O’Leno, no Keno, me oh my oh

?????????????????????????This easy-to-find state park in High Springs (just north of Gainesville) is dissected by the Santa Fe River. I am always curious about name origination and more times than not Wikipedia provides the answer. The Santa Fe derives its name from a Franciscan mission, Santa Fe de Toloca, formerly located near the river. Santa Fe means “holy faith” in Spanish. Coincidentally one must have faith with this river, as it fully disappears in a large sink hole within O’Leno State Park, travels underground and resurfaces 3 miles downstream in River Rise Preserve State Park.

River sink. The water swirls down the drain, giving the turtles on the logs a calm ride.

River sink. The water swirls down the drain, giving the turtles on the logs a calm ride.

I assume High Springs was named for the numerous springs around the river and the sink holes that occasionally change location and the places where the river sinks and rises.

O’Leno was an interesting read.

Originally named "Keno", then Leno then O'Leno for Old Leno

Originally named “Keno”, then Leno, then  O’Leno for Old Leno

You may recall I am not a fan of bridges and even the mild-mannered suspension bridge in the park gave me pause. ??????????????????????????????????This park is another Florida oldie, built by the CCC in the late 1930s. Trails, large pavilions, a youth camp and a large metal dock to swim in the river are all easily accessible. The forecast held a fair amount of rainy moments with thunder showers likely so we got going and headed out for the River Trail once settled.

Memorable not for my bridge walk but for warm enough for shorts !

Memorable not for my bridge walk but for warm enough for shorts !

Hadn’t walked very far when thunder rumbled and the sky went dark. Gotta love those pop-ups! Russ said better double time it back but I ran because getting drenched wasn’t on my to-do list but then neither was crossing the bridge twice. It hardly sways with one person, but two will make it move- wheeeeee.

Our rain shelter

Our rain shelter

Took us a bit to figure out the reason for bench dividers... or are they?

Took us a bit to figure out the reason for bench dividers… or are they?

We made it to a large pavilion and hung out with Betty for quite a while. She is a winter volunteer at Stephen Foster State Park (came to O’Leno for a few hours), playing violin to pay her way. She shared how volunteering works and that good vocational skills are in high demand. Was a pleasant way to pass the time and we got a picture of her tiny camper as she drove off.

Betty hails form South Dakota; imagine living in this for much of the year.

Betty hails from South Dakota; imagine living in this for much of the year.

We did get to walk the River Trail and others another day; Russ was also able to bike a few of the passable trails. Also pretty certain that the three-foot long black snake warming itself next to the path, raising its tail with a rattle noise before slithering away, was perhaps a rattlesnake???

We drove to downtown High Springs one afternoon in search of the Secret Garden Bakery (we found it!) and came upon the final day of the 2015 Model-T Gainesville Winter Tour. Must have been 30 of these beauties by the time they’d all parked across from a rustic and inviting restaurant.

Model-T road trip heads through downtown High Springs

Model-T road trip heads through downtown High Springs

 

 

The plates were fun to read

The plates were fun to read

 

We all know why the trunk is so named, right?

We all know why the trunk is so named, right?

 

I've had time over the past few weeks to improve my skills

I’ve had time over the past few weeks to improve my skills

Do these look like palm trees?

Do these look like palm trees?

 

 

 

 

 

Our spacious site, 007, at the park

Our spacious site, 007, at the park

The park has a tiny Nature Center with Friday-Sunday 10-2pm hours and the day we stopped they’d closed early. We met the outdoor gopher tortoises though.

Couldn't make him smile, but he didn't run and hide like his neighbor

Couldn’t make him smile, but he didn’t run and hide like his neighbor

 

The tunnels help out other creatures too

The tunnels help out other creatures too

The park had a prescribed burn (RX burn) last year and you can see the dark char still, as well as new growth. Important for keeping the habitat in balance.

The prescribed burns allow grasses, shrubs and other small plants to grow

The prescribed burns allow grasses, shrubs and other small plants to grow

Wekiwa Springs: So much walking we must deserve a…

DSC01750 (800x600)Happy road warriors again with our 2-hour, 76 mile trip northwest to Apopka and Wekiwa Springs State Park. With only 10 miles of the trip on I-95, the remainder on 2-lane state and county roads, one doesn’t zoom along at 65mph the entire time, but that’s our preference anyway.

