Category: parks

Midweek Miscellany: Nature Along Florida’s Gulf Coast (with pics & videy!)

Are any of you denizens of the internet residents of Florida?  Has anyone visited Florida or, if you’re a wanderer of the blogosphere from somewhere other than the U.S., have you even heard of Florida or have any idea of what it’s like?  To many, Florida is a sun-drenched version of the American dream, where summer is perpetual, the beach a block away and fresh orange juice as close as the tree in your back yard.  The Florida lifestyle, in fact, can be so pleasant that it’s easy to forget, or overlook, the complexities of America’s third most populous state (that’s right!  Only California and Texas have more people and New York — New York! — has less.  In American presidential politics, this makes Florida one big electoral prize).

Florida is literally the land of tomorrow and of yesterday; a place where you can watch a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral one day and on the next visit St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States (founded by the Spanish in 1565, long before those English pilgrims showed up at Plymouth Rock).  Florida is a land of paradox and contradictions, with disparate elements often existing in close juxtaposition to each other:  a manicured golf course lies next to a mangrove swamp; Disney Land and tourist theme parks co-exist with Miami’s International Art Fair (the place to go for serious collectors of contemporary art); an alligator suns itself on a suburban driveway; egrets and herons fish alongside their human counterparts.  Florida wraps this package of self-contradictions in endless miles of beautiful beaches.  With the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, Florida has more seacoast than any other continental state; its gorgeous white sand beaches and tropical waters have tempted generations of American college students south for spring break (note to anyone planning a mid-March Florida trip:  take care in booking your hotel, unless you think setting off fire alarms at 3 am is the height of humor.  Mr. Janakay does not and was very grumpy indeed after one of his spring Florida jaunts).   

Because Florida has so many pleasurable ways to pass the time (not least, dear reader, it offers numerous opportunities to lounge on one’s porch or patio with something white and chilly in hand), it’s very, very easy to overlook its fantastic natural attractions.  If you’ve wandered by my blog before, you know that I adore swamps, marshes, wildlife reserves, boardwalks, and parks; I’m basically a huge fan of any place where humanity has left even a sliver of room for non-human creatures.  (Nature along the Delaware Coast; Nature on the Move).  Although so many of Florida’s natural wonders have been lost to commercial development and population growth, there’s room for hope because so much still remains.  Of these surviving remnants of “natural” Florida my very favorite is Corkscrew Swamp, a 13,000 acre sanctuary (about 5300 hectares) located in the western Everglades and operated by the National Audubon Society.

You may find Corkscrew and its wonders about thirty miles inland and slightly north of Naples; find Naples in the map’s lower green quadrant, put your finger on the “a” and go up a bit and you’ll have a rough idea of Corkscrew’s location.

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Condominiums and beach playgrounds dominate much of the coast in this area; logging and agriculture have taken their toll.  Despite visiting this part of Florida many times, I still find it hard to believe that this:

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Naples, Florida

is only about 30 miles (approximately 48 kilometers) from this:

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A portion of Florida’s last remaining Bald Cypress forest, visible from Corkscrew’s boardwalk.

Visiting Corkscrew and viewing its wonders is easy.  The sanctuary is open every day of the year; admission fees are minimal (fourteen American dollars; admission good for two consecutive days if you save your receipt) and the two miles of boardwalk provide easy access to Corkscrew’s different habitats (if you’re not up for two miles, there’s a shorter loop you can do).  Because Florida is hot, and birds and wildlife can be scarce when people are present, I always try to arrive as early in the morning as possible (the boardwalk opens at 7 am).

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It’s always fun to check the “do it yourself” list of sightings left by previous visitors at the beginning of the boardwalk.  On this trip, I missed the “giant grasshopper” and “yellow rat snake” seen by others!
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The boardwalk “loop” begins at the visitor center.  The first portion of the walk covers Florida prairie, marked by open space, palms and pine trees.
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A Red-bellied Woodpecker, seen near the beginning of our walk.  It’s a common species in the eastern U.S. but always fun to see (and hear!  They drum and make lots of squeaky sounds).  The ones in Corkscrew appear darker to me than the birds found further north; this type of regional variation can be fairly common with birds.

One wonderful thing about wetlands are the sounds, which are frequently as interesting and unusual as the sights.  Even though its sound recording isn’t great, this short video of Corkscrew’s prairie does give some idea of the cacophony of frogs, none of which were visible (the snuffling sound is the frogs; there’s also a bird in the background):

 

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By this point, the boardwalk is traversing deep swamp.  Its very inaccessibility helped Corkscrew to survive:  bugs, snakes, water and no roads simply made logging too difficult, at least initially.

