One Path Leads to Another

As I birdwatch, my treks become longer and longer. I also explore a new park every week and, by doing this, become acquainted with other outdoor activities.

Fishing looks intriguing. I often ask fishermen what they’ve caught, and sometimes they show me what’s in their bucket or ice chest. I’m often left agape at how beautiful the animals are when the sun shimmers on their scales. Sometimes, I think about taking up the sport, but:

  • I don’t want to hurt fish or other living things.
  • I would feel terrible if I accidentally catch a bird on a line. I’ve photographed too many shorebirds, only to discover them wincing on screen, with fishing line trailing from their mouths.
  • I love to walk, and fishing seems relatively sedentary.

While at Big Talbot Island, I talked to a man and his son who seemed interested in learning about the birds. They were standing on interesting devices I’d never seen before, called one-wheels. I investigated getting one of these – very expensive and somewhat dangerous.

Three teenagers pulled up next to me in the parking lot. They each carried skateboards and were headed to a bike trail that parallels the State highway. I thought about how fun it would be to tool down a bike path. But after doing my homework, I learned that skateboards take a lot of dexterity. And, like motorcycle-riding, it’s not if you’ll get hurt; it’s just when and how badly.

A short time ago, I visited a local park close to where I live. A park I didn’t even know was there, although we’ve lived in the area for over four years. There were many paved paths, and I walked them all. Then I discovered that the park links to a long bike and pedestrian trail.

I started walking and, after some time, saw a woman walking her dog. She looked friendly, and so I asked, “How far does the trail go?”

“A long way. About seven miles?”

And my imagination was sparked. I wanted to go the whole way, but it was a significant time commitment.

Was it time to get a bike? I enjoyed riding one in my thirties, but even then, putting the rack on the car and the bike on the rack was grueling. Were there lightweight bikes? Collapsible? I asked the question online that night. There were, but they were very expensive, and still only so portable.

Was there an alternative? One that would allow me to answer the call to go farther – to follow the trail?

My hikes had made me more physically fit; mentally sharp. Something that allowed me to continue this progress was also important.

I found a YouTube video. A senior citizen was riding a Xooter MG – an adult-sized kick-scooter. It looked easy! Fun! Plus it was lightweight (roughly 11 pounds) and easily portable.

I scanned the internet for more information. There were certain things to look for in a kick scooter.

  • The width of the platform. A wider deck allowed one to stand with both feet together. It also made switching the pushing foot easier.
  • A deck low to the ground (2 inches) was more comfortable than a higher mount (4 inches).
  • Wider wheels gave a smoother ride and passed over sidewalk debris more easily.

The Xooter MG was roughly the price of an economic bike, at just under $300. This was substantially pricier than other kick-scooters found on Amazon. But the Xooter met the above standards, and had one important additional feature – a quick-release button to make folding the device easier. And there was nothing to catch your fingers.

Most scooters collapse for portability. But customers who bought cheaper models warned that fingers could be crushed or broken in the locking/unlocking mechanism. Some included graphic photos or descriptions. Their fingers had gotten caught and mangled. The result was a trip to the hospital.

My Xooter arrived today. I ordered the additional braking plate for the rear tire, as well as ergonomic grips. Those were already installed when the box arrived. I only had to attach the shoulder strap – which was confusing at first, but easy once I watched a YouTube video and found online instructions from Xooter.

Tomorrow, I’ll take it for a test drive.

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Lost on the trail

Duval Audubon Society offers many outings to novice birders, and I soon found myself using their meet-ups to scope out parks and forests I’d never visited. I mainly wanted to know, was it safe? What if I went alone?

But most places we went weren’t scary at all. Although a few were isolated, these were new-growth forests – once-developed land being returned to a natural state.

Restoring a forest takes decades. First to grow are young, skinny pines. Then the ground spikes with palmetto and pine needles. Because there is little understory in which to hide, birds and wildlife are scarce. I soon discover that new-growth forests are rarely good for birding.

