Saturday, February 28, 2015

More everglades

Well, we got to the campground by noon and scored a site. That put us in the Everglades for another night (for a whopping $8.00). We immediately headed for the Anhinga Trail, one of the most popular. It is a boardwalk above a marsh and birds (and, of course, gators) are in good supply. Here we saw nests of anhinga chicks as well as adult anhingas.
Anhinga chicks

Typical anhinga pose

There is a small wooded area with pond apple trees. These had air plants that were just beginning to bloom.

It also had the usual gators, here's a good one.

There were cormorants all over the place, some close enough to touch (we didn't try to). I had never heard a cormorant call before. It is pretty ugly. There were also quite a few blue herons.

Moving on, we visited a pond where there were a group of roseate spoonbills and wood storks in the trees on the opposite side. Unfortunately, those distant birds were the only spoonbills we were able to spot.

Everyone know that the everglades are very low-lying, but it is still a bit surprising to see a sign marking one of the higher elevations.

We drove on to Flamingo with the idea of maybe taking one of the boat rides. We got there just in time to see the boat leaving. The next one would have put us pretty late, so we just found a parking place overlooking Florida Bay, had a late lunch, and chilled. No need to rush from one activity to another --- after all, we're on vacation.

Next morning, we had a long conversation with another Roadtrek owner, and headed for one last thing. We decided to end our everglades adventure with a walk along the Gumbo Limbo Trail. This is right next to the Anhinga Trail but couldn't be more different. There are no birds or animals. There may perhaps be some tree snails or butterflies, but we didn't see any. With a slightly higher elevation it is a tangled jungle of gumbo limbo and live oak trees, along with strangler figs, air plants, and God-only-knows what else.

Gumbo limbo tree

It looks like something out of one of the scarier parts of a Disney movie.


After the walk, we headed for the Tamiami Trail and Naples. This road cuts across the top of the Everglades, then through the Big Cypress Swamp. We had lunch at the Miccossukee Restaurant along the way. Trying to find a campsite was frustrating. Everyone was filled. We finally found a space at the Chokoloskee Island Park, which is like a small fish camp on Florida Bay.

So that is where we are today. We took and extra day in order to do laundry and just kick back a little. I finally had time and energy to catch up with the blog. It is Florida back country, popular with fishermen and pelicans.

Old pair of pelicans
Tomorrow we turn north. We need to get close to Sefner to visit a relative of Jean's. We may even take the back roads and bypass Naples altogether. Wednesday we have an appointment to get some work done on the Roadtrek from the place we bought it (and still my favorite dealer/repair place). That will probably be our last official Florida event for this trip. We're already making plans for next year.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A trip to the 'glades

Off the keys, our next objective is the everglades. It is a very large park, but not much of it is open to the public. From our campground to Flaming,o at the end of the road, is only about 50 miles. So we took two nights at the campground to have the whole day free to explore.

After breakfast at Cracker Barrel, we drove down into the park. The first thing we saw was a sign saying that camping was only allowed in campgrounds. There are campgrounds? We were operating under the idea that there weren't any. We learned at the visitor center that there are two: one near the beginning --- dry camping only, first come first served --- and one at Flamingo with some hookups --- reserve several months in advance.

One often thinks of the everglades as this great sawgrass prarie,

or a tree-filled swamp. In fact, there are half a dozen or so unique ecosystems, often separated by just a few inches of elevation. The first walk we took was through a slash pine forest. These forests play host to several hundred species of tree snails. These snails spend half their lives dormant, sealed tight during the dry season (winter). Picking one up allows it to dry out, thus killing it.

On the way to another walk, we spotted people parked on the shoulder, taking pictures. A sure sign of something interesting to see. At first we thought they were looking at the wood storks and ibis in the water. But the real interest was a mama gator with two babies right alongside the road.

We pressed on to Flamingo for a late lunch. There we were able to spot a crocodile resting in the mangroves (yet another ecosystem).

We also saw an osprey feeding a chick.

There was also another species you see in national parks, a couple of fully-geared up photographers taking pictures of the ospreys with huge long lenses.

On the way out, we stopped by a lake that sometimes has roseate spoonbills. There were no spoonbills, just a group of teenagers hauling out their canoes. Thus no birds, though we did spot a couple of gators in the middle of the lake, and perhaps an anhinga on the far side.

All in all, a busy day, and we still didn't see all of the "limited" area open to the public. Tomorrow we will see if we can get a site in the first campground. If so, we will have another day in the 'glades.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Farewell to the keys

Morning (not too early) on a site  by the sea. I sit with my juice on the picnic table and gaze out to sea. The water is calm and half a dozen shades of blue and green. There is a light offshore breeze. Four rubber dinghies are moored in a row a short distance offshore, while farther out, boats head out for fishing. It is a little above half-tide. There is a strip of wet sand, with a rock garden off to the left. A bunch of sanderlings is working the wet sand while a number of plovers are busy in the shallows just beyond. The rocks host a convention of gulls which periodically break into full chorus.

A little blue heron flies in and stalks the shallows. An osprey flies over and lands in a dead tree. A lone pelican passes overhead. There is no better way to start the day.

I could do this every morning, but this is our last morning in the keys. We were lucky to get two days here but now it is over. We head back to the mainland today. After checking at the ranger station to see if there were any cancellations (there weren't) we turn north and join the sea of vehicles leaving the keys.

We make a short stop before the long bridge off Key Largo. While there we look up a possible campground for the night and settle on one called Broadway. When we get to the campground we find there is a gate. A woman leaving stops and asks if we had forgotten the code. Then she punches some numbers into the keypad and the gate opens. We drive in to the office and inquire if there are any transient sites available. There are none, not even in the overflow lot. But they call another nearby campground and find it has some space available. They give us directions, and so by about 2:30 we were checked in to Southern Comfort RV Resort (they are not campgrounds in Florida).

Since it was early we drove across the street to a collection of outlets and Jean got her shopping fix. Next, to a huge Walmart for some groceries, and finally to a gas station to fuel up for tomorrow's trip into the Everglades.

When we get back to the campground ("resort"), there is a large food truck parked inside the gate. It is a pizzaria, complete with an oven. An appropriate contrast to how the day started (no, we didn't have pizza for supper).

Monday, February 23, 2015

A day in the keys

Monday, our first, and possibly only, full day in the keys. At one time we thought about spending it at Key West. Then we thought we would just hang loose in Long Key.  When we woke up it was high tide. The water was up to the edge of the site, no beach at all. Then the sun bore down and it got hot --- at least hot to our winter-adapted bodies. There was no wind at all which didn't help any. So rather than run the air conditioning, we decided to explore

Jean heard about a sea turtle rescue place in Marathon, so we thought we would try to find that. She also read that the only place to see key deer is Big Pine Key, so that was added to the schedule. We also wanted to get to a beach (always a requirement). So off we went, about noon.

Once on Marathon (about 15 miles away) we saw signs for Coco Plum Beach, so we made the required turn and eventually found a small beach parking area. The parking area was bigger than the beach.
A gentleman I talked to briefly said that it was typical of key beaches: hardly anything at high tide and mud (and coral) flats at low tide. He told us how to get to Sombrero Beach, which would be more like what we expected.

When we got back to the main road (Route 1) Jean asked about the Turtle Hospital at a gas station and was told it was about a mile or mile and a half down the road on the left. Everything we want to see seems to be on the left --- and traffic is pretty heavy. So off we went, staying in the left-hand lane. And sure enough, a mile and a half later there it was --- on the right. We made a death-defying swerve and slid into the parking lot.

The entrance building housed a small museum with placards about various aspects of sea turtles. There is a 90-minute tour that cost $18 a head. The next tour started at 3:00. It sounded interesting but we elected to read the placards and press on for Big Pine Key.

On the way we turned off (left, of course) for Sombrero Beach. When we got there it was crowded and there was not a parking place anywhere in the three-block parking area. So we regretfully turned around and went back to US 1.

Traffic on Big Pine Key was very heavy, but we found the key deer information center. It was a right turn, but the road immediately forked and there was no indication of which fork to was on. There we were told that the best place to find deer was a road just off 1 back where we got on the key. We found the road and followed it to a small parking area at the end. There was a foot trail leading into the woods. While we were eating a quick lunch a man came out of the trail with two dogs. In the ensuing conversation he told us that there were very few deer at that location. There were lots of deer where he lived on the other end of the key. He brought his dogs here to walk because he didn't want them chasing deer. We thanked him and got directions to his area and left. On the way out we spotted three deer crossing the road ahead of us. We stopped and grabbed a couple of pictures.

So having seen our deer, we headed back toward Marathon, looking for a well-advertised sandal store. Jean spent a little while in Sandal Factory, but didn't find anything to interest her. By now it was getting close to sunset. On a whim, we headed back to Sombrero Beach. Sure enough, there was plenty of parking and almost no one on the beach. As promised, it is a more normal-looking beach.
In the two days were have been here there has been little or no wind, no waves, and no surf. I don't know if this is normal or not. Is the lack of waves because of the lack of wind, or are the waves all knocked down by the offshore coral reefs? I picked up some sand for my collection and we looked around for a short time. Then we headed out again.

