Category Archives: Wildlife Encounters

Peaceful Days

We have settled into our Florida home. Life has been gentle and sweet. Long days of lazy beach walking, and collecting natures treasures. We were walking the beach and found endless sea pansy soft coral so we carried handfuls back to the marine lab where they will be put to good use instead of dying. Another day we watched our favourite dolphin pod driving mullet into the shore in high surf and we were overjoyed to see they have a new baby. I shouted my congratulations and was treated to a waving tail display and a happy jump and a rolling wave of one flipper in the air. Dolphins call dogs. Jack’s Lily swims out and then swims with them when they call. The dolphins like Lily, especially the younger ones and they greet her and try to get her to play but she isn’t a very good swimmer. When they get bored with her simply one dimensional stroke they swim off and she returns to shore, exhausted but full of doggy joy.

On the walk pictured below, in a heavy fog, we disturbed a large osprey who had just caught a fish. The bird flew off with the squirming fish tight in its grip. Yet another day we found a pile of slag from the clearing of a canal and it was packed full of fossils. We carried home chunks of ancient sea bed turned to rock with shells and worm tracks that day. We saw my favourite bird of all birds, the impossible, ridiculous, roseate spoonbill which is much more respectable looking in its native habitat doing its natural thing than when seen in any zoo. The winter birds who headed south before us, but whom we left in Georgia, have finally arrived and the trees are full of cardinals, robins, oriels,  blue jays, hundreds of starlings in stunning murmurations, golden and brown finches and yellow warblers and all those nondescript little brown ones I can never distinguish. They are far quieter and far more social in winter than when they are combating for mates and nesting places back in Alonsa so one can see entire folks living in peaceful close proximity.

SAM_6844

The dogs love the beach. Each morning a large group of dog owners meets early and walks the beach with dogs off leash. The dogs run and play and do the dog thing with abandon while we walk and chat about grandchildren, vehicles, our aches and pains, and where good sales are. The dogs roll in the stinky gunk, swim in the water and dig, endlessly dig in the sand. We moan about how they will need a bath again but none of us makes a move to interfere with their dog play. Some dogs try fishing. The fish are too smart. The crabs fight back and win. Yelp and a quick walk back and the dropped crab moves off. Some dogs, like my Trusty, prefer to just lie there and enjoy the sun and the heat in quiet dignity. Trusty watches the others with disdain and she never needs a bath. The only time I have ever seen Trusty get excited and take to the surf was when the dolphins called her, presumably to show off their new baby. She’s not as good at swimming as Lily and she gave up when the waves hit her chest. She ran up and down the beach crying, unable to fully answer their song. I wish I could hear it.

SAM_6854

Most people like the beach when its sunny and hot. I prefer to go to the beach when it’s cloudy and cool and a stiff breeze makes for rolling surf. On such days it’s often just us with our dogs and we can walk for kilometres without meeting another human being. These are also the days one is most likely to see the dolphins.

SAM_6839

There is something healing about the beach. The voice of Ulmo (if you are a Tolkien’s Silmarillion fan you will recognize that) is soothing.

As a child I had favourite song. I learned it in school. Our school day began with the Lord’s Prayer and two hymns from an English child’s hymnal.

I often hum it quietly to myself as I walk the beach listening to the waves.

“This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.”

“This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.”

“This is my Father’s world, dreaming, I see His face.
I open my eyes, and in glad surprise cry, “The Lord is in this place.”
This is my Father’s world, from the shining courts above,
The Beloved One, The Holy One,
Came—a pledge of deathless love.”

“This is my Father’s world, should my heart be ever sad?
The Lord is King—let the heavens ring. God reigns—let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world. Now closer to Heaven bound,
For dear to God is the earth we trod.
No place but is holy ground.”

“This is my Father’s world. I walk a desert lone.
In a bush ablaze to my wondering gaze God makes His glory known.
This is my Father’s world, a wanderer I may roam
Whate’er my lot, it matters not,
My heart is still at home.”

There should be something about dolphins in there. Perhaps I will have to add a verse.

Field Dressing and Southern Charm

I had one of those experiences that illustrates how like and unlike life in the south is compared to life in the north. I was driving down a country road at night and two deer passed in front. I slowed down to let the first pass and then waited for the second. There is always a second deer. Well apparently there is sometimes a third deer as well because as I started up again, the third one leaped out in front of me. I was going slowly enough that I was able to break and did not quite hit it. Instead I clipped it on my front grill and sent the poor thing spinning wildly into the ditch.

I immediately pulled over. I also automatically grabbed the can of bear spray I keep in the door and hung it on the belt loop of my jeans. There are bears here, smaller than up north but still big enough. I ran around the front of the truck surveying it for damage. No apparent damage on that cursory view. I ran back down the highway. The deer was alive but obviously mortally wounded. It struggled to rise on broken front legs, bleating in pain and alarm. As I stared, a battered, muddy pick up truck stopped and a young man got out. He was the quintessential southern redneck, dressed in jeans, flannel and camouflage, his outfit completed with a belt loaded with tools. He was in sore need of a shave, haircut and a trip to a laundromat. He was also southern polite.

“Are you all right, Ma’am?’ His eyes were very blue and looked like he honestly cared. I decided he was likely not a serial killer but I made sure there was distance between the two of us nonetheless and ever so casually rested my hand on the pepper spray. In spite of the warm eyes, there was something oddly predatory in his stance.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Thank you for stopping. I just clipped the deer, poor thing. I suppose I need to call someone to get it put it out of it’s misery.” I was suddenly acutely aware of my accent which in this place is exotic.

His eyes slid sideways to the injured animal. The blue went from caring to covetous.

“Do you want that deer, Ma’am?”

I suddenly recognized the look. In my past I lived on a farm and venison was prized meat and an important supplement to both our diet and our limited budget. This was a yearling and that was the very best meat available. There is also an abiding and utterly practical respect for life. It is a sin to waste good meat.

“No,” I quickly said. “I am visiting from Canada and I don’t have any equipment to dress a deer or process it. Feel free to take it.”

I was forgotten, and he was now all business, the primal male hunter, yanking out a large field dressing knife. I watched just long enough to see him expertly slit the throat of the animal and the bleating ended. I left him to it, just in case he was a serial killer and I was next on the menu. I retreated to my truck and continued to my destination.

I don’t know if it is legal to keep a road killed (or in this case a road mortally injured) deer and eat it. I certainly prefer that the accidental death of that poor animal will at least go to feed someone. I have had the same experience up north as well. A freshly killed deer on a roadside at night and a primal male hunter who can dress such an animal on the spot and turn it into food. The only real difference was the gentle southern drawl when he said “Ma’am” and that fact that we were both in T shirts on a January night. I swatted at mosquitoes that had followed me into the truck as I continued my drive. I have never encountered a mosquito in January in Manitoba either. The rest was the same, north or south.

Never turn your back on the ocean: my shark/dolphin encounter.

I had one of those once in a lifetime type experiences today. Naturally I did not have a camera. The camera is with hubby dearest who is in Dallas doing his academic thing. I went off to the beach at Alligator Point with the two dogs. It was cold, with a nasty wind so the place we were was empty of other beach denizens. I was delighted to see a large group of dolphins feeding on fish I presume were mullet very close to the shore. The dolphins were coming so close into the shore that a good portion of their bodies were up out of the water and they were really close. The dolphins feeding were the larger dolphins in the group. It was the four very large ones I have seen before plus some of the medium sized ones driving the fish into shallow water and attacking them. I could see other smaller dolphins surfacing and some even jumping completely out of the water in what looked like racing play beyond them. I was enthralled. I love dolphins anytime but to see real live wild dolphins doing their wild and free thing is just a delight beyond describing. I have walked the beach at Alligator Point many times and seeing dolphins there just never gets old for me.

In the midst of this wonderful display I heard a particularly high shrilling squeak noise and I looked up to see a very small dolphin racing toward the large adults. The baby was leaping clear out of the water as it raced. It was making a bee line towards the adults at a 45 degree angle from the shore, swimming at top speed making this weird squeaky noise. I saw a fin behind it and my first thought was

“Oh isn’t that cute, they’re playing tag with the baby.”

Then I looked again.

This was no dolphin following that baby. It was a large shark. Baby was racing full speed towards the large adults on the shore and I assume the noise was a terrified baby distress scream. With the hair rising on the back of my neck and every Mommy/Grandma instinct I have on full alert, I watched that baby and then out of nowhere one of the medium sized dolphins threw itself hard against the side of the shark knocking it off course and slowing it down so the baby gained some distance as it raced straight toward the adults near the shore. I found myself screaming at the big dolphins to do something and I felt sick thinking I might soon be seeing a baby dolphin get killed.

And then the fight started. The shark was about 20 meters from the shore and right behind that baby when suddenly the water was full of thrashing smashing adult dolphins. The baby was gone. For a long moment the shark was rolling around in a mass of bodies and foaming water snapping and bending its body but unable to get a grip on anything. The four biggest dolphins appeared to be attacking it in a coordinated manner and keeping well clear of the front end, taking turns smashing it with their full weight. With the crashing about as the big dolphins attacked, the shark at one point was shoved into water so shallow it was half exposed and I saw the big head with all the teeth in profile in the air for a split second as it flailed. The dolphins made loud ferocious exhalations with deep harsh grunts, spewing spray from their blow holes as they slammed the shark with their bodies and heads. I could also see the shark was about a foot or two shorter than the biggest dolphin crashing into it. I had a crazy urge to jump in and beat on that shark myself but fortunately good sense asserted itself and I stayed on the sand. The dolphins were handling it quite well without me. The shark finally rolled back towards deeper water, thrashing hard. The shark vanished under water with the four dolphins right behind. I watched and after a moment I spotted two of the big dolphins surfacing and then going down again, far away, moving very fast to the south east, and then it was quiet.

The medium sized dolphins, six of them, were very near the baby and there was a lot of blowing and squeaking and I ran down the beach like an idiot shouting “Are you okay baby?” wondering if the baby was hurt, hoping it wasn’t. I stopped when the dolphins, probably alarmed by the lunatic human, moved further away. I was very happy to see that the baby seemed to be unhurt.

After another long moment the four large adults were suddenly back and there was much swimming close around the baby and all the smaller dolphins, and many gentle body nudges and heavy blowing. The entire group then took off along the beach in the opposite direction from where I saw the dolphins presumably chasing after the shark, all moving very close together, baby surrounded by adults. No one seemed injured, which was a huge relief. The whole thing probably took five minutes or less from start to finish but I had such an adrenalin surge I felt head achy, nauseous and I was shaking. My two dogs appeared to be completely oblivious to the whole thing. I was too shook up to finish our walk so we headed back home.

When I got back to my computer I went on line to look to see if I could identify the kind of shark. The first problem I had was that the shark appeared to be entirely black but none of the Florida sharks in the identification guides are black. The only thing I could conclude was that it was not a hammerhead. However, as I considered it, I realized the black colour was likely a trick of the light because the dolphins also looked completely black to me in the bright sun, thrashing in the water with all that white foam around. Yet, I know these dolphins are common bottle nose (Tursiops truncates) and these dolphins are grey not black. So ignoring the black colour and going only by the shape of the head and the shape of the dorsal fin and the small far back placement of the fin near the tail, small eyes and general body shape, I would say it was most likely a bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas). Given that adult bottle nose dolphins can reach 10-12 feet in length and these adults were the biggest dolphins, that would make the shark about 8-10 feet long. The little dolphin was only about 3-4 feet by contrast with the adults, making it a very young dolphin and a tasty meal for a hungry bull shark.

I then went and read up on bull sharks and the whole thing makes sense. Bull sharks like to hunt in shallow water. They do attack and eat baby dolphins. They do appear in Florida in winter even when the water is colder. This was a big shark too, fully adult sized and quite dangerous as sharks go. The scientist in me can stand back and objectively say the shark was just being a shark and doing what sharks do. It is not evil or bad. The scientist in me hopes it was not killed by the dolphins but rather got away. The mother and grandmother in me is 100% behind those brave dolphins risking themselves defending their little baby, especially the medium sized one who knocked that shark away before the big dolphins arrived. That part of me says I sure hope those dolphins killed that awful shark so it can never hurt a baby dolphin again.

Another day at the beach. And people wonder why I don’t like to go into the water.

A Worthy Cause

I have never before used my blog to ask for funds for a worthy cause but this is an emergency and involves something I care deeply about, which is saving sea turtles and educating people about the marine life in the world. Please have a look and if you can donate and pass it along to anyone who might be interested in helping.

Thank you!

https://www.tilt.com/campaigns/clean-water-for-gulf-specimen-aquarium/contributors

see it on You Tube

Update: http://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2015/01/30/marine-lab-needs-help-keep-caring-sea-creatures/22593803/

We succeeded! GSML raised more than goal and was able to get their new ozonator and also update other parts of the water system.

Beach Walks

We have been in Florida for six weeks now and we still haven’t unpacked the bikes we used almost daily in Manitoba. We also haven’t taken the canoe off the truck yet. The “problem” is the beach. The Florida coast consists of the peninsula which is mainly just suburbia now, then miles and miles of mangroves and salt marshes in the big bend to the east. I hope it stays wild because this stuff is required to feed the ocean critters and act as a nursery for the babies of crabs, fish and other things we eat. But it isn’t much fun to be around. Panacea is at the beginning of the many famous white sand beaches of the forgotten Gulf Coast’s Florida Panhandle. We are close to the first and second of these beaches when going west. The first is Mashes sand on the east side of the Ockloconee river/bay and Bald Point State park/Alligator Point on the west. The west is not quite a full barrier island. We like the Alligator Point beach best for a daily walk because dogs are allowed and it stretches for five miles of wide white sand. Who cares about bike riding when there is a white sand beach to walk on? So almost every day we pause mid afternoon or early evening to walk the beaches. Eventually, we might get bored of going to the wide sand beaches and go back to our bikes, or take the canoe somewhere, but we just aren’t there yet.

Houses on beach Not snow!

This is the view of the houses on the beach. if I ever win the lotto I will buy one. They range in price from a million dollars to 200,000 for a tiny one bedroom. The point is sandy. Every time I see this I have to remind myself, this is white sand, not snow.
Trusty on Beach Dogs on Beach 2 Dogs on Beach

And of course what could be finer for a dog than a walk on the beach? 
Locals

The locals love the beach too. Note the extreme racial tension of the south. It is not 1960 in the south anymore. To all appearances we have seen it is pretty much gone in the south and is actually far worse up north in big cities.

Fishing net Golf

Many of the locals net fish. People, especially tourists, are also golfers. But watch out for that water trap. And of course there is surf fishing with a long sturdy pole. They use far heavier ones than mine since catching a really big fish (or a sting ray or shark) is fairly common.

Beach junk Shells CoralSeaPork

And what would a beach walk be without beach junk, shells and sea pork (the ball is sea pork which is actually some kind of living creature).
Sandpiper

And the other kind of locals and snowbirds: We have seen a lot of wild life on the shore. Loons, cormorants, ducks, pelicans, storks, cranes, egrets, herons, several kinds of sandpipers. We even see dolphins sporting off shore every so often, but not today.

And of course there is what I am missing back home.

RedZone

Red marks zones of extreme cold and windchill, -40 at the point where C and F scales cross. I wish we had a transporter so I could transport all my friends and family in Winnipeg here to have a day off from the cold.

Trip to Clearwater Marine Aquarium

We had a special treat. We drove with our host Jack Rudloe to Clearwater Marine Aquarium near Tampa Florida. We got to meet the famous dolphin, Winter, from “Dolphin’s Tale” movie during a VIP behind the scenes tour. We then got to accompany the folks from Clearwater to the release of two sea turtles who had been suffering from a severe virus caused turtle cancer called papilloma. What better way to spend a day than that?

SAM_4403
I can’t say I was impressed by Clearwater. It’s a resort. No wilderness.

SAM_4406

SAM_4407

If you saw the movie you should recognize this, especially the boat.

SAM_4450

SAM_4453

We got to meet Winter in person. She looked at us and did the dolphin smile thing.

SAM_4465

SAM_4471

Next stop was to see Prince the sea turtle who was being prepared for his return to the ocean. We were part of the entourage going to release him. It’s very special to have a VIP friend. We saw Prince the turtle released back to the wild, fully recovered.

SAM_4485

SAM_4487

SAM_4491

Gathering Bryozoans

Bryozoans are a neat kind of ocean creatures that look like plants but are actually animals. They live attached onto things and they are of great interest to scientists. One of their more interesting aspects is they contain natural compounds used to treat cancer. Gulf Specimen Marine Lab supplies lots of things to scientists. Jack told us he needed to run out and collect some for an order and asked if we wanted to come along. Did we ever! Any collecting mission is always a fascinating lesson. It’s also fascinating to see Jack’s years of experience in action. He glanced out at his dock and muttered that the tide is high, so we can likely find them off marina dock at Alligator point. And we did. Of course we also got a lesson on a bunch of the other critters living on the dock while we were at it. “The Living Dock” is of course one of Jack Rudloe’s many books. It is such a privilege to have him for a friend. I added a tube clip on the bottom about “The Living Dock.” You can also get a feel for the lovely scenery and warm temperatures we are enjoying.

SAM_4157
SAM_4158

SAM_4162
SAM_4167

SAM_4168
SAM_4170

SAM_4178
SAM_4161