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East Florida, Dry Tortugas and a bit of Georgia (1 Viewer)

Hamhed

Well-known member
The chill of winter in the North Carolina mountains finally forced us into reporting our trip from early May. A twist in this report is that it was 98% written by my wife, Liz, her first. I filled roles of chief editor, eBird and photo organizer.
Hamhed


05-01-21 After days of preparation and much anticipation, we set out for our South Florida and Dry Tortugas adventure. This trip was cancelled in 2020 when Florida and most other states issued shut down orders for businesses due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With kayaks and car loaded we drove to Rincon, Georgia for our first of 2 nights at the Turtleback Farms Cottage. We chose this location for it’s proximity to Ebenezer Creek, which we had paddled a few years ago. About 6 hours later we found ourselves back in Effingham County. The Airbnb was convenient, in need of further upgrades but spacious and on property that had decent birding. Habitat included lot’s of Live Oaks and other fringe habitat. Besides frequent views of a Great Crested Flycatcher, another pleasant surprise were two Mississippi Kites. A few warblers were also in the spring migration mix. The property itself is on a well traveled road, so not always quiet. The chimney/fireplace provided audio at night when Chimney swifts settled in at dusk.


05-02-21 Up early and ready for paddling. The launch area was quiet but not as visible as our prior visit as the creek was high. We met a local guide waiting for some customers and had our choice of parking. We decided to go upstream from the boat ramp (Tommy Long Rd.), instead of towards the Savannah River. A lovely paddle on this bucolic creek with several Prothonotary Warblers and a total of 26 species observed. One highlight was a Swallow-tail Kite giving excellent views. No snake sightings this time, but the temperature was pleasant, and minimal bugs were a plus. Eventually we did see a few other kayakers but otherwise a quiet paddle. It took us a few minutes to realize the “flagged” branches were the easiest path for paddling while the water is high. The majestic cypress kept us in awe of the landscape. After paddling to Long Bridge we returned to a busy boat ramp. The take out was easy without much waiting.
Dinner was Chinese takeout from “China Delight”, enough for 2 meals each. After some post dinner walking on the property we crashed early after prepping for next the next day’s drive.


Lexington Ave, Rincon, GA
Lexington Ave, Rincon,GA
Tommy Long Boat Ramp
Lexington Ave, Rincon, GA
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-03-21 Up early to drive south to the town of Loxahatchee, Fla. A cool morning with some dew on the car.
Along the way, we stopped at Publix market to pickup a Florida Sun Pass and submarine sandwiches for lunch. The Florida Sun Pass allows you to pass through toll gates via car transponder.
We found our first destination, Turkey Creek Sanctuary, in Brevard, Florida. By this time it was early afternoon and sunny, not ideal for searching for the Short-tailed Hawk that had been reportedly nesting here. We limited our time to the boardwalk, and despite some detailed descriptions of the nest site were not able to clearly find the correct tree and nest. We did hear and eventually see the Short-tailed Hawk soaring and hovering, with good views and photo ops. A few warblers and other birds still active in the heat made for a pleasant, fairly shaded walk even at mid-afternoon temps.

On to the Airbnb, billed as an “artist retreat” . This choice did not disappoint! A self-contained unit, which opened directly to a patio with both hot tub and pool. The owner did mention trouble with temperature control, so the pool was “heated” and not inviting this time of year. After a long drive, the patio itself was relaxing with the scent of gardenia wafting in from fading blooms along the netting enclosure of the patio.

Located in a quiet neighborhood with fairly manicured homes, the yard was still active with anoles and lizards. At this time, Steve had already made multiple failed attempts to activate the Sun Pass. Due to long waits online and having an old account, nothing but frustration. We decided to tackle it later and after using the spacious shower, turned in early.

Turkey Creek Sanctuary
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-04-21 Up early but took time for breakfast, before heading to the Loxahatchee NWR. This was a second visit for us, remembering the great views of Snail Kites we had. Sadly, a volunteer informed us that this species is no longer common in the refuge. He suspected herbicidal spraying affected the Apple Snail population, the main food source for the kite.

We walked for most of the morning around the impoundments seeing Sandhill Cranes, various egrets and herons, Common Gallinules, Black-neck Stilts, Anhingas, both Glossy and White Ibis, a Roseate Spoonbill, and numerous Blackbirds. But, no Snail Kites. We also encountered a colorful Corn Snake.

After leaving the NWR we moved on to the Miami area. In general it was a stressful drive with zooming drivers and the sensation of being in a video game with all the lane changing going on. Our next stop was (warm) birding at Plantation Preserve. This is a golf course/park with lots of potential but we were there close to high noon. Some bird activity and a nice stroll after driving.

We moved on to Richardson Nature Park to hunt for nearby parrots as reported on ebird. This park is also in Broward County. The area we birded was across the street from the actual park, and had some confusing signs posted about trespassing and being a private “area”. Other signs noted access. We chose to follow the “Habitat restoration Area, Open dawn to dusk” directive. Unfortunately we saw a pair of Coopers hawks who were not helpful with our target bird, the Turquoise-fronted Parrot. We did see one parrot species in flight but at a distance. We were able to get brief looks at Blue-Crowned Parakeets who were avoiding the hawks.

By this time in the hot afternoon, we were tempted by the Dairy Queen that had a long line of folks wanting some heat relief, including kids walking home from school. Dairy Queen is a fairly common ice cream stop in much of the South, serving some fast food but focusing on ice cream.

