Tag Archives: critters

Short Trip to the Shortgrass Prairie

It’s been almost a year since I posted to this blog, which kinda makes sense.  I started it to chronicle my “really big year” of traveling to see birds and visit schools, a year that ended in June of 2013.  I thought about whether I should “retire” this blog, or to keep using it to share new travels.  When I returned to work full time in August of 2013, I vowed to reserve a little room in my busy life for the sort of adventures that occupied much of the 2012-2013 academic year for me.  And so in that spirit, I have decided to keep using this blog from time to time, as the occasion arises.  While I will not soon repeat the kind of Big Year that began for me two years ago, I hope to keep the spirit of inquiry and adventure that I kindled in myself that year alive, to make every year at least a little “big.”

It was in this frame of mind that I cashed in some frequent flyer miles for a short trip to Colorado.  While I don’t consider myself to be the kind of birder obsessed with lists and “ticking off” the next lifer, I do enjoy seeing birds that I haven’t seen before.  And I was also only four birds away from having seen 700 species in the ABA Area, a milestone of some note.  I turn 40 in January, and it would be pretty cool (although perhaps not totally practical) to reach 700 by then.  Also, my friend Neil Hayward keeps pestering me about getting to 700, so I guess there’s peer pressure too!

I flew into Denver on Wednesday morning, and headed northeast to the Pawnee National Grassland.  This area is some of the best preserved remaining shortgrass prairie habitat in the United States.

Short Grass Prairie at Dawn

Shortgrass prairie used to be fairly widespread on the western Great Plains.  This habitat was shaped by relatively low rainfall and by the consistent grazing of abundant herds of American Bison.  The loss of the bison, overgrazing by cattle, and human development have greatly reduced the quality and quantity of this kind of prairie in Colorado and elsewhere in the American West.  Pawnee National Grassland is one place where you can still find vast swathes of unbroken shortgrass.  Interestingly, it is administered by the US Forest Service, although Pawnee is nothing but a forest of grass.

Flowering cactus

And cacti.

Caterpillar

And crazy, huge caterpillars.

However interesting the shortgrass prairie is in and of itself, I was here for the birds.  And one bird specifically: McCown’s Longspur.  This species breeds in a thin slice of shortgrass prairie from Alberta down through Montana, Wyoming, and northern Colorado, and it winters in northwest Texas.  In other words, it’s not a particularly easy or convenient bird to see if you live outside the mountain west.  And while you can find them somewhat reliably on their wintering grounds as skitterish flocks of drab grayish birds, I wanted to see them in their summer glory: the males in their full breeding plumage (black, white, and chestnut), singing, and doing their parachuting display flights over the prairie.  So here I was in rural NE Colorado, with less than 40 hours to find the longspurs before my return flight to Seattle.

Driving along the few gravel roads that transect Pawnee, there was plenty to see.  Lark Buntings, the state bird of Colorado, were incredibly abundant.

Lark Bunting

I saw probably 200 breeding pairs on territory in a day and a half.  Horned Larks were also very common.  I didn’t get any good pictures really showing how dramatic their “horns” can be – I guess that’s a job for another trip.

Horned Lark

A real treat was finding a pair of Common Nighthawks sleeping on a rusty fence.  These birds, a member of the goatsucker or nightjar family (I love those names!), are usually most active at dawn and dusk.  These two were definitely snoozy.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

After a few miles, in the distance, I thought I caught the jumbled song of a longspur!  Trekking out into the prairie, I watched a lone male leap into the air and come fluttering down while singing his complex song.  I wanted to stay a while and watch him, but the wind was whipping up, and over my left shoulder I could see a serious storm building.

Storms Coming

Beating the rain and lightning back to the car, I vowed to come back early the next morning to get a better look.

I drove through the afternoon thunderstorm back to Fort Collins, where I had dinner at local institution that holds a special place in the hearts of chemistry teachers everywhere.

Avogadro's Number

This being a birding post, I’ll spare you the significance of Avogadro’s number to the realm of the molecular sciences (but you can read about it on Wikipedia if you are really interested).

Serious birders are in the field at dawn during the spring and summer.  And dawn was about 5:20am.  So I dragged myself out of bed and raced for the prairie.  After a bit of searching, I was rewarded with fantastic looks (and mediocre pictures) of about a dozen McCown’s Longspurs displaying, singing, foraging, and generally loafing about the prairie.

McCown's Longspur

McCown's Longspur

McCown's Longspur

I spent the rest of the morning exploring more of Pawnee.  Sparrows were a highlight, including this Grasshopper Sparrow who posed for me:

Grasshopper Sparrow

I also found this amazing short-horned lizard:

Short-horned lizard

Some people call these critters “horned toads,” but they are reptiles and not amphibians.  This guy was only about 2 inches long, and almost perfectly camouflaged amongst the rocks on the side of the road.

All too soon it was time to head back to Denver for my flight home.  It was a very short trip, but I feel like I made the most of it.  My big year lives on, at least in little ways.

 

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The Kenai Peninsula

Travelling south, I passed through Anchorage and continued down the Seward Highway to the Kenai Peninsula.  This area is in many ways very different from Denali, but just as spectacular.  It borders Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, so for one thing I’m back on the coast.  The Kenai area is also home to the Harding Icefield, which spawns several dozen glaciers.  I visited a number of them on a trip through Kenai Fjords National Park.

Exit Glacier

The photo above it Exit Glacier, which is one of the most accessible glaciers in the park.  You can drive to within a mile of it, and hike right up to its “toe.”  Exit Glacier is retreating, probably due to global climate change, having become over a mile shorter since 1895.

Glaciers are the outflows (the “drains” if you will) from the Harding Icefield.  The Icefield is a basin area that gets well over 30 feet of snow per year on average.  Over time this snow is compacted into very dense ice.  The ice slowly slides downhill, forming glaciers and carving out new valleys.

Yesterday I took a 9-hour boat trip out of Seward to tour Kenai Fjords, to see the glaciers and the wildlife of the area.  I was not disappointed.  The scenery was impressive.

Kenai Fjords

Kenai Fjords

Sea Otters were common, and not shy at all.

Sea Otter

We saw five Humpback Whales, including this one very close to shore:

Flukes

And this one farther out:

Humpback whale

A transient Orca swam by, making some of the smaller marine mammals a bit nervous.  But these Harbor Seals in the shallows didn’t look too concerned.

Harbor Seals

Nor did these Steller’s Sea Lions high on the rocks:

Steller's Sea Lions

Steller’s Sea Lions are one of several Northwest animals named after Georg Wilhelm Steller, who travelled with Vitus Bering on his 1740s expedition to Alaska from Russia.  Steller was a doctor and naturalist, and described a number of new species of flora and fauna unknown to the Old World.  Several of Steller’s namesakes are now extinct (Steller’s sea cow) or endangered/threatened (Steller’s Sea Eagle and Steller’s Eider).  Steller’s Jay, however, is doing quite well and can be seen in my yard back home in Washington state (and throughout much of the American West).

Glaciers were another highlight of the boat trip, and we spent some time at the incredible Holgate Glacier.

Holgate Glacier

Holgate is a tidewater glacier, meaning it flows directly into the ocean.  You could hear thunderous cracks and booms as it calved giant boulders of ice directly into the sea.

Whole Lotta Ice

The bluish color of the glacier comes from light that gets scattered by the densely packed ice.  Most frequencies of light pass through the ice, but blue tends to be absorbed and re-emitted by the electrons in the water molecules, scattering the light and making the ice appear somewhat blue.

Nearby, we could see the much smaller Surprise Glacier.

Surprise Glacier

Birds, of course, were also a highlight.  I saw eight species of alcids, seabirds of the puffin, murre, and auklet family.  Seeing hundreds of Horned and Tufted Puffins was a highlight, as well as a half-dozen Parakeet Auklets up close –  a new bird for me.  The heavy clouds, drizzle, and rocking of the boat made photography difficult, and most of my bird pictures didn’t come out at all.  But I did get a few pictures of some Common and Thick-billed Murres resting on a cliff:

Murre lineups

And hundreds of Black-legged Kittiwakes swirling around their nesting colony:

Kittiwakes

Kittiwakes are a kind of gull.  They make their nests on sheer rock walls on offshore islets to protect them from predators.

