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Georgia/Florida Xmas 2022

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

This year’s (almost) annual holiday pilgrimage south featured two stages: a trip with my wife and her family to Cumberland Island, GA, followed by a solo trip to Dunedin, FL to visit my family. I squeezed in a lot of nature time during the trip—or, did I squeeze in family time? Just kidding; it was a well-balanced trip. Only two things didn’t go as planned. First, neither my wife’s nor my parents could join their respective phases of the trip, due to late-breaking issues. Second, the weather was colder than expected. Usually, these southbound trips feature an opportunity to escape the early winter blues in North Carolina. On this trip, a polar vortex-type airmass brought breezing weather throughout our stay at Cumberland, which slowly lifted throughout my time in Florida. This didn’t really impact our activity level, but it did significantly reduce the number of invertebrates I encountered. Don’t fear—the vertebrate wildlife on this trip was remarkable, as I hope the following paragraphs and photos will convey.

Part 1: Cumberland Island, GA

Thursday 12/22: Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach

My wife and I spent most of our first vacation day (at least 7 hours) driving down to Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach, Florida. The strip of rough gravel called “I-95” is the worst, but we made it safe and sound and in good time. I like to start every trip with some good “road birds” seen while driving. The first notable road sighting wasn’t a bird, but a group of Feral Boars along I-95 just north of the Satilla River. As for road birds, soon after arriving near Fernandina Beach, a flock of Canada Geese flew over the car! My excitement isn’t entirely in jest. Somehow, this was the first time I’d seen this species in Florida (after 203 other bird species in the state). Florida has its issues, but Canada Geese aren’t usually one of them.

Anyway, after arriving, we took a nice walk through downtown Fernandina, which is charming and unlike most of the overdeveloped parts of Florida. Of course, an American White Pelican flying over downtown didn’t diminish my opinion of the place, and it was nice to see some Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins near the docks.

Next, we headed to Fort Clinch State Park at the north end of the island. We hiked the beach along the inlet, passing the fort and staring across the St. Mary’s River into Georgia—specifically, the south end of Cumberland Island, our next destination. While combing the beach, I found what appears to be a fossilized whale vertebra! This is the first fossil I’ve ever found (though I may have found a shark’s tooth or two as a kid). The beach also held a nice assortment of larids (gulls and terns), including a Lesser Black-backed Gull, another new state bird for me. Then, we crossed through the dunes and hiked several miles of lush maritime forest. Wildlife highlights included a couple Nine-banded Armadillos, a fascinatingly reptilian species of mammal whose range is expanding at a breakneck pace. My wife aptly noted that they look like a combination of turtle and rabbit.

After our hike, we relaxed at the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge and enjoyed a placid beachfront sunset from the porch. Well, it was placid except for two encounters with a Parasitic Jaeger (another state bird) that barreled in to harass the resident gull flock. Overall, a nice end to a day, and our last with warm weather: upper 50s and some breeze. No pictures for the day, sorry! I’ll make up for it, I promise.

Friday 12/23: Cumberland Island Arrival

Friday morning began with a touch of beachfront birding (couldn’t resist); highlights at the Lodge included some Black Scoters (state birds) and Northern Gannets out over the surf.

After a nice breakfast with in-laws Eddie and Laura, we headed to the docks for the ferry over to Cumberland.

The “front” of the cold front picked up as we took to the water. The temps were okay (still in the 50s), but the wind churned the seas. The Lucy R. Ferguson, however, was a capable vessel; we made the 7-mile voyage without much more than a little salt spray. En route, Ameila Island’s heavy industry (receiving docks, paper mills) offered an interesting contrast to the relatively unspoiled coastal setting. A flock of gulls followed our boat the whole way, and we also encountered Buffleheads, White Pelicans, and Common Loons.