We moved on to a disappointing Airbnb. We found the address after some difficulty viewing best exits on the iPhone maps. Parked in front was a “Code Enforcement “ truck from the County. Difficult to tell if the house even had residents. I texted the host and she was amused, and said her husband worked for the county.

We were directed to the side entrance, private for guests. A noisy air conditioner unit sat outside and inside was clean but small. A mini table and awkward lighting was not helpful, but we were within walking distance of a Publix so made a run for another vegan sandwich. This deli staff had the directions and quality control down. Quiet neighborhood and we returned to our lodging, located on the corner of “the hood”.

After dinner I found out the pool had “hours”, which were not posted but apparently required prior notice to use. The host did unlock the gate and allowed me to sit outside and make a necessary phone call related to some personal business. Even in the urban setting, mango trees were scattered around with some other tropical plants.


Loxahatchee NWR
Plantation Preserve
Richardson Historic Park
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-05-21 We were up early to move on and out of the Miami area and bird along the way.


Our first stop was Brewer Park, located in a neighborhood and known for some good birding. While we did find the Red-masked Parakeet and a Chestnut-fronted Macaw, we were unable to locate the reported Spot-breasted Oriole, despite blooming trees. We did find a Black-crowned Night Heron nest with an adult and youngster partially visible.


On to Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables. While walking to the area for reported nesting Mynas, we had some excellent (albeit invasive) lizard viewing. Along with small colorful lizards, we saw multiple Iguanas of various sizes and maturity grazing in the morning grass. After patiently waiting and watching, we saw the nesting Common Hill-Myna with visible wattles! We also saw more Red-masked Parakeets and an Orange-winged Parrot in nesting cavities. A pleasant morning and we hiked back to the car to move on to Pine Woods Park. This is a power line right of way designated as a neighborhood park that can hold some good birds. Unfortunately it was already hot by the time we arrived, you can’t be everywhere in the morning! No Scaly-breasted Munias, nothing much moving about. We scoured the area and listened for a Spot-breasted Oriole but no luck. After chatting with Sarah (neighborhood resident and friend to birders), we decided to go for the Mangrove Cuckoo. Along the way we had a “what was that noise” moment along one of the neighborhood streets, but knew the boats were secure. We stopped briefly but saw nothing to account for the noise.

We arrived at Black Point Marina, and while trying to grab some snacks, heard the cuckoo call. Despite spending some time and strolling the usual mangrove area, no bird was seen. So, on to Florida City. But….somehow Liz couldn’t find her phone. We soon realized that “what was that? moment might very well have been “The Phone”. Driving to Florida can be stressful in itself, so didn’t take much for Liz to start thinking worst case scenario and envision the next hours being spent putting holds on accounts and anything linked to information on The Phone. First stop: parking spot near Pine Woods Park. A quick pass through the last area we had walked and around the parking area turned up nothing. Thanks to Steve’s navigational skills and successfully re-tracing our route, we started stopping and covering each possibility away from and then back to the car. This is no small feat as our route had included winding through and around some established neighborhoods and avoiding a canal that passes through these extensive neighborhood blocks. We came to the last possible street/neighborhood and parked at a cross street. No luck. By now it was late afternoon and some of the gated properties had groundskeepers leaving. This particular boulevard had no walkers or joggers as no sidewalks here. So back to the car and ….a red item near a private gate! The Phone was found. Face down, looked like any other “trash” I guess, what a RELIEF! And what a reminder to have the phone locked when traveling……so handy to use but another liability.

Finally on to Florida City, to stay for four nights in one Airbnb. No problem finding the lodging thanks to Nicole’s detailed photos and directions. A roomy, private entry apartment in a lush setting with tropical trees and fruits. Dinner was boiled pasta with mushroom filling, anything to avoid another trip out after the long day. We organized and checked the hours and availability of bikes at Shark Valley and decided tomorrow (Thursday) was the day. Friday could be busy due to the relative close proximity to Miami suburbs, and a search on the parks website also listed no bikes available for Friday. I later found out that they only allow a specific number of online bicycle reservations, to allow for customers walking in each day. We crashed with a somewhat noisy air conditioner that wasn’t being cooperative.


Miller Drive Roost
Matheson Hammock Park
Black Point Park and Marina
Florida City Burger King
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
More photos from 5-5:
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-06-21 Shark Valley in Everglades National Park (ENP) lists opening hours as 8:30 A.M. Most likely one can park and walk around the gate if arrival is earlier , but the official entrance booth is not staffed until then. We arrived with a few minutes to spare; this was almost an hour’s drive even in early weekday traffic. The sparkly masked ranger cycled over to open the gate and tell us she’d meet us at the booth in just a minute. Thank you government funding; she was the only staff for that booth. We entered, using the National Park Senior pass which allows free entry to any National Park in the USA.

We proceeded to the almost empty parking area. After securing 2 bikes complete with baskets, we loaded up our gear and hit the paved pathway. Cyclists are directed to start counter clockwise to avoid any potential tram traffic. Both cyclists and tram riders follow a 15 mile loop of well-maintained and paved trail. Despite temperatures climbing over 80F, the breeze and intermittent cloud cover provided pleasant conditions as we biked and paused for soft-shelled turtle crossings, bird sightings and various plant viewings. The first half of the trip takes you along a canal so in the early morning there were active critters. We had the expected alligator sightings including one crossing the trail ….he clearly had the right of way.

