Birder's Eye View

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fall Break, part 1

It's 5 o'clock on Saturday morning and I'm riding in the back of a car, on a 4 hour journey up to the panhandle of Florida with my sister, her friend, and another friend. We're headed up to see the annual butterfly migration that takes place at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge every fall.

I'm not sure what to expect at first -- I've heard of them migrating in the tens of thousands, but I'm glad I didn't get my hopes up too much because when we finally arrive mid-morning, it's clear that most have already migrated through the area and moved on.

Nonetheless, there are still impressive numbers of Monarchs, Viceroys, Queens, and Gulf Fritilary butterflies swarming flowers and bushes along the trails by the St. Marks lighthouse.

It's a beautiful day -- perfect for butterfly watching, birding, and hiking. The wildlife refuge is holding an event to celebrate the butterfly migration, and the park is packed with families, retirees, photographers, and other wildlife enthusiasts.

Among the other wildlife we see are alligators, thousands of fiddler crabs, and tons of birds.

My favorite sighting at St. Marks is a Northern Harrier flying low over the marsh. It's impossible to get a picture though, as we're bumping along a dirt road and the raptor quickly disappears from sight.

Once we find where the butterflies are congregated, it makes  for some gorgeous photo ops.

After a quick lunch, we leave St. Marks to head off to another hiking destination, but not before stopping to check out some more cool birds. Two bald eagles stand guard around a ginormous nest, not far from where a red-shouldered hawk is perched on a sun-bleached snag in the middle of the marsh. I'm super excited to see these birds, even if they are fairly common!

Once we manage to pull ourselves away from the fantastic wildlife of St. Marks, we take an hour or so drive to Tate's Hell State Park, further west along the panhandle. We plan to hike a total of 6 miles roundtrip on the High Bluffs trail, which is accessed by an obscure forest road.

The trail is one of the easier ones I've been on, although slightly hilly due to the fact that we're in North Florida, and hiking up and down sand bluffs. The ground is soft with sugar sand, and mid-afternoon sun beats down on us; the trail has very little shade.

The terrain changes every mile or so, sometimes offering us high up views of the Gulf of Mexico, and sometimes we find ourselves in lower areas on the outskirts of a cyprus swamp, or an area of dry brush, or a dead forest of snags and undergrowth, marking remnants of old hurricane damage.

As we near the halfway point of mile 3, someone in our party points out a bear track! It's small, apparently a bear cub, but as we proceed we find fresh bear scat and more tracks -- larger tracks. There are also wide animal trails leading off the main trail.

We follow one of them, but it leads us into a bog of squelchy mud, thick with saw grass that slices easily through our legs and leaves a stinging, burning sensation for the remaining duration of the hike. Needless to say, we turn back and finish the hike on the main trail.

By now it is getting towards late afternoon and birds begin to sing and call. I hear cardinals, Carolina wrens, pine warblers, mockingbirds, tufted titmice, and blue jays calling through the sparse pine flatwoods. My favorite is an Eastern wood-pewee that shows up right before we get back to the parking lot.

It was an incredible day. It felt so good to spend the entire day outdoors, hiking until exhaustion, and spending time with my sister and others who enjoyed the experience just as much as I did. And that was only the start of fall break! The next day I would be in a totally different part of the state, camping for the night by the beach...

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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