Friday, December 27, 2019

Visit from Dillingers

We were very pleased to have our lifelong friends, Rex and Natalie Dillinger along with their older son, Ben, come to visit us at our Georgetown, Kentucky home.  This is the first visit from our WV friends since my retirement on December 20.  We value our friendship with the Dillingers and were very pleased that they came to see us.  Rex had been to our house on several prior occasions including helping us to complete our move here in August 2018.  However, neither Natalie nor Ben had been here before,  We hope to have them come more regularly.
Mary fixed a great dinner of huge grilled pork chops and baked potatoes followed by a choice of Christmas goodies.  Everyone enjoyed the meal and catching up.  
After dinner we decided to go for a drink at Country Boy Brewing, a very popular craft beer producer in the area.  We each had flights of four beers from the dozens of selections available.  We not only sampled our own four choices but those of others at the table.  I think that we all eventually found a beer or cider that suited our tast best.  The bar area was busy but not crowded and, since there was no live band that night, it was possible to hold a conversation at our table.

Ben, Rex and Natalie Dillinger at Buffalo Trace
The next morning after a breakfast of ham, cheese and spinach omlets, we drove the 45 minute trip to Buffalo Trace Distillery.  We had been here many times since one of their signature bourbons (Eagle Rare) is one of our favorites and the tour guides are interesting and engaging providing guests with a memorable experience.  When we arrived we were surprised to see a huge crowd waiting outside the visitor center.  We learned that several limited bourbons, including Blanton'sReserve, were being released and that most people were waiting in line to purchase one or more bottles.  Once we make it to the desk to sign up for the tour we went to the side porch to meet our guide.  We were very fortunate to have Freddie Johnson as the guide.  He is a third generation employee of Buffalo Trace and has worked here for most of his life.  Freddie knows Buffalo Trace better than anyone and is by far the most popular guide.  
Freddie Johnson
Freddie told us about the history of Buffalo Trace before, during and after Prohibition and how Buffalo Trace was one of the few distilleries designated as a supplier of medicinal whiskey during Prohibition.  We watched the movie on Buffalo Trace's process and products then walked the short distance to the experimental rickhouse.  I always look forward to the smell inside a bourbon rickhouse.  The aroma of the bourbon that leaks from the barrels and the aging charred whire oak is just a pleasing smell.  

We walked over to the Blanton's bottling facility and saw Blanton's Reserve being hand bottled and labeled.  We saw the prized horse stoppers being added to the bottles and even saw some of the Blanton's Reserve Gold being prepared for sales abroad. 
As always, our tour concluded in the tasting room where we could choose from many of Buffalo Trace's spirits.  We all tried samples from their offerings and, of course, the most popular was the bourbon cream, especially with the bourbon chocolate candy.  Ben bought a few nosing and rocks glasses from the Buffalo Trace gift shop as we were leaving.
Blanton's Reserve being bottled
Our group split up after leaving Buffalo Trace with Mary and Natalie going to the shops in Midway and Georgetown.  They enjoyed walking through the boutiques and local stores then getting lunch at Josie's between Georgetown and Lexington.  
Rex, Ben and I stopped at Grime's Chicken for lunch.  We all got the spicy chicken tenders with our choice of side.  My small container of red beans and rice was quite good and the three huge servings of spicy coated chicken for under $5 was a bargain,  We took our meals across the street to Douglas Park where we sat on a picnic table and appreciated the beautiful day for late December.  Ben didn't expect the chicken pieces to be so large so he ordered a six piece lunch was hardly able to finish his meal.  
We signed up for the brewery and distillery tour at Town Branch and browsed the attractive gift shop while we awaited the start of our tour.  This visitor center is one of the more attractive on the Bourbon Trail.  The new building houses a recreation of an Irish street scene with highly lacquered storefronts housing shelves of Town Branch products.  
Fermenters at Town Branch
Our tour started in the brewery area by looking at the grains that are used in producing the many beers that are made here.  Their most popular beer is Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale which is aged in used bourbon barrels after brewing but before bottling.  In the beer tasting room we were able to choose from among the stouts, porters, ales and other offerings.  Our knowledgeable guide gave us a lot of background on the ingredients and production of each beer.

