View of Centennial Mountains at Red Rock Lake NWR

View of Centennial Mountains at Red Rock Lake NWR
View of Centennial Mountains at Red Rock Lake NWR

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Manatee Morning

I got an e-mail from Cindy telling me she was in Crystal River, Florida and did I want to come down and join her on a tour to swim with Manatees.  She was sleeping in her van at WalMarts so I first ascertained that I could fit in the back of my Honda Fit, so I could also camp for free,  then quickly replied with a big YES.

I went down a day early, since we had to be at Bird's Underwater Tours at 6:15 AM and it would take about three hours to get there. I researched places to paddle and decided to take my canoe with me.  Cindy planned to go to  the east side of the state but would come back across in the evening, so I needed to entertain myself.   I found a great place to put in on the Crystal River at Hunter's Spring Park. I paddled all over King's Bay, birding up and down many of the canals that gave all the homes there water access.  Then I headed up the river until I was a little past the Crystal River Archeology State Park.

When I got about 4 miles on my GPS, I headed back so I would be sure my shoulders would make it.  I had a wonderful time and took some great bird pictures.  But then....... I accidently threw them away before getting them safely in the file I'd made for them. AND I took another 250 pictures on top of them before realizing it, so I was sure I would not be able to use retrieval software to get them back.  But, take my word for it - this was a fun paddle.  I even ran right over a manatee, realized what it was, and came back over it to try to take its picture.  But while I was maneuvering, I disturbed it and it went too deep to see from the surface.  I found thirty-three species of birds, including pelicans and great blue herons that were already setting up housekeeping.

After I got back, I explored a few more state parks in the area, including Crystal River Archaeological State Park and Crystal River Preserve State Park.  I enjoyed the exercise of walking on the Eco-Walk Trail, even though not many birds were present.

In the evening, I  met Cindy at Walmart where we bought drinks at the Dunkin' Donut store inside, then sat around and got on the Internet, then edited pictures before "camping" out in our cars for the night there.

The next morning I got coffee and a breakfast sandwich at Dunkin' Donuts before driving to the tour shop. We were told to come dressed in our swim suits and the first thing we had to do was to take off our outer clothing and don wet suits, right in the store isles. Then we had to watch a movie on manatee etiquette before getting to board the boat and start off.

Manatee fashion wear

Loved this T-shirt
We headed out into the foggy almost dawn.  But the fog lifted as we arrived at the Three Sisters Springs. Cindy had accidentally gotten to Crystal River during the Manatee Festival a few days earlier, and had seen hundreds of manatees stacked into the springs.  But four days of cold were in the forecast, and Fish and Wildlife had closed the springs to boaters and swimmers to allow the manatees to stay as still as possible.  So we only got to see the manatees that were swimming in or out of the springs in less than clear water.  But we still had an outstanding experience.

Manatees appear to be fat but they really don't have much body fat - just HUGE lungs which allow them to stay underwater for about 20 minutes at a time. A few years ago, during an eight-day cold spell, ten percent of the manatees died of hypothermia when they got too hungry to remain in the warm (72 degree) springs.  So the closure was to help the manatees conserve energy so they would not have to swim to their feeding areas. 


Cindy watching the sun come up as we traveled to Three Sisters Springs
 The actual experience was unlike any other I've had. I was floating in the water with animals several times my size swimming within touching distance or actually coming up and touching me. I felt no fear, only awe and wonderment.  For the best feel for this trip, see Cindy's Blog. She bought a little underwater camera and got some great shots.  I have the light blue noodle and she also labeled the shots.

The radio on a radio-tagged manatee - I swam beside two different ones -
 the rope is attached just in front of their back flippers. 

Besides the manatees,  another highlight of our trip was getting to go out with Captain Donna.  She is another woman who is living her best life.  In the winter she works as a tour guide/captain for Birds Underwater Tours and also is a volunteer who helps bring in sick manatees for treatment or helps to recover dead ones so a necropsy can be done on them to determine why they died.   In the summer, she moves to North Carolina and teachers white water kayaking. She was very knowledgeable and passionate about manatees and about saving the species from extinction. She was probably close to retirement age but was living the life of young person.

Captain Donna visiting with the passengers 

The rule was that when the majority of the group were back on the boat, the rest of us HAD to come back.  I, of course, was one of the last three people back on the boat. The early quitters all got cold but I had found I could stay warm if I swam a patrol route along the ropes marking off the closed springs.  And there was one front spring that was still open.  I would sometimes stop there to warm up. 

The little curtained off corner held a porta potty and room to change back into our clothes.  I had a few bad minutes when I thought I'd accidently left my pants back at the tour store and would have to go all the way back with a towel wrapped over my underpants. But I'd really accidently taken them out of my dry bag and left them on the boat bench. Whew!

King's Bay was coming alive as we headed back around 10:30.  I think this was a kayaking tour, coming out to see manatees.  The woman who I thought might be the leader was far out in the front. 


Kayakers
 And for a couple of pictures of manatees taken from the land - here are two I took at Homosassa Springs State Park that afternoon.

This one has hyperextended his lungs so he can sunbathe
Manatees showing rear flippers - and a radio tag

If you love wildlife and water, this kind of trip should be on your bucket list. And I can definitely recommend Bird's Underwater Tours.  We felt we got more than our money's worth.  And of course you can always take your scuba equipment and boat and go by yourself.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Rebuilding Project

Warning!!! Long post.

Last week,  I got a wonderful e-mail from Susan, one of the staffers.  It said I could go over to the west side the following Thursday and help rebuild Mixon's Hammock Shelter.  I just had to show up at the maintenance shop at 7:00 A.M. Of course, I said yes.

Thursday was going to be quite cold, so I dressed in long underwear tops and bottoms, nylon pants and a fleece top, a light windbreaker, and two hats - one that my friend Tracy made me for Christmas topped by my sun hat, which also makes a good windbreak.  I had my usual smart wool socks on my feet.  I thought about wearing my canoeing boots, but then remembered that we can get in and out of the boats without getting wet, so I just wore my old low hikers that are now falling apart.(Shoulda taken the boots.) And I had my dry bag all packed with food, water, and my fleece pants, in case the weather was colder than I thought it would be. I also remembered to pack my leather work gloves.

Not long after I got to the departure site, two young volunteer guys and Wild Bill, another resident volunteer, showed up and we loaded up for the hour plus drive. Steve and I shared the back seat of the truck.  I read a book while he slept. We finally got to the other side where we met JD, the staffer who was the building foreman, and Bruce, another volunteer who is living at Banks Lake.  We divided ourselves into three boats and started off. The young guys fitted themselves among the tools in JD's work boat.  I went with Wild Bill, and Bruce went to get another boat.

Getting ready for a cold ride

JD, Steve and Tyler among the equipment and tools

Too cold to fly
Soon we were at Mixon's Hammock Shelter, which is only a few miles from the boat launch, down the Suwannee River.  I was excited to see more of this area. (If you didn't read about my first foray, click here.)

Arriving at the work site- behind Tyler is the porta potty and it's tank, in two pieces
The plan for the day was to get the piles driven, then add the cross ties, being sure to make a place for the porta-potty tank. The guys sawed the four corners of one end of each post off to make a point, then lined it up where it needed to go Tyler, and later Steve ,balanced on cross ties or a piece of lumber across the cross ties to drive the post down through the peat with a sledge hammer.


Tyler driving a post
As soon as the post got a little stable, the guys attached a pile driver.  This ran from an air compressor in the boat and made short work of driving the pies several feet into the peat. But the cold made the compressor cranky and it took several minutes to start.

Bruce setting up the pile driver

JD and Tyler holding the post straight while the pile driver works
Meanwhile, Bill and I hauled the old lumber away.  This platform is being completely rebuilt.
Most of what we walked on was the old platform, but the builders balanced on new cross ties to set new piles. The back part had been torn completely down and this was the part being rebuilt. The old wood was stacked on the front part or was just lying around on the (wet ground behind the platform.

