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.
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.
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.
A little further along, there was a 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.
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.
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!
During lunch we were entertained by the cara caras and crows 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.
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.
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,
And a half dozen burrowing owls flitting from side to side like tiny cherubs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
We also saw caracaras,
Eastern meadowlarks, cattle egrets,
And loggerhead shrikes sitting in their customary spots close to the park entrance.
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!
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.
Who can forget my birthday owl?
Or that spectacular meteor?
Or “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.
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!
We – and the pups – have loved camping in Terrapin. She is everything you need in a compact little package.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We will be testing our new arrangement soon so stay tuned for continuing adventures on the road with Tall Guy and jet!
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.
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.
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.
The suite was spacious and clean, with a 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.
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.
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!
We were wide awake and ready to go by 4:45 and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise as we drove south.
There was virtually no traffic,
And we reached Big Pine Key a little before 7am.
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.
We headed over the bridge to No Name Key and spied quite a few deer along our way.
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.
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.
When this male approached our car, his head was level with my open window.
Despite all the signage warning against feeding them, it is clear that people still do.
The deer were for the most part very tame and not at all shy about approaching our car.
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,
And the neighborhoods at the north end of Big Pine Key where we were captivated by a sweet little fawn.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
Our plan was to stay up late each night and take it easy during the day.
So, after we set up, I went for a short hike to scout out some potential locations for later that night.
On my walk I saw a beautiful female eastern towhee enjoying a little snack
And a hole I thought might be home to a snake until this little guy popped out!
This scraggly tree looked like it might make for a good composition so I planned to return to this spot later that night.
After dinner we watched a beautiful sunset
And relaxed by the campfire while we waited for nightfall.
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.
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!
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.
She was watching an opossum, but must have decided it was too big a meal.
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.
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.
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.
TG woke me around 5am. The Milky Way was directly overhead
And we enjoyed the pre-dawn quiet with our morning coffee.
We decided to go for a short drive before the park opened.
The road was quiet this morning but we still managed to capture “iconic Kissimmee.”
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.
I saw a black racer sunning on the path
And two lizards in some sort of territorial war on a palm frond.
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.
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,
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.
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 forecast called for another cloudy evening so we packed up and headed home early.
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!
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.”
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.
We’ve had an incredible time and are absolutely thrilled with how easily Oscar and Maddie have adapted to being happy campers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Later that afternoon we rode our bikes down to “alligator alley” for some fun gator action.
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.
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.
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.
TG wanted to shoot the sunrise, so he took off east on his bike.
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.
On my way I saw at least a dozen deer including a shy buck,
Various warblers, ibis, herons, and eastern meadowlarks.
I also saw a large gator in a very small water hole right below the trail!
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.
That afternoon we rode our bikes back to the alligators, many of which were sunning themselves right along the trail!
We were also enchanted by the number of bobwhites out and about.
And I got to play “chicken” with an inquisitive yellow rat snake!
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.
TG was up early again Wednesday morning for another star stack.
I wanted one more chance for the white-tailed kites, so I rode my bike out to the nesting area.
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.
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.
Not exactly bikeable, I walked the remainder of the way 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are 17 miles of trails as well as the paved, main park road and three lakes for paddling.
The park even has kayaks and canoes available 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.”
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.
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.
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,
And (wait for it) … vending machines with Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies!
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.
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.
Even so, we arrived shortly after 3pm and were set up in our site (#30) in no time.
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.
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.
On my way I spied a red-shouldered hawk, red-bellied woodpeckers,
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.
Cormorants and pied-billed grebes were swimming in Little Lake.
There is a bathroom building (with flush toilet), picnic pavilion, and small parking area between the two lakes.
A grassy path takes you towards the third and largest, Mac Lake
which also has a fishing pier extending 75 feet out over the water.
A great white egret was just finishing his meal while vultures circled overhead.
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.
Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in early but we were encouraged by the brilliance of the stars!
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.
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!
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.
He sat long enough for us to take a few shots before disappearing into the forest. “Thank you!” I cried as he flew away.
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.
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.
Although there are signs everywhere warning of alligators and “no swimming”
we spied only one small gator hiding in the lily pads in smallest of the three lakes.
We took the short-cut gravel road to the ranger station and paused to photograph a very cooperative Eastern phoebe.
On our walk back along the paved, main park road
we spied a beautiful male cardinal in the mid-morning sun,
We also saw common doves, a blue-gray gnatcatcher, and multiple palm warblers.
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!
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.
It was a beautiful hike with another snake crossing our path (too quick to ID), a swallow-tailed kite soaring overhead,
A hunting little blue heron,
And tri-color heron on a kiosk rooftop.
On our way back to camp, we detoured through the short (1/4 mile) Mac Lake Nature Trail.
This trail is located close to the day parking area and has interpretative signs at various spots along the way.
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.
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.
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
And a 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.
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.
Colt Creek is a beautiful park and an easy drive from Okeechobee. And now during the winter months, the wildflowers are in full bloom!
You can be sure we’ll be going back.
In fact, we have already booked another long weekend around Andy’s birthday and five nights later this summer.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
A Muscovy duck was busy taking a bath,
An Eastern phoebe landed in the tree above me,
And a pair of sandhill cranes flew across the lake and landed in the yard a couple houses down.
