important in the listing of this species as endangered. Currently,illegal roadside feeding contributes to road kills which account for 70 percent of the annual mortality.

As always, the pristine habitat gives the visitor a chance to see the land as it was. While refuges are managed, it is usually with the goal of mimicking natural events. In places like Florida, the contrast between land altered by human intervention and land in its natural state is incredible.

Key West: Tourists and free-roaming cinnamon-colored roosters, the old and slightly disheveled cemetery, Hemingway's house (a drive-by), the buoy marker for the southernmost point of the US where the adjacent street was filled with posing tourists being photographed.....bicycles, narrow streets, parking issues, charming old cottages and homes surrounded by gardens and flowers and trees....a Florida spiny lobster tail dinner (rubbery, with no taste) in a restaurant near Duval Street. We had ordered and then the electricity went out for 15 minutes. Whether that affected the quality of the lobster...don't know, but it was totally unremarkable. We had tried to find another small seafood restaurant (Seven Fish) and moved carefully down streets with names like Olivia, Elizabeth and Virginia, but failed to find a parking space, so settled for this other venue.

The next day we geocached a couple of places. (Esther ended up with a dozen to add to her life-time list of over 1200). She talked me into re-visiting the Key West Quail Trail. We met several serious birders who had been there for four hours, keeping watch, moving slowly on the trail and in the general vicinity, wearing light-colored clothing and hats and mosquito dope. One lady had a portable chair kind of attached to her butt. They were pleasant and soft-spoken and had obviously not seen the dove (yet). I figured this group represented at least 20 hours of searching. Esther and I contributed another 30 minutes, taking cues about looking by watching the others. This second "chase" was also unsuccessful for me, but I was glad Ess saw the process. I would have loved for her to be the one to spot the dove...sort of like a mobile, difficulty 5 geocache.
Golden Orb (Key West Quail Dove) Trail - Long Key
State Park - FL

I had never been in Key West; Esther had but a long time ago. Later, we decided we should have gone to  Bill Baggs State Park instead, for both the birds and the caches, but then I wouldn't have seen the refuge(s).

Still, driving back the next day, the route somehow seemed more scenic. The expanse of sky, the hundreds of lesser keys and the light and ever-shifting colors of the ocean was lovely.

We were back in Miami mid-afternoon and had deck-time for a couple of hours before a delicious dinner of grilled hamburgers, sweet potato fries and corn on the cob. And then watched Bill O'Reilly and the pre State of the Union chatter, at which time I retired to read in bed.
Great White Heron NWR - FL
(lower keys in Gulf of Mexico) 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Blue Goose ~ Day 236

January 18, 2015 - Miami, FL

Spent the day cleaning the van, sitting on the deck and eating tasty meals made by my sister who says she isn't much of a cook. Not true....

Double-crested Cormorant - Anhinga Trail - Everglades NP - FL

Blue Goose ~ Day 235

January 17, 2015 ~ Everglades National Park (Flamingo), FL to Miami, FL

Woke up and laughed at the bold vultures edging near the picnic tables and tents.

Everglades NP - Flamingo Campground - FL

Waking in the van (as I have mentioned), I watch the eastern sky pale, turn rosy and then golden before the sun rises. And some nights (without clouds or ambient light) the stars and moon shine through the windows. Also, I never leave anything behind since I just drive away. I have no wet dewy tent  to pack.  What other advantages? Simplicity...no carrying and trucking and hauling stuff into motels or tents.

An eagle daily harasses the nesting ospreys near the contact station, and the gentleman in attendance told me that sometimes several ospreys will arrive to help drive the eagle off.

It was a sunny lovely morning and I stopped first at Eco Lake. Two other birders showed up and we eventually saw Parula, Prairie, Palm, Cape May, Black and White and Yellow-rumped Warblers, a pair of mating Red-shouldered Hawks, Mockingbirds, vireos.... As I drove out of the park, I stopped at ponds and hammocks and overlooks. It was warming and mosquitoes started. Fortunately, I found a wet-wipe insect repellant sample since I had run out of spray.

