Friday, July 16, 2010

GRAND DAYS OUT #3 – St. Marks’ National Wildlife Refuge

Following on from Armadillos, pine forests and swamps (see previous GRAND DAYS OUT) thoughts turned to coastal shenanigans as the big Floridian adventure continued. As always, the account that follows is lifted straight from diaries and notebooks written at the time, except, of course, for [comments].

SO, today we are visiting St.Marks on the Gulf of Mexico [wonder how it is now in light of the BP spill…], about an hours’ drive south of Tallahassee. Route recommended was through the middle of Tallahassee and down the 61, but we opted for the scenic route via the 319 ring road then the 363 before going through Woodville and Wakulla. Stopped at gas station for Gatorade and a Hershey Bar then headed off. Almost immediately we hit road works [ road works Jim, but not as we know them…] and an unusual traffic control system. This comprised a girl in a pick-up truck (parked) holding a ‘STOP’ sign. We couldn’t see the other end of the road works so couldn’t figure out how she was going to know when to turn her sign to ‘GO’. About 5 minutes later another girl in a pick-up comes driving down the road towards us all, does a 360 and on the back of her truck is a sign that says ‘FOLLOW ME’. So we do. About a mile down the road is yet another girl in a pick-up with a sign saying ‘GO’. She then switches it to ‘STOP’ and the girl in the ‘FOLLOW ME’ pick-up starts back off down the road again! So, 3 people and 3 pick-ups to do the job of automated traffic signals – go figure!

St. Marks

Doesn’t take us long to find St.Marks which was basically a long road to a lighthouse with stop-off points along the way that looked out across swamp, reedbeds, saltmarsh and finally, the sea. Stuck our $4 in the envelope at the Toll Booth, popped the envelope in the box, hung the thingy from our mirror to show that we had paid and headed off down the road. First up was a bit of swamp - Stoney Bayou.

Stoney Bayou

No Alligators in it, but we did get juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron. The road here was covered in big blackish Grasshoppers, which thankfully, we managed to avoid mostly, by drunkenly zig-zagging the hire car down the road. Not so the swarms of Ghost Crabs we encountered further down the road – the crunching as we drove through them was gross! Next pull-in was by a reedbed and large lagoon where we got....


 Boat-tailed Grackle, several Least Bittern, Gull-billed Tern, and Least Tern. Least Bitterns were really cool – VERY small and dinky. Also spotted a Racoon foraging along a muddy channel through the reeds, but it vanished before I could get a photo. Did get a snap of a Rail that emerged briefly though, which we reckon was Clapper Rail, although at the time we wondered if it might have been Virginia Rail.

Clapper Rail

Great White Heron and Tricolored Heron were quickly added to the list as the Racoon popped back out and proceeded to amble across a shallow inlet alongside the road. Further along we picked up our first challenging passerine singing from within cover. Never saw it, but song fitted Marsh Wren. A couple of overflying Wilson’s Plovers was a bonus and we added a distant Willet for good measure. There were Swallows too flitting about, rusticolas with their peachy underparts.

Got to the lighthouse and parked up. Spotted a small Alligator in the lagoon near the ‘DON’T FEED THE ALLIGATORS SIGN’ – as if! Further out was our first Pied-billed Grebe – nice. Wandered along the coastal path and got Brown Pelicans and Osprey fishing out to sea and a few Laughing Gulls at the river mouth. There were a few fisherman here standing waist deep casting their lines which surprised us a bit, given that not far from them were two Alligators seemingly undisturbed by the brackish conditions. I was binning the anglers when my mate spotted a Bottle-nosed Dolphin near them. We watched it swimming in circles as its fin emerged bigger and bigger until its tail broke the surface and we realised it was a shark! No idea what species though – Mako? [Turns out there’s about 50 species of shark found in the GoM and my money’s now on it being a Bull Shark]. On the estuary mud were thousands and thousands of small Ghost Crabs, 1-3cm wide which, as you moved closer towards them, carpeted away just as quickly in perfect synchrony like a flock of birds…

Ghost Crabs

Was getting bitten by midges so headed back to the hire car. Driving back up the road we got Racoon again and this time I managed to digiscope a few blurry snaps. It had caught a huge crab and proceeded to munch its way through it – washing each bit as it went. Watched it for about 10 minutes.

As we headed off an Armadillo trundled across the road in front of the car and two long-winged birds were heading towards us high up calling ‘beek beek’. Nighthawks! They were joined by 2 more which we watched for another 10 mins as they hawked and dived from height in broad daylight – excellent views. Took a leak by a large pool and was a little perturbed midway through to spot a rather large Alligator watching me from the water.

Quickly got back in the car and continued on our way picking up Black Vultures and about 90 Double-crested Cormorants roosting on roadside pylons.

By now we were starving hungry and so decided to head back through downtown Tallahassee as the light faded, getting a few more Nighthawks en route and a dozen or so bats along the tree-fringed highway. Couldn’t find an eatery near where we were staying [go figure!] so ended up getting a McDonald’s in Wallmart! Tree Frogs calling everywhere. Knackered, but no peace for the wicked as up at 5.00am tomorrow to ring Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and tape-lure Bachman’s Sparrows!

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