Eventually the midway point was visible: the observation tower. Up until mile 5-6 no other cyclists were seen. We did eventually have a few pass us, not sure if they noticed any of the wildlife on the way.

The tower provides both viewing opportunities and some shade for snacks or hydrating. We chatted with a cyclist from Miami and another birder while taking in the River of Grass as the Everglades is sometimes known. A variety of birds were roosting in the tower area but no new sightings.

Back on the bikes to complete the loop. As we left a partially-filled tram dropped off its passengers to explore the tower. This section of the loop was panoramic with grasslands and far off pools or ponds of water. Not as much wildlife activity but the clouds again provided intermittent relief from the mid day sun. A far away Roseate Spoonbill and some Black-necked Stilts were some new birds for the day.

After returning the well-maintained bikes, we took a turn in the air conditioning of the small visitor center. Midday ice cream and helado de Mexico/coconut provided some cool calories. By now the parking area was full of families and other travelers. Steve had visited a nearby restaurant when traveling with his mother a few years ago; unfortunately the “Miccosukee Restaurant“ is now closed.

On to The Dolphin Mall, quite the opposite of the morning environment. This was the most convenient time to pick up some “required” marine radios for our planned paddling in the Dry Tortugas. After multiple confusing phone calls, we had secured a pair of motorola Cobra radios. Steve ventured in to the Bass Pro shops while Liz manned the car and tried to make some phone calls to the Asheville numbers asking for return calls via email and phone. Finally, after a successful transaction in the Pro Shop, we took a few minutes to survey the ponds conveniently located within walking distance of the Mall parking lot. This is a well documented location on “Ebird”. As promised, the ponds still provide habitat for breeding Purple Swamphens and we quickly had views of this species.

Before going back to our lodging, we stopped for a try for Cave Swallows, (the Caribbean sub-species) at Portofino Plaza. Behind the Plaza, there is some parking by a canal with a bridge where the swallows have been reported. The swallows did not disappoint; we had some good views of active birds who quickly disappeared from site when hitting their nests. After a beautiful but hot day we took advantage of the “Portofino Coal Fired pizza” at the Plaza , securing a veggie pizza to go. Just walking in to this venue would make you want to eat here, wonderful aromas and a spacious venue with all masked employees.

Back to our cottage for a tropical evening. Some gecko and lizard sightings but the shower called.


Shark Valley
Shark Valley
Shark Valley
Dolphin Mall
Portofino Plaza
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-07-21 We awoke early for a shorter commute to Mahogany Hammock in Everglades National Park (ENP) for a chance to find an uncommon sub-species of Seaside Sparrow. This is a short, boardwalk trail. Some expected Egrets and common birds were seen, along with a a few Great Crested Flycatchers. Few warblers and some lizard sightings on this stroll. The only potential sparrow was quick to fly out of sight. Despite the time of day few other visitors were on this trail. Again pleasantly surprised with the lack of mosquitos.

Another short hike marked as Pinelands Trail provided pleasant shade but few birds even in mid morning.

We decided to go back to the ENP entrance point to the famous “Robert is Here” fruit and produce stand to gawk at both the prices and exotic fruits. Some local products but many imported exotic fruits. This venue is always crowded, so we made our purchase and motored on to the Fruit and Spice Park.

By now, it was after noon and hot but this was our chance to cover the “famous” park. Birding was a bit disappointing, but that may have been due to the time of day and dry conditions. This is a well manicured park with multiple exotic specimens. Of course there are not many areas of the states where you find avocados and bread fruits and other exotic fruit bearing trees! We did see some active lizards and the magnificent Baobob Trees. The park has a cafe that sounded enticing, but wrong time of day so we went back to the cottage for some down time.

The backyard mini cenote lived up to it’s promise of cooling temps. I took the plunge and after submerging felt refreshed. By this time both Nicole and her Grandmother had been around, working on a new internet router system to improve our poor wi-fi. Nice to talk with her Grandmother about how the cenote was formed and what the property/lot’s history was.

By early evening, we ventured out to Frog Pond Wildlife Management Area (WMA), a short drive from our cottage. There are a few Ebird Hotspots in the WMA, but we walked out a paved pathway to Lucky Hammock. Here we hoped to hear or see some owls, but as dusk descended were instead entertained by Common Nighthawks calling and flying, along with some small birds coming to roost for the night. A Swallow-tail Kite appeared, and we had looks at a potential White-tailed Kite. Alas, better look desired for a clear ID. A lone Red-shouldered Hawk watched from his perch as we departed, surely about to end his hunting for the day.

Mahogany Hammock
Everglades NP
Fruit and Spice Park
Frog Pond WMA (Lucky Hammock)
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-08-21 One stop I did not mention for yesterday’s activity included a stop at the ENP visitor center. The outside tent set up for information provided some vague and confusing info about potential paddling in Florida Bay.

Undeterred by both of our interpretations of her directions, we decided to go for the Snake Bight Paddling/Canoe Trail. We left early with prepared gear for the morning paddle and arrived at the well-shaded Flamingo Parking area. This area is now peppered with warning signs about Black Vulture protection for car windows and mirrors. The vultures don’t bother the glass, but rather the rubber surrounding the glass and on the windshield wipers. One of the gift shop staff offered that he felt older cars were more at risk, due to ingredients no longer used on newer autos. This brought back memories of a prior Florida trip where we had run in to this same vulture behavior. After seeing several trucks and cars in full Black Vulture deterrent armor, we decided not to take a chance. Hadn’t factored this in to the day’s preparations but made do with a sheet that was covering the back seat of the Prius.