Everglades NP - Flamingo Campground
(vultures picking through last night's stuff)

Alligators, coots, ducks, wading birds, with raptors and vultures overhead in the wide sky... When I got to the park entrance I went to the VC and asked about a bird log; the guy pulled out a worn spiral notebook where I saw that Purple Gallinules and been seen at the Anhinga Trail, five miles back in the park.

So I went there, along with hundreds of others, and saw more birds than in all the rest of the park. Again, there was a boardwalk which is really by far the easiest way to see swamps and marshes except by kayaking. My bird-finding instincts kicked in as I went to the end of a short side trail overlook and saw two Purple Gallinules messing and moving in the water plants. What gorgeous birds! and a lifer for me.

Purple Gallinule - Anhinga Trail - Everglades NP - FL

I eventually made it to Ess and Ger's AFTER I first went to their address using 104th Street instead of 104 Avenue. My gas warning light was on; the traffic had really really increased; I was hot, tired, sweaty and smelled of mosquito repellant; my head was starting to spin....
Everglades NP with dwarf cypress

I finally found their house; they both welcomed me and told me to just park on their lawn. Are there other homes in Miami where people park on the front lawn and a BMW is in the single driveway?

Ess and I sat with a glasses of cold white wine on her own private little sanctuary, her backyard deck, before Ger took us to a delightful little French bistro not far from their neighborhood. I had Delices de la Mer; Ess had mussels and Ger had steak with mashed parsnips....all scrumptious.

For the next four nights I slept in a bed.

Alligators in the Everglades - FL

Friday, January 23, 2015

Blue Goose ~ Day 234

January 16, 2015 ~ Collier-Seminole State Park, FL to Everglades National Park (Flamingo), FL

Well, it really is much nicer to wake up in a campground than a parking lot. The sky begins to lighten at 0600, although the sunrise isn't until 0700 which is when people begin stirring. The clean and relatively warm bathrooms are not used much as most have RVs. I made coffee since I had real cream and sat and read for an hour before starting out east on the Tamiami Trail. The other cross-Everglades route is I75 to the north a.k.a. Alligator Alley and has a toll.

Fortunately, much of the Everglades is protected - and the Tamiami Trail runs through the Fakahatchee Strand, Big Cypress Preserve and the Everglades National Park. If the land were not restricted for native flora and fauna (and us), agriculture and retirement homes would keep eating away at this "river of grass." The changes are rather abrupt, especially on the east, from land disturbance to Everglades. Alligators bask on the sides of the canals. There are "Panther Traffic" signs and reduced speed areas. A ranger told me 20 of these cats had been killed by cars last year and only 100 are estimated to live in the Everglades. Anhingas perched high in trees and on wires; egrets, herons and ibises moved through the watery grasses. A small portion of the Ten Thousand Islands NWR borders the highway with several points of kayak access and a trail on which I walked a short distance. Another refuge (Florida Panther NWR) is just north of Interstate 75 but has no public access.
Green Heron - Kirby Storter Wayside - Everglades NP - FL

I did find the Kirby Storter Wayside where Maria, Richard and I stopped for a couple of hours three years ago. It's deceptive in that from the highway it looks like a small picnic area, but there is a 1/2-mile boardwalk that goes into a beautiful swamp. I saw warblers and all the waders, including a Wood Stork which feeds by swinging its half-open bill through the shallow water and mud. It finds food tactilely - when anything touches the bill, it immediately snaps shut.

Wood Stork - Kirby Storter Wayside - Everglades NP - FL
Small alligators and larger turtles and a Green Heron were in the pool at the end of the boardwalk, as were a White Ibis and Great Egret, lovely in the dark dense flora. Woodpeckers worked the trees if one was patient enough. It felt like Eden.

Decision time for me: I had planned to visit Esther and Ger in Miami, but also wanted to go Flamingo, the  town at the end of a 49-mile road into the lower portion of Everglades NP, so I finally decided to go there before Miami. Esther had agreed to go Key West with me but a Flamingo side trip would be way too long to do on the way.  

I took the first road south to Homestead / Florida City and, after a few more miles of farmland (and orchids and vultures), I entered the park. It started as miles of open land with scattered dwarf silvery bald cypress trees and the occasional slightly higher hammock. The elevation is generally 3-4 feet but it only takes a few more feet to totally change the vegetation to a complex mix of ferns, mahogany, evergreens, gumbo-limbo, strangler figs, palms, saw palmetto.....In the hammocks, the woods are "lovely, dark and deep" interruptions on the open land and the slowly moving shallow waters. The more coastal regions of the Everglades have mangrove swamps, bays ad beaches navigable by kayakers. This is the extensive backcountry, accessible only by water, with chickees (basically raised wooden platforms) at intervals for overnight camping...or camping is also allowed on the beaches. I saw dozens of cars with kayaks and the open grassy  campground at Flamingo had 50 or more kayakers' tents.
Everglades NP campground at Flamingo - FL

I stayed here overnight paying only $8. But found out there was no cell service for Verizon, and Esther was expecting a call about my plans. I eventually walked half a mile along a trail bordering the  beach to the VC just as it was about to close. I explained my dilemma to a ranger: "Well, I suppose I can let you use our phone..." and he brought out a land line and plugged it in.

The campgrounds were extensive, open and park-like with mowed grass...very different from what I expected deep in the Everglades. Of course, it was on the Gulf and also has to be relatively safe for visitors. The most obvious wildlife were Black Vultures, tame and abundant. In the morning, they poked around the campsites and picnic tables before people were up and about. At one  multi-tent kayaker campsite, at least three of these birds were hopping about the leftovers from the night before in the bright morning sun. And they apparently eat exposed rubber on cars....

Everglades NP at Flamingo Visitor Center

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Blue Goose ~ Day 233

January 15, 2014 ~ Naples, FL to Collier-Seminole State Park, FL

After a good motel breakfast, I went to the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary which was 20 miles north and east.

Corkscrew was a plume hunter's paradise - plumes being feathers taken from birds and sold to decorate ladies' hats. Plume gathering was eventually stopped, but then the swamp began to be logged until enough concerned locals and "a long list of organizations" including the Audubon Society protested and prevailed, thereby saving Corkscrew. (Interestingly, the Lee-Tidewater Cypress Company donated 640 acres.)
Anhinga - Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary - FL

Corkscrew Swamp is always recommended as a must-see stop for birding in Florida. A main attraction for the visitor is a 2.2-mile boardwalk mostly through this old growth virgin bald cypress swamp. In addition to bird- and swamp-watching, Corkscrew has two trees on which a rare and beautiful "ghost" orchid" blooms. These are epiphytic (grow on another plant for support but not for nutrients) and in Corkscrew are 40-50 feet off the ground on bald cypress tree trunks.  For lovely photos and information about these specific ghost orchids, to to: archive.audubonmagazine.org or fortmyers.floridaweekly.com. (Google "ghost orchid" and look for this link.)
Swamp Lily - Corkscrew Swamp Sanctury - FL

At first, all was completely silent, bird-wise. I have never been in such apparent birdy habitat and heard or seen nothing. The other early walkers also noted this. But halfway through, it picked up, and I saw a life bird after searching diligently for 15 minutes along with a small group of other birders. Several of us were giving verbal directions as we saw movement high in the treetops before finally getting satisfactory, long-enough looks at a Yellow-throated Warbler, lovely and striking as most warblers are. While not uncommon in the southeast, it is rare in Michigan. It's fun to be with other knowledgeable birders and share the excitement when the thing flitting in the canopy is finally seen and positively identified.

A small boy with close-cropped curly blond hair and wire-rimmed eyeglasses was pushing his stroller along the boardwalk. A couple came from the opposite direction and they told the boy's parents that he was "well trained to not talk to strangers," to which they laughed and said, "He doesn't speak English."

