We departed the Everglades on Jan. 3, heading for Little Manatee River State Park, which had one site free up for the week, probably from a cancellation. This park is about halfway up the peninsula, near Tampa Bay. While there we paddled on the Manatee and Little Manatee Rivers, and also canoed out to Shell Key in the Gulf of Mexico, a famous location for shell collecting, as its name suggests. This was a great day trip; we identified 16 species of shells on the beach, of which the Sunray Venus and Van Hyning’s Cockle were especially beautiful. It was challenging leaving the island as there was a sharp drop-off of the bottom and significant waves, making it difficult to launch the canoe into the surf.
Heading north and inland, we made for Ocala National Forest, where we have enjoyed dispersed camping in the past. Upon arrival at a favorite site, we were greeted by a clan of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, an Endangered Species with a world population of about 14,000 birds. But the next morning a ranger gave us a written warning for camping in a vehicle – apparently dispersed camping must be in a tent in this national forest, a practice we have not encountered before.
Fortunately, we managed to get the last campsite in the nearby Salt Springs Recreation Area, where we ended up spending ten nights. We hiked the Bear Swamp Trail multiple times as it was just one minute from our site, including one several-hour search for mammals with the thermal scope on an overcast day. Farther afield, we visited the Lyonia Preserve, near Deltona, and Tiger Bay State Forest, which had a good nature trail for botanizing.
During our stay we paddled on Salt Springs Run, Alexander Creek, and the Silver River. The latter is arguably the best round-trip day paddle in Florida, starting from Ray Wayside Park and paddling about 5.5 miles to Silver Springs State Park, against a one mile per hour current, and then returning. This route has more Anhingas than anywhere else we have been, and the birds are generally very tame, affording good photographic opportunities. We saw Manatees spectacularly, and also had great looks at a few Limpkins.
I checked online periodically to see if any campsites opened up in any of the Florida State Parks, nearly all of which were essentially booked fully while we were in the state. One site opened up for four nights in Myakka River State Park, so we headed back south to take advantage of the opening. One day we paddled into the wilderness portion of the park, along the Myakka River, to a feature known as Deep Hole. This almost perfectly circular underwater sinkhole is about 131 feet deep and 325 feet across. We made a stationary count from our canoe and tabulated 115 Alligators and 49 Roseate Spoonbills! On another day we took a 5-mile round-trip hike from our campsite to Bee Island, and the botanizing was outstanding. Having apparently undersampled prairie habitat in peninsular Florida, we found seven new plant species, including two new genera.
While at Myakka, we were informed that our new chassis cab truck had been manufactured on-schedule and could arrive in Fort Worth in as little as ten days, so we needed to start heading back to Texas. On the way we took a day to bird at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle, a favorite spot, and there we were treated to one of the best birds of the year: American Flamingo! This species is very rare in the U.S. and as quite a number are kept in captivity in southern Florida, when one is seen, there is always the question of whether it is a wild bird or an escape. But this individual, named “Pinky”, was clearly wild; it arrived in 2018 during Hurricane Michael, which passed over the Yucatan Peninsula where they occur in numbers, and it has since migrated away every spring and returned each fall, exactly as a wild bird should do. Eileen and I have only seen this species once before in the U.S., at Snake Bight in the Everglades, in 2000. We got to see this bird very well both feeding and in flight, and got some distant photos. There were also lots of ducks on the refuge, with hundreds of Redheads and tens of Hooded Mergansers.
A few weeks before we had nabbed a site at lovely Blackwater State Park, in the western Panhandle, and here we spent our last few nights in Florida. While there we paddled 10 miles on the Blackwater River, facing a 1.4 mph current while going upstream. Our average paddling speed is around 3 mph, so we were moving about 3x as fast coming downstream as going upstream. This was our last paddle of the trip; in total, we covered 289 miles by canoe.
Things went very smoothly in Fort Worth. We arrived mid-day on Sunday, Jan. 31, and found a motel where we could park right outside the door to our room. That afternoon we unloaded and cleaned the truck, filling the room with its contents. On Monday we drove the truck to Five Star Ford and completed the paperwork on our new truck, after which they were kind enough to drive our new truck to the upfitter, AutoTruck.com, while we drove the camper. That night we had a wonderful home-cooked meal with Eileen’s friend Martha, whom she met in college, and her husband Charlie. It was a masked affair, with dinner outdoors, and was great fun.
Transferring a flatbed camper to a new chassis cab is a major operation. The upfitter started Tuesday morning and we had the vehicle back before lunch on Thursday; the cost was $2400. Thursday afternoon we reinstalled our custom storage and electronics in the new truck, and then loaded it up, allowing departure Friday morning. It was great driving a new truck. Our old truck had 104K miles on it and quite a few repairs were needed during the year; it felt like it was starting to wear out. I know people often get these trucks to go 200K, but they are not carrying the full gross vehicular weight rating (11,300 lbs) every mile of their lives. And living on the road, traveling widely, we require a much higher level of reliability than someone living in a house, taking the truck on local trips. The only significant difference between the new and old trucks is having a 10-speed transmission rather than 6-speed, which is a nice improvement.
We split up the 600-mile drive to El Paso with a night camping in Monahans Sandhills State Park, where we added our last new species of the trip, Yucca campestris. We pulled into El Paso on Feb. 6, 360 days after starting out in February, 2020. A map showing the coordinates of our natural history records and campsites is included. Our total mileage was about 27,100 miles, which corresponds to about 75 miles per day; previous years since retirement have averaged 80 – 100 miles per day. We visited 25 states, and in aggregate since 2017 we have reached all 49 continental states. A second map shows the places we have visited in the four years since retiring; the only real gaps are the Maritime Provinces, central Canada, and the Midwest.
Because I made major taxonomic updates of North American plants during the course of the year, it is not easy to calculate exactly the number of new species seen this year, but it was around 361, with the vast majority being plants; new taxa in other groups were 34 butterflies, seven odonates, five herps, one bird (Crescent-chested Warbler), and a dozen “others”. This corresponds to 1.0 new species per day.
However, unlike previous years, we had some significant periods on this trip when we were not actively in the field, due to illness, family matters, year-end activities normally handled in El Paso, and getting a new truck. If we subtract out four blocks of time totaling about 40 days, the effective time for field work was about 320 days, which would yield 1.1 new species per day. This is the same result as last year, but is much lower than the preceding two years, which averaged around 1.7. Final totals are 6073 plants, 3463 birds, 429 mammals, 209 butterflies, 173 herps, 71 odonates, 42 fish, and 64 others, making 10,524 species.
Our plans remain uncertain in 2021, but we will start by spending most of April birding at High Island and elsewhere along the Upper Texas Coast, and we expect the emphasis for the year to be botanizing in Arizona, New Mexico, and the Trans-Pecos region of Texas.