Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

Baldcypress swamp, Chicot State Park

Everywhere water: marshes, lakes, streams, ponds, rivers, bayous and rain. A downpour ushered us into the state of Louisiana, which is appropriately shaped like a boot and home to a plethora of choices for wetlands observation. We clickity-clacked over the 18-mile long bridge that conveys I-10 over this country’s largest river basin swamp, the Atchafalaya—a spectacular flooded landscape of cypress, willow and tupelo, but we were whisked along at the posted speed of 60 mph, encased in the noise and fumes of travel, all senses, but sight dulled to music, scents and smell of the swamp. We wanted to be able to explore, and to temporarily live by a swamp, so we looked for swampy state park with a campground.
Located in south central Louisiana, Chicot (shi-koh) State Park is a 6,400 acre park, 2,000 acres of which are Lake Chicot, created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the ‘30s by means of an earthen levee which damned the existing bayou. The park is a microcosm of Louisiana. With habitats varying from swampy bottomlands to steep hills, lacking only prairie and coastal swamp, it is an ideal location for the Louisiana State Arboretum because so much of the state’s varied flora and fauna occur naturally there.

Eastern cottontail

We walked paths that rolled up and down hills of quietly dripping woods, last year’s coppery leaves squishing underfoot, our view unimpeded deep into the forest of trunks, but a tinge of green hinting at the dense summer greenery soon to come. Boardwalks led us through and out over swamp beneath towering cypress and tupelo. The air was filled with birdsong as we watched an eastern cottontail calmly browsing beside our RV. Such tranquil scenes. But nature doesn’t indulge sentimentality.
A Carolina wren was industriously poking about at the base of a tree, tossing leaf litter over its shoulder. Then it stopped, braced its little body and began yanking, leaning back, stabbing forward, yanking again and—pop! It came up with a huge larva. The following should not be read while eating and may not be suitable for all audiences . . . The wren proceeded to stab and tug at the larva until it had peeled the hapless creature like a banana, flipped it about, gobbled up the peel and then swallowed the insides. With a final gulp, it hopped to the next tree and dug about until it came up with another, identical larva and, after preparing it in the same fashion, slurped it down.

In the shallows of the lake, a school of minnows circled and darted in graceful choreography between cypress knees. A larger fish swooped in with a splash and there was a scattering of minnows, less one.
Dead leaves lay like skin over the murky water. Closer inspection revealed a large, spotted fishing spider, crouched motionless on the edge of a leaf, body low, front legs extended, denting the water’s surface. We watched through binoculars. It did not move. A minnow came into view, investigating upward at the twigs and leaves, moving ever closer. We winced. Do we want to see this? Objectively, yes. It is interesting, and the spider has to make a living too. The minnow moved within range, apparently unaware of the hovering threat. The minnow moved on by. A reprieve or was the minnow too large? We turned away and saw a large alligator resting in a marshy patch not far from the muddy bank. Realizing that we, too, were potential prey, we skedaddled.

Protected vantage point for watching swamp activities

One of the many bridges over water and marsh in Louisiana:

Links for further, interesting reading about Louisiana’s swamps and waterways:

“The Cypress-Tupelo Swamp” by B. E. Fleury. Tulane University http://www.tulane.edu/~bfleury/envirobio/swamp.html

America’s Wetland  http://www.americaswetlandresources.com/index.html

Nutria, Eating Louisiana’s Coast  USGS National Wetlands Research Center http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/factshts/020-00.pdf

“The Control of Nature: Atchafalaya” (Fighting the Mississippi River) by John McPhee The New Yorker Feb. 1987 http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1987/02/23/1987_02_23_039_TNY_CARDS_000347146?currentPage=all

“As the army fights the Mississippi, who is winning?” by Clay Dillow Popular Science May 2011 http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-05/army-fights-mississippi-river-who-winning


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Prickly Pear, defeated

We left Florida in early March, ahead of the heat, humidity and increasing number of bugs, but we had lingered in our leaving, hopping west along the Panhandle, touching down in a few state parks and in towns for supplies.  The bright white sand beaches continued along the gulf, but there was otherwise little resemblance to the natural, wild coast we’d so enjoyed in St Joseph State Park.  We’d spent only a week immersed in the peace, beauty and relative isolation of that state park, yet the drive along the coastal highway seemed a bombardment of bustle, smell, sound, clutter and litter of civilization.  To our left, the expansive blue ocean glistened, framed above by soft blue sky, below by white sand or scrubby dune, and then the sight would be wiped out by stretches of towering hotels beneath whose shadows small shops elbowed each other, toes to the highway berm, anxiously jostling for the tourist trade.  Clearly popular vacation destinations, these towns, so we drove on.

Brian and Annie, St Andrews State Park

St. Andrews State Park was our first stop.  Out on a point, with the gulf to one side, Grand Lagoon to the other, and Panama City looming from across St Andrews Bay, this was a busy park.  We rolled in, got the last available site that night and settled in amidst the thumping of music, laughter and yelling of other campers cooking dinner and telling fish tales.  We enjoyed the following day spent exploring the marshes and pine flatwoods, leaving the beaches, piers and waterways to the majority of the park’s human visitors.  These coastal state parks are little pockets of semi-natural environment tucked in amongst such a network of waterways, roads and development so that they seem like zoos, or museum dioramas — encapsulated examples of how life once was.  Wallowing gators were a common sight and we would come upon egrets, dozens at a time, many in showy breeding plumage, preening and nodding.  The place was film set pretty with palm trees and blue-green water, but long lines for the showers are not something we look for in an RV park, so we only stayed a couple of nights.

St Andrews State Park

Close to Pensacola, closer still to a busy naval air station, Big Lagoon State Park was nonetheless a much more relaxing and interesting place to visit and, at that time of the year at least, we had trails mostly to ourselves.  After stocking up on food in Pensacola at the Everman Co-op we stayed mostly within the state park’s boundaries during our week and a half stay.  Our’s was a grassy, back-in RV site stopping just short of a freshwater marsh.  Tall scrub to either side, generous space between sites and no one behind or directly across, created a private and quiet retreat, perfect for observing the wildlife that visited, unaware or uncaring of our presence within the RV.  The large rear window gave us a fine, close-up view of the marsh where we watched all sorts of birds feeding on seeds and insects.  One afternoon, a cracking of twigs and rustling of leaves drew ever closer.  Our dog, Annie, listened, head tilted while seated tall, frozen.  The noise grew louder, closer and the three of us crowded into the open doorway, two of us hoping we weren’t about to get a visit from a skunk.  Shrubs and grasses began quivering at the edge of our clearing and there it was, snuffling across the grass, an armadillo.  Sighs of relief from us, astonished expression on Annie’s face.  She’d never seen one.

A pine cone is an acceptable substitute for a tennis ball

We followed trails from sandy beach, to boardwalks over tidal salt marshes, through pine flats and beside freshwater marshes.  One stretch of trail ran several feet higher than the marsh to either side and we came to a spot where the path was muddied and etched with the dragging of a heavy body — an alligator crossing.  We picked up our pace.

A sandy trail beneath Slash Pines took us out to a pond where we watched Water Moccasins in a courting ritual.  A stroll in the pink light of evening took us out to the Big Lagoon where egrets were perched high in trees, their beautiful breeding plummage streaming out from their bodies in the breeze.  Ospreys swooped and dove in display near a nest-building in progress.

Boardwalk in Big Lagoon

Boardwalk over marsh, Big Lagoon State Park

Jets often roared overhead, heading to and from nearby NAS Forrest Sherman Field, home base of the US Navy’s Blue Angels and a training base for Navy, Coast Guard and Marine pilots.  Nights were quiet except for the night we heard scrabbling at the back of our RV.  A raccoon, reminding us that we’d forgotten to close the gate on the rear cargo area.

Purple pin marks Big Lagoon State Park

One more stop before leaving the state: a day trip to Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park where kilns once processed tar from southern Yellow Pines for maritime and other uses.  No sign of industry now as we walked a paved trail and boardwalk that took us through quiet pine woods, wet prairie where last season’s pitcher plants were harmless husks, above marsh and then out over the bayou.  We had the place to ourselves the entire time.  We ate a picnic lunch, watching birds, the fish and crabs in the bayou, the wind in the reeds and grasses.

Tarkiln Bayou

Beside the bayou

Spending part of winter in Florida is something we’d like to do again some year, but now we headed for Highway 10 and Alabama, sorry to be leaving, yet excited to be on to something new . . .

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St. Joseph Bay in the morning

Updating this blog is on our list of ToDos, but being down in the south has seeped into our bones and slooooowed us way down. A combination of warm sun, the relaxed pace and the drawl in Southerners’ speech — our motto is now “What’s the hurry”.

We spent a week on a narrow strip of land off of the Florida Panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico. St Joseph Peninsula State Park is about 6 miles, as the crow flies across sheltered St Joseph Bay, from the small town of Port St. Joe. It is a 20 mile drive from that nearest heavily populated area. There are lots of residential, waterfront properties on the peninsula, an incredible number of them for sale, but there is none of the boardwalk, hotels, restaurants, etc., sort of commercialization, congestion, noise and bustle as with so many beaches. And once you pass the State Park’s gates, you leave even that behind.

Click to enlarge image

February is a wonderful time to visit northern Florida. Few bugs, no crowds of tourists and comfortable temperatures. When we picked up our Florida State Parks guide and said, “let’s try this place,” we had no idea how lucky we were in our selection.
St Joseph Peninsula State Park preserves the natural landscapes of gulf and bay, sea grasses, beaches, dunes and inland coastal woods and marsh. With the bay to one side, the gulf to the other, the peninsula is so narrow that we felt that we could stretch out our arms and just about touch the water to each side. Camping in the park enabled us to live within a wild, natural coastal environment; to live beside the abundant beauty — scenic, plant and animal alike — 24 hours a day.

Wading in the Gulf in February

A wooden walkway channels human traffic from the campground across and, more importantly, above the sand, to protect the large, but fragile dunes. As we crest the dunes, the wind suddenly picks up. The fresh salty breeze plasters our clothes to our sides as we come down off of the boardwalk, kick off our flip-flops and sink our toes into cool sand so snowy white that it hurts the eyes in the full bright sun.  We make our way to the shore, dodging bits of broken shell that never seem to hurt our feet even when we do step on them, and begin wading in the gentle, light, clear green waves of the Gulf of Mexico. The colors — white sand, pale green water, deep blue sky — are so unusual in our day to day experience. Those colors soothe, the light warms and the combination of it all has finally brought us the bone-deep relaxation we’ve craved.

Young ghost crab

Looking over the dunes

White-tailed deer


Marsh at dawn

We’d awake in the morning to the sound of waves crashing on the nearby gulf shore while, closer in, the air was filled with myriad birdsong and the drip-drip of heavy morning dew on the roof of the RV. The air was still cool, but not for long once the sun cleared the horizon. We’d get up, grab our Camelbacs, binocs and cameras; snap Annie’s leash on and make sure she had her ball; and head out the door. Mist usually hung lightly just above the marshes and birds called everywhere from shrubs and treetops. Mating season is in full swing here. Since arriving down south, we’ve watched all sorts of courting behaviors from the preening of Great Egrets in full breeding plumage, to Osprey showily diving and swooping or carrying large sticks to their nests, to (very large!) Water Moccasins slithering in a slow dance over and around each other.

Morning dew

Morning dew is so heavy it drips like a light rain and we have to wrap a protective hand over cameras and binocs as we walk under tall palms and pines.


Brian & Annie (w/ her ball)

We’d like to see more of Florida, but February’s heat is the most we feel we can take. Daytime highs of 60s in the sun with humidity — that’s our limit. We hope to come back soon, another winter, to explore more of this state.

Low tide

Peninsula woods

The effort to reestablish Longleaf Pine forests requires fire. Throughout our travels in the south, we’ve seen large tracts of land and foliage turned orange and black by fire. The peninsula is no different. Fire destroys in order to restore, clearing out overgrowth and invasives and creating habitat for native animals and plants to re-inhabit. We came upon a controlled burn on one of our walks. Volunteer fire crews worked with “prescribed burn” specialists to create and monitor this blaze. They moved along with deliberation and no haste, settlng fire to the undergrowth, monitoring and moving steadily on down the peninsula. They burned hundreds of acres that day. Orange flames leapt from one plant to the next, devouring the lowest plants and clawing 15 feet up the trunks of Longleaf Pines. The heat was tremendous, as we stood some 20 feet from the blaze.

Controlled burn

The air has just cleared, embers are still lightly smoking here, but already birds have returned to the high branches of the pines.

After the burn

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We’re on the road again, having left cold, snowy Maryland behind last week in search of sun and warmer temperatures to the south. It is great to be mobile again, but it was hard leaving family behind.

We lost our Millie just over a month ago. Annie feels the loss of her buddy keenly and we all have found it hard to readjust to life on the road without her.

Brian, Annie & Millie

Brian, Annie & Millie on a picnic in Maryland, Oct. 2010

We had originally intended to stop in the Carolinas for a month or so, but the temps were still too cool so we continued down to Georgia, to do some exploring of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Nights have been cold, but the days warmer than further north, with highs in the 50s to low 60s. There has been lots of rain, but brilliant sun, too.
Okefenokee was a great place to visit. We spent just a couple of days there and saw only a smidge of it. It was a good time to visit. Too early and cold for the hordes of mosquitos and tourists. We strolled along the most popular trails — easy access routes — rarely passing another visitor.
We walked trails that wandered through forests of towering Longleaf Pines which rose from a dense ground covering of Saw Palmettos. These forests, once covering vast areas of the southeast, are carefully managed now in an effort to re-establish their dominance in at least some areas. Undergrowth is periodically burned away to allow young Longleafs a chance to grow.