We thought for a while that we might eat supper in Marathon, but it was getting late and we didn't see anything to tempt us. It was just after sunset when we got to the park.
The gate was locked, but it has the same combination as the keypad so that was no problem. We backed into our site with the last of the twilight. Home again after an interesting day.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

On to the Keys

Another couple of days of getting from one place to another. We finally tore ourselves away on Saturday afternoon and headed south for the keys. But first we had some shopping to do, since now we would be preparing our own meals. We also stopped for a late lunch at a sports bar, which was crowded and the kitchen was busy. It was with a bit of trepidation that we rolled onto the Florida Turnpike --- but it took our Sun Pass so now we know that works (always a little unsure the first time).

We had a reservation at a campground in southwestern Miami, near Florida City. It is a large, well-arranged campground that looked like it had once been a KOA. First job was to dump the holding tanks (which were probably bulging) and fill the fresh water tank. The city water input hasn't worked since the freeze in Virginia. I had hoped it would just have some ice in it and be thawed out but no such luck. So I had to hold the hose in the gravity fill. Thirty gallons with a flow restricter and a filter inline takes a looong time. Finally we were back to normal.

Sunday we took a walk around the park, and set out in earnest. The route from the campground led through endless huge nurseries. There were miles of trees and plants of every description. We even saw a huge field of ferns. Then things got more urbanized and we went through beautiful downtown Homestead, an interesting old town. Finally we got onto US1 and we were on our way to the keys for sure.

Traffic in both directions was fairly heavy, but moved well. Except for Tavernier (just beyond Key Largo) that was having a festival of some sort and was very crowded. Stop-and-go traffic for a few miles. Shortly after getting onto the keys we pulled in to a Visitor Center. There was a big desk with a jolly man who could write upside down on the maps. We confessed that we knew little or nothing about the keys and what could he recommend? He marked up a map of the keys, and talked up Key West. He was friendly and joking; but when he tried to sell us tickets for the Key West tram and we said we preferred to do things on the spur of the moment, he dropped us like a hot rock and just walked off. Welcome to the commercial side of the keys.

We had reservations (gotten by pure luck) for two nights (Sunday and Monday) in the campground in Long Key State Park so we decided to just go there and check in, then figure what we were going to do next. So eventually we arrived at the state park (about milepost 67) and checked in. Our tentative plan was to claim our space, then explore a little, and spend Monday "doing" Key West. Our campsite is smooth and flat, between screens of trees, and backs up to the water's edge.
View out the rear window
The day was warm and sunny, the water slick calm, and the view out our back door was of a wide field of tidal flats. Every campsite is on the "beach." The beach itself is very narrow, and low tide exposes a wide expanse of rippled sand or a field of broken rocks.

We took a walk down the beach, talked with some other campers, and just took in the sights.

We are seriously thinking of blowing off Key West and hang out here in paradise all day. Already talking about coming back next year for longer. They start accepting reservations 11 months in advance so we will be on the computer next month.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Recovering from the Swamp Safari

After that day-long adventure to Billie's Swamp Safari, we needed a couple of days to relax and recover (we aren't as young as we used to be).

On Thursday Jean and Anna went shopping, but didn't find anything they wanted. They also stopped by the manatee river, but it was cold out (for Florida) and the manatees stayed pretty much on the bottom except to catch a quick breath. I spent that time uploading a gob of pictures and writing up the blog of Wednesday's adventures.

Then I logged on to the website to make reservations at Florida state parks, looking to see if anything was available on the keys. Those parks are normally booked up a year in advance (and in fact, when I checked in last August there was nothing available). But I gave it a try to see if there had been any cancellations. As luck would have it I was able to reserve a spot on Long Key for Sunday and Monday nights. Now all we had to do was worry about Saturday.

In the evening we went to a Cuban restaurant for Anna's birthday. The food was good and we were joined by some friends. It turned into a full-blown party and we shut the place down. All in all, a successful day.

Friday we went to the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center (whose name is almost bigger than the facility).
There we spent some time at the ray tank, where we got a short talk on rays. They have three different kinds there, Cow-nosed, Atlantic, and Southern. Then they passed out bits of fish and people (mostly kids) stuck their hands in the tank to feed the rays. Not to worry, their barbs have been removed.

Cow-nosed ray
They also had a large, game-fish tank with a variety of fish in it.

In addition, there is a sea-turtle exhibit with a curator, but it was too cold to have the turtles outside. There are a number of other outside stations, as well as a well-done museum room.

We went to our favorite orange orchard and bought lug of oranges to take back to Virginia. This will extend our winter supply of juice oranges for a couple more weeks. After that we looked up a county park near Palm City that looked interesting. It is at a lock on the cross-Florida canal. It would be a good place to dump tanks if we need to in the future. Not a problem this time, earlier in the day I secured a site in a campground south of Miami for Saturday.

Our time with Jean's family is drawing to a close, so we caught up on laundry and showers. Next stop, the keys.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A day in the 'glades

This is the post that should have been put up yesterday but we were too tired. Yesterday (Wednesday) the whole family (Jean's son and his family) made an expedition into the Everglades. It was about a two hour drive to the Big Cypress Swamp Indian Reservation. This is a Seminole reservation south and west of Lake Okeechobee. We went to a place called Billie's Swamp Safari. It turns out that Billie is a common surname among this group of Seminoles.