Bill hauling a load of boards off the hammock
I hadn't been told to bring boots - and JD didn't bring me any waders.  So I mostly only hauled lumber from the platform to the boat, while Bill did the long hauls. When our boat was full, we took it back to the boat house area to dump it.

Besides the heavy photography work, I hauled wood across the platform to the boat

Boarding

Capt. Wild Bill with a load of lumber and me

A few of at least 1000 ibis we passed 

We hauled three of  these 12'" X 3" X 12' boards back 
Back at the work site, we found the guys had started to connect the posts they had just set. It took a person at each end to hold them in place while JD or another volunteer screwed them in. The generator had to run the rest of the day to keep recharging batteries for the drill.


Hauling in the heavy cross tie

Hang tight, there

Drill master
Even though I took about 400 pictures, after a while I was sure I had documented everything worth showing.. When I got bored, I went for a walk and took some artsy pictures, then came back and sat in our boat and read a book.

This camp is mostly used by boy scouts and has a fire pit and walk-around room
The guys continued to add posts and then connect them until they had all the posts driven and connected in the back area. They got half or more of the supporting cross ties in as well. JD, Steve. and Tyler made good use of their waders.

Building from the water up

The only bad time was when they checked the measurements for the porta potty tank and found one was way too big and the other too small. JD solved the problem by deciding to rotate the tank. This then only required adding one piece of a board to make that side smaller, and then moving an internal cross piece and relocating it a bit further apart from its neighbor.  This done, they gathered up their equipment and we all prepared to leave.


Bruce leaving with his load

Looking all done, there, Steve

Two and a half boat loads of lumber waiting for the dump truck

I had so much fun that I'm planning to go back next Wednesday, one of my days off.  I'm hoping to get to tear down the front portion.  I may have to bring my own crowbar or fight Steve, since that's his favorite job as well. JD expects this to take four more days - but the first three days next week are expected to be rainy so it may not get finished next week. But soon it will be a great place for young boy scouts to come and enjoy the swamp.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Racing Pigeon Tale

One of my more interesting assignments was to write up the following article on a little injured racing pigeon found by hikers and cared for my Okefenokee staff until she was well enough to be sent home. I thought you might enjoy it too:


A young athlete came to grief in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near Folkston, Georgia several months ago. Hikers found the avian racer – a Blue Check homing pigeon - on the ground with serious injuries. They delivered her to a refuge ranger who used the internet to locate her owner, Sal DiFazio, by the numbered band on her leg. She was cared for her until she was healthy enough to be sent back via the U. S. Postal Service.

Racing pigeon 85015, a game little hen, was just starting her five-year racing career. On October 13, 2013 she began a 150 mile race for first-year pigeons from Matthews, North Carolina, with an intended destination back to her coop in Sunset Beach, N.C. But instead of arriving within a few hours, she disappeared for several days.

DiFazio postulated that the weather was a main factor in getting her off course. Storms and heavy winds were present during and after the race, and perhaps she flew south in an attempt to avoid the storms. Also there is another pigeon racing club in Jacksonville, Florida that races birds north to south. She may have encountered some of these racers and then flew south with them. Once over the Okefenokee Swamp, she was probably attacked by a raptor such as a Cooper’s hawk, which would account for her injuries.

When hikers brought her to the visitor center six days after the race began, she couldn't stand on one leg, had an injured wing on the opposite side, and an open wound in the throat area. A refuge ranger applied antibiotic and propped her up in a cardboard box with a petri dish of water. Although the pigeon drank, water leaked out of her crop, whichdid not bode well for the pretty girl. The next day, the ranger left her with seed and water, but expected her not to need it. To her surprise, the pigeon perked up and its feces showed she had retained water and food. She was turned over to the refuge’s biologist who took over the rehabilitation, and within three weeks Pigeon 85015 was well enough to be shipped back home. By the time she arrived back at her loft via Express Mail, her leg and wing were completely healed, and she only had a few missing feathers over her crop. She will resume her racing career in March, when she'll be competing with mature pigeons.

