St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge

We set out this morning with the intention of walking along the man-made levee at the ocean’s edge next to the St Mark’s Lighthouse. I was expecting as quick, easy walk and then back home. It turns out there was so much more to explore at St Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge Currently, the Education Center and Visitor’s Center are closed due to Covid, so we’ll have to go back some other time to check them out. For today, we stopped and explored several stops along the 17 mile road between the Visitor’s Center at the entrance to the park and the lighthouse at the water’s edge.

Our first stop was a little pull off that had a levee running off perpendicular to the road. There was an informational sign there that I wanted to read. The sign turned out to be uninteresting, but as I was reading, Rob say to me, “hey, do you hear that?” Sure enough, we heard a repeated deep bellow from the marshy area just to the north of the levee. We could tell it came from a large animal. We figured it was probably an alligator or a wild boar (we’ve heard bears before and it didn’t sound like one of them). We walked out onto the little bridge that separated the parking area from the levee and looked for an alligator or boar or whatever was making the nose. It continued for several more bellows while we were there. I kinda got a little freaked out and started walking quickly back to the car. Rob laughed at me, but followed. In the car we looked up alligator sounds. It turns out they do not have vocal cords, but do make a deep bellowing sound just like we heard by pulling air into their lungs and expelling it. They bellow in May as part of their mating ritual, either hoping to attract a lovely female or to deter any fellow males from venturing into their territory. I really wish we had recorded it, but you can look it up yourself on the internet. It does sound kinda cool and kinda creepy.

Our next stop was called the Headquarters (not sure why). There were restrooms and a picnic area and a couple of short trails. We set off on one through the woods, but quickly abandoned the trail when I was swarmed by biting flies. They buzzed around my head an got stuck in my hair, bumped into my lips and bit my legs. I was not having an enjoyable hike! So, we turned back, but did venture on the much shorter trail that led out to an observation pavilion set up on stilts above the water. A couple was there, with some serious birding equipment. He pointed out 2 mudhens with their babies in tow in the water just below us. The babies were so cute! We could hear several other unidentified creatures from that spot, including another alligator bellowing. This one was farther away, so less creepy.

From here, we drove on out to the lighthouse. We did the walk around the levee there, as we had planned. As we rounded the 3rd side of the square we met a cute little vole hanging out in the grass. He was not afraid of us so we got a couple of pretty good pictures of him. Then, as we were about to get in the car and drive away, (literally the car door was open) a pair of boat-tailed grackles caught our eyes. They perched in a palm tree about 15 feet away from us and sang and sang. The one did a little wing flutter that made a sort of percussive sound from time to time. Then they would sing some more and then hold their beaks straight up in the air. While we were taking some video of the grackle show, a brown bird that may or may not have been a brown thrasher walked right up to us, literally less than a foot from my feet. He walked between me and the car, heading toward the open car door. I was a little worried he would hop up into the car, but he stopped just short of that. Then wandered away. Rob’s theory is that he’s been fed by tourists at their cars and was looking for a mid-morning snack from us.

Check out the video of the grackle song here.

And here is a video of an alligator bellowing (note, this is not my video, we never did see the alligator or get a chance to record it).

On the drive out of the park, we stopped to check out a soft-shell turtle being harassed by a pair of crows beside the road. Not sure what the crows wanted with him, he wasn’t dead. We also stopped to check out an old, rusty sluice gate. We’re pretty sure it doesn’t work anymore, but it made for a pretty place to take a picture.

A Hidden Gem and a trail through Hell

I have not been blogging much because we have not been doing much lately.  Today we did get out to explore a new Florida State Park.  Our first stop was the Ralph G. Kendrick  Boardwalk in Tate’s Hell Forest. The boardwalk takes you over into a wonderland of dwarf cypress trees and swampy water.  We were a bit uncertain about the route we had to take to reach the boardwalk.  It involved several miles of dirt road and we have a low-slung car.  But, the dirt roads turned out to be not too bad.  Rob drove slowly and it hasn’t rained for a while, so they were dry and not too bumpy.  As we drove along the gravel road, I had my first black bear sighting.  We’ve heard there are black bears in this part of Florida, even spotted some of their poo in our yard, but have not seen one until today.  It was a small one, way up ahead on the road.  By the time I called out to Rob that he was there, he had scurried off into the underbrush.  Rob never did see him.

Shortly after the bear sighting, we reached the turn off for the Kendrick Boardwalk.  As expected, we were the only people there.  We hadn’t passed a car on the road since leaving the town of Carabelle.  Swampy water ran along both sides of the road, which had clearly been built up by man.  I kept watch for alligators, expecting to see one at any moment.  No gator sightings for us today, but we did see a lot of other cool and creepy things.  

One of the first creatures that we saw after we got out of the car falls squarely into the creepy category.  Movement caught our eye in the water to the right.  As we watched, some kind of water snake slithered away through the water.  Thankfully he was headed AWAY!  Nonetheless, I hurried the last 20 or so feet to get up onto the boardwalk.  It ramped upwards until we were about 10 feet off the ground.  The main section of boardwalk follows what is now a submerged old logging road.  In the photo, you can see a straight section of growth that is lower than the surrounding area, which must be the old road.

View of old logging road

The Kendrick Boardwalk was built to allow visitors to enjoy the beauty of the dwarf cypress trees in this area.  They are so called because they only grow to a max of 15 feet. They really were cute, like looking at a doll world. It was a bit surreal to walk along at treetop level.  I felt like I was much higher than I really was.  The cypress have soft, bright green needles.  In the near distance, a great white egret sat perched on top of one cypress, watching the shallow water below for a morning snack.  We were fairly close to him and expected him to fly away as we neared the end of the boardwalk, but he stayed, perhaps knowing that we would go no farther.  All around us we heard constant bird song along with other sounds: a clicking sound, some bullfrogs, and a scratchy sound that reminded me of someone rolling 2 metal balls together in their hand.  We spotted a few pitcher plants (carnivorous plants that eat bugs) in the water below some of the cypress trees.  Dragonflies circled our heads and buzzed about.  Lilly pads floated on the water, many with bright white flowers blooming up to the sky.

Swampy area at Boardwalk

It was so peaceful and there were so many exotic things to look at here that it truly is a hidden gem.  We will definitely go back.  I understand the Cypress trees lose their needles and go stark white in winter, so that might be cool to see, too.

From here, we ventured back out on the dirt roads.  We traversed over rickety metal bridges that creaked and clanked under our weight.  This time we spotted a pair of deer running along the side of the road, their white rumps dipping up and down as they ran.  As we turned into our next destination, a medium-sized black lizard went scurrying across the busy highway.  He made it, but I would have been in a hurry, too, if I were him!

Our other stop for the day was a 3.5 mile hike on the eastern portion of the Tate’s Hell High Bluff hiking trail.  The whole forested area (over 200,000 acres) of land is known as Tate’s Hell.  According to the Florida Dept of Agriculture and Consumer Services, “Local legend has it that a farmer by the name of Cebe Tate, armed with only a shotgun and accompanied by his hunting dogs, journeyed into the swamp in search of a panther that was killing his livestock. Although there are several versions of this story, the most common describes Tate as being lost in the swamp for seven days and nights, bitten by a snake, and drinking from the murky waters to curb his thirst. Finally he came to a clearing near Carrabelle, living only long enough to murmur the words, “My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell.” Cebe Tate’s adventure took place in 1875 and ever since, the area has been known as Tate’s Hell, the legendary and forbidden swamp.”

Today’s hike was less than pleasant, so I can empathize with old Cebe Tate.  The first part of the hike (comprising about ⅓ of the total 3.5 miles, going counter-clockwise around the East loop) was down a sand road.  It was soft sand, like walking along the upper part of a beach, quite the calf muscle workout!  They had recently done a controlled burn through this section, so it was very exposed, no tall trees, only some very green new ferns and saw palmettos emerging through the blackened sandy earth.  In the hot sun, it was an unpleasant slog through the sand. 

Rob in Tate’s Hell 1

The next section introduced a bit of shade and much more foliage along the sandy road, which also had some growth in it, making it a little bit easier to walk on.  Along with the shade and some damper ground came a lot of nuisance flies that buzzed around our heads and bit me on the shoulders.  We put on bug spray and that reduced the amount of them, but some die-hards still got through.  My favorite part of this portion of the trail is what I think might be wild hog wallowing spots.  It has been dry for some time, but in quite a few spots, the wetter edges of the trail had been all dug up, just like a wild hog had rolled around in the mud (last time it was wet enough to be muddy).  I even found what I think might be hog footprints.  Leave your comments below if you think I might be right or wrong.

The final ⅓ (or probably a bit less than that) was the best.  We left the wide, sandy road behind and traveled down a narrower, firmer path with lush vegetation all around us.  We passed a little meadow of flowers that looked like lavender on steroids and some other small white flowers in little clusters.  There was a bit of shade from the sun and the bugs mostly left us alone, except for a dragonfly that seemed to like Rob.

Lavender on steroids?

So, definitely not our favorite new hike.  I wouldn’t actually call it a trail through hell, but it was a trail through Tate’s Hell and that makes for a catchy title.  ; )

Ghost Sentries

Today’s daily walk took us down the beach in search of some big shells. Along the way, we spotted lots of skittery little guys amongst the debris of the wrack line. The wrack line is the most recent high water mark that holds whatever floated up, most often grass-like weeds and scattered shells. It tends to form a dark line all along the beach. Today, we kept seeing little skittering creatures out of the corner of our eyes. They were sand colored and seemed to escape before you could actually look at them. After a few tries, I managed to see one here and there that had stopped outside it’s burrow to stand sentry over the beach. They were ghost crabs, about the size of my hand and the color of the sand. When we got too close, each would zip so fast into it’s hole that we almost wondered if we’d really seen anything there at all. Today was cloudy and cool, so I suppose that explains why they were out at noon. On hotter days, they will spend the day inside their burrows with a bit of sand plugging the entrance to keep themselves cool and moist. They position their burrows at a 45 degree angle facing the sea, so that the sea breeze will blow inside to help keep them cool. I guess they do most of their hunting at night. Perhaps some night, soon, Rob and I will go for a night-time stroll and see them scuttling about under the moon.

Ghost Crab on Sentry Duty

A Day of Bug Discovery

We have discovered 2 new bugs today, well, new to us.

This morning, we were outside in the yard for a while. It was one of our first warm days and I was wearing shorts. After a little bit, I realized I was feeling several little bites on my legs, but kept ignoring them. After a bit longer, I looked down to discover a dozen or more little black spots on the back of my knee and scattered down my legs. They looked like mud spots, but mud spots that stung! I believe I was plagued by the famous Florida “no see ‘ums”. They sure were annoying! I slathered on traditional bug spray, but they just kept coming. Just last week, I had seen a post on the internet debating the possible deterrents to these pesky little pests. Many on that forum suggested using Skin So Soft from Avon. In fact, I spotted a selection of small and large bottles of SSS at the checkout counter at the local Ace Hardware earlier this week. I wish now that I had thrown a small bottle in with my order that day. For today, our time out in the yard was cut short; we retreated into the house.

Our second bug discovery for the day was at bookends to the first. After dinner, Mom, Dad, and I took a walk along the beach. The tide was low and so was the sun. We noticed as we walked along that there were dozens of tiny, white, jumping bugs in the hard, wet sand just above the surf. They jumped in all directions, a bit like the crickets that get trapped in our garage back home. You never know which way it will jump next. It was entertaining to watch them jump away from us as we walked. Mom had on capris, so I asked her if she felt any of them bumping against her bare legs. Sadly, she did not. I consulted my handy, dandy reference book “Florida’s Living Beaches, A Guide for the Curious Beachcomber” by Blair & Dawn Witherington when we got back inside and discovered that our little white jumpers are aptly named beachhoppers!

Birding at Bald Point

It has been quite some time since I posted anything to my blog. For obvious reasons, my husband and I have not been doing any travel. But, we are currently in Florida for an extended bit of time, riding out what we hope will be some of the last months of the Covid threat. My Mom and Dad are also here staying with us. We are on Alligator Point, Florida. Part of Florida’s Forgotten Coast. It is calm and peaceful here. Not as warm and sunny as southern Florida, but it sure beats winter up north! From time to time, when we have an interesting adventure, I will try to post.

Yesterday, was warm and sunny, one of the first such days we’ve had. We ventured out to nearby Bald Point State Park. Rob and I had been here once before and seen quite a lot of shore and marsh birds, so we expected to see them yesterday. Such was not to be. We literally saw 5 birds (1 tall white one -too far away to identify) and 4 pelicans sitting on a spit of sand. So, not much in the way of birding for us, but we did enjoy watching mullet (fish – about 12 inches long) jump out of the sea in the sheltered curl of water near the fishing pier. The water here is quite tea stained (looks brown, just like a cup of tea) but at the very edges we watched hermit crabs amble along in the their stolen shells. When our shadows fell on the crab it would stop and retreat into the shell. Not sure how it could see the shadow, since most of its body was inside the shell even when walking around, but I guess it’s eyes must be located on the small part that is exposed. We also saw one bigger blue crab scuttling along in a little inlet. They are always so funny; looking like they are walking sideways.

Bald Point State Park has both beach access and trails through the brush/forest (not sure what to call it). After we’d had our fill of watching the sea life, we set off on the trail through the woods. The beginning of the trail was filled with scrub oaks, many covered in Spanish moss. I just love Spanish moss; it is so quintessentially Southern. As we walked, the terrain turned more toward low growing saw palmettos and bare, dead tree trunks. It was like a tree graveyard, beautiful in a sort of creepy way.

From various vantage points during our time at Bald Point we could see 3 distinct smoke trails off in the distance. They have been doing prescribed burns of forest land in the area, so we figured these were just 3 more. It seemed like a good day for it. As we walked toward the beach at the end of our walking trail, I caught a pretty cool shot of the smoke making a wave-like pattern in the sky as it blew eastward.