Kittiwakes nesting

Returning to Seward, we passed huge rafts of murres on the water – thousands of them.

Whole Lotta Murres

Despite the cold and wet weather, and some difficulty in finding some of my target species, I have thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Kenai Peninsula.  I’ll be here another day or so, and then I’m headed northwest to Nome and Gambell.  I’m not sure when I’ll be able to update this blog again, but I will when I can.  I’m about to head into parts unknown (at least unknown to me!).

AK warning sign

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The Colima Warblers of Big Bend

I will confess that I didn’t come to Big Bend just for the scenery.

Toll Mountain

I also came to search for the Colima Warbler.  There are about 52 regularly occurring species of wood warblers in the US and Canada (depending on how you count), and I have already seen 48 of them since June of 2012.  The three hardest to get are the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler (check), the south-of-the-border vagrant Rufous-capped Warbler (check), and the Colima.  Colima Warblers are not endangered like Kirtland’s, but almost all of their natural range lies south of the Rio Grande.  Perhaps a few dozen trickle across the border to breed in the high altitude mountains of Big Bend.  In order to see a Colima, though, you need to hike up to where they live.

Up there.

To Pinnacles Trail

It’s not a trek for the faint of heart.  The traditional spot to find Colimas is Boot Spring, about 9 miles roundtrip from the trailhead in the Chisos Basin.  The hike starts at over a mile above sea level, and climbs another 1800 feet or so, mostly in the first 3 miles.  Not being as physically fit as some hikers, I started before dawn so I could reach the Colima’s habitat while they would still be active and singing in the cool mid-morning hours.

I started up the Pinnacles Trail.  The turnoff to Boot Spring is just past the junction with the Colima Trail.

Pinnacles Trail Sign

On the way up I listened to many calling Gnatcatchers, and admired the blooming cacti.

Cactus

The trail is well-maintained, although it is steep and rocky in places, and the switchbacks near the crest are tiring.

trail

As I climbed, I could see out over the entire Chisos Basin area.  The morning sun bathed everything in a golden glow.

Halfway up Pinnacles Trail

I stopped to rest and eat a little trail mix, and a chummy group of Mexican Jays came down to request that I share some peanuts with them.  They were not pleased when I refused.

Mexican Jay

Looking up, I could see the Pinnacles formation.  The end of the strenuous climbing portion of my hike was in sight.

Pinnacles

Near the top, I heard a warbler singing!  It took me a few minutes to track it down, but then I saw it: a large brownish-gray warbler with orange undertail coverts.

Colima Warbler

That’s birder-speak for “it has an orange butt.”  Going a little higher, I got a slightly better view of the rest of him while he was busy singing.  Note the white eye-ring and the faint chestnut cap.

Colima Warbler

Yes, my point-and-shoot camera was not quite up to the job here, but I got a few ‘record shots.’

I climbed the rest of the way to the top, and ate a congratulatory granola bar while I enjoyed the view.

View from top

I hadn’t made it to Boot Spring yet, so I decided to keep going.  The trail leveled out a bit here, so the hiking was much easier.  And I could start to see the other side of the Chisos Mountains.

Other side of Mtns

After another mile or so, I saw Boot Rock (in the foreground):

The Boot

Boot Rock, of course, looks like an upside down cowboy boot – and gives its name to Boot Canyon and Boot Spring.  Boot Rock is a hoodoo, a tall vertical rock formation left behind when the softer rock around it weathered and eroded away.

Near Boot Spring I found many of the expected high elevation birds: tanagers, flycatchers, and vireos – but no more Colima Warblers.  It was later in the day by this point, so it’s possible they just weren’t singing as much anymore.  I also found this guy lounging in my path.  I believe it’s a Texas Alligator Lizard.  It was quite large, and not very reluctant to get out of my way.

Texas Alligator Lizard

I didn’t make it all the way to the South Rim, but my various exploratory excursions and back-tracking amounted to at least 11 to 12 miles, by my rough estimation.  My feet were killing me by the time I got back down, and I had managed to consume all 2.5 liters of water I brought with me.  I took a short nap, and got up in time for a big dinner and one more classic Big Bend sunset.