Longleaf Pine Forest

Lisa beside Saw Palmettos

On the second day, we took a guided boat tour. We bought tickets for the earliest tour, 9:30 a.m., and found ourselves the only customers for that ride. It was crisply cold with a bright sun doing it’s best to melt the light frost. We wore windproof clothes, but felt the sting of icy wind on our faces and on fingertips not protected by fingerless gloves as we were born along on a large tour boat — just the two of us and our own private guide.

Brian on the tour boat

Our guide was knowledgeable about the Okefenokee and told us he was a 7th generation “swamper”, his family having lived in and around the Okefenokee for all of that time. He stopped when we wanted to take photos, answered all of our questions and turned off the motor for an extended period of time to let us absorb the absolute peace of the Okefenokee in the still of the winter’s day.

Great Egret

One of many alligators seen that morning

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Brian fishing from kayak in early morning

We moved away from the noise and bustle of Klamath Falls to Rocky Point Resort on Pelican Bay at the north end of Upper Klamath Lake. We are on the edge of the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and our site is close to the water so when we wake in the morning we can push the blind up and see pelicans paddling and splashing as they feed. With the lake and marsh on one side and the Winema National Forest to the other, we are surrounded by a stunning natural environment. There are a lot of houses set in along Rocky Point Rd., but they are well-spaced with lots of mature trees. It’s a quiet, off the beaten path kind of area and a welcome respite for us after urban living.

We have little sit-on-top kayaks that we easily tote the short distance to the water, making it possible for us to flyfish or just kayak whenever we like. There is a canoe/kayak trail winding through the refuge that we hope to explore more of soon.

Resort’s dock at dawn

View from lake toward resort’s dock near our RV site

Brian tying flies at our site, lake in background

We spotted this insect floating and watched as, in a few minutes, the adult Caddisfly emerged from its pupal skin and prepared to fly

A fishing dock at next door Forest Service’s boat launch

Low in late summer, this creek is a marshy trail through dry woods near the lake

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Random Sights

American White Pelicans

A 9-foot wing span makes these birds an impressive sight in flight. We’ve watched a half dozen of them flapping and gliding in unison high in the air, and we’ve seen them coming in for a landing, skimming just above the water for a long distance before lowering their landing gear — webbed feet stretched forward, heels down, touching water, slowing and then bodies settling onto the water. This one pictured was hopping from one rock to another.


We have often seen mink in the Klamath Falls area, hopping from rock to rock, on their way from one part of the lake to the next, or swimming and diving in the river. They travel along the rocks for as long as possible, although they don’t seem to mind swimming at all. None of the birds we have seen, like these American Black Ducks and American White Pelicans, have objected to the presence of this predator. It’s probably a different story during nesting season.

High winds blew this nest down from the Lodgepole Pine in our RV site.

Millie has learned to use our shadows when no shrubs or trees are available for shade

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Interested in seeing more of the Klamath Basin’s refuge system, we went to the Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge in California, just 25 miles from Klamath Falls. Here’s Brian in Oregon. A step over the double yellow line and he’s in California.

The issue of water rights is a touchy subject with such a strong conflict of interest between agricultural usage and nature. For thousands of years, Klamath tribes lived in harmony with the marshes, but European settlers came, saw agricultural opportunities and drained.  They “reclaimed” 80% of the marshlands over a period of a half dozen decades, causing a drastic reduction in waterfowl populations and water quality. Reclamation?!  What an excellent example of the term euphemism.

Objectively speaking, the Klamath Project is impressive engineering, construction and management. Irrigation is a major part of the landscape in the Basin. Roads, railways and irrigation canals crisscross each other over the patchwork of farm fields.

Klamath Project map -- from usbr.gov site

Tule Lake is much smaller than it used to be and farmland marches right up to its edges as can be seen in the following photo. There is a dam on the Lost River in Oregon built to divert water to the Klamath River in order to prevent flooding of farmland surrounding Tule Lake in California during rainy periods.

Tule Lake & farm fields

At one corner of the lake is Discovery Marsh.  We visited the Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuges Visitor Center across the street and learned about the program of rotation that has been implemented since people realized that marshes need change, not stability.  Some of the leased land beside the lake that was being farmed exclusively is now in rotation — sometimes farmland, sometimes marsh.  Restoring the “reclaimed” marsh takes a lot of effort and management, but the idea is to simulate the periodic creation and destruction that occurs in natural marshlands.  So much effort for so little marsh, but it is a start.

Discovery Marsh, in lower half of image. Tule Lake is the pale blue water.

White-faced Ibis

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