Cradle Creek Preserve

The morning sun had just turned the saltwater marsh to a golden hue, as I strolled through the Cradle Creek Preserve in Jacksonville Beach. As joggers passed me along the trails, I ventured out to the canoe and kayak landing just as some visitors from Canada were launching their Kayak on their way to Dutton Island.
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I found the preserve a birding paradise, as palliated woodpeckers darted back and forth thought the oak canopy of the maritime forest; the sounds of other migrant and resident birds filled the air. Off into the distance from another wildlife observation area, an osprey called out to its mate from a large tree that supports their nest. Several anhinga were perched on logs air-drying their wings, offering a picturesque foreground to an amazing vista.

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Located on the corner of South 15th street and Fairway Lane, this 43 acre park is a true gem offering a wonderful way to explore Florida’s native plants and animals from the comfort of well groomed trails and boardwalks. More information can be found on the Jacksonville Beach website at http://www.jacksonvillebeach.org.

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Cast-Off to Castaway Island

One Yelp reviewer called Castaway Island Preserve “Just a nice beautiful setting at sunset. I just naturally relax while walking around with so much natural beauty”

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Located on the Intracoastal Waterway on San Pablo road, Castaway Island has several trails that wind through the pine Flatwoods and along the saltwater marshes of this preserve. One of the first things I notice was the imprints of animal tracks on the paved trails and thought; this would be a great educational guessing game to play with a child.

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Further down the paved trail, I came across a long boardwalk that overlooked a grassy marsh, where the sounds of a darting kingfisher broke the morning’s silence. At the end of the boardwalk there’s a large interpretive sign that describes with photos, the animals of the salt marsh and how they adapt to a saline environment.

Another attraction is the pier and dock that offers easy access and launching for the canoeing and kayaking enthusiast.

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If you’re looking for some nice quiet and pet friendly wilderness to stroll through and perhaps pack a picnic lunch, make sure to bring your camera or binoculars and you should be able to see a variety of birds and animals in this environmental oasis.

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“Soar like an …”

Our area is quite abundant with wildlife and there’s nothing more powerful than the king of the bird world, the Bald Eagle.
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Over the weekend, I spotted a mating pair and was mesmerized as they soured back and forth like fighter jets, while calling out to each other in the early morning sun.
The eagle is a magnificent bird of prey – their image represents many powerful symbols and national pride; from old American gold coins to the Presidential seal – they are the American mascot, our national bird.

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So what does the eagle symbolize in our culture? According to the website Universe of Symbolism (universeofsymbolism.com) the Native American’s regarded the eagle as the Great Spirit and its feathers are used in different ceremonies and dress. Spiritually, it may remind us to be victorious, proud and strong and historically their symbol represents freedom, truth and justice.
A myth of the ancient Aztecs society told a story of a battle between the eagle and a jaguar about who would become the sun. The eagle won after throwing itself in to the fire and the jaguar followed, thus becoming the moon. Afterwards, the Aztecs built two elite armies called the eagles and the jaguars.

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Locally in N.E. Florida there is a webcam for viewing eagles and their chicks at http://www.eagles.org/Cams/FloridaNest.html offering 3 different camera views and chatting capabilities, however to protect these birds its nest is not revealed.

Washington Oaks State Park

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Just down A1A near Palm Coast, lays Washington Oaks State Park, encompassing over 400 acres of forest hammocks with great views of the Matanzas River and marsh, located on its western border.

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According to the Friends of Washington Oaks website, there are 20 acres of formal gardens and during my visit, I was amazed with the serenity are this area which includes large moss covered oak trees, stream and beautiful flowers.

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One of the most unusual characteristics of this park is the many coquina boulders or rocks that are strewn throughout this strand of beach. The history of coquina rocks as building material goes back over 400 years and can be found in many buildings in St. Augustine, including the Castillo de San Marcos fort.

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The geology of these unusual rock formations goes back to the Pleistocene Ice Age some 11,000 years ago when, according to coquinarock.com, the last continental glacier retreated for the shores of Florida.

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If you love to take photos, this a great place to go and experiment with your equipment. Many of my wedding photographer friends use this part of the beach for engagement and family portrait shoots. So grab the family, get out and enjoy a little Mother Nature at Washington Oaks State Park.

 

Cooper’s Hawk

The Cooper’s hawk is a wonderful bird to observe and for the last several weeks this one has been hunting in the saltwater side of the Guana dam.

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This member of the goshawk genus accipiter family was named after William Cooper, one of the founders of what’s now called the New York Academy of Sciences. Also known as chicken hawks or a name I fancy, a Striker hawk; for their speed and agility as they quietly hunt both bird and mammal prey often in dense forest.

At one time this bird was extensively hunted for preying on poultry and I remember my farming neighbors in rural Minnesota would always keep a wary eye out for this hawk and would raid their chicken coops.

I first notice this hawk sitting on a branch at ground level tucked in some tall grass along the road that leads from the dam to the Guana trailhead, which allowed for close up photos. After a truck approached, it flew to higher elevation in a dead tree where it fought to hold its position during several gust from the winds of a Nor’easter.

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Not far from this location, I was hoping to capture a photo of a warily Kingfisher that was spending the morning, darting back and forth between its resting place and the edge of the water, when a couple of deer come darting out into the open tall grass and after a glimpse at me, they disappeared just as quickly into the palmetto bush.

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Close Encounters

As a youthful Infantry Sergeant stationed in Central America, I often encountered animals in the wild and I still rely on those experiences when photographing wildlife.

Several months ago, during a local speaking engagement, I was asked about close encounters and what lessons I had learned from them – fortunately, they’re few and far between.

There are two types of threats – perceived and real.  A few years ago, outfitted with a new macro lens, I came across a pigmy rattlesnake. Eager to get some close photos, I got on the ground and slowly crawled towards the snake. Knowing the exact distance of the strike zone, I was feeling pretty darn confident. All of a sudden the cell phone in my front pants pocket started to vibrate. The buzz of that vibration mimics their rattle and convinced me that I had just rolled on top of another snake, the little boy in me screamed as I jumped straight up, ushering some choice words in the process.

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Lessons learned? Snakes are cool, vibrating cell phones – not so much.

A few years ago I received a call from a Debra asking me if I’d take her boyfriend out for some wildlife photography. His birthday was coming up and he had an interest in photography and she thought this might be fun for him.

Eloy Castroverde and I headed out on the trails and after a bit, I decided that we could bushwhack through some tall grass as a short cut. Part way through the tall grassy area, we noticed a very large wild pig walking straight at us. My first instinct was to get down low in the grass and get a couple of shots off, which we both did, then as the pig was within a few yards and too close for comfort, we quickly stood up and started yelling. Completely startled, it looked directly at us then thundered off into the woods.

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Lessons learned? Look big and make a lot of noise – also, make new friends. Ever since that experience, Eloy has become a good friend and an accomplished wildlife photographer, who just returned from the photographing polar bears and artic fox in the tundra.

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Finally, I love to take photos of baby alligators but it’s wise to find the mother’s location first. Breaking my Golden Rule and shortly after taking this photo, I heard the sound of this parent gator rushing towards me.

Lessons learned? Get the shot then get out of the way!

Ready for some Florida Adventure?

If you’re looking for fun, adventure and some plain old Florida history, pack the kids up and head down to the Silver River and enjoy Captain Tom’s custom charter cruise, located about 2 hours south of Jacksonville, on highway 40, just east of Ocala.

Captain Tom has been giving pontoon boat tours since 1983 and is one of the oldest operators in Central Florida.

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A nature lover to his core, this environmentalist was a spokesman for The Silver River Society and the Defenders of the Ocklawaha; he has also been published in The Travel Channel and USA Today among other local and national publications.

Last week, I set out with Captain Tom and after a brief introduction from this “child of the 60’s” who proudly talks about attending the infamous Woodstock Festival of Music, Art and Peace gets down to business discussing this beautiful spring fed river and the threats that are changing this treasure.

Meandering up the river to its source at Silver Springs Park, we slowly pass gators and turtles resting in the morning sun, as cormorants, herons and egrets flying up and down the river’s corridor, through moss covered cypress trees.

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After a short while we pull over along the banks of the river, where Captain Tom showed me how he catches fish with his bare hands using just a few bread crumbs. Explaining that the fish are not afraid if one hand is in the water but when he places both hands in the water the fish realize it’s a trap and won’t approach the bait.

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The Silver River was home to many movies and TV series during the 50’s and 60’s, like The Revenge of the Creature of the Black Lagoon, Sea Hunt and to name a few. As we get closer to the head waters we spotted a large submerged sailboat that was used as a prop, eerily resting on the sandy bottom.

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The highlight of any trip along this river is the chance encounter with wild rhesus monkeys that gathers along the river. Cruising up the river, we could hear them barking and howling in the distance, but it wasn’t until our return trip that we saw a dozen or so adults and pint size babies running up and down the river’s bank. Mother’s attending to their young while other’s played with each other were images I soon won’t forget.

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Captain Tom can be reached at 352-236-0872 or through his website at www.captaintomscustomcharters.net