Visit to Florida Caverns State Park

The lone tree next to our campsite. Turkey Oak turning colors.

Hurricane Ian passed us by, in spite of the prediction of a direct hit on our area. We looked at the photos and videos from the areas that did suffer the direct hit, and realized what could have happened in our are. Three days after returning from our evacuation (under mandatory evacuation for 1.5 days, stayed away an additional two days to avoid traveling in the storm), we headed out on our long planned October trip.

Coincidentally, we went to Florida Caverns State Park, devastated by Hurricane Michael in 2018 and just re-opening for camping about a year ago. We visited this park several times before the hurricane, and wondered what we would find. The changes stunned us. It destroyed the beautiful tree canopy that shaded the campground and we camped in an open field-like grassed area with a few young trees planted to eventually replace that shade. With cold clear nights, and warm sunny days, we enjoyed walking around the trails and visiting the museum. We didn’t stay long enough for a cave tour. We took the tour several times before, but saw a notice that the lighting in the caves was updated to LED. We will time our stay to take the tour next time.

The town changed, and some small businesses we frequented in the past were no longer there, but a favorite family owned restaurant still operated (Mashawy) and we had a wonderful meal.

The beautiful sunny and warm afternoons generally found us sitting out under the RV awning, watching the clouds flowing across the blue sky, reading, talking, and relaxing. Just the break we needed after rushing preparing the house for the hurricane and then evacuating, not knowing what might happen. Our thoughts are with those people who ended up in the direct path, and we wish them speedy recovery from the devastation.

Recent Birding

I took a lot of photographs on the last couple of birding hikes we took. Though I try for the more modern bird photos of birds in action, I still like taking portraits. Recent Portraits: Some later migrant warblers heading for warmer climates, though that day our Florida climate certainly didn’t need to be warmer! A Tri-color heron on a boardwalk rail, watching me approach and pass by without flying, just giving me “the eye”. And what I believe is a juvenile Gallinule foraging in a bush.

Walk at Sweetwater Wetlands Preserve

We visit Sweetwater Wetlands Preserve in Gainesville, FL at least once every time we visit the area. This 125 acre man-made wetland with wide trails and boardwalks attracts wildlife and people. Originally created to improve the water quality of Paynes Prairie, it became a favorite of ours when we discovered it a few years ago, and a favorite of many of our friends as we recommended it and they visited. We often see people taking their morning run or walk through the Preserve, a wonderfully scenic way to exercise.

Our latest trip included watching an alligator glide through the water with a large piece of vegetation attached to its tail. Perhaps it heard us laughing, as suddenly and smoothly without a ripple it did an S-type maneuver and left the branch behind.

As we walked along the boardwalk a Little blue heron popped up from foraging in a clump of grasses, stared at us for a moment, then disappeared, going back to work. We were obviously not of interest, or of concern.

We walked by this juvenile hawk or kite, not sure which, in the grass on the side of one of the trails. I slowly walked by as far on the other side of the trail as I could. Even so, it saw me and didn’t take off. I wondered about injury, but it settled my fears by hopping once or twice then taking off.

Our casual walk resulted in a respectable field list of bird, butterfly, and reptile observations, and a good time. We used to end our photography presentations and classes with the observation that even if your foray into nature did not result in a photograph you liked, you still had the experience.

La Chua Trail – Paynes Prairie

We headed out for a hike along La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Paynes Prairie has two main hiking trails accessed from points outside the main park, La Chua is one of them. We expected part of the trail to be closed due to high water as it rained in the Gainesville area most of the prior week, but found it even more restricted that we anticipated. The trail ended at the end of the boardwalk, only a short hike. I checked the website a few days before, but didn’t see anything about the closure, and didn’t see anything posted on the board at the ranger station. Lesson learned: next time look at the websites more closely AND ask the rangers directly!

The short hike only affected the amount of exercise we got, not our wildlife enjoyment. We saw a lot of birds, but the Snail Kites really caught our attention. Several years ago a larger invasive species of Apple Snail began to populate the area, out competing the small native snails and consuming large amounts of aquatic vegetation. Based on our observations over the past few years, first the Limpkin population increased. Recently we noticed that the Snail Kite population also increased. Seeing one Snail Kite used to be a treat, this trip we saw several and watched them flying about, preening, and catching and eating snails. Nature re-balancing I guess.

Butterfly Rainforest – Florida Museum

We decided on a museum day to escape the heat of this record breaking summer, and went to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. The Butterfly Rainforest, a major attraction at the museum, became our first stop due to the weather forecast. Located in an outdoor, screened area, the admissions person advised us we may get wet if we delayed. (It did start raining just after we left the butterfly area)

Entering through the double glass doors (to avoid butterflies leaving the enclosure) we immediately found ourselves surrounded by an incredible dense landscape with colorful butterflies of all sizes all around us. We walked along the narrow path, and several large butterflies raced by and around us. Looking in the lush vegetation on either side we saw more butterflies flying, landing, and perched. Looking up at the high screening we saw the outlines of many more.

Like everyone else, we marveled and clicked our cameras and cell phones cameras, and watched. Small birds ran in front of us, and others (finches I think) flew overhead. We stopped and gazed at the small waterfall ending in a pond with Koi fish of various coloration. The butterflies land on people, and for a brief time I seemed very popular as two or three landed on my shorts and stayed. Karl sat for a bit on a bench providing a nice butterfly perch for a beautiful large blue butterfly.

Leaving the butterfly area we walked down the hallway with information on butterflies, conservation efforts, and large windows looking in on working labs. Interpretive signs described the purpose of each area, and in a couple of them we watched as people worked.

