Thursday, February 9, 2012

National Key Deer Refuge, Florida

The Key deer is a tiny (60-75 centimeters tall) endangered deer that lives only in the Florida Keys. The current population is estimated between 600 and 750 individuals. As about 40 Key deer are killed every year in collisions with cars, their status is "threatened with extinction." I was saddened to see that not all drivers obeyed the reduced speed limit that was set up in the areas where Key deer live.

A Key deer

Key deer can be found on one of 25 islands in the Lower Keys, and this region is protected as National Key Deer Refuge. Curiously, Key deer can easily swim between the islands.
In search of Key deer, we first went to No Name Key, as the refuge website recommends starting there. However, despite spending over one hour on the island, we didn't seen any deer, big or small. Still, we enjoyed our time there quite a bit: the island was very peaceful, and there were hardly any people.
At the end of the world: No Name Key

Mangrove forest, No Name Key

A hawk, No Name Key

Funky circular seeds, No Name Key

After failing to see any Key deer on No Name Key, which is relatively sparsely populated, I thought we no longer had a chance of seeing one of those little deer on any of the other islands. Well, I forgot that we were in Florida, where animals not only don't hide from people, but instead parade in front of them.

That was the case with the Key deer as well. The very first one (out of three) that we encountered, jumped out directly in front of our car, on a heavily-used road, near the Big Pine Key visitor's center . . . Luckily, we saw it in time and didn't hurt it. It seemed completely oblivious to our presence, and it didn't even mind me getting out of the car and coming within a few meters of it.

A Key deer

I'm very happy that we encountered several Key deer as I wanted to see for myself if they are as small as the Dik-dik. They're not. They are at least twice the height, and five to ten times the weighed of the Dik-dik. In fact, a key deer looks like a juvenile of a regular-size deer, which was a bit disappointing.

In the refuge we also went on two short nature hikes: the Jack Watson and the Fred Mannillo Wildlife Trails, and we also made a short stop at the Blue Hole site. Sadly, both nature trails and the Blue Hole were disappointing, and we didn't see much wildlife there. It seems that this area was affected by fire not too long ago, which might be a reason why there weren't any animals. Maybe in a few years they will come back.

Burned palm trees

The fire exposed the intricate network of fibers in the palm's husk.
The palm's fibers

I love the color of this tree trunk

Anil carefully examines the tree

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Curry Hammock State Park, Florida Keys

We stopped in Curry Hammock State Park on our way to Bahia Honda State Park.

Curry Hammock is made up of several islands in the Middle Keys. The main entrance to the park is on Little Crawl Key, and this is were we went. We wrongly assumed that a 1.5-mile long nature trail through the hardwood hammock that we planned to hike would start there. Only after we crossed the park's entrance and were handed the park's map we realized that the trailhead for the hike was on a different island.

However, since we the fate brought us to Little Crawl Key, we decided to check it out as well. And we liked what we saw: there was a nice beach where one could swim, snorkel or kayak; there was a playground, picnic tables, grills, restrooms, showers, and very few people. So instead of going on a nature trail, we decided to take a stroll along the beach.

It was a very pleasant walk made interesting by the presence of several seabirds. One of them, a double-crested cormorant, seemed not to be afraid of people at all: it let me get very close to itself and take several close-up photos.

A double-crested cormorant, Curry Hammock State Park

A mangrove tree, Curry Hammock State Park

Curry Hammock State Park

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sunset at Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, Everglades National Park

We arrived at Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook in Everglades National Park when everybody else was leaving: I guess nobody has time anymore to enjoy sunsets. Or maybe they all got scared off by millions of mosquitoes that were particularly merciless in that part of the park?

I'm a romantic at heart, and a sucker for sunsets, so being the mosquitoes' dinner seemed like a fair price to pay to satisfy my aesthetical desires. And I can tell you that the sunset at the Pa-Hay-Okee overlook was worth the one hundred bites I endured. I was so determined to commit this sunset not only to my memory but also to the digital memory of my camera, that I even allowed the mosquitoes to bite my face: I couldn't fend them off, as my hands were busy keeping the camera still to take the shots you can see below. I hope you find them enjoyable and agree that they were worth my sacrifice.

