Saturday, May 10, 2014

Florida - May 4, 2014

Where do we go to escape the California heat?...Florida.  Yup, you heard right...Florida.  I had this great idea to visit a bird rookery in St Augustine and scope out some areas on Florida's west coast as well.  I had been to Florida in May 20+ years ago for a golf tournament and it was hot and sticky.    That was southern Florida and for the next week we were headed to northern Florida.   It was supposed to be cooler and dryer there...

Boy those cross country flights are nasty even though ours went as well as it could.  6 foot 4 inch people don't fit well in coach.  Heck, we don't fit well in cars, old houses,or Munchking gangs either.  Luckily, we didn't expect to run into the latter this far from Kansas.

We found our way from Jacksonville to our hotel in St Augustine with no problems and retired early after the long travel day.

The next morning we were out around 7:30AM.  We needed to be at the St Augustine Alligator Farm gate by 8AM to be let in.  We purchased special photography passes for $80 each that let us in an hour early which is key to getting decent morning light and to avoid the crowds (so we thought).

We arrived at the farm before 8AM only to see about 50 people in line ahead of us.  Mental note for next time, don't plan a trip to the alligator farm during the Birding and Photo Fest.  Luckily, the boardwalks in the bird rookery are wide and all the photographers were very courteous so the crowd really didn't present any problem.

The rookery itself is a fantastic place to observe birds and their behavior.  You can get so close to these birds that big lenses are not needed.

Tri-colored Heron:
Tricolored Heron

Snowy Egret:
Snowy Egret

You can also get pretty close to the alligators which are below the raised boardwalk throughout the rookery:
American Alligator

Great Egret with nest building material:
Great Egret in Flight

"Ahem...a little privacy please..."
Tricolored Herons Mating

Roseate Spoonbill:
Roseate Spoonbill Landing

Wood Stork:
Wood Stork Gathering Nesting Material

Cattle Egret:
Cattle Egret

Tri-colored Heron on Nest:
Tricolored Heron on Nest

Another Wood Stork:
Wood Stork in Flight

If you can't tell, the photo ops are virtually endless here.  It's quite a surreal scene with birds flying left and right, others in the trees building nests, and all the hungry chicks crying out for food.  All that is going on while hundreds of hungry gators are just feet below waiting for one bird to slip and fall.

American Alligators

Wood Stork with chicks:
Wood Stork with Chicks

We watched those chicks get fed and amazingly even at such a young age they were able to flip the fish around in the air with their bills to get them to go down head first.  It was great fun to watch.
Baby Wood Stork Positioning Fish

Here's a wider view of one area of the rookery:
St Augustine Alligator Farm

By 10AM the light got harsher and we decided to call it a morning.

We spent the afternoon hiking at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (Boy, that's a mouthful. Don't ask me to spell it...)  This reserve has multiple habitats and turned out to be an excellent place to hike.

Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve

Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve

Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve

As we always do, we walked slowly and quietly hoping that the native wildlife would reveal itself.  We were not disappointed.

Broadhead Skink:
Broadhead Skink

Nothing gets your heart pumping like a venomous snake but this one was so small it took some close inspection (but not TOO close) to figure out it was venomous.

Pygmy Rattlesnake:
Pygmy Rattlesnake

Pygmy Rattlesnake Closeup

We saw another snake but couldn't get a good enough picture to identify it as it bolted quickly across the trail in front of us.

The topper to the hike was seeing and photographing an Armadillo.  I know that they are quite common in the south and east but we love these guys and even though we have seen them before I had never gotten a decent picture until now...

Nine-banded Armadillo:
Nine-banded Armadillo

What's the best way to cap off a day photographing and hiking in the south?  Yup, go to Cracker Barrel and have a nice cold adult beverage.   But, after walking in, we saw no bar.  So, we asked the waitress if they had a bar.  To which she said "No....but we have root beer"

So, my ice cold beverage turned out to be lemonade.   It was quite good actually.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Florida - May 5, 2014

We only planned two full days in St. Augustine so today would be our last day at the rookery.  Once again we arrived before 8AM and the line ahead of us was less than half what it was yesterday.  It turns out that the last day of the Photo Fest was yesterday so that did make a big difference.

We were in for a treat at the rookery this morning because when we arrived the alligators were starting to bellow.  We had never seen this in person before (only through the eyes of the great Jeff Corwin) and it was amazing.  Not only could you hear the low frequency bellow but you could see all the dancing droplets of water around the gator and you could literally feel the call as well.