Here’s a few stats- first, about our travels so far:

    • Miles driven since Annie joined the clan: 3,150
    • Gals diesel purchased: 383
    • Highest fuel price paid: $3.79 in PA in Sept and CT in Nov
    • Lowest fuel price paid: $2.76 believe it or not in the Keys on Jan 31 right as prices were about to creep up
    • Amount of time driving in snow or rain: precious little and all of it prior to Dec 3

About Wekiwa Springs State Park:

      • 42 million gals of clear water flow each day from the two fissures in Wekiwa Springs
      • Wekiwa means “spring of water”; from the Creeks who were later called Seminoles
      • The park covers 7,800 acres
      • Miles of trails = 26+, for hiking, multi-use and horse
      • The campground is small. Two loops, each with 30 RV/tent sites. All sites have water and 30amp hook-ups and all but 23 also have sewer. A dump station is provided.
      • The park has a primitive youth camping section and youth camp cabins
      • Visitors can rent canoes, visit the Nature Center, shop for trinkets and ice cream at the concession bldg.

Check-in could not have been easier: we pull up to the ranger booth; receive info packet and receipt. Done.

Park entrance

Park entrance

We usually have to ask where we can unhook Bonny and the answer is often accompanied by an odd look. No idea why; I mean we already said this was our first visit.

Unless we have a pull-through site (rare) we don headsets and I drive Bonny ahead then help direct Russ in. This time was easy; the Captain is quite the backing up pro.

We had booked nine nights here and the weather behaved in typical winter fashion: days of warm and mostly sunny, days of chilly and cloudy and some days of rain.

What makes a desirable site (for us):

  • Wide enough for slide-outs and awning
  • Space and/or shrubs or trees between sites
  • Mostly sunny with no overhanging branches
  • Level site with gravel, cement, grass or hard sand to park on
  • Well marked so we can find it
  • Not being directly across from the site across the road; some places stagger the sites a bit which is nice

Our site is #46 on the outside of the second loop.

Our site as seen from the trail leading in

Our site as seen from the trail leading in

The outer edge sites often seem wider and they usually don’t back up to other sites, just woods or empty space. Full hook-up and plenty deep and wide, but a lone pine kept the awning in. Enough tall trees provided dappled sun between 10am – 4pm. Sunrise at 6:46 which meant no light shone in until 7:15 and then we sprang ahead and boy the mornings were dark. Sunset moving to 7:30pm brought big smiles.

Looking down the loop from our site- before the weekend

Looking down the loop from our site- before the weekend

This shot is deceptive; the fifth-wheels, campers and tents outnumbered the motorhomes; at least on our loop. The weekend brought in a full house.

The Spring and the head of the river; four feet deep at the most

The Spring and the head of the river; four feet deep at the most

 

Nature Center at Wekiwa

Nature Center at Wekiwa

 

Feeding time for a one-year old gator

Feeding time for a one-year old gator

Adult and jr. yellow sliders enjoy the sun

Adult and jr. yellow sliders enjoy the sun

 

So many trails! See if you can find Sand Lake and the river camps to the north

So many trails! See if you can find Sand Lake and the river camps to the north

Raise your hand if you know about or have done a Volksmarch trail. Yes, I thought so. A new one on us.

 

Time to turn back :-(

Time to turn back :-(

All along the way up, we kept skirting along short mucky sections but we got to the river camp. The river had flooded its banks a bit thanks to the recent downpour before we arrived. We went on but very quickly came to this and I drew the line in the mud!  We could always come up from the southern end of the trail we’d hoped to take down to Sand Lake. In a few days.

IMG_1163 (800x612)

Why did the turkey cross the road?

To have a drink of turkey water

To have a drink of turkey water

 

Weekends mean Renninger’s Flea/Farm/Antique Market opens in Mt. Dora. Mount did I say? Yes! Hills really, but not the totally flat we have grown accustomed to while snowbirding in sunny Florida.

See a hill! Entering the market

See a hill! Entering the market

This weekend was Cars & Guitars Show too and how great to own a vintage auto in Florida- no snow, rust and all that crap that ruins a car before you can say, “back to the future.” A Delorean was there, but I didn’t take a photo.??????????????????????????????????????????????????????

The real reason we went wasn’t to buy stuff that we don’t have room for; it was donuts. Gee, how unusual. :-)  and since we keep reading “you deserve a donut” we’ve come to believe it!

???????????????????????????????????????? Worth the 25 min drive, the tiny donut booth sells ‘em as fast as the machine makes ‘em.

Toothpicks made for less messy face-stuffing!

Toothpicks made for less messy face-stuffing!

The market itself reminded us of the market in Charleston, only more on the trashy side; no offense. Inside halls with everything, outside booths and stalls and more tables set up farther out.

This was one of the classier booths. :-)

This was one of the classier booths. :-)

Was almost too much and I was happy not to be collecting vintage plates, glassware and fabrics anymore. Vintage RVs are another thing and always fun to see.