Sunset at Big Bend

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Big Bend National Park

Toll Mountain

Despite leaving Seattle over a week ago, this is my first blog post of my trip (and I’m going home tomorrow!).  My lack of productivity on the blog front is due to two factors.  The first is that I spent the first four days on an odyssey to Big Bend National Park, a place of spectacular geology and surprising biodiversity – and extremely limited internet availability.  The second factor is that I’ve spent the last couple days battling some of kind of nasty bug, which I thought might be Hantavirus or deadly Valley Fever, but my wife thinks is the stomach flu.  She’s probably right.  Again.  Thank goodness.

Anyhow, back to Big Bend.  Some places are in the middle of nowhere.  Not Big Bend.  In order to reach it, you have to first drive to the middle of nowhere, and then keep going for another couple hundred miles.  It’s at the End of Nowhere.  I’ve been lots of places during my travels this year with no cell phone service.  But I think Big Bend is the only place I’ve been with no cell service anywhere within 75 miles.

Big Bend Desert

Big Bend National Park encompasses an area over 800,000 acres, making it slightly smaller than Olympic NP and slightly bigger than Yosemite.  Yet not many people make it all the way out to Big Bend.  Olympic NP has 10 visitors for each one person who travels to Big Bend.  Great Smokey Mountains NP has 33.  I had to traverse four time zones just to get here: leaving Seattle (PDT), arriving Tucson (MST), driving through New Mexico (MDT), and finally traveling south through the Trans-Pecos region of Texas (CDT).  I was confused and exhausted arriving in Van Horn, TX for the night, as it was an hour later than I thought it should be.  It turns out that Texas has 254 counties, 252 of which are on Central Time and 2 of which are not.  Really, Texas?!

But the trip was worth it, for the scenery alone.

Big Bend Mtns

Big Bend Mtns

Big Bend Mtns

Knob

Unfortunately, these tiny pictures do not begin to do justice to the vastness of the landscape and the sheer magnitude of the mountains.

And then there was the wildlife.  I was constantly reminded that I was in Black Bear and Mountain Lion country.

Mountain Lion Warning Sign

Bear Country Sign

I love how we’re supposed to both “avoid carrying odorous food” and also “carry out trash and left-over food.”  I totally understand the reasoning for each, but don’t you think trash and leftovers might qualify as “odorous food”?

Returning from a hike, a ranger asked me if I’d seen any mountain lions.  I said no.  She said, “well, you can bet that one saw you!”  Then she pointed to the bear and lion tracker:

Bear and Mtn Lion Sightings

While unfortunately (or fortunately?) I didn’t run into any large carnivores, I did find plenty of wildlife.  Javelinas (Collared Peccaries) made an appearance every evening.

Javelina

A pair of Common Blackhawks were nesting near the Rio Grande.  My photo of the birds themselves didn’t come out (it was almost sunset), but here’s their personal sign:

Black Hawk Sign

A Greater Roadrunner sat high in a dead tree and sang his mournful territorial song:

Roadrunner in tree

This female Blue-throated Hummingbird was squeezing in one more snack before bed.

Blue-throated Hummer

And tarantulas scurried across the desert, out for their evening meal:

Tarantula

Hot on their tail, tarantula hawks roamed the desert.  The tarantula hawk is a type of parasitic wasp that uses tarantulas as its nursery.

Tarantula Hawk

The female tarantula hawk stings a tarantula, which paralyzes it but doesn’t kill it.  The wasp then drags the tarantula back to its burrow and lays an egg inside.  When the egg hatches, the wasp larva eats the tarantula alive.  Yikes!  Tarantula hawks usually don’t bother humans, but their sting has been rated the #2 worst insect sting in the world by the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.  I stayed away from the tarantula hawks.  Far away.

While I’m always a sucker for interesting fauna, I spent a little time checking out the flora as well.  Agaves are common in Big Bend.

Agave

These succulents flower only once, at the end of their lives, sending up a huge stalks to pollinate their flowers and disperse their fruit.

Agave Stalk

Although they are sometimes known as “century plants,” most species of agave only live a couple decades or so.

My first full day in Big Bend was a feast for the senses, and I had to drag myself back to my room after enjoying an amazing sunset.

