Sara Godwin

Archive for the ‘Wildlife’ Category

Half-a-Million Reasons To Go To Nebraska — Now!

In Baby Boomers, Birding, Grandparent, Kids, Nebraska, Parent, Sandhill cranes, Travel, Wildlife, Women's Travel on March 4, 2014 at 11:50 pm

IMG_9828It’s dark, it’s cold, and just a few feet away are hundreds upon hundreds of sandhill cranes, all of which  have flown thousands of miles,  to land at what amounts to a pinpoint, geographically speaking.  Sandhill cranes gather in huge numbers, the largest bird migration in the Americas, riding the winds of the Central Flyway from Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico.  Their destination? A 75-mile chunk of the Platte River  between Kearny and Grand Island, a tiny landing strip given its context smack in the middle of   the North American continent. The Platte is a braided river, with slim strands of shimmering shallow water crossing and weaving  around an ever-shifting pattern of narrow sandbars. Gathered on these sandbars to roost at night, the cranes are protected from predators. Standing in densely-packed flocks, their collective body heat helps mitigate the icy cold of both air and water.  This is their staging area, where the cranes spend about three weeks resting and replenishing their stores of fat in order to fly north to the nesting grounds in northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.

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No one I know would hesitate for a moment to sign up  to watch the wildlife migration across the Serengeti Plains of Africa, and most would regard it as the trip of a lifetime . People from all over the world do it every year. Yet a migration of magnificent birds — sandhill cranes stand four feet tall, not counting their two-foot long bill,  and have a  7.5 foot  wingspan that’s wider than most people are tall —  is practically a national secret.  Even knowledgeable birders, the kind of folks who routinely book trips to go see birds they can’t see at home, often don’t know about the sandhill cranes and Nebraska.  Jane Goodall  has called it ‘one of the top ten animal migrations in the world’, and she’s spent enough time working with National Geographic to know.  Here’s your chance to be one of the cognoscenti, and by comparison with traipsing off to Africa or South America, it’s a bargain, too.

The cranes begin arriving at the end of February, and leave in April, so March is the moment.  Book now. The migration peaks in mid-to-late March, and there are a several crane festivals that are  richly informative and well worth attending.  These organizations offer guides, tours, blinds, information centers, and the opportunity to see sandhill cranes by the thousands:   The Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center , (402) 797-2301; e-mail Audubon Nebraska)  ,  the Rowe Sanctuary (308) 468-5282), and Crane Trust (402/797-2301) .  Make an appointment, so you’re sure to have a place on a tour and in the blinds.

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Sandhill cranes roost in the Platte River during the night, and their ‘lift-off’ early in the morning is one of the wonders of nature.  For the full drama, get to the blind before daybreak.  Being Nebraska, the Great Plains sunrise is spectacular all by itself; add in the magnificence of hundreds of birds taking flight simultaneously, and it’s a memory you’ll treasure for the rest of your life.

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This is a perfect ‘take the kids or grandkids’ trip.  Bundle them up warmly, bring a big thermos of hot chocolate and plenty of trail mix or energy bars, and make sure they know how to use binoculars.  Let them use their cell phone cameras to tweet their friends.   What child wouldn’t be fascinated by a bird taller than they are that can fly  170 to 450  miles per day — and as much as 500 miles a day with a steady tail wind?   And do it at 38 miles per hour? Or a bird that dances until it finds just the right partner, a mate it will stay with for the rest of its life?  A bird that can live to be 40 years old, that every year flies north thousands of miles to nest, and then turns around and flies thousands of miles south to spend the winter where it’s warm.  Here are some intriguing math puzzles: How many wingbeats does it take to cross a continent?  How many days would it take to drive — or walk– that distance?  Tall, slim, elegant, and able to fly across entire continents, cranes have the power to fascinate anyone who gets near them.

The first time I went on a  ‘Crane Watch, ‘ as they call it in Nebraska,  my husband and I took his mother, then in her late 70s and recovering from a broken hip, and his 12-year-old niece.  Mom had her walker, and the niece had a video camera.  We got the kid out of school by promising her teacher that she would produce a video that her whole class could watch when she returned.  That led to a crash course in camera angles, keeping the camera steady, approaching wildlife slowly and silently, and narrating raw footage so everyone knew what they were seeing on film. It all came together in that glorious moment when the credits rolled, and it said, ‘By Sarah Hudson’.  Mom hated her walker, and flatly refused to use it, so she tromped along the farm roads beside the corn fields, with the two of us anxiously trotting alongside, trying to keep up with her.  She had the eyes of a hawk, and I suspect she spotted more cranes than the rest of us put together.

