“Leave it to a New Orleanian to go to California through the Florida Everglades!”
That’s what an older gentlemen said to me when I told him I was from New Orleans but on my way west. He obviously thought I was bird-brained. Very funny.
After realizing Rosemary Beach wasn’t my kind of Florida, I had rented a place in Sanibel Island for 2 months. Sanibel is classic old Florida. No chains, no box stores, no massive resorts. They have a 26 day minimum for rentals so it isn’t a tourist destination unless you count snow birds (I, of course, count all birds).
There are 2 reasons to go to Sanibel. First, Sanibel is known for prime shelling beaches where you are more likely to bump into a dolphin while swimming than another human. You will also be able to visit the J.N. “Ding” Darling NWR (that’s National Wildlife Refuge – plan to see that often on Frittata) which is a drive-thru national park. Check out some great bird photos from my day at J.N. “Ding” Darling NWR.
Things To Do With Shells
When I told my friend Denise that I was moving to Sanibel she said, “better find things to do with shells”. What is it about seashells that are irresistible? You just can’t help yourself from collecting them. I decided to find a way to use my shells but still leave them in the sand.
This was a good experiment to see if I had any creative juices at all. I was pretty happy with it.
I should mention one other thing about Sanibel Island. It is just a short 20 minute hop to Ft. Myers which happens to be the spring training headquarters of the Boston Red Sox! Remember folks, there are “no ordinary moments”. I got stuck in traffic directly in front of the stadium as a game was getting out which gave me enough time to look up the schedule and figure out there were only 2 games left in pre-season. Bought tickets, went to both.
I found it charming that the guys selling beer in the stands were not spring chickens. I also found it charming that I bought a ticket for less than $40 and got to sit close enough to smell the dirt in the infield and watch the GM spit sunflower seeds. And enjoy the view if you know what I mean ladies.
The Send Off Party
Ok so we are back on the road. The good part is coming up now.
First stop – Florida Everglades National Park! We are not talking about your morning stroll kind of park here folks. The Everglades is 1.3 million acres. You can access a “warm up” to the park on the Gulf Coast in Everglades City so that is what I did.
I signed up for a $40 pontoon boat tour. Just to ease into things. The tour says you might see birds like osprey, egrets, herons, cormorants, etc. If you’ve been to South Louisiana, you can see all those in your backyard so normally I would not pay for a tour like this. What the tour didn’t tell you was that you’d get a shot of a juvenile bald eagle:
Nor did the tour tell you that you would see this:
Not sure why but I just started crying with joy when this happened. There were about 10 dolphins and they followed us for about 10 minutes of pure happiness. If you are near the Everglades, be sure to book at tour with Everglades Florida Adventures, they were great.
The Long And Winding Road
From Everglades City, the plan was to drive across the southern part of Florida and check out the park from it’s main entrance near Homestead. Found out from one of the guys on the pontoon that there is a “loop road” that cuts directly through Big Cypress Reserve and dumps you out exactly where the highway would but, of course, with the potential for a lot more wildlife viewing.
It is a dirt track road for about 30 miles, and you can only go about 30mph so it takes longer BUT he said he had seen some spoonbills there recently and that was all I needed to know.
I was a little wary of driving into the great unknown alone knowing there would be most likely be no cell. But I have a Range Rover. What could go wrong? (queue laughter from everyone who is familiar with the history of my car).
I would not call it Loop Road. I’d call it alligator alley.
There were some highlights along the way like this gorgeous little green heron. I was rolling by a pond and thought I saw a glint of green on a rotten tree down in the water.
After I got his picture I turned around and found this standing behind me:
From there the drive was one gator party after another.
I was cruising along…had seen enough gators…but then I passed this. I slammed on the brakes and backed it up:
That, my friends, is a crocodile.
Cocodrilo in Espanol.
Different from the alligator. I like to differentiate them by “teeth on the outside”. Did you know that South Florida is the only place in the U.S. where you can see a crocodile? Anywhere else and you can be sure it is an alligator.
Crocs can regulate salt so they can live in open streams that come from ocean where alligators stick to lakes and shorelines. Crocs are also, on average, 3 ft longer than alligators. While I DID have my tape measure in the car, I decided to guesstimate him at 10 feet instead.
As the drive was wrapping up, I came to a sign that said, “Tree Snail Hike”. The sign explained that tree snail, known for their jeweled shells, live on smooth barked trees and can sometimes be seen on this hike. I had made friends with the snails on my hikes in California so decided to meet their cousins.
I made the short .3 mile loop and saw no snails. Then I ran into 2 British ladies that were having a time of it trying to see a red start (a bird). I had my killer binoculars with me and quickly helped them hunt up their little songbird. Then I asked, “I don’t suppose you’ve seen any tree snails?”
“Oh yes, quite.” (Austin Powers deja vu). And they pointed up into the V of a smooth barked tree right next to me. “That’s the only one we’ve found and we only saw it because the bird was sitting next to it when we first saw him.”
No ordinary moments.
No Sharks in Shark Valley
The rest of the drive was pleasant with a few great shots along the way:
I arrived on the other side of the state at Shark Valley Visitors Center. A quick stop informed me that there were no sharks in shark valley. A little misleading of the national park service if you ask me, and as it would turn out, not the only chuckle that Everglades National is getting on us nature nerds. I wonder how many parents had to face screaming children when they found out it was just an observation tower?
The After Party
I ended up driving down to the main entrance since there was still some daylight left. My plan was to visit a certain pond that supposedly was prime for the spoonbills which I had not seen on Loop Road. I was also in search of the wood stork which can sometimes be found here. Dusk is always a great time to hit birding sites where birds are known to roost. Just bring your mosquito spray.
The park is BIG. I drove almost 30 miles in to find my destination. Didn’t see a single bird except this guy that I passed on the way in and who was still waiting for me on the way out.
By now I was ready for a beer and a bed. As I headed back, I was blessed with a rare sight. As I approached the exit gate, the sun was hitting just right near a pond and there was a cloud of invisible insects swirling around. And about 20 common nighthawks were feeding on the buffet.
I stopped my car in the middle of the road (not like anyone else was out there) and got out to try to get pictures. Good luck photographing these birds in flight. I’ve got a picture of one somewhere from a trip to Trinidad that I found sleeping on a branch in daylight which is RARE. In the meantime, I had steal some pictures from Audubon to show you.
I gave up trying to take pictures and just stood there to enjoy the show. They were not bothered by me at all. They flew down right at eye level with me most of the time. What a great finish to Day 1 of Frittata Cross Country!
No Flamingos In Flamingo Bay
The next morning I got up early with a plan to drive to the furthest point in the park, Flamingo Bay, and work my way back. It’s about 40 miles from the entrance. I arrived to find that, as mentioned above, there are no flamingos in Flamingo Bay.
“There used to be. They named the town after them, that’s why it’s called Flamingo Bay,” the friendly ranger told me. Very funny.
Not to be thwarted, I hunted this guy up:
Roger That Ranger
While Everglades National Park may have exaggerated their inhabitants a bit, their rangers were overall very enthusiastic and helpful. I had stopped at the entrance that morning and patiently waited for the ranger to hoist up the American flag (national parks raise and lower their flags daily). Once he was ready to answer questions, I pounced.
I asked about the spoonbills first. He informed me that they had already moved on for the season. I then asked about Mr. Wood Stork and he was at least honest telling me they haven’t been seen in the park lately.
He gave me a tip about a place he knew of where there might be a chance of seeing one. “It’s a water treatment facility but sometimes they get wood storks.” That was really all he said, and he wrote down the name for me. I’m headed north tomorrow and pretty much have to pass right by it so maybe I’ll check it out.
The Everglades Crawl
I made my way back toward the park entrance over the next few hours. It was slow going. I stopped a lot, did a 4 mile hike (did I mention it was 101 degrees?) and I didn’t see much. My last stop was at Royal Palm. Turns out this was probably the most worthwhile stop in this section of the everglades and it was about 5 minutes inside the entrance.
I did run across a flock of swallow-tailed kites that were enjoying a bug buffet much like the nighthawks had. This time I was able to get a little footage:
It was one of the more tiring birding days I’ve done, and I didn’t see the spoonbills or the wood storks.
Just as I was leaving , I noticed a car stopped up ahead of me and the people were standing outside the car. I thought they must see something, so I looked up.
And there were 4 wood storks. Yes ma’am. You can’t make this stuff up. I stopped the car in the middle of the road, jumped out and got just enough of a look through my binoculars to be positive of the sighting. My day was complete. No photo, but you gotta take what you can get.
Next stop is Merritt Island NWR! And then we will be taking a little break from birding…