Monday, April 20, 2015

A Taste of the REAL Florida- at least what we imagined:)

We left the hustle and bustle and traffic of southern Florida for the peace and quiet of undiscovered north Florida... as the motto for Florida state parks says....the real Florida...or at least the Florida that we had imagined.

On our way from Bonita Springs to St Mark's NWR we stopped at a campground in Bushnell, Florida. There  was a Battlefield State Park right around the corner so we went to take a walk and see what was there. There was a beautiful nature trail through a longleaf pine forest with saw sable palms. It was the heat of the afternoon so there was not a lot of bird activity but we did hear a few calls such as White-eyed Vireo. 

We did hear a different call that caught our ear so we tracked it was a female Eastern Towhee. They have such a variety of calls: note the yellow-white iris of the Florida subspecies.
When we arrived at St Mark's NWR we were fortunate enough to have a campground right across the street. It was perfect. The trees around our campsite were filled with birds. This male Northern Parula was singing from the tree beside our trailer. The female appeared to be gathering Spanish moss for nesting material.

Male Northern Parula
There are 2 populations of Northern Parula. The southern population (the one in the photos) nests in Spanish moss, while the northern population uses lichen for their nests.
Female Northern Parula

St Mark's NWR encompasses 68,000 acres along the Florida Gulf Coast. It includes salt water and fresh water marshes, islands, tidal creeks,  and estuaries of seven north Florida rivers. It is also home to longleaf pine forests and savannahs, which results in the refuge including a diverse community of plant and animal life. The St. Mark's Lighthouse was built in 1842.
This unique refuge was established in 1931 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds. It is considered a Globally Important Bird Area. There is a population of the endangered eastern Whooping Cranes that winter on the refuge. They estimate that there are only 500 Whooping Cranes left in the wild. The Whooping Cranes left around a week before we arrived. :-(

The endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker also makes its home on the refuge (we have not been fortunate to see one yet). The refuge reports that there are over 60 of these rare birds living on the refuge, which is due to relocation from other areas, creation of artificial cavities for nesting and planting and restoration of the longleaf pine ecosystem. Red-cockaded woodpeckers require living pine trees, preferably longleaf pine, that are over 80 years old. They are one of the only woodpeckers that drill its nest cavity in living trees. They also require 200-300 acres for foraging. To encourage successful relocation of these birds, the refuge has created artificial nesting cavities - it seems to be working:)

The longleaf pine forests and savannahs include biologically diverse ecosystems. Not only do they support a portion of the world's largest functioning population of federally endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers but include over 30 amphibian and reptile species that are longleaf pine specialists. Notably among them are the federally threatened indigo snake and the gopher tortoise, keystone species whose burrows provide habitat for more than 360 species of vertebrates and invertebrates.

One of the things I did not expect to see was all of the ALLIGATORS!  We saw or heard Alligators pretty much everywhere we walked in the refuge. One day we were sitting by Picnic Pond having a "picnic" and we heard this primordial loud grumble that had both of us ready to flee or at least jump up on the picnic table!! We looked at each other and said, "Bear"? It ended up being a couple of alligators either establishing territory or participating in mating activities. We learned they are ambush predators and lay in waiting for an easy meal. I am sure they are what keep the American Coot population from exploding. One woman shared that she watched an alligator snatch and eat a Scaup right off the surface of the water.

Scientists have determined that alligators have existed for about 150 million years, surviving beyond dinosaurs and flying reptiles!

On a softer note I think this is a Swallowtail Butterfly enjoying some nectar from the thistle
 There were Blue-winged Teal everywhere....obviously they winter here and have not wanted to leave quite yet
Male & female Blue-winged Teal

One of the first shorebirds Bob spotted was a first for us.... a single American Golden-Plover that was migrating through. It looks like it stopped to feed with a group of Yellowlegs, egrets and ibis. A few of the identifying marks are the strong white eyebrow or "supercilium" and the dark patch along the back of the cheek.
We finally had a chance to see Glossy Ibis. When we were working at Malheur NWR we had the opportunity to become very familiar with the White-faced Ibis. We were always looking to see if there was a Glossy Ibis amongst all of the White-faced....but never did see one.

Here we have had the chance to see many Glossy Ibis feeding together in the fields along the marshes.

Glossy Ibis with an immature Little Blue Heron: the bird identification guide indicates the mottled plumage seen here is typical for a one-year old Little Blue Heron (the white bird on the right) in the spring and summer.
We think this is a White-faced Ibis or possibly a hybrid amongst many Glossy Ibis- We were not expecting to see a White-faced Ibis- but this bird looks like an adult White-faced Ibis in winter plumage. You never know.....
Great Egret
Caspian Tern: I find the terns are very challenging to identify. The Caspian is the easiest for me to differentiate because it is one of the largest with a very large beefy dark orange-red bill.