No “ranger/police” type staff were available as promised by the information tent personnel , but Steve did score an excellent paddling /sun hat. As we readied to put in, multiple manatees could be seen in the calm waters. A few visitors were already snapping photos of them, maybe a “lifer” for them. We set out into the channel. A pleasant takeout with few other boats and promises of another sunny day. After 45 minutes or so Steve decided we clearly were going in the wrong direction and pulled up our location on the maps.me app conveniently located on his iPhone. The promised trail markers and mangrove “islands” were not in view, but we could see we were getting further away from Snake Bight. Time to reverse course and retrace and we finally could view a pole marking the canoe/paddle trail. We continued along within fairly close view of shore. Along the way we were treated to warblers and shore birds. Eventually we could see a large sandbar between us and what probably should have been our path as the tide was going out and despite our kayaks finally had to stop short of Snake Bight due to low water. We did get views of hundreds of shorebirds, with excellent views of a Wurdemann’s Heron. Wurdemann’s heron is a cross between a Great White Heron and Great Blue Heron. The Great White Heron is a color morph of the Great Blue Heron. This was a first for us, and a stunning bird with this background.

After a relaxing paddle we retreated from “Gibby Point” and headed for the launch area. Back to reality and a much busier boat ramp. We exited quickly and loaded up the Prius, which remained unscathed from the vultures. A quick stop at the restrooms/gift shop and we are on our way with some snacks. Liz went for the Aloe King /Mango which did not disappoint. Don’t want to know the sugar content but it was enough for two servings and refreshing.

The Snake Bight Trail is an in and out path well known for it’s mosquito population. After having so many bug free outings we decided to make use of our bug netting and go for a short jaunt, just to check it off our list. As it was now early to mid afternoon we didn’t plan on the full 4 mile (in and return) hike. The first 10 -15 minutes were relatively bug free, but as we got further along the mosquito activity picked up. Never “intense”, but added to the heat and time of day we turned back. One other hiker was returning, sans bug netting!

We returned to chill out (literally) in some cottage cool air and then made an excursion to Publix for some stocking up before heading to the Keys. This particular Publix offered a great variety of Mexican and hispanic products, but as we were headed to the Tortugas, we couldn’t stock up on items and risk leaving them in a hot car. We did our prep for departing the next day, including securing the kayaks on the car. Our host graciously agreed to collect our recyclables that were growing every day. She saved us some time finding the appropriate facility to take them to along the way.

Snake Bight Canoe Trail
Snake Bight Trail
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-09-21 We were up early and drove away from Florida City a little after 7 A.M. The remaining “Aloe King” made up part of the morning fuel. First stop: Key Largo Hammock Botanical site. Having visited this site 2 years ago and remembering the biting bugs, we again donned the netting and entered. There is a small kiosk for the daily fee. The mosquitoes were already awake as we walked the initial paved trail, but we turned off into the mangroves and a more open area that was pleasant and provided bug relief. This circular trail meandered through the mangroves with a minor wet crossing, at times I’m sure the whole trail may be under water. As we rejoined the main trail and exit pathway, the mosquito activity picked up again. We saw another pair of birders entering as we exited the park, and several cyclists. Overall few visitors, so we had a quiet hike. We did see the first of several White Crowned Pigeons here, and flushed but didn’t get looks a nighthawk we failed to notice before it took flight. An assortment of herons and over a dozen White-Eyed Vireo’s kept us looking for more in the hammock.

On to Marathon, hoping to see the nesting Roseate Terns which we missed a few years ago. We arrived at the Marathon Government Buildings and parked in the shade. It didn’t take long to both hear and see multiple Roseate Terns flying overhead and settling on the roofs where they nest. Mixed in were Least Terns, but we had great views of the Roseates and stayed a while to listen to them call.

By now, the noon heat was approaching, and we traveled on to Blue Hole, in Big Pine Key. We walked the short pathways of the natural area looking for the Black-faced Grassquit steadily reported as a rare bird. There were a fair number of visitors, and little bird or other wildlife activity. After exhausting the area defined as Blue Hole, we traveled on to find some shade and eat lunch. A few minutes later, we found an empty parking area of a local church parking lot with large shade trees to accommodate us.

Reviewing online eBird information, Steve was able to find more specific location for the recent reports of the Black-faced Grassquit, and once refreshed, we drove the short distance back to Blue Hole. This time we focused on some neighborhood houses that surround the Blue Hole natural area. Thanks to fellow ebird notations, we zeroed in on an empty house with a For Sale sign visible. Within minutes Steve spotted the grassquit, who then flew from a palm tree to a window sill to the power meter. Not an outstanding photo op but enough to document it before the bird moved on.

Having done well with some lifer birds, we meandered down to Boyd’s Campground. This is a Campground on Stock Island, not far from Key West. We had booked this based on availability and hopes for a quiet setting.

Check in went smoothly, in a large air-conditioned gift/camp store. As somewhat expected, this is a large urban campground catering to RV’s. The tent sites with electricity are for the most part in the sun and placed between some mega rigs. The alternate sites with view of the water are not much of an upgrade. The good news was we were close to restrooms. After setting up the tent we headed for the shade of the area outside the gift shop and pool, which at the time was attracting a lot of people hoping to cool off. Steve found a nice surprise in the pool table available free of charge. This was tempered by remembering this Sunday was Mothers Day and the first one without his recently passed mom.