Finally, my wife and I arrived on Cumberland Island—our first return to our honeymoon destination. We spent midday biking the idyllic main dirt road north for about 5 miles north. Then we hiked 2.5 miles east to the beach, then back on foot, then back on bike. I hope this gives you a sense of the island’s size: it’s about 20 miles long, 3 miles across, and almost entirely undeveloped (mostly owned by the US Park Service as National Seashore). What a national treasure! The hike took us through a nice mix of habitats, from live oak/saw palmetto forest, to pinewoods, across marshy boardwalks, through scrubby wax myrtle groves, and finally over dunes to the beach. Animal life abounded. Feral horses are everywhere on Cumberland; I probably won’t mention them much more, but you may see a few photos. Armadillos were also frequently encountered, including one that flushed an Eastern Ribbon Snake (lifer!) while nosing around in the leaf litter next to the road. Other reptiles (few and far between on this trip) included a Green Anole and several juvenile American Alligators at a mostly dried-up pond. This pre-cold-front-hike also featured our only two invertebrates on Cumberland: an Obscure Bird Grasshopper and a Twilight Darner (the only dragonfly I identified on the entire trip). Oh, I guess there were some birds too—the most interesting winter residents included Blue-headed Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, and Orange-crowned Warbler. 98% of the birds we saw or heard were Yellow-rumped Warblers.

After our adventure, we joined Eddie at the Cumberland Inn, where we enjoyed a nice afternoon and evening, sharing dinner with some of the other guests.

Saturday 12/24: Cumberland Island Day 2

The cold front completed its arrival overnight, with wind chills around 11F by daybreak. Knowing this, I still signed up for the sunrise nature excursion, led by the Inn’s naturalist. We hiked around the Dungeness Ruins, marsh boardwalk, and dunes, embracing the raw beauty of nature. The birding was good, with several ducks, Wild Turkeys (dependable here), Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, American Kestrel, hundreds of Tree Swallows in the marsh, Cedar Waxwings, and a variety of other species. We also saw a couple dozen deer, including some big bucks and two almost entirely white piebald individuals (a first for me). The undeniable highlight of the cold morning—and one of the best animal encounters of the trip—was a wary Bobcat that I spotted and was able to briefly photograph from about 30 yards away.

After breakfast, we joined Eddie and Laura for a walk on the beach, which turned out to be eventful. One of us (not me) went for a swim, and the rest of us got colder watching. The wildlife also seemed cold-shocked, with many examples of stunned or dead (but intact) sea creatures washed up with the tide. Nearly- and not-quite living finds included a Gray Sea Star, several sand dollars (I haven’t figured out the species yet), Knobbed Whelks, a Speckled Purse Crab, and some Horseshoe Crabs. We also found some nice shiny lumps of polished anthracite coal—not sure where that came from, but well-timed with Christmas around the corner—and some driftwood tumbled into ovals. Some forms of unidentified alien life also washed up, as depicted in the photographs below. Red Knots were the most interesting animal living on the beach, apparently enjoying the forage brought in with the tide.

After the beach, we joined additional in-laws Tricia and Drew for lunch, followed by a short bike ride down to Dungeness. We soaked in the history and made a short excursion down to one of the “Raccoon Key” islands—only accessible at low tide—where I found several more fossilized bone fragments and saw some (living) Atlantic Ribbed Mussels. While at Dungeness, we also saw plenty of horses (of course) and an armadillo (my only sighting after the cold front arrived). Best birds included a group of flyover Sandhill Cranes, some Common Ground Doves, an American Oystercatcher, and a pair of Wilson’s Plovers.

Drew and I made the questionable decision to bike back to the Inn via the beach, trading the protected roadway for an exposed headwind. In addition to the satisfying workout and an interesting buried navigational buoy, a big flock of larids (including over a hundred Black Skimmers) was our (my) primary reward for taking the hard way back. After dinner and a low-key evening of cards with the fam, we called it a night.

Sunday 12/25: Christmas on Cumberland, Day 3

Sunday was again quite cold, and I capitalized on the cozy accommodations by sleeping in—something I rarely do on vacation. After breakfast, Christmas celebrations, a game of Catan, and lunch, the full team of 6 took off for an afternoon bike ride on the beach. Low tide exposed one of the widest, flattest beaches I’ve ever been on, and this time we rode with the wind. It was great. The rest of the team stopped at Dungeness and moseyed back to the Inn, while I rode on and explored the southern end of the island. It was a quiet ride. I encountered a washed-up Southern Moon Jelly, some horses, and a decent mix of birds. Most of the birds were concentrated around the enormous jetty at the inlet, including a strong showing of sea ducks (Green-winged Teal, Redhead, Scaup, Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, and Red-breasted Merganser). I only saw 5 species of shorebirds, but these included several Piping Plovers. A group of several hundred Tree Swallows roosting on the beach was also something I’ve never seen before. I was a little jealous when an Osprey pulled a small Red Drum out of the surf (I didn’t bring my fishing gear over to the island due to the cold weather).

