"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Thursday, January 31, 2013

More Wildlife on the Space Coast

It was an early morning. We were up to catch the worm, or actually the early bird. We wanted to see the painted buntings at the Visitors' Center of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. We'd tried twice before with no luck, but guess what?

As soon as we arrived at the viewing porch, there they were - a male and maybe two females. They only stayed around for a minute or so at the bird feeder. We just got really lucky.

Merritt Island also seems to be home to a plethora of these white butterflies, called a Great Southern White.  We haven't seen them anywhere else, though their range is throughout the southern US coastal areas.

We got lucky a couple of times today. We walked along the boardwalk through the trees and happened upon this little guy (not that squirrels are uncommon).

You know how in National Parks, or wildlife refuges, every time you approach a body of water, or a meadow where the most desired animal of the park is supposed to be, you say to yourself, "Wouldn't it be cool if the wolves/grizzly/moose/painted bunting/alligator was right there when we walked up?"  And so often they aren't. Well that little voice was going in my head, as usual, as we walked along the boardwalk toward one of the freshwater ponds. "Wouldn't it be cool if......

Yowza! Right under our feet! I've never been so close to one, or seen one swimming in such clear water.  At least a ten footer, just drifting by, gently swishing his tail, with a couple of little fish following him around. We watched until he was on the other side of the pond. Not at all shy like most alligators who usually submerge at the sound of humans (more about that later).

I said to Rick, "Now I just have to see a manatee, and I'll be completely satisfied with my Florida wildlife experience." But I thought the chances of that were slim because the water temperature is still a little cool. Before we left the park we drove out to Haulover Canal, where the ranger told us we might see manatee. I've looked for manatee in Florida waters before and have always been disappointed. A vague shadow here and maybe a pair of nostrils there, in the fading twilight.  But, as I said, we got lucky. There are at least three in this picture.

One had a GPS tracker tied to his or her tail. Boy did he get around! Even better unadvertised viewing was across the road where we went to check out the boat ramp for kayaking on the same canal.  There must have been about ten manatee, very close to us and very active, but the water was much more cloudy. We watched them swim around for a long time, seeing lots of faces and tails and backs rising and falling. The experience slowed us way down, and left us feeling nicely peaceful, kind of like the feeling when you snorkel or scuba. We were so mellow we didn't want to disturb the experience by getting out our cameras. Taking pictures sometimes pulls you into an experience, but it can also push you out to the position of an observer, and I felt too much a part of this to separate myself that way.

On our way home, right before crossing the Indian River causeway over to Titusville, we pulled off to watch four kite surfers. It was intensely windy, so I guess it was a perfect day for theses guys.

A couple of them were catching some serious air.

Later that same day we went back out the same way past Merritt Island and over to the Canaveral National Seashore to spend some time on the beach. It was hot and sunny enough, and the water temperature was lovely, but it was still very windy, so the waves were huge, and pretty impossible for swimming.  We took a nice walk along the beach and dabbled in the waves, and could feel how powerfully they pulled, even at ankle depth.

Home again, for some supper, and just before six we were visited in our backyard by the family of four deer that come every night.  

Unfortunately our neighbors feed them, so they have become habituated.  Feeding animals is something we see a lot of everywhere, and we also see a lot of warning signs about the dangers of feeding animals, especially the alligators. What is it that compels people to do this?  Do they think they are being nice? Do they "love" animals so much that they must feed them even though it endangers them?  Is it a sense of power - commanding the animals to come to them? I think it's a less-than-conscious compulsion that people are not examining in themselves. I realize that much of the wildlife that we see are examples of habituated animals, and though I feel fortunate to see them, I know we are not seeing natural behavior, and the animals we see may be endangering themselves or humans. We probably wouldn't have seen the painted buntings either if they weren't at the Visitors' Center bird feeder. I definitely have conflicted feelings about human and wildlife relationships (but I don't even own a bird feeder anymore, by choice, not just because we live in an RV).

OK, off the soapbox...

Believe it or not, our outings were not done for the day. After a filling supper of homemade ham, egg and cheese biscuits we went out to view a launch from the Kennedy Space Center, scheduled for 8:48 pm.  We were prepared with cameras, ear plugs (recommended by a friend who found the space shuttle launch really loud, even at a distance) and layers. It was still very windy, with a chance of storms. We parked at the foot of the same causeway we'd been over four times already in one day, and walked out onto its rise to get a clear view of the whole Kennedy Space Center and the launch. At exactly 8:48 the launch site began to glow, and a ball of light silently lifted off the ground and rose smoothly into the sky. After about a minute it was gone. That was it. Kind of anticlimactic - like watching fireworks in the backyard as compared to a professional display.  Locals tell us that the space shuttle was a whole different experience - this was just a satellite. Oh well. So, now we've seen a launch though it wasn't what we expected.  

