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  • Writer's pictureKaren Hogan

Florida NWR Trip December 2013

Updated: Oct 30, 2018

We decided our second National Wildlife Refuge Trip should be to the state of Florida with over 23 refuges. The temperatures would be warm and with 2 weeks planned for the trip we though we might get to visit 12-15 refuges.

Teresa and Karen at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge January 1, 2014

Florida National Wildlife Refuge Trip December 21, 2013-January 3, 2014

We planned our second major National Wildlife Refuge Birding Trip for the holiday break between Christmas and New Years Eve. Employed at Universities, we both get extra days off during the Holiday break. We decided to use our days off for a visit to the Refuges in South Carolina; this would be a short drive from my home in Chapel Hill.  We were concerned, temperatures might be uncomfortably cold for birding and there would be fewer birds as fall migration was done.  Teresa had spent time with her friends in southern Florida the 3rd week of October, the temperatures were warm and she saw many birds along the Florida coast. While in Florida she visited ARM, Ding Darling, Panther and Key Deer NWRs and suggested we visit Florida instead of South Carolina. A week to see the 9 NWRs in South Carolina seemed reasonable but once we decided our destination was Florida with 27 NWRs, it only made sense to take some time off from work to make it a 2-week trip.    

Florida map with National Wildlife Refuges

Teresa and I love our trips together especially the planning and deliberation that is required to organize our adventures. Anticipating adverse weather, limited resources including food, gasoline and restrooms make planning our trip challenging but a major accomplishment when our efforts are successful. The Florida NWR's Visitor Centers/Headquarters would be closed on Christmas Day and possibly other days during these 2 major holiday weeks, no stamp in our Blue Goose books and we would miss one of our favorite NWR visit highlights, meeting the wonderful folks, volunteers and Rangers, at the VC/Headquarters. 

Karen's Blue Goose Passport for NWR stamps

Not only would NWR VCs be closed but a major holiday could mean stores and gasoline would be limited at least on Christmas Day. We had planned to be driving on Christmas day from Arthur R Marshall NWR to the Keys, an area crowded with tourists; maybe gasoline would be available. Another consideration was several of the refuges in Florida are only accessible by boat and some are restricted access, requiring special permission for entry. We decided that if boating were necessary to see a refuge we would make that happen, especially at Pelican Island NWR, Egmont Key NWR and the Refuges in the Keys.A few days after Thanksgiving, Teresa and I made the final plans for our Florida trip. We would start the trip by driving down the Atlantic coast stopping at Woodruff, Merritt, Pelican Island, Archie Carr, Arthur R. Marshall NWRs, spend 1.5 days in the Keys visiting, Crocodile, National Key Deer and Great White Heron NWRs. We would spend a couple of nights in Florida City a 9 mile drive to the Everglades, we had read The Big Year and watched the movie with the same title, following in Greg Miller's footsteps, hiking the Snake Bight Trail for a possible look at a Flamingo was definitely on our itinerary. We would drive through the Everglades on Highway 41 to reach Ten Thousand Islands and Panther NWRs. We would start our second week with a drive up the Gulf Coast visiting JN "Ding" Darling, Egmont Key, Crystal River, Lower Suwannee and Chassahowitzka NWRs. The last few days of our trip we would drive north west to the Florida Panhandle to visit St Vincents and St Marks NWRs. We planned to drive back to Chapel Hill on Friday, January 3rd, with a possible stop at Savannah NWR in South Carolina. 

December 21, 2013 Saturday

The day arrived for our trip to begin, Saturday, December 21st, Teresa was too excited to sleep, out of bed at 2 am, car packed and on the road at 4 am.  Her drive from Lexington to Chapel Hill was 480 miles, approximately 8 hours. Once she got to Chapel Hill we would start driving to Florida in my car, we drove her car to North Dakota, June 2013. Our goal is to share the expenses equally including mileage on our vehicles, being fair just comes natural to both of us. Teresa arrived in Chapel Hill around noon and by 3 pm we were on our way to our first stop, Savannah, GA. Like our trip to North Dakota we planned to eat instant oatmeal, instant coffee with powdered creamer each morning in our hotel room around 5:30 am, hotel continental breakfast usually begin at 6 am, the time we would be leaving the hotel parking lot. This time we took a travel kettle as we found some hotel rooms don't have a microwave and the coffee pots are not usually in great shape.  We ate tuna fish and crackers for lunch when we were on the refuges as we are usually birding and hiking. Leaving the refuge to find food just isn't very practical. Sunrise was around 7:15 am and sunset was 5:45 pm so we knew we would definitely be done birding by 6 pm and back in our hotel room in time to list the birds we saw on ebird and review our photos. The usual 5 hour drive from Chapel Hill to Savannah, GA took over 7 hours. Roads were crowded with holiday travelers, 95 looked like a parking lot. Driving on highway 170 to avoid 95 traffic, we drove past the Savannah NWR, it was dark but we stopped for a photo of the NWR sign. Tempted by the NWRs in South Carolina we reminded ourselves of our goal, Florida NWRs; we must keep to our itinerary. 

December 22, 2013 Sunday Lake Woodruff NWR and Welaka National Fish Hatchery

Sunday, December 22nd we were on our way to Welaka National Fish Hatchery at 6 am. We arrived at the Hatchery at 9:30 am, officially beginning our visit to the Florida National Wildlife Refuges. At the Hatchery we visited the aquarium and birded at the Beecher Unit. We were excited to see 2 Sandhill Cranes at the work complex headquarters parking lot. The Cranes were drinking out of the water pipe in front of one of the buildings, they seemed familiar with the area and we wondered if they might be permanent residents. Driving on highway 308 going toward Lake Woodruff NWR we noticed a Cattle Egret along the side of the road and even though we vowed we would never stop on the road to bird we couldn't help ourselves, what was this little guy doing right across the street from an Elementary School.  Arriving at the Lake Woodruff NWR Visitor Center we met volunteers Carol and Tom Sykes. They were long time birders and working at the refuge for 5 months November 2013-March 2014. 

