As I'll be leaving sunny Buttonwood Bay on Thursday, I went around most of the park on the golf cart a few days ago. Debby was driving and I had my camcorder and I filmed most of the streets and trails to look back on when, in the middle of a typically cold and wet English August day, I find I'm missing the place.
At one point we came upon a reasonably large black snake lying at the side of the road that leads out of the park. It was dead. I think it was by blunt force drama but we're waiting for the autopsy. Its head was either missing or very squished so COD seemed to point to....well a lack of a head.
I could be a medical examiner.
Anyway it was only the 2nd snake I'd ever seen in the wild (1st one was on the local golf course a few weeks ago) and it whetted my appetite for seeing more wildlife before leaving Florida. Wildlife that's still alive, preferably.
So last Saturday we teamed up with Clair and Mary and went to the Highland Hammock State Park a few miles from here as they offered a 1pm tram ride through the local swamps which seemed as good a way as any to spot gators and turtles and snakes.
While waiting for the tram to appear, we spent a while in the park's Civilian Conservation Corps Museum.
This very interesting museum told the story of the work relief program set up in 1930s America for young men from unemployed families to help them out during the Great Depression.
Might need a similar program here soon !
We left the museum and while waiting at the tram stop, we were entertained by this bird that soared around with bits of twigs in its mouth and would then drop these twigs wherever it seemed fit. If it was attempting nest building, I wouldn't hire it to build my conservatory, that's for sure.
Then it was 'alllllll aboarrrrrrrd' our tram and off we went into the wilds of Florida - or at least the wilds of Hammock Park.
You can only buy the tram tickets on the day and if we'd been able to buy them in advance, we'd not have picked Saturday for the trip.
It had rained most of the night and morning and there was rain in the air as we set off. At least the tram was covered but as you can see from this photo, the sides were open to the elements.
Ever the one for experimentation, I started with a slow shutter speed photo looking down the side of the tram.
This blurred the passing foliage on the left and gave an impression of speed - a false impression as in reality we were only traveling at about 15 mph at best !!
Yes Debby is wearing a hooded jacket but you have to remember 2 things:
1) Rain water WAS falling off the roof.
2) She would feel cold in a dutch oven.
But she has the eyes of a hawk, a hawk that wears very good glasses indeed. So it came as no surprise to us that she was the one who spotted the first gator and her shout stopped the tram in its tracks. That and the driver stepping on the brakes.
This particular gator was literally up to its eyes in the soupy swamp water and we all crowded over to the left side of the tram to see it up close.
You could see it was both impressed and even a little scared of us as I noticed a small air bubble bursting near its rear end. That HAD to be from fear. Yes, I 'd say so.
It's a food chain sort of thing. It gets its food from the swamp and we get its tail from "R J Gators".
That's fair enough.
Further along, while looking at some more gators, we saw a vulture perched on a wooden bridge.
We saw lots of vultures on the tour so I guess there must be plenty of dead critters for them to feed on. What an ugly bird it is.
This one looked like it was waiting for one of us from the passing tram to suddenly keel over and become a late, but very acceptable, tasty lunch item.
Unfortunately for it, we left it behind and watched as it flew off up onto a nearby tree branch to join its pals who had been perched up there all the time acting like unused extras from The Jungle Book.
The main swampy area was mostly on the left side of the trail and as Clair and Mary had taken the trip before, they'd given us the heads up to sit on that side of the tram.
Every time something was spotted, those on the right side would have to get up to see what we were able to see from our sitting positions.
It was excellent advice and that was why I got most of these photos. There was 'stuff' to see on the other side of course and just after we left the vultures behind, we saw this beautiful Blue Heron standing majestically in the swamp waters.
I'm not usually sure about the names of the birds I photograph but in this case Debby told me its name and the web site link above suggests she knows her onions. And her Blue Herons.
But back to the vultures for a moment.
There were loads of them on this tram trip so as a group, they'd obviously decided that the park was a good location for a daily buffet. I mean Sebring has a few good buffets for us humans so why not one for the animals ?
Anyway we came upon another bunch of them and although I took this next photo concentrating on the one up on the branch, it was only when I looked at the downloaded image that I noticed the heads of two of his friends in the bottom right corner.
They look so funny but they also they reminded me of something or somewhere else and then it came to me....Mardi Gras. I've either seen a costume in a movie from New Orleans or Venice where a person had head wear that looked just like these vulture heads.
Of course the last thing they'd have wanted to look like would've been a vulture but that's how it's working in my mind anyway.
To see what I'm rambling on about, you'll probably have to click on the photo to expand it.
Moving swiftly along, I'll just add the rest of the gator photos without comments. Basically every time we got to another clearing where there was a largish expanse of swamp water, the cries of "GATOR" would go up and our driver would stop the tram for us all to have a good look at it, or them.
We saw a lot of birds along the trail and I've also taken a lot of photos of birds during my winter here - so although I took some more on Saturday, I'll not include them here.
Well except for this one.
I obviously can't take credit for snapping the bird in this dramatic and slightly comical pose but as I did make use of the camera's rapid fire mode, I'll take a bow for THAT skillful decision !!
Its wings are in full down draft mode and although it just looks like a bizarre sculpture, it also seems to display the bird's grace and mastery of winged flight.
The trip only lasted 70 or 75 mins as we had to be back in time for the 2nd one of the day at 2:30pm.
All that fresh air had given us an appetite and once off the tram, we all headed for the little park cafe for something to eat. On the way we did spot something a bit different hiding on the fringe of the wooded area.
I think it was a bobcat and these are very rare even in central Florida. It just looked like a large cute pussy cat but when it snarled at me, I gave it a wide berth.
No seriously this was a stuffed bobcat in a display case inside the little cafe !! Being a cafe inside a state park, there were several displays and exhibits of a 'wild' nature and they'd even put excellent photographs of various critters underneath the glass topped tables so that you could talk about them as you ate their dead cooked relatives. I like that 'circle of life' sort of thing as you know.
Finally here is a photo of a rare critter indeed. It was always out there in the wild but very few photographs were ever taken of it. We have Clair to thank for this one and in fact it has been his skill in taking photos of this rare creature that has meant we have ANY at all.
As with all good wildlife photographs, we see it in it's natural state which tends to be when it's feeding.
It eats most things but prefers simple foods like french fries and any sort of meat product.
Unlike the other creatures found in the park that day, this one doesn't like it's meat uncooked and actually prefers it medium rare, slightly seasoned and with sides of salad and a baked potato.
So if you ever see this creature in real life, please approach carefully, make no sudden movements (unless this involves getting your wallet out) and once you've gained his trust, you may feed him as appropriate.
Just no veggies please as he can get really techy when his plate space is wasted with such inedible items.
So that was Highland Hammock State Park. Well worth a visit if you are in the area and taking the tram tour, at $4 a pop, is a really great way to get a taste for the Florida swamplands which you can then take to the next stage by visiting the Everglades further south.
The rules are the same in both places. Keep your bodily extremities inside your vehicle at all times and if you really do have to pee behind a tree, be prepared for company !!