Friday, February 12, 2016

Everglades 2016 Part I... Feb. 5th and 6th.

Every year, there is a hitch in our pursuit of an error-free Everglades trip. This year, sadly, was no exception. I will set up the whole thing in as few words as possible.

Booked trip two weeks earlier than planned (Feb. 5th thru 8th) to avoid conflict with boss's vacation. Just after booking, boss decides to close shop for original dates. Could have had it. Oh well... going to 'Glades. Big storm coming Feb. 5th. 7 AM flight cancelled day before. Got on 1:09 PM flight. Woke up Feb. 5th to no snow. Original flight would have been fine. Call cab at 11 AM for ride to airport. Shows up very late. We're both in a state. Hyperventilation. Anger control issues. Self injury. Wracking sobbing. Worst Mike Meltdown© in a decade. Cabbie takes "shortcut" to airport, adding on $, time and helplessness. Desperation and sadness. Miraculously make it just in time. Flight held until almost 5 due to snow. In Florida by 8 PM. At hotel at 10 PM. Roadcruising by 10:30 in the 'Glades.

OK, missing the entire first day of our vacation wasn't ideal but after such a harrowing ordeal, we tried to save what we could. We cruised the back roads of Florida City and the roads on the way to Everglades National Park. Though we weren't seeing any animals, we were doing what we had come down for. We headed into ENP, though our luck didn't change. Our first cruised animal was a large Wolf Spider.
Wolf Spider
A good lookin' one at that.
Wolf Spider

At 11:58PM, we thought we'd had our first herp... perhaps a Brahminy Blind Snake, but it was an earthworm trucking it's way across the road. Less weird than finding a Brahminy that way, I guess. No herps for Friday.

We got to our destination point in the ENP... a place about 10 miles in. We'd been forewarned that the water level was high so we'd hoped to see some amphiumas or something in the flooded areas. We knew this was a place a friend had seen some earlier in the week. We got there and a Wood Stork was having the same thought... hunting the puddle.
Wood Stork #20
Hopefully, the bird was having better luck.

We hit up some nearby trees. Spiders had webs set up all around. This Tropical Orb-weaver was a stunner.
Tropical Orb Weaver

We saw some movement and finally got our first herp... pushin' 1 AM, Saturday morning. A Mediterranean Gecko.

A nearby stone was flipped, uncovering a nice, native Southern Leopard Frog.

Closer inspection of the trees proved fruitful. Brown Anoles were snoozing on the leaves. Or... snoozing until our headlamps awakened them.
Gotta love the curly tail action!

One of the weekend's coolest finds was right in the same tree... a Green Tree Frog that was a creamy yellow color.
We're trying to figure out how this guy, who should be bright green, came to be this color. Leucism? At any rate, I've never seen one like this before.

Another Anole was spied deep inside the tree.

We walked the dock area and checked edges but our usual snakey spots were well under water. Obviously, the Nerodia that we often see here have dispersed; their hunting ground has expanded. It was going to be a tough weekend.

On the way back out to the main road, we saw a small Pig Frog.
We had heard their distinctive calls from the brush but it was good to finally see one.

We kept our eyes peeled on the way out, pulling over for every leaf and stick. Things just weren't up. I pulled over for one lump and was heartbroken to see a small turtle on its back, the victim of a car strike. I got out to move him and, like Colin Clive, started shouting "it's alive"!!! When I reached for him, he withdrew further into his shell and boxed up a bit.

It's a Striped Mud Turtle and he had some broken bits and cuts and bruises but I think he will be all right.
It had been a long time since we had seen one of these guys... since our honeymoon in 2003 to be exact. It made the sting of the long, crappy day feel better to see and perhaps save this fella. He was an old-timer, too.

That was the extent of our Friday finds. We got back to the hotel at about 3:30 AM, dead tired and ready to sleep. Which we did. But only a little. We got up before 7:30 AM to start the next day. Having lost our Friday, we had time to make up for.

It was cool and temps weren't supposed to get too high (never mind the 90% chance of rain in the forecast) but waking up in Florida is a fine thing, especially when my car back in Massachusetts was buried in snow. We sat at the hotel's screened-in patio and listened to birds amidst the hellish, tourist banter. The Boat-tailed Grackles won the contest easily. I love these guys. This gal was bathing in a puddle near us.
We added a number of birds to the year's count just having breakfast.

Before hitting the road for the day, we flipped a few stones on the hotel grounds. In previous years, we got a couple of snakes. This year it was all millipedes... and a frosty Brown Anole.

The day started off with some early morning road cruising, which turned up zero, and walking the canals. There can be a lot of herps found along the canals but our only one was a Southern Toad who was relaxing under some debris.

We road cruised some more, heading into ENP. We bought a week pass and were now free to come and go as we pleased. More road cruising. Nothing. So, we parked and took a hike up a road that had been good to some of our friends in recent times. We had never had any luck on it but we weren't having any luck on any of our sure-fire spots either, so we gave it a shot. We hiked up about 2 miles with no sights. Only when we had stopped to talk to a fellow hiker on our way back did we notice our first Alligator of the trip... a small guy (about 3 feet) basking on the edge of the trail.
Andrea got this superb action shot when she got too close.

She next found a teeny tiny Toad.

We had been at it for a few hours already and were having terrible luck. The water was high and it was windy (but sunny)... our strategies had to keep changing and none of them were working. We went over to Anhinga Trail for some sure-fire Gators. Except for they were scarce there, too.