Good thing we had those earplugs, Don.  ; )

Monday, January 28, 2013

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Another great use of US tax payers' money, and another freebie with our Senior Pass! Thank you again Theodore Roosevelt for starting the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Refuge is 140,000 acres of ponds, marshes and scrub on the watery coast of eastern Florida, near Titusville and the Kennedy Space Center. It's part of what's called the Space Coast.  Merritt Island is home to one of the premier birding locations in the South. We spent a half day there just getting our bearings, and look forward to many more visits while we're in the area.  

We drove a couple of loops: Gator Drive and Black Point Wildlife Drive. Both were excellent for viewing ducks and wading birds, and we saw several alligators on Gator Drive. The pictures in the post were taken by Rick! He's got a telephoto lens on his Sony A77 camera, so he often handles the wild bird pictures, and he got some great shots.  

This first one is a red-bellied woodpecker.  Yes, you'd think it would be called a red-headed woodpecker, but it does have a little reddish patch on its lower belly. They're supposedly common here in the south, but this is the first we've seen them.  We encountered this one near the Visitors' Center.

Here's a belted kingfisher, one of my all time favorite birds.  His hairdo is so bold and chaotic.

We saw many northern pintails, the first for both of us.  

A loggerhead shrike. Great name.

We were fortunate to see several roseate spoonbills. How often do you see a pink bird?

And a flock of white pelicans. Brown pelicans are the more common kind along most US coast, but there are pockets of white ones here in Florida, and strangely enough, in the northern Rocky Mountains, where we have also seen them.

We're staying at The Great Outdoors, a large RV resort bounded on three sides by preserves of various sorts, and close by to several more, including Merritt Island. We'll be here for a month and hope to visit many of them and see lots more wildlife.  Florida is just bursting with it.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Amazing Surfing Dog

She heads fearlessly into the surf...

Catches her first wave...

and another...

and another!

and still goes back for more!

The Oldest City in the US: St. Augustine, FL

A day walking through the city of St. Augustine revealed many dimensions of its long history.  Its Spanish roots (from 1565) are evident everywhere, in original structures and in the repetition of architectural themes in more modern buildings. The city has done an exceptional job of preserving its historical features, and continues to capitalize on them.  

St Augustine is very different from Charleston. It never became a thriving shipping port like Charleston, and it has no extensive neighborhoods of substantial old homes where the wealthy shipping magnates and plantation owners lived.  St. Augustine became a resort city eventually, and so has a few really big historical hotels and lots of more modest homes. I guess all those folks who worked in the resorts had to live somewhere. I have no idea what kind of agriculture there might have been around here - all the literature focuses on it's military history. 


The old city gates stand at one end of several historically reconstructed streets running parallel to the harbor, that are now the shopping, dining and lodging center for tourists.

It's hard to tell how much of the old buildings are original and how much are new construction, which I guess speaks to how well they are reproduced. Because of the commercial nature of their current use, it feels almost Disneyish at times. We didn't think the shops were all that interesting in general, (lots of fudge, T-shirts and places to buy comfortable shoes and belly-dancing outfits!) but then we were more into taking pictures than shopping. 

Many of the old buildings have these heavy second story porches overlooking the street. It all looks very European. And of course you can take a carriage ride around town if you want.

On the side streets you can find tiny homes that look pretty darn old. Many are lighted for their winter "Nights of Lights" festival.

After we walked the length of the old town streets we came out in an area that is dominated by the massive old Hotels Alcazar and Ponce de Leon, and the new Casa Monica Hotel.  Flagler College has moved into the Ponce de Leon and maintained its historic magnificence, and the Lightner Museum has done the same for the Alcazar.

The stone and iron fence around Flagler/Ponce de Leon suggests the military history of the city, with these spiked ball and chain links.

I think it was brilliant of Flagler College to put this grand old resort to use as part of their campus. I've recently heard of other colleges taking over empty downtown buildings in other cities for extensions of their campus. What a great idea.

This is a view of the modern Casa Monica Hotel on the left and the Lightner Museum on the right.

One of the Lightner Museum's towers:

The lobby of the Lightner is open to the public without paying the admission. The Museum and its lobby house a collection of historical musical instruments, furniture, sculpture and other art.

We chose not to do the Museum in full, and so turned toward the water and strolled by the beautiful Lion Bridge that passes over to St. Augustine Beach.

The walkway along the water took us by many large sailboats anchored in the harbor, as well as one working shrimp boat. Here you can see the Castillo de San Marco in the distance. It is now a National Monument, so our Senior Pass got us in for free. : )

The Castillo is a Fort built by the Spanish in the late 1600's to defend the settlement, primarily from the British at the time.  From the top, the moat below seems to be star shaped, but its really a square with extra points at each corner.

