Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

 A visit to south west Florida could not be complete without a trip to Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.  This refuge provides over 6,000 acres of feeding, nesting and roosting habitat for over 220 species of birds.  It was a cool morning when we planned to drive the hour drive north from here. 

Usually the traffic through Fort Myers and onto Sanibel island is slow, if not stop and go.  However, due to the cool temps or the early hour, few vehicles were traveling that way.  Immediately after we entered the refuge loop road there were great egrets feeding in a ditch.  Guess they are very used to photographers because they could have cared less that we were only about 10 feet away.

 This amazing refuge was created in 1945 as the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge. Jan Norwood Darling was a well known political cartoonist as well as an avid conversationalist.  When a large tract of land on Sanibel was in danger of being purchased by land developers, Darling urged President Harry Truman to designate this critical wildlife area as a refuge. Darling, who used the nickname "Ding" on his cartoons, was syndicated in 130 newspapers across the nation.  Many of his political drawings are as appropriate today as they were back in the 1930, 1940s, and 1950s.    He won a Pulitzer prize for his work in 1923 and again in 1943.  The Refuge name was changed in his honor in 1967.  Darling also created the Federal Duck stamp program and drew the very first Federal Duck Stamp.  This program's proceeds go to purchasing wetlands for waterfowl habitat.   For more information on Ding Darling check out

The refuge road travels along many large openings in the mangrove forests, and offers opportunities for walking trails along adjacent causways.  Thousands of birds, close up as well as far away, are always here to enjoy.

A reddish egret looking for lunch.

Hundreds of white pelicans

 Snowy Egrets

 Tri-clored egrets

And a black crowned night heron with the catch of the day.

I think this fellow already had his lunch for the looks of his belly!

Hundreds of white ibis' were feeding on the mud flats.  This immature was beginning to turn white.

Friday, January 22, 2016


Great to visit with John Miles again in Florida.  It has been at least 3 years since our last visit to Naples since Texas has been our most recent wintering spot.  His condo is in a complex called Bay Forest, which has 17 different housing complexes, and includes  two ponds and 3 miles of paved walking, biking, running trails that meander through natural woodland as well as groomed landscaping.

John making breakfast

His screened lanai, off the living room.

 His "computer room"

The walking path

This 1/2 mile boardwalk streaches out into Estero Bay.

One of the ponds hosts a variety of wading birds and ducks.  This Anhinga was drying its wings.

Naples is a gold-mile of nature preserves.  Even though the Naples area is over developed, conservationists have managed to save multiple pockets of natural habitat for birds and other wild creatures.  Past visits have incorporated many of these incredibly diverse locations and we added a few more on this trip.

Estelle Sanders recommended we visit Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers.  The Preserve encompasses 3500 acres of wetland. This slough (pronounced slew), filters rainwater moving from the north, through the slough, into Estero Bay.  The water never reaches much of a depth, but it is constantly, slowly, moving.  The diverse habitat is home to otters, alligators, wading birds, and many other animals, including migrating birds. The docent tour was limited to 10 people, which is about maximum for any kind of wildlife viewing.  A 1.2 mile boardwalk allows access to this natural habitat.

Our guide was very knowledgeable about the plants and animals, but birds were not her specialty.  Lots of small songbirds flitted through the trees but the group was not encouraged to linger. There were many sighting of larger birds, especially at one of the viewing stations where scopes were set up by additional interpreters.

Many cormorants

Green Herons

A Carolina wren, who's tiny size does not match its boisterous and melodious song

This big alligator is enjoying the sun on a chilly day.

 An epiphyte in bloom.

A variety of ferns were pointed out to us.

Resurrection fern.  So called because it often looks dried up and dead.  However, when a rain comes along, it "resurrects" itself into a healthy green plant again.

Shoestring fern.  This is a very rare fern that has thrived in this location.  When the first small patch on one tree was identified, the docents were not allowed to point it out to visitors.  They were afraid it would be poached because of its rare status.   It has spread significantly, so now it is part of the tour.

The long thin fern is called strap fern.  We will definitely come back to this preserve soon.

 John took us to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.  Adjacent to the Naples airport, this little gem has a great hands on museum, a 1/2 hour boat trip on the Gordon River, an animal rehabilitation hospital, and a series of short trails.

  The boat trip was first on our list.  Here we were waiting to board and that is when our camera battery died!!
Again, definitely a place to come back to.  The small museum was manned by multiple, very knowledgeable, helpful, docents.  There were live sea creatures in a touch tank, a 5,000 gallon aquarium, complete with a young sea turtle, several snake exhibits and information about the Conservancy itself.

On our boat trip we learned about the Gordon River Greenway.  This 2 mile walkway is a 10 foot wide path that weaves through mangrove and pine forests, along the Gordon River.  It gives walkers, and/or cyclists a wide corridor  that encorporates space for picknicking, kayak launching, nature photography and scenic overlooks, right in the middle of downtown Naples.

Rest stop

The trees along the elevated boardwalk held evidence of multiple storm damage.  Many of the downed trees were the result of past and recent wind storms.   

Chuck and Julie Burwell came down to Naples for a day.  They are staying n Acadia, about an hour north of here.  It was a clear, sunny day so we used our visit to walk the grounds, sit by the pool in the sun, and end the day with a sunset stroll on Barefoot Beach.  Could not have been more enjoyable.   

Friday, January 15, 2016

Week two Withlacoochee State Forest

Mike and Mary Hartt joined us this week in their new camper and shared some fun adventures over the next six days.  Some successful, some not so.  Our search for burrowing owls and budgerigar parakeets were a bust, although the exploring widened our knowledge and appreciation of this section of rural Florida.

Mike and Mary's camper at Withlacoochee State Forest

The Gulf coast is about 30 miles west of our campsite, so we picked out several places that sounded interesting. We checked out Bay Port one day.  There was a boardwalk out into the bay for fishing, so the guys went back the next day to try their luck.    No fish on the line but we did have great fish tacos at Becky Jack's Snack Shack.  Yum!

Fred Howard County Park, outside Tarpon Springs, is accessed by a mile long causeway into the bay.  Quiet on the cool, windy day  we were there, but when it is hot it must be mobbed.  This 115 acre park offers 2 playgrounds, 9 picnic shelters, launch areas for canoes and kayaks, restrooms, and a beautiful white sand beach.  The ocean water is clear and warm (by New England standards) but the air was chilly that day so we did not swim.  Caught a few shore birds, but no fish (again)


Semipalmated Plover

Being this close to Tarpon Springs we opted to do a bit of browsing  at the Sponge Dock shops before indulging in a sea food dinner.
Mary had already scouted out a spice and tea shop that was unusual.  Along with the soap store she dragged me into I got quite a bit of next years Christmas shopping done!  Another great day.

As strange as it sounds, Weeki Wachee is the actual name of a town, a State Park, and a river.  Back in the 1940's and 50's and 60's the facility that is now a State Park, was known for it's extravagant underwater mermaid show.  The Park grounds include the original spring, which every day pumps 117 million (yes million) gallons of fresh, clear, 75 degree water up from limestone fissures underground.  Well kept grounds follow the Weeki Wachee River created by the spring.  The park still promotes the mermaid show, but it seems to be way less extravagant these days!  The short boat trip along the river was a fun introduction to the beauty of this waterway.

The tour narrator talked about the wildlife that can be seen along the banks.  Not the day we were there however.  But it was a beautiful ride.

We did take in the mermaid show.  Consensus was that they need a consult from cirque du Soleil to pep up the act.  It was interesting to hear about the history of the show and how the underwater "theater" was created in 1946 and placed 6' underwater, in the 100' opening to the spring.  It really became famous in 1959 when the attraction was bought by ABC.  They built the current theater seating 500 people, placed 16 feet underwater. Those were the days when the mermaids would stand out by the road to entice tourists to stop and see the show.   It became a State Park in 2008.

Mike and Marlin got to have a picture with this young "mermaid in training".  She said it takes a year and a half of training before you can be in one of the shows.  Quite difficult to learn the tricks to maintaining precise locations while breathing from the air hoses. 

Another feature of the park is their kayak and canoe rental system.  Boats are launched at the park location, and you can paddle the five miles all day as long as you are at the pick up point by 3:00.  We came back the next day to do just that.

Lunch on a sand bar.

Lots of fish show up easily in the clear water with the sand bottom

Beautiful 5 mile paddle in crystal clear warm water.  The best was saved for last.  About 1/4 mile from our pick up point there was another spring that joined the existing water.  This was the gathering spot for a pod of about 15 manatees.  They weren't going anywhere.  They come at the end of the day to spend the night in the warm water.  What a treat.  The manatees are glad to share their space with boats and even swimmers.

Definitely a 10 for a day!!!!!

One more fun adventure for this week.  We traveled to the Crystal River State Park and Archaeological Museum, only to find it closed on the day we were there.  Walking the grounds, we talked with a woman who was a birder.  She told us about a rare red-cockaded woodpecker and gave us directions to where to find it.  Her instructions were to go there at dawn if you wanted to see the bird.  We went at dusk, just to find the place.  Much to my overwhelming surprise, after driving down more than a mile of dirt road, looking for trees with white paint on them, we found, not only the location, but the actual bird.  I was pretty excited because I have been on many unsuccessful bird pilgrimages.  Our pictures are not that great, but good enough to definately identify this bird.  Hopefully, Mary took much better shots with her giant lens.

Quite a week!  Off to visit John Miles in Naples.