After reaching the inlet, I turned around and made my way home via the Dungeness ruins, where I again encountering the flock of turkeys and two piebald deer. A Great Horned Owl later heralded my triumphant return to the Greyfield Inn. The 11-mile bike ride left me exhausted, but I enjoyed another low-key dinner and evening with the fam.

Monday 12/26: Cumberland Departure

The cold front slowly started lifting on Monday as we departed Cumberland. Slowly is the key word there—slow enough for me to sleep in again. It was still in the low-30s by the time I made one last morning hike around the Inn’s property, which turned up—wait for it—my first Eastern Gray Squirrel of the island (plus some actually interesting critters, like a Marsh Wren).

Two parting photos from the Greyfield Inn should help convey a sense of the place: live oaks and horses, along with a portrait of the Inn’s former owner: Lucy Ferguson. Yes, she has a knife at her belt and is sitting on a deerskin. There’s a lot of history on this land, and she was a big part of it.

But back to natural history, the subject of this blog. As we waited for the late morning ferry off the island, I spotted an American Mink swimming through the marsh towards my wife and me . It eventually crawled out on some rubble before disappearing under the dock, right under our feet. This was our closest encounter with this interesting mustelid. Once on the boat, our final ferry ride was graced by good weather and several soaring Wood Storks and American White Pelicans.

After wishing my wife bon voyage (she was heading north; I south), I snuck off behind a dumpster to—you guessed it—photograph Black Vultures and Boat-tailed Grackles. Then it was back on the road, in search of warmer weather.

Part 2: Florida

Monday 12/26: Vero Beach

Well, I was also in search of birds. After a 4-hour drive, I ended up cruising dirt roads just inland of Vero Beach on my only real “wild bird chase” of the trip. The chase was successful, as I got good looks at a Smooth-billed Ani continuing at this location. This was my one and only lifer of the trip, but a good one at that! The birding was surprisingly good in this random agricultural area, with Common Ground Dove, Mottled Duck, Limpkin, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Snipe, Cattle Egret (hundreds), Snail Kite, Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Great Crested Flycatcher, Ovenbird, etc.

My only other notable adventure in Vero Bech involved attempting to stay clean in my cheap hotel room. Long story short, I ended up sleeping on the floor on my sleeping pad & bag.

Tuesday 12/27: Fellsmere Lake

With bird chases behind me, I spent the first half of the next day exploring some new freshwater habitats in Indian River County (more specifically, Fellsmere). I started with a two-mile sunrise hike around the so-called “Stick Marsh” (a dike bisecting a large man-made lake). The best bird there was a Merlin. It was also interesting to see a flock of Black Skimmers 14 miles from the nearest saltwater.

Next, I headed a few miles east to a relatively newly-created lake adjacent to Stick Marsh, called “Headwaters Lake” or “Fellsmere Lake.” It’s a large tract of former fields that the state and local governments excavated, diked, flooded, and filled with aquatic vegetation, primarily to create bass fishing habitat. I left my rod in the car, focusing my effort on birds. To get to the fun part, I had to traverse a 2-mile canal with a bunch of bass boats that didn’t mind getting me wet. It was worth the effort (and since I was using my kayak motor for most of the trip, it didn’t actually take much “effort”). The shallower regions were basically a kayakable waterfowl impoundment. Warm, sunny weather made for a good 10-mile trip.

There were hundreds of ducks (mostly Ring-necked, with 5 other species mixed in), hundreds of Common Gallinules, and thousands of American Coots. It’s always comical to watch gallinules and coots skitter through the water before awkwardly launching into the air. This was also a great site for Gray-headed Swamphens (an exotic species that lives up to the label); I counted at least 13. Limpkins are always fun to photograph, too.