Teresa, Tom and Karen, Lake Woodruff NWR December 22, 2013

Tom and Carol recommended we walk the Lyonia Preserve's walking trail, in Deltona, FL to see the Scrub Jays.  We now follow Carol and Tom on their blog at http://tomandcarolsykes.blogspot.com

Tom immediately offered to show us around Lake Woodruff NWR. We walked on the Refuge Trails for over 3 hours. Tom thought we might see a Limpkin around the observation tower area, a bird that would be new for my life list. Teresa just added the Limpkin to her life list while visiting Arthur R Marshall NWR during her October Florida trip. She also heard the Limpkin's amazing call during that trip. The Limpkin was absent from the usual area at Woodruff but hopefully I would see and hear one at Arthur R Marshall NWR. We were all pleased to see 74 Sandhill Cranes flying to and resting on, one of the back pool areas. 

74 Sandhill Cranes, Lake Woodruff NWR December 22, 2013
Lake Woodruff NWR December 22, 2013

We planned to visit Merritt and St Johns NWRs Monday, Dec 23rd. We arrived in Titusville the night of Dec 22nd and drove around the Merritt NWR hoping to get some idea about trail head locations and maybe see some birds arriving at the refuge before dark. 


Monday December 23, 2013 Merritt National Wildlife Refuge

We got up early Monday morning and made a quick stop at Parrish Park, under the Max Brewer Memorial Parkway Bridge, between Titusville and Cape Canaveral. Teresa got some photos of the bridge, gulls and Grackles in the parking lot and boat dock area.  I looked toward the east and could see large flocks of ducks flying high in the sky from North to South probably over the ocean. We headed to Playalinda Beach, part of the Cape Canaveral National Seashore. When we arrived it was after 8 am, there were no birds on the beach or flying overhead. We took photos of a Bald Eagle on a utility tower along the road and observed sparrows and wrens in the many parking lots, that provided beach access along Playalinda Dr.                                 


Bald Eagle Merritt NWR, Playalinda Dr, December 23, 2013

Driving back to Merritt NWR on highway 402, we decided our first hike would be Scrub Trail. By the time we started hiking it was late morning, the trail was quiet with no hint of birds or wildlife, I suggested we turn around but Teresa insisted we continue on the trail.  After walking for about 15 minutes 2 Florida Scrub Jays came out to greet us. As we set up our tripods to take photos one of the Jays flew to Teresa's head. Excited, I was unable to set my camera to the correct aperture, resulting in an under exposed photo. 


Teresa and Florida Scrub Jay on Scrub Trail. Merritt National Wildlife Refuge, December 23, 2013

Karen and Florida Scrub Jay, Scrub Trail, Merritt National Wildlife Refuge, December 23, 2013

Karen and Florida Scrub Jay on Scrub Trail, Merritt National Wildlife Refuge December 23, 2013

Teresa was ready, she captured a great video of the Jay that chattered at me while sitting on my hand. We left the Jays with regret and saw the Loggerhead Shrike and Yellow Rumped Warbler on the trail, beautiful birds but not personable like the charming Jays.


Florida Scrub Jay, Scrub Trail, Merritt National Wildlife Refuge 12-23-13

Yellow Rumped Warbler on Scrub Trail, Merritt NWR December 23, 2013

Loggerhead Shrike on Scrub Trail, Merritt NWR December 23, 2013

Our next stop at Merritt NWR was the wildlife drive. It took us several hours to drive Black Point Wildlife Drive, a 7 mile one-way drive that follows a dike road around several shallow marsh impoundments and through pine flatwoods. We saw at least hundred Northern Pintails and sandpipers resting in the large pond areas. We enjoyed watching the Reddish Egrets, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, White Ibis, Red breasted Mergansers, Glossy Ibis; and Pied Bill Grebes feeding in the ponds along the drive. Toward the end of the drive we saw several White Pelicans and a couple of Roseate Spoonbills fly overhead.  The Spoonbills were new for my life list. 

Black Point Wildlife Drive, Merritt NWR, December 23, 2013

Reddish Egret, Black Point Wildlife Drive, Merritt NWR, December 23, 2013

White Ibis, Black Point Wildlife Drive, Merritt NWR, December 23, 2013

Hooded Merganser, Black Point Drive, Merritt NWR, December 23, 2013

At the Merritt NWR VC we saw Wood Storks flying overhead while we were walking the boardwalk. This was a new species for Teresa's life list. We had our lunch at the picnic tables at the VC and got some great looks at Palm Warblers and a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in the trees near the building.

Palm Warbler, Visiter Center Merritt NWR December 23, 2013

In the gift shop we looked at the bug screen pants and shirts but didn't buy any, a decision we would later regret. We discussed with the VC staff that St John's NWR was not open to the public but there was a NWR sign along highway 50.  Our next stop at Merritt NWR was at the Bio Lab Boat Dock area where we both got our first look at a Magnificent Frigatebird flying overhead. We did not see Manatees at the Manatee Observation Deck at Haulover Canal,  probably because the water temperature was around 70oF. 

