Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunsets over Big Pine Key

I’ve been scarce this summer, I know. I’ve been super busy running around the Florida Keys working, educating, learning, playing, and soaking in the sunshine.

Sunset as seen from the Port Pine Heights neighborhood, July 2014

Sunset as seen from the Port Pine Heights neighborhood, July 2014

Highlights of my summer have included watching a pair of Anhingas court, build a nest, lay eggs, incubate, and now care for their 2 chicks.

Anhingas on the nest, Blue Hole, Big Pine Key, FL

Exploring Long Beach
I developed and help run a 6 week guided nature walk series throughout the summer. It ran Wednesday evenings, which quickly became my favorite time of day to be outside. The temps are lower, the sunsets are beautiful, and the bugs aren’t that bad! We’re finished now, as the kids here are back in school, which has surprised me! In NY I didn’t go back to high school until after Labor Day Weekend.

Our 6 weeks of walks had a different theme. Week #1 brought the group to the Long Beach part of the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge. This is an ocean-side (as opposed to bay-side, this is Keys lingo) beach. It’s not very pleasant for us humans, as there is a lot of vegetation, coral, rocks, and sea grasses. It’s fun to explore the intertidal zones, watch for birds, and run into Key deer along the way. We scooped up handfuls of sand, and realized that it’s not born from granite and quartz, like on the East Coast beaches, but it’s biological in nature. We could pick out tiny shells and bits of corals, which was really neat.

Gambusia sp. or more commonly known as Mosquito-fish, 
are dumped in the freshwater wetlands by a mosquito 
control company. These fish are used as a biological control 
for mosquitoes, which eat the larvae, and therefore help make 
the Keys liveable.
On our second guided walk, we ventured off the beaten path and explored a hidden freshwater wetland. People are surprised to hear that we have an abundance of available, fresh water. But, that’s a reason why we have wildlife like Key deer, marsh rabbits, wading birds, and amphibians. Personally, I wanted to find frogs during this trip. I spent a lot of time online the day before, looking up documented NATIVE species of frogs found on Big Pine Key. I even spoke with a herpetologist who had done work in the Keys, and was familiar with local critters. Unfortunately, we were skunked, and did not catch any frogs. We saw a couple, but they were much too quick! The kids thoroughly enjoyed it though, getting wet, catching fish with little nets, and I think just being outside!

Green Heron seen at the Blue Hole during the photo safari!
Week #3 brought us to a popular place on the Refuge, the Blue Hole. This is an old limestone quarry, and has filled in naturally with freshwater. Alligators, fish, turtles, birds, deer, lizards all spend a lot of time in and around Blue Hole. There’s a nice gravel patch that walks you through the trees, and out onto a wooden observation deck to view the pond. We encouraged our guests during this trip to take pictures. We called it a “photo safari”, and when we were finished, we returned to the visitor center to view everyone’s pictures and to print a couple of the best ones out.

Myself and a male fiddler crab! 
You can tell it’s a male, because of that 
one very large claw, used for defense and courting.
Week #4 wasn’t really a walk per se, but an adventure! We used seine nets at a boat launch area, to try and catch some little fish, crabs, or whatever else was present. The kids were really into it! We caught 2 different kinds of crabs (and these may not be 100% accurate names); mangrove crab and fiddler crab. We also caught a few species of “bait” fish which was awesome! We talked about the importance of mangroves, and the ethics of handling live animals. The weather was “mild” (as mild as it can be in the FL Keys in July… so, not SCORCHING), the sunset was gorgeous, and the kids got soaked! All around a great night, one of my favorites this summer.

These tree snails (Liguus fasciatus), are listed as species
of special concern in the State of Florida, and were almost
 completely wiped out due to over-collection.
We were lucky to spot some on No Name Key!
Week #5 took us onto the No Name Key, and the goal was to learn about and hopefully spot a White-crowned Pigeon. This is a very cool bird that is elusive, and wary. In the United States, it’s only found in South Florida, specifically the Keys. It is found through the Caribbean and Bahamas as well. Of course along the way we saw other cool critters like the tree snails, Key deer, spiders, and other birds! We had an assortment of folks join us throughout the summer, but had 2 families stick with us for the entire series. On this night, one of our youngest, a 6 year old little boy, led the pack. He was outfitted with a flashlight, binoculars, stainless steel forceps, and a “poker” stick. This kid cracks me up, but I’m refreshed by a kid who LOVES the outdoors and nature just as much as I do. His 3 year old sister as well was really into it. She collected every little thing she found to show me, and it was adorable.

Our final walk led us to find this rare Key ringneck snake 
presented itself to us. At first, I thought it was a juvenile, 
but after some research, it may be an adult! Very small, 
and that ring as seen on other ring-necked snakes, is faint.
The final walk was my favorite. We had perfect weather, the humidity seemed to slack off a little, and the sun was low. We took this walk to get folks out into the pine rockland habitat, which Southern Florida used to be in abundance of, especially the Keys. We saw birds a-plenty, and hoped for Lower Keys marsh rabbits and Key deer, but I think our group was a little too rambunctious!

The summer is winding down here. Even though this is the land of perpetual summer it seems, I can feel a difference in the air, the water looks different when I’m snorkeling, and the days are shortening. My time here as well is dwindling. It’s bittersweet, as I’ve made some great friends and contacts, and truly enjoyed the Keys lifestyle. But, I’ve landed another temporary position within the National Wildlife Refuge System, this time in Alabama! I’ll be journeying to NY the end of next month to visit friends and family (including the Albany area!), and to retrieve my dog Addie. Then Addie and Alyssa will make the journey south, once again! Alabama, here I come!

Sunset over the pine rocklands on Big Pine Key, August 2014.


  1. Wow, what a great summer, and yes, I hear that Florida has a summer all year round, and Alabama, I'll need some serious Atlas study for that, wonderful to get back to NY and see Addie again. All best wishes for the next part of your journey. Jean.

  2. Beautiful sunsets, green heron and the snake too!! :) Just got back from Hilton Head SC and took over 400 images of the herons, egrets, etc...


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