History

Sturm und Drang

Last month was pretty wet, even by Florida standards. I gave up on “water resistant” boots and just wear what are marketed as “all-terrain running shoes”. Not that I am likely ever to be caught running. Even in bear country, I’m sure to go with someone likely to be slower than me. (No, not my Gini! No critter would ever challenge her!) This type shoe at least dries fairly quickly. The “water resistant” footwear gives up resisting sooner than later and never dries out as long it’s on your foot. So you walk around with your feet encased in little air-tight hothouses. Fun.

As native Floridians, we are required by law to visit the coast often. Usually, for us, this means salt marshes, river mouths, mud flats – you know, the good spots! We avoid most sandy beaches as they are littered with bodies greased up and turning over regularly until well-toasted on all sides. This trip, however, we specifically targeted an area described as one of “America’s Most Beautiful Beaches!!”, Fort DeSoto Park in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

Why would we be so insane as to go to a popular beach, on purpose? Storms. There had been three days of large, rolling thunderstorms moving across the state from the Atlantic Ocean and marching westward out into the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes, such weather confuses birds and one can spot some unusual species on this piece of land jutting into the gulf. Such sightings are much more common during migration, but even in summer, we have been surprised.

Alas, no surprise species today. We did find a few shorebirds busily probing the tide and wrack lines as ominous clouds formed, dissipated, re-formed and thunder rolled. It was nice to see the beach with nothing but breakers and birds!

Fort DeSoto is located on Mullet Key, an island at the entrance to Tampa Bay.

(From an unofficial website about the fort. See Additional Information.)

 

Much has happened on this tiny island:

 

  • during the Civil War, Union troops had a detachment on both Egmont and Mullet Keys. Union ships were looking for blockade runners
  • during WWII the island was used for bombing practice by the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima;

 

 

Fort DeSoto is a premier birding spot during spring and fall migration. Its location serves as an important rest and refueling point for a very diverse group of birds. To appreciate how significant this park is, show up any day during the height of migration and try to find a parking spot!

Also, the park has terrific fishing from shore or from two long piers as well as a very large and well maintained boat ramp. Boaters can easily access the Gulf of Mexico for deep water species, Tamp Bay for excellent flats fishing or simply enjoy probing myriad small islands, sand bars or cruise along the beaches. Camping is available (reservations recommended) and there are several nature trails for those who just want to hike. Use the park’s official website (see Additional Information) to check the calendar for special events (runs, biking, tournaments, etc.) as the park will fill quickly at these times and there are likely to be road closures.

We accomplished exactly what we had hoped on our short evening visit. Saw a few birds, enjoyed the salt water environment, watched stormy weather from an empty beach and can’t wait to do it all again.

 

Red Knots are in transition from breeding to non-breeding plumage.

Fort DeSoto Park

 

The Least Sandpiper is North America’s smallest shorebird (5 inches/13 centimeters).

Fort DeSoto Park

 

With its substantial black bill, a Wilson’s Plover stands out in a group, or in this case, all by herself enjoying a stretch by a rain puddle.

Fort DeSoto Park

Fort DeSoto Park

 

One of our larger shorebirds, a Willet, is in hot pursuit of a small crab. He caught it, crunched it to disable it and swallowed it whole – without any garlic lemon butter!

Fort DeSoto Park

 

“You look f a b u l o u s!” A Snowy Egret admires the handsome creature staring back at him from one of nature’s mirrors.

Fort DeSoto Park

 

Large Gray Kingbirds breed along many of Florida’s coasts then retreat to warmer climes for the winter.

Fort DeSoto Park

 

Fort DeSoto is a fairly reliable location to find Reddish Egrets. Watching them hunt is an amazing experience as they engage in what seems at times to be a very choreographed dance. Incredible birds!

Fort DeSoto Park

 

Thunderstorm activity is prevalent in August and this evening’s sunset was mostly obscured as clouds moved along the horizon and along the beach. The large stone slabs in this image used to be a support for a gun emplacement, from what I understand.

Fort DeSoto Park

 

Weather can change quickly along the coast and the pastel reflection from the setting sun belies the black stormy sky which just preceded this photograph. Across the channel is Egmont Key and its lighthouse marking the entrance to Tampa Bay for ships arriving from and departing for the Gulf of Mexico.

Fort DeSoto Park

 

Beaches are for more than sizzling your skin! Storms, shorebirds and sunsets are for all of us!

We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

Additional Information

Fort DeSoto Park (Unofficial Website)

Fort DeSoto County Park (Official Website)

Categories: Birds, Florida, History, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Mellow Marsh

(WARNING: In this post to what is usually a “birding” blog, there are NO photographs of actual birds. Maybe next time.)

We turned onto Pine Island Drive just as the sun was beginning to rise above the distant line of tall trees visible across the vast salt marsh on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. This causeway connects Cortez Boulevard (County Road 550) to Hernando County’s only public beach. Although the beach was on our list to visit this morning, the causeway itself was our initial destination. Finding a safe spot to park along this drive is dicey as there is no shoulder between the asphalt and a drop-off into the black mud of the marsh for most of its length. Tidal creeks snake through the marsh grass and provide food and shelter for fish, crabs, insects and a diverse population of birds. The marsh is dotted with tree islands, commonly called hammocks. These oases have little tolerance for salt and grow only where the elevation is high enough to prevent flooding during high tides. The most common tree species on a coastal hammock are sabal palm, red cedar, pine and live oak. Beyond the marsh, creeks and hammocks to the west is the open gulf.

