Screech Owls

A neighbor set up this screech owl box last year and it remained empty until this year when a pair of Eastern Screech owls claimed it for a nest. She invited us to visit and take some photos, noting that the female usually showed herself after 7 p.m. She warned us that it didn’t happen every night and another person who came one evening never saw it. We arrived about 7 p.m., sat and had a wonderful visit for about half an hour before the owl popped out her head. She remained out, at first with eyes closed and a bit later extended herself a little more with eyes open. I tried to get a profile shot, but she heard me moving to the side even though I went slowly and I thought softly, and her head followed me. I used a 400mm lens and didn’t move too close or too fast, so I witnessed a good demonstration of their incredible hearing. After a few shots, we just observed her from the yard.

After an hour or so we left, happy with our visit with our neighbor and the chance to see the owl. A little while later I received a text, the male had finally shown up.

When is Spring?

Though spring officially starts in the northern hemisphere around March 20 each year, the feeling of spring begins with different signs for different people and different areas. In the western part of New York state, where I lived as a child, the first American Robin to appear meant spring. For many, the celebration of Easter or Passover marks the first feeling of spring. For me, a small Night jar bird, the Chuck-wills-widow, announces spring.

At some point each March I open the back porch door as I do every morning around 6 a.m. and I hear Chip-wido-Wido for the first time that year. With a life span of around twelve years, after all this time I don’t hear the same bird, but one of the family always calls from the trees just beyond the fence. I rarely see it, and the few times I did only in silhouette sitting on the fence bill open and calling, or as a dark lump flying away. I never realized how ingrained the feeling became until several years ago. I opened the door, heard the call, and announced “It’s spring now” to some house guests. It was normal to me, the house guests required coffee and an explanation.

Birds Fishing

As we walked along the shoreline of a pond at Harris Neck we watched this Great Blue Heron fishing. He stepped out with his catch, right next to one of the alligators resting on shore. I turned my attention to some of the other birds fishing, and saw this one come up with something too. Obviously a good fishing day.

Immediately the catch was noticed and two birds took off after him, one giving up but the other insistent. In the end, he kept his catch.

Deer on an Early Morning Swim

I walked from our campsite to the water, Red Bird Creek, early on our first morning there. It rained the night before and still threatened rain. Dense fog restricted the distant view of the Ogeechee River, and with morning light obscured and the fog both the sky and water appeared gray and slightly out of focus. At that point I was the only person there, no one fishing along the pier, certainly no one launching a kayak, and no other early risers walking or biking by.

I enjoyed the quiet, checked out the birds, and turned to leave when in the distance something in the water caught my eye. Thinking it a water bird I missed, I looked at it through the binoculars and saw the head of a deer.

Deer swim and are said to be exceptional swimmers, but I never saw one swimming through deeper water like this. I watched until it approached land, got its footing, shook a little to dry off a bit, then disappeared into the grasses of the salt marsh.

Visiting Southern Georgia

We spent over two weeks visiting southern Georgia in the RV, starting at Okefenokee and then up to Fort McAllister on the coast, and ending at Crooked River on the coast before heading home. Georgia maintains a beautiful state park system, one we experienced before and plan to continue to visit. We didn’t realize the number of parks and wildlife management areas, historical sites, and other points of interest until we planned the trip and tried to decide what to do in what we realized would be a limited time frame based on everything available. At Fort McAllister we spent two days just exploring the park with its museum, fort, and hiking trails.

View from the RV window, sunrise on the pine flatwoods just hitting the trees

Rather than rush we chose a few places, and enjoyed and explored them at our leisure, taking photographs and field notes with the occasional sketches. We met many people in the campgrounds, some from Georgia, a few fellow Floridians, and this time of year many from places further north, either just arriving for the sunshine or starting to head back after spending most of their winter in Florida and southern Georgia.

Back to the Birds

Many years ago when we first started Nichter Photography we often judged local photo contests at various camera clubs. As it happened, at this particular contest the theme “Wildlife” brought nearly all photographs of birds. The President of the club laughed when he saw our top 3, all stunning bird shots, and laughingly declared us Bird Brains! We worked on several bird related citizen science projects at the time, and bird photography remains a favorite so perhaps the name fit.

We live in a great birding area and are in driving and camping distance of many more in both Florida and Georgia. This Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a year around resident here, certainly gave me a good workout. Busily ducking in and out of foliage, ignoring me completely, he sat still within view only once or twice.

Suwanee River and Columbus

We visited Suwanee River State Park as the fog of the day lifted, a common theme lately in our photography this winter. It still lingered over the river when I took this shot of a bench swing placed perfectly for viewing and relaxing.