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We spent quite a bit of time just trying to find cranes at first: None of us knew that the cranes use their bills to smear mud all over their feathers, so they blended in perfectly with the brown stubble fields.  We had been driving past the fields for an hour before we twigged to what we were seeing.  If several had not flown, we  might never have seen them.  Why cranes cover themselves in mud is one of the great ornithological mysteries.  Speculation has suggested everything from camouflage to killing feather parasites, but the answer remains as yet unknown. A doctoral dissertation anyone?

Just as the sun sets — and prairie sunsets are famous for their color and cloudscapes — the cranes return to the river to roost on the sandbars, safe from coyotes and foxes. Both of the centers offer evening viewing from their blinds. The last time I saw the cranes was a year ago, and we watched the cranes return by the light of a full moon.  If you can schedule that, do it.

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One last footnote.  The year that I first saw the cranes in Nebraska,  twenty years ago and more, I flew out on June 25th at ice-out  to visit a lodge in Bathurst Inlet, Northwest Territories, which is about as far north as you can go in the NWT without falling off the edge of the earth. We knew the sandhill cranes came through on the last leg of their northbound journey, so we looked for them every day.  Our stated mission was to follow the caribou migration, research for a documentary film on North American migrations.

We never found the caribou, and we never spotted any sandhill cranes. As research went, it was a bust.  We were loading our gear into the Otter that would take us back to Yellowknife when one of the other guests came running up, pelting as fast as she could go.  “Your crane,” she panted.  “It just landed behind the lodge.”   We dropped our packs, and dashed off behind her.  And there it was: A solitary sandhill crane.  The timing was just about right for a bird that had been in Nebraska when we were there.  As we watched, it lifted off the ground, made a sharp left turn and began winging its way to Siberia.  It still makes my neck prickle.

There’s nothing else like this, and you’ll never forget it.  Go!

Crane Festivals this year are from March 20 to April 6, 2014.  These websites list all the activities they’re offering:

http://nebraskacranefestival.org/

http://visitkearney.org/sandhill-cranes/

http://rowe.audubon.org/calendar-events-7

http://www.cranetrust.org/sandhill-cranes/

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The Best-Kept Birding Secret in the United States

In Baby Boomers, Birding, hummingbirds, Texas, Travel, Weather, Wildlife, Women's Travel on October 1, 2013 at 9:27 pm

This migratory green jay shows off  brilliant plumage

This migratory green jay shows off brilliant plumage

Green jay from another  angle in McAllen, Texas

Green jay from another angle in McAllen, Texas

Chachalacas scurry along Birdwatching Center at Bentsen -Rio Grande McAllen, Texas

Chachalacas scurry along Birdwatching Center at Bentsen -Rio Grande McAllen, Texas

A Great Kiskadee , once known as the Kiskadee Flycatcher, snatches insects out of the air and small fish out of water.

A Great Kiskadee , once known as the Kiskadee Flycatcher, snatches insects out of the air and small fish out of water.

Buff-bellied hummingbirds are found, nowhere else in the continental United States.

Buff-bellied hummingbirds are found, nowhere else in the continental United States.

Southwest Texas is an edgy sort of place, located on the edges of Mexico and the U.S., along the edge of the Rio Grande, at the edge of land and water,  just 70 miles west of the Gulf Coast, at the southern edge of the continent.  Here,  Mexican, Tejano, and Anglo cultures, English and Spanish, swirl and blend into a melange best known as Tex-Mex. This cultural potpourri makes for great food — think chimichangas, carne asada, and horchata. Here, fertile river delta irrigated farmland bumps up against native thorn forest. And then there is the wild life, whether you’re talking ‘wild life’ as in trendy bistros and bars, or ‘wildlife’ as in javelinas, bobcats and birds.

Boarding a flight to an airport I’d never heard of — Harlingen, Texas — en route to a city I’d never heard of — McAllan, Texas — I’m on my way to see chachalacas, green jays,  and the buff-bellied hummingbird, all of which

I ‘ve heard of,  but none of which I’ve seen. This is the great lure of birding: There are always birds as yet unseen.

According to the American Birding Association (http://www.aba.org),   it is possible to see 976  different species of birds within the boundaries of the United States.  Of that number,  more than half — 521 species, or 53%  —  can be spotted in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  That  fact  may very well make McAllan, Texas the best-kept birding secret in the whole United States.  You could make an excellent case that a trip to McAllan qualifies as the best-spent  travel dollar in the country for birders, from beginners to life-listers. (Life-listers are the sporting category of birders, those who are sufficiently serious and organized to keep a list of every species of bird they’ve ever seen, where and when they saw it, and whether it was male or female, or in juvenile plumage or mature, resident or in migration.)

