The Everglades… A Photographic Exploration of America’s National Parks

Photo of a Black Buzzard in Everglades National Park. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

I’ve blogged about Black Buzzards before, but these characters deserve a repeat visit.

Peggy, in her former life, which I refer to as BC, before Curt, bought some swampland in Port Charlotte, Florida with dreams of a handsome profit. Eventually, over a period of about 20 years, the land reached the value she and her ex-husband had paid for it. In the heady years of the early 2000s, the property shot up to triple the original investment. We were able to dump (oh, I mean sell) it before the 2006 housing crash to a land speculator. We split the profits between our kids, the realtor, and Uncle Sam.

I tell this story because the property provided an excuse to visit Florida. It was one of three. The second was that Peggy’s parents had retired to the state from Ohio, joining the relentless flood of people from the Midwest whose elderly bones had lost their sense of humor about freezing cold winters. My brother, Marshall, a homeless man with a bank account and a van, provided the third excuse. He included Florida on his migration route. Marshall, in fact, gave us advice on when to sell the property. In the days before he had decided being homeless was more fun, he had owned a successful real estate appraisal business.

Our regular trips to Florida gave us a chance to explore the state, which can be quite scenic if you can see around the billboards and like orange trees. It’s long sandy beaches are very attractive. Peggy loves them. As a general rule, the state is too flat for me. I can gain more elevation in the twenty-minute walk to our mailbox than I can from driving to the top of Florida’s highest hill.

The low elevation and flat land make for  extensive wetlands in Florida, however. And I find this quite attractive. The swamps are filled with fascinating wildlife such as Black Buzzards, Pink Flamingos and the lurking alligators. Everglades National Park provides an excellent opportunity to explore what Florida has to offer.

Photo of Flamingos by Curtis Mekemson.

You are much more likely to see photographs about Flamingos than Black Buzzards when reading about the Everglades. I suspect you have never seen a yard featuring plastic buzzards.

Anhinga in Everglades National Park.

This Anhinga was drying his feathers and presented another photo-op. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Alligator sunbathing in the Florida Everglades.

We came on this alligator sunbathing. It would be hard to appear more relaxed. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Alligator swimming through water in Florida Everglades. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

I photographed this guy as he swam under a wooden bridge the park had built out above the wetlands.

Everglade deer photographed by Curtis Mekemson.

This buck, whose antlers were still in velvet, came by to visit our campsite.

Everglades lake photo by Curtis Mekemson.

The Everglades teem with life. Our binoculars showed that the trees across the lake were filled with birds.

Photo of Wood Stork in Everglades by Curtis Mekemson.

This fellow, with his definitive neck and bill, is a Wood Stork.

Everglades Black Buzzard. Photograph by Curtis Mekemson.

I’ll close this brief visit to the Everglades with two more photos of the Black Buzzards.

Florida Everglades Black Buzzard take a bow. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Taking a bow. The buzzard and I thank you for following this blog. (grin)

NEXT BLOG: Since we’ve been hanging out where it is really wet, let’s dry out and head for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southern Arizona next to the Mexican Border.

It’s National Park Week 2013… April 20-28

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

It’s National Park Week. One of my blogging friends reminded me. Somehow I lost track of time and became so wrapped up in the minutia of life that the week had arrived before I realized it was happening. Shame on me.

The United States and many other nations around the world have done a magnificent job of setting aside national parks. We owe it to ourselves to go out and explore these treasures. And, we owe it to our great, great, great, great-grandchildren to protect these sites of rare natural beauty for future generations.

It won’t be easy. There will always be people who believe financial gain outweighs any other consideration. Why save thousand-year-old redwood trees when they can be turned into highly profitable redwood decks?

Redwood

This 1500 year old redwood is located in Redwoods National Park on the northern coast of California.

Several years ago, Peggy and I set a goal to visit all of America’s National Parks. With the exception of Kobuk Valley and Lake Clark in Alaska, we’ve succeeded. It has been an incredible journey. Our travels have taken us from Denali National Park in Alaska to the Dry Tortugas National Park off the Florida Keys.

In addition to driving through and hiking in these parks, I have also backpacked in 13, biked through five, and kayaked or rafted in three. Once I even organized a winter ski trek into Denali National Park where we slept out in minus 30-degree weather and listened to wolves howl. That was a learning experience…

Since I couldn’t escape to a national park this week, I did the next best thing; I went through photos of parks Peggy and I have taken. All I could think of was wow– what incredible beauty!

Rocky National Park in Colorado.

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Hawaii Volcanos National Park.

An active volcano in Hawaii Volcanos National Park on the Island of Hawaii.

Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming.

Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming. A sign warned us to look out for an active grizzly bear.

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park, Utah

Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park, California

Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park, California. I once woke up near here with a bear standing on top of me.

Fall colors of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia

Fall colors of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park.

Sand dunes in Death Valley National Park.

The green of Olympic National Park in Washington.

The green of Olympic National Park in Washington.

Lesser known National Parks such as Great Basin in Nevada also hold great charm and beauty. This photo features the van Peggy  and I travelled in for four years as we travelled around North America.

Lesser known national parks such as Great Basin in Nevada also hold great charm and beauty. This photo features the van Peggy and I travelled in for four years as we wandered around North America.

Spectacular scenery is only part of the national park story. Wildlife, birds, insects, reptiles, flowers and history add to the experience.

Peggy and I found this beauty swimming through the water at Everglades National Park in Florida.

Peggy and I found this beauty swimming through the water at Everglades National Park in Florida.

And this striking Black Buzzard was another Everglades resident.

And this striking Black Buzzard was another Everglades resident.

We found this Luna Moth on the Natchez National Parkway.

We found this Luna Moth on the Natchez Trace National Parkway.

Brown Pelicans are a common visitor at Pt. Reyes National Seashore.

Brown Pelicans are common visitors at Pt. Reyes National Seashore.

Peggy and I are great fans of Native America rock art, much of which is protected in National Parks and at National Monuments. This man with his big hands and fat little dogs has always been one of my favorites.

Peggy and I are great fans of Native America rock art, much of which is protected in national parks and at national monuments. We have several thousand photos from different sites. This one from Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado/Utah has always been a favorite because of the big hands and fat little dogs.

It never hurts to complete a blog with a pretty flower. We found this Foxglove growing in Olympic National Park.

It never hurts to complete a blog with a pretty flower, even if it goes on and on. (grin) We found this Foxglove growing in Olympic National Park.

NEXT BLOG: I hope you have enjoyed my two diversions over the past week because of Earth Day and National Park Week. On Monday I will return to Europe and Rome’s historic Colosseum.

The Wonderful World of Birds’ Bills… On the Road

I love pelicans. They have that ‘put together by a committee’ look. Check out the sharp hook on his bill. I took this photo in Baja California near Cabo San Lucas.

 

A wonderful bird is the pelican, His bill will hold more than his belican.

Dixon Lanier Merritt

Whenever I see a pelican, Dixon Merritt’s poem pops into my mind unbidden. Birds’ beaks, or bills if you prefer, are wonderful adaptations to their environment.

As I write this blog from my home in southern Oregon, a Rufous Hummingbird has his beak buried deep in our feeder while a Black Headed Grosbeak worries sunflower seeds on the hill behind him. The hummingbird’s beak is long and delicate, designed to capture nectar in the hidden recesses of flowers. The grosbeak’s beak is short and stubby, perfect for cracking open seeds.

I photographed the Brown Pelican in Baja California near Cabo San Lucas. Peggy found the Snowy Egret there as well. The rest of the birds featured in this blog are from Florida except for my final picture of Brown Pelicans. Few places can match Everglades National Park when it comes to unique bird life with interesting bills.

Peggy captured this Snowy Egret on film on the same Baja trip we found the pelican. Both Egrets and Herons have spear like bills. I like the way the Egret’s shadow allows his feet to be seen.

Speaking of spear like bills, how would you like to be on the receiving end of this one? I took this photo of a Great Blue Heron in Florida. While we normally think of Great Blue Herons eating frogs, fish and baby alligators, they are also quite fond of small rodents. I have often watched them patiently stalk mice on the Bodega Bay Headlands of Northern California. Their strike is lightning fast.

This Anhinga in Everglades National Park is obviously eyeing something in the grass next to it. Like Cormorants, Anhinga are designed to catch their dinner while diving and are well designed to do so.

A more typical picture of an Anhinga, drying its wings after a dive.

This Sand Hill Crane and four buddies came strolling into our camp in Central Florida.

When one thinks Florida and Everglades, it is natural to think of Flamingos. It’s hard to find more colorful beaks.

In my last blog I featured Black Vultures in Everglades National Park. This one looks pensive. Again, note the hooked bill designed for tearing flesh off of dead things.

White Ibis are common in the Everglades. They use their long curved bill to probe mud.

This guy is a little fuzzy but any collection of photos featuring birds beaks needs to include the Spoonbill, another resident of the Florida Everglades.

The mottled head and beak of a Wood Stork, also photographed in the Everglades.

I’ll close with my favorite bird. I took this shot of Brown Pelicans just south of Santa Barbara, California.

The Handsome Black Vulture… Everglades National Park

A Black Vulture appears to take a bow after cleaning out a camper’s food.

The warning signs at Flamingo Campground in Everglades National Park were clear: Food Must Be Properly Stored. The best place was in the trunk of your vehicle.

The folks from New Jersey apparently didn’t get the message, or more likely, chose to ignore it. Signs were posted everywhere. They left their picnic table packed with a weeks worth of food as they drove off.

I glanced over from our campsite five minutes later. The trees over the table had turned black. Fifty or so vultures were contemplating dinner. What happened next wasn’t pretty. If you have ever watched hyper five-year-olds tear into Christmas presents you get the picture. Food wrapping paper flew everywhere.

I walked over and shouted at the invading forces. They flew up into the trees. As I walked back to our site they returned to their feast. I tried again. This time they croaked angrily at being interrupted and walked away instead of flying. As I strolled after them another group landed on the table. An exploding bag of potato chips elicited a chorus of delight.

I gave up. You have to know when you are defeated. I once tried to rescue an ice chest from a bear at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. A family from Iowa had left it outside their camper. The bear stood up on his hind legs and growled at me.  He was huge. I told the bear he was welcome to the ice chest and the Iowans.

I left the Black Vultures with a similar message. Later that night I heard the family from New Jersey arrive back at their camp. They let loose a torrent of obscenities that even a writer couldn’t imagine. Their camp looked like New Orleans after Katrina. The family was laughing the next morning, however. One of the joys of travel is having stories to tell when you get back home and they had a doozy.

Usually Black Vultures eat carrion. You can spot them throughout the Southeast wherever roadkill is found. But they are also quite willing to clean out a camper, gather at the local municipal dump or even eat an occasional calf. They are birds of opportunity.

Like buzzards, they have bald heads to make reaching into dead things easier. Imagine how messy feathers would become. They also have large ripping beaks and are noted for peeing on their legs to keep cool. Given all this you may find it surprising I think they are quite handsome. But check out their photos below.

Black Vultures are monogamous and share incubation responsibilities. They don’t build nests but are known to lay their two eggs in caves, on rocks or even in old buildings. Bits of broken glass, bright plastic, bottle caps and other baubles are used to decorate the area. They value privacy and may scout an area for days to assure its isolation. Young vultures often stay with their parents for years in a social group.

In addition to the Southeast, they are found throughout Central and South America. With global warming they are expanding into the north.

One reason given for Black Vultures assuming this pose is to dry out their feathers. I often seen buzzards perched in trees in the West with wings spread like this before beginning to fly on damp mornings. The wingspan of mature Black Vultures is around five feet.

This is the same Black Vulture shown above with his wings folded. He looks well fed to me. Note his large feet.

I found this Black Vulture along the Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park.

The vulture waited patiently while I took photos. Maybe he was contemplating my food value. Note the large, ripping beak. It is easy to understand how this guy would make short work of either a dead cow or a bag of potato chips. In my next blog I will feature specialized beaks from other Everglades birds.

A closed eyelid gave this Black Vulture an eerie appearance. While my readers may not agree with my handsome designation, I am sure that everyone will agree that these birds have a striking appearance.

Gators and Glades… The National Park Series

The ancestors of this alligator, photographed in Florida’s Everglades National Park, roamed the earth some 150 million years ago.

I’ve been following the blog Serenity Spell by FeyGirl that explores the natural world of Florida. It is well written and includes great photos, in-depth information, and a strong ecological philosophy. I highly recommend it.

FeyGirl’s posts have reminded me of my own experiences in the Everglades National Park and other Florida wetlands.

My brother Marshall, a 72-year-old homeless man with a pickup truck and a bank account, likes to hide out in remote Florida campgrounds six months out of the year and read books. Catching up with him has taken me into places where tourists rarely tread. Trust me, Marshall does not hang out at Disneyworld or Epcot Center.

Peggy’s parents, John and Helen, also lived in Central Florida for years and John, in his 70s and 80s at the time, loved to take us for hikes and point out anhinga, alligators, cottonmouths and other Florida wildlife.

Given all this, I decided to write about the Everglades this week. I’ll start with alligators, move on to a handsome vulture and end with some very impressive bird beaks.

The photographer in me loves alligators. They are big (up to 1000 pounds), like to sunbathe and don’t see any reason to run away. With over a million residing in Florida, they are also easy to find. During dry season they congregate where water is found and actually enlarge wet areas by digging out “gator holes.”

What makes them so photogenic, however, is their exotic look. It comes from having been around for 150 million years and surviving the demise of dinosaurs. I am particularly fond of photographing them as they slither through the water. It captures them at their primitive best.

I begin photographing this alligator at some distance and ended when it was a few feet away. He went about his own business and I went on about mine.

The most surprising fact for me about alligators is that the females make such good mothers. They start by building nests two-three feet high of plant debris and dirt.  They then lay 30 to 50 eggs and patiently guard the nest for 70 days until the babies hatch. The sex of the babies is determined by how warm the nest is. Cooler produces females, hotter produces males.

Mom’s job isn’t over with the hatching. She hangs out and protects her babies for another year. Lots of things including other alligators, fish, raccoons and even Great Blue Herons find baby alligators tasty. Later, when the babies grow up, they return the favor by eating the same creatures that wanted to eat them. What goes around comes around.

The protective coloration of these young alligators makes them difficult to see. Mom is hiding out near by on guard duty against predators.

One predator that is fond of eating baby alligators is the Great Blue Heron. Peggy photographed this one about 50 yards away from where the pod of young alligators was located.

While alligators normally don’t eat people, they are dangerous. Any animal that weighs several hundred pounds, has 80 sharp teeth and a bite to die for deserves respect. Ask a dog. Their collars are frequently found in the stomachs of alligators that live in close proximity to people. Alligators rarely catch cats. The dog sees the alligator as something to bark at and chase off of the property. The cat sees the alligator as a reason for climbing a tree. It’s best to error on the side of cats.

Reptiles that can weigh several hundred pounds, have mouths full of teeth, and jaws with crushing power deserve respect.

Our traveling mascot, Eeyore the Donkey, hides out in the van when we go out to photograph alligators.

As one might expect, alligators are particularly aggressive during breeding season and while protecting nests. Also, feeding alligators is both dangerous and illegal. A Florida man learned this lesson the hard way a few days ago and lost his hand.

Having put in the cautionary label, respect not fear is the key word. These ancient reptiles are fascinating to see and safe to visit as long as common sense and caution are used. The Anhinga Trail at the Royal Palm Visitor Center in Everglades National Park provides a safe, excellent introduction to alligators as well as Florida’s unique bird life. Winter is the best time to visit.

We caught this alligator doing what alligators love to do, sunbathe. I took this photo on the Anhinga Trail next to the Royal Palm Visitor Center at Everglades National Park. I love the way the gator’s body conforms to the rock.