St. Mark’s NWR Visit

What took us so long to visit St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge? Established in 1931 to provide winter habitat for migrating birds along the Florida coast in Wakulla County, we passed by the entrance many times over the years, always heading somewhere else. Every time one of us commented that we needed to stop one day.

One day came in early May. Our planned 2+ week trip canceled due to me receiving a summons for jury duty scheduled for mid-May (when we would be 9 hours drive from home), we decided to take the first part of the trip and then head home. Looking at the area we realized St. Mark’s would be under an hour drive from our campground. On a sunny, warm morning we arrived and stopped at the visitor’s center. It opens at 8 a.m. and we arrived shortly after that. We picked up a map, and started driving down the road to the lighthouse. I looked at the map for hiking trails as Karl drove, and then we reached Stoney Bayou Pool. Birds waded and flew everywhere. We pulled over and grabbed our binoculars. White Pelicans floated in a group off in the distance, closer we saw birds of all types. Of course, in any area with water in the south always look down and right in front of you. I walked closer to the water, binoculars in hand, observing the pelicans in the distance and came upon this guy, not too close but a good reminder to be aware of my immediate surroundings.

We drove further down, stopping often at the various bodies of water, amazed at the sheer amount of bird life. In one pond we spotted Great egrets, Snowy egrets, Tri-color herons, and Great blue herons among all the shorebirds. We were overwhelmed by the numbers, and leaving about lunch time realized we never did get on that hike. We spent all our time along the road just watching the birds.

We highly recommend it, and yes we will be back. Hopefully next time we will get on some of the hiking trails!

Savannah Sill

We love visiting Georgia and love camping there. Lately our visits last two weeks or more as we explore more of the state. That said, we rarely take a trip there without somehow managing to visit the Okefenokee Swamp for a few days. On our latest trip we stood in the dark outside the camper astounded once again at the incredible view of the stars at this designated “Dark Skies” site. The other place we always try to visit is Savannah Sill, just off the same road that leads to Stephen Foster State Park. On our recent visit, Karl took this photo of the trees with the Spanish moss, and the waterway, as I looked for birds, dragonflies, and other (faster) moving parts of nature.

This Snowy egret in its breeding plumage stood in the water near the dam at the sill, quietly waiting for a fish, which it did eventually catch. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet hailed from Georgia, but outside the swamp area. I included it because he posed so well for me. Immediately after I took the shot he quickly raised his ruby crown and put it back down again. Maybe wanted me to be sure of the identification?

Blakeley Park Visit

E.O. Wilson Boardwalk at Blakely Park

As the site of the last major battle of the Civil War and a deserted boom town from the 1800s, plus a location on the Tensaw River and Mobile-Tensaw delta, Blakely Park in Spanish Fort, AL made our list of places to visit some time ago. We paid our admission fee and received a guide to the area and a wonderful explanation of all to see. The paved road we followed turned into a gravel road through the park. We stopped at several of the battlefield sites along the way, and found out later that there is a self-guided Battlefield Tour as a separate document (we will remember to ask for that next time), and continued on.

The interpretive signage at Old Courthouse site and Jury Oak Pavilion areas provided a concise history of the town, started as a river town which became a boom town, then gradually deserted. The road continued on to the river, where we parked and walked the two short trails, the E. O. Wilson Boardwalk along the river and the Hiding Tree Boardwalk. As we walked along the E. O. Wilson Boardwalk an eagle flew by as if on cue. The Delta Explorer pontoon boat also docks there. We took one of the 1.5 hour tours of the delta area and highly recommend it.

The gravel/dirt road does become narrow at parts, but it just makes you drive slower to really experience your surroundings. With so much here, I suspect we will be back our next visit to the area.

The Hiding Tree

On Keaton Beach

Skimmers in flight

We took a drive along the Gulf coast near Perry, FL and found a small town called Keaton Beach, with of course a small beach. We spent some time walking around, birding, and yes, just sitting on the benches enjoying the sunny but windy day. A fisherman on shore cast out trying his luck, boats passed by well offshore, and of course plenty of Laughing gulls and other gulls provided background. A flock of Black skimmers sat on the beach near the water, and we gave them wide berth as we passed, not wanting to disrupt their day. I decided to try to photograph, and after one or two shots they suddenly took off. I looked up from my camera and discovered a person walking their dog had brought the dog to the edge of the sand to look at the birds too. That did not sit well with the flock and off they went.

Walking to the less sandy area near a small point I found the bird area. Plenty of shorebirds fed in the seaweed washed up the shore, others walked by or flew by. We spent about an hour there, and liked it so well we checked out a couple of RV parks nearby. We will be visiting again.

Watching Cedar Waxwings

Our campsite at Meaher State Park in Alabama proved perfectly situated for watching birds. Our first afternoon I looked up to see a flock of birds in a tree. They all took off together, landed in another tree, then did the same and came back to the first tree. I checked through the binoculars to confirm Cedar Waxwings.

The Cedar Waxwings sat in a pine tree, but individually flew over to another tree/bush behind another tree and stayed in the foliage there, returning to the pine occasionally. After they left I walked down to the water and saw berries on the tree/bush and when they returned saw them feeding. The flock stayed about three days, filling up on food to fuel leaving their winter home for the summer.

They stayed very much to those two trees during the day, and as evening came I saw them fly to the top of a long-leaf pine further away. I spoke to other birders in the park I saw out birding, and they had not seen the Cedar Waxwings at all so I told them to check the tree behind our site late morning or in the afternoon. It seems their daylight activity remained restricted to the two or three trees behind our campsite near the water.

Song of the Grackle

Toward evening two Boat-tailed grackles landed in a tree near the edge of Mobile Bay. The two black silhouettes first called to each other. Then, they both looked up to the darkening sky, expanded their bodies and tails, and started singing.

This continued for a minute or two, and after that they took turns singing. As one finished the other puffed up his chest, expanded his tail, and started.

Toward the end they moved and faced one another singing, and shortly afterward the concert stopped and they flew away. We watched the entire performance, which went on for over thirty minutes, speculating on the reason. The coloration we saw through our binoculars indicated two males, and at no time did we see a female approach. Were they bachelors, showing off their singing talent for females they knew to be in range and advertising their availability? Did both want that particular territory and used the songs in a competition for it? Regardless, it was a fascinating sight.

Visiting Fort McAllister

(Fort McAllister is a Georgia State Park in Richmond Hill, GA)

During a short stop here one year ago we started the self-guided tour of the fort. The admission includes a 12-minute movie and a small museum too. That day a strong north wind blew and the temperature remained low. In spite of the sun we froze. In addition, every time we attempted to open the brochure to read the history for a marker, the wind blew it closed and one time nearly blew it away. We abandoned the walk for the indoor warmth of the museum and movie, and loved both.

This visit we tried again, on a sunny, warm day just after lunch. The easy to follow self-guided tour took us over an hour at our leisurely pace. The interpretive history is very well done, telling the story of this fort through the Civil War and the directions guidepost of guidepost take you along.

Admission with the self-guided tour, movie, and museum is $9.00 per person, less for seniors and youth up to 17 years old. There is also an admission fee to the park of $5.00, with hiking trails available and a playground.

The long lens on my camera did not work for many shots. Karl took numerous photographs, including the ones here, enjoying the scenic areas and great natural lighting.

Redbird Creek

I stepped out of the RV our first morning and saw the sun about to rise. I grabbed my camera and hurried across the campground road, through the small park, and to the pier. As I walked to the pier I saw a painter already at work, and another photographer on his way. Whispering a quiet “good morning” as I walked behind the painter, as not to startle her or disturb her from her work, I walked out the pier. I took photographs but also just watched. Scanning the sky for birds flying by, watching the morning light as it hit the trees behind me, one day catching the full moon before it set.

This remained my morning routine for over a week as we camped at Fort McAllister State Park in Richmond Hill, GA. We chose a campsite facing the creek which we admired on a shorter trip to the area. Usually someone joined me on the pier in welcoming the new day, some days a couple with their camera phone, other times a family heading out fishing, only one day just me.

Laughing Gulls were the most frequently seen bird on the creek during our stay.

Perhaps I make it sound too idyllic. The gnats, midges, and various assorted other flying insects plagued those of us there at that time in the morning. The painter had to start a new canvas that first day as the insects embedded themselves in the wet paint on the first canvas as she worked. We all suffered in semi-silence, waving our hands frequently to disperse the cloud of them gathering around our faces. But it was worth it, and wonderful to be traveling again. We made big plans of long trips, staying only a couple of days in each location, hitting the road for thousands of miles as in the stories of our fellow campers, but find we prefer to stay long enough to get to experience an area. So for now our range remains the southeastern U.S.

Garden Surprise

When we moved into this house we found many things left from prior residents. Broken, old, or both described most of them. Three planters with dead plants lined the driveway, the soil completely dried out and the plastic planters weathered to brittleness. We planned to toss all three when I noticed bulbs in one under all the dead vegetation. Two went out, that one I moved to the back of the house near the porch and out of the direct all day sun. There it remained for the past two months, untouched.

The plant never needed my less than green thumb. After a few weeks in the new location, leaves started to grow. I asked several gardeners to identify the plant, none knew. A few days ago as I stood on the porch looking into the distance and enjoying my morning coffee a red patch caught my eye. It soon blossomed into a beautiful flower, with many more to follow based on the new growth. I tried a few standard flower shots, but none captured it properly.

Georgia O’Keeffe is one of Karl’s favorite painters and photographers, and I recently paged through some of the books we have on her work. It inspired me to try a similar view with our new flower. It definitely captured the deepness of the red, darkening almost to black, in the center.

Pithlachascotee River

We moved four miles inland from our former home on the Gulf. Now rather than the expanse of the Gulf of Mexico, our daily nature fix concentrates on the Pithlachascotee River, called the Cotee River locally for obvious reasons. The Cotee starts north at Crew’s Lake and flows 23 miles south then west through Starkey Park, Grey Preserve, and the city of New Port Richey to the Gulf. The designated easy Florida paddling trail for this river starts just west of our neighborhood at the Grey Preserve access point, and goes west for six miles to the Gulf.

As we settle into the house, I try to take a daily walk to the river near our home. This Tri-color heron greeted me one day. More correctly, he watched but ignored me as I slowly walked by on the bank. The river is narrow here, so caution is understandable. I stopped just past him and watched as first fishing (no luck there) then preening occupied him. Suddenly, something I haven’t the acute senses of a bird to see or hear spooked him, and off he went.

Another day I heard rustling in a nearby small tree. I approached carefully and took this photo of a Gray Catbird. I walked around as far from the perch as I could, but the spit of land didn’t give me many options.

The weather is past the cold, or cold for this area, phase of winter and we look forward to starting our RV road trips again in the next few weeks as we put the finishing touches on our new home base.