McAllan is also unusual in that it attracts a remarkable number of ‘marquee’ birds, those that are spectacularly colored, such as the green jay (emerald green back, purple and violet head), or of exceptional size and drama, such the crested caracara (with a four foot wing span), or of great rarity, such as the Northern jacana (best known for walking on lily pads). I have not yet even touched on heart-stopping  birds, like the roseate spoonbill, or the wood stork, or any of the 24 species of hawks and eagles, nor even the ones with weird names like the jabiru or the whimbrel, or the barred antshrike. Many of the birds are Neo-tropic, migratory birds that fly thousands of miles from their wintering grounds in South America, Central America, and Mexico. For a lot of these birds, McAllan is the northernmost point of their range, the place where they breed and nest,  and the only place in the United States where they can be seen.   Is this a good way to spend your travel dollar? Well, it’s a whole lot less expensive than a trip to South America.

Here are the sorts of notes that get posted about McAllan on the American Birding Association website:

“Added: Bare-throated Tiger-Heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum)
Code: 5.
Placement: after Least Bittern.
Comments: One thought to be in second-basic plumage at Bentsen–Rio Grande Valley State Park, Hidalgo County, Texas, from 21 December 2009 to 20 January 2010. Discovered and photographed by Rick Nirschl and Rick Snider, and observed by the hundreds during its month-long stay (Nirschl and Snider 2010).”

The World Birding Center (www.theworldbirdingcenter.com ) is headquartered at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park.  Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park is one of nine birding sites operated by the World Birding Center in the Rio Grande Valley, and it’s a birder’s delight.   More than 300 species of birds have been documented there, and at the peak of the spring hawk migration, it is possible to stand on the Hawk Observation Tower (ADA accessible) and see as many as 10,000 hawks a day. The migration starts in late March, and you can time your visit for the peak by checking the website and calling the park   (956/584-9156).  The rangers can give you a 7 to 10 day window that will make sure you’re in attendance for one of the greatest raptor shows on earth. Besides the raptors, spring migrants include the vividly colored green jay and chattering flocks of chachalacas. Feeding stations with viewing benches and well-maintained trails practically guarantee birding success.

Fall has only just begun, the Autumnal Equinox has barely passed, but now is the time to start planning your ‘I’m tired of winter’ escape.  By March you’ll be longing for a warm place to go, and McAllen, Texas is the place to do it.  The weather is comfortable, clear, and sunny, perfect for both snowbirds and migratory birds.  It’s the place to see species not found farther North, including a species none of us on my birding expedition ever expected to see:  One magnificent bobcat!

Sometimes the universe bestows a lagniappe. This is one.

Sometimes the universe bestows a lagniappe. This is one.

For lots more birding sites in and near McAllen, click on this link:

Ponce de Leon, Fitness, & the Fountain of Youth

In Baby Boomers, Fitness, Florida, Health, Travel, Wildlife on June 21, 2012 at 4:41 am

Ponce de Leon, Fitness, & the Fountain of Youth.

Ponce de Leon, Fitness, & the Fountain of Youth

In Baby Boomers, Birding, Fitness, Florida, Health, Travel, Wildlife on June 21, 2012 at 2:31 am

Adjusting the bike to the rider for a custom fit

Ponce de Leon believed that hidden somewhere in Florida was the fountain of youth.  If, by ‘fountain of youth’, he meant that you could drink the water and remain young, he was wrong.  If, on the other hand, he meant that  you could go to Florida and recapture the physical fitness of youth, he was right.  The essential difference is that while you can’t drink your way to youth in Florida — or any place else —  there are  a number of things you can do in Florida that will stave off some of the less attractive aspects of aging.  For example, loss of muscle tone, flexibility, mobility, painful  joints (as in hips and knees), and excess weight. What’s Florida got that makes this miracle possible?  Lots of lovely weather, which makes being outdoors a very pleasant place to be; Citrus County boasts 264 days of sunshine a year.  That’s a lot of Vitamin D. Plus the fact that along the Gulf Coast, Florida is blessedly flat.  Think Citrus, Hernandez, and Pasco Counties.  Now add in recumbent bikes.  Voila! Fitness forever.

