Thursday, December 4, 2014

Panhandling 2014

It’s was now mid April. With a goal in mind to reach our “summer” site in Dale by early May, we turned northward, hugging the Florida Gulf Coast, along with our feathered spring co-travelers, returning neotropical migrants.

our site at Fort De Soto SP; view from atop the fort; Blue Gorsbeak
Our first stop was at Fort De Soto County Park near St. Petersburg. Here we started to tick off some first of year (FOY) migrants like Black-whiskered Vireo, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler, and Black-throated Blue Warbler.
Fort De Soto was named for Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, who in circa 1539, began a conquest of what would become the southeastern United States. Clearly, Hernado failed to impress the indigenous tribes. When he died in 1542, his body was interred in the Mississippi River to prevent it from being taken by Native Americans. Presumably, the locals were not wanting his body to enshrine it out of deep respect and reverence.
To reach Fort De Soto, located on Mullet Key, took us a bit out of the way as we traversed I-275 around Tampa then double-backed south across a long causeway below St. Petersburg. The fort itself was never the site of any major battle and its weapons were never fired in conflict. However, the top of the battery was a keen place to spot birds. And it was our quest for birds that had brought us to the park.
Nanday Parakeets
One primary target bird is the Nanday Parakeet, was one of those introduced bird species that has attained ABA species ranking. Fort De Soto is one of the more reliable birding sites to find them. Parakeets are typically very raucous so it wasn’t too long before we heard a small flock flying somewhere nearby. After a brief glimpse of a flock doing a quick flyover, we plotted a course that lead us to a small grove of trees. Mind you, these are small, mostly green birds, so even when vocalizing in a large tree with loads of green leaves, they can still be difficult to find. Eventually a rather amorous pair was found cuddling on a branch that gave us a good long look at was one more life bird.
Wilson's Plover; Whimbrel; resting Marbled Godwit
Situated along the Gulf Coast, the park has almost seven miles of pristine beach, ideal for several water bird species as well as migrating shorebirds, like the highly threatened Red Knot. The Fort De Soto Bird Sanctuary project, in joint partnership with Pinellas County, has recorded over 100 species of birds using this protected area. Wilson’s Plover and Least Terns are regular nesters here while the Federally the endangered Piping Plover use the sanctuary for resting and feeding on their way north.
After one full day exploring the park we were rewarded with FOY Gray Kingbird, Blue Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole. We packed up the early the next morning and moved upward toward the eastern end of the Florida Panhandle.
site at Sunset Isle; world's smallest police station (so they say)
During past visits to the Sunshine State, we’ve come to the conclusion that the Panhandle, long forsaken by tourists who now (thankfully) flock to large touristy venues further south, is our favorite part of Florida.  After an overly long bit of driving (fortunately not on any Interstate) we pulled into Sunset Isle RV Park and Yacht, just outside Carrabelle, FL.
Carrabelle, population approximately 1300, claims to have the world’s smallest police station (essentially a phone booth). The RV park managers were friendly and helpful and our site was spacious. For the most part, it was quiet. The only exception to “quiet” came from a nearby bar that on a few nights had live music. Outside. Late. And loud.
But we didn’t choose the park for it’s proximity to Carravelle. More importantly it put us fairly close to several highly touted birding spots. Bonus was that we were just twenty miles east of Apalachicola. Our plan was to cool our heels for a bit, take day trips to the birding hot spots, and find some good food. In other words, life as usual.
Ochlockonee SP
On our first full day, Mother Nature supplied us with strong winds, overcast skies, and scattered rain. Not a great day to be out and about so we stayed around Carrabelle getting caught up on a little laundry, grocery shopping and communications with family and friends. The next day, the weather wasn’t much better but it didn’t take us long to get cabin fever. Out the door, we headed over to Ochlockonee State Park and then explored some of St. Marks NWR.
The former’s habitat in large part consisted of longleaf pine, ideal for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. While we did see a lot of evidence of the woodpecker (nest cavities) we didn’t stumble onto any of the cavity’s inhabitants. It would have been nice to have some kayaks, though - the park sits at the confluence of the Dead and Ochlockonee Rivers which empty into Ochlockonee Bay which eventually spills into the Gulf of Mexico.
deck off of St. Mark's NWR visitor center
St. Mark’s NWR was primarily established to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds. Established in 1931, it’s one of the oldest refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Its three units (St. Mark’s, Wakula, and Panacea) span three Florida counties along the Gulf of Mexico. A wide variety of habitat abounds: freshwater and saltwater marshes, islands, tidal creeks, wetlands, estuaries, longleaf pine, and coastal grasses combine to provide a rich biologically diverse area that also includes seven north Florida rivers. We would be spending a fair amount of time traveling through parts of St. Mark’s NWR over the next week.
On Friday, the weather again wasn’t overly kind so we opted to drive to Apalachicola, a town with a strong Maritime culture. During our last visit in 2002 when we had fled a cold Wisconsin winter for a week, we had found eclectic shops, galleries, and a good selection of restaurants brimming with local seafood fares. We had hoped to revisit a number of these plus see what else was new.
dock at Apalachicola
Apalachicola, along with the communities of St. George Island and Eastpoint, comprise what’s commonly referred to as the Forgotten Coast. “Forgotten Coast” (the term was copyrighted in the 1990’s) came about during a period of time when much of north and south Florida’s coastlines were being heavily developed (and over developed) while the Panhandle coastal towns were largely overlooked. Just as well because now, the pristine beaches and small coastal communities still offer much of their original charm no longer found in south Florida.
farmers market, Up The Creek Raw Bar
Dodging rain drops we inquired at the local chamber office about a few stores we had recalled visiting. Sadly, we discovered that one store in particular was no longer in business. But that there were other interesting galleries, some new, some old to keep us occupied. We also came upon a small farmer’s market and scored homemade breads. Time for lunch found us at the Up The Creek Raw Bar. Located along the marina with a second story view of the surroundings, we guzzled bloody Marys and fresh chowder.
NERR: Unit 4
St. George Island State Park, was reached via a long causeway, not far outside Apalachicola. Just on the other end of the causeway was the Apalachicola Natural Estuarine Research Reserve: Unit 4. Although the weather was still spitting rain and the ground was well saturated, we surmised that under different circumstances, this could be a good birding area.
St, George Island SP dunes
Heading into the state park, we quickly found lots of migrants were falling out at the end of East Slough/Gap Point access road where there were restrooms, primitive camping and a kayak/boat launch. While it was toward the end of the day, there was such a large concentration of migrants that it warranted more visits when the weather was a bit more friendly. After investigating the Sugar Hill Camping area, it looked to have been a great place to park the RV but it was full to the gills and besides, we were fine where we were parked.
trees with white bands indicated woodpecker activity; roadside flowers
The next day was consumed with a lot of roadside birding as we headed into several areas of interest in the Apalachicola National Forest. We managed to cover several state roads (SR65/SR379/FR123/FR180 plus a short hike to Wright Lake. Along the way we finally managed to catch a few Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, several roadside displays of wildflowers, and singing Bachman's Sparrows.
original 2 Als - restaurant is now next door
resting migrants
First thing the next day we were up and out the door, stopping first at a local eclectic eatery for breakfast: The 2 Als. After chatting with one of the Als, we were given a tip on a state park in northeast Alabama (which we’ll cover in another blog). Then we were off for a return trip to the East Slough at St. George Island SP where the migration was still in full swing. We spent the better part of the day here with a another short visit to the Sugar Hill Camping area where mobs of migrating birds were dripping from the trees in almost every campsite.
NERR visitor center
Monday was a day of rest…sort of. Some RV cleaning and laundry. But by the next day we were off again. Back once more to St. George Island SP with a stop at the National Estuarine Research Preserve, a site we’d seen on earlier trips to the state park but which had been closed.

Indian Pass Raw Bar
Birding had slowed somewhat on St. George Island so we drove up the gulf coast to Cape San Blas and an early dinner at the Indian Pass Raw Bar. During our visit to the Panhandle in 2002, when we had stayed in a rented cabin, we had learned about the raw bar but unfortunately for us, with its limited hours of operation, we had missed dining at what is a locally known iconic eatery. This time we would not be denied. And we were not disappointed for having to wait so long.
On Wednesday the 23rd of April we packed up the RV and bid farewell to the Florida Panhandle as we headed into Georgia. While Florida overall isn’t one of our favorite states to visit, we do very much enjoy and appreciate the Panhandle for its miles of unadulterated white sand beaches and local cuisine. Not that Central and South Florida don't have their own attractions - it's just that the Panhandle seems to have a slower paced, more leisurely way of life that has appealed to us whenever we've visited.

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