Big Bend Desert at Sunset

Big Bend Sunset

I needed all of my energy for tomorrow’s epic hike, to see one of the smallest birds in one of the most distant corners of one of the most remote national parks in the country.

 

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Florida Wrap-Up

I’m sitting at SeaTac International Airport, waiting for a flight to Tucson.  Which makes me think I should hurry up and write a short wrap-up post for my trip to Florida.

White Ibis

Overall, south Florida was a terrific experience.  There are some things I don’t love about the area: the obnoxious drivers, the vast urban sprawl, and the crazy tolling system.  But there is much to love about this beautiful flatland of swamps, beaches, marsh, and lowland forests.

Miles by car: 1757

Miles by ship: 150

Miles by ship in rough seas: 148

Miles by foot: 35 (approx)

Total species seen: 140

New Big Year Birds Added: 30

Florida boosted me up over the 600 species mark!  I’m currently at 609 official ticks.  When I started my Big Year last June, it took me just 2 days to see my first 100 species, and only another week to reach 200.  It took 2 more months to reach 400, and almost 4 months after that to reach 500.  Even in the midst of spring migration, it has taken me 4.5 additional months to top 600.  Now I have exactly one month left in my year, and we’ll see how many more I can pick up before the end.  My base goal is 650 (looks somewhat promising), and my “stretch” goal is 675 (don’t think I’m going to make that one).

Scrubbiest looking bird: Florida Scrub-Jay (note the bands on its leg)

Florida Scrub Jay

Scrubbiest looking landscape: Florida scrublands

Florida Scrub

Most Unusual Birding Location: the University of Miami (found my only Spot-Breasted Oriole there, right outside the campus radio station and bookstore)

U of Miami

Ugliest Looking Lighthouse: Sanibel Island Light (Point Ybel Lighthouse)

Ugly lighthouse

Shortest Lighthouse: Garden Key Lighthouse at Fort Jefferson

Ft Jefferson lighthouse

Most Majestic Lighthouse: Loggerhead Key Light

Loggerhead Light

Dirtiest my car has gotten: On the road to Bear Lake Trail in the Everglades

Dirty Car

Most Pleasing Sunrise: In a Slash Pine forest in SW Florida

Dawn in Saw Palmetto Slash Pine Forest

Coolest Non-bird Critters: Horseshoe Crabs at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Horseshoe Crabs

Place I most want to return with my family: the Dry Tortugas

Fort at Sunset

Scariest Signs: Flood Signs at Ding Darling NWR, indicating that the 100-year flood level is 13.2 feet above sea level, in a place where the entire island (Sanibel) is only 2 feet above sea level.  Yikes!

flood signs

Sign heights

Weirdest Sign: Gopher Tortoise Crossing

Gopher Tortoise Crossing

Apparently those tortoises look kind of like Gumby!

Stupidest Sign:

Gate May Be Closed

That’s the thing about gates: they can be open OR closed.  A gate that doesn’t open is called a fence.  A gate that doesn’t close is called a hole in the fence.

Most delightful group of birders stuck ever to get seasick on a trip to the Tortugas:

Part of Group at Loggerhead

Thanks, Florida!  I’ll be back some day….

LighthousesAs for now, I’m headed to Tucson, renting a car, and driving across Arizona and New Mexico on my way to west Texas.  I hope to be in Big Bend National Park tomorrow for my most strenuous physical challenge of my year so far, and a rendezvous with a rare warbler.

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The Dry Tortugas

I spent the last five days first driving down the mainline Florida Keys and then travelling by ship to the Dry Tortugas, a set of low-lying islets about 70 miles off the coast of Key West.

Just traveling to Key West is a remarkable journey.  It is about three hours south of Miami on US 1, also known as the Overseas Highway.  The name is apt, as you can often see the Gulf of Mexico to your right and the Atlantic on your left as you traverse this relatively narrow two-lane highway.  The most impressive stretch is Seven Mile Bridge, a span that covers almost seven miles of open water between Knight’s Key and Little Duck Key.

