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Florida 2020: Part 1 (Xmas Vacation)

Updated: Jan 15, 2021

My wife and I spiced up the end of 2020 with a long Christmas road trip down to Florida. The trip involved a healthy mix of sightseeing, family time, birding, biking, and photography. The trip involved 4 legs: (1) sightseeing in Savannah with my wife; (2) sightseeing and exploring the Florida panhandle with my wife; (3) Christmas in Dunedin with my wife and family; and (4) a solo birding adventure across central/northern Florida. Buckle your seatbelts—you’re in for a long blog ride! I’ve broken the blog into two parts: this part, covering the family portion of the trip (legs 1-3); and Part 2, covering my solo birding adventure (leg 4).



Leg 1: Savannah

On the Saturday before Christmas, my wife and I departed the North Carolina piedmont and headed for Savannah. My wife received and accepted an exciting job offer from the passenger seat of my car—the right way to start a vacation! We arrived in Savannah just before dark, had a great dinner at the Fitzroy, and then hunkered down at the Alida Hotel.


We spent a relaxing Sunday morning at the hotel, followed by a day of adventuring. Our first stop was an unfortunately short bike ride on a big island in the middle of the Savannah River, truncated by a bunch of no trespassing signs I hadn’t anticipated (it looked good on Google Maps…). Our next stop was more successful: we visited the Fort Pulaski National Monument, located on an island where the Savannah River meets the Atlantic Ocean. There were a few interesting birds (e.g., some waders, a Sedge Wren, and a Kestrel), a Monarch butterfly, and some berry-laden scat (black bear or coyote?), but the main highlight was the fort itself. I enjoyed experimenting with my new wide-angle lens (an early Christmas present from my wife and parents).


After Fort Pulaski, we ate a waterfront lunch at The Wyld before returning to Savannah, where we spent the afternoon roaming the historic downtown. We walked just about every street, including the surprisingly bustling touristy spots, some quieter residential areas, and all the lush squares in between. I couldn’t resist availing myself of the open container laws as we made our way back to the hotel for a low-key night.


Leg 2: Panhandle

We left Savannah Monday morning and headed out for another 5-hour drive to the Florida panhandle. A pair of roadside Wild Turkeys, followed later by a trio of foraging Feral Boars, broke up the somewhat monotonous early portions of I-95. The lower Georgia and upper Florida segments of I-95 were picturesque, with a handful of expansive tidewater creek crossings.


Our first destination was St. Marks NWR, just south of Tallahassee. We have some fantastic NWRs in NC, but I have to put St. Marks at the top of the list. It’s huge, with miles and miles of dikes surrounding a diverse array of constructed wetlands, surrounded by managed pine savannas to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. We spent essentially the entire afternoon exploring the refuge through a mix of car stops, short hikes, and a bike ride. Even so, we only covered a portion of the territory. Next time I visit, I’ll have to dedicate at least one or two full days to really get the full experience.


The refuge held lots of good birds, including tons of waders, ducks, and shorebirds—my three favorite types of birds. I saw both Glossy and White-faced Ibis, thirteen species of ducks, and a decent mix of shorebirds, including some cooperative Wilson’s Snipe. Of the 66 species of birds observed, one was the target (and, if truth be told, the reason I first suggested we visit the pandhandle on this trip): an American Flamingo. This lonely bird apparently blew into the refuge with Hurricane Michael in 2018 and has returned every year since. Wild American Flamingos are nearly impossible to see within the United States, so I figured this was too good an opportunity to pass up, and my amazing wife went along with the plan! We both got good looks at the bird feeding, using its rhythmic foot motions to stir up prey into its upside-down mouth. The flamingo was lifer #1 for the trip, and one of the coolest birds I’ve ever seen. Honestly, it was probably cooler than any of the 428 other species I’d seen previously. In addition to the birds, we saw dozens of American Alligators, some butterflies (including a handful of Queens), a deer, and a Florida Cooter.


After our long day, we made the short drive to the Lodge at Wakulla Springs (a pretty cool historic building within what is now a State Park) to eat dinner and retire for the night. A Barred Owl, the first of many owls, bid the day adieu.


