San Rafael Valley, AZ ~~ Photo by Bill Haas

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Florida was an unexpected gem. It was so much more than just rows of high rise pink condos and gross McMansions; it was like going on a giant, hands-on natural history tour of the tropics. I discovered and learned so much during my visit, but as I left, I did have one major regret: the absence of manatee sightings.

As I came through the Panhandle where I expected to swim in one of the many spring-fed rivers meeting the sea, it thundered and poured day after day. So much so that parks were flooded and closed to camping, then opened but closed to swimming. Alas, guess I'll just have to plan a return trip. And next time, it will be during the dry season!

On my way to Georgia, I did manage a few more stops in Florida: In White Springs, the Stephen Foster Folk Cultural State Park on the Suwanee River and Ginnie Springs Outdoors "Campground and Dive Resort" on the Santa Fe River (more campground than resort!!!).
The Florida state park that pays tribute to Foster and his work as America's first troubadour consists of a visitors' center with hand-constructed, painstakingly-detailed, animated dioramas illustrating one of Foster's songs (while the song plays in the background); a museum of magnificent antique pianos, and a 96-bell carillon housed in an awesome 200-foot high campanile that played one of over 200 of Fosters' gentle compositions several times a day.
A note here about Stephen Foster: He was not a Southerner; he visited the south just once, and the closest he got to any river in the south was on his honeymoon on a MISSISSIPPI RIVER riverboat. He was born, raised and lived in Pennsylvania and later New York and never once went near the Suwanee River!
Fourteen artists spent two years creating eight of the ten dioramas in the museum; and from beginning to end, the creation of each diorama averaged 1500 man hours each. This one depicts "Old Folks at Home." In the one illustrating "Way Down Upon De Swanee Ribber," paper leaves were fastened to wire stems, stems to twigs, twigs integrated into plants then painted and bolls of cotton attached to make the cotton rows in that diorama. Just imagine the planning and research that went into them!
Likewise, the exhibited pianos were more than simply lovely instruments. They are magnificent works of art you won't find in a Yamaha: exquisite woods, elegantly carved, with mother-of-pearl keys and delicately painted and bejeweled details. There were several of these beauties.
And then this one...a Steinway Concert Grand Piano, equipped with a very rare Paul vonJanko' keyboard. vonJanko', a Hungarian, invented this keyboard in 1882 hoping to simplify piano technique.
From the museum's handout: "The vonJanko' keyboard is designed so that any given tone can be struck in different places, allowing the pianist to choose the keys most convenient to the position of his hand at any given instant."
Although it was a revolutionary idea, not too many piano players were inclined to learn the new (simplified) fingering -- the keyboard didn't catch on.
The park's exhibition of beautifully-crafted, stately pianos is just that and has no historical relevance to Foster's music. This simple keyboard, however, is one that Stephen Foster actually played!
The daily programs of Foster's melodies are played by specially trained carillonneurs; at other times, by the automatic electric player. The bells also ring out the time in quarter-hour increments. Such sweet music for sweet, uncomplicated times.

Ginnie Springs is a giant family camp developed around seven springs on its 200-acre property that feed into the Santa Fe River. Because there are dozens of crystal-clear springs scattered all up and down the river's banks, there are several campgrounds and resorts hoping to draw vacationers to this (northern) part of the state. The springs' boils and runs are a refreshing 72*; the river is tea colored and acidic from tannins in the vegetation.
In my simple mind, the springs are for swimming; you won't find me in that brown river water!
Because hundreds of millions of gallons of water boil out of each of these springs daily, the "boils" are loosely capped, presumably in an effort to reduce the potential for injury.
Ginnie Springs also claims to be a world-wide draw for derring-do scuba divers who come to explore its extensive underwater limestone cave and cavern system.
Taking tubing to a whole new level! Except for its "No Pets" policy (for which I had to get a special dispensation from upper management and agree to leave before by Friday so the weekend crowds wouldn't see Sambo), this was a delightful place to stop for a little fun and refreshing frolic.
Is it just me ... or have times really changed?!!
Next stop: Georgia

