Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Eve

To celebrate the end of the year we headed to some of our favorite public lands in the region: Wakulla Springs State Park and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. It finally warmed up after another early cold snap here in North Florida, so it was a beautiful way to spend the last day of the year. Many other families must have thought the same as both parks were very busy.

Our first stop, and the main goal of the day, was Wakulla Springs. Wakulla Springs is a popular tourist stop, with people coming from around the globe to see one of the deepest freshwater springs in the world. Boat tours provide visitors with a rare opportunity to see Florida’s wildlife up close, including several species of birds, alligators, turtles, and even manatees during the winter months. The cave at the source of the spring is 185 feet down and on a clear day, you can see all the way to the bottom. Unfortunately, the water is usually too dark from overgrowth of plant life, likely caused by human impacts (i.e. fertilizer runoff). I have never been to the park on a day when the glass bottom boat tours are running, and the rangers will inform you that this may only happen a couple of days out of the year. Even if you can’t see to the bottom of the spring, the waters that flow from it, forming the Wakulla River, are usually crystal clear, making it easy to see the fish, turtles, and manatees swimming below.

We had heard from several sources that there was a large group of manatees seeking refuge in the warmer waters of the spring this winter, and Matt had only seen manatees in south Florida. We arrived a little before noon and were fortunate enough to get the last seats for the 12:00 boat tour. We saw the usual suspects (alligators, Suwannee river cooters, common moorhens, and black vultures), as well as an American bittern, bald eagle, and three yellow-crowned night herons. Before we even got on the boat, Matt got a glimpse of the manatees hanging out near the dock, but we got an even better look from the boat. During the tour we saw six manatees! During the winter months they seek out warmer waters such as Wakulla Springs, which is a constant 69 degrees year round. These gentle mammals often fall victim to boat motors as is evidenced by the scars visible on their backs.

After we accomplished our manatee goal at Wakulla Springs we headed south for our annual winter visit to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in search of wintering ducks. We came up with a decent species list and enjoyed the warm weather. Some of the highlight species were redheads, northern shovelers, dozens of tricolored herons (the highest density we’d ever seen), another American bittern, and, I believe, a marsh wren. We also saw thousands of peeps (e.g. little shorebirds such as least sandpiper) that, without a tripod for our spotting scope, were next to impossible to identify. Even with a spotting scope I’m not sure I would have been able to ID them, as peeps are one of the hardest groups for me to identify! We just wanted to do some leisurely birding, and to give you an idea of how hard we were trying, at one point Matt was snoozing in his pickup while I walked one of the dikes. A full list for the day can be found below.

The final highlight of the day was a mother alligator with her babies resting on her back! Even though they are common, I will never get tired of alligators.

New Year’s Eve Bird List:

1. Pied-billed Grebe

2. Brown Pelican

3. Double-crested Cormorant

4. Anhinga

5. American Bittern

6. Great Blue Heron

7. Great Egret

8. Snowy Egret

9. Little Blue Heron

10. Tricolored Heron

11. Green Heron

12. Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron

13. White Ibis

14. Wood Duck

15. Mallard

16. Northern Shoveler

17. American Wigeon

18. Canvasback

19. Redhead

20. Scaup (Greater or Lesser?)

21. Bufflehead

22. Hooded Merganser

23. Black Vulture

24. Osprey

25. Bald Eagle

26. Northern Harrier

27. Red-shouldered Hawk

28. Common Moorhen

29. American Coot

30. Semipalmated Plover

31. Killdeer

32. Willet

33. Gulls

34. Belted Kingfisher

35. Red-bellied Woodpecker

36. Eastern Phoebe

37. Marsh Wren?

38. American Robin

39. Gray Catbird

40. Yellow-rumped Warbler

41. Savannah Sparrow?

42. Boat-tailed Grackle

Happy New Year!

Aubrey and Matt