There is much more to the museum. Wonderful exhibits with dinosaur skeletons found in Florida, and entire section of the native peoples of Florida and their lives before the Europeans arrived, and much more. We spent a few hours exploring the various exhibits and then exited back into the heat and promised rain.

Escaping the Heat

This small gopher tortoise made a home near a much larger tortoise in a wildflower garden. Seeing the size of the two burrows, side by side, makes for an interesting comparison. The larger relative next door did not make an appearance in the three days we checked. This one appeared on two of the days, briefly. They enjoy the hot, humid afternoons in the direct sun far more than us less heat tolerant humans.

We escaped the summer heat of a central Florida August by volunteering for a few days as gallery guides at a local exhibition of photography. The garden is directly in front of the entrance. Three of our photographs hung there by invitation. As guides we rarely mentioned our own photography unless asked, preferring to remain anonymous and watching people as they meandered through gazing at all the photographs on display. We did notice when they looked at ours, while keeping what we hope was a low profile. Too far away to hear comments, we observed how long they looked and on a couple of occasions how they came back to one or two. Yes, we gave in to our egos and enjoyed seeing people enjoy our work. The photographs will be offered at the store of a non-profit after the show, with 50% of the sale price going to the non-profit.

Anvil in the Sky

We walked out to see the morning sun lighting up this large anvil shaped cloud in the sky, offshore in the Gulf. I took two photos, then just watched it for a bit. This scene lasted a few minutes, then the color faded and the shape began to dissipate.

I went back to carrying my Canon SLR with the 24mm to 70mm lens as my daily camera after experimenting with lighter weight options such as a point and click or phone. I think the photos I take with it have more depth, and my composition seems to come out just that much better. It is a lot more weight to carry all the time of course, maybe I can count it toward my daily exercise!

Up, Up, and Away

From our house on the coast of west central Florida we can look off toward the horizon whenever Kennedy Space Center launches and sometimes see the launch. Mornings are best, for us at least. The space center lies 125 miles mostly east (slightly north) of us. Last week we saw the first of two launches, at 6:30 a.m. The top photo is the launch as it occurred, the second which I always find more interesting from a photograph standpoint is as the launch progresses and the vapor trail starts breaking apart, and the rising sun starts to change the colors.

This photograph below is from a launch last May. It really formed some interesting patterns.

Visiting Homossasa Springs State Park

(I’m posting less frequently during the summer as we wind down one aspect of our naturalist and volunteer work and take on another)

We donned sunscreen, hats, and light clothing in anticipation of the predicted hotter than average weather, and headed to the park. The kids did not remember it from their last visit five years ago, hardly surprising as they were 3 years old and 5 months old at the time. For summer visits we loosely schedule activities and events in the generally cooler morning, and either return home for lunch or find an interesting place to eat, with afternoons dedicated to playing in the pool and relaxing. The relaxing time for the adults of course.

Our early arrival meant plenty of room on the boat, so we opted for the boat ride along Pepper Creek. For those who haven’t visited in a year or so like us be aware, the boat ride is no longer free. That was not mentioned at all on the signs showing admission prices at the time of our visit. The tram remains free. We paid the admission fee plus the additional $3 per person and took the boat. The captain gave a narrative interpretation of the creek, flora, and fauna, and also an overview of the park. He mentioned Lu, the 61 year old hippopotamus in residence and the only animal in the park not native to Florida. Lu, or Lucifer as he was known at the time, was granted citizenship of Florida in 1991 and allowed to stay when the park changed its theme and restricted it to Florida animals only. That intrigued our young guests so Lu became the first stop.

We continued on, and saw most of the animals, the heat didn’t stop them or at least hadn’t yet. The black bear surprised us as it was not only out, but right in the front of the enclosure. (Note: the aviary was closed and under construction) Whether the day or because we came early there were no volunteers giving presentations or wandering around as usual. One of the Florida panthers walked directly along the front of its enclosure but we did not know which one. That did not lessen the thrill of course. Two manatees floated at the top of the water by the underwater aquarium, exciting everyone.

We took the tram back and as we walked into the building saw the tour boat leaving, full this time. Lunch by the river and then home for pool time.

Three Mornings by the Pond

(This pond is located on the right side of the road while driving into the Crooked River State Park, GA camping area)

During three consecutive early mornings in mid May, with the sun already warm on its way to hot and the humidity high, the pond came to life. Green Herons, Black-crowned night herons, and Great egrets waded in the water searching for food. Many male and female Redwinged blackbirds called and flew about, clearly nesting in the bushes and reeds in the shallow water.

Five Black Bellied Whistling Ducks flew over the first day, circled three times, and left. The next morning two stood in shallow water near the shore. The third morning all five appeared again, two in the water and three on the opposite shore. A conversation on the third morning with a local birder revealed that the ducks, which according to the bird guides shouldn’t be there, make an appearance more often lately.

The first two mornings the resident alligator remained out of sight. On the third morning it swam slowly, then arched up several times, plunging its head into the water, and moving about. Each time it returned to its slow swim, no sign of a breakfast catch in its jaws.

Watching Each Other

A Little Blue heron, which made an appearance the first morning, returned on the third. It landed in the vegetation in the water, apparently too close to a nest as suddenly a Red winged blackbird took chase, following it out of the bush, and making sure it stayed away.

The third morning three Glossy Ibis appeared, drilling their bills into the water near the two ducks.

The next morning I left the campground for our next destination, wondering what I missed that morning in the little community of the pond.