We liked this new but retro RV tucked in along our loop

We liked this new but retro RV tucked in along our loop

 

Wickham County Park, Birds and Cronuts

We will miss the show, but we know who Blake Shelton is a least

We will miss the show, but we know who Blake Shelton is a least

Counties count in Florida much as they do in California; big state stuff. Florida consists of 67 governmental counties; the most recent creation being Gilchrist in 1925. In 1968 Florida gave the counties the power to create their own charters which allows them to levy taxes, provide public services and pass laws. A few counties have seen name changes; Mosquito County became Orange County in 1845 (wise move!) and Dade County became Miami-Dade in 1997- did you notice?

All the county talk can be confusing to a non-native nomad who is lucky to know the town they are in let alone the county or the neighboring county. And try to figure out the taxes- Florida state sale tax is 6% and it seems that the counties have optional taxes they can levy on a multitude of items, campground sites being one.

All this is background for my saying that Brevard County (named for Judge Theodore Washington Brevard an early settler and State Comptroller in mid-1800s) is a darn great county. Seventy-two miles long from Titusville, south to Melbourne Beach/Sebastian and covering the Indian River (AICW), Cape Canaveral, Merritt Island, Brevard is one-third the size of Rhode Island but 33% of its square miles is water.

Enough room and sunny enough to use the awning; chairs came out too

Enough room and sunny enough to use the awning; chairs came out too

The county has several county parks but I think only one includes campgrounds; Wickham Park, where we spent eight nights. Trees, but not too many, wide sites, full hook-ups, walking/biking trails, ponds, soccer field and working Wi-Fi!

A gopher tortoise out of his/her burrow for a stroll or maybe lunch

A gopher tortoise out of his/her burrow for a stroll or maybe lunch

Have you heard of Disc Golf? The park has a 22-hole course.

A disc golf basket/hole- the game is played by tossing a small Frisbee-like disc

A disc golf basket/hole- the game is played by tossing a small Frisbee-like disc

Have a horse? Bring it here to exercise on the track. Perhaps you and your best canine friend prefer to participate in a Barn Hunt Event. Guess it depends on the prize; a nice fat rat! Groups and clubs get together for Barn Hunt Trials where one dog at a time races through a straw bale maze and tries to have the fastest time at finding a boxed live rat; the aerated container is “approved” for barn hunting. Between this and all the country stations we listen to on XM or local radio I’m beginning to feel a little bit country.

The bird watching continues. Viera Wetlands we’d heard about from the photographer we’d met along the Marsh Trail. We stopped at the Melbourne (the locals pronounce it Melburn) Chamber of Commerce and picked up a few maps and booklets. The January Birding and Wildlife Festival in Titusville had leftover programs and from that we found several nearby sites worth a visit. Viera Wetlands was one and we came prepared with walking shoes, light jackets, water bottle, only to find it was primarily a drive through! Here is a seriously culled-down selection of our visit.????????????????????

This was a dead giveaway that some bird was worth photographing

This was a dead giveaway that some bird was worth photographing

This green heron- bet you expected something better- but wait...

This green heron- bet you expected something better- but wait…

This great egret was a delight to watch

This great egret was a delight to watch

This great blue heron enjoys a tree top snack

This great blue heron enjoys a tree top snack

A female belted kingfisher

A female belted kingfisher

A tricolor heron- front view, neck in

A tricolor heron- front view, neck in

Another tricolor finds lunch

Another tricolor finds lunch

Anhinga couple; perfect mates

Anhinga couple; perfect mates

Cattle egret- I finally get one for sure

Cattle egret- I finally get one for sure

Oh no, not again- who is it this time?

Oh no, not again- who is it this time?

Yes, the same guy- stalking lunch. Stayed there at least 15 ins

Yes, the same guy, different spot- stalking lunch. Stayed there at least 15 mins

I got three good shots of this gal; the final as she landed

I got three good shots of this gal; the final as she landed

?????????

Related to the blue jay we all know, these birds are more slender and aren’t afraid to fly right at you

Cruickshank Sanctuary was guaranteed to produce sightings of the Florida Scrub Jay; the only avian species exclusive to Florida. Sure enough they were there in all the sanctuary’s scrubbiness. ?????????Later when we walked a favorite campground trail section, sure enough we saw scrub jays there too. Gopher tortoises every time. But no nine-banded armadillos; only the sign.

The park is only a couple of miles from just about everything; grocery, shopping, dining, gas stations and if you head a few more miles east over the Indian River, voila! The beaches.

We found time for a trip south and stopped near Vero Beach City Marina for lunch and old times Velcro-ness.

We found time for a trip south and stopped near Vero Beach City Marina for lunch and old times Velcro-ness.

Black skimmers and royal terns; I am checking off birds left and right in my booklet

Black skimmers and royal terns; I am checking off birds left and right in my booklet

If an app can get worn out, I believe Russ has several on his phone that would look very faded by now. Trusty TripAdvisor being one. This time it led us to Love Bug’s Bakery; I mean how could you resist the name?  We couldn’t resist the glazed Cronuts with chocolate drizzle; amazingly delicious and close to the longed-for and adored kettle doughnut made at Frances Pastry; my high school bakery job.??????????????????????love bugs

Sea fog crept in on little cat feet the morning we were to leave, but snuck out by 10 am. Today was fueling up day; never a simple drive in and fill up like with Bonny. As Good Sam members we receive a whopping 3 cents off fuel at Pilot and Flying J which exist primarily for trucks but we are allowed in too. The problem with these is the price is not exactly competitive and even with a 3 cent deal, we can do better at other places, and you have to pay inside not at the pump. Their upside is a flat, easy entry with plenty of fast pumps and friendly truckers.

When we can, we scope out a local station (like we did in Marathon) and that worked out well this time too. Diesel prices are up from our lowest $2.74 in the Keys and $2.89 at the nearby Shell was lower than most. Backed out of our site, I drove Bonny and parked her in the empty community center, then we fueled up. Most stations with diesel make them the outer row(s) which helps. But they don’t always allow enough room for a rig with a tow so this time we played it safe and left Bonny home. As usual, some guy stops to chat about fuel, trucks or driving.

That plan worked well and since we had a short 76 mile day, by 1pm we were pulling up to the gate house at Wekiwa (say Wa-kigh-va) Springs State Park.

Four nights at The Glades

RX fire burns in a field

RX fire burns in a field

The 81 mile trip from Skunkape HQ in Ochopee to The Glades RV Resort in Moore Haven was my kind of trip; short, easy roads through wide open spaces, no highways and no mistakes- we are getting better at this. We always check the route on our Garmin GPS (Missy), Google Maps on the iPhone and on the spiral bound Rand McNally Deluxe Motor Carriers’ 2015 Road Atlas; at least the day before.

The Garmin can calculate in either car or RV mode and when in RV mode Missy just loves to take us right to a major highway and forget those other scenic routes. So we have begun using car mode, comparing to the all-knowing Google Maps and double checking to the atlas. As long as the roads are highlighted orange, meaning approved for vehicles with STAA- authorized dimensions, we are golden. STAA is the 1982 Surface Transportation Assistance Act that, among other things, established weight and size limits for trucks, etc. So if the road is good for them, it’s good for us and that includes underpass heights too.

Still seeing oodles of birds along the road edges thanks to the frequent gullies or tiny canals that run parallel to the roads. Bird heaven.

Yes another osprey; I liked the background

Yes another osprey; I liked the background

Saw large (tiny by Texas standards) cattle fields and I’m pretty sure cattle egrets were hanging around too.  When we stopped the car and I got out, every single cow turned and looked (just like this one!) with mild interest and a nice pose, then resumed cow activity when we drove off.

I'm sure someone knows what breed this is

I’m sure someone knows what breed this is

Our home for four nights was almost in the middle of nowhere, but you could drive east or west on Rte 80 (we did both) and get to stores, gas stations and such. Every new place – and for us they are all new places- offers a bit of mystery and some level of challenge.  We often check Google Earth to see where to turn in; avoiding an unplanned de-coupling is paramount since backing up with Bonny attached is verboten. The check-in process varies and I’m learning ask the important questions, such as where are the site numbers placed.  Some places lead you to your site but others, such as The Glades, give you a site map and verbal instructions. Always seems simple when I’m standing in the office. Follow the main road in all the way to the tiny marina, turn right and site 10 is the 4th on the left. The site number will be on the short black lamp-post.

Our site. Note the overhanging branches and the small shed to our right

Our site. Note the overhanging branches, the small shed to our right and cactus hiding the lamp-post

Site numbers for 9 and 10 were well hidden and our permanent neighbor in #11 had encroached noticeably onto our site and when they saw us, hurried to move extra tables and chairs that would have been mowed down during the perfectly- executed backing in process. No room to move over to allow the awning to extend ( but that was fine since the wind was up most of the time) and no room to raise the antenna with the branches right there.  No TV all winter so why start now?

Red-bellied woodpecker in that old tree

Red-bellied woodpecker in that old tree

The old tree proved to be visited  often by a pair of woodpeckers who vocally announced their presence. They had me well-trained just like Pavlov’s dumb dog.