While letting the heat dissipate, Liz reviewed some options for the evening meal. Unfortunately the food truck within the campground was closed….for Mothers Day, and then the following Monday morning. Oh well. We eventually went out to the Stock Rock Cafe, finding vegetarian tacos accompanied by some rice,beans, and sweet potato fries. The staff was friendly and helpful, and despite outdoor seating, we decided to take it back to our site as many people were unmasked and the distance between seats was not always adequate. The food was excellent.

As the evening progressed several campers noted a barking pup in the trailer across from us. No one was home and hadn’t been, according to neighbors for several hours. Despite the friendly camper neighbor’s attempt at calming the dog from outside, the barking persisted past sunset. Citizen campers rallied with Steve for reporting the conditions and he called it in to the office who sent out some staffers to check the situation out. Staff did contact the owners who returned, taking at least one noise source out of the night. Despite available showers we crashed, ready for a somewhat warm night. Our plan was to be up and out early, and grab breakfast on the way to Key West.


Key Largo Hammocks
Marathon Government Center
Big Pine Key - Blue Hole
Boyd’s Key West Campground
Fourth Avenue Key West
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-10-21 Our first priority the next morning was breakfast, so we motored out for a short drive to the Dolphin Deli. After securing coffee, tea and bagels we went back for our picnic breakfast. Fortified for the morning we broke camp along with several fellow tent campers. We were ready to move on as breaking camp included background noise of a an intense discussion between a father and son. Ahh, urban camping. Our other neighbors were more laid back, preparing for a trip to the West.

We entered Fort Zachary State Park in Key West as they opened. There were some cyclists and runners but few other cars at this time. We found a few warblers and few shore birds along with assorted grackles, White-crowned Pigeons and Gray Kingbirds. We strolled a shady trail ending by the fort and eventually found a shady area on the beach for lunch. By this time the lot was full with more swimmers and cyclists, despite it being a weekday.

Back to Stock Island to take a much warmer stroll at the Key West Tropical Gardens. Very quiet here; few birds and fewer visitors. The gardens did provide amazing orchids and other tropical habitat. The “official” visitor center was still closed due to the pandemic, but the spacious restrooms and shaded patio area were available. The entrance includes a fee box for donations and fees when the center is closed. We cooled off with some water and snacks and decided to go on to our lodging for the night.

Despite being mid afternoon, our room at Blue Marlin Key West was available. We were given a spacious room tucked in the corner on ground floor, and told free parking in the Marlin lot was available until the lot is full. At this hour not many cars were parked, so we unpacked and began organizing for our morning Ferry ride to the Tortugas. After some research of local restaurants we settled on walking to the Banana Cafe for carry out. We also viewed another target bird, Red Junglefowl, now ABA countable in Key West, while walking the few blocks to the cafe. Our dinner included fish and chips for Steve, and a lovely salad/crepe combo featuring multiple veggies with haricot verts (a specialty green bean) for Liz. The cafe was open for seated dining, but all workers were masked. Our more than adequate servings were eaten poolside with some other guests taking the plunge to cool off.

Once in our room, we realized the spacious room had a film on the floor that felt like either a cleanser or wax someone had forgotten to clean off. Noticeable enough that we tried to cover the floor with towels as best we could so our socks or feet weren’t exposed. Probably should have notified the front desk, but at this point our goal was getting to bed for an early wake up and ride to the ferry dock the next morning.

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
Key West Tropical Forest
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-11-21 We both were up by 5 A.M., having enjoyed a quiet night with a very quiet AC unit. We were waved off by the office employee inside the locked lobby, so left our keys in the room. Unfortunately the parking “tag” one of us had clipped on the rearview was missed and that would be found down the road. Luckily the stiff penalty for the lost tag never appeared.

No traffic on the dawn streets of Key West, and we easily off loaded our gear for the expedition. Liz parked the car in the enclosed parking lot a few blocks away. Deja vu from our 2018 trip about how hard it is to choose dates on the parking pay meter, with the 4 day fee coming out cheaper than 12 hours on the last day.

A quick walk back to the terminal and check in for the Yankee Freedom Ferry, including our boarding pass. All was going well until the employee in the booth relayed the records stated we were in bound on the 13th of May. Yikes! Not what our emails had said. As the woman became more flustered we pulled up what we could for documentation of this rescheduled trip. This was of limited help as the email itself listed two separate inbound/return dates depending on what paragraph one read. We had some brief moments of mild panic as we waited for her to finish check in and proceed up to the ferry to check with the Captain, whom we had already spoken with re: kayaks. Captain Mark confirmed us as inbound on May 14th, as originally scheduled. Whew!

The Yankee Freedom was loaded and finally under way, with masked day trippers and campers picking up a bagged breakfast bagel as they boarded. Few birds visible on the ferry ride, sunny and smooth and we were able to spend most of the time outside, still masked due to people moving around.