Old growth forests and pristine beaches attract more birds, animals, and homo sapiens. I am finding that there are always visitors on the best birding trails – and many of these also carry scopes and binoculars. Birders typically greet one another, and often point out other sites of interest. In an emergency, help is rarely far away.

One gentleman I met suggested Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park in Flagler Beach. He had land adjacent to it, and 200 species of birds were living on it.

So one day, I head to Bulow.

Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park, Flagler Beach, FL

But the park is a let-down. The ruins aren’t particularly inspiring, and the path around them is short and filled with new-growth forest. The understory has just been cleared with a controlled burn, leaving the earth black and the trees scorched.

“I drove ninety minutes for this?”

I look at a brochure. It mentions a hiking trail, but doesn’t indicate where it begins. I walk the perimeter of the park, but only find false starts – short trails going nowhere.

I ask some passers-by, and they tell me that there is a small parking lot on the road in. The trail starts there.

I find the lot, but there are towering piles of dirt next to it. It reads as a construction site. I get out of the car, but don’t see a trail map (its been blocked by a pick-up).

“Oh well,” I shrug, “most trails form a loop. I’m sure I can handle it.”

I also know that, in Florida State Parks, each trailhead is clearly marked with a map, and there are maps at each junction. No problem.

But this trail is different. It is unkept. There are logs to climb over. Some areas have flooded and require a hop-skip through sticky mud. There are slippery mini-bridges crossing mucky rivulets. Hikers are scarce and birds seem just as reticent.

The birding is a bust, but I find myself enjoying the challenge that this trail offers – but it seems to go on forever.

I look up at the sky. It must be 3:30. It’s winter and, before long, the sun will set.

I pull the brochure from my pocket. It mentions an offshoot trail that goes to Bulow Creek State Park, a dozen miles away. Uh oh. Am I on that?

I remember my phone. I never bring it, but this time I did. I Google Bulow Plantation trail thinking, “I can’t be the first one to get lost.”

After several minutes, I come across a blog-post. It describes a fork in the trail that sounds familiar. One direction goes back to the parking lot. The other, indeed, to Bulow Creek. And my phone goes dead.

The forest takes on an amber tone as I backtrack through mud; crawl over logs. “No need to panic.”

I remember hiking in Oklahoma. “Was it ten years ago? Twelve?” Getting lost was inevitable. “Just part of hiking.”

I reassure myself as I plod through bramble. “Have you found the bones of hikers past? Eventually you’ll get somewhere.”

I find the fork in the trail. At least I think it is.

I trod on. And on. And on. The air is getting colder, but I’m sweating.

I’m not sure if I’m going the right way, but commit to the path ahead. Eventually, I’ll arrive somewhere – the parking lot, the ruins, a highway, or even Bulow State Creek Park, if I’ve gotten turned around again.

I come across disturbed ground. It looks like someone has come through and eagerly tossed the mud with a shovel. Feral hogs. Now I’m a little scared. I saw a group of peccaries once. They sliced, punctured, killed an intruder – a hog from a different group. It took only moments.

Can I stay safe if I have to huddle down for the night? I have no supplies. It was supposed to be a short walk. Maybe three miles? [Twice that actually.]

It’s dusk now, and this rough trail is already getting harder to see. Fallen leaves, broken branches, tree bark, and darkening sky blend one into another. My mind flashes to a sign at the trailhead: All visitors must be off the trail by sunset.

Then I hear voices. A man and his son. They are talking about turning around. I walk faster. I see them. They’re resting on bicycles.

“Hello,” I greet them. “Do you know? Is this the path back to the parking lot?”

“Just keep going straight,” nods the man.

I sigh and grin. “I got on the wrong path. It feels like I’ve been walking forever.”

“It feels like we’ve been biking forever!” says the boy.

“It’s not far,” says the man. “We’ve only been biking maybe 45 minutes.”

We say our good-byes, and they pedal homeward.

“Only 45 minutes – by bike.”

I finally reach the parking lot. When I started, the lot was full. Now there is one car left.

A pick-up truck drives slowly down the road. It’s coming my way.

“We were watching for you,” says the man. The boy waves from the passenger seat. “Is this the right lot, or do you need a ride to the other one?”

“Thank you. This is it,” I tap the top of the car. Smile and wave a thank you.

I feel so appreciative knowing help was close by.

I drive home — in the dark. Feed the animals. Scoop the litter box. Walk the dog. Clean up the kitchen. Settle into bed.

But I can’t sleep.

“I’m stronger than I thought.”

I’m smiling. Bouncing my foot. Reliving the day.

“I walked how many miles? The trail loop. Plus another two? Another four? How far is that? Seven-and-a-half; nine-and-a-half? I got lost. But I stayed calm. Thought clearly. Drove all the way home and got everything done.”

I find myself staring into blackness. Remember to close my eyes. I take a few deep breaths. The night swallows. “Stronger than I think. I’m stronger than I think.” And the chant dissolves.

Cryptothecia rubrocincta

When no birds were found, I photographed fungi.

Fomes species
Ganoderma Lobatum
Oyster Mushrooms
Trametes species
Pulchroboletus rubrocitrinus
Fomes species

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Contact FWC for Wildlife Offenses in Florida

Sunday, I visited Spoonbill Pond at Big Talbot Island. At this particular park, one can log 30 or more species within a few hours’ time. The birds are accustomed to people, and often come close enough to photograph with a 30x optical-zoom camera.

Killdeer at Spoonbill Pond, Big Talbot Island, Florida

Spoonbill Pond abuts a beach and is separated from it by a low, grassy dune. Inside the dune, on one side of the pond, is a wide mud flat where many migratory birds gather.

There are signs scattered about Big Talbot Island, asking people to be respectful of the wildlife. They remind people that leashed dogs can accompany people on the wooded walking trails, but are not allowed along the shore. However, people often ignore the signs, and it only takes the sighting of a single predator to scatter a flock.

When too many predators are sighted, birds evacuate to other areas entirely – except those have already been consumed by houses, condominiums, and hotels.

I started today’s visit by gazing across the pond. Fewer birds than usual, and more scattered.

Through my binoculars, I see a woman rise from the sand. She has been lounging at the base of the dune, at the edge of the mudflat. She is joined by another woman and two young children. The women, their children, and three large dogs charge onto the mudflat. The children chase one another. The dogs run mad circles, one past the other.

As they charge forward, the birds take to the air or scurry into the marsh grass. The entire pond is now owned by the dogs – a bulldog and two lab mixes. Their claws rip the sand. At a central clump of grass, one dog stops. Cocks its head. Raises its tail. It is interrupted when a companion slams into it. The chaos continues for a half hour – more.

One woman has noticed me watching. I get the impression that she enjoys the attention. I turn my back and walk away.

Later, I walk the shoreline. It is obvious that these same dogs have been allowed to run on the other side of the sandbar as well. To say that the beach is filled with pawprints is an understatement. The ground has been shredded.

As I walk, I see a young couple accompanied by a mastiff mix, also off-leash. Another couple is walking two Dobermans. An older woman is dragged by a small poodle mix. The small dog may seem innocuous, but birds consider all predators a threat. They evacuate a beach for a small dog as readily as a large one.

I feel helpless and frustrated. I want people to enjoy the park, but it’s important that we share it with one another, as well as with the park’s inhabitants.

When I get home, I do some research. I visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission web site. Here I find a form to report people interfering with wildlife, breaking wildlife laws, or destroying habitat. I relay my experiences.

I quickly get a response. A supervisor has relayed the information to officers who work the area. It is suggested that, in the future, I call immediately when I witness a problem.

The Commission’s number is 1-888-404-3922. Their FWC web site says that cell phone users can also text the Commission at *FWC or #FWC, depending on service provider.

The North Central Region of Florida includes these counties:

  • Alachua
  • Baker
  • Bradford
  • Citrus
  • Clay
  • Columbia
  • Dixie
  • Duval
  • Gilchrist
  • Hamilton
  • Lafayette
  • Levy
  • Madison
  • Nassau
  • Suwannee
  • Taylor
  • Union

For those living in the North Central Region of Florida, call:  904-359-6584 and select option 7 to be routed directly to the dispatch center, 24 hours a day/seven days a week.  The information is then relayed directly to a law enforcement officer patrolling the affected area.

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Winter Peeps in Duval, Nassau, and St. Johns County, FL

Peeps are the little birds that dart along a shoreline. They often intermingle and look similar. They vary in size, but often only slightly.

From left to right: Wilson’s Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling

When identifying these birds, I look at the legs first, then bill length.

Very short bill = tiny and chick-like
Short bill = less than the length of the head
Medium bill = As long as or slightly longer than the length of the head

Legs and medium-bill both black
(Dunlin, Red Knot, Sanderling, or Western Sandpiper)

Back is gray or buff (Dunlin, Red Knot, or Sanderling)

  • Body 1.5x the length of head and bill; wings cover tail; downcurved bill; absent or indistinct eyebrow – Dunlin
  • Body 2x the length of head and bill; underside speckled with arrowheads; eyebrow; bill straight or mostly-straight – Red Knot
  • Plain white underside wraps shoulder; straight bill – Sanderling

Back is brown or rust (Western Sandpiper or Dunlin)

  • No eyebrow; white belly – Western Sandpiper
  • Pronounced eyebrow; speckled throat and underbody – Dunlin

Belly is plain white (Sanderling, Western Sandpiper, or Dunlin)

  • Throat bright white – Sanderling (gray back may be plain, speckled, or patterned with black; there may be a line of black outlining the wing edge)
  • Throat flecked – Western Sandpiper (bill straight or barely downwardly curved) or Dunlin (bill downwardly curved)

White eyebrow

  • Extends to back of head – Western Sandpiper (body gray-brown or a mix of brown/black/rust)
  • Extends to eye – Short, plump body; wings cover tail = Dunlin; Longer body with visible tail = Red Knot
  • Soft and indistinct – Sanderling (a line of black may outline the wing edge; white belly wraps shoulder)

Legs are yellow/orange
(Piping Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Ruddy Turnstone,
Least Sandpiper, Purple Sandpiper, or Spotted Sandpiper)

Bill very short and orange-and-black (Piping or Semipalmated Plover)

  • Body almost white; blends with sand – Piping Plover
  • Body brown – Semipalmated Plover (Wilson’s Plovers look similar and the two may be found together – Wilson’s bill is all black)

Bill is short and black – Ruddy Turnstone (bold, black chest-band)

Bill is medium-length (Least, Purple, or Spotted Sandpiper)

  • Bill is black – Least Sandpiper (body brown-gray and may be tinged with brown/rust; soft white eyebrow extends to back of head)
  • Bill has yellow base – Purple Sandpiper (head dark gray, or brown with fine streaking; belly white or streaked; color ranges from brown to dark-gray)
  • Bill is mostly yellow – Spotted Sandpiper (head brown with white eyeline; underbody white or spotted)

Gray or pink legs with a short black bill
(Killdeer or Wilson’s Plover)
Note that gray or pink legs can appear pale-yellow under some lighting conditions.

  • Big red eye – Killdeer (bill pointed; two black breast bands)
  • Black eye – Wilson’s Plover (bill stout and gull-like; resembles and often accompanies Semipalmated Plovers, but Wilson’s bill is all black)

Even when you’ve learned what to look for, it is easy to misidentify peeps.

Red Knot (misidentified as Dunlin)

In winter plumage, the Red-Knot has a pronounced eyebrow. It also has flecking above the legs and beneath the rump. The bill is straight (or mostly straight).

Remember that birds can look plump or thin regardless of species. A bird that is plump may be preparing for migration, while a thin one may be recovering from its journey. On a cold day, birds fluff their feathers, which makes them appear fuller. This bird was photographed on a cold, windy day.

Dunlin. Image by Dr. Georg Wietschorke from Pixabay


In winter plumage, the Dunlin has an absent or indistinct eyebrow. The belly above the legs and beneath the tail feathers is often pure white. However, flecking can extend onto the underbody. When this happens, look at the flecks themselves. The flecks on the Dunlin resemble spots, whereas the flecks on the Red Knot form arrowheads pointing tailward.

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Birding in Cold Weather

Hear the post read by the author.

When I began birding with Duval County Audubon Society (Florida), I expected an outing to be cancelled when the temperature fell below 50 degrees (10 degrees Celsius). Instead, there was a large group eagerly anticipating the sighting of a rare bird – the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

When I saw photos of the group, I looked as though I was wearing the clothing of two people. And I was still cold! After that day, I decided to make some changes. I ordered long johns, and a wool cap, sleeveless gloves, undershirts, zip-up sweatshirts (which can be layered), and wool knee socks. I already had leg-warmers and a well insulated, but light-weight jacket.

Yesterday was cold – at least by Florida standards. It was 52 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius), and felt like 48 (8.8). Add ocean air and a 15 mph wind, and it was frigid. I stayed out 6 hours, often wading through sand that sank 3 inches or more under foot. It produced a muscle burn akin to riding a bike uphill. In some areas, the wind swept the sand into channels and into one’s eyes. The sky was gray with approaching rain, due after nightfall. The winds sang a ghostly chorus.

There weren’t many people at this oceanside park. A couple from Asia stood knee-deep in the water. The woman wore rubber gloves that went past the elbow. She bent down and scooped up a Cannonball Jellyfish. These jellies are common here, and inclement weather pushes them ashore until the beach is dappled by carcasses.

Beach dotted with Cannonball Jellyfish from two days before.

I say hello in passing.

“Jellyfish!” the woman smiles.

She slips the creature onto a pile. One 5-gallon bucket is full. The second is half-way there.

“What do you do with them?” I ask.

“Eat them!” Her tone says, “Of course!”

I nod and continue walking, but then backtrack. “How do you cook them.”

“Steam for two hours,” answers the man.

The rest of the park is isolated. Campers have tucked themselves into RVs or have ventured out for the day. I feel alone and comfortable with my thoughts.

I see a flock of Black Skimmers and try to photograph them. They are being pelted by sand. I make my way to a jetty and brace my knees, hands, and camera against one of the boulders. Still I waver in the wind. The sand enveloping the birds reads as mist. Only the picture below is salvageable.

I come across a mixed flock of 400 or so birds. Mostly Semipalmated and Least Plovers. A smaller group of Red Knots. A sprinkling of Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones.

To go around the primary flock, I must walk between the Red Knots and others. As I walk, all of the birds become nervous. So I fold my knees and kneel on the beach. Face the same direction as the birds. Ask to join the group.

They approve by ignoring me. I’m just another huddled creature battered by wind and sand. Slowly, I draw out my camera. Only predators and potential victims move swiftly. Speed sends the wrong message.

The wind shakes my arms. I point the camera toward the group and wait for something interesting. I don’t linger too long on any one cluster of birds. Only hunters choose targets. I find a group that’s cooperative. Wait for a break in the wind gusts. Snap the shutter as my arm is tossed upwards. I’ve a picture of spindly bird legs.

The birds are tolerant, then suddenly burst skyward. What did I do? How did I scare them?

A parasail has extended across the adjoining salt-marsh. The birds quickly return when the parasailer passes.

I need to get closer for better pictures. I turn my back toward the Red Knots and slowly rise. Then I face into the wind with the flock. I move forward in a side-stepping fashion. After the third step, the birds shift uneasily. They settle when I sit once again.

Ahead of me, I notice a Ruddy Turnstone. It has found a large, partially eaten fish and is busy plunging its head inside the cavity. I’ve never seen a Ruddy with blood-stained feathers before.

Food is scarce on days like these. The fish go deep and the waves are churning. Flying against the wind exhausting.

I see a flock of 300 Herring Gulls. Most are resting, but others are gorging themselves on stranded jellies. As they break up the larger pieces, other peeps rush in for the scraps.

I discover a Common Loon. The tide is rising, and it lies on the sand belly up, caressed and turned by the frothing sea. Its keel bone protrudes. Was it unable to find food? Was the belly filled with plastic, preventing it from eating? Did it simply burn all reserves during a long migration? These birds can travel hundreds of miles in a single day. And what happens if you end your journey on a day like today?

I cross a desolate stretch. Nothing but me and the roar of angry waves. I watch for interesting shells and find a test, the delicate skeleton of a sea urchin, covered with pinpoint perforations. In spite of the crashing waves it has survived unscathed. I place it carefully into my belly bag. There’s a shelf at home where I place my sea-finds.

At the car, I wolf stir fry from an insulated bowl. Savor a mug of coffee. It’s a ritual to ease myself back to the modern world. I say my good-byes through the windshield before pulling away. I’m only a guest from a world filled with computer screens and plasticized conveniences. I’m grateful for things that make life physically easier, but these same things steal from the soul. It’ll be only days before I need a spiritual recharge – and another day of birding.

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Hooked on Birding

Dont’ want to read? Click on the video above to listen to the post read by the author.

How do you know when you’re hooked?

  1. You check the weather app every day – to see if tomorrow will be a good day for birding. What makes a good day? Temperature. Between 45 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit (7.22-20 degrees Celsius) seems optimal. Most birds (and people) don’t like it too hot. No rain, of course — although there’s sometimes a sudden burst of activity after heavy rainfall. Sunny or overcast is okay.
  2. When you spend way too much time playing the identification game. (Scroll to the bottom of their Explore page.)
  3. When you pull a suitcase from the closet, and pack it with things useful for daily outings. It then becomes a permanent fixture in the car. My case contains:
    • A sweatshirt
    • Fingerless gloves
    • Wool cap
    • Lightweight coat
    • Band aides (haven’t had to use those yet)
    • Aspirin (nor those)
    • Biodegradable eating utensils (for lunches at picnic tables)
    • Napkins
    • A coffee mug
    • A change of socks (beaches, swamps, and puddles get feet wet)
    • 13-gallon plastic bags
    • Gallon or quart sandwich bags
    • Insect repellent
    • Sunscreen
    • Disposable rain ponchos
    • An extra pen
    • An extra notebook
    • A lightweight backpack (useful when faced with a longer-than-expected trail)
  4. When you find yourself snapping photos of birds – after you swore off photography.
  5. When you get excited because you’ve seen a bluebird or willet – because they’re new to you.
  6. When, instead of feeling exhausted when you get home, you race to the computer to enter your findings on ebird and process your pictures.
  7. When you find yourself with a State Parks Annual Membership, because scrambling for exact change in the parking lot slows you down.
  8. When you have a fanny pack loaded and ready to go. Mine contains:
    • A few emergency dollars
    • Credit card
    • Identification
    • State Parks pass
    • Lens cloth for my bins (birding lingo for binoculars)
    • A 13-gallon trash bag (to protect my bins and fanny pack in the event of rain)
    • A quart sandwich bag (for seashells I discover at the beach)
    • A little 30x optical-zoom camera
    • Notebook for sightings
    • Two pens
    • Extra camera batteries
  9. When you proudly wear a T-shirt that says, “Bird Nerd.”
  10. When your first blog-post is about birding.

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