We had a great trip down to Chokoloskee for Grandma's birthday. It was short - arriving Friday evening and leaving Sunday evening - but I packed a great deal in to it.
We had fun decorating the RV and throwing Grandma a birthday party. Aunt Kathy bought pounds of crabs, that we ate in the dark and cold on the deck since they are so messy. It was really too cold that night for the wimpy among us (me) to eat many of them before retreating inside to eat salad in the warmth. But we had the leftovers the next night, so it worked out well. We also had key lime pie for birthday cake, and of course the presents. Grandma really liked the bag I was so proud of, so that worked out well.
We also went for a wonderful boardwalk nature walk in to a refuge, and we were able to see all kinds of birds. They came up amazingly close to the boardwalk and didn't seem to be at all afraid of the people. I swear they know noone can harm them there. This is a Great Egret and a Great Blue Heron just hanging out in the marsh at the end of the boardwalk. They were sort of fishing, sort of just sitting around. And not at all intimidated by the people milling about excited to see them - or the Momma Gator and her babies also swimming there.
Actually, none of the birds appeared afraid of the gators. I'm thinking they must be able to feed well on the fish, because the clearly aren't threatening to the birds. Not that this sleepy face, right off the boardwalk where the heron and egret were, was terribly threatening. But, it grows in to THIS face. This monster was in the drainage ditch, beside the road, right at the start of the trail. As a Florida girl, I observed him carefully from a good distance and only once it was clear he was resting and uninterested in the humans - or the birds nearby, for that matter - did I move closer for a picture. And not that close, mind you. This picture was taken with a powerful telephoto lens extended all the way. But, I do know that gators won't bother you as long as you treat them with a healthy respect. If they haven't been fed by humans and so taught to associate humans with food, that is. That last fact had me treating this guy with even greater caution, since we were in a tourist spot. Unfortunately, long-distance tourists are often either terrified by the gators (usually ones like this big guy) or think they are cute Disney creations (usually the little ones like the one above). Neither reaction is a particularly good thing - you NEVER want to run it to a gator who associates humans with food (take it from someone who has), but neither do you want a big commotion scaring the gator in to thinking he needs to protect himself. Fortunately, the Everglades seems to attract responsible tourists. I noticed that noone was trying to feed any of the animals on the trail, whether the birds or the tiny gators. (The ones still being protected by their Momma were even smaller than the one I got a good shot of.) But, I've digressed in to an unneeded lecture.
Moving on - this trail also had a Bald Eagles nest. Not so close to the trail, but clearly visible as little bobbing colors to the naked eye. Much more visible to the binoculars or telephoto lens. I still had to crop this photo way down to get an identifiable shot, mind you. Eagle nests are huge. And high. The refuge reports two parent eagles and two eaglets, but I was only able to see this fella (lady?). An incredibly impressive bird - no wonder our founding fathers chose this symbol of might to represent our nation.
I, however, wanted to see a red-shouldered hawk. We could hear one calling, or at least my aunt (who would know) told me that was what we heard. I said to my Mom "Oh, I'd love to see a red-shouldered hawk. I haven't seen one in years." A few minutes later Mom pointed one out to me... flying about three miles up. Literally, this was a speck of a profile in the sky and Mom says "There, Cara. There's your hawk." Uhm. Yeah. So, I mentioned that I had in mind seeing one just a bit closer. We continue down the trail, literally just two or three minutes later, and a red shouldered hawk swoops down beside the boardwalk and starts trying to wrestle something (a snake? baby gators? fish? definitely prey) out from under a pile of brush. He pays no mind to the crowd on the boardwalk and continues his hunting. When he gives up, he just perches there and does a bit of grooming. (And I swear he shot me a dirty look when I took a picture of him preening his feathers. My sister agrees; his look definitely said 'personal hygiene is not appropriate subject matter for photographs.') He then swoops over the board walk, within inches of my little cousin's head, and proceeds to pose on a pretty branch. And he is a handsome boy. Wouldn't you agree?
When not celebrating birthdays or on nature walks, we explored the area around Chokoloskee. Mom and I found two old graveyards on our walk. One was pretty sad, but this one was definitely a sweet remembrance to well loved people. Even graves from the late 1800s had recent flowers and mementos. Many of the graves had plantings around them, others had windchimes, bells or other special memorabilia and one had a full out memory garden with plants, decorations, chimes and a poster telling you about the person. It was a beautiful graveyard. And only the Hallmons (me, Mom and Meg - not so much Dad) would want to take pictures of a graveyard. At least when those buried there have no connection to them. But meaningful graveyards tell you so much about the people buried there, and the people who loved them. And isn't that the point?
It was a great weekend. Filled with family, nature and a near immersion in old Florida. It was much too short, but it was refreshing, revitalizing and (though just barely) worth through five hour drive each way. And it reminded me that I need to get out - out of the city, out of my routine - more. I'll be looking for an opportunity to drag Alex camping in the near future. (Maybe not too near, as its taken me a full week to complete this one post, saying something about all the things we find to do as it is!)