Saturday, March 30, 2013


So the other day, around 9:30 in the morning, after finishing my first and shorter job of the day, I found out that the rest of my day had suddenly been canceled, and that I was free. Taking advantage of my underemployment, I lit out for the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, over in Fort Myers. I was two thirds of the way there anyway. Sadly, I did not have my camera, even my binoculars, as I had not really planned on any such trip; so I had to make do with the monocular that I found in the woods a few years ago. I hate the thing, causes eye strain, but I always have it in my truck, just in case I need it. Ah, the first world problems of the modern wildlife watcher, eh?

I will be back there, though, to take some pictures for you all to enjoy. In fact, I'm pretty sure the slough (pronounced "slew") is my favorite place in Florida so far. I walked their boardwalk trail of a bit over a mile, moving very slow. I loved the way the cypress trees actually met in a canopy, it felt a lot like being back home in the shadowy hardwoods of Michigan. What a forest should be like, in my mind. Not that I was really comparing, because, this is a subtropical cypress swamp, not a temperate forest. The point is there I was in mostly shade, with the filtered sunlight dappling its way through from a very clear sky, and this felt good to my soul, if I may put it so.

The wildlife, according to this one guy I talked to, was very sparse, with far fewer birds and such out and about than usual. It was late morning, and cold for Florida, in the 50s and windy. But I still saw three small alligators, plenty of birds and turtles, and one close encounter with a grey squirrel. He was running down the boardwalk railing toward me, and came within a few feet of me and the above-mentioned guy. He surely saw us, as he kept running towards us, then back, dithering back and forth before finally going around on the muddy ground.

And that gets me to what I wanted to write about today. This wild animal, if only a common squirrel, only came so close because we were so quiet. I mean, we were sort of tuned in to the stillness of the forest, so we didn't immediately scare him off. This is in contrast to the other people out there that morning; quite a few at that.

It is simply amazing to me how people are when they visit parks, preserves, and nature in general. They act like they're walking around in a shopping mall, they make no adjustment in their demeanor at all. Their footfalls are so loud and heavy, or else shuffling, their gestures and motions sharp and broad, their voices ring out among the trees. Some of them even walk with their heads down, going viewing station to viewing station, I presume. Meanwhile they're missing everything, mostly from scaring it away. Then they have the nerve to complain about never seeing any wildlife!

The guy I mentioned above, he was one of the exceptions; him and his wife. They had some serious looking cameras and seemed to know what they were doing out there; they walked as soundlessly and slowly as I did, stood still a lot, and spoke to me in whispers. My kind of people. For myself, I can't help but be this way. I get out there in the trees, breathing the air, and instantly start quieting down. My motions become slower, steadier. My feet find the ground softly. My mind clears of the usual mental clutter. When I must speak, I do so quietly. It feels almost a sacrilege to speak loudly in nature, where everything is so quiet. And I don't have to think about these things, it just happens, until, within a few minutes, I'm entrained with the world around me, moving into its larger rhythm.

Standing still helps immensely. I think most people who "never see anything" when they go out in the woods must believe that they simply aren't where the wildlife is, and if they could just cover more ground, they'd find it. Quite the contrary! The world is so freaking alive that it would boggle most people's minds, even my own I'm sure, if they'd only stop moving so damn much. I'm better than many, but still a city kid by birth, a civilized man, and I know I have a long way to go to that aboriginal quietude of body and mind.

Check out the book What the Robin Knows, which goes into detail about how birds sound alarms, are tuned in to the different creatures in their world, how they flee perceived threats, and basic insight into ecosystem communities. The author states that it may take up to 40 minutes for threat levels to fall back to a background level, and it may take the neighborhood residents getting to know you as well; that is, over several visits. One thing I liked best about this book, by the way, is that it reminded me that the animals I see around my yard, live there. I mean, that blue jay, that squirrel, that hawk, is the same one I see every day, they are individuals, my neighbors. They're watching me as they watch each other, and they know the area better than I do. Their lives depend on it as mine doesn't, you see.

And of course the same is true in the woods. You walk into a forest (or anywhere), and the animals there don't know you, may not really know what to make of you. You aren't one of the locals, all of whom they know. So someone calls an alarm and everyone hides until you go off somewhere else. You are a foreign element. The least you can do is to at least move in forest ways, so you at least seem to belong a little bit. Maybe they'll be a bit less frightened and a little more curious about you, or at least indifferent.

And I can vouch for that, by the way, having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and only seeing, by and large, what I spooked into flight, from chipmunks and grouse to bears and moose. Hiking is great, and I highly recommend it, but the rewards of hiking lie in areas other than wildlife viewing. It's just too motion-oriented, too much hustle.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On The Basking Log

Making my way slowly down the canals via kayak, I spotted this basking Florida cooter ahead in the distance. I ceased paddling, and allowed myself to drift for the most part, only occasionally dipping the paddle in to keep myself straight, for the wind was coming somewhat crosswise from behind. Slowly I gained on him, taking pictures as I floated nearer. Finally, I came too close; really, it was the wind that did me in, as it was making my boat pivot. I tried to stop it with a very slow paddle, but it was too much for this turtle, and he dove at last for cover.

I'd never seen a turtle laying as he was, with his legs kicked out behind him. I am sure, however, that this is the local basking log, as there are very few other such logs in that canal; only one, actually, and for much of the day it is shaded, being mostly under the trees on the south bank.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Cape Coral Wild

Sorry 'bout the blurriness.
I did some day tripping last weekend and this week. Not out in the depths of wild and woolly Nature, but right here in the guts of Cape Coral. See, this city, blight on the world that I think it is, is huge, and only partly built out. Much of the northern half of this sprawling town (second largest in area in FL) is quite sparsely developed, with only one or two homes per block. Some blocks have no houses at all. I could rant about the leveling of whole forests for neighborhoods that won't be built, at best, for several decades, if ever... but I'll try to contain myself.

I had discovered through the wonders of the interwebs that there are several bald eagle nests here in Cape Coral; being a threatened species, many all over Florida are documented and monitored. So I went to see one, having also learned that in Florida, bald eagles begin breeding in October or so, meaning the new crop of eaglets are about to fledge. If I wanted to see some young eagles in a nest, I'd best go soon, or I'd have to wait until next winter.

Note the homes nearby. The block this tree is on is
undeveloped and so long as the nest is there, off limits.
(I also found this website, the southwest florida eagle cam, set up in North Fort Myers on the property of, of all places, a real estate group. I watched for several hours one day while I was doing other things, and was lucky to see a parent bring back an egret it'd caught, which it and the two kids tore apart right on camera. Some would call it gruesome, but I found it engrossing).

Another day took me, again, to the northern reaches of Cape Coma, this time to see another threatened species. We have several around here, as I'm sure many places do, given the rampant habitat loss across the nation. Some I see all the time: wood storks are relatively common around here, and bald eagles too can be easy to find, in the right areas. There are burrowing owl burrows all over the place, many marked out with white stakes so they aren't mown over. I have four burrows right in my neighborhood. Unoccupied this year, unfortunately.

Hey. Yeah, you. Gimme all your cashews and no one gets hurt.
But the Florida Scrub Jay, these are found only in this state, and only on quite specific habitat, namely, Florida Scrub, a habitat that has nearly disappeared in the state thanks to development. While I was watching the eagles, I was surfing around and discovered that the Cape has a couple families of them, and with a bit more research, I located them. Apparently there is supposed to be a park created for them, but since the city has no money anymore since the only industry in SW Florida (housing) collapsed, so I think the plan is in limbo. Still, the birds remain.

What, what is it? Is there something on my face?
So I drove up there to try to get a look; before I'd even stopped my forward motion one of the blue devils was barreling through the air towards my truck. Apparently, these are the friendliest birds in the whole world, with no hesitation at all. This is probably bad, being so trusting of us duplicitous humans, yet, it worked out for me this day. I actually had some cashews with me and shared them with two of the jays, and I enjoyed that one of them would fly right up onto my hand to pick the cashews from my palm. I've never seen a wild bird up close like that.

nom nom nom
I know I shouldn't have done it, and I usually don't do such things, this feeding of wildlife, especially threatened species. Obviously, this probably goes a long way toward explaining their friendliness, it's more of a habituation really. On the other hand, though, if I can pass a few calories to birds living in a place with little resources for them to live, where the developers are just dying to make more cookie-cutter houses, once the market comes back (as if), well, so be it and good luck to them. The birds, that is.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Stealthing at Charlotte Harbor

I decided to do a little camping last weekend, spur of the moment though I'd had this spot in mind for a long time. The only issue was that there is no camping allowed there ("there" being a site along the expansive Charlotte Harbor Preserve S.P.); but I had no fears. There are only two houses anywhere near the trailhead, and a convenient piece of undeveloped forested land right there, with a helpful two track trail heading in. So I just drove my truck a couple dozen yards down the track, past a bend where it'd be concealed, grabbed my pack, and hit the trail.

I walked quickly through the pine flatwoods, more eager to get to the shore than I was interested in present surroundings. Ten minutes later, almost there, I heard voices ahead, likely fishermen, and, wanting to maintain a low profile given the laws and regulations I was breaking, I jumped off-trail into the brushy meadow and proceeded via bushwhack. Now, the forest around here isn't forest like most people are used to. It's very sparse, technically savanna  which is a wooded grassland whose canopy doesn't close. 'Round here, unlike the ones in Africa, they're often flooded with the summer rains, and fires are common in the dry spring. This all contributes to the open character.