We had a laugh at the Stagecoach Etiquette posted on a sign near the road.

We visited here before, and camped here once or twice. This visit we took more time, really reading the interpretive signs, some new to us, set along the way to enhance enjoyment with context of life here in those days. As with O’Leno, a once prosperous town named Columbus with over 500 people, a post office, numerous businesses, a steamboat ferry landing, and a stage coach stop was abandoned in the late 1800s. As one of the earliest towns in Suwanee County established at the confluence of the Suwanee and Withalacoochee Rivers it prospered during the time when the river and stage coach existed as the only viable forms of transportation in the region. The coming of rail led to its demise, just as the highway and road system replaced the rail. What is left of Columbus is now entirely in the Suwanee River State Park.

Where the two rivers meet.

Most of the remains, the cemetery, the old Confederate earthworks, the railroad bridge (still in use), and a large flywheel from the ferry, are a short walk from the parking lot. Of course, the rivers remain the primary attraction.

CCC in Florida: O’Leno State Park

The Civilian Conservation Corp, started during the Great Depression to employ young men ages 18 – 25, worked on environmental conservation projects including building shelters and other buildings in over 800 parks nationwide. Nine of those parks are state parks in Florida, including O’Leno State Park. We camped at eight of the nine parks and definitely need to schedule a trip to see the ninth.

Prior to becoming part of the Florida parks system, O’Leno had a varied history. Once a thriving town called Keno on the banks of the Santa Fe River, the name changed to Leno as it grew because Keno indicated gambling. The reason for the demise of the town is a familiar one in Florida: the railroad bypassed the town and went to Fort White. The wooded location on the river remained popular for picnics, called Old Leno then, and the current name is believed to be a contraction of that name.

The small museum building at O’Leno holds a treasure trove of information on the CCC and their work. Most visits we arrived and left too early to visit it, but on this one we discovered it open. Though small, the amount of interesting exhibits and information makes it well worth a visit. For us, we plan a second visit.

I knew the basics of the CCC from various sources through the years and knew it contributed a great deal to our parks and natural places. I never realized how much it helped the men (no women allowed in those days) who worked for the six months or more. They received room and board and $30 per month. Of that $30, $22 – 25 was required to be sent home to help support their family. During the Great Depression that $25 likely made a big difference. It also offered vocational, and even classes for those who couldn’t read or write.

In addition to the buildings, the traditional statue of the CCC stands proudly in the park. One exhibit in the museum showed a few videos and several old books written about the CCC, which I added to my ‘to be read/watched’ list. The CCC disbanded in 1942 as the funding for it diverted to war-time needs. Eighty plus years later the buildings still stand.

More Fog: Early Morning

The warm start to the west central Florida winter meant a lot of morning fog into January. Some mornings we awoke to visibility so low that the news reported driving warnings. With that much fog comes a lot of dampness.

One morning I looked out the back window and saw light attempt to break through, causing the heavy dew on the screening to glisten in a dark, rather ominous way. The reflection caught my eye, so out came the camera. The screen looks crystalline with the heavy dew hanging. In spite of a couple weeks of fog, I never saw anything like this again.

Another morning I started out the front door for a morning run, and noticed wood storks sitting atop the roof across the street and the street light pole. The saw me and never moved. I turned around from my run, took up the camera, just to see what I could get. I took several shots, but the one on the roof with the trees in the background clearly showed fog. Without the clear evidence of fog, the others just looked blown-out. I rarely see Wood storks perching in the neighborhood. Usually they are viewed from a distance across the creek. The four I saw stayed until the fog lifted somewhat and visibility improved.

Meandering at O’Leno

The cloudy morning stayed cool, and we meandered rather than hiked the trail, taking our time and enjoying the solitude and nature. Of course we stopped for the occasional photo. We find nearly everything crowded in Florida this year, traffic much heavier than we have ever seen in our 25+ years of calling this home, crowds of people everywhere, and even campgrounds never before filled at capacity and turning people away. This early morning hike before anyone else discovered our refuge provided exactly what we needed.

The River Trail follows the Santa Fe River to the point that the river disappears underground at the Santa Fe Sink. It flows underground for three miles, and resurfaces at River Rise Park flowing another 35 miles to the Suwanee. The area of underground flow contains many underwater caves, and on land it makes a natural bridge which Florida’s first federal highway, Old Bellamy Road, crossed. We walked to the sink, which looked like a large green pool. Turtles lined the fallen tree branches taking what little sun broke through the clouds.

O’Leno State Park where we followed the River Trail encompasses the now gone town of Leno. The park name of O’Leno is believed to be short for Old Leno. On our returned hike we explored some of the building and the bridge, built by the CCC during the Great Depression.