Keys

The Keys hold a remarkable diversity of special wildlife.  I saw the endemic Key Deer, a miniature race of White-tailed Deer.  They stand about two feet tall at the shoulder, making them a little larger than a cocker spaniel.  There were also plenty of cool birds, including a rare Western Spindalis, Mangrove Cuckoo,  Black-whiskered Vireo, and the majestic Magnificent Frigatebird:

Magnificent Frigatebird

Frigatebirds are kleptoparasites, meaning that they steal food from other birds. They will wait until a smaller seabird like a gull or tern has captured a fish, and then harass it until it drops its prey.

I didn’t get too many photos of the mainline Keys because the weather was incredibly stormy.  Thursday was particularly crazy, when 4.14 inches of rain fell in the span of about four hours.  It was the fifth wettest May day ever recorded in Key West, and many of the streets were flooded by up to 18 inches of water.  As a reference for you Seattle folks, we only have three months where our average monthly precipitation is more than 4.14 inches (November through January).

Storms over the Ocean

On Friday, I joined Wes Biggs and Florida Nature Tours aboard the M/V Spree for a three day tour of the Dry Tortugas.

Spree

Wes is an extremely experienced and knowledgeable birder, and a real character.  He has a story for every occasion, and an opinion on pretty much every topic.  I really enjoyed getting to know him a bit on this trip.

It took about seven hours to motor out to the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles west of our marina on Stock Island.  The Tortugas were first discovered by Europeans by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 as he explored the lands that were to become Florida.  He named them Las Tortugas because his men collected many sea turtles there for food; the adjective ‘dry’ was added later on nautical charts to indicate that they are too small and too low to provide any fresh water.  The three largest islands in the group are between 30 and 60 acres, with three or four other much smaller islets.  They sit just a couple feet above sea level.

In 1846, the Federal Government began to build a fort on Garden Key, a construction project that continued for decades.  Fort Jefferson was never really finished, but it is an impressive edifice:

Fort Jefferson

It takes up more than 90% of the land area of Garden Key, and with 16 million bricks is the largest masonry structure in all of the Americas.  It was an active military base through most of the 19th Century, and was an important Union outpost during the Civil War.

Fort Jefferson Moat

Most famously, Fort Jefferson was where Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned for a number of years after he was convicted of conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln.  Mudd treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after he assassinated Lincoln, and was alleged to have been involved in a plot to kidnap the president.

Dr Mudds Cell

Some claim that Dr. Mudd is the original inspiration for the expression “your name is mud(d)” – although this is disputed.  After he tried to escape, Mudd was sent to live in the dungeon:

Leaveth Hope Behind

Over time, his reputation changed somewhat.  Dr. Mudd was present during a yellow fever outbreak in the late 1860s, and helped to treat the many affected prisoners and soldiers.  He was eventually pardoned for his great medical efforts in 1869.

Today, Fort Jefferson is the heart of Dry Tortugas National Park, and one of the places we spent the most time on our three day trip.

Fort Jefferson Sign

The interior of the fort is filled with grass, trees, and bushes – the perfect stop-over point for trans-Gulf migrants on their way from the Yucatan or the Caribbean to the US mainland.

Inside Fort Jefferson

We saw a number of warblers, thrushes, vireos, and flycatchers who dropped in for a rest and a bite to eat, including this gorgeous Scarlet Tanager.

Scarlet Tanager

In addition to searching for passerines on Garden Key, seabirds were another focus of the trip.  One of my favorite is the large tropical tern called a Brown Noddy:

Brown Noddy

We saw thousands of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns nesting on Bush Key:

Island Closed

Hey, someone needs to tell all those birds that this island is closed!

We also saw both Brown and Masked Boobies.  Hospital Key, not much more than a big sand bar, is the only nesting site for Masked Booby in the United States.  This Key was named during the yellow fever outbreak, when it served as a quarantine area.

Hospital Key

Those tiny white dots are the Masked Boobies.   A pod of dolphins also greeted us upon our arrival at Hospital Key:

Dolphin

We also visited Loggerhead Key, the largest of the Tortugas islands and the home to the Loggerhead lighthouse.

Loggerhead Key Lighthouse

Spree at Loggerhead

After three amazing days, it was time to head back to Key West.  The seas were a bit rougher than normal, and despite the many wonders I had witnessed I was ready to spend the night on dry land.  The Tortugas are a special place, and I hope to return some day with my kids to share its magic with them.