A few miles west on Rte 80 is the Ortona Lock, one of several along the Caloosahatchee Canal that links Lake Okeechobee to Ft Myers. The lock is run by the Core of Engineers and includes a 30 site RV park that I couldn’t get into trying two months earlier. All the sites have a view and all are concrete and gravel with a covered picnic table. Full hook-ups too.????????????????????????????????????????

I met Wade, a COE volunteer and we had a nice chat

I met Wade, a COE volunteer and we had a nice chat

Sailboat in Ortona Lock- a COE site with 30 RV sites

Sailboat in Ortona Lock- a COE site with 30 RV sites

The water drops eight feet in the lock for those heading west. While I was bird watching and chatting with new buddy Wade, Russ stood by the lock while the sailboat crew tried mightily to get themselves attached using lines already hanging over the concrete.

Successful exit from the lock

Successful exit from the lock

We survived, but don’t have the T-shirt, the coldest Florida night in three years while here in Moore Haven. Ran two electric heaters all night on medium to keep the inside temp at 65 while the outside dropped to 29. We could run propane heat but it’s noisy and the rig electric heat (A/C reverse cycle) won’t work well in temps much below mid-forties and it’s noisy too.

Everglades City

The Tamiami Trail linked Tampa to Miami (Ta for Tampa and well, you get it), traversing the Florida Everglades; it was considered an engineering marvel at its 1928 opening. Not long after the cars began using it the first roadside attractions began to spring up along the route. Alligator shows, wrestling shows, Indian Villages, gift shops, fishing camps, restaurants and rest stops for weary travelers. Today you can find airboat rides and swamp buggy rides too.

We’d intended to take an airboat ride but decided not to. A swamp buggy was even more intriguing but four hours was too long for a body jarring jaunt through lord knows where and what if we broke down? Wimps.

The Museum of the Everglades and lunch at the #2 dining spot Camellia Street Grill was more appealing. The “donations only” museum was divine and beautifully restored; located in the laundry building for the 1920s company town it contained enough but not too many well-designed displays and a seating area to view four short videos.????????????????????????

Here we learned how and who built the Tamiami Trail in 5 long, grueling years and the history of the city that began as the village of Everglade. Settled in the 1870s by a Connecticut Yankee living in Key West, his farmlands and house were bought by George Storter, Jr. who had migrated here from Alabama with his family in search of a warmer climate. I can see if you live north of Virginia, but Alabama isn’t warm enough?

Along comes self-made millionaire, the flamboyant advertising mogul, Barron Gift Collier. He took over the Storters’ holdings for his agricultural interests in 1921. He offered to finish the Tamiami Trail from Naples (where it had stalled) to the Dade County line (Miami area). In return he requested that Collier County be created out of the acres he owned and the legislature agreed.

First a town was needed as a base to provide and house workers so Collier built a company town. Grocery, laundry, Post Office, Bank, Inn, Community Center, jail, courthouse, housing and the necessary infrastructure for the engineering center and county seat. Residents had the benefit of telephone service, newspaper and hospital.

From this base 76 miles of road through uncharted swamp was completed between 1923 and 1928, with not a single loss of life. Even though we saw photographs of the machinery and methods, still hard to comprehend an undertaking of this magnitude; just feeding everyone was a monumental effort. Thanks Barron.

Next, lunch time and TripAdvisor came through again.

A long line proved what a great spot this was

A long line proved what a great spot this was

You place your order, find a table and your food, add’l beverages and check are brought out to you. New Zealanders waited in front of us; further proof that Florida’s 60 million annual visitors make it the Numero Uno travel destination in the world.

I think the water is the Barron River

I think the water is the Barron River

 

Oyster Po'Boy and Garlic bread BLT/Greens/Ricotta Salad with Grapefruit dressing.

Oyster Po’Boy and Garlic bread BLT/grown on-site Greens/Ricotta Salad with Grapefruit dressing.

We also learned, no surprise, that the teeny Ochopee Post Office is the smallest in the U.S. The current tiny building replaced a larger one that was destroyed by one of those nasty hurricanes in 1953; an irrigation shed in its former life.

So cute and real too!

So cute and real too!

A stop at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City was a must and you can look out toward the 10,000 islands. Boat tours and a small info center with displays, booklets reminded us of Flamingo. The 11am ranger-led talk could not have been better and when Mark suggested we walk away with a NPS Bird Checklist booklet for the Everglades, I got two. One for “he who is a man ahead of his time.”  I’d always (not recently though) kept a list of birds we saw in our backyards in Old Saybrook and Essex and Benj had a long list of ones he spotted in the Florida Keys during our first year cruising, but I never considered an official checklist. Oh watch out now as she takes those binoculars and camera everywhere!

