Alone Again, Nature-Ally

Milky Way season runs April through September in Florida but there’s no guarantee that you will be able to photograph it. More often than not, clouds block out most of the night sky. Even when it’s clear the amount of moisture in the air can make the stars look like they’re under a layer of rippling water.

Milky Way over Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

All that being said, one of the best places around here to see and photograph the Milky Way is Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. So, I took a chance and booked two nights over the new moon in May.

We knew that tent-camping with the pups was not an option. So, we agreed that TG would help me set up and drive out for dinners, but otherwise he would stay home with Oscar and Maddie while I camped solo.

my home away from home

When we arrived on Sunday afternoon the clouds to the north looked ominous and we raced to get everything organized before the rains started.

downy woodpecker busy pecking above my tent

Fortunately, it never did rain and once everything was ready, TG was on his way.

a fan, coffee maker, microwave, and mini fridge: all the creature comforts!

After a quick dinner, I went for a short walk.

Prairie Loop Trail

I didn’t see much in the heat of the late afternoon but did spy a chatty, red-shouldered hawk,

red-shouldered hawk

Beautiful butterflies,

zebra swallowtail butterfly
little butterfly on a thistle

And iconic Kissimmee white-tailed deer and turkeys!

wild turkey in the equestrian campground

One of my favorite things to do while camping is a sunset drive through the park. The daytime crowds have gone home and I eagerly look forward to what I might spy as dusk turns to dark.

Over the years I’ve spied everything from alligators to bobcats to (gasp) a 6ft Eastern diamondback rattlesnake slithering across the road.

Eastern diamondback, July 2019

I headed towards the main entrance around sunset. As I drove along, groups of five or six dark-colored birds kept flushing just ahead of the car. In talking to a park ranger the next morning, we determined that they were common nighthawks. These birds migrate through KPPSP and are only here for a brief time. I was lucky to see them!

common nighthawk in flight

By the time I turned around it was almost dark. I counted three different barred owls and a little burrowing owl that fluttered to a fence post for just long enough to snap a quick photo.

burrowing owl in the disappearing light

Once back at camp, I set up for a star stack but the clouds rolled in so I called it a night.

too cloudy for a Star Stack this night!

I was awakened at 3 am by the “who cooks for you” call of a barred owl directly over my tent, and then again at 5:30 when a cacophony of owl calls filled the campground. I was wide awake and decided to take advantage of the cool morning for a hike on the Prairie Loop Trail.

white-tailed deer in the early morning fog

This trail is a 4.6-mile loop and takes you through open prairie and wooded hammocks.

wild flower on the trail

I enjoyed some time with a tom turkey,

tom turkey

Plenty of red-winged blackbirds and Eastern meadowlarks,

Eastern meadowlark singing his heart out

A common yellowthroat,

common yellowthroat

Towhee,

Eastern towhee

And rare spy:  a Bachman’s sparrow!

Bachman’s sparrow

As I headed towards the hammock, I snapped a photo of a vulture looking quite pretty for once,

a vulture looking quite pretty!

And a pair of swallow-tailed kites far off on a tree snag.

swallow-tailed kite on a far off tree snag

By the time I got back to camp, temperatures had soared and I was tired. I rested until TG arrived and then we drove over to check out the alligator pit. At least a couple dozen lay in and around the water, not doing much of anything.

the gator pit
TG called this one “Boss Hog”
this was as much action as we got

After dinner, TG headed for home and I went for another sunset drive. You can usually spy bobwhites scampering along the side of the park roads but they are skittery and difficult to photograph. I was able to capture one by staying far enough back and zooming in with the long reach of my little Nikon P900.

bobwhite on the road

I scanned the area for deer,

always be on the look-out for deer crossing the roads at sunset!

And spotted a wild hog grazing in the meadow, not at all interested in me.

wild hog

Up ahead I saw the unmistakable shape of a four-footed animal – a bobcat or small coyote – but it vanished into the darkness before I could be sure.

I spied burrowing owls, three more barred owls, and quite a few snakes.

green snake on the road

As I turned the corner to head back towards the campground, my headlights picked up a barred owl sitting in the middle of the road. She immediately flew to a nearby pole.

she immediately flew to a nearby pole

I put the car in Park, lowered my window, and just as I got ready to take a shot, she turned to look at me.  Hello, Gorgeous!  She was still sitting there as I thanked her and went on my way.

Thank you!

Once back at camp I set up for a star stack. This technique is a composite of 100+ images taken over an hour or more, and then stacked together in a free program called “Star Stax.”

It was wonderful to sit alone in the dark, listening to the night sounds around me. Suddenly out of nowhere, three little furry things came bounding towards me. They were baby raccoons and mama was not far behind! Upon seeing me, they ran across the road but I could still see their black outlines scurrying back and forth beside the scrub palmettos.

a star stack

I woke during the night to footsteps crunching in the leaves outside my screen window. I grabbed my flashlight and peered out:  a little opossum waddled into the woods behind my tent.

Unfortunately, the sky did not give me the Milky Way opportunity I was hoping for this visit. But it’s only May and I have the whole summer ahead of me.

Milky Way at KPPSP, June 2021

You’ll know where to find me:  alone again, nature-ally!

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!