Category Archives: Flora and Fauna

Indian Key

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View from the tower on Indian Key

With the prospect of a three- to four-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, flying directly to the southernmost point in the US offers a convenient, if costly, option for those travelers on tight schedules. But the balmy, flat, and winding 110 miles of the Overseas Highway that run from the Florida mainland to the bottom of US-1 will yield wild and weird corners for those able (or willing) to take the time.

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Paddling up to Indian Key

From the geological wonders of Devil’s Milhopper to the picturesque sands of Bahia Honda, Florida has a varied and truly amazing state park system. One of its most distinctive parks is also one all too easily overlooked on a drive through the Keys. Located a half-mile, ocean-side, off Islamorada lies the lush but unassuming Indian Key Historic State Park. Accessible only by boat, the uninhabited 11-acre island was, two centuries ago, the original county seat for Dade County.

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The old streets are still evident.

But that simple historical fact doesn’t begin to belie the tranquil key’s colorful and, at times, lurid history. From here, Jacob Housman built a formidable “wrecking” business in the early 19th century, salvaging valuable cargoes from ships that met their ends on the treacherous reefs in the surrounding waters. In 1838, the Philadelphia botanist Dr. Henry Perrine moved to the island, bringing with him a host of non-indigenous flora, including agave (used in the manufacturing of sisal), tamarind, and large yucca plants. By the close of that decade, the island boasted a population of about 60, and even a nationally advertised resort hotel. Later, Henry Flagler would use the key as a base for dredging operations during the construction of his Overseas Railroad.

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Cochineal insects – the red dye carmine is made from them

But Indian Key’s golden heyday drew its last breaths in the wee hours of August 7, 1840, when an invasion force of more than 130 Spanish-speaking Seminoles descended upon the island from nearby Lower Matecumbe Key. Twelve hours later, six people were dead (including Perrine) and much of the looted settlement laid in smoldering ruins. The United States Navy subsequently used Indian Key as a base of operations for the Second Seminole War, but the island’s halcyon days as a thriving, self-sustaining commercial center were effectively done.

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Brad Bertelli and WPT

Today, visitors may rent canoes and kayaks from Robbie’s of Islamorada and paddle out to Indian Key. Make the most of the trip by enlisting the services of historian, author, and tour guide Brad Bertelli of Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours to bring the island’s crumbling foundations and crunching gravel streets back to bustling life. If you appreciate vivid detail, humor, and a healthy overdose of enthusiasm for esoterica in your docent, then the affable Bertelli – who, with co-author David Sloan, recently published Bloodline: A Local’s Guide to 50 Famous Film Locations in the Florida Keys, an indispensable, trivia-packed self-guided tour for fans of the Netflix Original Series Bloodline – is your man.

Small shark resting in the shallows, just offshore
Small shark resting in the shallows, just offshore

Back in Islamorada, at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, where Bertelli also serves as the Curator/Historian, a fine scale model of Housman-era Indian Key provides additional perspective.

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Model of Indian Key at Florida Keys History & Discovery Center
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Model of Indian Key at Florida Keys History & Discovery Center

It is worth noting that there are no restroom facilities, nor fresh water, nor trash cans on Indian Key. But there is some decent snorkeling off its craggy northeastern shore. So any which way, plan accordingly.

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Florida Keys History & Discovery Center

Chicken Run Rescue

We were incredibly lucky to squeeze in a quick visit to Chicken Run Rescue at its new location, just south of Minneapolis. Chicken Run Rescue started with its founders, Mary and Bert, rescuing cats and dogs in urban Minneapolis in the 1980s. As vegans, they saw the need for advocates and direct action for chickens and began working with Minneapolis Animal Care and Control. The birds who made their way to Mary and Bert’s home had been intended for slaughter, used for their eggs, for fighting and ritual sacrifice, and as hatching projects. The number of homeless birds has increased exponentially since they opened the sanctuary.

The recent upsurge in keeping backyard chickens has been detrimental for many birds. The Star Tribune noted an increase in stray birds in a 2013 story, “In 2001, Chicken Run rescued just six birds. Last year, Clouse and her husband, Bert, fielded almost 500 surrender requests for ‘urban farm animals,’ mostly chickens, and rescued more than 30, many with ‘special needs,’ such as chickens that lost feet to frostbite or reproductive cancers linked to constant egg-laying. Some of the rescues have been waiting for new homes for more than a year, she said. …‘I knew this was going to happen,’ Clouse said of the explosion in surrendered and abandoned chickens. ‘All the other sanctuaries and shelters have noticed an increase. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.’”

As Mary told me, “Chicken Run provides the birds with sanctuary and foster/adoption placement when appropriate. Teaching and assisting others to help birds in their communities is accomplished through vibrant volunteer and education opportunities.” Promoting birds as sentient individuals is a core part of their outreach, as is adopting a plant-based diet.

Below are a few of the birds I had the pleasure of meeting. Mary provided me with a few of their stories (also below). Check out the Facebook page too.

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Fremont

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Zazu

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Fifi

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Obie

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Cristhina

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Genevieve

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Ms. Machowski

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Akers

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Perry

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Akers

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Sadie

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Shopper

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Xavier

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Mavis Davis

Mavis’s story: “Mavis Davis (aka Mabiff Dabiff) named after our beloved friend Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns. With a severely crossed beak, she has trouble pronouncing s’s and v’s. Her beak deformity was likely the result of poor nutrition of her mother and in her young life.”

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Derek

Derek’s story: “Derek was our 848th rescue. He and his sister, Rachel, arrived here in September 2012. They were apparently Advanced Placement students — they were found wandering on the U of M campus but couldn’t find their way back to the dorm. Fortunately, another kind student took them under her wing and contacted us. Good thing, they were only a few weeks old. They have grown up here with us. Rachel is still here too. Derek became a member of the Justice League, he and 2 other roosters, Butler and Quincy, went everywhere and did everything together. He has outlived his buddies and after their passing (heart disease very common in roosters), he was very depressed, not knowing where he would fit in without them. He recently got a job looking after hens, sometimes Renee, and Elisa, sometimes Janet and Carrie. He wasn’t sure at first just how to tidbit for them and supervise them, but now has it mastered. Looking after hens is hard wired into roosters, their purpose in life. Derek says its good to have a job.”

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Rajij

Rajij’s story: “Rajij is our 827th rescue. He is a timid juvenile Malay, probably born in December 2011. No spurs, barely a bump on his ankles. He and his brother Satar were discovered by police during a drug bust in North Minneapolis, each locked in a dark basement closet. They were both remarkably calm, quiet and healthy despite having plenty to protest about their life so far. They were constant companions at CRR. Satar passed away in 2013 and Raj grieved for him for a very long time. Raj is now our senior resident rooster and reviews his troops every morning with a powerful sense of duty and eagerness to serve. He loves having his head groomed, we keep a comb handy to preen him and keep those feathers gorgeous.”

Fort De Soto Park and Egmont Key

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Way down at the mouth of Tampa Bay sits Fort De Soto Park. Within that park is access to Egmont Key, a state park. Fort De Soto is a large county park offering beaches, camping, a dog beach, a historic fort, trails, and multiples of habitats for Florida’s flora and fauna. It has been named a #1 beach by places that rank such things. It is also a nesting spot for many kinds of turtles and birds. I’ve now visited twice, once in winter and once in summer, and it is a truly lovely spot. The entrance fee is nominal.

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At the Fort De Soto Bay Pier you’ll find a concession stand, bathrooms with showers, a postcard-worthy beach, and the ferry to Egmont Key. Only accessible by boat, Egmont Key is a wildlife refuge and bird sanctuary. The lighthouse there has stood since 1858 and Fort Dade was founded on the island in 1923. Now mostly ruins, the island is cordoned off for nesting birds and sea turtles, but there are swimming beaches and trails. I visited Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas two weeks prior and Egmont Key reminded me of Fort Jefferson, but the trip cost about 90% less and the ferry ride over to the Egmont Key took 20-30 minutes instead of 2 1/2 hours.

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After the excitement of the car accident the night before, Garnet and I were looking forward to a peaceful day of swimming and adventuring. We took the first ferry over and while onboard, he met Jackson, a boy his age who was visiting with his grandparents. We exited the ferry and within three about minutes we excitedly found a gopher tortoise near the lighthouse. There is a large population of the tortoises on the island.

 

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The ruins of the old gun batteries were fun to explore. We walked out to the beach on the west side of the island. The water was ideal and boaters had anchored near shore. With the boys safely splashing around, I went exploring and blundered into a nesting area for skimmers. The birds told me I was intruding even before I spotted the signs. The chicks were running around being absurdly adorable.