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.
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!
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.
As we sat enjoying our coffee, the owl called again and we located her in the same tree as the night before.
We shot more photos as 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.
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).
And I wanted to check out Silver Springs State Park.
There is a resident troop of wild monkeys which I hoped to see.
I did not spy any monkeys but I did see plenty of manatees in the impossibly blue water,
Along with wading birds hunting at the shoreline.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
But we still had a great time with enough “keepers” to make all three of us happy.
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.
We spent the evening taking sunset and moon shots before a competitive game of Scrabble.
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.
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.
On our way, we were once again treated to a beautiful, pink moon set.
The Wildlife Drive ended up being something of a disappointment. To be sure, it is beautiful and there are thousands of birds.
But it is also very crowded, with cars crawling along at 10mph stopping for every moorhen and alligator they see.
There is not much that we can’t also see here in Okeechobee — and with a lot less people around!
The highlight was a bald eagle’s nest at the exit.
Including a fluffy little eaglet!
On our way back to camp we passed a beautiful 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 first morning we headed directly to the Muskegon Wastewater facility.
We programmed country roads into Siri and were treated to spectacular panoramas as we drove up and down the hills of Western Michigan.
Our Visitor’s Pass was waiting in the after-hours mailbox, as promised.
We had no idea what to expect once we were up on the berm.
The place is huge, with giant pools processing septic waste brought in by a continuous parade of big trucks.
We were told this is a working facility and the trucks get right of way.
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.
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 entire facility is around 11, 000 acres
And is home to literally thousands of birds.
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.
We quickly learned those tiny black dots are owls!
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.
She stayed for a few minutes and then flew to the concrete wall,
Where she sat for the remainder of the 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.
Thursday morning, we were up early and anxious to get back to Muskegon.
We were barely on the berm when a female flew directly over us and landed on the ice to eat her breakfast.
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,
Thousands of Canadian geese and multiple duck species,
A new (to us) rough-legged hawk,
Gulls and bald eagles.
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.
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
Before dropping down to the concrete wall below.
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!”
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.
Being from Florida, I also wanted a snowman!
The fields in the area we wanted to search were filled with giant windmills, silently turning in the morning fog.
We searched the power poles and although we did not find our male, we did spy another young female.
We followed her from pole to pole until we finally 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.
Before heading to the hotel, we visited the Wastewater facility again. We found “Snowy” on her usual perch giving herself a little 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.
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.
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!
He was at least 100 yards away and having had enough of our paparazzi, he flew even further into the field.
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.
We were so happy to squeeze in a short visit on this trip and apart from sleeping, spent most of our time outdoors.
They live close to Warren Dunes State Park and we spent a delightful afternoon catching up while enjoying the Michigan winter sunshine.
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.
And then it was time to head back to Grand Rapids and get ready for our last full day with the owls.
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.
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.
TG was able to get some fantastic in-flight shots.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Water levels were up and air temps warm enough to enjoy a good day on the water and another exploring the trails and campground.
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.
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.
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.
Neither of us slept a wink that night. The following morning, Christmas Eve, we went for a hike on the Knobby Knee Trail.
Within the first few yards we accidently flushed a great horned owl and spied a beautiful, red-shouldered hawk.
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.
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.
Multiple herons, vultures,
cormorants, and ibis sat basking in the morning sunlight.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By the time I got back, TG had a roaring fire going and we enjoyed our Christmas Eve dinner by firelight.
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.
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.
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
And an 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.
I came home to a roaring fire and deer wandering around 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.
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.
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!
What a Feliz Navidad it was for me to share this, not only with TG, but also with this wonderful family.
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.
While my camera clicked away, I walked in the dark back towards the calls while also on guard for any lurking hogs.
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.
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.
But this one was close to the road and TG was able to capture a wonderful set of images.
Back at the campsite one last chance to say Thank You and Good-bye to the owls before packing up to head home.
As we drove out of the park, a caracara was on the platform near the entrance
And it was my turn to climb up into Terrapin’s rooftop basket to take a few shots.
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!
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.
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.
While TG relaxed by the fire,
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.
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.
The afternoon sun was golden and I stopped to admire a beautiful buck grazing in the tall grass.
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.
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.
We took some shots of the very foggy sunrise,
Captured deer crossing in the eerie light,
And stopped to admire the flock of wild turkeys that call the berm by the dump station home.
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.
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.
I saw many beautiful birds including Eastern meadowlarks, palm warblers,
Eastern phoebes, blue gray gnatcatchers, and even another 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!
I also saw deer bounding through the prairie,
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
And a still very brown juvenile, probably about a year old.
We also saw two northern harriers, sandhill cranes, wood storks, great blue herons, ibis, egrets, kingfishers, red-shouldered hawks, kestrels,
Loggerhead shrikes, mockingbirds, crows, vultures, and a caracara posing so beautifully behind some red berries it could have been Okeechobee County’s 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.
TG even climbed up into Terrapin’s rooftop basket to take advantage of the higher vantage point
While I stayed below with the pups.
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!