Here’s how it has worked:  Baby Boomers were the first TV generation, and among the best-educated, which allowed them to have desk jobs as opposed to working manual labor jobs. Desk jobs + TV = Sedentary . And Baby Boomers have cars which allowed them to drive to work rather than walk.  Desk jobs + TV + cars = More Sedentary.    Forgive the pun, but don’t think the Baby Boomers took all this sitting down. No, a great many of them took up jogging or running as a way of combatting a sedentary lifestyle.  While healthy exercise can be highly beneficial,  jogging on paved surfaces resulted in a startling increase in joint damage which led to a truly shocking increase in hip, knee, and ankle surgeries. A great many Baby Boomers now find themselves facing hip and knee replacements, or worse, the loss of mobility . That’s a vicious cycle that can take them right back to a  sedentary lifestyle. (I’m not even going to get into high-calorie fast-food and processed food diets, or their consequences, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and a host of other unpleasant subjects. No, we are going to stick with the solution rather than the problem here.)

The key to achieving healthy fitness is low-impact exercise. Walking briskly is one way to do it; swimming laps is another, and so is recumbent biking.

Regis Hampton, the owner of Hampton’s Edge Trailside  Bicycles, faced this dilemma after an accident left him with a  serious hip injury.  A lifelong bike builder — he started repairing and rebuilding bikes at the ripe old age of 11 — he realized he had to  find a way to build and strengthen his leg and thigh muscles without interfering with the healing of the hip bone.  He built himself a recumbent bike, and the rest is history.  The muscles healed strong and flexible, and  Hampton’s Edge Trailside  Bicycles opened its doors at 8294 East Orange Avenue in Floral City, FL (352/419-4809) along the Withlacoochee State Trail, 46 miles of paved trail that  runs through Citrus, Hernandez, and Pasco Counties.

Recumbent bikes aren’t at all like what were called ‘two-wheelers’ when I was a kid.  They’re stable, so you don’t need to wonder if you can still balance a bike.  They’re as comfortable as a good armchair, so  getting ‘saddlesore’ isn’t even an issue. They’re easy to steer.  Best of all, they’re great good fun.  The fact that recumbent bikes provide healthy, low-impact exercise is a fringe benefit to the fun.

Regis led our group, which ranged in age from 23 to pushing 70, down the Withlacoochee Trail and back, about five miles.  The Trail is part of the national Rails To Trails program, converting abandoned railroad tracks and right-of-ways  to multi-use hiking and biking trails, safe and separate  from car traffic. Lined with a full complement of Florida’s oaks (Quercus spp.), scuppernong (fox grape) vines, and roadside wildflowers, the green hedgerows function as perfect cover for birds and native wildlife.  Exotic creatures included a farmyard of llamas. Wildlife sightings ranged from a spectacular piliated woodpecker (prototype for Woody the Woodpecker) to a scattering of squirrels.

Let us pause a moment to raise a small song of praise to the squirrels and the jays. (Florida has several native jays, including the Florida Scrub Jay which is rare enough to qualify as a life list bird if you’re a serious birder.) Why praise  jays? Because they and the squirrels are nature’s foresters,  busily burying the acorns that into mighty oaks will grow, an essential element of the great North American hardwood forest, a forest  that once covered much of the eastern third of the United States.

Along the Withlacoochee Trail, a local octogenarian has devoted his retirement years to building bluebird houses that he personally sets into the center strip green space.  One box we peeked in had a nest with five eggs.

On the ride back Regis and I discussed how useful recumbent bikes  could be for our aging population in terms of  improved health, increased mobility, reduced pain,  and less expense.  While recumbent bikes must be custom-fitted to the rider, they’re still probably less costly than the panoply of prescription pain-killers and mobility devices insurance companies cover for people with joint problems.  Wouldn’t it be cool if health insurance paid for a bike that solved those problem?  And wouldn’t it be even cooler if Ponce de Leon turned out to be right since Florida really can offer the fitness of youth?

Thumbs up for recumbent biking!
Ed Caum photos

Time Warp at Weekie Wachee

In Baby Boomers, Birding, Florida, Parent, Travel, Wildlife on June 19, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Me, the kayak, and the river

A mermaid at Weeki Wachee

Mermaid-style water ballet

There were some pretty cool things about the Fifties: Peace and prosperity, for starters, and family car trips, and roadside attractions.  If you just happen to be nostalgic for backroads, picnics, and watching your kids transformed by a sense of wonder, you need to spend some time wending your way along the Gulf Coast of Florida, and spend a day at Weeki Waachee.

