Thursday, December 06, 2012

You don't have to Venture into the Everglades to see Great Bird Life

You don't have to venture into the Everglades to see great bird life.  My brother Jim has a wealth of birds just outside his back door.  It doesn't hurt that he lives on a mangrove-lined canal just a hundred yards from the Intracoastal Waterway.  One of our favorite residents is Ozzie, the Osprey.  We now know that she is a female.  Female adult Ospreys have a pattern of brown feathers across the white chest. This is sometimes referred to as a "necklace." The male's chest is plain white. The female is often larger than the male. Other than those details, the male and female look alike.

We decided to keep the name Ozzie although some wanted to change her name to Harriet.  She is an avid fisherwoman, catching big fish in her razor sharp talons and consuming them before our eyes.

Another resident is a Little Blue Heron.  He patrols the sidewalks and gets grumpy if you approach too closely.  He flies off squawking his annoyance.

Hidden in the mangroves are other birds such as this Great Blue Heron and Anhinga.

A tiny Lesser Yellowlegs was combing the rocks along the canal for a morsel to eat.  Sea Roaches frequent these rocks and would make a tasty meal for the Yellowlegs.

We visited a small pond on the property.  There was a large flock of Hooded Mergansers swimming on the pond.  The males were spectacular with bright white crests that they expand to impress the females.  The males looked quite formal in what resembled starched white shirts with black suspenders.  The females were not as flamboyant yet were elegant with cinnamon crests.

Who's that in Ozzie's tree?  A Red-shouldered Hawk landed on one of Ozzie's favorite perches.  Luckily she wasn't around at the time to chase the Hawk out of her territory.  Eventually he left on his own accord.

Whether in Florida or Vermont backyard birding is fun and educational.  The birds that share our yards are a joy to watch and are a connection to the natural world.  With just a little space to build nests and access to food and water, birds will feel safe and comfortable in your yard.  Time to go home and fill our birdfeeder.  I'm sure the Black-capped Chickadees, Nuthatches and Cardinals are hungry!  

Friday, November 30, 2012

Through the Mangrove Tunnel

Yesterday Marc and I decided to do a kayak tour in the Everglades.  We went online and found Everglades Area Tours located on Chokoloskee Island three miles south of Everglades City.  Here is the link to their web site:

It took about 2 and a half hours to drive from my brother's house in Palm Beach Gardens to JT's where we met our guide Darlene.  We followed Darlene to the Turner River put in off the Tamiami Trail in Big Cypress National Preserve.  We weren't in our kayak more that 5 minutes when we met the "King of the Swamp" basking in the sun on the riverbank.

We pushed our way through dense mats of Hydrilla, an invasive species now clogging the waterways of the Everglades, upriver to Cypress Domes.  Here towering Cypress grow on islands within the swamp.  Their branches are draped with Bromeliads, mosses and orchids.  We were lucky to see some of the orchids in bloom including a Clamshell Orchid    

and this not so aptly named Dingy Flowered Star Orchid.

While Marc was photographing the orchids, Darlene spotted an animal amongst the cypress.  She described it as golden with a rounded rump.  She thought it may have been a Florida Panther!  But when we tried to get a better look it had disappeared.  Just knowing that these rare cats roam here is exciting enough for me.  The Cypress domes are tranquil oasis offering a cool respite from the intense sun.

On the way back we encountered a Little Blue (front) and Tricolor (back) Heron fishing from the mat of Hydrilla. 
The Tricolor Heron let us approach closely so Marc was able to get a great photo.
The wind ruffled the feathers on his neck making it look like he was wearing a fancy boa.  We passed by a pair of Ospreys nesting in the top of a Cypress Tree.  One flew off as we approached.  Osprey mate for life and both the female and male raise the chicks.  Females tend to be larger than males and have brown spots on their chests. Their diet consists mainly of fish.

 A White Ibis was perched on one leg in a tree nearby.  Some ornithologists believe that birds may sleep on one leg, essentially turning half of the brain off to rest, and balancing on the leg which is connected to the part of the brain that is awake. Sounds a bit hokey to me.  A more plausible explanation may be that by standing on one leg a bird reduces half the amount of heat lost through unfeathered limbs.
Green Herons like to hide in the thick vegetation making it difficult to get a good view of one.  We were lucky in that one chose to come out in the open showing off his beautiful emerald plumage.
Two Common Moorhens were attempting to hide on us but Marc was able to sneak a photo of them.
Floating in the water were tiny yellow flowers.  They are Bladderworts and are carnivorous.  They capture small organisms such as insects, larvae and tadpoles in bladder-like traps.  This damselfly did not seem to be too concerned.
We returned to the put in and continued downriver, paddling under a bridge over the Tamiami Trail (Route 41).  We entered an area where female alligators nest.  Unlike crocodiles, female alligators tend to their babies after they hatch.  They keep a close eye out for danger. 
 A baby was lounging in a nearby tree and we were careful not to approach too closely in fear that mom may lunge at us.
 A non-venomous Water Snake was coiled up in the Mangroves.
We entered a mangrove tunnel.  It was so narrow that you couldn't paddle.  You had to pull yourself through by grabbing on to branches, taking care not to damage the mangroves.
Red Mangroves grew along the shore.  Their stilt-like roots stabilize shorelines and provide a nursery for fish and crustaceans.  Red Mangroves can also reproduce by dropping air roots or  propagules which can take root and start a new tree.  As we passed underneath, the propagules brushed Marc's sunglasses off his head into the brackish water, never to be found again.  The Mangrove tunnel opened up into a Sawgrass Prairie.  The "Prairie' stretched as far as the eye could see with a few palm trees along the horizon. 
This is what Southern Florida looked like before the Spaniards arrived.  It must have been a formidable place but the Indians lived here in harmony with the environment.  It was getting late and time to head back.  We had a great day exploring the wild beauty of the Florida Everglades!  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Saving the River of Grass

After our trip to El Salvador we flew to Miami and attempted to rendezvous with my brother Jim, his girlfriend Julie, Julie's son Jake and my sister Joanne as they were driving back from Naples along the Tamiami Trail.  This road runs along the northeast edge of Everglades National Park then cuts through Big Cypress National Preserve.  I was amazed at all the birds and alligators along the road.  We stopped off at the Oasis Visitor Center where we saw huge gaters sunning themselves!

Hunting had decimated their population and the American alligator was listed as an endangered species back in 1973.  Subsequent conservation efforts have allowed their numbers to increase and the species was removed from the list in 1987.    There are estimated to be 200,000 alligators in the Everglades and one and a half million in the state of Florida - a reason for this gator to smile!

The alligator is an apex predator or top of the food chain.  Other than humans, alligators don't have enemies.  They consume fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.  The teeth of the alligator are designed to grip prey but can not rip or chew flesh like some other predators can.

They can live up to 30 to 50 years old and can reach 13 feet in length!  Nearby an Anhinga was drying her wings.  Unlike other water birds, an Anhinga does not have oil glands to water proof it's feathers.  The bird has to wait until it's wings are dry before it can fly or re-submerge.

This bird is often mistaken for the Double-crested Cormorant due to its similar size and behavior. However, the two species can be differentiated by their tails and bills. The tail of the Anhinga is wider and much longer than that of the cormorant. The bill of the Anhinga is pointed, while the bill of the cormorant has a hook-tip as you can see in this close up of a Double-crested Cormorant.

By the way, we never did meet up with my brother and sister until back at his home in Palm Beach Gardens.  Our brief visit to the Everglades only whetted our appetites so we returned on December 5th to look for more birds and other critters.  This time we drove to Royal Palm and walked along the Anhinga Trail.   A beautiful Swamp Lily was blooming along the trail.

The birds did not disappoint us and being used to humans allowed us to approach quite closely.  Black Vultures were hanging out alongside the trail.  They are smaller and do not have red heads like our Turkey Vultures. Even though you're not supposed to feed the wildlife, they must be getting food from the tourists as you can almost touch them.  It did make for a great photo.

The other birds were not so tame but Marc still got some great shots.  The first is of a Great Blue Heron.

We almost missed this beautiful Purple Gallinule but when we went back to investigate a splash I spotted him among the reeds.  Fortunately, he came out on the lilypads to feed on some larvae and Marc was able to photograph him.

I can't decide who's more stunning, the Purple Gallinule or this Green Heron.  You can decide for yourself.

Further along the boardwalk a Peninsula Cooter (left) and a Florida Red-bellied Cooter (right) were sunning themselves on a log.

We headed back to our car where a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers were nesting in a tree nearby.  The male is shown here as he is red on top of his head to his bill while the female is red only on the nape.

We decided to drive through the park to the tiny town of Flamingo.  Along the way we passed a guy photographing something along the side of the road.  We stopped to investigate.   Black Vultures were feeding on an Alligator carcass! 

Not everything in nature is pleasant or beautiful but the vultures were doing their job.  They were disposing of the carcass thus helping to prevent the spread of disease.  We can't be sure how the gator died but it was most likely hit by a car.  We arrived in Flamingo situated on the shore of Florida Bay.  Here the freshwater of the Everglades meets the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico.  We spotted another alligator near the marina but closer inspection revealed a crocodile!  Alligators have a broader snout with overlapping jaws and darker coloration than a crocodile.  They are also less tolerant of seawater but more tolerant of colder climates than crocodiles.  The crocodile was sunning himself on the shore but slipped silently into the water.

