Thursday, March 28, 2013

Everglades Nike Missile Site Tour

Tucked away in Everglades National Park is a decommissioned Nike Missile Base, built by the US Army Corps of Engineers and opened in 1964 as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Four such sites surrounded Miami as protection.  My city of Chicago (and others as well) also had a number of Nike Missile Bases back in the 1960s and '70s for protection against Russian attack.

Rangers at Everglades offer free tours of the site and provide detailed info regarding its history.  Here's a video of that tour...

Monday, March 25, 2013

2013 Sierra Club Service in the Ocala National Forest

Last week, thirteen Sierra Club members and two leaders camped in Florida's Ocala National Forest for a service project outing called "Sand Pine, Silver Water, and Service. (Click to enlarge photos.)

Our first project was to close "illegal" roads into the forest. Numerous forest roads are open and available to all-terrain vehicles, SUVs, and motor bikes, allowing these recreational vehicles to enter and use the forest, and also to allow hunters to get deep into the woods to hunt and retrieve their kills.  But some forest users create other entrances, thus ruining habitat, disturbing the ecology, or even dumping refuse. We were tasked to make four such user-created entrances impassable by installing posts and building obstacles of vegetation. In the photo below, four such posts or bollards are being installed here...

...and can be seen here. Dead trees and limbs are then added to further prevent access via these closed roads.

For one morning and two afternoons, we entered the water of Salt Spring (72 degree water year-round) to remove invasive hydrilla plant using rakes. These bad weeds displace the native submersed plant communities, stealing the sunlight from the indigenous plants upon which the native fish and wildlife depend for sustenance and shelter, thus altering fish populations and shifting zooplankton communities. The canoes are used to transport the hydrilla to shore.  

Our piles of hydrilla were immediately taken away on a cart to a place where it could dry out and then be burned, but we did manage a group photo by a "small" pile seen here...

Front row (left to right): Kathy, Jeanne, Felix, Kristine, Pete, Cheryl, Tom (our leader), and Francy (our co-leader).
Back row:  Jim, Bill, Linda, Rick, Susan, Dona, and Chuck

Meanwhile, another contingent of our crew was scouring the forest to locate and remove "air potatoes," a twining vine that quickly engulfs native vegetation as it climbs high into the forest canopy.  Its tubers, (which do look like potatoes) fall to the forest floor and quickly spread the invasive plant, so collecting the potatoes before they go to seed helps keep the plant from spreading even more.

On Thursday, we met three US Forest Service wildlife biologists, Jay, Liz, and Clay, whose job it is to manage the forest habitat for the benefit of the wildlife, especially endangered and threatened species. They took us into the forest to demonstrate their technique for managing the red cockaded woodpecker (RCWs) which are the only woodpecker to carve nests in the trunks of living trees (and no, they do not damage the trees when the dig out their nesting cavities.) Using a video camera called a "peeper" mounted atop a long extendable pole, the rangers peek into existing nests to see if it they are in use, and if so, by whom, because squirrels, snakes, and other critters sometimes inhabit these dwellings. 75 pairs of the birds inhabit the Ocala National Forest and they are monitored annually at which time the data base is updated.  To encourage RSW nesting, man-made cavities can also be inserted into chain-sawed holes in Long Leaf Pine trees, and the birds will accept these artificial nests and move in. In the photo below, Liz is holding the "peeper" device (on the yellow pole) as she explains the process, while Clay (center) shows the hand-held data base device.

Trees that are occupied by RCWs have white bands painted around them as Cheryl demonstrates here, so they can easily be identified by rangers during wild fires or prescribed burns, so we scraped off the old, deteriorating bark and repainted the white bands.

One morning, when it was too chilly to get into the water yet, we hiked a section of the Florida Trail and connecting forest roads and removed numerous bags of litter deposited by messy forest users.

Here's a photo of our knowledgeable and personable US Forest Service rangers who led us on this project, Marcus and Kinzie.  We are so grateful to them and also to the biologists for sharing their time with us, and also for unselfishly dedicating their careers to the environment!

Downloadable photos of the project can be found here.

And here's a video highlighting the week's activities (click on the arrow and then click on the  bottom right "YouTube" to enlarge)...

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Kayaking Southwest Florida: A Road Scholar Program

This Road Scholar program was based out of Port of the Islands Resort in East Naples, Florida, amidst the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge, the Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, and Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. 

The first day we paddled right from the resort marina, heading past the lovely homes bordering the resort, down the canal, and then off onto a mangrove-lined creek. Along the way, our kayak leader, Julie, stopped regularly to provide naturalist information regarding the flora and wildlife we were observing.

In the afternoon, our group leader, Frank, gave a slide show on Florida birds and later, we had a slideshow/lecture on the Everglades and global warming by local author Charlie Sobczak.

The second day, we bused to the Cocohatchee River Marina, from which we paddled to Barefoot Beach State Preserve where we enjoyed a picnic lunch before heading off for an interpretive nature hike with Julie and Frank, both of whom are extraordinarily knowledgeable Florida naturalists.

Later that evening we were treated to a wonderful hands-on show-and-tell type lecture on Florida invertebrates by Florida Master Naturalist, Pamela.

On day 3, we bused to the Koreshan State Historic Park and kayaked the lovely Estero River. In the photo below, we take a break from paddling...

After a picnic lunch, we toured the historic Koreshan site where an attempt at utopian society was made  in 1894, and in the evening, we had a slideshow by Frank on Florida's orchids.

Our final paddle was in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve on the twisting, turning, narrow East River, where we often had to use half a kayak paddle to negotiate the lovely and challenging mangrove tunnels as seen below...

After three and a half hours of intrictate paddling, we headed over to nearby Everglades City for lunch, followed by a visit to the famour Smallwood Store and Museum on the island of Chokoloskee.  Finally, we hiked the mile and a half boardwalk into Fakahatchee Strand, with naturalist interpretation along the way by Frank.

Here are our two extraordinary naturalists, group leader Frank and kayak leader Julie.

And here is the entire intrepid group of active Road Scholar kayakers...

Kneeling (l to r): Frank, September, and Julie
Middle row: Dorothea, Maggie, Nancy, Barbara, and Susan 
Back row: Dittmar, Ellen, Bill P., Betty, Chuck, Jim, Joe, and Bill H.

Additional photos are here and can be downloaded free.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Great Blue Heron Catches and Swallows Fish

While walking the Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park, I managed to video record a Great Blue Heron stalking, catching, and then swallowing a large Oscar fish (an invasive species in Florida.)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Biking the Everglades with Road Scholar

This program began in Everglades City, Florida, with accommodations at the Captains Table Lodge.  Over the course of the week, we biked 79 miles, some on roads and some on trails.

The first day we biked several residential areas in Marco Island, enjoying the homes and landscaping. We also biked into the Marco Key community located on Horr's Island to see the relic of Mr. Horr's summer home.  He raised pineapples here and sold them at his Key West store.

Following lunch, we had a slideshow/history lesson of the Everglades City community by local historian and author, Marya Repko, after which we biked from Everglades City to the island of Chockoloskee to tour the Smallwood's store and museum. Out total mileage for the day was 25 miles.

On Tuesday, we bussed to the Fakahatchee Strand State Nature Preserve and biked Janes Scenic Drive and then the East Main Tram trail seen below, stopping at the "Fakahatchee Hilton," a privately owned cabin on 5 acres owned by a private party (called an "in-holding" since it is within public lands.) Click to enlarge photos.

After lunch, we went to Big Cypress Preserve where a married pair of National Park Service rangers led us on a nature tour, explaining three ecosystems, the freshwater marl prairie, the Cypress swamp, and a slash pineland habitat.

On day 3, we boarded the bus (or our own cars) and drove to our Best Western in Florida City, stopping first at Shark Valley (Everglades National Park) to bike the 15 mile loop trail, enjoying the abundant wildlife abounding there. Below is the observation tower about halfway around, from which you can see for miles into the national park and enjoy the gators sunning in the grass at the base of the tower. (Click on link above for more photos of Shark Valley and the gators and waterbirds.)

After lunch at the Miccosukee Restaurant and a thrilling ride on the tribe's airboat out to their replica village/island, we went to Clyde Butcher's Galery.  Clyde specializes in black and white photography and is renowned as the "Ansel Adams of the Everglades."  I bought one of his photo books and after he autographed the volume, I got this photo of us together...

We then continued our drive to the Best Western "Gateway to the Keys" in Florida City for our remaining two nights of the program.

On Thursday, we toured the Coe Visitor Center at Everglades National Park before biking out to the Nike Missile Base in the Everglades.  The ride entailed biking this lovely grass path and then a lightly used paved road...

During the Cold War and spurred by the Cuban Missile crisis, the USA built four missile bases to protect the area.  This base in the Everglades offers ranger-led tours of the facility, including a Nike missile as seen here...

Here's a video I made of the tour and presentation...

After a picnic lunch, we biked to and hiked the Pine Lands Nature Trail and later the Anhinga Trail, before returning to the motel.  As an added bonus, we made a brief stop at "Robert Is Here," probably the largest and most unique fruit stand you'll ever see, where many of us ordered their custom-made fruit smoothies and shakes.

Many thanks to our outstanding trip leader, Mary, and her husband, Larry, "the bike guy" who kept us all pedaling smoothly, and also to Amy from Big Momma's Bikes in Naples, Florida, our outfitter.

The next morning was our time to say goodbye to our new friends as we gathered one last time for this group photo.

Sitting on curb (l to r): Bev, Linda J., Nancy, Mary, Larry, Ken, Rita, and Noel
Row 2, kneeling: Dick, Janis, Julia, Ed, and Jim F.
Row 3: Penny, Carole, and Linda M.
Row 4: Reed, Bob, Jim M., Mary, and Charlie
Back row: Phil and Chuck

Additional photos can be viewed (and downloaded) here.

Here's a video summarizing all the activities we experienced during this program. To see the video's entire width on YouTube, click here

Friday, March 1, 2013

Biking Florida's Starkey Trail

Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park is in New Port Richie, Florida (near Tampa), and offers a 6.7 mile paved bike path.  The park also has 10 miles of equestrian trails, 27 miles of hiking trails along with both primitive camping and backcountry sites available for hikers and equestrians. Bikes are not allowed on hiking or horse trails.  Park in parking lots 8 or 10 for easy access to the bike trail.

There is a $2 daily entry fee.

The park is named after Jay B. Starkey, Sr., who purchased the land in 1937 for a cattle ranch and timber operation. He generously donated several hundred acres to the District in 1975, initiating the concept of permanently protecting the land and its resources for future generations. Over 8300 acres now form a connected wetland ecosystem.

 The bike trail traverses mostly slash pine and palmetto fields as seen here...

...though you'll see wooded tracts interspersed in the distance, and even some wetland/swamp areas as seen here...

 You will regularly reach shaded rest stops, with picnic tables and many with water coolers.

The trail ends at the 42 mile long Suncoast Trail which parallels the toll road of the same name.  I biked a portion if that, too, and spotted two gators at separate locations.  Here's one of them...

The trail is well marked at turns and the pavement is in very good shape.


From SR 54, go north on Little Road (CR 1) 2.2 miles, right on River Crossing Boulevard for 1.3 miles, left on Starkey Boulevard for 0.3 miles, then right on Wilderness Road into park. 

From SR 52, go south on Moon Lake Road (CR 587) 6.8 miles, left on DeCubellis Road 0.3 miles, left on Starkey Boulevard, then left on Wilderness Road into park.

Biking St. Petersburg's North Bay Trail

St. Petersburg's downtown is the start of the North Bay Trail and travels north along scenic Tampa Bay past numerous parks which offer free parking for bikers. Here's a view of the beach near Barwood Park where I parked and biked both directions from here.


You'll enjoy the marinas, beaches, palm trees, and waterfront views for several miles. You then see signs as you enter the historic Old Northeast neighborhood, and after continuing a short distance, I lost the trail at the bridge at Shell Isle Blvd. so I pedaled over that bridge and around a bit, then back to where I'd lost the trail.  I still couldn't see any directional signs. I later learned the trail continues straight and takes you past Coffee Pot Park and beyond.

The trail runs through numerous waterfront parks, past marinas, museums, fountains, the airport, and gives you access to The Pier.

I then looked for the starting point for the scenic 42-mile Pinellas Trail but never found it.  Later I learned it's at Bay Shore Dr. and 1st Ave. S.  I went right past there but never saw a sign for it or the trail itself.  (The entire area was being converted for an Indy style race through the streets in March.)