 85015 almost all healed up

Young pigeons race at around 40 mph, while mature pigeons have been clocked at over 90 mph in a 400 mile race. Racers can cover 700 miles in a day. Winners and their progeny can command huge prices, often in the thousands of dollars. This year, a Belgian-bred pigeon was sold to a Chinese buyer for $400,000.

Homing pigeons have been used to carry messages for thousands of years, -- including in World Wars I and II -- but modern pigeon racing started in Belgium in the 1800's. Several varieties of rock doves (common pigeons) were bred together to develop the extremely fast and strong racers of today. The sport is worldwide, with both China and the United States showing an increase in popularity.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Fishing Demonstration..... by Andy Anhinga

For more clarity, click on each picture to see a larger image. 

I've been asked to demonstrate how to catch and eat a fish.  It's not hard here in Okefenokee Swamp.  I prefer to fish in a pretty shallow open area where I can fly through the water after fish and they can't dart down deep and get away from me. And there are lots of fish here that make a meal. I'm talking six to eight inch fish here.

Sometimes I can just grab the fish and other times I have to spear it with my sharp bill. Then I swim with it to one of the little hammocks in the lake and start the hard part - getting it off my bill and turned head first.  I usually don't drop fish but sometimes a really wiggly fish manages to get loose from me.  The fish doesn't have a chance to totally escape on land. I just grab it off the ground and start over on getting it presented properly to slide down my throat.




You gotta shake it  - and shake it hard -  to get it off your bill.  Then grab it again and toss it up and grab it.  Do this over and over - be patient now.  All this may take several minutes. When you have the fish just behind its head, you got to swing it and also turn loose and re-grab it.  You can't use your wings or feet to help.  Just your bill and good timing.






When you get the fish lined up perfectly with your throat, ready to go in head-fist, all you need to do is swallow, and swallow, and swallow.  Be SURE not to swallow it tail-first. That's a sure way to get the scales stuck in your throat.  Pretty deadly!




If its a really big fish you might need to add a few more swallows. And a sip or two of water helps get it the last way down.

Just one more swallow, and I'm done

Now it's time to dry your wings so you can fly.  But if danger arrives before your wings are dry, just dive back and fly through the water until you are safely away.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Carpe Diem!

I've been feeling jinxed here.  Every time I get days off, at least two of them, and sometimes all three of them are cold, rainy or some combination of the two.

Today was predicted to be rainy - with an eighty percent chance of rain.  I got up and got the cleaning down on trailers and cottages, then went to the safety meeting. All that kept me busy until after 11:00 A.M.  By then the sun was coming out and when I checked the regional radar, the incoming storm was just getting to Mississippi.  I figured I had at least six hours to play so packed up my paddling gear, snacks and water and hiked down to the boathouse where the staff lets me store my canoe.

Prairie View

By noon, I was paddling down the Suwannee Canal enjoying the sunny, shirtsleeve weather along with gators and turtles. When I saw the sign to Cedar Hammock, I decided to check it out. I paddled through the channel through the marsh under the patrol of turkey vultures and to the calls of sandhill cranes and ibises. Pileated  and red-bellied woodpeckers as well as kingfishers made themselves heard.

Sandhill pair

Two of three vultures hanging out

Another view

Cedar Hammock - a day use shelter

Anhingas were hanging out to dry all over the place.  One was on a low branch just before I got back to the boathouse.  He tried to fly off, but was still too wet, so he dove into the water and swam ahead of me.  He popped up about a yard ahead of the canoe, and immediately dove again. The following series is of an Anhinga high in a tree just past the shelter.


Anhinga drying

And grooming


All done

Lift Off

White ibis

Feather and reflections

Red shouldered hawk

I had my GPS on and found I had paddled six miles. I could have paddled another two or three.  My shoulder is just a little sore and I expect it to be better by tomorrow. I'm expecting two sets of paddling friends to visit me in March and I'm excited to think I'll actually get to go on a a two-night paddling trip Swamp with them.

Wednesday morning:

It finally started raining about bedtime and rained all night.  Yesterday was cool and dark with misty rain and heavy clouds until late afternoon. I was so glad I'd saved this one day.  Now I'm almost ready to leave on another birding trip, followed by a little shopping.  Harlequin duck, here I come.

Hope you also will grab your day and make it a wonderful one.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

In Search of Some Rare Birds Visiting Florida

There are several rare birds along the Florida coast,between the Georgia line and Jacksonville.  Last Wednesday, the first warm-up day after a record cold spell that sent the temperatures down to the low twenty's at Okefenokee with single digit chill factors, Cindy and I went hunting them.

The first place we stopped was at Fort Clinch State Park, which is at the north end of Florida's Birding Trail. A Harlequin Duck has been reported here for the past several weeks. We got to the park a little after 8:00 A.M. and bundled up.  I was in long underwear bottoms,  fleece pants and my thin nylon pants on top. I had on a fleece shirt and my lined winter volunteer jacket.  And I wore two hats on my head, one to keep warm, and one to stop the wind.  I occasionally wore gloves but usually needed bare hands to operate the camera.

The sun barely came out all day and we were the only souls out looking for the duck.   The first bird we saw was a bald eagle.  Then we saw ring-billed gulls, pelicans, several ruddy turnstones, and  a few ducks.  There were merganzers among them and I think a few scooters. But the pictures I took, then blew up to look came out fuzzy due to the low light and the high winds blowing me around so I couldn't determine which species we saw. But the Harlequin duck was not in sight.

This gull hovered over where the waves were slamming on to rocks


The only brown pelican I could capture in color

Happy Birder

After about an hour in the freezing wind, we decided to continue down to Little Talbot Island State Park  to see the Snowy Owl that has been bringing in lots of birdwatchers.  We found a ranger on permanent assignment to keep visitors from harassing the owl.  It was at least 70 yards away and mostly was sitting with its eyes closed or shuttered, and often with it's head turned away from us. But what a beautiful female bird.

Juvenile Female Snowy Owl

Our last stop was at Huguenot Memorial Park where we were again unsuccessful in finding the snow buntings that hang out there, but did find seven purple sandpipers, lifers for me. My battery died just before we found the sandpipers.  After a much needed lunch of pea soup - I brought my camp stove and heated it up -, Cindy started back to try and find the Harlequin duck, while I [put a new battery into my camera and went back to try and relocate the sandpipers. The wind was increasing and soon my camera was covered with fine sand and it was getting in my mouth and eyes. Before I gave up, I found greater black-back gulls and skimmers. Also the wind and waves were pushing lots of jellyfish on to the shore.  And I was amazed to see sanderlings pecking at the jellyfish.

Hooded merganser

Some of a flock of red knots

Cindy's picture of two of the purple sandpipers

Sanderling pecking at jellyfish

Royal and Forster's terns

Beach Scene

Skimmer and ring-billed gull
The Anhinga Made Me Late

I thought you might like to "see"  in words what I saw Friday.

I started the day with a trip to the Boardwalk.  It was so foggy and drippy, that I left my camera in the car and only counted birds. I lingered at the tower until I knew I would have to rush back in order to open the Visitor Center on time.  Just as I was about to go back, an anhinga swam into view. It was moving like a dancer or like a woman carrying a load on her head.  The only part of it I could see was its perfectly straight long neck, with its bill pierced through an 8" fish that looked like a catfish. The water moved around its swimming body, while the rest of it was still. 

 It swam to a little grassy island, only about five feet across.  Then it commenced shaking its head to try to remove the fish. It never tried to use its feet to help in this operation. This took at least a minute.  Then it caught the fish again between its top and bottom bill and shook its head sideways, shaking it harder to the left.  During several shakes, the fish aligned straighter and straighter until the bill and the fish made one line. Then the bird swallowed the fish in one gulp.  By the time I got back to the car, I was about fifteen minutes late.  Staff had already opened the center but forgave me my lateness.