Wading birds were plentiful, with 10 species present (including Glossy Ibis and a Roseate Spoonbill). The raptors also made a nice showing; highlights included a banded adult male Snail Kite, a photogenic Red-shouldered Hawk, and a Northern Harrier. There wasn’t much landbird habitat, but every available inch was dripping with Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers, plus a handful of other species scattered about.

In addition to birds, I encountered a couple American Alligators, many Peninsula Cooters, a Southern Leopard Frog (being consumed by a RS Hawk), and three butterflies: Queen, Ceraunus Blue, and Little Yellow.

On my way out, I made a quick stop at Stick Marsh, where I was able to see a brilliant male Vermillion Flycatcher hanging out around the parking lot (I missed it earlier in the morning). Departing Fellsmere, I drove 3.5 hours west, trading the Atlantic for the Gulf. After landing in Dunedin, I caught up with my uncle (who hosted me the next few days) and grandma, uncle, and aunt over dinner.

Wednesday 12/28: Dunedin Day 1

On most Florida trips, I end up driving all over the state, chasing rare birds. This trip, I spent more time near “home base” in Dunedin. I spent essentially the entire first day (8+ hours) motor kayaking 12 miles around the nearby Honeymoon Island State Park in St. Joseph Sound. It was mostly sunny, with temps climbing from the 40s into the 60s, and (most importantly) not very windy. Warning: lots of pictures to follow. I’ll cover the birds first, followed by other aquatic wildlife.

The birding around Honeymoon Island is always terrific. This trip featured more ducks than usual, including 3 Canvasback and a Greater Scaup (both are uncommon in Florida, and the scaup was a new state bird for me). Shorebirds were as abundant as ever. Of the 14 species present, highlights included Wilson’s Plover, Piping Plover, and (always a favorite) Marbled Godwit. (I unfortunately didn’t see any Snowy Plovers on this trip.)

Wading birds are never in short supply here. Of the 9 species present, my favorite bird was an extremely accommodating Roseate Spoonbill (more on that later).

Also noteworthy were several Reddish Egrets and a bunch of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons.

An adult Lesser Black-backed gull was also a nice complement to more common seabirds, including a large flock of American White Pelicans (and even more Brown Pelicans).

Although I didn’t really venture on land, I still managed to see 54 species of birds along the park’s margins, including a few that were land-based (like American Kestrel and a Prairie Warbler).

Ok, enough about birds, right? One of this trip’s primary objectives was saltwater fishing, targeting Spotted Seatrout. I think I saw a couple trout, but I couldn’t get a single fish (of any species) to bite after an entire day’s effort. Other anglers in the area reported similar results. I’m starting to think that fishing involves less science, somewhat less art, and a lot more luck than I previously thought. As someone apparently lacking all 3, that’s my excuse for now. The recent cold snap may have also had something to do with it, or maybe red tide (more on this below). The only fish I had any luck with were Mullet. First, I found a group of big (up to 12”) Silver Mullet in a shallow grassflat cove near the tip of the island. Problem was, the photogenic spoonbill was foraging in the same shallows, and I didn’t want to scare it off with my cast net. Eventually, after getting my fill of photos, I started casting at the fish, about 15 feet from the bird. It didn’t budge! That’s Florida wildlife for you—apparently far less sensitive to human disturbance than most birds in NC. I eventually brought in several mullet using a combination of techniques (it was a bit too shallow for my net). My next mullet encounter was even better. I found a school of a couple hundred Striped Mullet up a small mangrove-lined creek at the end of the island’s main cove. I hopped out of my kayak and slowly corralled the fish into shallower water. Amid streams of fish escaping to either side, I netted 6 whoppers on my first cast. The largest was 19” long.

The most memorable fish of the day was one I didn’t catch. While paddling the shallows on the back side of the island, I saw something long and snake-like in the water ahead. I slowly approached, finding what appeared to be a dead eel, lying upside down. After a gentle nudge from my foot, it came to life—a moment I was able to catch on video. This was a Spotted Spoon-nose Eel.

I’m not sure what was wrong with it. It might have been the cold, but I’m concerned it might have been affected by “red tide” (Karenia brevis), a colonial algae that can form huge, harmful blooms. Recent samples taken nearby did not indicate a problematic algal bloom at this time/place, but a huge bloom was impacting fish about 20 miles south, so I suspect this may have had something to do with it. I also came across a tiny Planehead Filefish gasping for air on the surface, along with a dozen dead Pinfish and an unidentified Mojarra washed up on a nearby beach. This suggested a bigger problem than the cold….

Despite the disturbing fish encounters, other aquatic wildlife seemed to be doing just fine. I encountered several pods of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, including some that swam straight at me—something I haven’t experienced very often. I also found several live sea stars (genus Echinaster, probably not identifiable to species) and a sea urchin (also unidentified) in the shallows on the backside of the island. I find the radial symmetry of echinoderms fascinating.

But the most memorable animal of the day—perhaps even the trip—was a Green Sea Turtle I encountered in the island’s large central cove (shortly after catching the big mullet). Curiously, the turtle repeatedly swam to the western shoreline of the cove, nearly beaching itself before returning to the slightly deeper cove waters. Notwithstanding this puzzling behavior, it seemed quite comfortable with my presence as I slowly and quietly floated alongside it. I was able to capture some of these unforgettable moments on video.

After getting back to home base, I proceeded to clean the big mullet, with a little help from my uncle. I’ve got some room for growth when it comes to cleaning fish, but I was able to salvage most of the meat. Although I was planning to fry it up for my grandma (who grew up eating mullet), concerns about the red tide led me to freeze the cuts to use for bait. I was worn out from the day on the water and called it an early night after fish cleaning and a quick dinner.

Thursday 12/29: Dunedin Day 2

Thursday was slightly less active than prior days, but still well-spent. On a short drive to breakfast, I managed to see 5 Roseate Spoonbills (flying overhead), a White Ibis (perched on a wire over a busy intersection), and some Nanday Parakeets (circling a neighborhood). Only in Florida….

My first outing involved a hike around Dunedin Hammock Park, a nice tract of preserved forest. The scenery made up for slow birding (I heard a Monk Parakeet or two from the adjacent ballfields, but that was about the only bird of note). I also came across a Marsh Rabbit.

The weather was finally back to normal (60s), so I spent an hour or so relaxing on my uncle’s patio while sorting through photos. One of the resident Great Egrets joined me, likely looking for a food handout as it perched on my uncle’s iconic dolphin sculpture. I spent the rest of the morning catching up with Grandma.

The afternoon featured a relaxing paddle (no motor) on the Anclote River near Tarpon Springs. The water was tea-colored but crystal clear, and I’m assuming it’s brackish and tidally influenced. Mangroves lined nearly every shore, though I found some pockets of (I think) Black Needlerush marshes. The birding was pretty slow, though a flock of Nanday Parkeets was interesting. I had no luck fishing, though I saw an unidentified eel that wriggled out of its sandy burrow as I passed by. I also found a dozen or so fish dead from unclear causes—had red tide made its way this far upriver? There was also a fair amount of traffic noise from the nearby highway. Complaints aside, it was still a very scenic place for a paddle.

On the way back home, I passed by a wastewater treatment pond that was loaded with ducks, so I pulled over for a quick survey. Over 1600 Redheads blanketed the surface, along with a smattering of other species. After that, I joined my uncle for a nice dinner on the Dunedin waterfront and called it an early night, as usual.

Friday 12/30: Dunedin Day 3

On my last full day in Dunedin, I went with a lower-key version of my first day’s adventures, motor kayaking around St. Joseph Sound. It was warm (60s) but mostly cloudy, presenting a subdued light/cast both to my photos and my activity level. I started out puttering and hiking around the south end of Honeymoon Island SP.

The cast of bird characters was similar to my prior trip, with the addition of some landbirds like a Loggerhed Shrike, Swamp Sparrows, and an eastern-subspecies Palm Warbler.

A Snowy Egret got pretty comfortable poking around my kayak, hoping to get into my bag of cut bait.