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The ferry offers an optional snorkel tour and Garnet, Jackson, and I went off to do that for a bit. They took us to an area of sea grasses, but the water was a bit murky in the shallows. It was fun watching the boys claiming to see fish and rays that weren’t really there. Once you are on the island, you are free to stay and take whichever afternoon ferry works for you and the boats sell snacks and water. Pay heed to the warnings about dehydration, especially in summer.

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Overall, Egmont Key and Fort De Soto Park are well worth exploring. Having been twice, I feel like I have another 5-6 visits ahead of me to get a true feel for the place and intend to return.

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Floating Amid Stars: Snorkeling the Florida Keys

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Birdwatching is a globally popular hobby and continues to grow. I’m a huge fan of birds and enjoy watching them, but I love to fishwatch even more. Somehow, that hobby has never taken hold like birdwatching. I don’t get it. I mean, you have to stand there on a ground like a lump watching the aerial dynamics with birds. With fish you can actually join in and swim among them. When was the last time you got to fly with a flock of starlings or glide with an eagle?

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I love the Florida Keys because they meet so many travel wants and needs. My greatest want, the one that I daydream about and that pushes me to return repeatedly, is the water. More specifically, the fish and other wildlife that inhabit the waters off the Florida Keys. I don’t visit captive animal attractions – I prefer to watch animals in their natural environments.

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At some point, I lucked into snorkel gear (mask, fins, snorkel) at a yard sale and later upgraded to a better snorkel with a valve. The fins are small enough that I can pack them in my carry-on luggage. Over the years, my kit has expanded to rubber-soled water shoes, a point-and-shoot underwater camera, DIY defogger spray, and many ziplock bags. If you are going to snorkel more than a handful of times it is worth having your own equipment and it also means you can check out offshore spots spontaneously. Some of the best spots I’ve found have been just offshore and do not require a boat ride. While boat rides are part of the fun, they add up if you are traveling on a budget. Snorkeling is one of those things that can be as cheap or as expensive as you want to make it.

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I like to go to the Keys in summer because it is off-season, the crowds are smaller, and unless there are storms afoot the winds tend to be calmer, which means the waves are smaller and the water is clearer. I learned the hard way that going in the winter can make for terrible snorkeling.

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I feel I should note that I am a snorkeler, not a diver. My ears let me freedive about 8-10 feet and that is it. Diving is also expensive and there are restrictions about diving and flying within 24 hours. I’m quite happy bobbing along the surface, suspended between worlds.

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These are spots I checked out in July. I also read Snorkeling the Florida Keys by Brad Bertelli before we left and found it very helpful.

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Cheeca Rocks

We took the 3:00 p.m. Happy Cat Snorkel Boat out from Robbie’s in Islamorada the day we arrived. The boat took us a few miles offshore to Cheeca Rocks. It was hot and the water was very clear. We saw several sea turtles and huge schools of small silverfish. Unfortunately, this charter attracted the kind of people I want to smack the shit out of. I watched a young woman “petting” the coral. You don’t “pet” coral. When she bobbed up for air I yelled at her to stop and she claimed she didn’t know any better. EVERY SINGLE snorkel charter I have ever gone on tells you this will kill the coral. Look, don’t touch. Then someone else with extra-long dive fins started treading water near the coral heads. They did decades’ worth of damage in seconds. I get that you have fancy-ass dive gear and are proud of it, but you don’t need long fins in calm, shallow waters.

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Indian Key State Park

The next day we went back to Robbie’s and rented kayaks to go out to Indian Key. We were given a tour of the island by Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours, run by the aforementioned Brad Bertelli (that will be a post of its own shortly). Afterward, we entered the water on the northeast side of the island. The waters around the island are very shallow and we saw conch, starfish, baby sharks, parrotfish, and watched nesting ospreys from the water. It was a nice little spot.

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Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Fort Zachary Taylor is one of my all-time favorite snorkel spots. There are rock formations just off the beach and while the action is often there, I’ve seen a school of cuttlefish in the shallows. It was crowded the afternoon we went and the winds and tide had the water rather turbid. Overall, it was lackluster this trip. You can snorkel the same place 10 times and never experience the same conditions.

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Key West Marine Park

Another offshore snorkel spot in Key West is the Key West Marine Park, located on the east side of the island. The pilings and debris make for great fishwatching, as they are ideal for juvenile fish and invertebrates, but the morning we went the tide was moving and the winds had kicked up. The water was so turbid that it was almost disorienting. I will definitely go back next time and hopefully the conditions will be better.

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Sand Key

We sailed with Captain Dennis on his boat Breezin out to Sand Key. Again, there was some wind up, so we moored on the rubble side of the key. Snorkeling can be very different depending on where you moor and the wind/water conditions, even within 100 yards. In this case, we were in an area that would be easier to swim in, but the rubble zone belied the health of the reef on the opposite side. The water was bath temperature. I watched and listened as a school of parrotfish munched loudly.

 

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Dry Tortugas National Park

By far, the best snorkeling this trip was out at Fort Jefferson. It is in my top five snorkeling spots, period. Fort Jefferson has been on our list for years, but the tickets aren’t cheap. This was finally the year. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas are in the middle of nowhere, but the fort is rich in history. There are two decaying docks, which offer ideal food and shelter for the tropical fish that surround the island. You can put your head down and watch 10-15 species of fish swirling below and then look up to see nesting brown noddies at the tops of the dock pilings. The clarity of the water was amazing and it was a pleasant swim around the exterior of the fort. The height of day was blistering, but the ferry we took out to the island put out a delicious spread and made sure everyone had enough water.

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Turtles, rays, and larger fish are great, but I am just as happy seeing common nursery fish and invertebrates. If you are willing to take your time and look into crevices and among the sea grasses you’ll be rewarded. I still haven’t seen an octopus in the wild, but I’ll keep trying until I do. Swimming with huge schools of small silverfish is like floating amid the stars.

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Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

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Alligator, La Chua Trail

Florida’s state parks are often hidden gems. Such is the case with Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. We were planning a trip some years ago when I saw a swath of green on the map. I had never heard of Paynes Prairie, but it seemed worth a stop. We visited in January of that year and I was delighted to find a savanna filled with migratory birds, alligators, and bountiful wildlife. It was like a tiny, hidden Everglades. The park is 21,000 acres with various habitats, from swamps to forests.

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Golden orb weaver (aka banana spider)

In April of this year, I went to Gainesville for work. Once the meeting was over, I asked the person I had the meeting with if she wanted to go for a hike. We took our work hats off, put our friend hats on, and headed over to the park.

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Mud turtle

She drove us to Bolen Bluff, a trail in Paynes Prairie, just off 441, about 25 minutes south of Gainesville. We found a wee turtle and golden orb weaver within minutes. We also spotted a northern parula. The forest gave way to prairie. Ahead of us was a family of bison.

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Wild bison

People expect exotic wild animals in Florida, like cobras and Mickey Rourke, not bison. They were once native to Florida and were reintroduced to the park in the 1970s as part of the park’s goal of preserving the land as a living museum. The population reached 70 in 2011, but unfortunately, they deemed this excessive and began culling instead of sterilizing or maintaining. There is now a small group of 8-10 bison.

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Wild horses
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Fisheye view from the top of the observation tower

I had to drive to Jacksonville the next day, but I got up early and hiked two additional trails on my own. I first stopped at the visitor center and went to the top of the observation tower. From there I spotted a few wild horses and unspoiled wilderness across the prairie basin.

 

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Thistle and insects, La Chua Trail
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Gallinule
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Kite being attacked by a smaller bird
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Dragonfly
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Great blue heron

Then I drove to the La Chua trail. To reach the trailhead you need to go through suburban Gainesville. It isn’t the easiest spot to find and the park provides written directions. The parking lot leads to old barns and out onto a trail that runs out to the Alachua Sink, draining into the prairie. The waterline and waterways are teeming with wildlife, especially birds and reptiles. There are kites, blackbirds, primordial-looking dragonflies, alligators, turtles, herons, egrets and more sliding and flying in and out of the reeds. Unlike in winter, the alligators are active in the spring, often walking across and blocking the trail. Even at 10am on a weekday, there were birders and hikers out. A word of caution, if you don’t recognize animals for what they are and show some common sense, I don’t recommend visiting. There’s no Plexiglas between you and the rightful, rather large, inhabitants of the savanna.

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Coolest grackle ever

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Hours: 8:00 a.m. until sunset, daily

This map provides an overview of the area.

Admission:

Main Entrance Admission
$6.00 per vehicle, limit 2-8 people per vehicle
$4.00 Single Occupant Vehicle
$2.00 Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass

LaChua Trail Admission
$4.00 per vehicle

Bolen Bluff Admission
$2.00 per vehicle, limit 8 people

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UF Bat houses

Also worth checking out in the area:

University of Florida Bat Houses

The University of Florida is home to the world’s largest occupied bat houses. At dusk each night thousands of bats fill the sky.