The history of this fort is well described on the Wikipedia link above, but one interesting fact is that it changed hands six times: Spanish, British, Confederacy and the US (twice by the Spanish and the British).  Below is one of the sentry boxes that stands at each of the four corners. 

Battlements from which guns and cannons were fired:

In order to deliver maximal damage to ships in the harbor, the iron cannon balls were heated in an oven before they were loaded into the cannon. Below is the "mouth" of the "hot shot" oven into which the cannon balls were fed, rolling down the ramp, through the hot oven and out the other side.  I can't imagine how they then got them from their into the cannon. 

Some of the cannon were very fancy Spanish brass things with lots of decoration.

Others were your basic black.

Here's Rick standing in one of the sentry boxes. Doesn't he look happy and right at home? 

We had dinner in the old city after leaving the Castillo. There are so many restaurants to chose from in the area, and with no really good guidance, we just picked one: The Cracker Cafe. ("Cracker" is what poor backwoods Floridians were/are called - those who eat gators, possums, roadkill and such.) Dinner was OK - we didn't sample any traditional cracker fare. 

Tomorrow we leave St. Augustine and head for The Great Outdoors in Titusville, where we'll be for a month. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Okefenokee Swamp

Today is a quiet day. I'm making red beans, andouille sausage and rice - Southern cuisine to honor our location. Rick is watching football playoffs, and I'll watch too when the Patriots come on at 6:00 pm. 

But yesterday was an adventure to remember. We toured the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (aka Swamp) with Okefenokee Adventures.  Before our tour began, we drove the 7.5 mile Swamp Island Dr. to see the "upland islands" -  land dry enough to build a road on. It wound through the loblolly pine and saw palmetto forests, like those we've seen before at Topsail State Park in Florida.  

Along the route we saw our first of many alligators. He was an especially big one. 

We were the only two people on our four hour boat trip, captained by our guide Jen, a very knowledgable young local woman. She had a lot of stories to tell, and information about what we were seeing. Plus she was really good at maneuvering our boat through some tight spots. 

We chose to take a small motorized, covered boat rather than kayak for a couple of reasons. For one thing, we were completely unfamiliar with this kind of water and this environment. We just felt that a swamp was something to respect, and not jump into without knowledge. There's always so much to learn from local guides. Secondly, we wanted to get as deep into the swamp as possible in one afternoon, and we didn't think we'd get that far in our kayaks. So we putted slowly along the Suwanee Canal, from 2:30-6:30, and viewed the sunset before we headed back.  As it turned out, there were plenty of paddlers managing the well marked canals and swamp "prairies."

We started seeing alligators almost right away, but the further we went, away from other boaters and into more natural habitat, the more we saw. Jen said there were more than she'd seen in a long time. Maybe it was the unseasonably warm and sunny weather. We must have seen at least 30, big and small, sun bathing and swimming. Here are a few of their beady eyes and smiling faces.

 For the most part, they were lying still in the grass or the mud, soaking up the warmth of the late afternoon sun.  The big ones especially didn't care about us passing by. They looked pretty secure where they were. Others were gliding along in the water, and would sink down and disappear into the black water as we approached. We startled a few, causing them to thrash around a bit before they disappeared. That was kind of exciting.

Although the gators were the star of the show, the swamp itself was grand. It was a strikingly beautiful day, blue skies with high wispy and swirling clouds reflected in the still, black water. (Yes, this is a picture of a reflection. You'd never believe how black and impenetrable this water is. Perhaps that's why it makes such a perfect mirror.)

The canal was lined with Spanish moss covered cypress, dahoon holly, bay tree, and loblolly pines. "Wait-a-minute" or greenbriar vines covered much of the undergrowth. It's called wait-a-minute because passers-by get caught in it's thorns and have to call out to their fellow travelers to "wait a minute!"

In many places the vegetation was in its dormant winter phase and the surroundings were pretty brown, but still beautiful. At one point we followed what our guide said was an immature great blue heron down the canal.

As sunset neared Jen took us into one of the swamp prairies, or open water dominated by lily pads and floating peat mats.  These mats are a stage of land formation in the swamp. Over time the vegetation grows more heavy and eventually the mat becomes a stationary island.

The sun set over the watery prairie...

...and we turned around, for a chilly ride back to the Visitor's Center.

Well. the red beans and rice turned out just OK, and the Patriot's are still playing. Tonight will be the last of three here at the Walkabout Camp and RV Park,

...and tomorrow we head for St. Augustine, FL.  See you there!