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Christmas in Florida

Part 2:  The Panhandle

The deal with the windshield was really concerning me, but I was hesitant to get it fixed in Lafayette because it would have meant missing the weekend with my friend Melanie in Jacksonville.  So I asked the Lord to make it obvious to me if it would be life-threatening to head to Jacksonville, then sent out an "urgent prayer request" over the e-mail. The next morning during QT the Lord gave me a neat verse (granted, in context having to do with Israel’s captivity, but encouraging nonetheless) that said, "I promise right now, I will repay you two mercies for each of your woes!" (Zechariah 9:12b) At the time I thought maybe God’s "two mercies" were gonna be the two days of birding I wouldn’t have to give up by staying in Lafayette, but I then decided to check the in box just to see if I had any responses yet, and a message from a friend in California turned out to be the first "mercy": as an insurance adjuster, she assured me that the chances of a windshield shattering from a crack are practically nil, because they now make them with two layers of glass with a protective film in between (so an unseat-belted person won’t go through the windshield), so that made me feel a lot better! The second mercy was the fact that the crack hadn’t gotten any worse (at least to my perception), so that was definitely a blessing!

The other minor adventure was trying to get a hotel room in Pensacola: I couldn't believe that three of the hotels I called were all booked, and when I finally asked what was going on, it was due to the continued clean-up from the hurricane: they were housing all the workers who were there to help!  There was also major construction going on at the I-10/I-110 interchange, so between that and the clean-up, there was a lot of activity when I pulled into town around 1:00 and headed down to Big Lagoon State Park, the first entry on the Great Florida Birding Trail for the Panhandle, not knowing if it would be open or not, but happy to give it a shot.  There were signs of devastation all the way down there; I don't think I saw one roof that didn't have a blue tarp over it.  Some buildings were still totally collapsed, but it was heart-warming to see the big billboard that declared, "Ivan won't keep us down!"

  The park was indeed open, and when I stopped at the entrance to do the touristy thing and take a picture of the sign (plus they had the entrance all decked out with red ribbons and such; a real bright note!), the place was just jumping with White-throated Sparrows and Pine Warblers!  The sparrows especially sure loved the piles of debris!

    Entrance sign decked out for the holidays

Talking to the lady at the entrance booth I discovered that the only part really open to the public was the boat ramp, and because they really weren't set up to take money they weren't charging anything (it almost sounded as though they just re-opened to the public).  The trails were closed because pieces of neighborhood homes were still scattered back there; never having been there before the storm I had nothing to compare it to, but she was obviously moved by the devastation; she said it was just horrible.  But much of the piney woods habitat looked to be intact to me, although it was very quiet in there; the only other dickeys I was able to find along the road were a Goldfinch and a Mockie.

        

Entrance road and dune habitat

But the bay was another story: while not stuffed with birds (it looked rather barren at first, actually), when I got the scope out I found several goodies, including lots of Great Blue Herons, Brown Pelicans, probably more Common Loons than I've ever seen in one place (with the possible exception of Bodega Bay), and the real treat: a flock of Hooded Mergansers across the way!  There were also some unidentifiable gulls way out there (probably Ringbills), and I couldn't find any shorebirds, but the loons and mergs were worth the stop!  Picked up a Kingfisher and Blue Jay on the way out.

      

The "Big Lagoon" and picnic pavilion damaged by Ivan

 

Bridge to Perdido Key

Decided to check out the Perdido Key portion of Gulf Shores, and it was indeed closed: while it looks like the folks there are recovering and have housing back for the most part, it's still obvious that they got the brunt of the storm (the Best Western especially).  So the next closest spot was Tarkiln Bayou State Park.  They evidently have a great boardwalk, but I never made it that far before it was time to turn back and head to the hotel; it was a great area of pines and palmettos, but terribly quiet; the only things I could pish up were a Carolina Chickadee, a Yellowthroat, and a Butterbutt.

   

Palmetto/Pine habitat of Tarkiln State Park

Headed on in, getting a little taste of Pensacola Rush Hour (and despite it all, the drivers were really very courteous, at the least the ones I had to deal with)! 

My plan the next day was to hit several places along the I-10 corridor on the way to Jacksonville, but I wound up only having time for one: Blackwater River State Park.  Got there before it opened, so I stopped along the entrance road a couple of times just to listen, and it was great: the first thing to greet me was a huge Pileated Woodpecker!  In addition to him had goldfinches, robins, meadowlarks, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Chipping Sparrows (I'm presuming because of the "sweeter" timbre, but I'm willing to be opposed on that one), and Blue Jays all calling.  A familiar bright chip was indeed an Orange-crowned Warbler, and a not-so-familiar peep was an agitated White-throated Sparrow.  There was a parking lot with a pay stand a bit up the road, so I parked in there and started on what I thought was a boardwalk trail but was just a short jaunt to the picnic area (in the process of renovation), but it turned out to be quite productive with a Pine Siskin in with a flock of goldfinches, and House and Carolina Wrens in the background.

       

Scenes in the park with a flighty Pine Siskin

By that time the gate was open, so I wheeled in and paid for an annual pass (a lot easier than trying to fish out three bucks at the pay station, especially if you don't have the exact change), and the ranger showed me which trails were best for birds.  I drove in to the big parking area and took the boardwalk down to the right-most pavilion, but on the way had another Pileated in the hardwood forest, a Downy tapping away (talk about Mutt and Jeff), and a towhee, Carolina Chickadee, and Yellowthroat calling in the distance.  There was a little loop trail around a bog, and at a resting bench a feeding flock came in quite close that consisted of both species of kinglets, robins, a Hermit Thrush, more chickadees, Butterbutts, and the real treat, a Blue-headed Vireo!  Spooked a Great Blue Heron along the river, and back at the car a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was ripping bark off the tree and quite unconcerned about my presence!

                      

Blue-headed Vireo from the boardwalk along the Juniper Lake Trail 

                

The area around the Blackwater River had a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Golden-crowned Kinglets.

The other nature trail was south of the river, so I headed to that parking area and hiked a little bit of that; except for a flock of juncos it was very quiet, but it gave you beautiful views of the river's white beaches; no wonder it's so popular in the summer!

Headed east after that, getting in later than anticipated, but at least I got there, cracked windshield and all (hadn't gotten any worse, anyway...) 

           

"Slate-colored" Junco along the Chain of Lakes Nature Trail, with a view of the Blackwater River from the south side.

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