Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hobbies and Decorating

It’s hard to believe we have been here a month!  It’s also hard to believe the first month of 2015 has ended. These volunteer gigs can really fly by!

We headed down to Key West last weekend for their annual craft festival.  We've recently bought a few decorations for the RV and bought this cute little hand-carved pelican at the festival. Each piece of wood is carved and stained separately, and then the piece is glued together. The artist had pieces of all sizes, but we don't have a lot of wall space so chose this small one, about 4" tall.

An art gallery here on Big Pine Key was having a special exhibit that we went to.  While there we found this beautiful print that we had to have. We seem to have a critter theme!

I have also picked up a few new magnets along the way:

I’m still crocheting and, once I discovered I can buy all they yarn I need from Amazon, I haven't missed the big box store (too much). I usually work on 2 or 3 (sometimes more) afghans at the same time.  It’s fun to finish several afghans within a few days of each other.

I've finished 3 afghans this month and have 3 new ones started. Here is the finished "Grinnin' Gator".
We’ve been busy and having fun. We are getting into more of a routine with our volunteer jobs and are learning more about the area..

By the way, have you ever seen a National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center located in a strip mall?

More on this interesting refuge soon.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Turning A Negative Into A Positive

A couple of evenings ago we received an e-mail from the refuge ranger.  Someone had reported the dumping of construction material on refuge land.  Mark, Earnie (another volunteer) and the ranger went out the next morning to take a look. 

Sure enough, someone had dumped a lot of wooden pallets, a door and old boards.  Everything was hauled back to the maintenance yard. 

We’ve been asked to build butterfly houses and bee houses for the upcoming Rocking Refuge Ranger kids programs.  Mark had already priced out the costs for buying the lumber but it hadn’t been purchased.  These old pallets and boards were perfect!  We’ll still need to buy some lumber but it’s nice to be able to use this trash that someone dumped.

We immediately started cutting up the pallets.  I think maintenance is probably my favorite volunteer job (even though I’m just the helper).  

There was a lot of measuring and cutting: 

 Marking and cutting the entry slots:
The end result turned out really nice.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Still Trying To Figure It Out

We’re volunteering at National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key, Florida.  We’re starting our third week.  Like many new places, sometimes it takes a while to get your feet under you. 

Usually we know what our volunteer assignment will be long before we ever get there.  This assignment has been a little different.  Other than knowing we might work some in the Visitor Center, we really didn’t have any idea what other tasks we would have.    

Our preference would be:  Tell us what you want us to do.  Tell us where we can find the tools to do our job.  Then let us do our job.   

Well, this place is a little different.  So far we only have a few set tasks.  One is our Wild Wednesday Walk.  We’ve only had one so far.  The fact that it wasn’t very well advertised was evident in the small turnout.   
Wild Wednesday Hike
These walks will be every Wednesday morning, except the third Wednesday morning, when we will help lead a kayak trip, and any other Wednesday where something else comes up.  Hummmmm

Every third Sunday we are assigned to work in the Visitor Center.  There will also be other times when we will be asked to help out in the VC.
Once a month we will be helping out on the Full Moon Kayak trip:
We've already had the January Full Moon Kayak trip.
Once a month or so, we will be helping out on a Historic Bike Ride through Big Pine and No Name Keys:
Our first 13 mile Historic Bike Ride
A couple of times a week we are working in the butterfly garden (watering, pulling weeds, picking up trash).  We have to fill up a 100 gallon water tank and haul the water out to the garden:
On most Fridays the refuge manager leads a guided walk.  We have gone on these to help out but we’re not sure if this will be something we will help out with every week.
So, our work days are sort of all over the week.  We are doing a lot of “helping out”, which is different for us. 

There are some fun sounding assignments coming up that we will be helping with and are looking forward to.

This assignment is different than others we have had (we might say that for every assignment!).  Things seem a little disorganized which takes us out of our comfort zone.  I don’t know if we will ever settle in with a routine.  Every week might bring something new and/or changes to our already loose schedule.

All in all this isn’t a bad place to spend the winter.  The cute little Key Deer walk around all over the place and the weather is pretty near perfect.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Morning on the Water

During our Saturday Bike Ride, one of the participants mentioned that Sunday morning was supposed to be perfectly calm and it would be a great time to go kayaking.

The refuge here has several kayaks that they make available to staff and volunteers, so Teri and I got up early on Sunday morning, grabbed a pair of kayaks, and headed out. As predicted, the weather was perfect!

The refuge kayaks are "sit-on-top", which is different than the "sit-in" boats we've used before. You are a bit higher above the water and not in a covered cockpit. We found them very comfortable and stable. An advantage of this type of kayak is that they are much easier to get off and on while out in the water. This appeals to fisherman and snorkelers who might use the kayak to get out to a specific spot and then get out to wade or swim.  

The refuge has a private boat ramp where their law enforcement boats are docked. We launched from there.  This Double-crested Cormorant was using a refuge boundary sign as a perch. 
Double-crested Cormorant
We stayed close to the island edge and explored the mangroves. The water here is crystal clear and for the most part quite shallow. Being in a kayak that only drafts about 6" of water is a good thing, as there were a great many shallow areas.
Red Mangroves
Mangrove Roots
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
The mangroves were loaded with Yellow-Crowned Night-Herons. They were pretty tolerant of the kayaks and normally didn't fly off. We also saw plenty of Cormorants, along with a few Belted Kingfishers, Osprey, and Egrets and Herons.

Our most interesting sighting was a small shark that was working the shallow water.  We saw its dorsal fin cutting the surface several times, and occasionally its tail as well. It was probably only 3' - 4' long, but it reminded us that we were not alone in the water!!


Friday, January 9, 2015

No Name Key

We assisted with a refuge hike this morning to a small island called No Name Key.  It is accessed from Big Pine Key by crossing a short bridge. There are 43 houses there, and they were connected to the commercial power grid just two years ago!!

Much of No Name Key is NWR property, but knowing when you are on refuge land vs. private land is a bit of a trick. Some of the best remaining hardwood hammocks are here. I've been confused with the term "hammock" as it seems very similar to "hummock", both apparently meaning a small rise of land above a surrounding marsh or swamp. Here the term "hammock" is associated with such a rise covered with (usually) hardwood trees.

The maximum elevation on Big Pine and No Name Keys is about 15', and there are significant differences in plant communities with just a couple of feet of elevation change. Mangroves and other salt-tolerant plants thrive in the lower elevations, but the pines and most hardwoods require fresh water and are found only on higher ground.

One of the first places we visited was an old rock quarry that was filled with water. It is said to be as much as 70' deep with vertical edges, so as a wildlife habitat is is not very good. But it does support a variety of fish, including this group of Needlefish that we observed from the edge.
Once we entered the hardwoods we began noticing shells of various snails on the ground. Many are introduced, but there are some threatened native tree snails in the area. One participant spotted this Florida Tree Snail up in a tree.
Florida Tree Snail
Florida Tree Snail
Later in the walk some rustling in a tree alerted us to a Raccoon feeding on berries.  The Raccoons here are smaller and paler than the mainland Raccoons, but just as hungry!
We have plenty of more nature walks, bike rides, and kayak trips coming up, so stay tuned...


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Made it to The Keys

We visited Corkscrew Swamp and Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on our way here, and will catch up with those places in later blogs.

But to get current, we want to let you know that we've arrived at Key Deer NWR on Big Pine Key. It is in the Lower Keys, about 30 miles from the end of the road in Key West. There is a whole lot of bridge connecting these small islands.
Seven Mile Bridge
This refuge was created to protect Key Deer, which are the smallest subspecies of the Northern White-tailed Deer. This group of deer was isolated on the Keys when the seas receded long, long ago. The food supply here is somewhat limited and the climate very warm, so they evolved into a subspecies that are significantly smaller than their northern cousins. To be honest, they don't appear to be a great deal smaller than some of the stunted Texas Hill Country deer!!
Key Deer
There are three volunteer sites here. One is occupied by our friends Penny and Earnie who we volunteered with at Santa Ana back in 2011, and the other by a single volunteer named Bob. The sites are in a private area of the refuge and are very nice.
RV Site at Key Deer NWR
So far we're a little up in the air on what we will be doing. We met with our coordinator Kristie and she has given us plenty of things to choose from. We plan to help with or lead nature walks, participate in some kid's programs with Penny, and whatever else they ask us to do.

We did get a chance to assist with the Friends Group's monthly Full Moon Kayak Trip. We helped people get squared away with their kayaks, paddles, life vests, and flashlights, and got them into the water. We all paddled out to a mangrove covered shoreline and watched the sun set while the moon came up. Everyone paddled back in after dark and we helped get folks out of the water, then put all of the gear up. 
Kayaking alongside Red Mangroves
Sunset over Big Pine Key
Stay tuned for more adventures from Key Deer NWR...


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Another Year

Today is our 32nd anniversary.
Would you recognize the young us?  
We've changed a little bit.  

Friday, January 2, 2015

Manatees - And an Unnatural Experience

We spent a couple of nights in Crystal River, Florida. Their big claim to fame is the population of Manatees that are in the springs and rivers of the area.

We wanted to see the Manatees, and we discovered that Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge had been created specifically for the protection of the endangered Florida Manatee. This sounded like our kind of place, so off we went.

It turns out that land access to view the Manatees is via a boardwalk, and we were surprised to learn that you booked your visit through a private tour company. We did so, and got loaded on a small bus with a bunch of other folks and were deposited next to the boardwalk. Here we found the typical NWR sign and got a quick briefing from a refuge volunteer.

Imagine our surprise when we found the springs full of kayaks and snorkelers!!  Oh, and a few Manatees as well.  It turns out that these springs were purchased primarily by the City of Crystal River, and then leased to the refuge system for operation, with the stipulation that public visitation to the springs continue to be allowed. After all, it is their main tourist attraction.

So the picture you see above is the setting within this NWR for viewing Manatees!!  I failed to capture an image showing the 100 or so snorkelers who were also in the water. Though there were rules in place forbidding the snorkelers and kayakers from approaching, touching, or interfering with the Manatees in any way, the FWS volunteers there had a full-time job policing this crowd.

Check out these figures: On an average weekend or holiday, they average 630 swimmers and 315 kayaks and canoes in these springs. Weekdays the numbers drop to 475 swimmers and 190 boats. What a zoo!!

There was a small "sanctuary" area roped off that kayaks and snorkelers were not allowed to enter, and guess where all of the Manatees were clustered?  Yep, in the small roped off area. We did see several in this part of the springs.

They resemble large submerged logs in the water. 

Occasionally they surface just enough to breath, and then submerge once again.

This was perhaps the least satisfying wildlife viewing experience we've ever encountered in a National Wildlife Refuge, but we understand that the refuge has its hands pretty well tied on how they can administer this site. The good news is that they have some proposed new rules out for public review and comment that would set aside additional off-limits areas within the springs, reduce the hours that swimmers could enter the springs, and eliminate the kayaks and canoes altogether from the springs. I hope that they have some luck getting these new rules enacted. This is, after all, and Endangered Species!