On Tuesday morning, following breakfast at the Lodge, we took a hike through the woods and explored the springs that form the headwaters of the Wakulla River. The obvious highlight was seeing a bunch of West Indian Manatees up closer, but I also had a lot of fun watching the antics of Common Gallinules that were completely oblivious to humans (like a lot of Florida wildlife, it seems).


Next, we rented kayaks and paddled a section of the Wakulla River a few miles downstream from the springs. It was a picturesque paddle, notwithstanding the many docks of fortunate river dwellers, surrounded by baldcypress, Spanish moss, and aquatic vegetation. The wildlife on the river matched the scenery. In addition to the birds (e.g., Anhingas, waders, ducks, and some warblers), we saw a dozen more manatees, some butterflies and odonates (including many Purple Bluets and a pair of Florida Bluets, both lifers), scores of turtles (most of which were Suwanee River Cooters, lifers for me), and a single alligator. As we passed by the undersized gator from a respectful distance, my wife—who had some trepidation about kayaking next to alligators—conceded “that’s my kind of gator.”


After our paddle, we continued our road trip west to Apalachicola, or Apalach as the cool kids call it. To label the section of highway 98 heading into town “scenic,” as it is officially deemed, is a gross understatement. The 20-something miles from Carabelle to Apalach hugs the gulf, offering better behind-the-wheel views than I’ve enjoyed anywhere else on the east coast. Apalachicola itself was well-deserving of another label bestowed upon it: “Old Florida.” Although it could use a little TLC, it was so much more pleasant than the over-developed jumble of high rises and strip malls that blanket both coasts of peninsular Florida.


Upon arrival, we threw back some famous raw Apalachicola oysters before wandering the charming town. As the sun set, we were treated to some impressive bird movements, the coolest of which involved thousands of Tree Swallows foraging overhead. We had an amazing dinner at Tamara’s Café, where we had more oysters (fried), mushrooms (crab-stuffed), and the best (only) grouper cheek I’ve ever eaten. I made a mid-dinner run to my car to grab my spotting scope, through which we treated everyone at the restaurant to excellent looks at Jupiter (and its moons) and Saturn (and its rings) before they dipped below the horizon. After dinner, we returned to our lodgings at the historic Gibson Inn, a really gorgeous place.


We began Wednesday morning with a short walk to the waterfront for sunrise. It was well worth it; the orange predawn glow illuminated thousands of swallows emerging from the marshes in undulating, cyclone-shaped murmurations, and I was able to make some interesting photos with my new lens. After breakfast, we took a short hike on a boardwalk on the north end of town, where I saw a couple Twilight Darners (lifer dragonflies) among a decent assortment of birds.


Leaving town, we once again traversed the incredibly scenic Highway 98 before making a quick stop for a hike around Ochlockonee River SP. Although the midday birding was unremarkable, it was a really scenic place, featuring a longleaf pine savannah abutting a large river and expansive marsh. The wildlife highlight was an amelanistic (almost entirely white) squirrel. Then, it was back to the highway for a nearly 6-hour drive to Dunedin, near Tampa. The drive was pleasant on the front end, but miserable as we approached the more densely-populated areas of the gulf coast….


Leg 3: Dunedin & Pinellas County

Leg 3 began as we arrived in Dunedin Wednesday evening just before sunset. We joined my parents at an awesome waterfront rental condo right off the Dunedin causeway. As my wife and I kicked back with a plate of snacks, two surprise visitors flew in and landed mere feet away, looking expectant: a Great Egret and a Snowy Egret, apparently accustomed to receiving handouts from residents in the area. This filled me with mixed emotions. I was obviously thrilled to be so close to these majestic creatures and I got some cool closeup shots. I was a bit troubled by the idea of humans feeding egrets (more specifically, with what they might be feeding them; hopefully raw fish). And I was honestly a little scared of being impaled by their razor-sharp beaks on a couple occasions. Best to eat inside the screened porch! Anyway, we enjoyed a relaxing sunset by the water, watching dozens of ducks, White Ibis, and a Black-crowned Night-Heron fly by.


After that, we enjoyed dinner and family time with my parents, grandmother, and uncles (all the while maintaining reasonable COVID precautions, notwithstanding the immunity my wife and I were reasoanbly assured of for at least another month).


