Friday, January 30, 2009

Birders Paradise

This week has been quite an adventure. We started last Saturday (1/24) with a fishing trip to Bonita Beach with friends from Hampden, Me. Chuck and Estelle Sanders have a home here in the next town, Bonita Beach, and Larry and Deanna Philbrick were visiting from Maine, so all eight of us got together for a day at the beach.

FYI: Just realized that not everyone knew that if you click on any picture it will enlarge it to a full screen, then just click on "back" to return to the blog.

It was perfect weather, Chuck trekked us down the beach about 1/2 mile to one of his favorite fishing spots, lugging our chairs, lunch, and fishing equipment. Even after heating up during the walk, the water was a bit too cold for swimming. The guys were a little tougher and waded in to fish, while we collected a fair amount of shells and then pondered over the names from the field guide Linda had brought.

At the end of the day, after washing off some sand, we gathered at Chuck and Estelle's for great a Italian take out meal. Great day, great friends, great food. What more could you want.

The Shell Seekers!

John Fishing

Larry baiting up, no he wasn't
going to eat it.

conference on technique

Larry Catching

Deanna documenting

The next day, Sunday, Chuck and Julie Burwell, moved their camper down to Fort Myers and after setting up, they arrived here about 3:00. It was great to see them and hear about their adventures. Since it was a beautiful day we headed out for a walk on the trails here. While out on the boardwalk we heard a rustle in the bushes and soon a round little armadillo shuffled his way into a clearing where we could get a good look at him. What a treat. Usually they travel in the thick underbrush where you only hear them moving about.

Walking around one of the
ponds on the trail

Chuck, John, and Marlin on the
trails surrounding Naples Walk


On Monday, we headed for Key West, with several stops along the way. Route 41 runs along the top of the 1.5 million acre Everglades National Park, more than half of it a shallow river of water, which was originally fifty miles wide and only a few inches deep.

Development has changed the normal wet and dry patterns of the Everglades with the creation of canals that alternately drain and flood this lowland in order to meet the needs of nearby cities. Today the Everglades "River of Grass" is a threatened ecosystem. In 1947 it was the first national park created to protect an entire ecological system. Man's control of water levels, agricultural runoff, and high levels of mercury all combine to diminish this natural habitat and the diverse life forms that live within it.

Efforts are underway to restore some semblance of the original water patterns. With a Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, Congress authorized a plan that will require 30 years to accomplish. This plan hopes to restore more natural patterns of quantity, timing and distribution of water as well as address some of the water quality issues. The entire time we were here we were amazed at the wildlife we saw, but we were even more amazed that it is only about 10% of what John Audubon experienced here in the early 1800's.

Our first stop within the park was at the Gulf Coast Visitors center near Everglades City, where we took a 1 1/2 hour boat tour. The boat traveled out into the small gulf islands that are covered with black mangrove trees. These trees can tolerate the high salt content in the water here. Their roots dangle down into the water and provide extensive habitat for all kinds of birds, fish and other wildlife. Not 100 yards from the dock we saw a West Indian Manatee, well some of us saw it. I was never quick enough to catch a glimpse when he happened to surface, but others were excited.

As the boat motored around the islands, in addition to the many wading birds, we were entertained by dolphins romping in the boat's wake. First a solitary dolphin, and later a mother with a baby. The mom and tot jumped together for awhile, then we only saw mom every 3rd or 4th jump that the baby made. Guess she was just showing her child around the playground.

This sign was comparing
the wing span of different

The white pelican
won the contest with a
wing span of 102 inches.

Tour boat

The solitary dolphin. The tour
guide said it was probably a
male, since females usually
travel in larger groups.

Mom & Babe


With suggestions from the rangers, we next stopped at the H.P. Williams roadside park. This was just a short 300 or 400 foot boardwalk along a canal where several alligators and many wading birds posed for our pleasure.
As we leaned on the railing, watching an anhinga dive into the water to catch a fish, an alligator slowly swam in our direction. The fish was too big for the bird, so he dropped it. This was not missed by the alligator, who moved in and snapped up the rejected fish. This all happened about 10 feet below where we stood on the boardwalk.


This guy looks like he
has a new green hair

He snapped up the
fish for his lunch,
after which
he just stayed there
in the sun for about
10 minutes without
We made one more stop at the Kirby Storter roadside park, where we walked a longer boardwalk into the swamp to see more birds and alligators, as well as the small turtle stretching his neck to get the most sun he could soak up. By then it was getting late and we still had a long drive before getting to Key West, so we did not stop again. We did make some plans for additional stops on the way back.


Our first venue the next day was a tour of the Truman White House. President Truman loved staying at Key West. He used this "Little White House" as both a retreat and a working White House for 175 days during the time he was president. The guide listed all the important legislation that was signed into law while the president was here in Key West. The list of important issues covered was amazing.

The house itself was built in 1890 as a duplex for the base commander and paymaster of the existing Navy base. Designed by a New York architect, it has an atmosphere closer to New England than to this tropical island. The building was converted back into a single dwelling before Truman began his visits here and currently contains the original furnishing used by the Trumans. In recent years, Presidents Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton have stayed here, as well as Colin Powell when he hosted talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Lots of interesting facts about Truman were listed during the tour. He kept his own stationary and postage at a desk in his bedroom because he said the American people did not need to pay the cost of him writing love letters to his wife every day. He also was personally responsible for the entire cost of running this house while he was here. That included all the salaries for the help, the food, the upkeep. It wasn't until Eisenhower took office that the President got an expense account .

The Truman White House

Our next stop was to the house where Ernest Hemingway lived for 9 years while married to his 2nd wife. He wrote his most notable works, including For Whom the Bell Tolls, Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, and The Sun Also Rises while living here. Hemingway had about 50 cats that he named after famous people and today the tradition lives on. Supposedly the batch currently in existence are direct descendants of Hemingway's cats. They have the run of the house and garden, a weekly visit from a private vet, and treats from each of the tour guides. Not bad duty for a cat. Unfortunately the tour was very crowded and the tour guides were moving us quickly through the house so we were unable us to look at all the great Hemingway artifacts and photos that were in all the rooms.

Hemingway's House

That afternoon we found "Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden". This island of greenery is the last undeveloped wooded acre of land in Key West's Historic district. Its location, at the end of a very narrow lane, requires a quick eye to spot the sign for the address. As soon as you enter the gate, you step into an exotic rain forest where mulched paths wander among unusual and threatened plants that have unique shapes and names. My favorite was the Zombi Palm. I can see how it got its name.

The garden also hosts a parrot rescue center. Scattered here and there along the paths are pods of large parrot cages. Each one with a sign telling what kind of bird, their habits, and the story behind its rescue. There were some magnificent birds here and the stories behind where they came from were interesting.

Zombi Palm

On Wednesday we headed for the Zachary Taylor State Park. There is a beautiful beach and wooded picnic area there, as well as an old fort. However, from the parking lot we spied the Eco-Discovery Center. Linda and I decided this was the best kept secret in Key West. It is not included in any brochures we pick up, nor was it in the AAA guide book that usually lists that sort of attraction. It should be in there with a "Gem" beside it.

Inside there are exhibits that include a 24,000 gallon aquarium featuring a living reef; a mock-up of Aquarius, the world's only underwater ocean laboratory; multiple interactive touch screens giving information about marine life in the area; two tanks with live species that inhabit two separate types of reef compositions; and an underwater film showing actual dispersal of millions of coral seed pods. This event only happens on one night a year. I was entranced by the two reef life tanks. It was wonderful to be able to view these tiny filter feeders up close at eye level and to witness their shapes and colors even closer than you could get if you were snorkeling. This is a must see in Key West.

While Linda and I spent several hours in the Discovery center, Marlin and John went next door to a Coast Guard cutter and on to the actual Zachary Taylor fort. The fort is in the process of being restored. At one time it was totally buried in sand, and, according to Marlin, one man was responsible for excavating it. After we met up again we spent a couple of hours in the park, which includes a beach where we laid in the sun for awhile.