Another darling little girl in bright pink crocs was with her grandparents, taking it all in.

A docent near the end of the boardwalk pointed out a four-foot long water moccasin right below the trail. She said it had been there several days. A large alligator with sea lettuce on its back snoozed nearby on a little hammock.

Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary - FL
Eventually, I saw Blue-headed Vireos, Black and White Warblers, Great-crested Flycatchers, a Tufted Titmouse, Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Pileated Woodpecker, very noisy Anhingas sounding like firecrackers in the bush, egrets, ibises, Wood Storks, several Red-shouldered Hawks...with, surprisingly, very few mosquitos.

Not far south of Naples going down the west coast of Florida is Mr. Watson territory (Peter Matthiessen) and the Ten Thousand Islands with few roads. I turned east on the Tamiami Trail and soon found Collier-Seminole State Park where I stayed for the night after making a food run to Marco Island. The campsites were adequate although close together which doesn't bother me. A couple camped in a tent on one side and a single gentleman slept in his truck on the other but most people were in RVs.

I read through what was left of the afternoon, ate a tuna fish sandwich, had a glass of wine, cheese and crackers, put a Skeeter Beater on one window and slept well, 20 feet from the real Everglades. There were surprisingly few night noises. All campers must go to bed early. When it gets dark, what little commotion (grills, campfires, food prep, conversations, muted radio or TV) ceases. Kind of amazing...but nice.

Water Moccasin - Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary - FL

Blue Goose ~ Day 232

January 14, 2015 ~ Spring Hill, FL to Naples, FL

It was a long drive to Sanibel Island and Ding Darling NWR. The west coast of Florida becomes increasingly congested and developed as one drives south. I had many bittersweet memories of Maria as I followed the same route of nearly three years ago when I visited her and Richard in Ft. Myers Beach. On that trip we birded Ding Darling and also spent a wonderfully memorable morning finding Burrowing Owls in a Cape Coral neighborhood where they nest in burrows in suburban lawns.

Willets - Ding Darling NWR - FL
Although it was late afternoon when I got to Ding, I spent at the last hours of daylight on the auto route, seeing herons, ibises, Willets, Roseate Spoonbills, Black-bellied Plovers, egrets.... Most of the birds are tame allowing great detailed views.

Little Blue Heron - Ding Darling NWR - FL
The Florida venues that are protected are so very different from the manicured lawns and paved-over areas of the hotels, condos, shops and homes. Canals and other "managed" water  projects drain and replace wetlands; exotic flora replace native plants; palm trees often are supported by four sturdy pieces of lumber, angling from ground to tree in each of the four primary directions. There is endless commerce and traffic. Insecticides, fertilizers and pesticides keep things neat, clean and green. The human population (in places like Sanibel Island) is either retirees or tourists. Bicycles and golf carts, lawn service trucks (often slightly decrepit and filled with yard debris), high-end cars, discreet signage, boutiques, restaurants... One Priceline lodging option was in the four-figure range; the rest were $300 - $500 per night.

But at least the couple of dozen people on the auto route were enjoying the refuge even though many didn't know the birds and were appreciative when I could tell them what they were. I hear foreign languages as often as English. People constantly use iPhones to take photos of distant birds. Of course, there are also digiscopers with tripods and long lenses. The birds were settling for the night.

Snowy Egret - Ding Darling NWR - FL
It was balmy and not crowded. Occasionally a small child would exclaim with pleasure at the closeness of a bird.

I had tentatively thought of returning here the next day, but the motels were too expensive, and obviously the few Walmart's near the Interstate do not allow car-camping in these upscale areas. In fact, most Walmart stores in all of southern Florida don't.

I did finally find a good deal on Priceline thinking it was much closer than it was and had to drive 90 minutes south so will not be returning here.

Black-crowned Night-Heron (immature) - Ding Darling NWR- FL