Birding on the GTM Red Trail

Yesterday was my day off, so instead of birding in the afternoon, I was able to get an early start.

I arrived at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM Research Reserve) just before sunrise. I wanted to traverse the Red Trail, which is the reserve’s longest at 5.8 miles. I had packed my lunch – stir-fried rice, which tastes delicious whether it’s hot or cold. I planned to eat at the halfway point, which would put me at the junction of the Tolomato and Guana Rivers.

Early morning at GTM Reserve, Ponte Vedra, FL

I turned left (south) onto the Purple Trail – the Red Trail is an extension off of the Purple’s 3.3 mile loop. I could see the moon, but I was unable to see the birds. I heard Northern Cardinals and Carolina Chickadees, and a call that sounded insect-like – a clicking growl descending in intensity, and finishing with one or two gutteral chips.

American Robins flew across the path as the sun’s red light filtered through the trees. As the trail grew brighter, I could identify White-eyed Vireos, Yellow-throated Warblers, and Black-and-white Warblers.

I learned to identify the White-eyed Vireos by ear during a recent scooter ride. To me they say, “Hello buddy!” Sometimes following up with, “How are youuuuuuu?”

Again I heard the insect-like chir. But which bird was making the sound? I couldn’t find the source, although the calls were passed back and forth in all directions.

I took notes as I went. Was it the Ruby-crowned Warbler? I listened. No, that sounded like someone letting air out a balloon from some distance away. Was it the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher? No, that was a bit buzzy, but high-pitched and faint.

A Northern Harrier (hawk) flew overhead. We gazed at each other as it flew above me and down the trail.

Hog rout with hoofprint. Red Trail, GTM Reserve, Ponte Vedra, FL

The Purple Trail joined with the Red, and I continued my hike. The smell of cat urine told me that a bobcat had passed before me. There were hoofprints in a hog rout, and some interesting mushrooms extending from tree bark that look like smores.

I was listening again to the insect-like call when I got a whiff of smoke.

“That was odd.”

And there it was again.

The smoke grew heavy and scratched at my lungs. Through the trees, the sky looked faintly hazy.

I cut off the trail and through the woods for a better look. Was there a forest fire? Did I need to call someone and alert them?

But when I reached the edge of the treeline, I saw only water. There wasn’t even a fog. It was only the bright sun that had made the spaces between the trees look indistinct.

I returned to the trail, and walked a little faster. I imagined myself reaching the river junction and jumping into the brackish water to escape crackling flames. Were there sharks?

The air grew thicker and I started to feel a bit dizzy.

As I neared the river junction, the air cleared. In the distance, it looked as though someone was clearing land or performing a prescribed burn.

I noticed brilliant white speckles on the opposite shore. I looked through my bins – thirty white pelicans, and another fifteen brown.

I decided to enjoy my lunch. There was a picnic table overlooking the water, but it was under an old oak tree. With the warming weather, it seemed too favorable for ticks, which wait on branches and leaves and then drop off when a possible meal passes by – or sits down to eat.

Instead, I stood at the water’s edge with my pot of rice. I watched the smoke rise above trees and condos.

As I continued my journey, there was a sharp rustling next to the path. I surveyed the tree litter and discovered an armadillo. It gave a half-jump and scrambled away.

I noticed a tree alongside the trail. In it was a hole perfect for habitation. I lifted my binoculars to investigate. Out poked a whiskery head. A young squirrel gazed at me; watched as I pulled out my camera. As I focused the lens, another head poked above the first – a more-cautious sibling. And above them both a third, sunning itself on a tree limb. The triplets announced that spring had arrived.

Young gray squirrels announce the coming of spring.

I passed another picnic spot. And again I heard the mystery bird. I scanned the trees for movement and noticed some shifting leaves on a towering magnolia. And there it was. A Northern Parula, chattering away as it foraged among the leaves.

And then I heard a different call, but with a similar chirring nature. It said uh-grrr, uh-grr, uh-grr, grr, grr, dah. Was that…? It was! Another Parula mixing sounds to create something different.

Published by cafsamsel

Carol Fullerton-Samsel is a nearly-native Floridian who lives with her husband of 25 years and three rescue animals. She has a passion for day-hiking and nature, and also enjoys writing. Be sure to visit the TenPaths YouTube channel, which is still in its infancy.

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