It was getting late and time to head back to my brother's.  Along the way we spotted some wood storks feeding in a marsh. 

The wood stork is an indicator species in that it's health is directly linked to the health of the Everglades.  Problems with the quality, quantity, timing and distribution of water have led to the decline of the Wood Stork.  In the 1960's there were 5000 nesting birds but by the 1980's there were as few as 500 nesting birds.  They are now listed as federally endangered.  Efforts are underway to save the Everglades and the animals that live here.  In 1989 Congress extended the eastern park boundary and authorized the world's largest restoration act.  It will take 30 years to execute the plan and only time will tell if it is successful at restoring one of the most unique habitats in the world.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hanging Ten and Climbing the Flying Tiger

OK, so maybe I didn't hang ten but at least I tried surfing, 3 times actually.  It's much easier balancing on the board when it's stationary on the beach, step one in our lesson.

Step two is to ride a wave in on your belly, wee, wee!

The final steps are to get up on your knees and then stand.  I never mastered these final steps.  I managed to get up on my knees and to put one foot forward.  It took me so long to get this far that I ran out of wave.  Marc was more successful.  He managed to stand for a few seconds!

Our afternoon activity wasn't as challenging.  We went kayaking in the nearby estuary at Playa de Esteron.  We saw many water birds such as Egrets, Herons and Kingfishers.  We arrived back just as the sun was setting.

Our last volcano to tackle was Volcan Conchagua.  In Mayan, Conchagua means Flying Tiger.  I asked our guide how the Mayans knew about tigers.  He replied that they meant flying wild cat but the Spaniards changed it to flying tiger since they didn't know what a wild cat was.  The others in our group decided to stay at the beach so only Marc and I made the climb.  It was a pleasant walk along a cobblestone road through forest.  On the top was a 50 foot observation tower from which we had a great view of the Gulf of Fonseca.  The Gulf is surrounded by the countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

I found this handy map on the Smithsonian Insitute Web Site which shows the location of  El Salvador's major volcanoes most of which we have now climbed.

Back at the hotel we enjoyed our last night in El Salvador.  Marc got to use his new machete opening up a beer bottle.

Marc thinks that his machete will be a good tool for trail clearing.  We had a great time in El Salvador, climbing volcanoes, touring quaint colonial towns, kayaking and even trying surfing.  We made new friends, tried new food and discovered a vibrant, diverse and friendly country.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving from El Cuco

Greetings All,
After leaving San Salvador we headed east to climb our next volcano, Chinchontepec. This volcano has two peaks so according to our guide it's name translates to "tits". The view from the summit was somewhat obscured by trees. When we return to the tiny town of Guadalupe we had a nice view of the volcano from the town square.

The next day we took a break from hiking to tour the colonial town of Suchitoto on the shores of Lake Suchtitlan. The plan was to go kayaking on the lake but we had to take a motor boat instead. We were told it was too dangerous to kayak with all the water hyacinth in the lake. We didn't understand until we got off the boat to visit a little island. When we returned to the boat it was completely surrounded by the hyacinth. If we had been in kayaks we would have bee stranded.

You could cross the lake on a little ferry that could hold up to 3 vehicles.

Suchitoto is a picturesque colonial town complete with the main square containing a church and fountain.

Another day, another volcano. Today's objective was to climb the extinct volcano Guzapa. This volcano was one of the main guerrilla bases during the civil war that lasted from 1982 to 1990. Not much remains except for the site of the makeshift hospital and some caves where the guerrillas used to hide.

The only inhabitants today are bats. The next day was to be an easy climb up Vocan Tecapa. We had 6 local guides but no one seemed to know the best way to the top. The lead guide had to hack his way through the bush with a machete. There was a view of Lago Alegria below and Vocan Tigre beyond.

We headed straight down to the lake but had to turn back as the trail was too steep as in it dropped off.  Coffee is grown on the fertile lower slopes of the volcanoes. The fruit is beginning to ripen but is not quite ready for harvest.

The fruit is hand picked by laborers who get paid $5 per 100 pounds of beans. The fruit is washed, dried and the husks are removed. The beans are washed and dried again and are now ready for roasting.
Yesterday for our toughest hike yet. We climbed to the top of Vocan Chaparrestique. The view from the crater rim was dramatic. We looked down into a barren landscape with steaming fumaroles and gaping red fissures.

To make this climb we had to be escorted by two armed policemen. We were not sure what they were protecting us from. One could not make the climb and stopped about half way up. The other let us hold his Uzi on the top.

He did remove something from the gun, a magazine or bullet, to make it safe for us to hold.
We got up at 5:30 to watch a spectacular sunrise over the Pacific Ocean.

We are staying in the tiny seaside resort to El Cuco for the next 2 days. Today we are to be given a surfing lesson. We'll see how it goes.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and your families.
Peggy and Marc