Suppose you could promise your kids birds six feet tall, a kayaking trip through the jungle, a waterslide with corkscrew turns, and, as a final lagniappe, mermaids, and know it was all true?   Once a roadside attraction based around a magnitude one freshwater spring — the kind that produces more 117 million gallons of pure water a day — Weeki Watchee is now a Florida state park, complete with uniformed park rangers whose duties include scheduling international tours for mermaids.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Start the day, as I did, with a five mile kayaking trip down the Weeki Wachee River. The kayaks are easy to manage, even for beginners: The current is slow, the water is smooth, and even if you managed to tip your kayak, the water is warm and shallow — you just climb back in.  It’s also exquisitely clear. That clarity lets you watch schools of fish slipping silently beneath the surface, or the spectacular wading birds that silently stalk the fish. Likely sightings include white ibis, snowy egrets, little blue herons, and great blue herons, the latter being the tall, long-necked ones that can stretch to six feet,   with a wingspan to match.  Kayaks are also quiet, so the wildlife is undisturbed. With lush forest canopy overarching the river, it’s like kayaking through a leafy green tunnel, silent, smooth, and serene. I overheard one kayaker say, “If I lived close enough, I’d do this every day,”  and I would too.  If you’re seeking peace of mind, serenity, or a sense of harmony with nature, this is the place to find it.

Buccaneer Bay is a water park with a huge swimming area, a huge water slide, and water that stays at a comfortable 72 degrees Fahrenheit. With white sand beaches for sunning, and a huge lagoon for swimming, you’ll have trouble prying the children out of the water for a picnic lunch.  Picnic pavilions with open-air tables are perfect for a packed-at-home picnic or for summer classics like all-American hamburgers and hot dogs.  Whatever you pick for your picnic, do not fail to get the chocolate-covered frozen bananas for dessert.  The person who doesn’t like chocolate-covered frozen bananas hasn’t been born yet.

Tummies full, make your way to the subterranean, underwater Mermaid Theatre.  The Navy SEAL who started the park in 1947 invented air tubes that allow the mermaids to perform underwater without SCUBA gear, and it’s as wonderful to watch today as it was then.  All of the mermaids are SCUBA-certified and go through rigorous training, and their underwater feats range from amusing to  delightfully graceful to seriously athletic: The mermaids free-dive more than 100 feet down to the karst cave from which the Weeki Wachee springs flow.  If  this doesn’t immediately strike you as impressive, it will when you try to hold your breath for the two minutes and more that the mermaid does. Most importantly, everyone walks out with a wraparound smile.  That’s never a bad way to end a day.

There are other attractions, too, including a glass-bottom boat river cruise, and Wildlife Shows starring Florida’s native animals, but whatever you choose to do, the kids will be happy, they’ll fall asleep in the car on the way home, and just for a while, it’ll feel like a time warp of the good parts of the Fifties, a nice, warm, nostalgic deja vu all over again. And the kids will never forget it.

Contact Information:

Weeki Wachee State Park, 6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill, FL 34606

(352) 592-5656

http://weekiwachee.com/

Manatee Manners

In Florida, Travel, Wildlife on May 21, 2012 at 3:01 am

According to Captain Jeff at the Plantation Inn Dive Shop in Crystal River, to see manatees one must be versed in manatee manners.  It begins, as all successful social interactions do, with dressing properly for the occasion.  The correct dress for meeting one’s first manatees is a swimsuit over which a wet suit is layered.  Getting into a wet suit is one of those things which is easier said than done, but in the end, everyone managed to wiggle and wriggle, tug and twist until the fact was accomplished. Next comes the flippers, and last — at last! — a face mask and snorkel.  His students thus attired, Captain Jeff begins the lessons in etiquette.  First, slip into the water silently. Splashing and water vibrations cause the manatees to swim slowly out of sight. Use a breaststroke to swim, and keep your flippers underwater, again to keep splashing to a minimum.  Manatees don’t make any noise, and they’d rather you didn’t either.

Once you locate the manatees, just float off to one side.  Because their eyes are on the side of the head, hanging around the tale puts you in the manatee’s ‘blind spot’. Floating directly over them does the same, and it may startle both parties if the manatee comes up for air while you’re there. Since manatees are all bigger than you are, weighing in at around a ton or so, it’s best if they know where you are.  Since manatees have no natural predators — neither sharks nor alligators have them on the menu — they are both gentle and unafraid.

They look like exceedingly large gray sausages with absurdly small heads in proportion to the rest of the animal. If you make noise or surround them, they vanish.  If you don’t, they may move closer to you.  While it is bad manners for you to reach out to touch them, it is a moment of transcendent epiphany if you have behaved well enough by manatee standards for them to touch you.  I’m told it happens, but I wasn’t that lucky.  I did see manatees, both awake and sleeping, and that was thrilling enough for my first time out.  I can promise you that I will go back again to see if I can behave enough like a well-mannered manatee that one would like to make my acquaintance.

Look up Captain Jeff at the Plantation Inn on Crystal River in Citrus County, Florida.  The guy has three degrees in ecology, and  is exceptionally knowledgeable and informative.  Above all, don’t miss the manatees!