Rainbow over Fort Jeff

 

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Dangers of the Everglades

Everglades NP

I recently risked life and limb to spend a day among the many terrors of Everglades National Park.  Sure, the National Park Service would like you to believe that visiting their little watery empire on the southernmost tip of mainland Florida is perfectly safe.  But I’m here to tell you the truth.  If you can handle it.  It’s okay if you want to skip this post – it’s the scariest one I’ve written all year.

The danger that comes immediately to mind is, of course, giant alligators.  I saw several that were close to eight feet long.

Gator1

They sit there, close to the path, watching you.  And they have sharp teeth, which they advertise by leaving their gaping mouths open for hours at a time.

Gator

I understand that once a man was actually bitten by an alligator in the Everglades!  Maybe back in 1967 or something.  And all he was doing was teasing it and trying to feed it chicken scraps by hand.  They’re dangerous beasts, I tell you!

Do not approach alligators

Of course, there are other deadly creatures in the Everglades as well.  See if you can spot them in the photo below:

Bear Lake Trail

This is Bear Lake Trail.  I walked it for several hours to find Mangrove Cuckoo (found one, near the end!).  But the cuckoo isn’t scary (nor is it in this photo).  The dangerous thing in this photo is the mosquitoes.  All 5,849 of them.  Giant Everglades Mosquitoes.  Thanks to the 100% DEET bug spray I was wearing, only 5,199 managed to bite me.  Note to the Puget Sound Red Cross: I will be postponing my next whole blood donation for about 6 weeks.

As if the mosquitoes and alligators aren’t enough, there are the spiders!  And they are huge!  And scary!  And amazingly cool.

Large spider

And did I mention snakes?!

Snake Bight

Ok, actually I didn’t see any snakes.  The sign is a bit of Everglades humor.  A “bight” is actually a shallow bay.  Heh, heh… funny huh?  Snake Bight?  Here’s a bit more Everglades humor:

Rock Reef Pass

Yep, south Florida is pretty flat.  Almost literally as flat as a pancake.  [Ok, you could imagine a theoretical pancake that was bumpier than the Everglades – use your imagination!]  I’ve been across several passes in my big year: Snoqualmie Pass at 3022 feet, White Pass at 4501 feet, and Washington Pass at 5477 feet.  But this is the lowest pass I’ve crossed all year.  And dangerous, too! Especially if it were hurricane season.  Which I guess it’s not.  But still.

Ok, back to more danger.  Um, cowbirds.  Very dangerous.  Well, not dangerous to humans, mostly, but very dangerous to many species of songbirds like warblers.  Cowbirds are brood parasites, which means they lay their eggs in the nests of other smaller birds.  The bigger baby cowbirds outcompete the other nestlings for food, and may even shove the other birds out of the nest.  As a result, the warblers end up spending the breeding season raising a cowbird chick instead of their own offspring.  I saw many Brown-headed Cowbirds, like this one:

Brown-headed Cowbird

This is the same species of cowbird I saw being trapped when I visited Kirtland’s Warbler habitat last summer.

But the Everglades also has another species of cowbird, the Shiny Cowbird.  This is a species normally found in Central and South America, but a couple individuals have made their way all the up to south Florida (possibly by way of the Caribbean).  I saw a couple of these Shiny Cowbirds near the Flamingo Visitor’s Center at the southern end of the Everglades:

Shiny Cowbird

I see that you’ve made it this far in my scariest blog post ever.  But I have to warn you, the scariest part is yet to come.  It is such a terrifying phenomenon that there were warning signs EVERYWHERE about these creatures.  So what is more menacing than alligators, mosquitoes, and cowbirds combined?

Vultures will damage your vehicles

Yes, vultures.  But not just any vultures.  Everglades windshield wiper-eating vultures.  Apparently they like to chew on rubber things.  Like car parts.

Tarps for vultures sign

How scary is that?!?

I won’t even mention the fact that I think a bird pooped on my hat.  I hope there’s not a strangler fig seed in there.  Or else in 40 to 50 years, I might be entombed in Ficus roots!

Strangler Fig

[Ominous music fading in…]

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