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.

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.