Low tide, a pod of dolphins, and fishing birds

Our morning walk along the Intracoastal Waterway was at low tide. Combined with serious winds, the water was pushed far away from the banks.

All of the birds were gleefully out fishing. There were several ospreys, cranes, and a blue heron so large that it came up to my neck.

The highlight of our walk, however, was seeing a pod with upwards of ten dolphins making its way southward. Among them was a mother dolphin and a baby who were swimming and leaping perfectly in sync. It reminded me of the research from the Sarasota dolphin project about how dolphins have signature whistles that likely function like names.

I tried my best to get a picture of the dolphins, but they are so hard to catch in motion. This has to be a record number for our dolphin-watching episodes though. I feel so blessed to live in Florida and have creatures like this in our backyard.

The great American childhood

We have had a great Thanksgiving week at the lake house (on Lake Hartwell, which is on the Georgia – South Carolina border). I’ve read books on the Crow tribe and Aristotle (both by Jonathan Lear) and shade gardening (ideas for the fern dell we will be constructing when we get home) sitting out by the fire pit for hours. We’ve been out hiking and Rodney and Papa took Elise fishing with great success.

Here is a shot of Elise with the two bass that she caught. She helped clean and cook them afterward. As you can see, she was rather happy with her catch.

Here is Sherlock taking in the fall colors.

And Sherlock chasing Elise as she goes down the zip line.

Here is Elise chilling with Buddy on the couch. She later convinced her Mimi to camp out with her in the attic. (Though technically I think they slept in the anteroom to the attic.) They have an attic that is straight out of a C.S. Lewis book. It’s up two sets of stairs and has a small window with panoramic views of the lake, and the shelves are lined with old books and pictures. It’s Elise’s favorite place to hide out for hours. I’m sure it seems magical from a child’s perspective.

Buddy will let Elise do anything she wants to him. Here he is sporting Baylor colors.

Elise hiking with Papa on the Heartbreak Ridge trail (Payne’s Creek). It was a beautiful hike, snaking along several steep ravines.

Elise insisted on having her picture made with the root system of this massive tree, which I’m guessing toppled over in a storm. You can’t see the tree itself in this picture, but you can get a sense of how immense it was from the root ball.

Just beautiful fall colors. Elise brought home a giant bag of leaves and rocks from the hike.

This maple tree behind the lake house is spectacular. When the light shines through the leaves, they are as red as a fire engine. We smoked our turkey on the Big Green Egg, stuffed with onions, apples, rosemary, and garlic. It was incredible.

I have been parked here all week.

Sunset over the lake, taken from the boat.

Bald eagle update and a canopy of ferns

The bald eagles in our neighborhood have been very busy with their nestorations. They have added a lot of branches. If you look at the center of their nest, they have piled it high with a soft cushion of Spanish moss. We are ready for babies! It is misty here, so please excuse the drops on the camera. What a lovely place to come into this world.

This is not a great picture of Samson and Gabrielle, as it was getting dark, but here they are bonding in their nest. Samson is the son of the eagles who originally built the nest.

We went for a long walk along a very flooded Intracoastal Waterway this evening. Whenever there is a Full Moon or New Moon, we get higher-than-usual tides. This usually floods all of the low areas, including the rivers and streams feeding the ocean. It was something to see this evening – the water was almost up to our path in places. A little higher and it certainly would have swallowed some of the docks.

Everything is so lush after the recent rain, which wakes up the resurrection ferns that grow along the branches and trunks of the sprawling live oak trees. (That seems to be how they received their name – even a small amount of water “resurrects” them. But I might be wrong.)

Coming off the trail into our backyard, I noticed that my powder puff tree is in bloom now too. This fun tree is native to Bolivia, but works well in Florida. I had no idea it was even a tree when I planted it. I was shocked when it grew to be taller than I was in its first year. Now it is a monster.

Hiking through swamps

Wetlands are some of my favorite places to walk. There is so much wildlife to observe and diverse flora. You can walk for several miles and it doesn’t feel far at all.

I love how different coastal wetlands are from swamps too. We have the coastal wetlands of the Intracoastal Waterway in our neighborhood, which are almost always full of luxurious, transcendent light and the cool relief of the tradewinds. No matter what kind of mood you are in when you show up, you will feel brighter by the end.

The swamps, however, are the opposite. The swamps are dark and brooding. Everything in them is wet, and you will be too when you are done walking. Even your underwear will be wet. Water hangs in the area, like some backwards cloud that starts in the earth instead of the sky. You can hear creatures moving around you, but you can’t see them and you are sort of thankful for your ignorance. It feels dangerous to be there. I grew up thinking of swamps as ugly things, but now I think they are quite beautiful and good for the imagination.

These are pictures from the Graham Swamp Conservation Area in our town. The freshwater swamp itself covers about 3,000 acres of land that is part of the Bulow Creek floodplain. I wrote about hiking to the ruins of the Bulow plantation, which was torched by Seminoles, here.

To love a swamp, however, is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised. And sometimes its invisibility is a blessing. Swamps and bogs are places of transition and wild growth, breeding grounds, experimental labs where organisms and ideas have the luxury of being out of the spotlight, where the imagination can mutate and mate, send tendrils into and out of the water.

Barbara Hurd, Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing

Though I imagine we’re killing ourselves right now in all manner of ways that’ll seem insane to people in the future. And as doors to the next world go, a bog ain’t a bad choice. It’s not quite water and it’s not quite land – it’s an in-between place.

Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

My most memorable hikes can be classified as ‘Shortcuts that Backfired’.

Edward Abbey, The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West

(This is quite true of our relationship to Graham Swamp. We once walked over eight miles in the swamp because we thought we were taking a short cut back to the main road. We ended up finding a lake instead.)

I passed so many vacant acres and looked past them to so many more vacant acres and looked ahead and behind at the empty road and up at the empty sky; the sheer bigness of the world made me feel lonely to the bone. The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility. If I had been an orchid hunter I wouldn’t have seen this space as sad-making and vacant – I think I would have seen it as acres of opportunity where the things I loved were waiting to be found.

….

There is a deep stillness in the Fakahatchee, but there is not a moment of physical peace. Something is always brushing against you or lapping at you or snagging at you or tangling in your legs, and the sun is always pummeling your skin, and the wetness in the air makes your hair coil like a phone cord. You never smell plain air in a swamp – you smell the tang of mud and the sourness of rotting leaves and the cool musk of new leaves and the perfumes of a million different flowers floating by, each distinct but transparent, like soap bubbles. The biggest number in the universe would not be big enough to count the things your eyes see. Every inch of land holds up a thatch of tall grass or a bush or a tree, and every bush or tree is girdled with another plant’s roots, and every root is topped with a flower or a fern or a swollen bulb, and every one of those flowers and ferns is the pivot around which a world of bees and gnats and spiders and dragonflies revolve. The sounds you hear are twigs cracking underfoot and branches whistling past you and leaves murmuring and leaves slopping over the trunks of old dead trees and every imaginable and unimaginable insect noise and every kind of bird peep and screech and tootle, and then all those unclaimed sounds of something moving in a hurry, something low to the ground and heavy, maybe the size of a horse in the shape of a lizard, or maybe the size, shape and essential character of a snake. In the swamp you feel as if someone had plugged all of your senses into a light socket. A swamp is logy and slow-moving about at the same time highly overstimulating. Even in the dim, sultry places deep within it, it is easy to stay awake.

Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

A new season of watching bald eagles

In a tall tree in our neighborhood, there is a bald eagle nest. The area gets roped off by wildlife officials every autumn as the eagles mate and (hopefully) begin raising their young. There are only slightly over 7,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the United States, so we are very fortunate to have one so close. Here’s a map of the nesting pairs of eagles by state.

There is a webcam on “The Hamlet” in our neighborhood, thanks to the American Eagle Foundation’s Northeast Florida Bald Eagle Nest Cam. You can watch the eagles all day and all night.

Romeo at the Hamlet

Last year, things at the Hamlet took a tragic turn. Elise and I had spent weeks watching a pair of eagles named Romeo and Juliet taking turns sitting on two surprisingly enormous eggs.

Eagle eggs

Seriously, if you are going to name an animal couple after famous lovers, don’t pick names that suggest a violent end. Juliet returned to the nest evidently injured and was driven away by a female rival. This left poor Romeo alone to protect the eggs and keep them warm, all while trying to keep himself fed. Juliet never returned to the nest and wasn’t spotted again.

Romeo trying to incubate the eggs by himself after Juliet went missing

On Christmas morning, after opening presents, we finally got our wish: we watched on live television as one of the eggs hatched, revealing an adorable ball of fluff. The whole process took hours to unfold, but it was worth the wait.

A fluffy eaglet hatching on Christmas Day

Juliet’s female rival continued to stalk the nest. After Romeo left to find food for the hungry eaglet, that wicked creature swooped into the nest and carried the baby bird away. The other egg turned out not to viable, but Romeo sat on it for weeks as if it would hatch. Eventually, he flew away.

Bald eagles mate for life, but they have been known to accept a new mate over time if their partner dies. I guess we’ll see, but I am praying Romeo and Juliet are alive and flourishing somewhere out there.

Romeo and Juliet had returned to the nest as a pair for 10 seasons, during which they raised 19 eaglets. They have not returned this year, but one of their offspring has claimed the nest along with his mate. Circle of life. Bald eagles live for about 30 years in the wild, so theoretically a single mated pair can produce a lot of offspring if their rituals are not disturbed.

Samson hatched in the nest on December 23, 2013 and had an older (by three days) female sibling, Delilah. He left the nest on April 22, 2014, at 120 days old, as a strong eagle and excellent hunter. Samson was not seen at the nest again until he decided to stop by for a visit last year.

Samson reclaimed his birthplace on August 26, 2019 and began making improvements to the nest as eagles do when they are preparing to raise a family. It takes eagles around five years to get to mating age, so it’s about time for him.

Gabrielle joined Samson in mid-September and the two have been seen bonding since then. Mated pairs of eagles spend a lot of quality time together. They eat together, hang out on a branch together watching the sunset. It’s very romantic.

Here’s hoping that Samson and Gabrielle keep Romeo and Juliet’s legacy going with years of beautiful baby eagles.

Formal gardens, new mountain bike trails, and a pristine beach

Elise had her weekly riding lesson this morning, in an extraordinarily soggy ring from all of the rain we’ve been having. Even the pony wanted nothing of it. Afterward, for fun, we decided to load up our bicycles and head to Washington Oaks Gardens State Park.

The park is located at the former winter home of Owen and Louise Young, who along with John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and many other famous industrialists of the early 20th century, liked to come stay in our area for long stretches of time.

Owen Young became president of General Electric in 1922 and then was appointed as the company’s inaugural chairman later the same year. He served as chairman of GE until 1939. Under Young’s leadership, GE transitioned into the world’s leading manufacturer of household appliances. He also drove the electrification of farms, factories, and transportation systems across the United States.

In 1919, Young created the Radio Corporation of America (you probably know it as RCA) at the request of the US government, which did not want England to control the entire market for radio communications.

Following World War I, Young also became a leading diplomat. He coauthored the Dawes Plan, which reduced the amount of German reparations. Germany defaulted on its reparation payments after financial markets crashed in the late 1920s, and Young again was the leader in working out a debt restructuring (which became known as the “Young Plan”). For this effort, Young was named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1929. (Many remark that being named Man of the Year is bad luck, and so it proved with Young. The Young Plan was shattered once the Great Depression took hold. You know what Germany turned into after that.) He served as an adviser for five US presidents during his lifetime.

Louise Young (née Clark) owned a business in the Philippines manufacturing lingerie. Artisans in the Philippines were well known for their traditional embroidery, which Young combined with her own designs.

The Youngs met travelling back from the Philippines on the Empress of Asia and were married in St. Augustine. Owen Young bought Washington Oaks as a wedding present for his wife. They carved formal gardens out of the jungle and had the A1A re-routed to accommodate their landscaping plans. No kidding. They told the state where to put its infrastructure.

(Our trip involved Elise’s first attempt at riding on mountain bike trails. She did fine, but it was hard for her riding a children’s bike that does not have any gears on sandy trails. Anyway, the hiking / mountain bike trails at Washington Oaks include a portion of the original A1A, which is now cracked and covered in moss. It was lots of fun to ride down.)

Here are some pictures of the formal gardens. There are many ancient live oak trees in the park with tangled branches sprawling out forever. (They are so massive, it’s impossible to capture their size in a picture.) I can’t believe how many hurricanes those trees have survived. Between them and the piles of ferns (and evergreen trees that look like ferns), you half expect a dinosaur to walk out onto the path. It seems primordial.

The park also has a rose garden with bushes that appear to be about 10 feet tall. It smells like heaven.

So this is a pillar made of coquina rock that the jungle is in the process of reclaiming. The pillar marked an entrance to the Young’s property from the original route of the A1A.

(Coquina is a sort of natural cement made from sand, shells, and water that is everywhere along the eastern coast. The Castillo in St. Augustine was also made of coquina, which made the fort impossible to take by force. The walls simply absorb cannonballs. The fort has only changed hands on a diplomatic basis. Coquina is quite an engineering marvel.)

We met this giant gopher tortoise on our ride. (Gopher tortoises are an endangered species. We said hi and let him continue on his way.)

The bicycle trails at the park cross the A1A and head to the ocean. There’s a wonderful, pristine beach. We would have taken a dip in the water after our ride, but the waves were nothing to mess with today.