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. 
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.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Everglades Anhinga Trail

We awoke at 5:30 am, our usual time to get up. We both had slept very well.  This surprised us both since we typically do not sleep well on the first night that we are staying in some place new.  I guess we were so tired from having left home at 4 am and had a strenuous travel day that we were ready for sound sleep.  We went to breakfast at the Day’s Inn and had small omelettes, Raisin Bran, yogurt, oatmeal and tea.  When we tried to return to our room we found that the key controller on the room door had the batteries go dead.  The desk clerk had to replace the batteries and rekey the room so we could get in.
We made a quick stop at a nearby Walmart to get bottled water and some snacks for the day.  We normally like to get peanut butter and crackers in case we get caught out without a meal.  We also got nuts, jerky and fruit.  
We made the short drive south to Robert is Here, a local fruit stand where we bought tangelos and some guanabana. This is a great store and has the best fresh local fruit and vegetables. 
Great Blue Heron
It was a short drive to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor’s Center at Everglades National Park.  There was no one at the entry to collect entry fees when we arrived.  We learned that this is because it was the first day that staff was back at work in the park after the 35 day partial government shutdown,  
The volunteer at the visitor center was very helpful suggesting some interpretative programs that we might enjoy.  We started our visit on the Gumbo Limbo Trail which is a short trail with signage on the gumbo limbo trees and the forest in the Isle of Palms area of the Everglades.  
From there we walked to the Anhinga Trail where we saw dozens of alligators and birds of all types.  We saw one large basking turtle and many fish as we walked around.  At 10:30 we met with Ranger Daniel who did a great job leading the tour answering questions and pointing out interesting plants and animals.  He was a new college graduate but had a lot of personality and knowledge of the Everglades.  
Alligator warming in the sun
We stayed at the Anhinga Trail area until nearly noon then drove along the road through the Everglades. We stopped at most of the trails and viewing areas to look for alligators and birds.  We had been to these areas on multiple occasions before but we always like to hike in this area.  Our longest hill was at the Snake Bight Trail at the western end of the park near Flamingo where we hiked 2.6 miles to the bay then another 2.6 miles back out.  The trail was nice except there were still some very muddy spots from the recent heavy rains.
At Flamingo we saw that the former visitor center was fenced off and appeared to be scheduled for major renovation.  We walked over to the marina area and saw a crocodile in the brackish water.  We later learned that there is a temporary visitor center set up at Flamingo until the renovation is complete.  
We arrived back at the Day’s Inn Florida City around 5:30, got the rental car emptied of trash then got our showers.  By that time we were hungry and decided to go back to Mario’s Latin Cafe for Cuban food.  We had been to Mario’s when we stayed here five years ago and found the food to be excellent.  
Mary had roast pork chunks seasoned with lime and caramelized sweet onions.  On the side she had tostones and black beans with rice.  I had a Cuban sandwich with a side of beans and rice.  We both enjoyed our meals although the portions were huge.  Mary took most of her meal back to the motel to have the next day for breakfast.  

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Arriving in Florida

We left our Georgetown home at 4 am to drive to the Cincinnati Airport.  As we usually do, we arranged tor parking at the Cincinnati Airport Hilton Hotel through OneStopParking,com.  It is a very easy and inexpensive way to park at the airport.  For about $5 per day we park near the Turfway exit of I-75 in Florence, Kentucky and take a shuttle for the short ride to the airport.  The shuttle leaves every 30 minutes and took us directly to our gate.  
Our two hour flight left only 10 minutes late and was fairly full. We dozed off and on for the flight despite the fact that the seats on Allegiant flights are pretty tight with little legroom.  We arrived at the Punta Gorda, Florida airport shortly after 10 am.  We learned that the city is not pronounced “Poont-a” but more “Punt-a” Gorda.  Mary retrieved our checked bag from the carousel while I got our Nissan Versa from the Enterprise counter a short walk from the airport terminal.  There was a light rain as we left but since the temperatures were in the 60s it wasn’t a problem.  We heard that Miami was 81 degrees and we were looking forward to enjoying the warmth.  
Orange grove in Central Florida
We drove northeast toward Sebring, Florida to visit with Steve and Marcia.  The drive took us through agricultural areas with mostly citrus crops.  Many of the orange and grapefruit trees had already been harvested this year but some still hung heavy with oranges.  This part of Florida is sparsely populated in contrast to the coastal areas on the Atlantic and Gulf.
Steve and Marcia’s house is a nice home in Sebring that seems perfect for their needs.  It is over 100 years old but is in very good condition.  The interior has been very creatively decorated by Marcia making the home have a very Florida feel with the pastel colors and open feel,  The outside of the home is planted with a variety of shrubs and flowers including several cacti and other tropical plants.  She has converted the potting shed into a space where she can do reports for her job writing reports for equal rights investigations.  
Steve Minor and Marcia Smith at their Sebring, FL home
We had the best time visiting and catching up until we became hungry and went to a local diner recommended by Steve. Dimitri’s is a local diner specializing in Greek and local seafood. As starters, Mary had a garden salad and I had a local seafood bisque. Mary had grouper Florentine with sweet potato and broccoli.  Her grouper was stuffed with chopped spinach and nicely seasoned.  I had the grouper franchaise which was filets that were lightly breaded and covered in a Greek style sauce that was slightly lemon.  I had sweet potato and beets on the side.  Steve and Marcia both had haddock fillets that they reported were excellent.  Everyone enjoyed the meal very much and we were surprised at how low the bill was for such a great meal with more food than we could possible eat.  
After dinner we went back to Steve & Marcia’s to walk through the house and garden shed.  We decided to try to get back together on Saturday if possible.  We love spending time with them and can’t wait to see them again.
As we departed for the three hour drive to the Day’s Inn Florida City the intensity of the rain really picked up.  As we traveled south toward Homestead the rain came harder and harder.  We learned the next morning that we may well have driven through a tornado.  In any case, we were happy to have made it to our motel without incident.