We captured some decent video of the behavior that can be seen here.

The rest of the rookery experience was quite similar to yesterday but I tried to concentrate more on the chicks today.

Juvenile Egrets learning how to carry and place sticks:
Great Egret Stick Battle

Great Egret Chicks:
Great Egret Chicks

Great Egret Chick Stretching

Of course, all the adult birds posed nicely as well.

Tri-colored Heron:
Tricolored Heron

Roseate Spoonbill:
Roseate Spoonbill

Would you build a nest here?
Tricolored Heron Nest Site

While the highlight of the Alligator Farm is clearly the rookery, they do have a decent zoo complete with all types of crocodilia and even some rainforest mammals like tamarin and marmosets.  But, we aren't great fans of zoos since we would rather see these animals in the wild when possible. The zoo appeared to have good sized enclosures and they appeared to take good care of the animals.

We left the rookery a bit early today since we had a 10AM boat trip booked.  The trip takes you around the St Augustine harbor and estuary and turned out to be quite nice. 

Osprey with lunch:
Osprey with Lunch

Atlantic Bottle-nose Dolphin:
Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin

Ponce de Leon Replica Ship:
Ponce de Leon Replica Ship

We also spotted Least Tern, jumping Mullet and a Green Sea Turtle on the boat trip.

After a great lunch at the A1A Ale House, we hit the highway for a drive across the state to Crystal River.  The drive is pretty scenic and we did have a great excuse to get out and stretch our legs at one point.

Sandhill Cranes:
Sandhill Crane Family

The next two nights were spent in the care of the nice folks at Citrus Hills.  We wanted to check out Citrus Hills as a possible place to live someday so we signed up for the 3 day tour.  So, the next report will be a multi-day one since we didn't get out to see the local nature as much as we typically would.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Florida - May 6, 2014

At Citrus Hills, we checked out the facilities, ate meals at some of the restaurants, and toured the models.  It seems like a wonderful place to live and the area did make it to our short list. 

But, if you wanted to hear more about that you wouldn't be reading this blog.  So, back to the nature.

Once we knew that our plans included the Crystal River area I did research on where to view wild Manatees.  I learned that May is not a great time of year since they tend to be in the area in winter time.  But, upon arrival in Crystal River we learned that some Manatees now stay year round and one of the good folks at Citrus Hills gave us a lead on where to find them.

Kings Bay Park is a small park but they have a boat/kayak rental place and a launch for both.  They also have wild West Indian Manatees and we were lucky enough to be able to see some from the shore.

West Indian Manatees

West Indian Manatees

West Indian Manatee

The area has many boat trips and is apparently one of the only places in the world where you can swim with the Manatees but we passed on that experience. It was nice enough to see them from the shore.  We found lots of other wildlife as well when we were able to venture out and explore the area during the rest of our stay. 

Eastern Cottontail:
Eastern Cottontail

When we saw this snake, we thought it was a Cottonmouth which would have been very cool, but upon close inspection of the photos we determined that this was the Florida Water Snake.  A new snake is still cool, but a Cottonmouth would have been cooler...
Florida Water Snake

Five-lined Skink:
Five-lined Skink

Black-bellied Plover:
Black-bellied Plover

Green Anole:
Green Anole Displaying

Yellow-crowned Night Heron:
Yellow-crowned Night Heron

And our last snake of the trip, the Yellow Rat Snake:
Yellow Rat Snake;

All in all, it was a great trip to Floria.  The weather was fantastic.  The temps were in the 80s and 90s with low humidity.  Much different than my experience in southern Florida.  This is a great part of the country and we will undoubtedly be back someday.

New Mammals:
Eastern Gray Squirrel
Eastern Cottontail
West Indian Manatee
Atlantic bottle-nose dolphin

New Birds:
Wood Stork
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Least Tern
Common Night Hawk
Black-bellied Plover
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Boat-tailed Grackle
Carolina Chickadee
Common Yellowthroat
Laughing Gull
Black Skimmer
Ruddy Turnstone
Royal Tern
Semipalmated Plover
Carolina Wren
Pileated Woodpecker

New Herps:
Broadhead Skink
Five-lined Skink
Pygmy Rattlesnake
Six-lined Racerunner
Florida Water Snake
Green Anole
Brown Anole
Black Rat Snake
Yellow Rat Snake