So you'd think the hiking would be easy (indeed, such excursions are usually not problematic). But it just got worse and worse. There were no pig trails like I'm used to finding and following, and the vegetation just became a horrible tangle. There were random ditches running across my line of travel, and it seemed that on the other side a wall of brush would always rise against me, forcing me ever sideways, sort of like the Withywindle. I struggled through.

The last thirty yards were brutal. The resurrection ferns were chest high and dense, while the briars and thorns meshed together as a malicious screen. I should probably also mention that I was hiking barefoot. Just before reaching the band of mangroves, I came to the last check: brush piles from windblown mangroves, impossible to climb over or through. But you know how it is, you've come this far, and damned if you're going to swallow your pride, or let your previous efforts go to waste; you will push forward. This is why lost people die in the wilderness. This is also why we are loath to abandon our doomed 75 year project of suburbia, prating on about the non-negotiable American Dream. But I digress.

After ten minutes of aborted tries forward, I finally found a gap, not much of one but enough to squeeze through. With a sigh of relief and accomplishment, I hid my pack in the mangroves and stepped out onto the shore, picking the burrs from my clothing. The sun was still pretty high, leaving me a long afternoon of excellent bird watching. Unfortunately, I forgot I had a camera until much later, and anyways without telephoto lenses, bird photography for me is often sub-par. I have yet to invest in a high quality camera.

Bobcat track, with a couple raccoon tracks at the top.
This is one of the best times for bird watching here in Florida. Many winter migrants are still here, and other birds that winter in the Caribbean and South America are starting to pass through. Not to mention our resident birds. This is really a sort of birdwatching paradise, one of the things I do love about living here. In a short space I saw willets, plovers, ruddy turnstones, osprey, ibis, three species of heron, two species of egrets, brown pelicans, and a juvenile bald eagle. I even heard a loon call in the distance; apparently they winter down here. I was amazed and very happy, though, because when I think of loons I think of Michigan's UP and Maine, two places I love.

I walked back and forth, soaking in the sun, feeling the cool wet sand under my feet, enjoying the quiet (save for the occasional boaters further out on the bay). I found tons of raccoon tracks on the sand, as well as a single bobcat heading south, which I followed for a good way. I didn't catch up with her, though; maybe someday i will find her at the end of her trail, standing in her tracks.

Finally the time came to find a campsite, so I poked around up the beach, looking for a break in the mangroves with a place to lay a sleeping bag. Finding it, I settled in, and soon had a fire going. I almost never make fires when stealth camping, but I needed it to cook, having opted to go old-school on this trip, and I felt safe enough in this rather isolated spot. If I'm being truthful, though, it's not that isolated: later that night I could hear strains of rock music drifting from the resort a bit to the north, and I really wasn't very far from the main trail to this shore.

A friend said I looked sad in this picture. I was going for "contemplative"
I slept poorly, having not brought a sleeping pad, nor any bug spray, nor a tent; the mosquitoes and especially the midges ate me alive. But the dawn was beautiful, and supernaturally calm: I've never seen big water so glassy smooth in my life, and neither have you. Long Vs of ibis flocked by, heading south from their roost near the aforementioned resort. Other shorebirds also streamed past me, heading toward the oyster bars just down the way, where the feeding is rich.

The whole place is rich. I am still amazed at how alive this place is, how productive a habitat, not to mention varied: you have the mudflats of the shore at low tide, the shallow estuary with varying salinity levels all the way down to the Gulf, the mangrove fringe, the pinewoods and prairie just inland... edge habitats often host more wildlife than the interiors of a given habitat, and here are about 5 different edges all in one place, with all kinds of microhabitats mixed in.

At least 70 ibis in just this flock alone

The hike out was pleasant as well, taking my time now through the pines. I kept seeing more and more species of birds; in the end, came to 28 species in less than 24 hrs, likely a new record, though I've never before kept track so specifically. Mourning doves, an eastern wood peewee, an eastern towhee, grey catbirds, black and turkey vultures, a hairy woodpecker, mockingbirds, and more. All in all a fantastic, if short, excursion. I'd love to go back during a full moon, to maybe spot that bobcat after all.

New Directions

Hey all, just wanted to announce that I am planning on resurrecting this blog, and turning its focus more towards outdoor adventures, trip reports, bushcrafting tips, and the like, rather than all the philosophical ramblings. There will likely still be some of that, because that's just who I am; but hopefully I'll be having more posts and photos referencing my doings in the great Florida out-of-doors. I had thought to create a new blog, but this one has the right name for where I want to take this project, so I'll just stick with the tried-and-true rather than start a new one. I know I've surely lost all my old readers after two or three months of inactivity here, but anyways, that's what I came to say today.