The Tent Learning Curve

Ever since we sold Terrapin back in June, we’ve been hoping for a tent-only camping trip out at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park over the new moon.  But the forecast called for cloudy skies with thunderstorms in July, so we nixed that.  The same thing happened in August, so nixed once again!  I was beginning to despair we’d never get a clear enough night to shoot the Milky Way this summer. 

June 9, 2021 our last clear night sky (with meteor) out at Kissimmee

But we booked three nights over the new moon in September and hoped for the best.  This time I was particularly anxious as we had friends also camping at the same time and we had invited them to join us for dinner one night.

Our first night was the Sunday before Labor Day, and the forecast again called for afternoon thunderstorms and cloudy skies overnight.  Rather than risk getting rained on our very first night in the new tent, we drove the 45 minutes to the park that afternoon to check in and let the host know that we would be back the following morning to set up.

roseate spoonbills on our drive out to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

Monday dawned with a cloudless blue sky and bright sunshine.  We left for the park around 8am and planned a couple of photo stops on our way.

Just as we turned onto CR724, we spied a bald eagle on a power pole, beautifully positioned against the blue sky.

bald eagle in flight

A little further along, there was a sunn hemp field in full bloom.

sunn hemp field in full bloom

Sunn hemp is a cover crop, used on farmlands during the summer months to rejuvenate the soil with much-needed nutrients, to control weeds, to prevent soil erosion during thunderstorm and hurricane season, and add herbage back into the soil before the next planting.

TG doing what he does best!

So not only are they beautiful to look at, but they also provide a valuable service to farmland!  I thought the bright yellow flowers against the clear blue sky looked perfect in the eastern morning light.

sunn hemp flowers close-up

We arrived at the park a little after 9 am.  It took us about an hour to set up our new CRUA Core tent and by then the temps had soared into the low 90’s.  For the first time since selling Terrapin, we missed her A/C!

tent campsite all set up!

During lunch we were entertained by the cara caras and crows interested in our veggie wraps.

caracara interested in our veggie wraps

After a short nap, we took a drive to cool off a bit before getting ready for our dinner guests.

Carl and Laura arrived promptly at 5:30 and we enjoyed good conversation and food before heading out for a sunset / evening drive through the park.

sunset at the park

You never know what you might spy on a night drive out at Kissimmee.  Over the years I’ve seen burrowing, barn, and barred owls, bobcats, wild hogs, alligators, deer, armadillos, raccoons, coyote, snakes (including a huge eastern diamondback), and frogs.  

coyote at dusk

This night did not disappoint:  not only were we treated to a glorious sunset, we saw a barred owl, an alligator, a nighthawk, a banded water snake,

banded water snake

And a half dozen burrowing owls flitting from side to side like tiny cherubs.

burrowing owls look like little cherubs as they flit from side to side

Much to my delight, by the time I got back to our campsite the skies were clear enough to see the Milky Way.  I grabbed my camera and set up for a few shots between the clouds.

Milky Way between the clouds

Our tent has a vestibule-type opening before the actual zippered doors.

We had set up our commissary in that area and opened all three sides to get as much cross-breeze as possible throughout the tent.   Bedtime was uncomfortably hot, and no one was getting much sleep.

“vestibule” before the main tent — the two sides can also be zipped open

Around 3 am we were awakened by Oscar and Maddie nearly bolting through the screen.  We had not left any food out, but we did leave a plastic bag with napkins from dinner.   Something, most likely a raccoon or opossum, had crept into the commissary, ransacked the garbage bag, and dragged TG’s shoes across the campsite. 

not sure what it was that ransacked our “commissary” but I’ve seen both raccoons and opossums prowling around at night!

We did not see or hear a thing, but Oscar and Maddie were on such high alert we had to put them in the kennel for the rest of the night.

poor Oscar and Maddie relegated to the kennel!

Despite the restless night, we were up before dawn on Tuesday morning.

It looked to be another beautiful day so after our coffee we went for drive.  There were coveys of bobwhites running alongside the road,

coveys of bobwhites
bobwhite quail close-up

We also saw caracaras,

crested caracara

Eastern meadowlarks, cattle egrets,

eastern meadowlark
cattle egrets on the pasture fences

And loggerhead shrikes sitting in their customary spots close to the park entrance.

loggerhead shrike

It was a lovely drive but promised to be another hot day.  Rather than suffer through it, we decided to pack up and head home a day early. 

We knew switching from Terrapin to tent camping would be a bit of a learning curve.  There are things we forgot (clothespins) and things we’ll do differently next time (not leave ANY garbage out at night). 

In spite of the heat we had a great time and look forward to our next trip — Kissimmee Prairie is one of our absolute favorite places to visit any time of the year. But maybe we’ll wait to camp again until it’s just a little cooler!

kissing amongst the sunn hemp flowers

Spend Your Money On Experiences, Not Things

We’ve taken Terrapin out 14 times in the ten months we’ve owned her, giving us almost a full year of fun memories. She kept us sane through COVID and helped shift our travel paradigm.

camping at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

Who can forget my birthday owl?

my birthday owl

Or that spectacular meteor?

meteor at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park June 9, 2021

Or “Dashboard Jesus”?

Dashboard Jesus!

International travel is not yet in our future — as of this writing, Japan is considering closing the 2021 Summer Olympics to all spectators due to an increase in COVID cases — and we simply do not have the confidence to board a long-distance flight.  So, TG and I have set our sights beyond the borders of Florida and are currently planning multi-week road trips across the USA.

planning trips!

Visiting friends in Tennessee, New Mexico’s big dark skies, Georgia’s waterfalls, Iowa’s covered bridges, and the Northern Lights of Michigan’s U.P. are all on the list. The more we consider our USA travel options, the more places we are finding to go!

Georgia’s waterfalls high on TG’s list!

We – and the pups – have loved camping in Terrapin.  She is everything you need in a compact little package. 

home sweet Terrapin

But she gets horrible gas mileage:  7 miles to the gallon.  Plus, she is not at all nimble for photo safaris.  We would either have to tow a car (and further decrease our mileage) or rent once we arrived at our destination.  Neither of these options made sense to us. 

TG and I are too practical to let her sit in the driveway for the next year while we traveled around the country in our Jetta Sportwagen.  It was time to find her a new home.  And, surprisingly quick, that’s exactly what we did.

Terrapin at her new home in Sarasota (photo courtesy of new owners Tom & Wanda)

TG always says, “spend your money on experiences, not things,” so I waved good-bye with a bit of sadness and a lot of excitement about what our future might bring.

Bye-Bye Terrapin

Going forward we will be tent camping, or staying in hotels and Air BnB’s.  TG has managed to procure several credit cards tied to points at pet-friendly hotels.  This will make any long-distance trip affordable and comfortable.

pet-friendly hotels and Air BnB’s

In addition to the orange tent with its airy screened roof, we’ve purchased a 4-season CRUA Core tent.  Between the two, we will have plenty of room to spread out.

our new CRUA Core tent

We will be testing our new arrangement soon so stay tuned for continuing adventures on the road with Tall Guy and jet!

one night in the orange tent at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

Florida Keys: Sunshine, Margaritas, and … Deer?

Ever since we moved to Florida, I have been enchanted with the Florida Key Deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium).  Found only in the Keys, they are a subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer, are the smallest of all North American deer, and are classified as endangered. 

Florida Key Deer

I saw one years ago on a drive down to Key West but it was just a quick spy along the side of US1 as we zipped by.  I’ve always wanted to go back to photograph them but living in Okeechobee, that required at least one overnight somewhere closer than our four-five hour drive away.  We finally planned a short trip in June, an optimal time to see both adults and fawns.

June is a great time to spy Key Deer

Pet-friendly hotels in the Keys are expensive so it made sense to find someplace closer to Miami.  We are also in the process of planning a trip out west for sometime next fall. With their affordable room rates and no pet fee, this was the perfect opportunity to check out a LaQuinta Inn.  We booked two nights at the property in Cutler Bay.

LaQuinta Inn & Suites, Cutler Bay

The suite was spacious and clean, with a fridge and microwave.  

long desk along one wall, plus fridge and microwave

The king-size bed was comfortable enough.  The hotel is nothing fancy but we will definitely include them as an economical stop on long-distance road trips.

nothing fancy but the room was clean and comfortable with NO pet fee!

Two-thirds of the key deer population is concentrated on Big Pine Key and a few surrounding islands.  This geographical isolation in such a small area is one of the reasons why they are endangered.  Since Cutler Bay is a minimum two-hour drive north of Big Pine, we were in bed early so we could be on the road by 5am the next day. We wanted a few hours of good light before the sun got too high and bright for photos.

we wanted at least a few hours of good light!

Unfortunately, our fellow guests were up into the wee hours and it was difficult to keep Oscar quiet.  None of us got much sleep that night!

none of us got much sleep that night

We were wide awake and ready to go by 4:45 and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise as we drove south.

a beautiful sunrise behind us as we drove south to Big Pine Key

There was virtually no traffic,

no traffic on the 7-Mile Bridge

And we reached Big Pine Key a little before 7am. 

We’re here!

There are a few areas around Big Pine and No Name Key where deer are pretty much guaranteed, but in reality it’s possible to see them grazing along the side of the road just about anywhere.

Big Pine and No Name Key map with wildlife viewing areas noted

We headed over the bridge to No Name Key and spied quite a few deer along our way.

pregnant mama grazing in a front yard
it’s possible to spy them anywhere!

The first thing you notice about these deer is their size … they are small.  Very small.  They are miniature versions of their northern cousins and it’s difficult to grasp their size from photos. 

these deer are miniature versions of their northern cousins

Adult males stand just over two feet at the shoulder and weigh around 70 lbs. The females are slightly smaller, and the fawns weigh only 2-4 lbs. at birth. 

the does are slightly smaller than the males

When this male approached our car, his head was level with my open window.

his head was level with my open window

Despite all the signage warning against feeding them, it is clear that people still do. 

warning signs everywhere “Feeding deer kills deer”

The deer were for the most part very tame and not at all shy about approaching our car.

for the most part the deer are not at all shy

After leaving No Name Key, we checked out a few other spots – an abandoned limestone quarry called the Blue Hole – where we did not spy any deer but did see a very friendly alligator,

nothing but a friendly alligator at Blue Hole

And the neighborhoods at the north end of Big Pine Key where we were captivated by a sweet little fawn.

neighborhood at north end of Big Pine Key
such an adorable little boy!

By now it was getting close to 10am and the light was starting to go.  We had more than enough photos, including everything on my wish-list: a buck with antlers and a fawn. 

got everything on my wish list!

We drove back to No Name Key for one more pass.  We’re glad we did as we came upon a small herd of six deer frolicking in the morning sunshine!

frolicking on No Name Key
No Name Key

Mission accomplished, we decided to drive home to Okeechobee as soon as we returned to the hotel and packed up.  There was no point in hanging around the LaQuinta for another night when we could be sleeping in our own bed!

home to Okeechobee via US27

Between our drive south to Big Pine Key, the time we spent photographing the deer, and the drive back north to Okeechobee, we spent over 12 hours in the car that day.  Oscar and Maddie did great, even when deer walked right up to our open windows.   We are more confident than ever that we – and the pups – are ready for a multi-day cross-country road trip!

TG getting the shot!

The New Moon in June

The best time to photograph the Milky Way is the spring through fall months – when the galactic center is visible above the horizon.  And clear, dark skies are a must for a good photo.  Of course, being in Florida “clear, dark skies” are never a given so the best one can do is plan and then hope the weather cooperates!

Milky Way at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

We’ve found that both Cleardarksky and Accuweather are great tools for helping to plan night sky shots but then you need to find a dark spot with good composition opportunities to make for a truly compelling photo.

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is one of only two Dark Sky parks in Florida – and on a clear night the sky is exceptionally dark, making stars, planets, and the Milky Way visible even with the naked eye.

a starry night out at Kissimmee

Fortunately for us, Kissimmee is located less than an hour from our home in Okeechobee and our favorite place to camp.  We booked three nights over the new moon in June and then hoped the weather would cooperate.

on our way!

Our plan was to stay up late each night and take it easy during the day. 

we planned to take it easy during the day
pileated woodpecker above our campsite

So, after we set up, I went for a short hike to scout out some potential locations for later that night.

scouting potential locations for later that night

On my walk I saw a beautiful female eastern towhee enjoying a little snack

female eastern towhee

And a hole I thought might be home to a snake until this little guy popped out!

what a cutie!

This scraggly tree looked like it might make for a good composition so I planned to return to this spot later that night.

I thought this might make for a good composition

After dinner we watched a beautiful sunset

sunset over the equestrian pasture

And relaxed by the campfire while we waited for nightfall. 

Oscar enjoying the campfire

The sky was so clear, and the stars so bright that TG set up his tripod around 9pm to start shooting a star stack.  A star stack is a series of photos taken over several hours and then stacked together into a single photo using a special (free) program.  The rotation of the earth gives the stars a beautiful “pinwheel” effect.

TG’s star stack from Colt Creek State Park

There weren’t a lot of campers that night, and everyone was out with lawn chairs set up to enjoy the cool evening and the brilliant night sky.  Suddenly a meteor shot directly over our heads.  It was the largest, brightest, most long-lasting meteor I had ever seen as it sailed across the sky and disappeared in a fireball on the horizon.  And because TG was already shooting continuous 10-second exposures pointed in that direction, he was able to capture it!

meteor processed as a single image

A short time later I heard the unmistakable “squee” of a juvenile barred owl.  I followed the sound and found her sitting on a branch directly behind the bath house – in so much light I was able to spot her as soon as I got close. 

juvi barred owl behind the bath house

She was watching an opossum, but must have decided it was too big a meal.

the little owl was intently watching this opossum!

I heard more rustling in the bushes and suddenly out popped three armadillos!  Armadillos are nearly blind and this one practically bumped into me as he scurried on his way.

one of three armadillos prowling around the campgrounds

By now it was after 11pm and the Milky Way was rising above the tree line behind the campground. I took a few shots and then hiked to the scraggly tree I had scouted out earlier.

Milky Way over the campground

Just as I thought, the tree made for a beautiful composition with the Milky Way rising behind it.           

After taking a few shots I headed back to our campsite and set up my tripod for my own star stack.  I locked my shutter release for continuous 20-second exposures and went to bed. 

my star stack – 307 images shot over approx 2 1/2 hours

TG woke me around 5am.  The Milky Way was directly overhead

Milky Way directly overhead at 4:30am

And we enjoyed the pre-dawn quiet with our morning coffee.

waking up in the pre-dawn light
juvi caracara scrounging in the early morning

We decided to go for a short drive before the park opened. 

park road before 8am

The road was quiet this morning but we still managed to capture “iconic Kissimmee.”

“iconic Kissimmee”
caracara in the morning light

We spent most of the day napping.  Before dinner, I walked over to the Kilpatrick Hammock trail.  This short, 1/2-mile loop is mostly shady, with two pretty wooden bridges.

Kilpatrick Hammock loop — one of two wooden bridges

I saw a black racer sunning on the path

black racer

And two lizards in some sort of territorial war on a palm frond.

two lizards in a territorial dispute
turkey jenny in the campgrounds

Night drives at Kissimmee are always interesting and you never know what you might spy. Over the years I’ve seen alligators, wild hogs, coyotes, bobcats, snakes, deer, bullfrogs, and three different species of owls on the road after dark.

you never know what you might spy!

I’ve been meaning to do one for a while, so around dusk I drove the five miles to the park entrance.  On my way I spied a beautiful red rat snake,

red rat snake

And a half dozen burrowing owls.  I have seen these owls before but they usually fly away as soon as my headlights hit them.  But this one stayed long enough for me to snap a quick photo.

burrowing owl in my headlights

Unfortunately, just as the Milky Way rose that night black clouds rolled in.

We had planned to stay until Saturday morning but received word that the new tent we ordered was to be delivered and required a signature. 

the new tent is on its way!

The forecast called for another cloudy evening so we packed up and headed home early.

on our way home!

We are just at the start of Milky Way season.  We have already booked dates in July, August, and September so, conditions permitting, we should have a lot more opportunities to see – and photograph – starry nights out at Kissimmee!

meteor as part of TG’s star stack

Redefining Travel

When the Covid hit back in early 2020, we thought that by the end of the year we would surely be able to fly international again.  But as the months dragged on, we realized we were being overly optimistic and began to re-think our definition of “travel.”

cancelled!

In September of 2020, we bought Terrapin with the intention of exploring Florida for a year or so, driving no further than 2-3 hours away.

morning coffee out at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

We’ve had an incredible time and are absolutely thrilled with how easily Oscar and Maddie have adapted to being happy campers.

Oscar and Maddie peeking out Terrapin’s screen door

We are now almost halfway through 2021, with no more clarity about when we can use our passports again than we had a year ago.  Countries that are Covid-safe are either prohibitively expensive or do not want us.  Countries that will accept us pose far greater health risks than we face here at home.

Indonesia trip: 2009

And there does not seem to be an end in sight.  International travel is off the table for the rest of 2021 and most likely through most of 2022.

So, we have started to look beyond Florida to the rest of the USA.  There are plenty of places in this great continent that we have never been and would love to visit.

cross-country road trip!

But as much as we enjoy Terrapin, she only gets seven miles to the gallon.  No big deal when driving the 35 miles to our favorite Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.  But when planning a 5000-mile road trip, those gallons will add up quickly.

This week we began “Phase II” in re-defining travel.  We bought a 10×14 tent and headed to Kissimmee Prairie for three nights. 

heading to Kissimmee Prairie for a few nights

The tent is big enough for a queen-size futon with plenty of room to spread out.  If everyone were comfortable sleeping in the tent (including Oscar and Maddie), we could plan for longer distances in our much more fuel-efficient Jetta Sportwagon.

tall enough for TG to stand up inside!

Because the forecast called for daytime highs in the 90’s, we also drove Terrapin so that we could leave the pups in cool A/C while we hiked during the day. But all of our cooking, washing, and sleeping would be in the tent.

Setting up camp took no time. 

plenty of room for a queen-size bed and to spread out

Once complete, we took a nap to introduce the pups to our new sleeping arrangement and escape some of the worst of the midday heat.

naptime!

Later that afternoon we rode our bikes down to “alligator alley” for some fun gator action.

alligator snapping at dinner

Storm clouds rolled in that evening and we fell asleep to the steady rhythm of the rain beating against the tent roof.   Sometime after midnight we were awakened by two barred owls calling from the trees above us.  “How wonderful!” I thought as I drifted back to sleep.

sleep tight!

I woke long before dawn to find TG already up.  The skies had cleared and the stars were shining bright.  He had set up the tripod for a star stack, which turned out quite lovely.

Tuesday morning star stack

While enjoying my first cup of coffee I heard the call of the barred owls again.  I found one perched in a tree just a few yards away.

barred owl in the tree above our campsite

TG wanted to shoot the sunrise, so he took off east on his bike.

TG’s sunrise pano

I was told about a nesting pair of white-tailed kites near the primitive campsites, about 2 ½ miles west.  It was a beautiful morning, cool with a thin layer of mist hanging between the saw palmettos and the treetops.

it was a cool, misty morning

On my way I saw at least a dozen deer including a shy buck,

lots of deer in the early morning!
shy buck peeking out from behind the saw palmettos

Bunnies and fresh bobcat tracks,

lots of bunnies hopping about
definitely feline!

Red-winged blackbirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, caracara

caracara

Various warblers, ibis, herons, and eastern meadowlarks.

eastern meadowlark

I also saw a large gator in a very small water hole right below the trail!

this was all I could snap before he disappeared beneath the surface

When I arrived at the nesting area, I spied a pair of swallow-tailed kites but not the promised white-tailed.   But the swallow-taileds are also a beautiful bird and I was happy with the sighting.

swallow-tailed kite

That afternoon we rode our bikes back to the alligators, many of which were sunning themselves right along the trail!

not sure if he was smiling at us or just panting in the afternoon heat

We were also enchanted by the number of bobwhites out and about.

TG stopping to watch the bobwhites
bobwhite crossing the road in front of us

And I got to play “chicken” with an inquisitive yellow rat snake!

whose going to move first?!?

Although there were too many clouds to attempt any star shots that night, we did enjoy “glamping” with a freshly made pizza while listening to the night sounds.

I’d call this “glamping”

TG was up early again Wednesday morning for another star stack. 

star stack Wednesday morning

I wanted one more chance for the white-tailed kites, so I rode my bike out to the nesting area.

prairie pano

Once there I found the swallow-taileds, a pair of red-shouldered hawks, crows, doves, a pileated woodpecker and even a bobwhite calling from a tree far away.  But if there were white-tailed kites around, I did not spy them. 

swallow-tailed kite

On of ride back, I passed a tiller coming from the opposite direction.  He was getting the path ready for a controlled burn – cutting a six-foot wide swath of 3-inch deep furrowed rows in the soft dirt. 

getting ready for a controlled burn

Not exactly bikeable, I walked the remainder of the way back to camp.

about a mile to walk the bike back to camp

By the time I got back, TG had already begun to break down our campsite.  Rain was in the forecast and we did not fancy packing a wet tent the following morning.  We finished up and headed home.

heading home!

All-in-all, “Phase II” was a success.  Oscar only barked twice:  once when a critter crunched in the gravel outside the tent, and a second time when noisy people walked by around midnight.  If I were more awake, I would have barked, too!  The pups did great and TG and I loved falling asleep under the stars, with the sounds of the night singing a sweet lullaby.

Sweet dreams!

Before Covid, I never could have imagined tent camping.  But so much has changed over the past fifteen months.  And, as time goes on our bucket list has also evolved.  Although we would love to see the temples of Nepal, Mt. Everest, or the Northern Lights, those trips are still just a dream.  Until we can safely sit on a plane for ten hours, we are content to travel where Terrapin – or the Jetta – can take us.

our campsite at KPPSP

Colt Creek State Park: We’ll be back!

When we were camping in Crystal River in January, we passed Colt Creek State Park on our way north.  Curious, we went back to check it out while we were driving around one day. 

Colt Creek State Park on State Road 471

In 2006 it was purchased from the Overstreet family to become Florida’s 160th State Park and covers over 5000 acres of pine flatwoods, cypress domes, and open pastures. 

paved, main road with open pasture and pine flatwoods

There are 17 miles of trails as well as the paved, main park road and three lakes for paddling. 

Middle Lake, one of three lakes for paddling

The park even has kayaks and canoes available for rent if you don’t feel like bringing your own.

the park has kayaks and canoes for rent if you don’t feel like bringing your own

It looked good enough to book a two-night exploratory trip the last weekend in February.  The family campsite is even newer than the park:  it has only been open for three years and still has that “new camp smell.” 

campground aerial with sites #30 and #12 marked (courtesy of park website)

The clean, well-maintained sites are laid out with plenty of room to accommodate your rig, plus picnic table, grill, and fire ring.  We remarked that the campground must have been designed by an actual camper as there is more than enough space between each site and the saw palmettos provide good privacy screens. 

large, well-spaced sites

Although most of the shade is slash pine trees, there is enough room to maneuver your vehicle to avoid the hottest of the morning or afternoon sun.

slash pine trees

The central bath building has separate his/her facilities each with two spacious shower stalls.  There is also a stainless steel sink with hot & cold water for washing dishes,

nice sink for doing dishes

And (wait for it) … vending machines with Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies!

vending machines!

The only weird thing is the firewood.  At $5 a bundle it’s very reasonable and certainly beats lugging kiln-dried from home.   But the logs are stored in a loose pile in a code-locked shed near the campground entrance.  Unless you’ve brought along a wheelbarrow there is no easy way to get it from the shed to your campsite.

firewood is on the honor system

The drive up from Okeechobee was uneventful, although in hindsight driving through the traffic in Bartow and Lakeland on a Sunday afternoon was probably not ideal.  

a lot of Sunday afternoon traffic through Bartow and Lakeland

Even so, we arrived shortly after 3pm and were set up in our site (#30) in no time.

site #30

Andy took a nap while I hiked the nearby Flatwoods Trail.  This trail is actually 10 miles long but the trailhead nearest the campgrounds is only about two miles and takes you through the woods to the southern end of the three lakes.

the Flatwoods Trail head near the family campsite

These lakes were part of the Overstreet’s rock mining operation in the 1990’s.  The pits were deep enough to reach the aquifer layer and as a result, are now natural-looking lakes with numerous species of birds, aquatic plants, and animals.

the Flatwoods Trail ends at Little Lake, the smallest of the three lakes

On my way I spied a red-shouldered hawk, red-bellied woodpeckers,

red-bellied woodpecker

A raccoon, and the unmistakable “who cooks for you?” hoot of a barred owl.  I tried to locate him through the trees but was reluctant to venture too far into the woods.

I didn’t want to venture too far into the woods

Cormorants and pied-billed grebes were swimming in Little Lake.

pied-billed grebe

There is a bathroom building (with flush toilet), picnic pavilion, and small parking area between the two lakes.

bathroom building (with Middle Lake beyond)

A grassy path takes you towards the third and largest, Mac Lake

the grassy path heading towards Mac Lake

which also has a fishing pier extending 75 feet out over the water.

Lake Mac fishing pier and kayak/canoe rental area

A great white egret was just finishing his meal while vultures circled overhead.

great white egret finishing a meal

I made it back to the campground shortly before dark.  That night the sky started out clear and we set up to shoot some star shots. 

the night started out clear

Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in early but we were encouraged by the brilliance of the stars!

Terrapin against the night sky

We spoke with a ranger later in our stay who told us that there are no lights at the fishing pier.  It promises to be a great spot to set up on a clear, moonless night!

Monday March 1, we woke before dark and the light of my flashlight caught a little bunny as I opened the door to let Oscar and Maddie out.  Andy exclaimed, “a March hare!” 

We set out for a morning walk around 7:30am.  No sooner had we hit the main, paved road when we saw a water moccasin crossing in front of us! We gave him plenty of time to slither into the brush before continuing on our way.

water moccasin (aka cottonmouth) highly venomous and very aggressive!

We took the same path on the Flatwoods Trail as I had taken the afternoon before, and I shuddered thinking about how far I had ventured on the leaf-covered forest floor!

hammock selfie

As we rounded a turn on the path, I spied a barred owl on a shaded branch.  Just as quickly he flew to a nearby tree, landing in the most perfect light we could hope for.

a barred owl in perfect light!

He sat long enough for us to take a few shots before disappearing into the forest.   “Thank you!” I cried as he flew away.

barred owl

There are three tributaries that run through the park including Gator Creek, Little Gator Creek, and the park’s namesake Colt Creek.  An impossible shot, we spied a small group of ibis pecking in the creek that flows through the Flatwoods Trail.

ibis in the creek

On my walk the afternoon before, I had spied a brilliant blue bird with orange chest but he moved so quickly I was not able to snap a photo.  As we headed towards the pavilion between the two lakes, we saw him again.  I have since learned it was an Eastern bluebird. We ended up seeing several during our stay.

Eastern bluebird

Although there are signs everywhere warning of alligators and “no swimming”

“no swimming”

we spied only one small gator hiding in the lily pads in smallest of the three lakes.

one small gator hiding in the lily pads on Little Lake

We took the short-cut gravel road to the ranger station and paused to photograph a very cooperative Eastern phoebe. 

Eastern phoebe

On our walk back along the paved, main park road

paved, main park road

we spied a beautiful male cardinal in the mid-morning sun,

male cardinal

We also saw common doves, a blue-gray gnatcatcher, and multiple palm warblers.

palm warbler

It was a long hike in the hot sunshine and by the time we got back to camp it was naptime in Terrapin’s cool A/C! 

naptime!

Because we booked this last minute, we had to move campsites for our second night.  It was a bit of a hassle but we were settled into our new spot (site #12) by 1pm.  We did, however, have to walk back to the ranger station to re-check in since we had no cell service.

the paved, main park road

It was a beautiful hike with another snake crossing our path (too quick to ID), a swallow-tailed kite soaring overhead,

swallow-tailed kite

A hunting little blue heron,

little blue heron

And tri-color heron on a kiosk rooftop.

tri-color heron

On our way back to camp, we detoured through the short (1/4 mile) Mac Lake Nature Trail. 

Mac Lake Nature Trail

This trail is located close to the day parking area and has interpretative signs at various spots along the way.

“those darn mosquitoes!”
interpretive signs along the Mac Lake Nature Trail

We had not decided which way we would hike back to the campsite but the hoot of a barred owl pulled us once again in the direction of the Flatwoods Trail.  We did not spy him but it was a nice walk back in the cool shade of the forest.

Andy ahead of me on the trail

That night it was too cloudy to think about setting up for star shots.  Instead, we just hung out at the campfire and called it an early night.

site #12 image (courtesy of Reserve America website)

Tuesday morning it was time to go home.  But first, one more hike to look for the barred owl.  I heard two calling back and forth – a male and a female – but did not spy them.  I did however spot a pair of sandhill cranes and a great blue heron overhead,

And two new-to-me TTB’s (tiny twitchy birds):  A Carolina wren

Carolina wren

And a black & white warbler.

black & white warbler

Once I got to the lakes, I was delighted to see a red-winged blackbird pecking in the lily pads and at least 17 American robins having breakfast on the lawn.

American robin

On my way back, I passed a woman who said she had just been charged by an aggressive wild turkey!  I kept an eye out but did not see him.

We have camped enough now that packing up Terrapin and pointing our way towards home takes no time.  We were on the road by 10am and even with a stop for gas, pulled into our driveway around 12:45. 

an easy drive home with Oscar and Maddie watching the road with us

Colt Creek is a beautiful park and an easy drive from Okeechobee.  And now during the winter months, the wildflowers are in full bloom! 

beautiful wildflowers
wildflowers everywhere!

You can be sure we’ll be going back.

We will be back soon!

In fact, we have already booked another long weekend around Andy’s birthday and five nights later this summer. 

“hiked it – liked it!”

Much More Than Manatees!

Ever since we moved to Florida, I have made an annual trek to Crystal River to snorkel with the manatees.  Winter is peak manatee season and I try to go sometime around my birthday in January.  So, when we were thinking about where to take Terrapin this month, it was only natural that I would search for campsites in that area.

My Lake Camp, Hernando FL, view from RV parking spot

I wanted something close to Crystal River, but also convenient for other places we might want to explore.  I found the perfect spot in Hernando: a private Air BnB-style campsite that the owners have set up on a lot adjacent to their weekend home.  The property is called “My Lake Camp” and can be found on the Hipcamp website:

https://www.hipcamp.com/florida/dan-deborah-s-s-land/my-lake-camp

My Lake Camp, Hernando FL, sunset with campfire

It offers electric, water, and sewer hook-up along with a level, concrete pad and plenty of room for a second car. 

It is situated on a beautiful lake and includes a small pier, gazebo, and a fire pit.  There is also a boat/kayak launch on the owner’s side of the lot. It is a perfect spot for enjoying nature and practicing landscape shots.

pano view of lake from yard

We booked four nights over my birthday week and planned to set out early Monday morning.  Unfortunately, things did not work out quite as expected!

oh no!!

Car trouble delayed us a day, but by Tuesday morning we were ready to go. We arranged for a rental car in Sebring and once we picked it up, TG drove Terrapin while I followed behind in a Nissan with Oscar and Maddie.

We arrived at our campsite around midday and spent a quiet afternoon relaxing and enjoying the view.

hanging around the campsite Tuesday afternoon

A Muscovy duck was busy taking a bath,

muscovy bath

An Eastern phoebe landed in the tree above me,

Eastern phoebe

And a pair of sandhill cranes flew across the lake and landed in the yard a couple houses down.

sandhill crane fly-in

No sooner had we sat down for dinner when we heard the unmistakable “who cooks for you” call of a barred owl.  Then to our utter amazement, she flew directly in front of us from one tree to the next!  I grabbed my camera but it was too dark for much more than a silhouette shot.

barred owl silhouette at dusk

Even so, I was absolutely thrilled.  For Tuesday WAS my birthday and I could not have asked for a more delightful gift.  After dark, we turned in to Terrapin for birthday cake and a fun game of “Trekking the World.” We both made it to Australia — something we have yet to do in real life!

birthday carrot cake and Trekking the World

Wednesday morning, we had planned to drive about an hour north for some hiking at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.  But we were completely socked in with fog.

foggy morning!

As we sat enjoying our coffee, the owl called again and we located her in the same tree as the night before. 

the owl is sitting on a branch in the upper right corner of this pano

We shot more photos as we waited for the fog to clear.

we took more photos while we waited for the fog to clear

Too overcast to even think about nature photography, we decided instead on a little road trip.  We piled the pups in the back of the car and were on our way.

quick selfie before we hit the road – yes I am very happy!

TG got some great shots of the vintage V.E. Whitehurst Cattle Co. gas station, a spot he has wanted to re-visit since the last time we were up this way (and it was raining).

V.E. Whitehurst Cattle Company

And I wanted to check out Silver Springs State Park. 

Silver Springs State Park entrance

There is a resident troop of wild monkeys which I hoped to see. 

TG and the pups waited in the car while I searched for monkeys

I did not spy any monkeys but I did see plenty of manatees in the impossibly blue water,

Silver River pano

Along with wading birds hunting at the shoreline.

ibis at Silver Springs

On our way back to camp we detoured by the Old Weirsdale Elementary School, which was closed in the 1970’s and is supposedly haunted by black-eyed children …

Old Weirsdale School (with a little help from Photoshop)

The owl was still in the same tree where we left her that morning.  I called my friend Deb who was staying that night in Crystal River and she was able to make the drive over to capture a few images before dark.

she was still there when we got home Wednesday afternoon!

Thursday morning, I met up with Deb and another friend to snorkel with the manatees.  I watched the beautiful, pink full moon set as I drove the half hour to Hunter Springs Park, our rendezvous spot.

pink moon setting

By 8am we were paddling to Three Sisters Springs.  We could not have asked for a more beautiful day with clear blue skies and bright sunshine.

we could not have asked for a more postcard-perfect day!

Unfortunately, everyone else must have thought it was a perfect day, too, as it was very crowded for a weekday and the manatees for the most part stayed inside the roped-off sanctuaries.

me snorkeling with the manatees (photo courtesy of Deb)
manatees at Three Sisters

But we still had a great time with enough “keepers” to make all three of us happy.

Deb and me at Hunter Springs Park

The sky was clear that night and the moon very full.  We did not see any owls but we could hear them calling from the trees all around us.

sunset at My Lake Camp

We spent the evening taking sunset and moon shots before a competitive game of Scrabble.

TG’s full moon shot
full moon

Friday ended up being a bonus day.  We were originally supposed to leave but due to our car trouble, our hosts graciously extended our stay for one more night at no additional charge.

sunrise at My Lake Camp

We decided to check out the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive.   This is something we have wanted to do for a long time but it is only open Friday-Sundays and a long, two-hour drive from home. 

We piled the pups in the car and left bright and early, stopping at McDonalds for breakfast on-the-go.

full moon setting behind Florida Citrus Center and McDonald’s

On our way, we were once again treated to a beautiful, pink moon set.

pink moon setting on the way to Apopka

The Wildlife Drive ended up being something of a disappointment.  To be sure, it is beautiful and there are thousands of birds.

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

But it is also very crowded, with cars crawling along at 10mph stopping for every moorhen and alligator they see. 

Oscar and Maddie waiting patiently in the car

There is not much that we can’t also see here in Okeechobee — and with a lot less people around!

not much that you can’t also spy here in Okeechobee!

The highlight was a bald eagle’s nest at the exit. 

bald eagle on a nest

Including a fluffy little eaglet!

bald eagle with eaglet

On our way back to camp we passed a beautiful sunflower field

sunflower field

And swung through Colt Creek State Park.  It looks to be a great spot and we have already booked two nights over TG’s birthday in April.

Colt Creek State Park entrance

Our My Lake Camp host, Dan, arrived shortly after we got back. 

As we chatted, the barred owl flew from one tree to the next and we were able to capture a few more images in the golden, afternoon light.

barred owl in the golden afternoon sun

Just after dark, her mate landed in a nearby tree. He cocked his head at us and then flew next to her, stopping for a second before they both vanished into the night. Too quick and dark for photos, we simply thanked them for spending the week with us.

Saturday morning it was time to pack up and head home.  We love camping but after four nights we were looking forward to a good night’s sleep in our king-sized “5-Star Hotel” bed at Casa Mini.   Driving backroads, it took us about four hours and we pulled into our driveway around 12:30pm.

driving home via backroads

With its own owl “concierge” I was absolutely smitten with our choice for a campsite.  What an incredible birthday gift and a week we will never forget!

my birthday owl

In Search of Tiny “Snowlmen”

I have always had a weakness for owls, so when TG suggested we fly north to photograph snowys, you bet I was on it!  A popular spot is Plum Island in Massachusetts, where on any winter day you are pretty much guaranteed multiple sightings.  But the COVID restrictions for traveling to MA are complicated and not something we wanted to deal with on a short trip.

We started looking at other areas in the US and were happy to discover that Michigan also has snowy owls, including the area around the Grand Rapids airport.  Over the past 10 years, there have been dozens of sightings during the month of January alone.

Welcome to Michigan!

In early November 2020 we booked a roundtrip flight PBI-GRR, a hotel close to the airport, and an Avis SUV.  I began checking the ebird sightings daily and to my dismay there were none at the airport as we drew closer to our January, 2021 departure date! 

Grand Rapids airport – no snowy owl sightings!

But ebird is an incredibly useful tool and it was easy to find other “hotspots” within the general Grand Rapids vicinity.  The Muskegon Wastewater Management facility looked especially promising.   According to their website it’s free to enter but you must have a Visitors Pass.  So, I called ahead and reserved one for the week.

Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Facility

A few notes about flying in this time of Covid.  We flew Tuesday-Tuesday, avoiding potential weekend crowds.  We flew in and out of smaller airports with less flights and people.   We looked for connecting flights vs. direct to avoid long hours sitting on the plane. We wore N95 masks the whole time (I wore my pretty owl mask on top so was doubly protected) and never used the lavatory.

masks are mandatory on American Airlines flights, including the pilot!

We stayed at a Hyatt Place, which we already knew is doing a great job keeping Covid-safe.  They space people out in the hotel and allow each room at least 24 hours between new guests.  They have suspended daily housekeeping unless you request it. 

view from room 507, Hyatt Place Wyoming MI

We brought our own food from home for breakfast and lunches.  We went to a grocery store twice to buy things for dinner and also bought a coffee maker ($19) to avoid going downstairs in the morning.   All-in-all we took every precaution we could think of to keep ourselves as safe as possible.

our $19 coffee pot (which we carried home with us!)

Our first morning we headed directly to the Muskegon Wastewater facility. 

on our way to look for snowy owls!

We programmed country roads into Siri and were treated to spectacular panoramas as we drove up and down the hills of Western Michigan.

on the road to Muskegon
Michigan sunrise

Our Visitor’s Pass was waiting in the after-hours mailbox, as promised. 

our visitors packet

We had no idea what to expect once we were up on the berm. 

the wastewater treatment pools

The place is huge, with giant pools processing septic waste brought in by a continuous parade of big trucks. 

this is a working facility!

We were told this is a working facility and the trucks get right of way. 

you can stop and get out anywhere but need to make sure other cars and trucks can pass

But we were welcome to drive around any of the areas indicated on the map that was included with my packet.  Some of the roads are concrete with high retaining walls that surround the actual treatment pools.   

map included with my packet

Others surround what they call “dry” ponds, which are basically big, open fields. There are also two huge frozen ponds (storage lagoons), which can be circumnavigated.  These all have raised dirt roads that reminded me of the levees here in Florida.

the center road between the two frozen ponds

The entire facility is around 11, 000 acres

home to thousands of birds

And is home to literally thousands of birds.

thousands of Canadian geese sitting out on the ice

According to ebird, snowy owls are regularly seen on the center road between the two frozen ponds, so we started there.  About ¾ of the way down, two cars were stopped, looking at a tiny black dot out on the ice.

those tiny black dots are owls!

We quickly learned those tiny black dots are owls!

young female sitting far out on the ice

After spending some time with her, we turned back towards the entrance.  TG said, “which way?” and I replied, “I feel we should go left.”  This turned out to the right choice as we came upon a beautiful young female sitting on a pipe close to the road.

a beautiful young female sitting on a pipe

She stayed for a few minutes and then flew to the concrete wall,

she took off from the pipe and landed on the concrete wall behind her

Where she sat for the remainder of the day.  

she sat in this same spot all day!

It was almost dusk by the time we pointed ourselves towards home and we later learned that sitting in one spot all day is typical behavior for female snowy owls.

keeping my distance (but also stretching my legs!)

Thursday morning, we were up early and anxious to get back to Muskegon. 

scraping ice off the windshield: just like riding a bicycle!

We were barely on the berm when a female flew directly over us and landed on the ice to eat her breakfast. 

breakfast on the ice

She didn’t stay long before flying off again, but after our experience the day before, we figured she would be in that same area all day.  So, we drove down the center berm and circumnavigated the frozen ponds. 

We saw red-tailed hawks,

red-tailed hawk

Thousands of Canadian geese and multiple duck species,

Canadian geese

A new (to us) rough-legged hawk,

rough-legged hawk

Gulls and bald eagles.

we saw at least two different adults and one juvi bald eagle

The Administration building has a bird feeder, and on our lunch break we snapped a few pics of the various tiny birds that flitted about.

the bird feeder at the Administration building

That afternoon “Snowy” treated us to another close sighting.  This time she sat perched on top of a yellow pole against the bright blue sky

“Snowy” on top of a yellow pole against the blue sky

Before dropping down to the concrete wall below.

“Snowy” with red truck

It was another fantastic day and our memory cards were full by the time we headed for home.  I joked to TG that now I wanted a pure-white adult male and to my delight he said “ok, let’s look for one tomorrow!”  

somewhere north of Grand Rapids

Once back at the hotel, we checked ebird and found an area about two hours north with consistent sightings of an all-white male.  We decided to head up there first thing Friday morning, again taking backroads so that we could enjoy the beautiful countryside.

sunrise north of Grand Rapids

Being from Florida, I also wanted a snowman!

snowman!

The fields in the area we wanted to search were filled with giant windmills, silently turning in the morning fog. 

fields of giant windmills

We searched the power poles and although we did not find our male, we did spy another young female.   

young female on a power pole

We followed her from pole to pole until we finally lost her against the white sky.

we followed her from pole to pole until …
we lost her against the white sky

When I was a kid, my mother would ask my father to stop the car whenever we passed a stand of white birch trees so she could admire their beauty.  It was only fitting that I asked the same from TG as we meandered our way back south.

beautiful stand of white birch trees

Before heading to the hotel, we visited the Wastewater facility again.  We found “Snowy” on her usual perch giving herself a little pedicure.

“Snowy” pedicure!

The sky was so blue and the air so crisp and clear we drove out to the center berm road and TG showed me how do shoot “starburst” sun shots.

TG shooting panos
starburst pano on center berm road

We had decided that if we got enough good photos during the week, we would reserve the weekend for friends and family.  Our good friends Chris and Sandy live in Union Pier, about 90 minutes south of Grand Rapids. 

Happy with our pics thus far, on Saturday morning we headed south. But first we detoured to another ebird hotspot that promised an all-white adult male:  the airport in Goshen, Indiana.

Indiana detour!

We were absolutely thrilled to find him sitting in a field across the road from the airport, looking for all the world like a tiny snowman!

sitting in the middle of a field looking for all the world like a tiny snowman

He was at least 100 yards away and having had enough of our paparazzi, he flew even further into the field. 

adult male snowy owl

We thanked him for the photo op and pointed ourselves towards Union Pier.

I have known Sandy for almost 20 years and was matron of honor at her & Chris’ wedding. 

Chris, Sandy, Oslo, Mazie & me at Warren Dunes State Park

We were so happy to squeeze in a short visit on this trip and apart from sleeping, spent most of our time outdoors. 

Chris and TG (and Oslo) on their property near Warren Dunes

They live close to Warren Dunes State Park and we spent a delightful afternoon catching up while enjoying the Michigan winter sunshine.

Chris and Sandy at Warren Dunes with Mazie and Oslo

On Sunday morning TG’s brother and wife drove up from Chicago to meet us for brunch at a restaurant that offers private, outdoor “igloos” to stay warm and also Covid-safe.

Karen, Scott, TG & me

And then it was time to head back to Grand Rapids and get ready for our last full day with the owls.

Lake Michigan

Monday was by far the coldest and dreariest day of our week.  We arrived at the Wastewater facility just after sunrise and it seemed everyone was hunkered down against the cold.  It took us a while to find even one owl.

our coldest day!

We finally had one fly from the center berm road to a wooden structure in one of the frozen treatment pools where she sat for a while before disappearing across the ice.

she didn’t stay here too long

TG was able to get some fantastic in-flight shots.

snowy owl in flight

The wind was bitterly cold and since we were both happy with our photos from the week, we figured it was time to head back to the hotel.  We had a 6am flight the next morning and we wanted to get to bed early.  Besides, after six days of driving around on dirt roads in the ice and snow, we needed a car wash!

the car definitely needed a wash!

We could not have asked for a smoother journey home in planes so empty every passenger got a full row to themselves.  We pulled into our driveway around noon, tired and happy.

sunrise above the clouds

The trip exceeded all expectations, with more owl sightings than we could have hoped for, plus the chance to spend a little time with family and friends.  As of this writing, it has been a week since we returned home with no sign of any sickness. It appears all of our safety precautions were worthwhile.

TG shooting panos

Travel during these Covid days is not easy.  You must weigh your risks carefully.  But the same night we got home, we received word that TG’s cousin unexpectedly died, someone he had been close to since childhood. 

somewhere in Northern Michigan

In closing I want to share the words he posted on his Facebook page that night:

“In the midst of this pandemic, it is becoming clear to JET and me that we should balance the need for protecting ourselves against living our lives fully.  Tomorrow is never guaranteed, despite today’s careful actions.  Our Michigan trip was a calculated decision and we would do it again in a heartbeat.  Don’t let these times paralyze you from living your life without regrets.”

“Don’t let these times paralyze you from living your life without regrets”

For more owl pics visit our Flickr albums:

TG: https://www.flickr.com/photos/werdnanilmot/albums/72157717900345658

jet: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jetomlin/albums/72157717891202341

Shift Your Paradigm or Shift Your Venue (And a Very Mowly Owly Christmas)

TG and I have visited Fisheating Creek Outpost on daytrips for both kayaking and hiking.  We’ve always enjoyed ourselves so it seemed like a good spot to book for three nights over Christmas.  

Fisheating Creek campground

Water levels were up and air temps warm enough to enjoy a good day on the water and another exploring the trails and campground.

we were looking forward to an afternoon kayak on the creek

But we were barely set up before we started having second thoughts.  The campsites are located within 100 yards of US27, a major north-south trucking route and the constant roar was disruptive, to say the least.   

the campsites are very close to US27 and a lot of truck traffic!

As if that were not enough, everyone was packed together in the sites closest to the entrance, leaving the bulk of the sprawling campgrounds empty.  We felt like we were on top of our neighbors and worried about Oscar’s ability to handle strangers and dogs walking directly under Terrapin’s windows.

we worried about how the dogs would handle being so close to other campers, and Maddie wasn’t too keen on the “Studio 54” wristbands

But we were willing to give it a try.  TG built a nice fire and before dinner we played a rusty, but competitive, game of Scrabble.

Pat, I’d like to buy a consonant!

Neither of us slept a wink that night.  The following morning, Christmas Eve, we went for a hike on the Knobby Knee Trail. 

Knobby Knee Trail entrance

Within the first few yards we accidently flushed a great horned owl and spied a beautiful, red-shouldered hawk. 

a beautiful red-shouldered hawk in the morning sun

It looked to be a wonderful walk, the “alligator nest close to trail” warning notwithstanding.  But the further along we went, the wetter and muddier it became.  We thought it best to turn around before thoroughly soaking our hiking boots.

the trail is lovely but too wet for us to enjoy on this day

As we headed back towards Terrapin, we could hear Oscar barking.  Oh-oh.  So, we took turns walking along the creek.  The sky was an impossible shade of blue, reflected in the calm-as-glass water and TG got some beautiful panoramas.

the sky and water were an impossible shade of blue
Fisheating Creek

Multiple herons, vultures,

a pair of vultures

cormorants, and ibis sat basking in the morning sunlight.

ibis high on a snag

TG and I have never been ones to wallow in misery for the sake of a few dollars.  He likes to say, “shift your paradigm or shift your venue.”  So, while I hiked along the creek he hopped on-line and found two nights available at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State park beginning that afternoon. 

We pulled up stakes and were set up in site #32 at Kissimmee by 1:30pm. 

#32 at Kissimmee Prairie

We’ve been there enough times now it’s starting to feel like home and I took a short hike while TG started the fire.  The forecast that night called for temperatures to dip and we wanted to be ready for the cold front. 

TG starting the fire

I walked the Prairie Loop Trail into the oak hammocks.  As I was about to head back to camp, I heard the unmistakable call of a barred owl.  I stopped still in my tracks, waiting to hear it again. 

I could barely spy him hidden in the palm fronds

Sure enough, I was able to follow the sound to a cabbage palm just as two burst from beneath the fronds and flew to a nearby oak tree.

barred owl in an oak tree

By the time I got back, TG had a roaring fire going and we enjoyed our Christmas Eve dinner by firelight.   

Christmas Eve dinner by the fire
TG’s campfire

After dark, the owls started calling from the hammock so of course I went to look for them.  I was past the slough when I heard, then saw, two large wild hogs.  They stopped their foraging long enough to growl at me and since I didn’t fancy them coming between me and my way home, I turned around and headed back as quickly as possible.

night sky through fire smoke haze

Christmas morning, we woke up to cold and I’m not talking Floridian warm-weather-wimp cold.  It was 38 degrees!  We had planned on a sunrise hike but decided on a drive instead.   We did not see much in the crisp, clear air but enjoyed it, nonetheless.

O & M wait patiently in the back seat!
kestrel on a snag

After we got back I wanted to look for “my” owls again, so I headed out on the Prairie Loop Trail.  On my way I spied a pair of red-shouldered hawks

red-shouldered hawk pair

And an Eastern phoebe. 

eastern phoebe

It took me no time to find the owl, sitting quietly in a tree above me, but the midday sun made photography challenging.  I simply admired his beauty and tried instead to capture one of the three species of woodpeckers that were busy pecking away:  pileated, downy, and red-bellied.

red-bellied woodpecker

I came home to a roaring fire and deer wandering around our campsite.

TG, don’t look now but …
young buck grazing in our campsite

After lunch I wanted to share the owls with TG, so we walked back to the spot.    It took us a few minutes but between the two of us, we managed to spy one yet again. 

our Christmas afternoon hike to the owl spot

As we watched in the golden afternoon light, two men came along the trail, speaking very loudly in Spanish. I whisper-called “Senores, tranquilo por favor, hay un buho!!” They stopped and looked where I pointed. Turns out it was a family from Miami: a dad, mom, daughter and son-in-law and the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.

barred owl in the golden afternoon light

They were as thrilled as we were to see the owl and like me, tears filled their eyes as together we marveled at this beautiful gift. To spy an owl in the daylight is rare and this was their first trip ever to KPPSP — and the first trail they had chosen to hike!

how do you say “tushy” in Espanol?

What a Feliz Navidad it was for me to share this, not only with TG, but also with this wonderful family.

together we watched as he flew away

Later that night the sky was filled with stars and the air filled with a cacophony of owl hoots and calls.  I set up for a star stack, a continuous set of photos shot over an hour or more and then “stacked” together in a special program.

Christmas night: 342 images shot over approx one hour and then stacked together in the (free) Star Stax program

While my camera clicked away, I walked in the dark back towards the calls while also on guard for any lurking hogs. 

little bunny on the trail

I thought I saw the silhouette of an owl on a tree limb just above the slough.  A young couple happened to be walking towards me and I called “guys, I don’t want to be rude and shine this flashlight in your eyes but I think there’s an owl right above your heads.”  “Oh! Shine the light,” they said, and sure enough there he sat, looking down at the three of us before flying off into the darkness.

Saturday morning TG was up for the sunrise.

sunrise at Kissimmee Prairie
deer at the park office at sunrise

Later we took another drive on CR724, the “Magic Road,” and happened upon a northern harrier.  This medium-sized raptor is extremely hard to spy, let alone photograph, as it flies low and swoops across the fields. 

northern harriers are so hard to spy!

But this one was close to the road and TG was able to capture a wonderful set of images.

northern harrier in flight

Back at the campsite one last chance to say Thank You and Good-bye to the owls before packing up to head home. 

Good-bye, Thank You, and Mowly Christmas!

As we drove out of the park, a caracara was on the platform near the entrance

caracara from the rooftop vantage

And it was my turn to climb up into Terrapin’s rooftop basket to take a few shots.

taking advantage of Terrapin’s rooftop basket!
TG down below, checking for cars

We pulled into our driveway around 1:30pm.  This was our longest trip in Terrapin to date, and we can’t wait to get back on the road again!

one tired Oscar!

KPPSP: Close to Home and A Million Miles Away

Until we actually took Terrapin on the road, TG and I had no idea how much we (or the pups) were going to enjoy camping.  But after that first over-night out at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park in November, we knew we had made the right decision in purchasing a camper. 

campsite #34

We have always enjoyed our day visits to Kissimmee and since it’s so close to home, it has been the perfect spot to get used to all the ins and outs of RV life.  By our third visit we had our electric hooked up, water tank filled, and a campfire going in no time.

it took us no time to set up including Christmas decorations and a campfire!

While TG relaxed by the fire,

TG’s campfire

I took a short walk on the Prairie Loop trail, which winds its way through old oak hammocks on one side and sweeping prairie views on the other, west towards the Kissimmee River. 

pano on the Prairie Loop trail

The path was a little soggy in places but much to my delight, about a dozen or more robins were taking advantage of the puddle baths.

robin enjoying a puddle bath

The afternoon sun was golden and I stopped to admire a beautiful buck grazing in the tall grass.

beautiful buck grazing in the grass beside me

We drove our station wagon along with Terrapin this visit, so after dinner I took a 5-mile (each way) night drive to the park entrance.   On my drive I saw three barred owls, but all were too skittish for photos.  While I was gone, TG took advantage of the clear dark sky and got some beautiful star shots.

starry night view from our campsite
Milky Way from our campsite

The next morning, we were up before sunrise.  It was foggy so we enjoyed our coffee indoors, snuggling with the pups until it was light enough to go for a walk.

morning sunrise over the berm

We took some shots of the very foggy sunrise,

foggy sunrise

Captured deer crossing in the eerie light,

deer in the early morning fog

And stopped to admire the flock of wild turkeys that call the berm by the dump station home.

TG capturing wild turkey jennies on the berm

By the time we were back at our campsite, the sun had burned the fog away and we were treated to a juvenile caracara finishing his breakfast on a tree snag.

caracara joining a vulture on the tree snag

Later that morning, I decided to look for the highly endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow, found only in the dry prairies of central and south Florida.  They are so rare that there less than 150 in the entire 50,000-acre park.

#1 on the “Must Do” list: listen for and observe the Florida grasshopper sparrow

I saw many beautiful birds including Eastern meadowlarks, palm warblers,

palm warbler

Eastern phoebes, blue gray gnatcatchers, and even another yellow-rumped warbler.

yellow-rumped warbler

The only grasshopper sparrow I was able to spy was this blurry “POL” (proof-of-life) shot.  But considering how rare they are, I’m happy I was able to capture even this!

endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow

I also saw deer bounding through the prairie,

white-tailed deer

And happened upon a “congregation” of baby alligators.  Although that is the correct term for a collective of gators, I think “pile” is a much more apt description!

a congregation of baby alligators

As dusk turned to dark that evening, the air echoed with the familiar “who cooks for you?” call of barred owls.  I followed the sounds past the campsite back into the oak hammock.  And there he sat, on a branch right above the slough.

barred owl

He was answered by a cacophony of hoots and calls from further along the path and I headed in that direction.  I suddenly heard something rustling in the grass to my left, and shining my flashlight realized I was walking uncomfortably close to two rather large wild hogs. 

Feeling a bit nervous, I decided to turn around and head back towards camp.  By the light of my flashlight, I illuminated a raccoon foraging in a treetop, and another large buck.

raccoon in a treetop

Wild hogs notwithstanding, I made the right decision for no sooner had I turned around than I felt a few raindrops.  And then I heard it:  the unmistakable roar of an approaching storm as it moved over the saw palmettos across the prairie. 

I heard, rather than saw, the rain as it moved across the prairie

By now it was pitch dark so all I could do was run as fast as possible back to our campsite and the safety of Terrapin.  I made it just as the full force of the rains hit.

Thursday morning, we loaded up the pups and took a pre-breakfast drive on the Magic Road.  

CR724, the “Magic Road”

Ever since we first moved to Okeechobee, we have called County Road 724 the “Magic Road.” More often than not, we see something wonderful and this morning was no exception.  We saw three bald eagles: two approx. four years old

4 yr old bald eagle

And a still very brown juvenile, probably about a year old.

juvenile bald eagle

We also saw two northern harriers, sandhill cranes, wood storks, great blue herons, ibis, egrets, kingfishers, red-shouldered hawks, kestrels,

kestrel

Loggerhead shrikes, mockingbirds, crows, vultures, and a caracara posing so beautifully behind some red berries it could have been Okeechobee County’s Christmas postcard!

Okeechobee County Christmas postcard!

After breakfast we broke camp and headed home, but not before stopping to capture a pair of caracaras grooming each other on top of the platform near the park entrance. 

a pair of caracara grooming each other on the wooden platform

TG even climbed up into Terrapin’s rooftop basket to take advantage of the higher vantage point

TG taking advantage of the rooftop basket

While I stayed below with the pups.

Oscar and Maddie patiently waiting while we snapped our photos

We pulled into our driveway around noon, and were pleasantly surprised to have a message from the DMV:  Terrapin’s customized plate was ready for pick-up.  The next time we’re on the road, her make-over will be complete!

our new customized license plate: TRRAPIN!