Monday, January 25, 2010

Not Paddling at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge (again)

Not the cry, but the flight of the wild duck leads the flock to fly and follow.
~Proverb

Yes, another non-paddling post! This would have been a fine paddling day but I need to replace the electrical connection on the kayak trailer before I use it again (involving a long drive to civilization to find such an exotic item); therefore, I decided to take a drive out to the refuge to see what I could see.

There were ducks of various kinds. Lots and lots of ducks. This bufflehead was very striking in the blue water, and swimming alone.



I walked around the inland pond near the lighthouse. This widgeon was in with a few coots.



Then I came to a larger gathering of ducks.



And then, at the first bend in the trail as it circles the pond, I came to a very large gathering of mostly coots, with others mixed in.



I continued walking along the trail between the pond and the channel that leads to the boat ramp. When I got about halfway along it, I saw a large bird swooping over the grasses at the far side. That is the side next to the park road. The large bird was an eagle. I was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time, whereas some lucky person walking on the road had a wonderful view.



I watched the eagle as it hovered over the grass and dove in, repeating this process several times.



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It then circled over the water.



I walked a little farther and then turned to see if the eagle was still in the area looking for lunch. I saw it coming toward me, carrying what I assumed was a fish that it had plucked from the pond. It flew nearly directly overhead and I took a number of photos of it. After it had gone, I reviewed the photos in the camera's LCD screen. Hmmm...the eagle had been successful indeed....unfortunately it was not a fish it had been going after, but rather one of the hundreds of coots in the pond. While I got a vivid photo of it in flight with its catch, it's not a photo I want to post here. Funny how I would have been fine if the eagle was returning to its nest to feed on a fish but I'm not fine when it is a duck....

So I walked on.

A few ducks flew overhead.



Then a few more.



Then a lot more.



I reached the park road and began walking along it back to the parking lot. This egret was perched near the water on the other side from the pond.



I got back to my car and began slowly driving out of the refuge. There was a guy taking photos of something at a little grassy picnic spot near one of the many small ponds along the road. Of course I stopped to see what had interested him. Turned out that a gator was sunning itself in the grass near the water.



The guy (David, I believe he said his name was) asked if I had gotten the photo I wanted, since he wanted to get closer. I said great! I'll get him getting you! And he went in for a closer photo. I thought it might be better to just invest in a bigger lens...



Then a woman (Priscilla) showed up, and there were three of us and the gator. She set up her tripod and we talked while she took a few photos. Then David decided he wanted to get even closer. I think at this point the gator was feeling seriously outnumbered by annoying humans and it dove into the water. We talked for a while more, and Priscilla left. The gator swam out and then back, and then got out of the water again and lay on the grass right at the edge. When I left, David was going in for more photos of it. I guess we would have heard by now if he didn't survive the second session.

I made one more stop on my way out, unable to resist this great blue heron standing in the sun.



I'm off on a camping (but not paddling) trip tomorrow and so won't be paddling this week. Hopefully I can get my replacement part for the trailer soon and get back out next week. Stand by.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tuesday on the Wacissa

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.
~Albert Einstein

How wonderful to have another warm day to get out paddling on my favorite river!

I had the boat in the water around noon, under bright sunlight and a clear blue sky. Incredibly, the water level had risen higher yet from where it was last time I was there; it extended even farther into the woods on either side. Certainly better than having it be low, even if it does give the birds a place to hide. Nonetheless, there were a few here and there on the main part of the river.

The first one I saw was the beautiful egret standing in the middle of the river just soaking up the warmth of the sun.



I saw several common egrets and many ibis. This adult ibis flew by as I was drifting downstream.



A little farther along, a juvenile glided past me and joined several others at the side of the river.



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The oddest thing happened. As I was drifting downstream, I thought I heard music, perhaps from a banjo (but not in a creepy Deliverance way...). The only possible source was two kayaks parked at the side of the river a long distance ahead; too far to tell through binoculars if someone in one of them was playing an instrument. As I got closer, it sounded more like a ukelele. It seemed that the young guy in one kayak was playing it, while the other tapped lightly on his boat to keep the rhythm. Here's the odd thing: It was downright eerie how perfectly appropriate those simple chords sounded on the river. Sound travels so remarkably far over water that if I hadn't spotted the kayaks, it would be impossible to determine the source of the music, it just seemed to be in the air. I'm normally a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to any manmade sounds interfering with the natural peace and quiet of the river, but I was actually sorry when he quit playing.

The knocking sounds of busy woodpeckers were nearly constant during my entire paddling trip. These are very elusive and difficult-to-locate birds, though. I saw this one appear on a tree near the river's edge so I paddled over to see if it would stay in sight, which it did, but only briefly.



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Speaking of elusive, green herons have become few and far between for me on this river, but on this trip I saw two. This one posed by a log.



Just past Cassidy Spring I saw something very exciting. An egret was standing by the side of the river; the exciting part was that it was sporting breeding plumage! When I went back over all the egret photos I took on this day, I noticed that several of the egrets show the very beginning of a green tinge near the nares, another sign that it is breeding season. This means that a trip to the rookery in St. Augustine isn't far off in my future.



As often happens, the last photo of the day was an egret in flight.



The weather person is predicting a return to chilly (for us) days ahead, so I may be back to doing more camping than paddling for a while. I'm looking forward to being able to do both on the same trip...

Stand by.

Friday, January 01, 2010

On the Water Again....

We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves.
The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year's Day.
~Edith Lovejoy Pierce

Ah, finally! The weather cooperated and there was only a minor glitch at home with the endless kitchen counter/sink project, so I dusted off the kayak, topped off the air in the trailer tires, and headed to the Wacissa.

There were not many others at the river; two canoes, a kayak, and a fishing boat were the only other vessels on the water. Unfortunately, as often happens this time of year, the birds were also scarce.

Egrets usually look very large and imposing when they stand in the shallows at the river's edge. This one, flying by me as I drifted downstream, seems dwarfed by the large cypress and hanging Spanish moss.



That same egret circled around behind me and went back downstream, landing nearby in a patch of surface greenery.



I continued on to Blue Spring. The water level is remarkably high now, no doubt the result of our recent rainfall. I noticed this when I launched, but didn't realize the extent of it until I was in the Blue Spring inlet. I think it is conservative to estimate the rise at 6 to 8 inches. The water at the spring itself was dark, not blue but not particularly murky. Very odd.

As I was leaving the spring, I was watching the shoreline to the right, hoping to spot a raccoon. What I did see was something that was motionless and was either a juvenile night heron or part of a tree stump. Turned out to be a well-camouflaged heron, sound asleep. I took two photos; the shutter sound must have alerted it to my presence and it opened its eyes. So I took a third photo of it and then left it in peace.



I continued drifting downstream, listening to the hawks screeching overhead and the belted kingfishers chipping from the trees. I spotted yet another egret ahead. My first thought was that I had enough egret photos, but I decided to take this one anyway. This is such a typical sight on this river no matter what the time of year. The surface leaves, the grassy tussocks, the cypress trees along the bank, the flat, still water.



The bird left, probably in search of solitude.



I turned around and let the breeze carry me slowly back upstream. I like to paddle close to the shoreline, since that gives you a chance, particularly at this time of year, to peer into the woods (while still having all of the river to your other side). I was moving very slowly along the east bank past the Blue Spring inlet when I saw a lot of bird activity in the trees over the water. The first birds that caught my eye were two pileated woodpeckers, their red, white, and black coloring standing out vividly. There was another bird moving about in the green leaves of a berry bush, and some smaller birds flitting through the branches. I watched the pileated woodpeckers and moved in to try to get some photos of them. In a moment, though, those woodpeckers were forgotten when I caught a brief glimpse of the bird in the berry bush. What was that? I had never seen a bird like that before. I wedged the bow of the boat into some surface growth and kept the camera focused on the bits and pieces of the bird that occasionally popped out amongst the leaves and branches. I kept taking pictures but could not get one of the bird in its entirety since the bush was so thick and it was staying well within in. It was an absolutely stunning bird. When I got home, I looked it up and discovered that it was a northern flicker. This is apparently a fairly common bird to see, but not to me! So that was fun. I got this picture of its dotted chest through an opening in the branches:



Later it popped up at the top of the bush and I got this:



I really like this bird; it may be my new favorite non-wader. It's one of those creatures that looks like it was made by a committee.

It eventually flew off and so I continued upstream to the boat ramp. As I approached the head spring area, this egret flew by and I couldn't resist getting just one more photo of a white bird.



Paddling trips are few and far between, as you have noticed. For now, camping is taking the place of paddling most weeks--hopefully soon the two can be done together. Predictions for next week have the overnight lows in the mid-twenties and daytime highs in the mid-forties, so paddling is definitely on hold until that cold front passes.

Stand by.