Saturday, June 20, 2009


These beasties hung out in the pond bordering my campsite at John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo.  The adult male would climb down from his mangrove lair every afternoon around three or four to chow down on the plentiful vegetation and insect buffet around my campsite.  He's about five feet long and would throw his head back to display his dewlap if I got just a little too close.
It took a little longer for the two juveniles to determine I wasn't a predator -- just a weirdo with a black thingy growing out of her face!
They may appear clumsy, but Green Iguana Lizards are agile climbers and jumpers, can run at high speeds on their hind legs, and (fooled me until I saw it with my own eyes) are formidable swimmers!
Turtles are the oldest living group of reptiles.  When I was a kid, and while wild animals still roamed Los Angeles area canyons, a little box turtle wandered into our yard one day.  Or maybe it was a tortoise?   Anyway, my sister and I named him "Slow Poke."   We fed him lettuce, he stuck around, and he became part of the family.  He hung out in our yard for years; I never knew what happened to Slow Poke, but since then I've always had a fondness and fascination for turtles.

This is a Florida Softshell Turtle and the strangest creature I've ever seen -- in the turtle family!  Click! Click! Click!  It could only stand just so much of my peering, clicking presence before it finally lumbered off into the high grass.  Its shell is soft, making this turtle more vulnerable than its brethren; its plastron (underside) is white and really meaty; its soft carapace has little knobby bumps that distinguish it from a Smooth Softshell or a Spiny Softshell. Its feet are claw-like.  But it's his snout that truly sets it apart, with a face only a mother could love.  And yours truly!

This is a Florida Cooter; its carapace is almost covered in algae.  It basks in the sunshine during the day because that's what some turtles do, but they also lay about so the algae can dry out and maybe go away. 
When traveling on the Tamiami Trail (Highway) that dissects Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve and you encounter what looks like a dismembered tire, it's entirely possible it was an Alligator in a former life!
Alligators are amazing.  When you stop to think that they have been around for millions of years, getting close to one is like getting close to a living dinosaur. 
A Juvenile
Another Juvenile
Big Daddy!  His mouth is open to catch some air -- it's one of the ways Alligators regulate their body temperature.  Alligators are cold blooded and depend on external temperatures for all activity including feeding and even digesting.  When the water temperature is cool, they crawl out of the water to let their dark skin absorb heat. To cool off, they then return to their "gator holes" for a nice soak.
WARNING:  Next photo not for the squeamish or faint of heart!  Alligators catch and kill with their teeth and jaws, pause until the prey dies, then will swallow the catch whole.  This Otter will probably nourish the Alligator for at least a week.  However, if necessary, Alligators can go two to three years without eating just by surviving off the fat stored in its tail.  
OK, deep breaths now -- that Otter was living dangerously anyway.  It's known as the "food chain."   Alligators are not hunters or gatherers; they're lurkers. The otter probably swam right into its open jaws! Riiight!
I hope this will help restore your equilibrium.
Family:  Anhingidae
Genus, Anhinga
Species, A. anhinga
Binomial name, Anhinga anhinga
This bird is an Anhinga!   It's also known as "Snakebird" because when it swims, only its head and long, sinewy neck protrudes from the water.  When it stabs a fish in its side, Anhinga then tosses it in the air and catches it so it can be swallowed head first, thus avoiding fish scale snags.  These two hung out near the visitor center in the Everglades and were playfully practicing their fish toss with pieces of bark and twigs. The one with a tawny-colored neck (on the railing)  is a female; the one with the darker neck (on the grass) is a male. 

I'm not too adept at capturing movement.  You'll just have to imagine them tossing this piece of bark up in the air and catching it.  Lovely, elegant birds, and they didn't seem to mind an audience.

I was pretty lucky to come across this bird...Wood Storks are endangered.
This is a Green Heron.  (The ranger told me!)

Ditto this juvenile Ibis.  So graceful -- and fascinating to watch how it stalks its dinner.

Herons and Egrets.  Herons belong to the Heron Family; Egrets belong to the Heron Family.  I still haven't been able to distinguish between these birds with any specificity; suffice it to say, they are either Herons or Egrets!  And they are all simply stunning. Even their feet!

I only know the identity of a few of these birds for sure because a Park Ranger took the time to educate me.  Otherwise, without my birder pal, Pat, I had to depend on Audubon's "Field Guide to Florida."  It was fun trying to identify them; I can see how easy it would be to get hooked on birds.

Red Shouldered Hawk
Sanderlings?  Plovers?  One of each?!

Halloween Pennant Dragonfly
Finally, the most ferocious beast of all!  "Won't somebody pullleeze get me out of here"?!!