It is a well-laid-out compound that has several animal displays and some activities. We took an air-boat ride, a swamp buggy ride, and caught a show where they brought out a number of animals and talked about them. One of the things that struck me was that they had a lot of animals there that aren't native to south Florida. It is sort of a cross between a wildlife preserve and a zoo. It did have a monster 'gator lying next to a pond.

The day was cooler than usual, so the 'gators weren't moving; just lying there soaking up the sun.

We started out with the air-boat ride. That took us along a flower-choked river and into the cypress swamp. A swamp differs from a marsh (which is what I thought most of the everglades was) in that it has trees growing right in the water.

Air-boats are loud, so they issue ear-plugs. The driver stops and turns off the engine when he has something to say or point out. That is where we saw our first Cape Buffalo, though on dry land outside the swamp area.

When we got back Gene had to get a look at the display of dugout canoes. They were made out of a cedar log and were very narrow. They were poled from a deck in the stern, and the bows were shaped to turn aside the saw-grass, which can cut you if it brushes against you.

Next we attended the animal talk. One of the animals was an alligator snapping turtle. We learned that this particular kind of turtle cannot move its head much, which makes it difficult to catch fish.

Instead, it lies in the water with its mouth open displaying a red lure in its mouth. When a small fish is attracted to it the turtle snaps its mouth shut and catches it.

The show finished with a small (2 1/2 to 3 feet) alligator that people could touch and even hold if they wanted. Of course its mouth was taped shut with duct tape.

Then we took a long ride in a swamp buggy. This was run by the same person who presented the animal show, so we got a lot of information on the animals we saw. This ride took us through a hardwood hammock, a forested area that is above the water level. This is the dry season so we were mostly on dry land, though in the wet season the buggy runs through shallow water much of the way.

On this trip we saw a lot of wildlife, some of it, like the ostrich, imported;

and some, like wild pigs, introduced by the Spanish.

Other bird life included an anhinga,

and a sandhill crane.

 There were many other critters both foreign and domestic, which I wasn't able to get pictures of as we bounced along.

After the Swamp Safari, we spent some time in a good but small Seminole museum. It was almost closing time when we got there so we didn't get to see as much as we would have liked. Maybe we will be able to go back some time.

We ended the day with a dinner to celebrate Hannah's birthday, followed by way too much ice cream. All told a long but interesting day. Today we will spend most of the time relaxing and recovering. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Another day in paradise

Easy morning, then off to the beach about 11:00. It is an absolutely beautiful day, just perfect for the beach. Apparently everyone else had the same idea. After trying several favorite beaches and finding no parking, we finally ended up at Stuart beach, where there is plenty of parking. They need it. The beach looked like Coney Island.

We plunked down our chairs and settled into our usual beach activities: Gene scanned the horizon looking for boats, Anna scanned the water looking for marine life, and Jean checked us both out and also took a walk looking for shells. A relaxing time was had by all.

In early afternoon we broke camp and headed out to pick up Anna's daughter Hannah from work. Along the way we picked up hamburgers for everyone, which we ate in the salon parking lot. Then it was off to Locksahatchee to a sort of mini-zoo associated with a wildlife rescue center. We spent a couple of hours looking at the various examples of wildlife found in southern Florida.
Ranger with barn owl

There are even some crocodiles in Florida

The area itself has quite a bit of swamp in it.

The seabird area included three brown-footed boobies, which I always associate with the South Seas. I guess there are a few in tropical areas of North America as well.
Who knew?

So today we were exposed to much of the local wildlife, from beach-lovers to boobies. Tomorrow we venture into the Everglades. Keep tuned.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Relaxing in Florida

It is now Monday night and I'm back on schedule. After breakfast, Jean and Anna (her daughter-in-law) went to the beach while I filed the previous entry, then took a nap. It was colder than they would have liked for beach weather, but they enjoyed it anyway.

After lunch, we went back to the river to look for manatees. There were a few there but there was more wind than yesterday and the waves reflected the sun so that we couldn't see below the surface. Manatees don't breathe frequently, and when they do they just stick a nose above the surface for a second or so. No manatee pictures today, but walking around the neighborhood there were lots of birds.

Wood stork


These birds were spotted in a short walk around the neighborhood.

There were also the usual ospreys and herons --- ho hum.

Anna also took us to a favorite view of hers:

                                    under a bridge

Basically a quiet day in Florida. While I am writing this blog, Jean is in the motorhome making baklava for the upcoming birthday celebrations (we're bunching them together). Don't know what is planned for tomorrow, but I will let you know --- with pictures.