North side of Museum Road between Village Drive and Radio Road across from Lake Alice.

 

Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park

This is basically a huge sinkhole accessed via stairs.

9:00 am – 5:00 pm Wed-Sun, closed Mon-Tues

4732 Millhopper Road

Gainesville, FL 32653

(352) 955-2008

P.S. – Chopstix on Rt 441 has a decent vegetarian selection.

 

Cape Cod Wildlife Watching

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Cape Cod is different things to different people. For me it is animals, ocean, light, and Thai food. I’ve only gone in the off-season, April/May and October, when traffic is bearable and rates are cheap. It is a great time to view local and migratory wildlife.

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I’m watching you watching me watching you.

 These are my top three wildlife watching spots:

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Pond at Beech Forest Trail

 Beech Forest Trail

The whole Cape Cod National Seashore is amazing, but the Beech Forest Trail is like something out of a goddamned Disney movie. Not far from Provincetown, the trail winds through woods and around a pond. I’ve seen birds, turtles, frogs, squirrels, snakes, and chipmunks while hiking. The birds and small animals are so accustomed to visitors (many bearing birdseed) that they are quite inquisitive. The first time I hiked the trail a chipmunk followed me. It seems like the kind of place a dead guy would have written a poem about. The trail is magical.

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Chipmunk at Beech Forest Trail
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White-breasted nuthatch at Beech Forest Trail
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Red squirrel at Beech Forest Trail
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Chickadee at Beech Forest Trail
Garter snake at Beech Forest trail
Garter snake at Beech Forest trail

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

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Baltimore oriole at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, managed by Mass Audubon, covers 937 acres and five miles of trails. Last year, I saw some amazing frogs and my very first Baltimore oriole. There are multiple trails and habitats and the wetlands are ideal migratory and nesting grounds. This year, it was a bit colder and we were there earlier in the year. I was a bit grumpy that I didn’t see the frogs or birds I had seen last year. I glimpsed a hummingbird, but that was it.

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Turkey family at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

We were preparing to leave when I heard a gobble. I abandoned my family and went off in search of the noise. I crept through brambles and trees and right behind the visitor’s center I found a family of six turkeys, three posturing males and three smaller females. The males put on quite a show for me. Once they were convinced I was either terrified or not an actual threat they went back to eating. I realized I was near a bunch of bird feeders and while I sat there and watched the turkeys the other forest animals began coming back for food. It is without hyperbole or euphemism, that I was close enough to see a chipmunk’s balls. There were chickadees, towhees, red squirrels, gray squirrels, blue jays, and more darting all around. It was wonderful. They have a great nature center and gift shop too.

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Chipmunk balls at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
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Turkey at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
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Turkey protecting his family at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
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Towhee at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
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As beautiful as any tropical bird.

Whale Watching in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

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MacMillian Pier, Provincetown

Tickets for the Dolphin Whale Watch aren’t cheap, but personally, I’d rather spend $47 ($45 if you use your AAA card or order online) on three hours of whale watching than on any concert. You never know what you are going to see and every charter is different. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is a prime feeding area for whales. They often winter and bear calves in the Caribbean, but the warm waters don’t offer the large mammals much to eat. They head north to the Golden Corral of the sea. Boats seat about 150 people and you will find yourself in pods of domestic and international tourists lurching port to starboard and back again watching the whales surface, dive, and maybe flash some tailfin.

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Nesting cormorants
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Race point lighthouse

The tour starts at the MacMillian Pier in Provincetown and heads around Long Point and along Herring Cove and towards Race Point. Most tours head to where Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic meet, but it all depends on the weather and where the whales are sighted. The naturalist onboard shares information about the whales spotted, their history, why Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is important, and why conservation is a must. They also identify other animals spotted, which can include terns, gulls, seals, dolphins, gannets, and other water birds.

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Humpback tail
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blow spout
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Finback whale

I’ve been out 3-4 times now and have mostly seen finback whales (the greyhounds of the sea) and humpbacks. If the sea is calm, you can see blow spouts all over the horizon. The coolest thing I’ve ever seen what a group of whales working together to gather food by creating bubble nets. It can be cold and wet, but it is totally worth it. They do serve hot drinks, snacks, and even alcohol on the boat.

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Whales creating bubble nets