Birder's Eye View

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reconnecting with Nature

As I have probably lamented before, birding in college is almost nonexistent. Senior year has taken off with full force and day after day I find myself swamped with homework, research, my jobs, and extracurricular activities (like gardening and running clubs). If I didn't love all this, I wouldn't do it -- but I guess I've sort of hit that mid-semester lull where I'm just tired of it all.. It seems like ever since I got back from my internship over the summer, school hasn't been the same. I get so restless being cooped up inside and I'm itching for adventure. 

Fortunately, fall break was last weekend, and, while it didn't quite satisfy my brain's need for some rest, I was able to get outside and reacquaint myself with the outdoors once more. 

Cattle drive
For break, I co-led a camping trip for my school's outdoor club. On our way up to our camping spot (about 2 hours north of school), we stopped at a little roadside farmer's market, where the shopkeepers informed us of a Florida cracker festival going on down the road. Lo and behold, a few minutes away we found the cracker fest, stopped for some lunch, and within the hour we found ourselves in the midst of a small cattle drive.

Local police stopped traffic for the drive

Period covered wagon
It was a rather random event to stumble upon, but quite enjoyable and a very "Florida" experience.

After that we all decided to scrap our backpacking plans and just go road-tripping, rolling with whatever happened. It was a good thing we did too, because things proceeded to go completely opposite of what we planned on, but turned out to be more fun than I ever could have hoped.

When we arrived at the primitive campsite, it turned out to be already occupied. As we were hiking the trail to find an unoccupied spot we came out to a beautiful river overlook, but were distracted by a putrid smell.

"Look at that big bird!" a freshmen pointed out to me. Ever the birding snob, I started to correct him that it was in fact, a black vulture, when we all realized at the same time what the vulture was sitting on: a 10 foot long dead alligator!

It didn't appear to have been shot (unfortunately such is the fate of most large gators around here), but it was otherwise impossible to tell the cause of death since it was floating with a patch of lilies in the middle of the river. Nonetheless, it was one of the biggest alligators in the wild I have ever seen, and quite a shame it was dead.

Our campsite
After gawking at the gator for a while and finishing the hike (finding no open campsites), we drove to the next closest camp ground, which wasn't as primitive, but was fortunately completely deserted; we had the whole place all to ourselves.

My tent :)
It was a fantastic night. We cooked a big pot of soup over a camp stove, hiked around, hung out, and eventually settled down for a chilly night on the soft ground listening to the call of insects and nighthawks and the distant rumble of air boats on the river.

The next morning I was wide awake hours before anyone else got up. I wandered the campsite watching the  birds, counting cardinals, phoebes, blue-gray gnatcatchers, Carolina wrens, common yellowthroats. I accidentally surprised a juvenile raccoon at one point, and followed it into the woods where it disappeared behind a tree.

Once everyone else got up, we ate a quick breakfast and headed back south to go visit a nearby cave. I hadn't been to these caves in almost a decade, since I was a kid, and they were quite different than I remembered.

Physically the cave was the same -- I vividly recalled the magical entry through the roots of a dead tree into the limestone caverns of the giant sink hole -- but unlike 10 years ago, today the caves are literally crawling with people.

Crowded cave
Tour groups, families, and campers were flowing in and out of the cave tunnels like ants in an ant hill. Although the plethora of spelunkers took away a little bit from the experience I remembered as a kid, it was still fun to squeeze through the tiny passages and come out in big caverns lit only by our flashlights.

Yours truly, coming out into the main cavern
We spent a couple hours exploring around in the caves before heading back to campus and watching the sunset over dinner. Although this marked the end of the camping trip, my fall break outdoor adventures were not quite over.

On the last day of break, my roommate and I decided to spend the morning sea kayaking. It was a chilly morning at first, and we were the first ones at the waterfront. We launched out kayaks and were quickly off through the creek and out into the smooth waters of the bay. We made it out to the nearby island and wildlife refuge, and spent a couple hours meandering around the mangroves, watching mullet hurl themselves out of the water, yellow-crowned night herons squawk and take off clumsily from their roosts, and brown pelicans glide serenely over the gentle waves.

By the time we decided to head back to school, the sun had warmed the air but the wind had picked up as well. At some points it seemed I was paddling in place, the wind was so strong. Nevertheless, we made it back to campus safe and sound, if not slightly exhausted.

And so ended my fall break. I cannot express how great it felt to be outside again, not worrying about school or life for a few blissful days. But now that it's all over I'm freaking out again, wondering how I'll ever catch up with everything. Alas.

Well, until the next time I get a break from the stresses of school, happy birding!

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