Haulover Canal, Manatee Observation Deck, Merritt NWR December 23, 2013

                                      "Manatees cannot tolerate temperatures below 68° F for long periods of time and need the warm water spring to survive in the winter. Florida manatees are somewhat migratory. In the winter, usually November through march, the manatee population is concentrated primarily in Florida.  Manatees are susceptible to cold-related disease, and they congregate near natural springs or the warm water effluents of power plants. Manatees are found in shallow, slow-moving rivers, bays, estuaries and coastal water ecosystems of the southeastern United States. They can live in fresh, brackish, or salt water. Manatees prefer waters that are about one to two meters (3-7 feet) deep. Along the coast, manatees tend to travel in water that is about three to five meters (10-16 feet) deep, and they are rarely seen in areas over six meters (20 feet) deep. This habitat provides them with sheltered living and breeding areas, a steady, easily obtainable food supply and warm water -- all of which they need to survive." from the Save the Manatee Website: http://www.savethemanatee.org.Just as we were leaving the Haulover Canal parking lot we noticed many warblers moving in the trees and 4 White Ibis perched in the top of a tree. 

White Ibis in trees next to parking lot at Haulover Canal. Merritt NWR December 23, 2013

We throughly enjoyed our time on the Pine Flatwoods Trail at Merritt NWR. We arrived at the trail an hour before sunset. 

Teresa on Pine Flatwoods Trail at Merritt NWR December 23, 2013

Just a few minutes on the trail, we noticed a feral hog 100 yards ahead. We set up our cameras and tripods. Suddenly, we heard snorts from the bushes just 10 feet away. We packed up and started moving away when a female hog with her 10 babies dashed out of the bushes and ran in the direction opposite from where we were standing. The hog on the trail ahead was joined by 4 adult and several young hogs.  Tripods and cameras were set up again to watch the hogs on the trail, they seemed unaware of our presence. A Peregrine Falcon and several Cedar Waxwings landed in a tree next to the trail. 

Cedar Waxwing, Pine Flatwood Trail, Merritt NWR December 23, 2013

Peregrine Falcon, Pine Flatwoods Trail, Merritt NWR December 23, 2013

We also identified the call of a Great Horned Owl somewhere in the distance as the sun began to set and we headed to our car.  Before heading south on 95 to Sebastian we went west on highway 50 to get a photo of St Johns NWR sign.


Tuesday December 24, 2013 Pelican Island NWR

Our most memorable refuge visit was Pelican Island NWR on Christmas Eve Day.

Pelican Island NWR sign along Jungle Trail December 24, 2013

American Kestrel, Pelican Island NWR, December 24, 2013

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt. It was established as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. This simple act launched the National Wildlife Refuge System dedicated for wildlife conservation.  We reserved a Kayak trip with Adventure Kayaking out of Vero Beach to see Pelican Island from the Indian River Lagoon. Teresa and I have some experience in kayaks and canoes. When Adventure Kayaking called to say the winds would be 20 mph we were concerned the trip would be canceled especially when we realized we were the only 2 reservations for the kayak tour that day. Our reservations were from 9 am-noon but Steve the owner suggested we start at 8 am to get ahead of the rain and the high winds. Teresa and I arrived at Jungle Trail, the main road through Pelican Island NWR, just as the sun came up, a little after 7 am. It was misting but no wind yet. We were excited but didn't really know what to expect, our only experience paddling in high winds was in a canoe. Rhonda one of the owners of Adventure Kayaking arrived at 8 am with 3 kayaks; she would be our guide on this tour. Rhonda adjusted our seats and explained how to use the rudder on these ocean kayaks, new to both Teresa and myself. Wearing rain jackets, shorts and water proof shoes we hopped in the kayaks. The winds were light as we started from the Jungle Trail launch site and began paddling toward Pelican Island. We brought large plastic ziploc bags for our cameras, appropriate planning as there was a constant, light to moderate rain.

Teresa, Rhonda and Karen at Island across form Pelican Island NWR December 24, 2013

As we approached Pelican Island we could see American White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans and Double Crested Cormorants swimming in the water, resting on the sand bars and perching in the trees. 

Brown Pelicans, American White Pelicans, Black Vultures at Pelican Island NWR, December 24, 2013

Brown Pelican on Pelican Island, Pelican Island NWR, December 24, 2013

We floated in our kayaks about 100 yards from the Pelicans swimming in the water next to the Island, we felt exhilarated, we were in the exact spot where the first National Wildlife Refuge was established over 100 year ago. 

Kayaking next to Pelican Island, Pelican Island NWR, December 24, 2013

Teresa and Rhonda kayaking next to Pelican Island, Pelican Island NWR, December 24, 2013

American White Pelican, Pelican Island NWR, December 24, 2013

                                                                              Next we stopped on a sandy beach on the Island across from Pelican Island. Just as we got out the kayaks we observed hundreds of Black Vultures lift into the air from Pelican Island.  Rhonda explained the edible plants growing in the sand and the sea creatures in the small pools on the island. 

Rhonda and Teresa sample edible plants growing on Island in Indian River Lagoon. Pelican Island NWR December 24, 2013

Teresa and Rhonda with our kayaks Pelican NWR, December 24, 2013

Karen, Pelican Island NWR, December 24, 2013

The wind began to pick up as we got back into our kayaks, Rhonda said we could head back or continue paddling. Of course we chose to continue paddling. Rhonda is a naturalist and explained the habitat and wildlife in the lagoon. She found anemones in the swallow water and helped us identify the different species of mangroves. We paddled through Preacher's hole and headed back to the launch site 3 hours after we began our tour, the winds finally reached 20 mph, making it a workout to get back across the last stretch of open water.  It was a wonderful feeling knowing we had seen Pelican Island up close in adverse weather conditions, a wonderful adventure and accomplishment.  Rhonda truly cares about nature, staying in the launch site to pick up the litter left by careless visitors of Pelican Island NWR. Teresa and I look forward to our next kayak adventure with Rhonda.  After a quick stop at the Pelican Island main parking lot restrooms to change our wet clothes, we drove north on highway A1A looking for a good trail at the Archie Carr NWR. We stopped at a couple of parking lots with possible trail heads but decided not to hike in the heavy rain.  We headed back to Pelican Island NWR to check out the other trails, hoping to get another look of Pelican Island from the shore. We decided to walk the Centennial Trail, an absolute treat for us. The boardwalk had a plank for each NWR, in the order each Refuge was established. We thought about taking a series of photos of the whole list of all 562 Refuges, I still regret we didn't do it. We could see Pelican Island from the Observation Platform.

Pelican Island from Centennial Observation Platform, Pelican Island NWR December 24, 2013

American White Pelican, Pelican Island NWR, December 24, 2013

We saw American White Pelicans at the Island.  We saw in the pond next to the Butterfly Garden several species of duck including Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup.


The Centennial Trail, Pelican Island NWR, December 24, 2013


The Centennial Trail, Pelican Island NWR, December 24, 2013

Teresa and Karen, Centennial Trail at Pelican National Wildlife Refuge, Each plank of the boardwalk is labeled with one of the 560 National Wildlife Refuges December 24, 2013

It was late afternoon as we left Pelican Island NWR, we headed South to Hobe Sound NWR.  We arrived at Hobe Sound NWR parking lot at the north end of N Beach Rd about an hour before dark. We walked out to the beach with difficulty as the wind was around 20 mph. We saw several sandpipers, gulls and terns. The wind was blowing sand onto our camera lens so we decided to put up our cameras and head back to our car. We still had to drive to Boynton Beach for our next hotel and it was Christmas Eve night. We got some fast food and stopped for some supplies at a open Pharmacy. The sign at the Pharmacy announced it would be open on Christmas day, sad for the employees but good for us, if we needed anything. Earlier this day I realized we would visit Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchie NWR on Christmas Day. The VC/headquarters at ARM NWR would definitely be closed, I made a phone call to the Visitor Center and spoke to a very nice man working at the VC, he agreed to place a ARM NWR stamp in the VC mailbox.


Wednesday December 25, 2013 Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchie NWR When we arrived at Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchie NWR on Christmas morning it was just before sunrise. We saw many White Ibis flying overhead leaving the refuge. We stopped at the VC for my NWR stamp, it was there in the mailbox, I am grateful to the gentleman for providing me with a stamp for my Blue Goose Book.  We parked in a parking lot on Lee St . We saw ducks, heron and egrets in the marshy pond areas. After an hour of birding we stopped for a restroom break at a portal toilet. As we stood next to this large plastic blue box, a Bobcat ran through the parking lot between cars and about 10 feet from where we were standing, probably the least likely place we would have ever expected to see this amazing cat. 

Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchie National Wildlife Refuge, December 25, 2013

As we continued walking on the trails at ARM NWR, we had wonderful opportunities to video Heron feeding, White Ibis collecting nesting material, a pair of Red Shoulder Hawks preparing a nest and a Limpkin extracting an apple snail from it's shell.

Limpkin at Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchie National Wildlife Refuge December 25, 2013

Common Gallinule at Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchie National Wildlife Refuge, December 25, 2013

Little Blue Heron at Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchie National Wildlife Refuge, December 25, 2013

Tricolored Heron at Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchie National Wildlife Refuge, December 25, 2013

Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchie National Wildlife Refuge, December 25, 2013

We also talked to many interesting folks. One man, set up with a video camera, was not filming birds but instead, a very large female alligator. He had been documenting her for several years.  One birder told us the best place to see the Snail Kite on the refuge; a few other bird/wildlife photographers we met suggested we go to Green Cay to bird. We really saw amazing birds at ARM NWR, I don't know why I let other folks suggestions influence me. After 4.5 hours of fantastic birding at ARM we drove over to Green Cay. This was a total disappointment; the parking lot was full of cars and so many people walking in with no cameras or binoculars. Plus we were dressed to hike with boots and long pants not like most of the people entering Green Cay dressed in flip flops and shorts. We turned around at the entrance and walked back to our car. Once again our goal of birding at NWR was reaffirmed in our minds, Teresa and I are really NWR fans. We thought about going back to ARM to walk the boardwalk behind the VC but decided we should head down to the Keys so we would have more time to look around the Crocodile NWR. Crocodile is closed to the public but it is suggested to bird in the State Parks next to and adjacent to the Refuge, including Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. We drove over to the Keys on the Card Sound Bridge instead of the Overseas Highway Bridge on S Dixie Highway. We would take the Overseas Bridge when we drove back the next day. Our first stop was Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park. We saw a Red Breasted Merganser, Pied Bill Grebe, Northern Cardinal and Turkey Vulture on our hike through the Park.  Our second stop was at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The park was crowded with cars and people.  We hiked the boardwalk crowded with many human visitors.  The only bird we saw at the Park was a disabled White Ibis hanging out around a picnic table waiting for handouts. We stopped at Tavernier to buy some gasoline at a FoodMart Store. No problem finding gasoline on Christmas Day. Several hungry Common Mynas  greeted us as they looked for food in the parking lot. We arrived at our modest $150 a night hotel room, in Marathon, late in the afternoon. Marathon is east of the 7 mile bridge, anything west of the bridge is over $200 a night. We headed to Key West, from the restaurant selection on Yelp we chose Cuban food for our Christmas dinner. The 54 mile drive from Marathon to Key West was tiring, a 2 lane highway with many travelers and bright head lights from the oncoming traffic. The directions on Yelp for the Cuban Restaurant were incorrect. After several calls and many wrong turns we were on Duvall St, crowded with tourist shopping on Christmas Day. Parking down an alley off of Duvall St was not in our budget, $35 for 4 hours, but a stroll down the 1 mile open air market street seemed necessary to get the complete Key West experience.  We were out of place once again, still wearing our hiking boots, long pants, sun screen and bug lotion, while the tourists on Duvall St were wearing flip flops, khaki shorts/skirts and make up.  We ate a delicious salad and pizza at an amazing pizza place for only $13 for both of us. We walked past the Hemingway House, took our photo at the Southernmost Point of the US and purchased 2 pieces of Key Lime Pie to enjoy back at our hotel room.


Thursday December 26, 2013 Key Deer and National Key Deer National Wildlife Refuges

Thursday, December 26th, we would hike in the morning and kayak in the afternoon at National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge and Great White Heron NWR. From Marathon we drove back over the seven mile bridge to Big Pine Key the home of National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge. It was around 7 am when we arrived at our first stop, Blue Hole. We saw several warblers, a resident Anhinga and some Key Deer.

National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge, December 26, 2013

Female Anhinga, Blue Hole, National Key Deer NWR December 26, 2013

Northern Cardinal, National Key Deer NWR, December 26, 2013

Key Deer, National Key Deer NWR, December 26, 2013

Key Deer, National Key Deer NWR, December 26, 2013

We saw Black Vultures flying off in the distance while hiking the Watson Trail. We went to the National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, located in a shopping center, purchased Key West NWR hats and got our Blue Goose Books stamped and met some more amazing volunteers working at the VC. Before we started our next hike, we decided to stop for lunch, we parked at the parking lot at the end of Bryant Ave/Key Deer Blvd, where there were a couple of trail heads. Before we began our hike we enjoyed yummy salads we purchased at the pizza shop on Duvall St.  

Teresa and Karen hiking at National Key Deer NWR

We thought one of the trails would take us to the beach but looking at our iPhone GPS the trail was parallel to the beach, plus the trail was extremely wet and over grown, so we headed back to the car. We drove on Watson Rd to No Name Key to a dock where we saw Terns, Gulls, Cormorants, Kestrel and a Magnificent Frigatebird. Teresa reserved a kayak trip for us with Big Pine Kayak Adventures to kayak in the No Name Key/National Key Deer Refuge.  Our kayak reservation was at 1 pm with 10 other folks. Our tour guide sent us out into the water to wait as she helped launch the last 2 inexperienced paddlers.

Teresa Kayaking at National Key Deer NWR, December 26, 2013

Karen Kayaking at National Key Deer NWR, December 26, 2013

The conditions were good, blue sky, calm waters, it would be easy paddling today. As our group held together waiting for the guide I noticed a Great Egret standing on a small dock partly in the water.  When our tour guide paddled to us she pointed to the large white bird and said there is the Great White Heron. It didn't register what she had said until later that day, the large white bird had a yellow beak and legs, a completely missed opportunity, Teresa and I never took one photo. Kayaking through the mangroves to reach a large lake was more like a scene from a jungle movie. 

YouTube Video

The kayak would get stuck under the roots of the mangroves and I never really got the knack of pulling with one hand while pushing with the other but a technique I would definitely like to master someday. 


Teresa Kayaking through Mangroves at National Key Deer NWR December 26, 2013

Karen and Teresa kayaking at National Key Deer NWR, December 26, 2013

When we got back to the dock we stayed in the parking lot area for another hour photographing the Magnificent Frigatebirds flying overhead and the Brown Pelican, in perfect light, perched on a dock cover. Teresa took a quick photo of the Great White Heron.

Magnificent Frigatebird, National Key Deer NWR, December 26, 2013

Great White Heron, National Key Deer NWR, December 26, 2013

Brown Pelican, National Key Deer NWR, Decemeber 26, 2013

When the sun started going down we left the Keys by way of the Overseas Bridge on Highway 1 and 5. We drove up to Florida City to spend 2 nights in a Fairway Inn Hotel. We had time to wash clothes and not having to load up our car on Friday morning before our drive to the Everglades was a gift. 


December 27, 2013 Everglades National Park December 28th, we arrived at the Everglades, Ernest Coe Visitor Center at 7 am an hour before it opened. There were several Warblers in the trees around the center but as the parking lot began to fill up with cars the birds began to leave the area, we headed toward Royal Palm Drive.  We spotted a Red shouldered Hawk and warblers in the trees along the drive. When we arrived at the Royal Palm Visiter Center parking lot, signs were posted warning Black Vultures will destroy your car. I heeded the warning since I was actually driving my husband's car. I retrieved a tarp and bungee cords from the large deck box at the restroom area. Teresa and I lashed the tarp to the car covering the sunroof, windshield area and upper window areas. Several car owners around us also placed tarps on their cars. The Royal Palm parking lot had 2 trail heads the Gumbo Limbo Trail and Anhinga Trail.  We chose Anhinga Trail and walked on the man made trails and wooden boardwalks for an hour. It was more like being at a zoo as the heron, ibis, egrets  were comfortable with human observers standing just 10-20 feet away. Our favorite moment on Anhinga Trail was the incessant high pitched cheeping coming  from a nest with a male Anhinga with his 4 chicks. 

When we walked back to the Royal Palm parking lot we were surprised to see a large SUV, Expedition next to us without a tarp and 10 Black Vultures relentlessly tearing at the rubber around the sunroof. The rubber had been completely removed and destroyed. The birds had moved on to the windshield wipers and the rubber around the windows. No Vultures on Mark's car, we removed the tarp and bungee cords, I was pleased with myself for reading the sign and following directions, I am sure Mark was pleased with me too. Our next stop was Snake Bight Trail.

Teresa and Karen, Snake Bight Trail, Everglades NP, December 27, 2013

Lathered up with mosquito repellent and donning my bug screen hat, we were prepared to hike the Snake Bight Trail in the Everglades.   The Trail was 1.8 miles each way. The beginning of the trail was wooded, replaced by high grass and marsh and finally the open bay, a stark contrast from the Anhinga Trail.  The mosquitoes were extreme, I regretted at this time not purchasing the bug screen pants and shirt. The weather forecast said possible thunderstorm and during our 1 hour hike we had light rain and a clap of thunder. When we arrived at the boardwalk overlooking the bay, a Mom, Amy and her 2 children had their scope set up looking at the egrets and herons. We shared stories about good birding locations and tried to ID the birds we could see in the bay, including White Ibis, American White Pelicans, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron and American Avocet.  After Amy left a couple with their adult son showed up, non-birders but great folks to talk too. They didn't have enough bug repellent but we were almost out so I didn't offer any of ours, we had another 1.8 miles back to our car. Their son had set a goal to visit every National Park; he was visiting the 3 in Florida on this trip. 

Karen and Teresa at boardwalk at Snake Bight Canoe, Everglades NP, December 27, 2013

On our way back to the car we met several folks begging for mosquito spray, wearing sleeveless shirts and shorts. I cannot imagine they made it very far on the Trail.  We drove down to the Everglades VC and the Flamingo Campground where we met up with Amy and her 2 children at each location. It was great to talk to them again and we gave Amy my email address, we plan to get together in the Northeast to bird in the spring, when Teresa and I do our CT NWR Trip.  We visited Eco Pond, Coot Pond and Mrazek Pond as the sun began to set. We saw Gadwalls at the Coot Pond and of course American Coots. We saw Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal and Common Gallinule at Mrazek Pond.  We wanted to come back the next morning to visit Mahogany Hammock Trail and decided we would make that decision in the morning. 

December 28, 2013 Scenic Loop Road in Big Cypress National Preserve and Highway 41

Teresa had been up many times during the night taking hot showers to alleviate the itching from the mosquito bites. She had taken a Benadryl but her arms and shoulders were red, swollen, a major immune response to the bites. I was very worried about her, I wondered if we should let her rest or go to the hospital for a steriod injection but after another hot shower she was ready to go.  We decided against going back to the Mahogany Hammock Trail in the Everglades, we would begin our drive on Highway 41, we wanted to ensure we had enough time for the scenic loop drive off of 41 with time to visit Panther NWR and Ten Thousand Island NWR. We stopped for over an hour at the Cooperstown Airboat Ride area to bird and wait for an Airboat ride. We enjoyed the many birds that landed while we waited for the airboat drivers to arrive, including some Cattle Egret and 4 White Ibis that were very photogenic while perching on a wooden bridge. 

White Ibis at Coopertown Airboat Ride area on Highway 41, Everglades, December 28, 2013

When the drivers arrived and turned on the airboat motors it was so loud and noisy we left for quieter surroundings. Driving down 41 we saw a Limpkin at a wildlife management area, as we pulled off the road, Amy and her children pulled up next to us in their SUV, they had also stopped for the Limpkin. Amy told us they had walked across the road to look under the bridge where they observed 18 Purple Gallinule and some Wood Storks in the trees surrounding the marsh area. We crossed the road and saw the Wood Storks, the Purple Gallinule, an Anhinga and a few Alligators. The Purple Gallinule were the first we had seen on this trip.  We drove the scenic Loop Rd in Big Cypress National Preserve, we saw Roseate Spoonbill, Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Wood Stork and a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks mating. 


December 28, 2013 Panther NWR and Ten Thousand Island NWR We hiked the Trails in Panther NWR behind closed gates. We never saw a panther but did realize the fences are there to protect the large cats from being hit by a car not to protect us from the animals. We saw a few birds mainly flying overhead. 

Karen and Teresa behind the gate at Florida Panther NWR, December 28, 2013

At first glance what we were doing entering a gate that was 15 feet tall but then we realized the fences are to protect the panthers from cars.The hiking was amazing, beautiful trails through grasses and Palm Trees. 

Teresa and Karen hiking at Florida Panther NWR, December 28, 2013

By the time we arrived at Ten Thousand Island NWR, it was about an hour before sunset.  We headed straight to the observation deck where we saw Great Egret flying in for the night.


They had chosen a large stand of trees, as we stood there I counted over 400 Great Egret, there were probably more because once they landed in the trees it was hard to see every bird and I am sure the Great Egrets were flying in before we arrived.  There were also over 100 White Ibis in another group of trees. 


Great Egrets at Ten Thousand Island NWR, December 28, 2013

Great Egrets at Ten Thousand Island NWR, December 28, 2013

Great Egrets at Ten Thousand Island NWR, December 28, 2013

Great Egrets at Ten Thousand Island NWR, December 28, 2013

December 29, 2013 JN Ding Darling NWR We headed to Ft Myers, with a 2 night stay in a hotel we would be happy to leave, we do not need frills during our hotel stays but safety is an absolute requirement. We would spend the first day visiting Sanibel Island and JN "Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and the second day we would visit Teresa's friend, Mary at her Ft Myers Beach house.  When we got up on December 29 there was heavy rain, just as forecasted. We drove to Sanibel Lighthouse and got soaked walking to the restroom. Driving through the gate at JN "Ding" Darling NWR I purchased my first Duck Stamp. 

Duck Stamp

The Stamp allows entry into National Wildlife Refuges requiring an entrance fee and the money generated from the sale of the stamp is used for conservation efforts. We started driving the JN "Ding" Darling NWR Wildlife drive at 8 am and were pleasantly surprised to see Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, Mottled Ducks, Dunlin, American White Pelicans, Great Egret, Reddish Egret, Red-breasted Merganser, Brown Pelican, Snowy Egret, Marbled Godwit, Red Knot, White Ibis and Black-bellied Plover, was this fallout? 

Wood Stork, JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

Roseate Spoonbill and American White Pelican, JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

Willets and Marbled Godwit, JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

American White Pelican drying their wings, Wildlife Dr. JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

Brown and American White Pelican, JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

Brown Pelican, American White Pelican, Double Crested Cormorant, JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

Red Knot, JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

Red Breasted Merganser, JN Ding Darling NWR December 29. 2013

American White Pelican, Wildlife Dr. at JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

American White Pelican, Wildlife Dr. JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

American White Pelican, JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

The rain finally let up and the sun came out allowing for some good photos of the birds resting and feeding, including Dunlin, American White Pelicans and Willet. 

Willet, Little Blue Heron-white, JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

Little Blue Heron, JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

Little Blue Heron, JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

Snowy Egret, JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

Teresa at JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

Osprey, JN Ding Darling NWR, December 29, 2013

We drove the wildlife drive twice with a stop at the Visitor Center between the 2 drives. Teresa and I were both moved by the VC displays and information about Ding Darling and his quest to create protected land for waterfowl to rest during migration. 

December 30, 2013 Ft Myers Beach visited Teresa's friend

On December 30, 2013 we walked the south end of Ft Myers beach with Teresa's friend, Mary. The lagoons along the beach were full of birds and I was able to get some good looks and photos of resting sandpipers and Terns on the beach including Wilson Plovers, Black bellied Plovers, Piping Plovers, Sanderlings, Royal Terns and Sandwich Terns.           

December 31, 2013 Egmont Key NWR

On December 31, 2013 Teresa and I were very overwhelmed, having to deal with some insurance and prescription drug issues for our 77 year old Mother.  We barely made it to the bay to meet our sailing captain. I originally set up a boat trip to Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge but it was canceled due to a weather front. We took a sailing trip in the Boca Ciega and Tampa Bay area.  We were disappointed we could not see the National Wildlife Refuges that were in the Tampa area but we still enjoyed the warm sunny day on the water.  We saw a Common Loon and many dolphin in the Bay, a nice treat.  We then drove down to De Soto State Park, we could see from a distance Egmont Island and realized our research for the Tampa area was lacking, there was a ferry coming back from the Egmont Island. We thought the ferry was closed on Tuesdays but maybe a holiday allowed for it to be open or maybe it was a private ferry, we missed it and the opportunity to bird at Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge. Definitely a reason to come back to Florida. We were pleased to bird in De Soto State Park with great opportunities to observe and photograph Wood Storks, Reddish Egret, Little Blue Heron, American Osytercatchers, Eastern Phoebe and Great Egret. We drove over the skyway bridge trying to get a look at the Passage Key, Pinellas, and Matlache Pass National Wildlife Refuges. We were unable to visit the refuges in the Tampa area, we will need to do more research before visiting this area again. We drove up to Crystal River to spend the night just 30 minutes from the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and Visitor Center.

January 1, 2013 Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

We were at the Crystal River/Headquarters by 7am on January 1, 2014.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, January 1, 2014

The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center was closed due to the federal holiday but Michael from Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia just happened to be at the Refuge Visitor Center early that morning. He was helping out over the holiday and opened the doors for us, he stamped our Blue Goose Books and gave us access to the gated area behind the Visitor Center. Michael provided directions to the swamp marsh trail at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Teresa and I were both grateful to Michael for giving us access to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center and gated viewing area. Michael is a great asset to the National Wildlife Refuge system and we feel so lucky to have folks like him working at our National Wildlife Refuges. 

Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge    January 1, 2014

Chassahowitzka NWR sign at entrance to Salt Marsh Trails January 1, 2014

We really enjoyed the Chassahowitzka Salt Marsh Trail; there were warblers and woodpeckers but best of all the area was a perfect habitat for birds. The trail ended at a small boardwalk and observation tower overlooking a large area of salt marsh. 

Chassahowitzka trail ends at an observation tower and salt marsh January 1, 2013

Chassahowitzka trail ends at an observation tower and salt marsh January 1, 2013

There was a pavilion and we could see houses from the tower but it really felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere. We enjoyed reading about the Whooping Crane project on the large information board at the pavilion.


Teresa and Karen on Salt Marsh trail at Chassahowitzka NWR January 1, 2014

Teresa on the Salt Marsh Trail at Chassahowitzka NWR, January 1, 2014

Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge

We headed to Cedar Keys and Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuges. Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge was only accessible by boat, we drove over to the town of Cedar Key for a quick visit. When we arrived Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters it was closed due to the holiday, we headed back Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge-Shell Mound. While sharing the boardwalk with some fisherman we were able to get some great looks at Black Skimmers taking off and landing on the sandbar. There were hundreds of shorebirds also resting on the sandbars on that overcast, cold and rainy day, including American Avocets, American Oystercatchers, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone and Dunlin. 


Black Skimmers at Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, January 1, 2014

Black Skimmers at Lower Suwannee NWR, January 1, 2014

Black Skimmers at Lower Suwannee NWR, January 1, 2014

Black Skimmers at Lower Suwannee NWR, January 1, 2014

Black Skimmers at Lower Suwannee NWR, January 1, 2014

Black Skimmers at Lower Suwannee NWR, January 1, 2014

Black Skimmers at Lower Suwannee NWR, January 1, 2014

Shorebirds at Lower Suwannee NWR, January 1, 2013

Willets at Lower Suwannee NWR, January 1, 2014

Willets at Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, January 1, 2014

Once the sun went down, we drove up to Apalachicola, located in the Florida Panhandle. The second to last night away from home, Teresa had purchased our hotel room online earlier that day. She realized we had a free night from the online service she was using which meant a $75 credit, to minimize cost we stay in inexpensive hotels. There was a Marina suite in Apalachicola for $129, with our credit the hotel would cost us $62.  When we opened the door at the Marina suite it was all we could do to keep from dropping to the floor in hysterical laughter. The was a 25 foot hallway, knotty pine floor with a full living room and kitchen. Teresa got the master bedroom with a king size bed and master bath. It was so much room we worried the next morning we might not be able to find all our belongings in the luxury suite. Teresa found the room price to be $350 per night, on season. Wow, what a treat and a difference from some of our other nights in inexpensive, no frills hotels. We could barely leave our lovely hotel room the next morning but we planned to be at St Vincent's Visitor Center when it opened at 10 am. Our luxury room also offered us our only look of a Flamingo, Teresa said it didn't count, too bad!


Flamingo painting in our hotel room in Apalachicola, Florida, January 2, 2014

January 2, 2014 St Vincents and St Marks National Wildlife Refuges

We arrived at St Vincents VC at 10 am to find it closed. The weather had turned cooler and was still overcast. We didn't make arrangements for a boat to travel to St Vincents National Wildlife Refuge, another thing to do on our next visit to Florida. We really enjoyed our drive along the Gulf Coast scenic drive.  We saw some Bald Eagles resting on sandbars along the shore. We enjoyed some delicious barbecue we purchased at a very clean and well-managed barbecue restaurant. We met some wonderful volunteers at the St Marks National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. They had some fantastic news, the Whooping Cranes were scheduled to land at the St Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday Jan 4th, it was very tempting to stay in the area a couple more days to see their arrival but Teresa had Jury duty back in Lexington, Ky on Monday morning Jan 6th and I really needed to get back to work at UNC. With an overcast sky and constant threat of rain we had a great birding day. We got amazing looks at a pair of Sora and a Clapper Rail.

Sora at St Marks National Wildlife Refuge, January 2, 2014

We added a number of birds to our Florida list including Redhead, Wilson's Snipe, Common Goldeneye and Horned Grebe.

Common Snipe, St Marks National Wildlife Refuge, January 2, 2014

Rudy Ducks and Redhead, St Marks National Wildlife Refuge, January 2, 2014

Redhead, Scaup, Ruddy Ducks at St Marks NWR, January 2, 2014

White Ibis, St Marks NWR, January 2, 2014

St Marks NWR, January 2, 2014

White Ibis, St Marks NWR, January 2, 2014

When we drove out of the gates of St Marks at 6 pm we realized we had achieved our goal; we had birded the National Wildlife Refuge of Florida!! We reserved a room in Kingsland, Georgia for our last night, we would be an hour outside of Savannah for our drive back to Chapel Hill on Friday January 3rd. We thought this would also give us time to stop in at Savannah National Wildlife Refuge before the drive to Chapel Hill, NC.

January 3, 2014 Savannah NWR

We were out of the hotel by 6 am and on the way to Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. We met another wonderful couple volunteering at the Visitor Center. They had great stories and provided great information about the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. They also told us about other National Wildlife Refuges they had enjoyed visiting. We drove on wildlife drive for over 3 hours, it was a bright sunny day but the wind made the 45oF temperature unbearable, we did not have the proper clothes for cold temperatures.


Savannah NWR, January 3, 2014

Ruddy Duck, Savannah NWR, January 3, 2014

Ring-necked Duck, Savannah NWR, January 3, 2014

Ring-necked Duck, Savannah NWR, January 3, 2014

Ring-necked Duck, Savannah NWR, January 3, 2014

Eastern Meadowlark, Savannah NWR, January 3, 2014

Pine Warbler, Savannah NWR, January 3, 2014

Savannah NWR, January 3, 2014

Blue-winged Teal American Coot, Savannah NWR, January 3, 2014

We still had a 5.5 hour drive ahead of us so we left this beautiful National Wildlife Refuge early afternoon.

Once we were back at my house in Chapel Hill I went immediately to my National Wildlife Refuge Map mounted on foam board and placed pins in each National Wildlife Refuge we visited while we were in Florida and Georgia.

Florida Map with NWR, pins mark each NWR we visited during our trip December 21, 2013-January 3, 2014

We visited these National Wildlife Refuges and other birding hot spots during our Florida Trip December 21, 2013-January 3, 2014

Welaka National Fish Hatchery 12/22/13

Lake Woodruff NWR 12/22/13

Merritt Island NWR 12/23/13

St. John National Wildlife Refuge 12/23/13 closed to public took photo of sign from road

Pelican Island NWR 12/24/13

Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge 12/24/13 high winds, didn't hike or bird at this refuge

Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge 12/24/13 high winds, walked out to beach

Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge 12/25/13

Crocodile NWR 12/25/13 closed to the public

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park 12/25/13

Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park 12/25/13

Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge 12/26/13

National Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge 12/26/13

Everglades National Park 12/27/13

Big Cypress National Preserve Everglades 12/28/13

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge 12/28/13

Ten Thousand Island National Wildlife Refuge 12/28/13

J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge 12/29/13

Fort De Soto State Park 12/31/13

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge 1/1/14

Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge 1/1/14

Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge 1/1/14

St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge 1/2/14 only went to VC but it was closed

St Marks National Wildlife Refuge 1/2/14

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina 1/3/14




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