Sunday, December 27, 2009

30th anniversary trip to southwest FL!

Kenny and I just returned from a 2 -week, 2400-mile road trip to southwest FL. We wanted to spend our 30th wedding anniversary where we went on our honeymoon in 1979. That time we stayed in a little motel in Ft. Myers; this time we could afford to stay in a little classier area, so we went to Sanibel Island. :) I was amazed to find 140 different wildflowers blooming in that area --- in December!!!

Since we did a road trip we were able to make some extra stops along the way. Our first stop in Florida was Crystal River to see the manatees. The first day we were there we hiked on a 3-mile "Eco-trail". I was excited to find some wildflowers on the trail in mid-December. Kenny spotted the pretty purple Florida Lobelia (Lobelia floridana) before I did! We heard a noise in the woods and were relieved to see an armadillo (there were alligators in the area too!). It eluded me, so there are no photos of it.

The next day we went to Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park just south of Crystal River. It has many animals native to Florida, with one exception --- "Lu" the 50 year-old hippopotamus! He was left behind after a movie was filmed in the area before it became a park. Some of the other animals included Alligators, Sandhill Cranes, Ospreys, owls, hawks, shorebirds, a Florida Panther, bobcats and Key Deer. The stars of the show though were the Manatees! There are 4 resident manatees that stay in the spring runoff rivers. I enjoyed seeing one large female, "Lorelei", as she munched on carrots fed to her by a park volunteer. Seeing these huge, bristly-whiskered gray animals makes one wonder how the early sailors could mistake them for a mermaid! They must have really missed seeing women on those long voyages! ;) Lorelei had been scrubbed by the park staff and didn't have a layer of algae on her skin like the other one. Manatees come into the spring-fed rivers in the winter to keep warm, they don't do well in water below 68 degrees (F). When wild manatees go between saltwater and freshwater it helps keep their skin free of algae and barnacles.

Another interesting animal in the park was the Flamingo. They are loud, tall birds that strut around. It surprised Kenny and me that they were orange, not pink like their plastic counterparts! There were many other birds in the enclosure with them, including White Ibis, Brown Pelicans, Wood Storks and even Black Vultures. Wood ducks made their home in the park, what a thrill it was to see those beautiful birds!


The next day we drove down to Sanibel Island. We stayed at the Sanibel Sunset Beach Resort. Sanibel Island is famous for its seashells, it is the 3rd most "shelly" beach in the world. I couldn't wait to get to the beach on Tuesday morning. It was so pretty to watch the sun rise and the birds feeding on the beach early in the morning.

One morning I got down to the sandbar at low tide and was astounded at the number of animals that emerged from the sand. The most interesting was the Florida Fighting Conch, it had little eyes that protruded from 4 stalks (only 2 are visible in this photo)! Other animals included Lettered Olive Shells, various clams, Coquinas and even some sand worms. It is hard to believe how many creatures are buried in the sand that beachcombers rarely see.

The shore birds were busy gobbling up as many morsels as they could before the tide came back in. I enjoyed watching the Brown Pelicans dive into the water to catch fish, often a sea gull would hang around in hopes of grabbing a scrap of food. I found a tiny hermit crab in an auger shell and a large Ghost Crab one morning. It was exciting to watch a couple of dolphins corralling fish just offshore early one morning. They made quite a splash as they suddenly spun around to catch the fish. The bird on the left is a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

I made a new friend on the beach, each morning I would see Carol and she helped me identify the shells that had washed up overnight. We enjoyed looking for tiny shells like Tusk shells and ricegrain-sized Wenteltraps. Here Carol shows her prize find for the morning, a Shark's Eye shell. I was happy with my little Florida Horse Conch shell. It was pretty tricky to squat down looking for seashells with a 20-lb. camera pack strapped to my back, but I didn't want to leave my camera behind for fear that I would see something really interesting!


The J. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is located on the bay side of the island. I have wanted to go there for a long time, so I was thrilled to finally get to go and see the birds. The best time to go there is late afternoon as the birds come in to roost for the evening. In December, that was about 4:00 PM! There were pelicans, teal ducks, various herons, egrets, wood storks, white ibis, Pied-billed Grebes and beautiful Roseate Spoonbills. The birds are so beautiful with their pink feathers. This trip was the first time we had seen a Reddish Egret (right).

On Wednesday we went to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Imokalee. It has a 2.5 mile boardwalk through a pine forest, grassland and a cypress swamp. I really wanted to see a wild orchid, fortunately, Don (one of the many helpful volunteers) helped me out. He pointed out the Night-scented Orchid (Epidendrum nocturnum) and a Clamshell Orchid. It was frustrating to have to stay on the boardwalk and take pictures with a telephoto lens! I probably would have sunk to my knees in mud if I tried to walk over to it though. Most of the large Bald Cypress trees had an unwanted neighbor, a Strangler Fig. Birds drop the seeds of this tree into the tops of other trees, the fig sends roots down the trunk of the host tree to reach the ground. After many years the fig will eventually shade out and suffocate the host tree.

Our next stop was the Big Cypress Preserve, a nice alternative to the Everglades National Park (we just didn't have time to go to the Everglades as we had hoped). We parked at a picnic area and enjoyed watching the alligators, anhingas (a.k.a "Snakebirds"), herons and a Wood Stork. The stork caught a Walking Catfish in its beak and we watched it wrestle the fish for 15 minutes trying to swallow it. We had to leave, so we didn't know if it ever succeeded or not! These birds are beautiful from the neck down, but their head is quite a contrast! A face only their mother could love! :) Anhingas do not have oil on their feathers because they swim underwater, so they must dry their wings after each swim.

One of the nice aspects of having my website is the people who have contacted me through my email. I got the opportunity to meet a new friend who has been corresponding with me the past year when we went to Apalachicola. She wrote to me earlier this year asking about a Florida wildflower and we've been writing ever since. Christine lives in Wewahitchka (these Seminole names are fun to say and spell!), about an hour away. She, her husband and daughter met us in Apalachicola and took us to dinner at a good little seafood restaurant in Sumatra (the town, not the island!). I tried Mullet for the first time!

We stopped in Apalachicola because our son is getting married on St. George Island next spring, we wanted to check out the area. It is a beautiful island, not terribly over-developed like many Florida beach towns. The lighthouse has recently been rebuilt after collapsing due to a hurricane. With Light as their last name, Curtis and Jeanie will have to have their wedding pictures made at the lighthouse! :)

While we were in the area we also checked out Wakulla Springs State Park, about 1-1/2 hours from the island. We had a chance to ride the boat on the spring-fed river, that was a great experience! The river and banks were full of many different kinds of birds --- White Ibis, herons, egrets, Hooded Mergansers, American Widgeons, Pied-billed Grebes, Anhingas and even a Kingfisher. I finally got to see a Common Moorhen! Their red beaks look as though they are made of shiny plastic.

The next week we spent with my parents in the Panhandle area of Florida. It was wonderful to get to spend time with them for Christmas. Their dog, Buttons, had a great time helping us open our gifts! He loved the rawhide braid we brought him!

My parents have several Camellia bushes in their yard, this is the peak blooming season for them. I always enjoy going out to see them each morning. This one is my father's favorite, it is called Purple Dawn.

I hope everyone has a very happy New Year. It is hard to believe we won't be able to write "00" in the dates after Thursday!

I'll have the rest of my photos on my website under a couple of new galleries in the next few weeks. I'll start one for South Florida and one for Seashores.

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