Pot stills at Town Branch
From there we started the distillery tour where we learning about the production of the bourbons, gins, rums and Irish style whiskies made at Town Branch.  We went through the area where giant fermentation tanks hold the grains during alcohol production then to the Scottish pot stills that refine the low alcohol liquid into spirits that will be aged and sold.  We learned that the newly distilled whisky that will become bourbon is stored at rented rickhouse space at the old E. H. Taylor Distillery, now Castle and Key
Tasting room at Town Branch
As with most distillery visits, the trip concludes with a tasting.  We all appreciated our sips of the spirits made at Town Branch.  Our final drink was Bluegrass Sundown, a sweetened coffee and whisky concentrate that is served hot with a layer of heavy cream. 
We browsed the gift shop at Town Branch where Ben picked up another specialty glass then drove the short distance to Lexington’s historic DistilleryDistrict.  This area had fallen into disuse for many years until a revitalization project brought some small local restaurants, craft breweries and distilleries back to the area.  One of the first to come was Barrel House, a very small operation that produces rum, moonshine and bourbon.  Their total operating space is no larger than a four car garage at least half of which is the gift shop.  I had been here many times before and since time was running short, we decided to limit our visit to a peek into the fermentation and distillation area through the open door.
James Pepper Distillery
We went a few yards away to the James Pepper Distillery hoping for a tour but the operation was closed for the holidays.  This distillery is a revived distillery that had been in operation at this location from the late 1800s until the late 1950s when the bourbon industry’s sales were in a major slump.  The facility had fallen into disrepair for over 50 years when restoration began to reopen as a distillery.  We looked in the windows and planned to return when the facility is open and available for tours. 
After leaving Lexington’s Distillery District, we decided to return to our Georgetown home via 460 to see some of the attractive horse farms along the route.  Although the day was cloudy, the weather was warm and made for a nice day of sightseeing.  We had a brief visit at the house then the Dillingers started for home.  We hope that they will visit again soon.



Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Wilds

We have been talking about a trip to The Wilds for years but never managed to make it to Cumberland, Ohio for the visit.  Every year we say that we must make it there the next year but it slips of the radar until they are closed for the season and we missed another year.  We decided that this is time to go. Since this was the last day they would be open for visitors in 2019 we were glad that we made the trip.
Cheetah lounging at The Wilds

The Wilds is a huge expanse of open land built on over 9,000 acres of a reclaimed strip mine site about midway between Pittsburgh and Columbus.  The facility is a collaboration of several agencies including the zoos of Ohio to preserve and manage rare and endangered wildlife in a location that the public can enjoy them in a setting similar to their native habitats.
Because The Wilds is nearly a three hour dive from our small apartment in Huntington we left early and picked up our friend, Tammy Minor, around 6 am.  We enjoyed the drive up chatting and catching up with Tammy.  We had been on this route before on trips to Cleveland and northern Ohio because we remembered the signs for Big Muskie Bucket, one of the world's larget single bucket digging machine ever built and is one of the world's largest mobile earth moving machines.  This surface mining machines, a dragline whose bucket could hold 220 cubic yards of material was in operation at this site from 1969 until 1991.
Przewalski's Horses
We arrived at The Wilds a little before their first tour at 10 am so we took the time to walk around the small but informative visitor center.  Because the weather was very cool on this late October day we warmed up in the buildings before boarding the open air transports that would take us through the park. There is a facility for breeding hellbenders, large aquatic salamanders that are native to the area's streams.  However, that building was being used for a tour by a group of Girl Scouts that day so we were unable to see the hellbenders.
Pere David Deer
The vehicles appeared to be retired school buses that had been modified for sightseeing trips with sides cut away allowing better views of the wildlife.  We bundled up knowing that the trip would be cool.  Our vehicle was fairly full with people of a variety of ages but there was plenty of room to move about to get snapshots of the animals.
One of our first stops was at the rare Pere David's Deer that were rescued from almost certain extinction and are now thriving in US zoos.  From there we drove through many other types of deer and exotic hooved animals.  Perhaps the highlight of the trip was an unexpected roadblock by a group of Bactrian camels.   These are not the one humped Dromedary camels of the Middle East but are the two humped camels of Central Asia.  These giants appeared to just want to scratch and rub on the side of the vehicle even managing to rip one of the outside mirrors loose.  Our guide eventually called for the wildlife specialists to come lure the camels away from the bus with buckets of food.  The treats seemed to work and we continued our trip around the facility.
Camels blocking the tour bus
Other memorable animals that we saw included cheetahs, zebras, ostrich, Przewalski's horse and many varieties of deer and antelope.  In all the trip took nearly two hours, bringing us back to the visitor center at noon.  We took our packed lunches to a place to eat outside since the warm sunshine felt good on the cool autumn day.  We watched other visitors taking zipline tours of the area but we felt that it would be better to try that on a warmer day.
After walking around the grounds for a while we departed for home having enjoyed the day and promising to come back in spring on early fall when we could see different animals out on a warmer day.  