A volunteer ranger gives us all an inspiring bird identification talk

A volunteer ranger gives us all an inspiring bird identification talk

 

Skunkapes, eagles and owls, oh my!

Back in December we’d shortened our stay in Florida City so we could make two additional stops before Melbourne. Trail Lakes campground was right on the Tamiami Trail (aka Rte41) in Ochopee, FL near the western boundary of the Big Cypress Preserve and surely a strange land stood before us when we pulled in.

What kind of place did I book us into?

What kind of place did I book us into?

Our site is best described as pull-alongside, the pond that is. The clump of grass blocks the sign that indicates Wi-Fi and it did work with our booster. One brisk 48 degree morning we enjoyed this scene (taken from a side window).

A chilly, misty pond morning

A chilly, misty pond morning

During the day when we were around (not much) I’d sit in a chaise, read and keep eyes and ears open for flitting feathered friends. The bare tree across the pond gave me the best chance for a clear shot.

Eastern Bluebirds- not commonly seen in these parts

Eastern Bluebirds- not commonly seen in these parts

From this campground we ended up exploring mostly west into the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve, the Ten Thousand Islands Refuge and down CR29 to Everglades City and Chokoloskee at the road’s end. Don’t you love these Indian-based names? SR/CR 29 forms the eastern boundary of Big Cypress Nat’l Preserve with Tamiami Trail running west to east through the lower third. Everywhere you drive you see wading birds, gators and birds of prey. Rte 41 is filled with places to stop and enjoy whatever floats your boat; sightseeing, adventure, hiking, dining but with the Tamiami Canal running right next to the road many cars would just pull over to take in the scene.

In 1974 Congress created BCNP to protect the fresh water’s natural flow from the Big Cypress Swamp into the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands. The swamp’s fresh water feeds a mosaic of five distinct habitats in its 729,000 acres: hardwood hammocks, pinelands, prairies, cypress swamps and estuaries. In creating the Preserve, Congress honored the occupancy and customs of the Miccosukee and Seminole peoples. Villages exist in the Preserve today as they have for generations; but we’d have to save a visit for another time.

After a stop at the BCP Welcome Center where we take in a wonderful video, check out the displays and wildlife out back, we decide to drive Jane’s Scenic Drive.

A great egret and great blue heron capture our attention

A great egret and great blue heron capture our attention

 

Not sure what the white stuff is- some sort of mold?

Not sure what the white stuff is- some sort of mold?

 

Our next stop

Our next stop

 

This sign appears at the start of the trail

This sign appears at the start of the trail

 

Now we know why. Russ wouldn't go closer.

Now we know why. Russ wouldn’t go closer.

The Big Cypress Bend (I keep typing j instead of the d in Bend) trail is an interpretive one; signs are posted along the way identifying plant life, birds that could be seen etc. No sign was posted for this. Someone heard from someone else what to look for and the word gets passed along. This nest was quite some distance and many small branches and leaves blocked the view, especially from certain angles. We could sort of see a head pop up – oh it’s a great horned owl we heard and I said Ok but that’s a baby not the adult. So we managed to get a good shot and went happily on our way. Not until I loaded the photos onto the laptop did we see the bonus; that’s mama on the left and baby is in the nest. No one looking at the time realized the adult was sitting on the edge of the nest.

Another surprise. Great horned owls are rarely seen.

Another surprise. Great horned owls are rarely seen.

We liked this walk so much that we came back the next day; nesting birds are changeable we learned. This time we clearly see mama but not so much her chick. Our binoculars made the rounds as most don’t have them and seeing the owls was a big deal.

Who who is this!

Who who is this!

 

Baby horned owl's close-up

Baby horned owl’s close-up

A short ways down the boardwalk is a sign pointing out an eagle nest; the owners have been returning for 22 years. A tripod spot is even available. I did get a shot of mom or dad in the nest with jr, but it wasn’t well focused. The below shot we got on the return visit and even got to see the eagle in flight; assuredly gone hunting.

One of the adults sits on a branch; the nest is to the right

One of the adults sits on a branch; the nest is to the right

 

The only snakes we saw, not counting the deceased one in the road

The only snakes we saw, not counting the deceased one in the road

Our day ended at the Marsh Trail, about a 30 minute drive west from our campground, on Rte 41 in the Ten Thousand Islands Nat’l Wildlife Refuge. At the northern  border with no visibility into the islands, but with a large multi-level viewing platform that was perfectly situated. A side note- during the video we watched earlier Panther Key (one of the 10,000) got a mention and we smiled- we know that place:

Panther Key- a stop in Feb 2011 aboard Ortolan

Panther Key- a stop in Feb 2011 aboard Ortolan

 

Egret and heron in flight. I am always thrilled to get an action shot

Egret and heron in flight. I am always thrilled to get an action shot

 

Sometimes I stop bird watching

Sometimes I stop bird watching

The large viewing platform sat about one-third of the way down the 1.2 mile path. Of couple other spots held promise but none this good. On our way back we checked out the view again and Russ went up ahead of me. As I came up the steps he called me over. This beautiful egret was the subject of a man with a serious camera; long fat lens, camo color, tripod and remote shutter. The owner invited me to take a look; yes I can see the difference between that and mine- like a million miles!!

This great egret was a photographer's dream

This great egret was a photographer’s dream

We got to talking; I asked what he did with his photos. Only 10 mins earlier Russ and I were discussing that; who were these people with the super serious cameras and what did they do with the pictures? Personal use? Commercial?

Rick was very obliging as befits a southern gentleman and he gave me his name, FB and other contact info. Said when we were near Charleston (we will be) to contact him and if he could he’d take us to a great spot for fantastic birding. Told us some other good places in Florida and we shared about our owl find.

I snapped this after he’d run across the path to check on a possible better  bird.

Rick Coakley amateur photographer from Charleston

Rick Coakley amateur photographer from Charleston

 

My parting shot- a wood stork in flight

My parting shot- a wood stork in flight

Adventure in the “River of Grass”

Gators lounge about in the sun along the Anhinga Trail

Gators lounge about in the sun along the Anhinga Trail

The Indians who sought sanctuary in the Everglades’ vast wilderness called it Pahayokee, the grassy waters. Conservationist author Marjorie S. Douglas in the 1940s called it the “River of Grass.” The early Spaniards named it the Lake of the Holy Spirit. No matter the name, the subtropical splendor of the Everglades continues to enchant its many visitors; be sure you are one.

However splendid, the Everglades remains threatened and in 1947 was the first national park created to protect a threatened ecological system. No park elevation tops eight feet above sea level and while the river still flows slowly toward bay (Biscayne) and gulf, the threats to it and the entire region moved quickly toward its destruction. Amazingly, the region’s only source of fresh water is the rain that falls on it, which would be enough if people hadn’t intervened. Extensive canal and levee systems now shunt off much live-giving water before it reaches the park.

Water level control canal parallel to Tamiami Trail, northern park boundary

Water level control canal parallel to Tamiami Trail, northern park boundary

Pollutants add to the problem and high mercury levels haunt the entire food web. The Florida panther is so endangered that not even 10 are thought to live in the park.

Fortunately, efforts to save the remaining Everglades and to restore a semblance of their original function are in progress. In 1989 Congress extended the eastern park boundary to protect the Shark River Slough (say, Slew) which is critical to sustain the park’s historical abundance and diversity. Soon after, Congress authorized the world’s largest environmental project which requires 30 years to accomplish and seeks to return water to more natural patterns of quantity, timing and distribution. We heard of one aspect of this being 12 miles of bridge that allows water from the canal alongside Tamiami Trail to flow into the glades and that only one mile so far was complete. We drove over it on our way west after Southern Comfort and yes only a mile and the stretch is more like a raised causeway with large pipes underneath.

We wait at the marina for our turn on the tour boat

We wait at the marina for our turn on the tour boat

Our second day of grassy water adventures began with a nearly two-hour, two-mile backcountry boat tour up Buttonwood Canal, into and across Coot Bay, through short Tarpon Creek then finally peeking out briefly into Whitewater Bay. Darn good thing the camera had a full charge.

Mangroves offer baby gator needed protection

Mangroves offer baby gator needed protection

Captain Steve and his assistant Sedgwick worked well as a team with Sedgwick as spotter. Amazing how he could see this tiny gator tucked into the mangroves. Captain Steve would maneuver the boat close in so we could take our pictures, but first we had to see the darn thing and that took some doing. Mama gator gets no prize for Mother of the Year as she usually doesn’t tend to her young for more than a few months, unlike crocs who take on the challenge for a year.

Osprey was easy to photograph on the edge of the Buttonwood Canal

Osprey was easy to photograph on the edge of the Buttonwood Canal

 

Hurricane Andrew (?) raised water levels up to the bridge

Hurricane Andrew (?) raised water levels up to the bridge

Although we have read, heard and seen plenty about mangroves I still can’t keep them straight. Here we had the rare opportunity to see all three together. The red mangroves are sneaky, the white outer bark covers their distinctive red underneath.

Mangroves 101: black, white and red as you look left to right

Mangroves 101: black, white and red as you look left to right

Back at the marina we checked on the osprey nest. Baby was born at the end of January so was about two weeks old. What a difference a day makes; this chickie was noticeably more active and demanding today.

One day older and eager to eat

One day older and eager to eat

A stop at Paurotis Pond to find wood storks and roseate spoonbills was successful but they hung out in trees on the pond’s far side so my pictures are only so-so. I’m also including a better one taken elsewhere here so you can get a good look.

Wood storks and one roseate spoonbill

Wood storks and one roseate spoonbill

Wood stork- in a tree

Wood stork- in a tree

The endangered wood stork is considered an indicator species. This dramatic wading bird, its plunging population decline and painfully gradual rise as restoration efforts prove successful, is noteworthy. How it feeds explains why. Wood storks feed not by sight, but by touch or tacto-location, in shallow, muddy water full of plants where the fish can’t be seen.

Walking slowly forward, the stork sweeps its submerged bill from side to side. Touching its prey, mostly small fish, the bill snaps shut with a 25-millisecond reflex action, the fastest reflex known for vertebrate species. Only seasonally drying wetlands concentrate (winter is the dry season) enough fish to provide the 440 pounds that a wood stork pair requires in a breeding season. When human water management upsets the natural wetlands cycles, wood storks fail to nest successfully.

A Louisiana Heron or Tricolor as its commonly known

A Louisiana Heron or Tricolor as its commonly known

We ended our day with the gem of the park (IMO), the Anhinga Trail, which is mostly boardwalk. We’d read about the vultures attacking car tires and wiper blades and sure enough, here we found the first warning sign.

Bring wet towels or tarps to cover up if you are worried

Bring wet towels or tarps to cover up if you are worried

So what do you want to do today?  Chew tires?

So what do you want to do today? Chew tires?

Located at Royal Palm about two miles from the park entrance and HQ, the half-mile Anhinga Loop Trail and its sister trail, Gumbo Limbo are worth the price of admission alone. They offer the best opportunity to view wildlife up very close. Royal Palm is fully equipped with ample parking, restrooms, several info kiosks and souvenir shop you can also join one of the several ranger-led talks throughout the day. We joined one near the end and highly recommend it if you have the time.

Immediately as you walk to the area right behind the buildings, where to look first is the question. Pond, marsh-lined narrow and shallow water areas next to the wide walking path, trees, shrubs, palms and more grassy water as the boardwalk begins and leads you out into the very much alive marsh.

The eye just cracks open- I see you

The eye just cracks open- I see you

This guy above rested about 3 ft off the trail with only a tiny wall separating us. A 20-something girl approached with her BF, looked intently and stated that no way he was real. But then he opened his eye. Kids need to get out of Disney, video games and into real life!

I didn’t realize when I took this photograph that the adult anhinga was in her nest with young ‘uns.  Acting hungry I’d say. So where is dad?

Mama anhinga and her kids

Mama anhinga and her kids

The anhinga is similar to the cormorant but the neck is snakier, the bill pointed, the tail much longer and the very large silvery wing patches make it easy to tell it apart from the more pesky, unattractive cormorant. The female has a buffy neck and breast. Not sure if we’d ever seen one before our Everglades visit.

Dad strikes the usual drying-out pose

Dad strikes the usual drying-out pose

 

This great blue heron was putting on quite the show. Throat pulsating too.

This great blue heron was putting on quite the show. Throat pulsating too.

 

This warbler was the smallest bird we saw in the park

This warbler was the smallest bird we saw in the park

 

Oh don't move, I'll just crawl over you

Oh don’t move, I’ll just crawl over you

 

Purple gallinule- duck like swimmer, lily pad walker

Purple gallinule- duck like swimmer, lily pad walker

Look at those feet; just perfect for walking on water. He also did a great job of using his bill to lift up the edges looking for a snack. Superficially duck-like except for smaller heads, forehead shields and rather hen-like bills, gallinules swim, wade and climb bushes.

This gives you a good view of the beauty along the boardwalk

This gives you a good view of the beauty along the boardwalk

 

The cormorant has awesome blue eyes; beauty here after all

The cormorant has awesome blue eyes; beauty here after all

 

This got to be a common sight especially when the subject kept still

This became a common sight especially when the subject kept still

 

The photographers' subject- a great blue heron showing off

The photographers’ subject- a great blue heron showing off

I hope you liked the Everglades tour, liked as in “like” it if you did and wouldn’t mind tossing your camera toting, stiff-necked tour guide a bone for all her efforts- the most difficult being choosing the photos to include here.

Our next stop after leaving SoCo RV park in Florida City will be Trail Lakes Campground, an even more rustic park on Tamiami Trail where we had a spot on a small pond…. more birds!!  We explore Big Cypress Preserve and others. Stay tuned for a rare sighting as we get lucky with so many large birds nesting.