(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.
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.
Palm trees lean over a tidal creek which winds through the grass toward a distant hammock with the Gulf of Mexico beyond.
At Pine Island, high tide has almost covered a line of oyster-encrusted rocks leading to deeper water.
Gini thought this palm tree was dancing the rumba on the beach while the little tree watched to see how it’s done.
The full rays of the morning sun were hitting the eastern side of this hammock as we made our way through the salt marsh.
The dark water of a canal reflects the beauty of the cordgrass with lines of green pine and palm trees as a backdrop.
To safely navigate from the Weeki-Wachee River to the open Gulf of Mexico, simply follow the signs.
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.
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.
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.
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!