After wandering along Pine Island Drive and enjoying the golden glow of sunrise across the marsh,  mosquitoes and no-see-ums found me and I retreated to the car. Gini and I drove the short distance to the beach at Pine Island. Our breakfast of fruit and granola was enhanced by a wide-open view of the Gulf of Mexico across sugar white sand with palm trees swaying in a gentle breeze. We almost felt like tourists. But this is home.

Wading in the warm water of the gulf had a therapeutic effect and it was difficult to head back to the car. An incoming tide obscured a line of oyster-covered rocks which made walking in the shallows a little tricky. In a few weeks, migrating shore birds will cover this beach and the adjacent mud flats. We shall return.

Motoring back across the causeway and the expanse of cordgrass, we turned west onto Cortez Boulevard and followed it to its end at Bayport Park. The boat ramp was busy with fishermen launching skiffs into the Weeki-Wachee River. The mouth of the river is an excellent sheltered spot from which to begin a day of cruising the Gulf of Mexico for some of the area’s finest fishing. This whole area is quite shallow for several miles into the gulf and care must be taken or one could lose a propeller to the large rocks prevalent along this stretch of coastline.

The public fishing pier was closed due to severe damage last year from Hurricane Irma. A small park offers an elevated walkway over the marsh, a nice picnic area under huge hardwood and palm trees, a canoe launch and more tables along a seawall with terrific views of the gulf.

With its protected bay and navigable river inland for a few miles, Bayport has had a colorful history. In the early part of the 19th century, Florida exported large amounts of cotton and cattle. As the War Between The States destroyed much of the cotton fields in the southeast part of the country, Florida became a major supplier for domestic and foreign mills. Union forces blockaded Bayport and similar ports along the gulf coast and fierce naval battles were common.  After the war, Bayport became an important port for shipping lumber from the large tracts of cypress and pine that flourished here. During the Prohibition era, rum runners from Cuba made a very good living smuggling the demon liquor into America and Bayport was one of their major points of entry. Tales from that time describe barrels of rum stacked as high as a small house. The alcohol was packed into railroad freight cars and hidden by hay. Invoices were forged to indicate Irish potatoes were the cargo. A thirsty America was thankful.

Once railroads were constructed in the late 1800’s, shipping at the small port ceased and Bayport almost disappeared as a community over the next few decades. Fortunately, a few stalwart pioneers hung in there and today the area is a wonderful place to visit for birders, fishermen, photographers and anyone wishing to experience what Florida was like in the past.

Gini’s radar spotted a new entrance to another of our favorite places to visit, Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, about a dozen miles north of Bayport. She suggested we check it out and see if we could find a suitable lunch location. As usual, her instincts were spot on. We explored a couple of the old logging roads, found some wildflowers blooming and enjoyed our veggie sandwiches on tomato basil bread under a small grove of oak trees overlooking a seemingly endless forest. Black bears are known to have a robust population here but we didn’t see any today. (Gini has added, “and we better not ever, either!”) So there.

Lunch was over. Thunderstorms were forming in the gulf and heading inland. Time to go to the house.

Postcards from Florida. Just for you.

Just after sunrise, new growth of cordgrass (Spartina spp.) seems to flow through the salt marsh like some bright green stream.

Pine Island Causeway

 

A coastal hammock is likely to hold small pools of fresh rain water which attracts all manner of life. The shade provided by a few trees in the open marsh is a welcome relief to wildlife, especially in the heat of Florida’s summers.

Pine Island Causeway

 

Palm trees lean over a tidal creek which winds through the grass toward a distant hammock with the Gulf of Mexico beyond.

Pine Island Causeway

 

At Pine Island, high tide has almost covered a line of oyster-encrusted rocks leading to deeper water.

Pine Island Beach

 

Gini thought this palm tree was dancing the rumba on the beach while the little tree watched to see how it’s done.

Pine Island Beach

 

The full rays of the morning sun were hitting the eastern side of this hammock as we made our way through the salt marsh.

Pine Island Causeway

 

The dark water of a canal reflects the beauty of the cordgrass with lines of green pine and palm trees as a backdrop.

Pine Island Causeway

 

To safely navigate from the Weeki-Wachee River to the open Gulf of Mexico, simply follow the signs.

Bayport

 

Our search for a place to have lunch revealed beautiful blooms along the way. The lavender Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum) is a woody vine and depends upon other plants for support. I don’t know which plant is providing the support here but I hope to find out as it’s very attractive.

Chassahowitzka NWR

 

When the magnolia trees are blooming, one can almost get dizzy at the overwhelming fragrance in the forest. Blooms can be up to eight inches (20 cm) across and after a day or two will close at night for another day or two. Once they re-open, they will drop their stamens (as the one in the image has done) and then turn brown as they expire. Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), is almost synonymous with America’s southern culture.

Chassahowitzka NWR

 

Florida is home to three varieties of yucca (of more than 20 worldwide). This one, Adam’s Needle (Yucca filamentosa), produces clusters of large bell-shaped white flowers. As the blooms mature, they become too heavy for the stalk to hold upright and are often seen bent over to the ground. The green fruit of the plant is said to be edible but I’m happy knowing that and don’t intend to test the theory personally.

Chassahowitzka NWR

Chassahowitzka NWR

 

We left home early, enjoyed the post-dawn salt marsh, relaxed at the beach, wandered a river bank, gawked at the gulf, smelled the flowers, picnicked bare-footed (but found no bear feet), dodged lightning bolts and arrived home safe and sound before dark. Life is good. Find a marsh. Be mellow.

 

We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

Additional Information

Alfred McKethan/Pine Island Park

Bayport Park

Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

Categories: Florida, History, Photography, Travel, Wildflowers | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: