Wednesday, February 1, 2017

#20 - Wednesday, 1 February 2017 | Okeechobee, Florida

Hello February from Okeechobee, Florida where it is currently 78ºF/26ºC. I type this during my second visit to Applebee's since my arrival to the area (the first was the first night's dinner). Tonight will be night three of five at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Not only is there no wi-fi, but my cell signal is almost non-existent. The park is situated far from cities and cell towers and my beautiful campsite is shaded by amazing old trees covered with epiphytes and Spanish moss. I hope to wean myself of my Internet dependency as the year progresses, but I will always seek out free wi-fi when I can. Starbucks is the most dependable source of both the finest espresso and high speed inter webs, but there isn't one anywhere near here. The drive from my campsite to Okeechobee is about 50 minutes, 15 of which is spent driving the white sand and gravel road leading out of the park. The remoteness of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park (KPPSP) lends itself to many things. It is known to be the finest place in Florida for stargazing and one of my campsite neighbors has two huge telescopes set up next to his equally huge and impressive RV coach.

Site 27, Equestrian Campground, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

My favorite part of the drive 33 miles southeast to Okeechobee (and back) is the huge flocks of Sandhill Cranes I see each time. I so enjoyed photographing these magnificent birds in northern Illinois last year and I wonder if any of those that frequented Huntley are feeding in the south central Florida warmth. The first evening I saw one pasture that held at least fifty cranes, perhaps closer to 75. Today I saw groups ranging from several to dozens and many were near water-filled oases. I also saw many in flight. Sandhill cranes 

The state park is beautiful and this morning I hiked almost four hours. The park is expansive (54,000 acres) and there are many trails. As it is prairie filled with palmetto scrub, there is little tree cover, but many of the trails lead from the sweeping grassland vistas in out of shady hammocks. In one island of trees I watched a pair of flickers (woodpeckers) for some time and photographed them. Vultures soared overhead and small birds flitted among the palmetto. They were far too fast to view for long much less photograph, but I believe that many were the endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow. The sun was strong and my liter of water began to disappear quicker than I would have liked. My eyes scanned everywhere for reptiles and I had hoped that they would be warming after a comparatively cool early year night. I startled a couple of grouse hidden in the scrub. Actually, my heart jumped and it would be fairer to say that they startled me. Further along a raptor rosefrom the trailside ground ahead and flew across the prairie. Although it quickly distanced itself from me, the beak shape revealed its identity and I may have cursed at having missed the chance to get a good view, and perhaps a photograph, of a Crested Caracara. These falcon relatives are very different in shape and habits, and are known to often feed on carrion. They are known from central Florida, central and southern Texas and south-central Arizona south into Mexico. I continued along the trail and was surprised that what seemed like mostly a dry area became increasingly wetland. I hoped this might mean snakes and I searched around accumulated water. Out of water and my the ball of my right foot becoming very pained I picked up speed after consulting my trail map and finding the right trail to lead me back towards camp. The white sand trail became wide enough for my truck and I observed tracks from the ranger's ATVs and some paw prints that had me wondering if panthers were found in the park. A blue heron and a couple of great white egrets spooked as I approached and I knew that the sides of the trail must be marshy. Soon the water reached both sides of the trail. Where one culvert passed beneath the trail I paused and saw both baby and juvenile alligators in the water. I photographed them for some time and began to wonder if mother might be nearby. The marshy grass showed clear signs of alligator trails. There were banded neonate alligators, but also yearlings and they varied in size based on feeding and growth. I started looking more closely for an adult. I walked to the other side of the trail (the other end of the culvert pipe) and I don't know if mom or I were more startled. She was about seven feet long and was laying in the grass sunning herself. At sight of the big tattooed primate she dove into the water and sought cover inside the mouth of the pipe. I moved along and picked up pace to return to camp for much needed water and a cold shower.

Once I was refreshed and wearing t-shirt, shorts and sandals, I headed into town. As I drove out of KPPSP, I saw a raptor ahead on the road. I slowed my truck and noticed that it was feeding. As I got closer I knew that it was a crested caracara. Perhaps I would have another chance to capture an image or three. I pulled over. Whenever I am driving I have two cameras on the passenger seat. One body has my 300mm f4 super telephoto with 1.4x teleconverter and the other has my amazing 70-200mm f2.8 wildlife workhorse. The first is equivalent to 630mm on my APC (cropped sensor) bodies and I pointed it at the bird. I was able to snap a couple of exposures, but it took to flight before I had a chance to do what I hoped. I jumped back into the truck and chased after it. It was flying parallel to the road on the right side perhaps 50 feet above the ground and moving at a good clip. I drove faster in pursuit watching for it to land. Ahead it landed on a elevated wood platform. I am not sure what the purpose of the structure is, but it sort of looks like an osprey nesting platform only about ten times as large. I'll have to investigate it later when I return to camp. The caracara landed and I was able to drive just past and pull off the road. It seemed much more comfortable sitting high above the ground and I spent about five minutes firing off maybe 100 exposures. I can't wait to review my photos later. Hopefully at least one will make it to Instagram along with some gator shots. I won't be able to post until I have wi-fi again though ...

My plan for the evening is to finish tidying the Wheelhouse. Almost everything is put away now and I will then relax with a movie. Tomorrow morning I plan to film a tour of the campsite and the interior of the Wheelhouse. I'll post it to YouTube and share here.

All the best, M

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