Once in the deep swamp I had one of those wonderful, unpredictable experiences that sometimes occur — a wildlife sighting!  This was my first view of a group of Corkscrew’s river otters:

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Otter No. 1 is checking out the boardwalk, deciding whether it’s safe . . . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yup, it’s safe!
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Another member of the gang appears  . . . . . .
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Three otters are enough to begin a group wrestling match!  Ultimately, the pile included 6 or 7 animals . . . .
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Another recruit . . . .

 

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A head-on look.  The otters were totally unintimidated by human presence . . . .

This is a brief video of the otters’ appearance.  Because it was made towards the end of the wrestling match, several of the troupe had already moved along the boardwalk.  You can hear some swamp sounds and (alas) the click of someone else’s very high tech camera:

 

Although the otters were hard (well, impossible) to top, Corkscrew has more wonders:

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One of Corkscrew’s “lettuce lakes;” it’s hard to believe there’s water under all that vegetation.  The lettuce lakes provide important habitat for all manner of creatures, including . . . . . .

 

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baby alligators!  Can you spot this one, right in the center, on one of the leaves?  Don’t be fooled by the size; although this one is tiny, adults can range from 8 to 11 feet (2 to 4 meters) and weigh several hundred pounds.
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More baby alligators, sunning themselves on the bank of the same lettuce lake.  On my last visit, about a year ago, I also saw a mother alligator with her brood; this time, however, I didn’t see an adult.
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Another lettuce lake.  That I didn’t see any alligators doesn’t mean they weren’t there!

 

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An Anhinga, one of Florida’s “specialty” birds.  They swim under water and stab fish with that long, nasty bill.  This one is drying its wings after taking a dip.

 

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A profile view of the same Anhinga; this gives a better view of that nasty bill!

 

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I’ve almost always seen a barred owl on my visits to Corkscrew; this one came late in my walk, when I had almost given up!
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Red-Shouldered Hawks are also common Corkscrew residents . . . .

 

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An immature Green Heron.  When this one grows up, he (or she! Hard to tell which) will lose those stripes . . . .

 

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A very imperfect view of Aldo No. 3, one of Corkscrew’s great bald Cypress trees.  It was named after Aldo Leopold, one of the fathers of the modern conservation movement.  Aldo No. 3 is over 500 years old and stands 98 feet tall.  We’re lucky to still have Aldo, as logging activity was halted less than a mile away.
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This is only one of Corkscrew’s many species of flowers. . . .

 

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One of the swamp’s many dragonflies . . . .

You may have noticed, dear reader, that I have a tendency to preach, which I do attempt (not always very successfully) to keep under control.  Chalk it up to all that earnest, didactic Victorian literature I sometimes read (BTW I’m currently engrossed in Middlemarch, George Eliot’s wonderful doorstopper of a novel!).  So — skip this paragraph if you like, you’ve received your warning — but it’s impossible for me when discussing Corkscrew not to stress how incredibly difficult it’s been (and continues to be, actually) to preserve its wonders.  Have you ever heard of plume hunters or noticed the feathers in all those gorgeous women’s hats, so fashionable in the early part of the 20th century?  Well, those feathers had to come from somewhere and the rookeries of south Florida were easy pickings.  Plume hunters could make a fortune in one successful hunt and their activities almost wiped out Florida’s heron and egret population.  The trade was finally outlawed in the 1920s but even then official enforcement was lax.  Audubon hired its own wardens to protect Corkscrew’s nesting sites and launched a public relations campaign against wearing the plumes.  It was difficult and violent struggle — two of Audubon’s wardens were murdered in the line of duty —  but their efforts were successful and the egret/heron population was saved.

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Snowy Egret in breeding plumage. A century ago, this guy would have ended up on someone’s hat.
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The boardwalk ends, as it began, with a stretch of Florida prairie.

Because you’re observing a living biome, every trip to Corkscrew is different.  For example, if you’re lucky enough to visit during October to February, you have a very good chance of seeing:

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a Painted Bunting, which spends the winter “down south.”  Wouldn’t you think that something so unbelievably colorful would love to show off its plumage?  Nothing could be further from the truth!  These birds are very shy and are normally quite hard to see.  Corkscrew, however, has bird feeders located where they like to hang out (deep brush), making for fairly easy viewing if you visit during the right season.

