Eileen and I were originally scheduled to leave El Paso and start a 9-month road trip in mid-January but we both experienced a string of medical issues that prevented us from departing until late February. This left us less than four weeks before we were scheduled to fly to Ghana in West Africa for a birding tour. After some research, I chose Jacksonville, FL as our city of departure, for the good flight schedule and access to rapid-turnaround COVID PCR testing needed for travel. So this leg of our trip was well-defined in terms of end date and location. It being a bit early in the season for prime natural history field work, our primary goals were to decompresss as much as possible after our rather miserable last six weeks, and to get in some good paddling given how little we did in 2021.
Our first stop was Monahans Sandhills State Park (SP), a fun place to camp right amongst lovely dunes. A flock of 16 Scaled Quail was a highlight there. After visiting with friends, we continued on to Village Creek SP, in the Big Thicket of East Texas, where we had a nice first paddle of the year, featuring the striking yellow-flowered jessamine vine (Gelsemium sempervirens). Continuing east, we stayed a couple nights in Lake Fausse Point SP, LA, in the Atchafalaya Basin. We have done extremely little field work in Louisiana, so it was easy to add new records for the state, and we enjoyed another nice paddle. River Cooter was a new turtle for us. Our next stop was Fort Pickens, in the Gulf Islands National Seashore, in westernmost Florida. Here we found two target plant genera, one of which, Conradina, has a limited worldwide range along the central Gulf Coast, and was flowering profusely. Scoping from the beach here, I was surprised to see a Cory’s Shearwater, and was pleased to see a number of Northern Gannets.
Our next stop was Topsail Hill Preserve SP, FL. This park is noted for it large freshwater lakes among the dunes, within 500 feet of the saltwater Gulf of Mexico. These lakes are formed by freshwater lenses that sit on top of underlying saltwater, not mixing much because of their different densities. We paddled on pretty Campbell Lake, which is about a mile across. Only rental canoes are allowed, to avoid potential contamination of the lake. The 91-pound plastic rental canoe reminded us how much we like our slightly longer 43-pound Kevlar canoe!
Our next three nights were spent in Apalachicola National Forest, where there is excellent primitive camping and canoeing. There we found a new genus, Cliftonia, a heath-like shrub with copious white-flowered racemes. We had planned to look for this plant after returning from Ghana, but it was even more fun to find it serendipitously. Yellow-throated Warblers and Northern Parulas were singing everywhere and we had a close look at a Water Moccasin. I made a good recording of what was either Eastern Red Bat or the very closely related Seminole Bat, the latter a personal nemesis (i.e., a species that continues to elude us despite much searching). These two species are probably acoustically indistinguishable, and the range of Eastern Red Bat completely encompasses that of Seminole Bat, so to count the latter we will have to get a good look.
Our last destination before arriving in Jacksonville was Stephen C. Foster SP, GA. This is a favorite park; the paddling in the Okefenokee Swamp is outstanding and there are nice trails with interesting plants. On the drive there, we saw a spectacular display of around a thousand Rain Lilies (Zephyranthes atamasca), with large, white, trumpet-like flowers! We took two canoe trips while there, finishing this leg of the road trip with 7 paddles totalling 46 miles. I spent a lot of time looking with the thermal scope for Seminole Bat roosting in clumps of Spanish Moss, but to no avail. We did see a new damselfly, Pale Bluet, and heard a new herp, Pine Woods Treefrog.
We’re now in Jacksonville, doing laundry, packing, and getting COVID tests. If everything goes well, I’ll be sending out a post about Ghana in roughly four weeks.