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October 31, 2010

Travelogue 2009-2010, Part 1: Florida 2009

Filed under: Birding,Photography,Travel — Steve Hamlin @ 11:19 am

Painted bunting at Little Talbot Island State Park, Jacksonville FL, April 23, 2009I’ve come to live for our travels, biding time in between, working to pay our bills and finance our adventures. Writing about our trips helps me to relive the adventure during the in-between times. This is the first of a series relating our recent experiences.

It’s been a long time between posts. I expect that those few who had become interested in my musings have given up on me and moved on to other, more reliable sources of amusement. I’ll have to post this in the perhaps vain hope that someone is paying attention.

It’s been a busy, eventful year or so since my last post, but I make no excuses. The self-administered pressure to post regularly diminishes proportionally as the gap grows since the last post. It becomes easier to succumb to all the other demands of daily life. I decided it was finally time to break the silence.

At the time of my last post, we had recently returned from our spring trip to Florida. We left in mid-April, with our New England home still in the grips of winter. The Northeast was hit with a devastating ice storm in December of 2008 which, in our part of the region, was limited to elevations above about 1200 feet. Our house, situated in the valley of the Westfield River, was spared any damage. The worst effect for us was that we lost power for the day.

Back to our April trip. As we drove over the hilltops on our way to pick up I-84 and begin our southward journey, we were amazed at the extent of the damage from the ice storm so recently revealed by the melting snow. Coming down out of the hills, we passed ice formations along the side of the road near the Massachusetts/Connecticut state line – reminders that, while the calendar said it was spring, winter had yet to give up its grip.

We stayed in Aberdeen, Maryland that night and, by the following day, winter was far behind us. After a second night on the road in Florence, South Carolina, we arrived at our first destination: Little Talbot Island, near Jacksonville Florida.

Painted bunting at Little Talbot Island State Park, Jacksonville FL, April 22, 2009We spent three days at Little Talbot with the goal of photographing painted buntings. There’s a bird feeder by a deck off the park headquarters building that reduces the challenge to the “fishing in a barrel” level. We took some “insurance shots” there, then went bushwhacking in the hammock looking for our prey in more natural surroundings.

We were successful in our hunt, bagging photos of not only painted buntings, but black-throated blue warblers, great-crested flycatchers, and a variety of other birds that slaked our thirst for color after our long northern winter.

Fox Squirrel on Joe Overstreet Rd., April 29, 2009After Little Talbot, we visited our son in Port St. Lucie for the weekend, leaving on Monday for a couple of nights at Lake Kissimmee. The cattle ranches along Canoe Creek Rd. and Joe Overstreet Rd. always yield an interesting mix of wildlife species. We photographed snail kites, swallowtail kites, bald eagles and our first fox squirrel.

After leaving Lake Kissimmee, we drove to St. Petersburg to visit Linda’s 101 year-old aunt Grace. It turned out to be our last visit with her, although we promised to be back the next spring (this year). Grace passed away last January, just short of her 102nd birthday.

While we were in St. Petersburg, we spent time at Fort DeSoto. It’s become a “can’t miss” place to visit for us. We also took a drive down to Cape Coral on the suggestion of a photographer we had befriended a week before our trip. Our new friend Dan told us about the burrowing owl population that has made the empty residential lots of Cape Coral their home.

We weren’t prepared for the experience as we drove through subdivision neighborhoods. Residents watched us in amusement, resignation or vague hostility as we drove up and down the side streets, inspecting burrows for signs of life. We found an occupied burrow shortly after arriving and photographed a mated pair as they stood guard over their nest.

After shooting dozens of photos of the pair and probably providing entertainment for the surrounding neighborhood, we moved on in search of our intended quarry: a burrow with chicks. Within a short time, we located one. It was fairly close to the road and also surprisingly close to the driveway of the house on the abutting lot.

Burrowing owls in Cape Coral, May 2, 2009It was comical to watch the chicks poke their heads up over the rim of the burrow to watch us watching them while one of the parents stood guard, patiently keeping an eye on his or her charges. We photographed them for some time while the human residents of the neighborhood went about their daily lives.

On leaving St. Petersburg, we drove up Highway 19 to Perry, Florida, then along the Apalachee Bay to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. After a couple of too-brief visits to the refuge on previous trips, we had planned to stay at a county campground just outside it on this trip, to give us a better opportunity to explore it.

Leat bittern at St. Marks NWR, May 6, 2009The visit was enjoyable and productive, but it left us feeling that we had once again failed to really tap the refuge’s potential. I got some good shots of a least bittern and I had a memorable close encounter with a 10- or 12-foot alligator while on a bike ride, but the visit fell short of my expectations.

From St. Marks, we drove north through Georgia, staying one night at High Falls State Park, then continuing on to Grayson Highlands State Park in southwest Virginia. We had arranged to meet my brother and sister-in-law at Grayson Highlands. They drove up the day before and secured sites for us.