Sunset at Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, Everglades National Park

An owl at Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, Everglades National Park

The moon over Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, Everglades National Park

An owl and the moon, Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, Everglades National Park

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Oasis Visitor Center, Big Cypress National Preserve

There were so many tourists at the Oasis Visitor Center (Big Cypress National Preserve) that we almost didn't stop there. I'm extremely glad that we did, as there were lots of alligators, one bigger than another. Moreover, most of them were resting directly next to a viewing platform, confirming my suspicion that Florida parks bribe the animals to pose for tourists.

A sleeping alligator

A swimming alligator

Another sleeping alligator

Two more alligators

I think I even know how the park bribes the alligators: it provides them with an unlimited supply of fish!
Alligators' food

Near the viewing platform there was also a playful anhinga, . . .
An anhinga

An anhinga

. . . a few cormorants, . . .
A water landing

. . . and a tricolor heron.

A half mile east of the Oasis Visitor Center is Clyde Butcher's Big Cypress Gallery, which displays, promotes, and sells his photographs, as well as those of a few other local artists. Clyde Butcher mostly photographs nature in the Big Cypress/Everglades area, and all of his photographs are black and white. I think because of that some people compare him to Ansel Adams. As neither Anil nor I were impressed with his photos (they were not bad, but nothing special), I have to oppose this comparison.

In fact, the highlight of our visit to the gallery was an encounter with a pretty colorful lizard running around near the front door. Much more exciting than the photos inside.
A pretty lizard

Friday, February 3, 2012

Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress National Preserve

Kirby Storter Roadside Park (in Big Cypress National Preserve) is located on the south side of Tamiami Trail, 3.3 miles west of Monroe Station. In the park there is a pleasant half-mile-long boardwalk that passes through a cypress swamp.

Even though we didn't see too many animals while hiking there (just a couple of turtles and a water snake), we liked the boardwalk, as it led us through a very different environment than all the previous trails we hiked in the area. It felt more like a prairie, rather than a swamp. Most of the trees lost their leaves in anticipation of winter, and the grass was yellow-orange in color, as if burnt by the summer sun. 

Kirby Storter Boardwalk

Kirby Storter Boardwalk

Still, clearly it was a swamp, as the roots of many trees were submerged in water.

Anil was very happy to see this snake in the park. When we first spotted it, it was graciously swimming in the water. Then it climbed out, and started zig-zagging around the trees, likely in search of breakfast.
A water snake

I didn't care that much about the snake, but was pleased to see a turtle warming up on a dead tree trunk.
A turtle

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Nature in Action: an Anhinga Catching a Fish at H.P. Williams Roadside Park

This was amazing. I still cannot quite believe how lucky we got to observe this great nature spectacle: a bird’s fight with a fish, and then with its own limitations to eat the fish.

As we were walking along the boardwalk in H.P. Williams Roadside Park, out of the corner of my eye, I registered a movement in the nearby river. I turned my head in that direction, but the only thing I saw was the calm water surface. A few seconds later, the scenario repeated, but this time I was quicker and I caught a glimpse of . . . something. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what it actually was that I saw, as whatever it was, it was super-quick: as quickly as it emerged from the water, that quickly it disappeared under its surface. But at least by then I was sure that I was not hallucinating, and that there was something, something interesting, happening in the water.

My brain kept on wondering what it could have been, and after excluding a Loch Ness Monster, and other mystical creatures, it concluded that it must have been a snake. Well, as I was about to find out, I was not too far off with my speculation: it was a bird called “anhinga,” which is also known as a snakebird! At least now I know how the bird got its nickname ;)

The anhinga's nickname "snake bird" is well-deserved.

Seconds later, the neck of the anhinga emerged above the surface of the water, again making rapid, snake-like moves, apparently due to its fight with a fish. The battle continued for a second or two, and then both the bird and the fish disappeared under the water. And just as we thought the spectacle was over, and we were about to move further, the bird, with the fish in its mouth reappeared, and the battle continued. And then the fish gave up and stopped fighting. It was dead. The anhinga had won.

As if this spectacle was not exciting enough, the anhinga decided to impress us even further. It came out of the water directly in front of us, some two to three meters away from where we were standing, and it started eating the fish. Or I should say: it started attempting to eat the fish. Surprisingly, eating the fish seemed as challenging as catching it. The fish was big, too big for the anhinga to swallow it whole.

The anhinga trying to swallow the fish.

The anhinga looked tired, and I think it wanted to rest. Sadly, it couldn't, as a big white egret noticed the fish in the anhinga's mouth, and decided that it wanted a piece of it too. I’m not sure if the egret wanted to steal the fish from the anhinga, or if it simply noticed what we noticed too: that the fish might be too big for the anhinga and that was why it waited nearby to make sure that it would get the fish if the anhinga abandoned it. In either case we sympathized with the anhinga.

The white egret was coming closer and closer to the anhinga.

The anhinga’s struggle with the fish was amazing: using only its beak it was tossing the fish up and then catching it, again and again, I guess hoping that, in the air, the fish will turn and position itself in a favorable way for the bird to swallow it. Minutes went by, and the fish was still not in the anhinga’s stomach, while the egret was slowly coming closer and closer. And when I was almost sure that this was it, that the egret would steal the fish, and the anhinga would be left with nothing, the anhinga made one final attempt and it managed to swallow the fish!

Success! The anhinga managed to swallow the fish!

I was very happy that the events took this course, as the anhinga truly deserved its meal, after quite an epic battle. The egret, on the other hand, looked very disappointed. Well, maybe in the future it should consider catching its own food, rather than trying to steal it from smaller birds.

Look how the fish moves down the anhinga's neck!

The white egret was clearly disappointed.

Amazingly, while Anil and I and a few other passers-by watched this fascinating spectacle, the majority of the park’s visitors were completely oblivious to what was happening, and instead were taking photos of a large alligator lying nearby. It made me wonder how often we fail to seize the amazing opportunities that life presents to us, because we focus on the large and the obvious?

A very large and old alligator.

In the park we also saw several turtles and a few interesting birds.


Another turtle.

A gracious wood stork.

The anhinga drying out its feathers on the tree.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Animals on the Road, the Tamiami Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

The amazing thing about the Everglades National Park/Big Cypress National Preserve area is that it is so abundant in wildlife that you don't even have to get out of your car, or leave the main road (Highway 41, a.k.a. the Tamiami Trail) that acts as a border between those two parks, to see lots of interesting animals. All of the pictures that I posted below were taken along the Tamiami Trail, a busy road with thousands of cars driving over 65 mph.

Along almost the full length of the Tamiami Trail there is a canal/river, which is home to thousands of alligators. There are so many of them that you might even see them from your car, especially if you’re traveling west (the canal is on the north side of the road), and/or have a high-suspension car. If you cannot see them from your car, just stop somewhere along the road, and I guarantee that within a few hundred meters you'll be able to spot an alligator or two. Alligators are commonly seen relaxing in the middle of the river, or on one of its banks.

An alligator in the river, Big Cypress National Preserve

An alligator on the river bank, Big Cypress National Preserve

The birds are even easier to spot than the alligators, as they have brighter coloring and usually can be found higher up, sitting on the crowns of trees and bushes. There are also probably more of them than alligators. Of the many birds that we saw along the Tamiami Trail, anhingas were my favorites. Those cute birds spend most of their time sitting on rocks or bushes with their wings wide-spread, which is quite a funny sight. Contrary to other water birds, anhingas’ (as well as cormorants’) feathers are not waterproof, which means that after every single contact with water those birds need to dry up their wings before they can fly anywhere.

Great Blue Heron, white variety

Great Blue Heron, young

Little Blue Heron

A flying White Egret

A flying stork, Big Cypress National Preserve

An anhinga, Big Cypress National Preserve

In Big Cypress National Preserve there is another scenic road, Janes Scenic Drive, that you could take if you prefer sightseeing by car. We didn't have much time to explore this drive, as it was already getting dark when we got there, but we were told that it is a nice one.

Janes Scenic Drive

A mangrove forest, Big Cypress National Preserve