Crystal River is fairly short as rivers flow. Only about seven miles long, it travels from the town of Crystal River to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s fed by numerous fresh-water springs and in the winter the water is significantly warmer than the Gulf or other nearby rivers. This makes it a haven for the warm-blooded manatee which can be seen here in great numbers when the thermometer takes a nosedive. As you travel along the river towards the Gulf, there are two sizable man-made earthen mounds on the shore. They were most likely built for ceremonial purposes by some of Florida’s earliest residents. Middens and relics at this site have proven the area was settled over 2,000 years ago.
In 1867, the naturalist John Muir described this area as: “A string of counties studded with emerald-like gulf waters, deep springs and rivers, stretching along the same Florida coast.”
Not a lot has changed. Thanks to the unique environment of this area, there are no sizable white-sand beaches; the swamps are too dense (and protected) to develop into condo complexes; Disney World is an inconvenient distance away (whew!); therefore, we are left to contemplate nature in the raw. Trees with no zip-lines to offer a thrill ride. Water, water everywhere but not a single giant slide or wave machine to enhance our experience. No trendy shops in sight, we must console ourselves instead in the infinite beauty of a flower we’ve never seen before. Video games pale in comparison to watching a tern wheel, dive, climb and glide above the waves.
We discovered a nice road which basically follows the path of the river all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. At the end of the road is a nice county park with a few covered picnic tables, a boat ramp and a fishing pier. A small beach beckoned us to rest under the shade of one of the shelters where we enjoyed a great lunch. It’s amazing how a sunny day, waves breaking on the shore, the salt air lining your lungs and the cacophony of about a thousand shorebirds enhances one’s appetite!
The fall migration has begun and millions of birds will pass this way to their wintering grounds in South and Central America. I’m not sure if any of our lunch guests were migrants as most of the species we saw can also be found here all year long. It was great fun to watch a bird try to land and almost sit on someone else’s head!
We were welcomed (at least, we interpreted it as a welcome) by Royal Terns lifting their heads to the heavens and singing our praises (okay, so they were screeching at us to get off their beach!). The uniquely designed Black Skimmer also chimed in with a song of his own. Singing is not easy for a bird with a lower mandible so much longer than the upper. Maybe singing isn’t his strong suit, but when he flies low over the water and dips that bill just under the surface he’s quite adept at scooping up a fresh fish dinner. The Wilson’s Plover is often a loner and is somewhat uncommon. He uses his relatively large black bill to probe the sand for tasty morsels. The calico pattern of a Ruddy Turnstone’s breeding colors will soon give way to an overall drab look during the winter. It’s hard to believe most of them breed in the Arctic tundra and fly such enormous distances to their wintering grounds. They use their short bills to flip over stones (thus their name) and other debris looking for food. Willets try to take a nap but it isn’t easy amongst all the noise from the gulls, terns, turnstones, plovers and a couple of human children nearby (no, not us!). A young Royal Tern begged his mom for food and yelled incessantly. I guess kids are pretty much the same no matter the species. “Feed me! Feed me NOW!”
Lunch was wonderful. My beautiful partner and I breathed in as a single entity and together sighed in satisfaction. It’s a good day.
Our lunch finished, we enjoyed a few more scenes before heading away from the shore.
– A willet in the surf scratching an itch.
– The graceful flight of a Royal Tern surveying the beach for a place to land.
– White Ibises, likely a family group (the darker birds are juveniles), headed for the marsh to probe the soft mud for goodies.
– Taking flight can be a bit awkward when you have a wingspan over 50 inches wide. The Great Egret usually squawks as he attempts to gain altitude. He looks quite ungainly as he flaps and pumps his legs. Once airborne, though, he is truly magnificent. Small wonder the National Audubon Society adopted his image for their symbol.
It is now mid-afternoon. We explored a swampy forest early this morning (see the post “Pumpkin Hanging Place”), enjoyed a beach-side lunch with a few feathered-friends and inhaled a whole lot of fresh air while gentle waves broke along the shoreline. “Ready to head home?” I asked. My Sweetheart sighed heavily and in her true native Florida woman manner answered: “Y’know, a bowl of clam chowder sure would be good while watching the sun set.” I really like her.
To be continued in our next post: “The End of the Road”.
For additional images, see “Fort Island Gulf Beach” in the Gallery.
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit.