Friday, April 12, 2013

Goodbye Sweet Lucky

April 12, 2013

I am sorry to share with all of Lucky's friends the sad and shocking news that he passed away this evening. He has been the picture of health and wellbeing - we walked 3 miles last night! - and then without warning, this afternoon at around 5:15 pm he suddenly became ill. He wasn't acting like himself - oddly lethargic and he couldn't get up from the place where he'd been napping peacefully all afternoon. We took him to the vet, and by 8 pm he was gone. 

It's so sad, so unexpected. Lucky for him - he got to live a happy, active life until almost the moment he left. But hard for us. I just never expected it like this. Just a few days ago, I was watching him and marveling how at his age, he was still so healthy and active. Wow. I guess we just never know. A reminder to us all not to take anything for granted. 

Roam free, Lucky. I do believe you were probably the best dog that ever lived, trying so hard to always be a good boy. You will be missed. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Eye of the Beholder

My sister loves vultures. Until learning this curious fact, I'd never encountered anyone with a fondness for vultures, but apparently these big ugly birds have their fans. My sister tells me there are websites and a Facebook page devoted to vultures and their fans. Since learning of her interest, I've found myself noticing them more frequently. This probably helps explain why I was stalking them with my camera on the recent visit to Myakka River State Park. The park has both Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures, and the hike to Deep Hole was a vulture bonanza.

I had never seen so many in one place, and kept thinking "I wish my sister were here to see this!" A perfect storm of environmental factors the day of our hike resulted in remarkable wildlife viewing. The warm sunshine brought the alligators out to sun themselves, but an uncharacteristic cold snap just a few days earlier had killed large numbers of catfish, creating an "all-you-can-eat" seafood buffet for the vultures.

The alligators and vultures seemed to have an understanding, as neither bothered the other. Black Vultures are large birds, and with their 5 foot wingspan they have few predators. However I assume that a hungry or angry alligator could make short work of a vulture if so inclined. Thankfully, these alligators were not so inclined. I don't watch those animals-eating-other-animals shows on TV, and definitely did not want to see it in person! 

The other bird we encountered on our hike is more universally admired - the pelican. On the day of our hike, we hit the bird watching jackpot. There were literally thousands of white pelicans congregating around Deep Hole. One of the rangers we encountered on the way out had also seen them and was as thrilled as we were. He told us he'd never before seen that many pelicans at Deep Hole at one time, estimating their numbers at around 2000. Lucky us!

White pelicans are even larger than vultures, with a wingspan of 8-9 feet. 
Watching them take flight was quite a sight. 

It was thrilling to be at this mysterious and wild place, just the four of us with dozens of black vultures, hundreds of alligators, and thousands of white pelicans. But all good things must come to an end, and eventually it was time to leave. The sun sank lower in the afternoon sky as we started the hike back, and I found myself wondering about Deep Hole at night. In such a remote area, miles from streetlights and the electric glow of civilization, the darkness must be complete and impenetrable. I thought about this as my feet, unaccustomed to hiking in sand, left clumsy tracks along the trail. Where do alligators sleep? In the water? On the shore? Well, one thing I did know for certain...
I would not be there after dark to find out.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Myakka River State Park

After I was finally convinced to leave the armadillo, we continued our hike, skirting the edge of Lower Myakka Lake. As we drew closer to our destination of Deep Hole, we began hearing the sound of birds. Lots of birds. We climbed a small sandy berm, clambered through a hedge, and...

I have never seen such a sight! It was like walking into an episode of PBS Nature. Literally thousands of white pelicans, hundreds of alligators, and dozens of vultures (we'll get to them later).

Alligators lined the banks of Deep Hole, basking in the sun. This mysterious hole is estimated to be over 120 feet deep, although no one really knows for sure. Needless to say, this isn't a popular spot for investigative scuba diving.

I was simultaneously fascinated and freaked out, and stayed near the trailhead, taking photos from a respectable distance of 30-40 feet. The gators paid us no mind, but you don't want to take any chances with these huge reptiles. As you might imagine, some people are stupid and attempt to feed or provoke them. This is strictly against park rules, not just for the safety of the stupid people, but for the safety of the gators as well. An alligator that loses its fear of humans and begins to associate people with food will usually have to be destroyed.

If you're interested, check out Myakka River Paddle on google maps, the satellite view. You'll see Lower Myakka Lake on one the top part of the kayak route - begin zooming in. Keep zooming until Deep Hole appears. Zoom closer...closer. Even in the satellite view you can see alligators lining the mysterious hole - creepy!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Make that "gators and buzzards and pelicans, oh my!" 

Our ridiculous March weather combined with the presence of good friends in Sarasota provided the opportunity for a Florida getaway around mid-month. Destination: Myakka River State Park. Temps: mid-70s. Ahhhhhh...sweet warm weather and sunshine! This was an eagerly anticipated benefit of this completely irrational (given my work schedule) yet utterly necessary (given my work schedule) road trip. Not anticipated or expected were the incredible wildlife encounters!

Hiking in Florida is so different from hiking in North Carolina. It's flat and sandy, and the air has a different feel to it...almost as if you can smell the ocean. One day, we hiked into an area called "Deep Hole," which is protected and requires a permit. The rangers issue only a certain number of permits each day. This helps minimize the impact of visitors on both the wildlife and environment.

We had just entered a clearing adjacent to a body of water, when we came upon an armadillo! I understand these critters are as common as squirrels in some parts of the country, but not in western North Carolina. For me, having seen one only once in my life (a fleeting glimpse at that) they remain quite exotic and wondrous. Actually I'm not sure what struck me as more marvelous, the armadillo, or the colorful grasses in which he was feeding. This photo is completely untouched - look at the bright red, green, and yellow grasses!

At first, I crept along... oh-so-quietly...
stealthily pursuing him with my camera. 

Until I realized he could care less if I was there. 
Then I stopped sneaking.

I was fascinated. An armadillo looks like a creature out of Jurassic Park.

Don't you agree?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ice Storm!

To borrow a helpful Southern saying, I spent the month of March as busy as a one legged man in a hiney kicking contest (although the word isn't usually hiney). Either way, for weeks I've been too busy to read or write or do anything that wasn't work related. All work and no play was making me dull, so I took a few days off around Easter, and got caught up on life. It was wonderful! One of the things I did was download pics from my camera.

It was so much fun looking back at the photos I'd taken from late February and March. I felt disappointed that the month of March was gone, and along with it, the opportunity to blog about my late winter adventures. But then I thought: Who says it's too late? It's my blog...I can do anything I want!

So here it is: I declare the first week of April to be a March retrospective! Starting with...the Ice Storm.

Western North Carolina doesn't get ice storms too frequently, thank goodness, but we had one a few weeks back that scared me to death. At first the freezing rain was mesmerizing and beautiful, coating every surface with ice, and turning the landscape into a fairyland.

I wasn't overly concerned, because Mr. Weatherman had assured us that the temps would rise above freezing by mid-morning. But Mr. Weatherman was wrong. It stayed cold, the freezing rain continued, and the trees around the house began leaning ominously.

And then around noon, we heard it. The sound of a gunshot, which during an ice storm means only one thing - breaking trees. Lady was already nervous, walking around with me, looking out the windows.

But when the cracking and popping started, she decided to take cover.

If a giant tree fell on the house, I don't think being under the keyboard tray would help, but I didn't tell her that. She hid under the desk briefly, then got up to look out the window again. That's the thing about living with a German Shepherd, you never have to worry alone. A German Shepherd will always worry with you. Other breeds, not so much.

"Look, even the cat is sleeping! What's wrong with all of them? 
Don't they know we're in imminent danger?" 

Fortunately - in spite of Lucky's, Katie's, and Lucy's complete lack of vigilance - we all survived the experience.

In the end it turned out to be an opportunity to get some amazing photos of nature's artistry, rather than a scene of impending disaster.

Even the trees were relatively unscathed. Remarkably, the only loss was this two story Leyland Cypress at the back of the house, which you can see through the living room windows in this photo taken earlier in the winter.

The weight of the ice completely flattened that Cypress. After the ice storm, it looked like a pitiful wilted shrub instead of the giant it had been hours earlier. But all in all, this felt like a rather miraculous escape from danger. We didn't even lose power!

And afterward, Lady slept.