Once in sight of Garden Key, we paused briefly for interested passengers to look at the colony of Masked Boobies nesting on Hospital Key. Campers were told to wait on board for a briefing by a ranger, so we patiently listened to the general information given. Steve took off to search for a campsite, and we both spent too much energy looking for a site for the night. Most shaded sites were already taken, and we settled on # 4 despite concerns about it being out of the breeze at night. Some sites had numbers easily found on the picnic table, others were difficult to find. Thinking ahead, Steve spoke with campers in a more appealing site, number 6, and they agreed to pass the site to us when they left the following day. A change to the sites in the last two years: the NPS now has hard plastic bins at each site for food storage. The rat population has increased due to the number of campers not following leave no trace practices, so this proved to be convenient for food and other personal items.

After some arranging of gear first priority was searching for the recently reported Black Noddy. Other birders on the ferry included a guide with a small group and some independent birders. We scanned the pilings and weren’t able to pick out the target bird, at least with binoculars. Steve hiked back down the fort stairs and approached JP, who had a scope. He and his father were on the island for the day, and he happily hauled his scope up the stairs again to try and pin point the bird. JP had already spotted it with the guide and others from the ferry. He quickly focused in on the bird, and after excellent viewing in the scope we were also able to view it through our binoculars. Size and subtle differences in the head pattern are more visible than expected once you view Brown Noddy’s beside a Black Noddy. A bonus was a Juvenile Brown Booby preening in amongst the Noddy flock.

With that target behind us, we were free to relax a bit and wander around the fort. There were workers setting up scaffolding and replacing brick so some corners of the fort were blocked. Also missing was the lighthouse …apparently out for repair off the Island. Best comment overheard from an adolescent day tripper: “Can we please walk instead of just standing here talking in the heat?” (Noted as their family unit entered the fort in the heat of early afternoon.)

After the afternoon departure of the ferry, we scanned the dock for electrical outlets and found none. On prior trips we had been able to do some charging of equipment in a covered breezeway, but these have been covered. Expected, but still disappointing.
We went for a brief snorkel to cool off without wet suits, and noticed once again the lack of bugs. Being back on Garden Key reminded us of how common it is to look up and see one or more Magnificent Frigatebirds at any time! The day quickly passed and it was time to try out our new backpacker stove. Using the suggested fuel starter cubes from REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated) proved to be quick and easy for a hot camp meal. A quiet and pleasant night temperature allowed us to drift off to sleep not long after dark.


Dry Tortugas NP - Hospital Key
Dry Tortugas NP - Garden Key
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-12-21 As usual we were up early, still waffling on what day to paddle to Loggerhead Key. We opted to move camp sites when available and paddle on the 13th, due to a marginally better weather report for the 13th. We casually birded the fort courtyard and periphery. Today’s find included a Veery. Far fewer migratory birds this year as expected. On our 2018 trip we were here in late April so the variety of species was higher.

After hauling our gear to the new site as the other campers exited, we went for a snorkel. This time we circumnavigated the moat and tried our best to remember key fish sightings to ID with our book when out of the water. We dried off, relaxed at the site and ate lunch before another afternoon snorkel session.
By late afternoon we opted to make use of our boats and paddled out to a cut at the end of Bush Key and Long Key. We paddled within view of nesting Boobies/various Terns, Pelicans and Frigate birds. A relaxing paddle back to camp, ready for the evening menu of rice and beans with dried veggies from home.

At dusk, we ventured back to the fort with hopes of catching a Nighthawk, specifically the Antillean species. No vocalizing birds tonight, but Steve noted two fly up from a distance.

No music in the air as we went to sleep, but Mr. Snore was there in a nearby campsite. Not as breezy a night so we were pleased to have moved to a more open setting.

Dry Tortugas - Garden Key
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-13-21 We awakened earlier than usual, due to an early bedtime and the background noise of snoring coming from another tent. A quick check at the fort for early morning nighthawks provided no target bird. Fueled by tea steeped last night and rice cakes with peanut butter we prepped for our paddle. Some north winds and small waves provided some interest during our 50 minute paddle to Loggerhead Key. Upon arrival we saw a few other kayakers had arrived ahead of us! They were fishing at the time. As required, we notified the ranger on Garden Key of our arrival with our handy marine radios and proceeded to explore the island. We met the official summer intern, monitoring turtle nesting sites for the Park Service and she filled us in on the facilities available to interns on this island. We found an abandoned or washed up egg on the beach, neither the intern or we could ID it.

We grabbed our gear and walked across to the famed “Little Africa” snorkeling area off shore on the opposite side of the island. Along the way the lighthouse and the small intern housing is visible. There are small signs posted to keep you on the trail to snorkeling.

Before entering the water we noted the other kayakers leaving the water and they gave us some hints on where to swim to. The boundary buoys gave a false impression of the snorkel area being far from shore, but it is a leisurely swim out to the reef. Little Africa did not disappoint in both size and variety of fish, vegetation and coral. The reef is large enough to have some deep crevices that allow you to view fish darting and diving to the depths for cover. Despite the light wind, visibility was good and continued all the way back to shore. The shallows before exiting the water had their own gems of large and small fish that weren’t alarmed by humans.

Having met our goal of snorkeling off Loggerhead Key, and seeing the lighthouse up close, we prepared to paddle back before the strongest heat of mid day. The return trip took 80 minutes. No white caps but some wonky waves made us pay attention to stay on target for our path back. After changing clothes and rinsing off a bit, we took advantage of the ferry AC and snacks.