 We think this is a Forster's Tern in winter plumage

Shorebirds on the mudflats

This Bald Eagle was perched at the edge of the mudflats. Every so often he would fly around and get all of the shorebirds very excited.

On most days we would start the day by taking a walk at the end of the Light House Road. We would usually see the following characters on any given day:

The Grackles have such personalities- they were in full mating regalia- calling out for attention

This male Boat-tailed Grackle was putting on quite the dance: notice the feathers all puffed out around his legs. It seems like maybe one of the females was interested.

Male Boat-tailed Grackle

Female Boat-tailed Grackle
The bird below is a Common Grackle: they have a smaller head and tail with an irresdesint sheen.
Other birds are not quite as easy to see.....

Wilson's Snipe blend into their surroundings

The Sora is a very secretive rail of the reeds in the marsh

We spied this American Bittern while looking at some egrets- it blends right into the grass
You can tell this is an immature Brown Pelican because of the dark head, neck and pale belly.
The Brown Thrasher is one of our favorite birds. We are not sure why it was called the "brown" thrasher it is much more rufous than brown.

We were looking for woodpeckers and followed the tapping sound to find this Brown-headed Nuthatch  pecking from the inside of the tree. He finally came out....

This male Common Yellowthroat lurks around the marsh thickets.
We had the luck to see Bottlenose dolphins feeding off the beach on a flat, calm day.
The bird below is an immature Double-crested Cormorant: identifying traits are the pale breast and dark belly.
This Eastern Kingbird was migrating through.
An early morning gathering of Snowy and Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons.
The beach is filled with Ghost Crabs.
This Gray Catbird looks like it is declaring its territory.
A Hermit Thrush feeding on the path
Some birds are coming into breeding plumage and some are still in winter plumage. This makes identification a challenge sometimes:)

This Eared Grebe is still in winter plumage
A Laughing Gull in breeding plumage
This Common Loon is beginning to come into its breeding plumage.
A Royal Tern still in winter plumage
This is the first male Orchard Oriole we had ever seen. Bob spotted it flying into the willows from the ocean. It had probably just landed from its Gulf crossing.
This Pied-billed Grebe's black ring on its thick whitish bill indicates it is in breeding plumage. 
These two Redhead males are in breeding plumage. Redheads are unique in that they are "diver" ducks usually found in deeper water. During breeding season they move to shallower water to breed.
A marsh rabbit is a small cottontail found in the southeastern part of the country. They are usually found near water since they are strong swimmers.
Northern Mockingbirds are one of the most numerous birds that we have been seeing. They are loud and persistent singers as well as outstanding mimics! 
This little female Ruby-throated Hummingbird was probably migrating through. Imagine this little bird flew 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico to land at the refuge!
We love sparrows- it can be so challenging to get good looks at them and even more challenging to figure out what species they are....

We had Savannah Sparrows...
Song Sparrows...
and a new sparrow for us.... Swamp Sparrows...similar to Song Sparrow with grayish breast & rufous flanks, wings, and tail.

The Tricolored Heron is one of the most beautiful herons. It is unique among herons in that you will see it run after its prey of fish, frogs and other invertebrates. 

White-eyed Vireos are singing everywhere. They are full-time residents along the Gulf coast.
This adult Wood Stork may be looking for tree to nest in. It is the only stork species to nest in the United States.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker became a common bird for us.

Wakulla Springs State Park is home to one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world. Edward Ball purchased the property in 1934 as an attraction focused on  the preservation of wildlife and its surrounding habitat. The water is so clear that the Park offers glass bottom boat tours.

This pair of Black Vultures were drying their wings in the sun.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are one of my favorite birds. They have a long tail and flick it side to side in order to scare up hiding insects.
This Common Gallinule is feeding on the seaweed right next to shore.

We visited Blackwater River State Park in Holt, Florida on our way to Alabama with the hopes of seeing a Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Alas, none could be found. The upside was that the park was one of the most beautiful places we have visited: incredible river, great board walk and pavilions, and welcoming campground. 

The world is full of beauty & wonder,

Turtle & Hawk


  1. So happy that you experienced the "real" Florida and that you spent time at St. Mark's refuge. It's one of our favorite places in North Florida. It took us several trips to the nearby Ochlockonee River to finally find the Red cockaded woodpecker -- and then they were directly above our campsite!

  2. Do you remember where you were camping near the Ochlocknee River.....we may return to that area again and would love to know about recommended campsites-especially with Red-cockaded Woodpeckers:)

  3. We stayed at Ochlockonee River State Park -- it's a gorgeous park. It's a prime nesting spot for the Red-cockaded woodpecker. Make reservations early, though -- the park is popular and there aren't a lot of spots for larger RV's. You'll love it there! Here's a link to our post on finding the woodpeckers: