Thursday, October 27, 2016

Rough Water and Green Pier

When we first arrived on the Gulf Coast, the water was completely calm and flat. During the last two days, however, the yellow warning flags are up, and the waves begin to break far away from the beach. The roar is nice to listen to, but I have no desire to go into the water. I don't like water that moves while I'm in it.
The Okaloosa Island fishing pier in Ft. Walton is a great place to visit even when you don't fish. We saw a sea turtle, dolphins and lots of birds looking for a handout from the fishermen. The original Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier was built in 1972 and extended 962 feet into the Gulf of Mexico. The current pier opened in 1998 and now goes out 1262 feet, which is almost 1/4 mile. An octagon at the end greatly increases the fishing area and lets anglers fight the big fish. However, notice the large lights on high poles. They provide a perch for the birds, but shed far too much light when sea turtles may be trying to nest on the beach nearby.
Today we drove down to Navarre Beach and walked on the fishing pier there. The first thing we noticed was the lack of tall light posts. The newly constructed Navarre Beach Pier opened to the public on June 5, 2010. After five long years of back-breaking work, this pristine pier has loads of new features to make it not only sturdier, but more resilient to future hurricanes. For example, the original “T” shape at the end of the pier is now an octagonal shape with a surface area pushing 3,800 square feet. The deck of the pier has over 800 breakaway boards built into it to help the integrity of the pier during high wave action during hurricanes. If high waves start to pound on the pier, these boards are made to detach themselves from the pier to help relieve the pressure, and therefore, saving the rest of the pier from extensive damage.

Navarre Pier is equipped with over 90 low wattage bulbs and concrete bollards to help protect sea turtles nesting in their natural habitats around the pier. The Santa Rosa County official website also pledges to keep the wildlife around the pier as undisturbed as possible by making sure guests know the proper steps to take in order to keep the wildlife flourishing in this part of the Gulf. It states that “signs are posted with safe fishing guidelines for the protection of sea turtles, birds and dolphins. In the event that a sea turtle, bird or dolphin is hooked or entangled in line, phone numbers to call are posted on the signs. The pier is located in a federally designated critical habitat for the Gulf Sturgeon. Signage is located on the pier educating fishermen about the Gulf Sturgeon. Discarding fish wastes, bait and monofilament line is prohibited. Monofilament recycling stations are located on the pier.”
The steady winds allowed the gulls to simply spread their wings and hover in the air, hoping a fisherman would have something for them.
A few brave young men brought their surf boards to catch a wave. You could easily tell who knew what he was doing and who was a novice.
The purple flags were for dangerous marine life - mainly the jellyfish washing ashore. I didn't take any chances and avoided stepping on them, which is hard when they are broken up into lots of pieces!
Somehow we seem to be between the migration seasons. A little early for the northern breeders, and a little late for the birds heading on south to Central America. We saw a couple Ospreys this morning. Along the bay, we heard a bird I've never heard before. It sounded like it was mimicking some other birds, but it clearly wasn't a Mockingbird. Looking at the photo when we got home, it's clearly a Northern Shrike. Not a life bird, but a good one to add to the list for the week.
Tomorrow we are heading home from this relaxing vacation. Next one? Going to the Space Coast Birding Festival in Titusville, FL next January!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gulfarium Ocean Adventures

Just across the bridge from Destin, you can visit the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park. It's smaller and far more personal than a big place like Sea World. All these dolphins were bred in captivity and wouldn't be able to survive on their own in the wild. When we got home, I took 438 photos off my camera, thanks to the wonders of burst mode. After the first round of editing, I had it down to 247, a more manageable number. Now the hard part is deciding how many of them to feature in this blog post!
The trainers use hand signals to train the dolphins for desired behavior. It may be as simple as touching the trainer's hand with their snout, or calmly putting their tail up for the trainer to draw blood. Of course, each behavior must be solicited in baby steps since there is no good method of communication between the species.
The response is rewarded with a fish, of course. At the end of the day, I decided that the dolphins are actually training the people  using different signals to get them to give a fish! Look at those teeth! They have 80 - 100 cone shaped teeth. Don't want them to grab me.
We have seen quite a few wild dolphins already this trip and probably won't take a boat trip to find more. You aren't supposed to get closer than 50 yards to them, but of course, people don't always pay any attention to distance. I was amazed that they came right into the mouth of the harbor. You would think the boat motor sounds would bother them. There's a real risk of learning to be beggars from people instead of hunting on their own.
 I would think they have a problem with boredom, living in a relatively small tank all their lives. The training and shows probably help keep them from going crazy.
Any time there is a chance of free fish, the laughing gulls hang around looking for handouts.
I was fascinated watching a young White Pelican trying to get a fish out of a feeding container. Just imagine trying to pick up a whole fish with chopsticks! He had a hard time trying to get a grip on his lunch. Normally, White Pelicans catch their fish while swimming in the water, and just open their mouths around it then swallow. What a problem this will be!
Oops! Dropped it on the ground. Still can't just throw it in the air and swallow it down. White Pelicans don't eat that way.
OK, let's get in the water and clean the dirt off.
Ah, now he can grab it properly in the water using his big expandable mouth and throat.
 You can just see it sliding down his translucent gullet. Yummy!
Thinking the Pelican was finished, an opportunistic gull snuck up to grab a bite of fish for himself. Get away from there, you moocher! Ever been chased by the huge wings of a Pelican? This gull has and knew to make a fast getaway.
An afternoon walk on the beach completed our day, and our 10,000+ step goal. Have you ever noticed how birds on the sand all face the same direction, usually facing into the wind? Among cows, this practice lets them all run in the same direction without trampling each other if something attacks. However, one Sandwich Tern was attracted by something over his shoulder.
The clouds are coming in and the ocean looked silver instead of green. This sailor didn't mind, nor did the gull flying off in the distance.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Florida State Parks

At home, I'm used to Kentucky State Resort Parks, where each park has a lodge, cabins and usually the best restaurant in the county. In Florida, however, the state parks are restricted to camping only. Henderson Beach State Park, right in the middle of Destin, has 6,000 feet of natural beach and dunes, in the only undeveloped stretch of land for miles.
It's fun to go there, but you still hear all the traffic noises right over the nearest dune. I like to watch for tracks in the sand to see if I can guess the animal that made them. This time of year, far more people go to the beach in front of their house/rental units than come to the beach at a state park. Of course, there is a small admission price.
Florida Rosemary
The signs along the nature trail help identify the plants growing in the dunes. I noticed this strange one with six needles growing in rows on each branch. The sign said it was Florida Rosemary.
1,640-acre Topsail Hill State Park features a variety of habitats: pristine beaches, freshwater coastal dune lakes, old-growth longleaf pine forests and wetlands. We got more than 10,000 steps in before noon. Some of the dunes are over 25 feet tall! No vehicles are allowed in the park outside the campgrounds, so it's walk or bike. The beach is about 3.25 miles long, again, with few people enjoying it besides us.
Cooper's Hawk
Eastern Phoebe
 We saw and heard some birds we already knew.
Snowy Plover
Snowy Plover
As we walked down the beach to the shuttle stop, we saw a woman in an ATV. "Seen any good birds?" she inquired. "Do you know about the Snowy Plover? Only 600 of them left in all of Florida, and I just saw one back down the beach. Knew you were birders when I saw the binoculars and camera." We headed back where she pointed and indeed, found not one but TWO of the endangered Snowy Plovers! If you look closely, you can see its leg bands. He's in winter plumage now, so no dark bands. Too Cool!
She wore a shirt indicating she worked for a project with the Audubon Society, so I asked her where all the Ring-Billed and Herring Gulls were.  "Oh, the Arctic birds are just about to arrive for the winter," she replied. Artic Gulls? Looked at the range in the field guide and they do breed much farther north and winter down here. I've always seen them because we are only here in the winter!
Ghost Crab
Ghost Crab Spying on Snowy Plover
 Another shy resident of undeveloped beaches in the Ghost Crab. This tiny guy is the same color as the sand where he lives, making him virtually invisible, unless you catch him moving from the corner of your eye. He doesn't walk forward, but sideways, and will scurry into his burrow when threatened by a giant human being. Somehow, I got this one watching the Snowy Plover preening.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Gulls on the Beach

 We spent the afternoon on the beach. A trip to Walmart's and we found how people keep their umbrellas from falling over. There's a holder that screws into the sand, and the umbrella slides down into it. Our wasn't big enough to give a lot of shade, but it's a start.
 The people at the next umbrella over were feeding the gulls, which gave me lots of opportunities to get the gulls in flight.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Back in Destin Again

How surprised I was when Dick said were in Destin as recently as 2013. We have traveled to so many places since then, it seems like a much longer time. As we drove around today, many places looked familiar.

Monarch butterflies are still on their way to Mexico, but most of the bright orange butterflies are Gulf fritillaries and some of my favorites. Starting in late summer and continuing through fall, huge numbers of adults migrate southward into peninsular Florida. Adults overwinter in frost-free portions of their range. The Gulf fritillary produces multiple generations each year. Adults may be found in all months of the year throughout much of Florida. Females lay the small yellow eggs singly on or near leaves, stems or tendrils of purple passionflower which the larvae devour upon hatching.

Forster's Tern
Laughing Gull Winter Plumage

Royal Tern
Ruddy Turnstone
Sandwich Tern
The sun was blindingly bright, making it hard to adjust to squinting in the light to looking through a small view scope on the camera, even when shaded by my hat. We saw the gulls and terns I normally expect this time of year in Florida, but no Willets and no Ring-billed Gulls. Hmmm. The Sandwich Terns have obviously been eating mustard with their sandwiches again!

Several Great Blue Herons waded in the clear shallow water below the Ft. Walton Pier. One caught several fish, but moved too quickly for me to catch at it with the camera. Raptors have 14 neck bones, and I wondered how many neck vertebra herons have to stretch and coil their necks. Hidden by skin and neck feathers, the extra bones double back on themselves, giving the resting neck its characteristic “S” shape. They are also the force behind the lethal bill. As expected, the neck bones begin at the back of the great blue’s skull. A short way down the neck, a remarkable thing happens. The neck vertebrae switch places with the trachea and esophagus. The neck bones are now in the front and the vulnerable food and wind pipes are behind them. As the neck gets closer to the body, its internal arrangement returns to a normal configuration with the bones in the back. Couldn't find anything confirming how many bones they have though.

For $2.00 you can walk out on the pier. Only the Yankees, I told Dick, would sit in swim suits on a windy chilly day such as this morning. The local fisher people on the pier were dressed in warm jackets and hats. The local birds know to hang around and someone will throw a fish on the deck eventually. Of course, the pigeons don't care much for fish.

From the pier we saw shapes in the water, and tried to determine what they were. Fish? Jelly fish? Trash? One round dark spot appeared to be swimming, and eventually stuck its head into the air - a turtle! Several other long dark spots swimming along surfaced and we got our first view of dolphins, without paying someone to go out in a boat to look for them!
Pyramid of Giza on the beach
 One beach goer was either a good artist or an Egyptian architect. We found him working on the great pyramid of Giza right here in Ft. Walton Beach.

I'm sure some wave theory in physics explains the water wave and the waves in the sand as well. A website from Scientific American says, "The most accepted explanation is that the flow of the overlying fluid (water or air) interacts with the moving sediment grains in a manner that results in a stable shape, or bedform. The specific shape therefore depends on the density and viscosity of the fluid, its speed above the sand and the nature of the sediment (that is, its characteristic size, shape and density)." I'm just as happy to appreciate them without having to explain how they are formed. Of course, they didn't mention footprints of people walking back to the boardwalk.!