Some afternoon birding in the heat and shadows of the fort was quiet. Steve and a birder we met in the fort both saw a Yellow-Billed Cuckoo; Liz did not get any looks at this bird. Many of the trees within the fort are Buttonwood trees, and considered abundant in this area.

Another excellent camp meal of sweet potato chowder fortified us for one last try for the nighthawk. Back inside the fort, Liz heard a brief potential call of the Antillean Nighthawk, then a few minutes later we both heard and saw the bird foraging. A good target bird to finish with on our last evening here.

We prepared as much as possible for departure the next day and promised our neighbor she could have our site once we were packed. Despite the ferry leaving in the afternoon camping gear has to be at the dock by 10:30 a.m. The night proved to be much quieter, and once dark settled in the winds picked up.

Dry Tortugas - Loggerhead Key
Dry Tortugas - Garden Key
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-14-21 We awoke at dawn, ready to organize yet again for the big return trip. Our neighbor moved to our site but we left some of our gear and still needed items on the picnic table. One last tour of the fort to locate a Mangrove Cuckoo, but never found one. We met and spoke with “Chip”, who is currently doing a Big Year and was out for the day to visit the Tortugas. It took three tries, meaning three very early mornings, for him to get on the Yankee Freedom Ferry as a standby passenger. Reservations are highly encouraged but for day trippers they do allow some walk-in passengers if space allows.

Once the majority of our gear, including kayaks, was neatly stacked at the dock we decided on one more snorkel. This time we went around the pilings closest to the camping area beach. Water visibility was definitely decreased due to cloudy weather and some winds, but still good by our standards. Liz finally got good views of Pork fish.

Next up was rinsing off prior to putting on our travel clothes. We used the outdoor showers on the ferry, which were surprisingly warm. No soap or shampoo allowed but still refreshing to rinse off the salt. We stowed our last dry bag on the ferry, which held our wet suits and snorkel gear. We had saved our “lunch” which is provided by the Yankee Freedom package on any day the camper chooses for today. We opted for the AC luxury while eating our veggie and hummus sandwiches.

Time for one last stroll until we heard the last call for passengers. We noticed our camper neighbor was heading for the dock with tent packed up. The supplies she had forgotten prior to boarding the outgoing ferry were not able to be secured for her, so she opted to return early instead of camping. Ouch. Unfortunate. So now a family of four was happily breaking camp in primo campsite # 6.

The ride back was over rougher water and initially passengers were limited to certain areas outside the cabin. A few people were fighting nausea both inside and out in the sea breeze. We secured a space in the sea air, eventually moving in to the cabin once the seas calmed a bit. Apparently high seas and wind were forecast for the next few days on the Tortugas so apparently our weather and camping karma were good for our recent excursion.

After retrieving the car and gear it was on to Sea Dell Motel in Marathon. We stopped briefly at Boyd’s Campground again, mainly to secure a metal decorative gecko to accompany one already at the front of our house in North Carolina. An added bonus was Key Lime Pie on a stick to celebrate our lifers so far on this trip….an excellent idea courtesy of Chip.

After checking in to our lodging, we went the short distance to the local Marathon Airport and found both Antillean and Common Nighthawks calling and flying. A few other birders were also taking in the view. We stopped for Chinese take out, sharing the always generous meal once back in our room. We parked in a handicapped site at the motel finding all the other spaces taken. Luckily the manager said no one was using it this night. The hot shower gave us some sense of refresh but we still hit the pillow early after a long day.

5-14 Dry Tortugas - Garden Key
5-14 Marathon Airport
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-15-21 We secured our gear and boats in the car and hit the road before breakfast, planning on a stop at Harriets Restaurant in Key Largo. On our last trip here we opted for sit down, but not today. Muffins and a mango smoothie would fuel us for now. Along the way multiple runners and other people were out and about for a race event, or multiple races…never quite figured out what event was going on. We arrived back in Florida City, unfortunately too early to revisit “Robert is Here” who opens at 9 A.M. We traveled on to Black Point Marina and within a few minutes saw a Mangrove Cuckoo fly across the road lined by mangroves and perch on top of a tree. No photo opportunity, as it flew a way after giving us only short but satisfying look. Definitely a lifer for Liz. We then returned to Pinewoods Park, trying again for the Spotted Oriole. Very quiet, but we did see the Nutmeg Manikin as a consolation bird.

The stretch of miles to Fort Clinch State Park felt like a long haul. Once in the area, we secured fresh sandwiches from the local Publix, despite slow service. We arrived at the park in time to set up our tent and gear in what felt like cool temperatures compared to the Keys. As we secured our tent Common Nighthawks could be heard over a meadow within view of our campsite. This sandy setting called for tent stakes, first time for this trip. The night was generally quiet despite several families with children and dogs.

Black Point Park and Marina
Pine Woods Park



05-16-21 Up and out early for bagels from Aloha bagels and Deli. This time we took advantage of outdoor seating and pleasant temps to enjoy our last breakfast in Florida. This deli has a century old Live Oak in front of it, so it’s a known landmark. Our original plan for today was to paddle out to Cumberland Island from a public dock close to the Fort Clinch State Park. The State Park no longer allows anyone to launch from within park boundaries. Due to potential wind and rain in the forecast, we opted for another paddle we had previously enjoyed on a December trip to Florida a few years ago. So off we went to Lofton Creek. To access this waterway there is a public, but secure parking area at Melton Nelson Boat Ramp in Yulee, Fl.


A few guides and other kayakers were also at the ramp, as this is a calm paddle when ocean conditions are not the best. Despite other paddlers, we had a lovely paddle and rarely saw anyone along the way. No new birds but enough to hold our interest, along with the majestic trees and flowers. Northern Parula was bird of the day with over 20 seen and heard, a final Swallowtail Kite provided good looks, along with Great Crested and Acadian Flycatchers, and a few assorted warblers.


As we exited, a few people commented on our 22 year old Prion kayaks, apparently now classics for those in the know.

Lofton Creek, Yulee
 

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Hamhed

Well-known member
05-16-21 Up and out early for bagels from Aloha bagels and Deli. This time we took advantage of outdoor seating and pleasant temps to enjoy our last breakfast in Florida. This deli has a century old Live Oak in front of it, so it’s a known landmark. Our original plan for today was to paddle out to Cumberland Island from a public dock close to the Fort Clinch State Park. The State Park no longer allows anyone to launch from within park boundaries. Due to potential wind and rain in the forecast, we opted for another paddle we had previously enjoyed on a December trip to Florida a few years ago. So off we went to Lofton Creek. To access this waterway there is a public, but secure parking area at Melton Nelson Boat Ramp in Yulee, Fl.

A few guides and other kayakers were also at the ramp, as this is a calm paddle when ocean conditions are not the best. Despite other paddlers, we had a lovely paddle and rarely saw anyone along the way. No new birds but enough to hold our interest, along with the majestic trees and flowers. Northern Parula was bird of the day with over 20 seen and heard, a final Swallowtail Kite provided good looks, along with Great Crested and Acadian Flycatchers, and a few assorted warblers. As we exited, a few people commented on our 22 year old Prion kayaks, apparently now classics for those in the know.

Our final destination today was Brunswick Ga. Our first stop on the way was Jeckyll Island State Park visitor center. (JISP) There are some reports of Seaside Sparrow from this eBird hotspot. We found assorted peeps requiring a scope, along with assorted egrets and a lone Whimbrel. No Seaside Sparrow. The Causeway held more of the same, with plovers and a single Eastern Willet observed.

We arrived at our Airbnb by late afternoon. We had secured a private room and found it located in a unique, well established neighborhood with some homes providing a view of a marsh. Clearly a mix of older and new homes. Our host showed us to the upstairs room, and we were surrounded by antique furniture. No hanging up wet gear and towels here! After strolling the neighborhood, Liz opted to eat at the marsh view picnic table in the hosts back yard. A perfect last evening as no bugs were noticeable, and a lone Wood Stork perched in the distance out in the marsh. There were an assortment of more urban birds who didn’t seem to notice as a Coopers Hawk flew in at dusk. Not a bad evening to close our travels, given the pleasant temperatures and marsh solitude.

5-16 Jekyll Island Welcome Center
5-16 Jekyll Island Causeway


05-17-21 We arose early and quickly loaded the car, then made use of the house kitchen to toast our breakfast and make refreshments. Due to a scheduled afternoon meeting in Asheville, we carefully calculated our driving time and opted for one more pass at Jeckyl Island State Park. No sparrow, but we tried. The road home was easy driving, and we made it back to Asheville in decent time. By late afternoon, we were back to birding our property North of Asheville. Waiting for us was a fledgling Screech Owl who left the nest box that evening.
 

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lgonz1008

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United States
Great report, glad that the two of you enjoyed South Florida and some of our prime targets. I actually laughed a bit since some of the hotspots you guys checked out (Matheson Hammock and Marathon Government Center) were sites I went for a week before or after the visit you two made.

Sad you missed out on the Spot-breasted Oriole, they are wanderers to put it kindly, the only place I think you can see them with some guarantee these days is in a relatively new hotspot in West Kendall called Westwind Lakes (tiny city park, but the birds seem to love the trees around the playground).

Your trip to Dry Tortugas reminded me of my first time going to the islands, I didn't get many species on my day there (it was during Memorial Day weekend) but the few I got were some birds I never get tired of seeing or haven't been lucky to see since (Sooty Tern, Brown Noddy, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, White-rumped Sandpiper and Veery were all lifers in that trip for me). I definitely need to go back there next year or the one after. Still missing the Black Noddy and you never know what bird will pop up there out of route!
 

Hamhed

Well-known member
Thanks for the comments! Too bad we planned that trip without getting in touch with local birders. This was a trip to cover a lot of loose ends, bird-wise. We feel like we did that (mostly) and don’t know when we might be back. The tropical nature of south Florida is a magnet for our tastes so a return trip might be sooner than I think!

I hope we didn’t get this out too late for others planning a trip to South Florida, especially the Dry Tortugas. It may actually be too late to get preferred dates for the ferry ride or a camping spot. An incredibly popular location but very worth the trouble when it all comes together.

Steve
 

Brian J Small

Well-known member
Do you think the image labelled Great White Egret in post 8 is actually a Great White Heron? The bill seems too deep based to be Great Egret...

Brian
 

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lgonz1008

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United States
Do you think the image labelled Great White Egret in post 8 is actually a Great White Heron? The bill seems too deep based to be Great Egret...

Brian
I agree with you on that sighting Brian, the blue around the face and bill is also a good field mark in non-breeding birds like this one.

I also like telling newcomers that if you see a big heron/egret in the Southern Everglades or the Keys to check the face, if they look like they are upset at something, then it's likely a white morph Great Blue Heron.
 

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