Friday, July 12, 2019

Egypt comes to Cincinnati


After taking care of a few chores in Georgetown today we drove north on I75 to the Cincinnati Museum Center to see the traveling exhibit on ancient Egypt. This is the first time that I had been to the museum since it reopened following significant structural repairs and upgrades to the building and exhibits. As members of CMC we have been to many traveling exhibits that have all been excellent. Some of the notable recent exhibits have included, the photography of Tsarina Alexandria, Viking culture, the Dead Sea Scrolls and many others.
I had been fighting a cold so I slept for most of the trip north while Mary drove. Our membership got us free parking at the museum and we arrived at the exhibit hall shortly before our scheduled 2:15 entry time. We saw only about 10 other guests entering the exhibit at our time. We were pleased that a school bus and a charter bus pulled up to the museum to take guests for departure as we were arriving. Because most people tend to go through a museum much more quickly than us, we had the exhibit to ourselves after we have been in the displays for about an hour. It was nice to be able to spend as much time as we liked looking at each artifact without feeling rushed.
There was a great deal of information presented on life during the early, middle and late kingdoms as well as social structure, technologies and geography. There were a number of interactive displays where visitors could explore hieroglyphics, mummification and other topics. One display that especially interested up was a 360 holographic movie of mummification
We were amazed not only with the number of artifacts but the quality of the items displayed. Many of the display pieces were over 3000 years old yet appeared to be like new. I suppose since the items would have been stowed in a dry desert climate deep in a pyramid or other safe location there is no reason that they should appear other than like new.
We stayed in the Egypt exhibit until nearly 5 pm then took a quick walk through some of the other areas of the museum that have reopened. We didn’t go into the children’s museum but it appeared to have been overhauled. We know that Peter can spend hours in there without ever tiring for something to do. There is a new activity section where guests can blow smoke rings with dry ice, float paper cones up a wind tube, drop a bowling ball to propel a tennis ball up into a net or use low frequency sound to make patterns in sand. 
The Cincinnati history section is still incomplete but the sections that are open are very nice. The city scale model with trains and street cars has been updated and only one car, a 1950 Crosley Hotshot, donated by the grandparents of Otto Warmbier, was on display. We spent a good bit of time in a new exhibit dedicated to Cincinnati’s own Neil Armstrong on the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon walk. The 360 degree footage of the lunar landing and walks on the surface were thrilling to relive. The display was interesting and informative. We took a quick walk through the newly displayed dinosaur fossils then made our way to the exit. On our way out we noticed that the tile mosaics in the large entry had been nicely cleaned and restored.
Although we left the museum at the peak of rush hour, the traffic on I75 south wasn’t as bad as we expected. We made it back home to Georgetown in a little over an hour. We always enjoy our visits to the Cincinnati Museum Center and can’t wait to see what will be coming after the Egypt exhibit leaves in August.



Sunday, February 3, 2019

Leaving Florida


We awoke at our usual 5:30 am time frame and made tea in the room as we did our final packing for our return flight to Cincinnati.  At 6:30 we made our way to the breakfast area for our usual Raisin Bran and blueberry yogurt breakfast.  We brought our bags to the rental car and checked out of the Day’s Inn Bonita Springs at 7:20.  We were pleased that the Wyndham points that we used paid the full $815 price of our room for five nights.  We were soon on I-75 north toward the Punta Gorda Airport.  We stopped at the Publix near the airport for sandwiches and fruit for our lunch on the flight. I topped off the fuel tank in the car while Mary was in the store.  It only took $3.00 of fuel to fill up.  We were happy with the little Nissan Versa.  Although it was small, we managed to haul the four of us around to hiking spots in relative comfort.  The big advantage of the car was that we got 42.8 miles per gallon average fuel economy for the over 1300 miles that we had driven on our trip this week.  We thought that was pretty good considering the car is not a hybrid and has a fair amount of pep.  While the rental fee was only $158 the taxes and surcharges brought the total to over $230.  Still, we had about $150 in flight costs, $250 for the nights in Homestead, $250 for meals, $70 for gas, $20 for the annual National Park pass.  Altogether we spent about $1,200 for our week in Florida.  Of course, if we didn’t have the hotel points the cost would have been $2,000.
Anhinga
We got through security at Punta Gorda airport quickly although, unlike when we boarded at CVG, we didn’t have TSA PreCheck so we had to take our shoes off and empty our backpacks. We never know when we will have PreCheck and when we do not.  Hopefully when we get Global Entry we will be able to avoid some of the check in problems.  We were in line with a lady who lives at the south end of Georgetown near Red State Barbecue.  She grew up near Clarion, PA where Mary went to college.  It was nice visiting with her.  
There was a lot of fog at the Punta Gorda airport so the flight from Cincinnati had to be diverted to Fort Lauderdale so our departure was rescheduled for 1:15 rather than the scheduled 10:59.  We ate our sandwiches and chatted with fellow travelers who were hoping to get back home this evening in time to watch the Super Bowl LIII. While we were at the gate, I saw Courtney (Kramer) Epperley who was a former Yeager Scholar and student in CI 415.  Courtney is an outstanding biology teacher at Huntington High School in the room where Pat McKee taught.  She is expecting in June and took advantage of a long weekend caused by weather related school closings to visit her family in Naples.  It was nice to see her.
Brown pelican
We boarded our flight and lifted off at 1:15 as expected for the flight to Cincinnati.  The flight was nearly full except for a few who had rescheduled when the flight was delayed.  We were picked up by the Hilton shuttle through our OneStopParking reservation and returned to our car for the drive back home for a brief stop to check on the house before going to the apartment for the week.  We are happy that the weather will be in the 50s and not the subzero weather of the week before that we avoided the week before.  

We are not birders and did not go out of our way to see any particular species of birds.  However, most birds in this area are very showy and fairly easy to identify with commonly available guides.  We made no effort to attempt to identify any ducks.  Neither did we bother listing all of the common birds like robins, sparrows and starlings.  Birds that we confirmed seeing during our week in Florida:

Brown Pelican
White Pelican
Anhinga
Double Crested Cormorant
White Ibis
Glossy Ibis
Limpkin
Sanderling
Roseate Spoonbill
Great Egret
Cattle Egret
Snowy Egret
Reddish Egret

Little Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron
Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron
Black-Crowned Night-Heron
Black Stilt
Red-Shouldered Hawk
Broad-Wing Hawk
Kestrel
Osprey
Belted Kingfisher
Common Moorhen

Purple Gallinule
Common Gallinule
Wood Stork
Sandhill Crane
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
American Crow
Wild Turkey
Turkey Vulture
Black Vulture
Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher
Ruby-throated Hummingbird


Saturday, February 2, 2019

Groundhog Day in Sebring, Florida

Central Florida orange grove
We awoke at 5:45 on our last full day of vacation and went to breakfast at the hotel.  We were on the road by 7:30 making our way to Sebring to spend the day with our friends, Steve Minor and Marcia Smith.  We enjoyed the drive through citrus groves and cattle farms and lakes dotting the area of Central Florida.  We saw a number of nesting osprey along the highway on utility poles as well as kingfishers and many wading birds.
Steve & Marcia outside their Sebring, FL home
We arrived at their home a little before 10 am which is a beautifully decorated home in a nice quiet neighborhood that is just a stone’s throw from Lake Jackson.  After a brief visit, we drove around town a bit then past the Sebring Race Track to Istokpoga Park which is operated by Highland County.  This park is a quiet well groomed place with walking paths, picnic areas, piers into Lake Istokpoga and a boat dock.  We spotted a number of hawks and ospreys.  At the lake we saw our first glossy ibis as well as one small alligator and a couple of large turtles.  We chatted with several people that we met there and enjoyed our time there.  The temperature was in the mid 80s and the sky only had a few scattered clouds.  It was a perfect day.
Nesting osprey
From there we drove to an area where Steve and Marcia had never been but we all wanted to check out.  This area, Boney Marsh and Bluff Hammock, only had a very short path that was very overgrown leading to a canoe launch leading to the Kissimmee River.  We walked around the area and followed some game trails but the brush soon became too thick for us to continue.  There were large areas that had been rooted up by wild hogs and we were all covered with tiny round burrs that we removed before returning to the car.  We did see that nearby Okeechobee Outfitters offers wild hog hunts in the area.
Osprey
After our walk, Steve treated us to an excellent lunch at Havana Days Cuban Restaurant and Bakery.  We all had Cuban sandwiches which were so large that Mary and I split one as well as a side of beans and rice and some tostones.  The sandwiches and sides were both excellent.  
After lunch we returned to their house and played a quick game of Mexican Train dominoes.  Although we weren’t keeping score, it appeared that Steve would have won.  We gave them some of the brochures on the Everglades that we picked up through the week and gave them our recommendations on places to visit.  We really enjoyed our visit with them.  We see them so seldom since they moved to Florida but we sure look forward to coming back and seeing them again.  Steve has looked forward to moving to Florida for the nearly 50 years that I have known him because of his intense dislike of cold weather.  It makes us feel so good to see how well they are doing and how happy they are living in Central Florida in retirement.  
We left their home and drove the 90 minutes back to Bonita Springs.  We parked at the hotel and brought things up to the room to pack.  After starting to pack we decided that we should get a small dinner.  We had such a large lunch that neither of us wanted a large dinner.  There was the Culver’s across the street where we had eaten earlier in the week so we decided to go back there.  We walked across Bonita Springs Boulevard to the restaurant and ordered.  Mary got the same cranberry chicken salad that she had before.  I had the cashew chicken salad that Mark and Cindy split before.  My salad arrived with the chicken chunks incompletely cooked so I sent it back.  I seldom return food to the kitchen but this chicken was still cool and pink on the inside and I didn’t want to eat it that way.  After preparing it again the salad was very good.  
After dinner we took a short walk around the area and returned to the Bonita Springs Day’s Inn to finish packing and print our boarding passes.  

Friday, February 1, 2019

Marsh Trail and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Reserve

Sunrise at Barefoot Beach

After our usual Raisin Bran and yogurt breakfast we met Mark & Cindy in the lobby of the Bonita Springs Day’s Inn and drove the short distance to Barefoot Beach.  We weren’t there for sunrise but we were there by 8:15 am and walked for a couple of miles along the beach.  This beach is very white course sand with bands of shells paralleling the waterline.  We picked up a few interesting shells and enjoyed our time with the Whittingtons on their last day with us here in Florida.  We were very happy to be wading in shorts and T-shirts on the first day of February. The temperature was 83 degrees at 10 am when we were leaving the beach.  
Yellow-crown night-heron
Mark and Cindy packed and checked out to make the drive to Orlando to catch their flight back to Oregon.  We prepared things for another day of sightseeing on the Western side of the Everglades.  We drove to the Marsh Trail in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Reserve.  There was an observation tower about a quarter mile into the hike that gave a good view of the area.  We continued along the trail for the entire 1.5 miles passing by a number of egrets, herons and alligators.  Near the end of the trail we saw one of the largest alligators that we have seen and it was sunning right beside the walking trail. 
Brown pelicans
Needless to say, we walked carefully around it and kept moving along the path.  There were a number of people on the trail but only on the first quarter mile or so to the observation tower.  There were far fewer walkers further out on the path.  We were happy that we had stopped here because we have passed this area many times but the parking for the trail is poorly marked and we have just passed it by.  A volunteer at the Everglades National Park office told us that the tower is a great place to watch sunset.  We were there at midday so we didn’t see that but may return on another occasion to see the sun setting.
Large alligator on Turner River
We left the Marsh Trail and drove the short distance to the Big Cypress visitor center where we have seen manatees in the past.  We used the restrooms and took a look in the waterway behind the visitor center but saw no manatees there today.  We ate our lunch of peanut butter, crackers and fruit as we made our way to the Turner River Road Trail where we saw so much wildlife on Wednesday evening.  We drove about five miles out the road to an area where the river was easily seen from the gravel road.  We parked and walked about a mile downstream, returned to the car then walked a mile upstream.  We chatted briefly with a group of three young men who were bass fishing in the stream.  There were many alligators, some of which were quite large, as well as many species of birds.  However, the birds and alligators here are a lot more skittish than in areas where there is a lot more tourist traffic.  There are far far fewer visitors to this area than many other public areas of the Everglades.  
We left the Turner River area around 4:30 and drove back to the Bonita Springs Day’s Inn to change for dinner.
Mary found that Lapa’s Costa Rican Bistro was very highly rated on Trip Advisor and was reasonably priced so we decided to give it a try.  We were rewarded with excellent meals and some of the best restaurant service that we have ever had.  I had the ChirripĆ³ Chicken which is seasoned and stewed chicken.  One of my side dishes was Gallo Pinto which was black beans and wild rice mixed with tomatoes, mild peppers and onions with spices.  My other side was fried sweet plantains.  It was outstanding.  Everything was very seasoned but not at all spicy or hot.  Mary had a La Gallina which is a pressed chicken sandwich with tostones on the side.  The drinks are made on site so Mary had limeade and I had tamarind juice.  We were both very impressed with the quality and serving of the meal but the service was unbeatable.  This restaurant had what was quite possibly the best service we have ever had at a restaurant.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Corkscrew Swamp

Red-shoulder hawk
We awoke around 5:30 and walked down to breakfast at 6:30 with the two dozen or so Mexican roofing contractors who were in the hotel’s small breakfast room.  Although the hotel is fine and the location is convenient, the breakfast is pretty meager.  We usually have a bowl of Raisin Bran and a cup of fruit yogurt along with a couple of cups of tea.  We found that the clientele in the breakfast center at 6:30 is entirely Mexican contractors but a little after 7 am they are all gone.  Around 7:30 the area is dominated by seniors.  If we are there between 7 and 7:30 we will have the place to ourselves.
Bracket fungi
Mark and Cindy came down at 8 am and we took the short drive to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.  We really enjoyed this place when we were here a few years ago.  It is operated by the Audubon Society and is staffed mostly by local volunteers.  We arrived a little after 9 am and Mark paid our $14 per person admission fee.  As we walked around the boardwalk that is about 2.5 miles in length we saw a huge variety of birds and Everglades plants.  The signage is very helpful since it is placed and removed every day.  There are also many volunteers positioned along the boardwalk to assist visitors and answer questions.  Even regular guests who live nearby gave a lot of good information on the best times to see different birds or other animals. We even admired the construction of the boardwalk which uses a rot resistant wood from the Amazon basin that is harvested through sustainable means.  
Swamp lily
The temperatures were in the upper 70s so I was glad that I wore shorts and a T-shirt.  We are sure happy to be here this week since the entire Mid Atlantic is in the “Polar Vortex” with subzero temperatures.  
We hoped to see the painted buntings at the feeders but they were not being seen with any regularity this week. Since the boardwalk winds through several Everglades ecosystems, we saw lots of varieties of birds and plants.  We especially enjoyed watching a pair of red shouldered hawks who were at the intersection of two trails.  
Reddish heron
We learned that the area was frequented by bird hunters in the early 20th century.  These hunters were shooting birds like herons and egrets for their plumage to make ladies hats.  The Audubon Society purchased tracts of lands in prime hunting areas and placed armed guards to resist illegal killing of the birds.  In the roughly 100 years since protections have been in place in this area the populations of many species of wading birds have increased steadily.
Mary and Cindy walked with the plant and animal guides to assist then in identifying and learning more about each one we saw.  We saw a young raccoon foraging for food but did not see the otters that have been sighted in the area.  We stayed on the boardwalk until 2 pm when we headed for the rental car to drive to our next hike.
Large cypress trees
We ate our lunch of crackers with peanut butter, bananas, jerky and peanuts as we drove south to Sanibel Island.  We arrived at the J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge around 3 pm and met briefly with a helpful volunteer at the ranger station before driving into the park.  Our National Park pass got us in to the facility at no charge.  There is a one way driving trail through the sanctuary and visitors can renter the facility as many times as they wish until the gates close at 5:30. 
We slowly drove around the loop stopping frequently for sightings of groups of birds.  We hadn’t seen roseate spoonbills clearly earlier in the week but there were huge flocks feeding in the shallow brackish water.  There were a few reddish herons doing their feeding dance in the marsh.  Black crowned and yellow crowned night herons were there as well as many pelicans, ospreys and other waterfowl and wading birds.  We left the area a little after 5 pm but looped back into the facility before the gates closed at 5:30.  We drove to the trail surrounding a shell midden dating back thousands of years.  It was difficult is see much since the mound was covered in an overgrowth of vegetation.  There was interpretative signage telling how the natives lived and used the mound as their garbage dump.
Sunset at Bowman Beach
After leaving the sanctuary for the second time we drive across the narrow island to Bowman Beach for sunset.  The temperatures were still in the upper 70s and was perfect for walking along the beach as the sun went down.  By the time we were finished with our walk the sun was fully down as we made our way back to the parking area.
We drove the short distance to Fort Myers Beach for dinner.  We had been here a few years ago and remembered that there were some good seafood places.  We parked a block from the beach ($10) and walked to the row of restaurants.  One place where we had eaten had closed and been replaced.  However, we found that “The Beached Whale” was highly rated in the area by TripAdvisor so we gave it a try.  Service was slow despite the restaurant not appearing to be busy.  A mediocre musician was singing and playing guitar to a mostly empty room.  Mary had a basket of grouper fingers with sweet potato fries and mixed vegetables.  I had grouper and chips.  Mark chose a salad with chicken and a bowl of seafood bisque.  Cindy’s chili lime shrimp looked especially good.  Everyone enjoyed our meal but we didn’t leave the restaurant until nearly 8:30.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Big Cypress National Preserve

After a restful sleep we went to breakfast at the Days Inn which was minimal at best.  There was cold cereal and the ubiquitous Belgian waffle iron.  There were a number of construction workers in the breakfast area as is typical of this area.  
Great egret
We met Mark & Cindy at 8 am to drive down to the Everglades City area of Everglades National Park.  We drove around the small town then entered the park which is very small compared to the part on the Atlantic side.  Most of the park on the Gulf side is islands and waterways.  A volunteer at the visitor center was very helpful in identifying hiking areas and places to see in the western side of the Everglades. 
Our first stop was at the trail at Kirby Storter Roadside Park which is a half mile boardwalk through a cypress swamp.  Although we were there in the dry season, the recent heavy rains over the past week had more water in the area than is typical for this time of year.  We saw a number of birds but nothing we hadn’t seen on Tuesday at Shark Valley.  Since this area is normally drier in winter, we didn’t see alligators in the 6-10 inch deep water around the cypress trees.  
Cypress swamp
After leaving the Kirby Storter Roadside Park we drove through the Loop Road through the Big Cypress National Preserve.  This 24 mile drive is a loop off the Tamiami Trail that goes through spots where wildlife gather.  We drove slowly and stopped whenever we saw alligators, birds we may not have seen or an attractive view of the cypress swamp.  We saw several birds that we hadn’t seen before on this trip including a black crowned night heron.  We met a number of other tourists who were driving along the loop road including some of Belgium, France and England.  We also met two families from West Virginia, one from Talcott and one from Peterstown.  We stopped for a lunch of peanut butter, crackers, fruit, corn nuts and jerky.  It took us over four hours to drive the 24 miles of the Loop Road since we stopped very frequently to see something along the drive.  The last 8 miles or so of the drive was through Indian villages and had so stops for wildlife viewing since it was more populated with houses.
Black-crowned night-heron
Back on US 41, the Tamiami Trail, after leaving the Loop Road we drove to the Turner River Road Trail.  This area is accessed by turning off US 41 at the H. P. Williams Roadside Park and driving for 15 miles on a dirt road.  This drive was beautiful.  Paralleling the road was a canal that was filled with alligators and birds of all types.  We saw many of the same birds that we had seen earlier in the trip but also little blue herons, reddish herons and tricolored herons that we hadn’t seen yet this week.  We also saw several osprey and hawks that we believe were broadwing hawks and red shouldered hawks.  We stopped at a trail that goes through a Florida prairie for 2.5 miles.  We enjoyed the walk but saw very little wildlife and only one other couple walking the trail.  The trail was mowed and kept in good shape for walking.  It was a nice walk but we were tired at the end and ready to go to dinner.
Since we were running late, we decided to just go to the Culver’s across the street from the hotel in Bonita Springs.  It was actually a pretty good choice.  Mary had a garden salad with grilled chicken and I had a Reuben sandwich.  We all enjoyed our meals.
Mark found a small tick on his arm so we all rushed to get a shower after the walk and to check ourselves for ticks.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Everglades Shark Valley Loop

White ibis
I shouldn’t be surprised that I fell asleep at 8:30 last night. We had walked a lot and were very tired. We slept soundly until after 5 am. Mary had the leftover pork chunks with beans and rice from the Cuban restaurant for this morning’s breakfast. I had yogurt, Raisin Bran and a banana. 
We made a quick stop at Walmart for replacement gel insoles then to Publix for lunch sandwiches. We drove north on US 997 to US 41, the Tamaimi Trail. The construction on Route 997 made travel slow through the agricultural area. 
Green heron
We arrived at the Shark Valley area of Everglades National Park around 9:45. Rather than getting the $80 lifetime senior pass, I opted for the $20 annual pass. The ranger at the gate told us that we could get annual senior passes for four years then turn the passes in for a lifetime pass. 
Mark & Cindy had arrived at the Shark Valley parking lot just before us so we parked by them and prepared for a walk out the Shark Valley Loop.  Visitors can opt for a tram ride around the loop for the 7.5 miles out to the observation tower and the 7.5 mile ride back to the visitor center.  Bicycles, including tandem bikes, can be rented at the visitor center for the 15 mile ride.  We have always elected to walk the loop trail since we find that we can set our pace and see more wildlife if we are on foot.  The downside is that we have never had the time to walk the entire 15 mile round trip distance.
Great egret
Since the temperatures were still in the mid 50s, there were only a few alligators out sunning when we started our walk.  We did see a number of birds including many breeds of egrets, herons, ibis, gallinule, anhinga, and limpkin as well as many others.  As we walked along the loop trail we saw more and more alligators sunning, some even on the trail.  A number of aquatic turtles were out warming in the sun and we even saw a couple of cottonmouths and a brown (nonvenomous) water snake.  We heard a few clutches of baby alligators but saw only one baby that was less than a foot long.  There were a number of fish in the canal including many gar, mosquito fish, bass and brim, as well as some invasive fish like walking catfish, tilapia and cichlids. 
As we walked along we chatted with several groups of walkers and pointed out interesting wildlife and plants.  We were pleased to watch several anhingas and herons hunting and catching fish.  The day became beautiful without a cloud in the sky and temperatures in the mid 70s.  We were especially appreciative of the nice weather as we were hearing of record breaking cold temperatures in the mid Atlantic region.  We learned that Chicago is 25 degrees below zero.  Even in Georgetown, Kentucky we hear about subzero weather this week.  People here are complaining that the temperatures here in Southern Florida are down from the 80s that they were experiencing last week.  
Although we had packed snacks of jerky, bananas and nuts we decided that we would turn around and start back to the visitor center for lunch.  The walk back went much faster since we had seen most of the animals and wildlife in the area as we walked out.  A few more alligators, turtles and snakes had come out to sun since we started our walk before 10 am.  We arrived back at the parking lot by 2 pm and had lunch of sandwiches that we bought that morning at Publix as well as fruit, including the last of the guanabana that we bought at Robert is Here on Monday.  
Large alligator basking in the sun
We got back into our cars and drove West on the Tamiami Trail (US 41) to the Oasis Visitor Center.  The canal along US 41 at the Oasis Visitor Center was filled with alligators some of which were huge.  There were many gar and invasive walking catfish.  A black racer was in the grass near the boardwalk over the canal.  There was a helpful ranger at the visitor center and interpretative signs.  The next stop was at the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center just off the Tamiami Trail.  The rangers were closing up as we were arriving, however, they offered to reopen long enough to give us maps or tell us anything we wanted to know.  He also told us that the swamp viewing area and bathrooms are open 24 hours.  We went back on the overlook boardwalk and saw at least three manatees swimming.  They would emerge every 15-20 minutes for a breath.  We saw two adult manatees and one juvenile at one point. 
Alligator
Continuing west, we made a quick stop at the H. P. Williams Roadside Park where we saw more alligators most of which were swimming.  We didn’t stay long at this small stop on the Tamiami Trail and stopped at the nation’s smallest post office in Ochopee, Florida to send post cards to family back north.
We arrived at the Days Inn, Bonita Springs around 6 pm and checked in easily.  I was pleased that my Wyndham Rewards points covers all of our five night stay here.  I borrowed scissors from the desk clerk to trim the gel insoles for my hiking shoes since we were doing a lot of walking this week.  
Ochopee Post Office
After quick showers and a change of clothes we went to Coconut Jack’s in Bonita Springs for dinner.  It is a casual local waterfront restaurant specializing in seafood and bar food.  Cindy had a seasoned chicken dinner, Mark and Mary had coconut shrimp baskets and I had a grouper basket. We all enjoyed our meals as we ate outside on the covered deck.  Most of the staff at the restaurant appeared to be from Eastern Europe.  Our waitress, Juste, is from Lithuania, and her trainee was obviously from Eastern Europe as well. We heard other employees speaking with obvious Eastern European accepts as well.  We retrieved our rental car from the valet, also Eastern European, and came back to the room. Mary and I watched an episode of Curse of Oak Island on our streaming DirectTV Now account before going to sleep.