These electric cars are everywhere in Key West

as well as free range roosters, that
crow 24 hours a day

Key West is well known for the gathering at Mallory Square each night to witness the sunset. Well, I was not prepared for the extent of this evening ritual. First, there are hundreds of people milling about on the pier that looks west out to sea, but the really fun and exciting piece was the numerous street performers who are scattered throughout the entire area.
We only witnessed a small portion of the available talent, but what we saw was like a Barnum and Bailey's circus without the elephants. What a fun time to listen and watch these folks vie for your attention (and money). Musicians, jugglers, acrobats, magicians, you name it, they were here. Oh yeah, dogs and cats too. One man held our attention, through sheer force of his personality, for at least 1/2 hour, doing maybe three magic tricks, but entertaining us the entire time with quick jokes and audience interaction. I would love to do this again, maybe even every night.


One man band

This brown pelican liked the show also!


It would be hard to top that spectacle of human behavior so Thursday morning we headed north toward Naples. Along the way we stopped at Big Pine Key where the National Key Deer Refuge is located. This refuge encompasses 25 islands which is the main habitat for the endangered Key deer.
Key Deer are the smallest sub-species of the Virginia white-tail deer whose population is estimated to be between only 600 and 750 deer. While walking a trail at the end of the key, we did see two of the tiny deer. They are about as big as a Great Dane dog and are not the least bit shy. We walked to within 10 feet of one to take pictures and he/she, did not run away.
In one spot on this key, there was a fresh water pond, created from a limestone quarry. This small body of water contains a salt water layer on the bottom, with fresh rain water on top. There is a small resident alligator, the usual wading birds and lots of iguanas. We saw two, one small and very green and one large with a more yellow coloring. The pictures don't look like much but in the binoculars they were amazingly prehistoric looking.

On Bahia Honda key we stopped to get some pictures of the old railroad/highway bridge that was completed in 1912 by Henry Flagler. Mr Flagler, a partner to John D. Rockerfeller of Standard Oil fame, first built a railroad along the entire eastern coast of Florida. He then decided to tackle a line down to Key West so he could take advantage of the shipping trade coming from Cuba, the islands, and South America. It took 8 years to accomplish, partly due to set backs during hurricanes that demolished sections previously completed.
One of the great engineering feats was the section spanning the Bahia Honda channel, which is the piece pictured below. This massive railroad project consumed most of Flagler's fortune and at one point he had to borrow money from a friend to complete the line. The trains ran to Key West until 1935 when a hurricane swept all the keys and decimated the line and all the infrastructure that supported it. It was never rebuilt, however, the State of Florida bought the right of way and created a road, part of which was built on top of the bridge that spanned the Bahia Honda canal. The current road today runs to the right of the old line, but sections of the bridge have been left for tourists like us to photograph.

abandoned road on top,
old rail line below

We were thinking of buying this
little island as a getaway!

Our last stop on this trip back to Naples was again in the Everglades. It was just before sunset when we pulled into Shark Valley. In fact there was only about 1/2 hour before they closed. The entrance road is about 1/4 mile long with a canal along one side which is full of wading birds, alligators, fish, snakes, etc. The road turns into a paved walk on the other side of the parking lot and continues beside the canal.
While we were there taking dozens of pictures of wildlife that were no more that 10 feet away, some of the birds began to nest in the trees at the far side of the canal. We watched while three or four flocks of white ibises, each containing hundreds of birds silouetted against the sunset sky, landed in the trees and squawked themselves into a comfortable spot. What a beautiful sight, a special ending to a great excursion.
The other sight on this paved walkway, which made your jaw drop, was the number of alligators that were lying on the grassy bank on the side of the pavement, sometimes, on the pavement. What was amazing was the number. We kept counting and the numbers just kept going up. Last count was 13. I think as the sun goes down, they crawl out of the water and soak up the remaining warmth from the sun.
The Everglades, between the enormous plants and multiple reptiles, gives you a Jurassic Park feeling of going back 10 million years. There are several other sights we want to return to while down here in southern Florida. Naples is only an hour or hour and a half from this section of the park so we will take in a few more spots. As if we don't have enough bird pictures already.

Great Blue Heron

One of many

Alligator alley

One flock of ibis

Check out all the dark spots - they are alligators.

Little Blue Heron