We finally got a few Peninsula Cooters and a Gator catching some rays.
The birding was pretty good, though. We added a dozen species to our count.

Later, Andrea was playing with some crows...
when I spied our first snake of the trip at the edge of some woods. An Everglades Racer saw me and sped off. In the North, that would have been it but the Everglades variety always seem to stop short so we were able to get some photos.
It didn't last long...
It was about damn time we got a snake!

We had become hungry, so we headed back to civilization, making important stops along the way. The first stop got us a young, handsome Cooter...
and a grumpy Southern Toad.

We stopped on the way to lunch for a milkshake. Everyone knows where we stopped so its pointless to say where. We ordered our decadent sweets and went to look at the barn-yard animals in the back. Our friend that we met last year was there again, hanging out right where he was before. A very well-fed, wild Argentine Tegu.
Andrea tried to up close and personal and he slowly strode away, making his way under a shed.
She got the stink-eye.

Milkshakes in hand, we went to the car and saw what would be our only lifer herp of the weekend... an Agama agama, not with a red head but still a stunning old-world lizard.

Right next to the Agama, a Brown Anole was changing his clothes.

We went to the hotel so I could charge my camera while we ate. We walked over to the nearby Mandarin Buffet, flipping rocks on the way. Sadly, I flipped 3 Greenhouse Frogs but they were always sharing space with these:
so I was unable to make a successful catch for a photo. Never did get one.

After eating, we got ourselves back on the road to cruise to the tip of ENP at dusk. The clouds were thickening and a light rain fell. We were feeling pretty good about our chances.

But luck was still not with us. We cruised all of the usual roads (and some new ones) and made it all the way to the end at dusk. It had begun to pour. I asked Andrea, "Do you want to make a last-ditch effort to see a Croc?". It was getting dark pretty fast and we knew we'd have to hurry. We put on our raincoats and ran to the pier in the downpour. This is also where we had missed a manatee last year. It couldn't hurt to peek over the side for one of those, could it? "What's that?" Oh, just some seaweed. "What's that?" Just something floating. But the third "what's that" was, in fact, a manatee. I quickly snapped this shot.
I looked at my camera saying "it's not much of a shot but it's proof we saw a manatee!"

Then Andrea pointed below the dock. It had come up to drink rainwater that was dripping from the platform.
It even rolled onto it's back to just let the water drip in... lazily flapping it's flippers.
Such a charming, gentle animal. We knew how privileged we were to be sharing some time with this guy.

But what about the Crocs? This is one of the only places in the US that you can see American Crocodiles. We hurried over to the other side of the pier. Andrea spotted it first...
Bingo! This large Croc silently floated past in the dark downpour. What an amazing sight. We took cover for a while as the rain had become incredibly heavy. We didn't care that we were soaked through. We had just had a couple of great moments. We took another step out to the edge and saw another, smaller Croc swimming toward us.
We ran back to the car, exhilarated. We didn't care about the drenching we had just taken or the 75 mosquito bites that my hands had received. This was the best moment of the weekend and it washed away the horrible Friday in the space of 15 minutes. Thank you, Mother Nature.

So, it was pissing rain when we headed back to the road. We were hoping it would bring the frogs out in force and maybe some snakes. It was cool, in the low 60s, but the rain was making the asphalt steam so we knew it was still fairly warm on the surface.

Our first two road cruised herps were Striped Mud Turtles! We hadn't seen these for so long, now we had encountered three!
I swear we had a third one right in a row but I can't find a picture of a third. It was also at this point... the second Mud, to be exact, that my good camera decided it had become too wet. And it died. I had to resort to the back-up pocket camera.

We saw one Cuban Tree Frog but it slipped into the grass without a shot. No worries. We'll see dozens. Except we didn't. That was the only one all weekend. Another sign of a very off-year.

We saw a snake in the road. It shot its head into the air before cruising off into the grass. We went and looked but couldn't find it. We found the frog that it had upchucked, though.

We saw another serpentine shape and got to it in time to ID it as  Garter. We brought him into the car instead of risking more cameras.
Beautiful specimen.

We U-turned to cruise the same area for a while. We saw another Garter, this one twice the size of the first.

Heading back past where we saw the Garter that we had first photographed, we saw this:
Same guy? The size and color were the same. We can't call it a new one with so much doubt. It was a half hour later but it sure looked like the same guy.

Our last Garter was a small guy that had a slight kink in his back third. Maybe it was injured or recovering. At any rate, he moved along just fine, with kind of a snake-limp.

We cruised for hours (and remember, we were on less than four hours sleep from the night before). Lines in the roads started to hypnotise us. We stopped for leaves, puddles, sticks... and a Southern Toad.

We spied another Southern Leopard Frog, this one with a few splashes of vivid green.

Hitting a supposedly fruitful road (for the umpteenth time) on the way back to the hotel got us another toad, and that was it for the day.

So, this is not the kind of luck we usually have on our annual Andrea's Birthday Everglades Trip©. Only two Gators? Almost no frogs? We did see two roadkill frogs... one Pig and one mess-with-frog-foot, but usually the roads run red with car murder. I mean, it's great that we didn't have to witness the carnage, but it proves that things really weren't moving. High water. Cool temps. Heavy winds. Not the Florida we're used to.

Beats the hell out of being in the snowy North, though.

We got to our room and slept like the dead... a well earned sleep that would rejuvenate us for the next day. Hopefully, lady luck would shine down on us on Sunday.

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