We began Thursday morning (Christmas Eve) relaxing at our waterfront abode. Around dawn, a furtive Marsh Rabbit poked around the neighbor’s yard. As the morning progressed, I racked up a pretty good bird list, including a Roseate Spoonbill, a Reddish Egret, a Wood Stork, an Anhinga, many ibis and egrets (some tame, some not), some shorebirds, and a large flock of Nanday Parakeets (lifers).


After a big breakfast with my parents, my wife and I embarked on a 12-mile bike ride along the Pinellas Trail (a well-maintained paved trail along an old railway) down to Clearwater and back. For a bike ride, the wildlife was pretty exciting. Early in the trip, a huge flock of 150 American White Pelicans flew overhead; mid-way down I stopped for a few Orange-barred Sulphurs (lifer butterflies); on the way back, a Magnificent Frigatebird soared overhead; and towards the end we ran into a (the?) big flock of Nanday Parakeets. We also enjoyed a stop to wander around downtown Dunedin.


In the afternoon, we headed to Honeymoon Island SP, only a mile from our condo. We hiked about 5.5 miles to the tip of the beach and back. It was no-shirt weather on the front end of the trip, but a staggering wind turned the return trip into a workout. We saw 11 species of shorebirds (including some Piping Plovers) and a couple Reddish Egrets, plus a bunch of beached sponges and corals.


As the weather worsened, we relaxed at our condo for a time, and I took some more closeup shots of the tame waterbirds. We then headed to my Grandma’s for Christmas Eve dinner, where we enjoyed another good night with family before hunkering down for the overnight storm.


Friday—Christmas Day—began with a cold wind, so we spent the morning relaxing with my parents. Then, my dad, wife, and I took a long hike through the pine and mangrove forests of Honeymoon Island SP, where I spotted a Nine-Banded Armadillo and over a dozen Common Ground Doves. We then headed back to my Grandma’s for a Christmas Day lunch, where a Black Racer and some Brown Anoles greeted us.


In the evening, my wife and I decided to take a little mini-vacation to St. Pete to spend our last night together of the trip. Our first stop was the St. Pete Pier. To call this monstrosity a pier is a bit deceptive, though technically correct. It’s basically a 23-acre concrete park jutting out into Tampa Bay, with some impressive architecture and a handful of comically undersized native plant exhibits. In the bay, we spotted some Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, Black Skimmers, American Oystercatchers, and a Common Loon. After the pier, we wandered downtown, dined on Christmas-Day-Asian-Food, and returned to our B&B (Kenwood Gables) for a relaxing evening.


Saturday morning was cold and breezy (again), so we took our time before heading on our second-to-last joint adventure: Fort De Soto County Park. Like St. Marks NWR, this is another place I could probably spend an entire day (or more) exploring and birding at a pace painfully slow to others (e.g., my wife). But it was also the perfect place for a team activity—biking—with miles of paved trails paralleling the low-traffic road. My wife and I logged another 10 miles exploring the island tip-to-tip, with some trail and beach hiking at the north end. As always, the park hosted some great birds, including Loggerhead Shrikes (lots), American Kestrels, White Pelicans, a Common Tern (rare this time of year), a Reddish Egret, and lots of shorebirds. Of the latter, I was particularly thrilled to see all six species of plovers that winter on the East Coast, including 4 Snowy Plovers (!), a Piping Plover, and a Wilson’s Plover. I also spotted a Dorantes Longtail (lifer) among a few other butterfly species braving the chill, windy air.


After a quick lunch, our final stop of the day was Heritage Village, a cool reproduction village featuring a number of noteworthy historical structures relocated from across Pinellas County. Two of these were of personal interest: a house built in 1868 by my great-great-great grandparents, Daniel and Margaret McMullen, and a two-story log cabin built even earlier by Daniel’s brother. This sparked an interest in genealogy, but probably not enough to overtake my other hobbies. We also walked around the botanical gardens adjacent to Heritage Village (and saw more Parakeets) before calling it a day and heading to the airport.


With my wife safely on a plane headed home, I unsuccessfully looked for Brown Boobies (it’s a bird; look it up) at Philippe Park. The park is named for named for another of my extremely distant relatives (by marriage, not direct descent, I think), the first permanent European settler of Pinellas County. After this quick stop, it was off to rejoin my family for one last big dinner, followed by a low-key night at my uncle’s house.


That’s the end of Part 1. CONTINUE READING PART 2, which covers my 5-day birding adventure across the northern part of the state.

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