After a long drive through north Georgia and Tennessee, we arrived at Grayson Highlands just at dusk. With my brother’s help, I set up camp quickly, finishing just in time for the arrival of a thunderstorm. Linda and our sister-in-law Chris prepared dinner while Ron and I were pitching camp and we took shelter in their screenhouse to eat dinner as the rain poured down.

The storm passed through fairly quickly. We spent the evening visiting, catching up on Ron’s and Chris’ adventures on their January trip to the Grand Canyon. As bedtime drew near, I took the short walk to the restrooms for my evening ablutions. I found it filled with and surrounded by teen-agers.

The inner door to the men’s room was locked and the small ante-room was filled with about six or eight kids. As I was trying to decide what to do next, a man came in and took over, demanding that the inner door be unlocked. It was and I went in and took care of business.

As I left the men’s room and started back to our campsite, a man (probably the same man) approached and explained apologetically that there was a youth group staying at the campground for the weekend and there had been tornado warnings issued during the storm. The kids had been evacuated to the restroom facilities as they were the only shelter available that might withstand a tornado, if one should hit.

I returned to the campsite and related my experience and the storm news. Fortunately, the storm had passed and the threat had gone with it. I turned in for the night.

I awoke sometime later with the bed still half empty. I looked at my watch and discovered that it was after 2:00 am. I immediately began having visions of Linda wandering the woods of the campground, lost, cold, and frightened. I thought she must have gone to the restrooms and been unable to find the campsite again in the dark.

I got up and quickly dressed, then walked over to the restroom facility, preparing to find it empty and speculating wildly about my next move. As I approached the women’s side of the building, I began to hear muffled voices. I knocked on the door and called Linda’s name and was relieved to hear her respond.

With the crisis defused, my fear turned to reproach. I informed Linda of the time and asked if she was ever going to come to bed. She apologized, explaining that she and Chris had gotten caught up in talking. I went back to bed and Linda joined me shortly afterward, but the whole evening had taken on a surreal quality.

Pony and foal at Grayson Highlands State Park, May 10, 2009The rest of the weekend passed uneventfully. We had a nice visit with Ron and Chris until they left on Sunday. We stayed on and climbed up the ridge to visit the wild ponies that wander the highlands on Sunday afternoon.

We awoke to the threat of rain on Monday morning and began the ritual of striking camp. We were packed and ready to go by about noon. I waited for Linda to finish her shower – the final act in most of our departures. She got back to the van by about 12:30 and I turned the key to start the van.

The starter clicked – the depressing sound of a dead battery. Ron and I had used the van’s power to look at photos of their travels on his computer and had depleted the battery. My stomach churned as I looked around at all the empty campsites and wondered how I was going to get us on the road.

I left Linda in the van and began walking around looking for anyone who might be able to give us a jump. The campground host was nowhere to be found. I had seen some construction equipment near the entrance to the campground, so I headed over there, but there was nobody there either.

I began walking towards the campground store in the vain hope that I’d find someone there – I hadn’t seen any sign of activity there all weekend. Meanwhile, I was formulating a plan to extricate my bike from the packed van and ride to the park headquarters at the base of the mountain.

As I approached the store, I heard a car behind me. I flagged it down and asked the driver if he was stopping at the headquarters on his way out. He said he hadn’t planned to, but would be willing to. I explained our plight and asked him to tell the rangers. He promised he would and we parted ways; I returned to the van to wait and he drove out of the campground.

I hoped he would make good on his promise and I hoped the rangers had a contingency plan for knuckleheaded campers who get stranded. Fortunately for us, within about fifteen minutes of my return to the van, my hopes were fulfilled. A truck pulled up and the friendly ranger climbed out, pulled a purpose-built car battery jumping device out of the back and hooked it up to my battery.

I turned the key and was rewarded with the satisfying whir of the starter as the engine came to life. I thanked the ranger and we began our day’s journey, albeit quite a bit later than we had planned.

We drove to Winchester, Virginia for our last night on the road. Since we had planned to stay at a hotel for the night, our late start was just an inconvenience. We arrived in plenty of time to get dinner and relax for the evening.

One of the main attractions of this particular hotel, for Linda especially, is the hot tub. Linda loves to indulge in those whenever the opportunity presents itself. When we finished registering, Linda asked the concierge about the hot tub hours. She groaned at the news that the hot tub was closed. The concierge graciously offered an upgrade to a suite with a Jacuzzi tub to console my bereft wife. She beamed at the offer.

We ferried our luggage to our unexpectedly nice suite as Linda congratulated herself on her excellent choice of hotel. Since we had the Jacuzzi, I took advantage of it. Clean and refreshed, we walked across the parking lot for dinner in the local sports bar. Hearing the cacophony from the dozens of TVs, every third one apparently tuned to a different sporting event, we decided to order our dinner to go, and make use of our suite’s dining table and private TV.

It was an excellent choice. We returned to our room, kicked off our shoes, tuned the TV to one of our favorite programs and had an enjoyable dinner.

We arose the next morning to a sparkling day. We checked out and began the last leg of our journey. We arrived home at about 9:00 in the evening after being on the road for about 3 ½ weeks. While we were gone, spring had returned to our valley.

All text and images © Steve Hamlin
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