And then, if you’re incredibly lucky (not ordinary luck, but the kind where you’d win the powerball lottery), you might see — a Florida panther!

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Needless to say, this is NOT my photo!  Despite being quite willing to trade several years of my life for the experience, I’ve never seen on of these beautiful animals.

I can’t resist using this great video, lifted directly from YouTube.  There’s a naughty expression at the end, so if you’re sensitive to such things you may want to turn off the sound.  I’ve left it in, as it so exactly expresses how I would have felt!

 

Florida Panther

 

Audubon calls Florida panthers an “umbrella species,” i.e., if they survive, so do lots of other things that use the same habitat.  Once they were found over the entire southeastern U.S.; now there are about 100–150 left in a few spots in southern Florida.  Cause for despair or reason to hope?  Because the numbers have grown since 1995, when the population was down to only 20-30, you decide.

 

Miscellaneous Monday: Summer Weekends

Are you, dear reader, a worshiper of the weekend?  On Monday mornings do those two precious days glimmer like a mirage on the far horizon; a heavenly vision that gets you through those nasty mid-week blues?  I must admit that I’m more tolerant of weekdays and less reverent about weekends since I’ve left the 9 to 5 routine but — they do remain special.  Weekends are little breaks from the mundanity of everyday routine, with even the most ordinary non-special-occasion weekend offering its own little serendipities.  The greatest, of course, is the weekend read.  An entire afternoon, with no chores or commitments, and nothing, absolutely nothing, between you and the book of your choice.  A treat of this caliber is rare, even on weekends, but there are lesser delights to savor.  On weekends, the morning’s hasty bagel breakfast can expand to include a friendly  interchange with the bagel chomper at the next table, or the harried trip to the grocery store can become leisurely enough to notice (finally) that nice patch of flowers along your route.  Or — hang on to your hat, Magellan! — you might feel relaxed and adventurous enough to explore a different route to a familiar destination; or even to try a different activity — a new store, an unfamiliar park or museum or that obscure cafe you’ve being hearing about.  Even the domestic routine mellows out — weekends are for trying new recipes, or looking at forgotten photos, or giving the cat an extra tummy tickle along with his/her’s Little Friskies Gravy Lovers’ Treat (a huge favorite in my household).  In short, weekends are for doing all those little things that are actually very big things.

Although weekends are pretty super any time of the year, summer weekends are really unbeatable.  One huge factor contributing to their charm — farmers’ markets!  Do any of you live near farmers’ markets and, if so, do you enjoy them as much as I do?  In my area, they’ve gone from being rather rare to being ubiquitous.  Although you may find, depending on location, a pop-up market on Friday, or even Thursday, Saturday morning markets tend to be the most popular.  Many of the markets also include much more than the usual fruits and veggies (although I tend to stick to the produce).  The Saturday morning farmer’s market is one of summer’s delights, combining exercise (well, sort of — you do have to walk past the stands), entertainment (if nothing else, there’s always people watching, or a clever dog chasing a frisbee) and really great food:

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Very early morning at the local farmers’ market.  Not all the vendors have set up their stands and the street entertainers haven’t yet made their appearance. In an hour or two, this place will be mobbed ……
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A few of the local offerings.   At this particular farmer’s market, items must be locally grown and preferably organic. As you can see, basil, greens and baby tomatoes are in season.  They will be followed later in the summer by local strawberries, cherries, peaches & corn.
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It’s no mystery why this particular bakery does quite a lively business at the Saturday market!
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If you’re ambitious, and unlike myself non-fatal to plants, you can even find things for your very own garden.
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At last, an entertainer shows up!
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A souvenir from the farmers’ market, to enjoy all week after the eatable goodies are gone.  Although I didn’t get photos of the stands, several of the vendors at my local market specialize in flowers, less expensive and far nicer than the greenhouse variety…

When you’ve had enough of the farmers’ market, or if you decide to skip it that week, not to worry!  Summer weekends have still more delightful possibilities for the dedicated hedonist!  Although my ideal physical exercise is ordinarily confined to turning a page, in the summer I actually like to walk.  One of my very favorite places for a summer’s stroll (quite accessible from where I live,  but, unfortunately, not terribly close) is Little Bennett, a gorgeous multi-use state park containing numerous paths and trails, natural wonders in the form of native plants and critters and some interesting historical sites.  Although Little Bennett is under increasing pressure from a growing population (it’s only a couple of miles from a recently developed “town center” that added approximately 20,000 people to this part of the state), it remains an incredible oasis of natural beauty.  Because Little Bennett is a large place (3700 acres or about 1497 hectares), quiet and solitude can be found there even on crowded weekends.  It has a variety of trails, suited to almost every energy level:

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Little Bennett is hilly; this particular trail has lots of dips and ascents.
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For a more sedate walk, you can use the remnants of an old road that once connected several of the farms whose acreage is now included in the park. This portion is relatively intact; the road disappears entirely further along.
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One of my favorite things about the park is its large and meandering stream, which provides habitat for fish and birds, including …….
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Louisiana Waterthrushes, a species of North American warbler.  These birds are regular summer residents of Little Bennett.
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An area I call “the Bluebird meadow” (I have NO idea of its official name, if any). If you squint really hard at the center of the photo (behind the tree shadow extending from the left) you can see two Bluebird nesting boxes (small square shapes on a pole).  This portion of the park is — surprise! — a pretty good spot to see ….
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Eastern Bluebirds.  Bluebirds eat bugs, love meadows and need cavities for their nests. Without nesting boxes, they would probably be totally displaced by non-native European starlings, which are more aggressive and are also cavity nesters.
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Wims Meadow, once part of a farm owned in the 1930s by Jim Wims, a prosperous African-American farmer. Mr. Wims donated the meadow as a baseball field for African-Americans, who had nowhere else to play in those segregated times.  The Wims teams became known for their excellence and a couple of the players went on to become professionals.

A third summer delight for those less outdoorsy moments is taking a bit more time to savor the cultural offerings that come with the season.  This year I hit the jackpot, as there’s a wonderful June-August exhibition at the National Gallery on:

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The exhibition, the first of its kind, covers 17 centuries and animals real and imaginary. Many of the objects, which include sculpture and ceramics as well as paintings, have rarely if ever left Japan.
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The wall banners are located outside and to the left of the exhibition’s entrance.  As I recall, the banners portray animals associated with the Japanese zodiac.

(in the first exhibition photo, you can see that this digital display is located to the right of the entrance; as you can tell from the sound — you may want to use mute — its animated  animals are quite popular with the kids).

Since summer is my time for exploring, I usually visit the Gallery’s east wing, devoted to modern art, more often than I do at other times of the year.  The east wing has recently reopened after a five-years renovation.  Its totally gorgeous galleries are expansive, roomy and filled with light.

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Although this photo shows only a portion of the East Building’s atrium, it does give you an idea of its size. If you like Alexander Calder’s mobiles, it doesn’t get any better than this!
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A gallery devoted to Calder’s smaller works.  My favorite is the glitter fish in the upper right.
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See what I mean about the gorgeous display spaces? I’m embarrassed to say I’ve forgotten the names of the artists whose works you see here — help anyone?
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I love Giorgio Morandi’s paintings .  My significant other finds his work dull; I find it deeply spiritual and contemplative. When I’m in the East Building, I NEVER skip these paintings!
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One of the very nicest features of the renovated East Building was the addition of a roof top terrace, an ideal “break” spot for the summer time art lover! Pay close attention to that hint of blue underneath the left-most tree …….
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. . . which is the bottom half of this huge plastic sculpture by the German artist Katharina Fritsch.   Just LOOK at its size (use the door to the left and the tree in the preceding photo for scale). Are you surprised to learn this is a popular spot for selfies?

Although this post is growing dangerously long, in the spirit of Miscellaneous Monday I’m throwing in some miscellaneous video, also from the National Gallery (as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m learning how to use video on my website!)  One of my favorite parts of the museum is its “people mover,” part of an underground concourse that connects the older West Building to the Gallery’s newer East Wing.  The lights you see in the video are part of the  Multiverse light sculpture created by the American artist Leo Villarreal:

Immediately preceeding the people-mover/light sculpture is the National Gallery’s “waterfall,” which is visible from the underground cafeteria and bookstore and provides a source of natural light to these spaces:

Finally, if all this activity is just too energy consuming, nothing is better on a summer weekend than just plain taking it easy in a favorite spot:

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Farmers’ markets, hiking and museum exhibitions are all very well and good, but Percy knows the best way to pass a summer weekend . . . . on a nice cushion underneath an air conditioning vent!