Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Fest

Florida Keys birds

Cormorant sunning in the Florida Keys

Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Fest is now in it’s 15th year!

The 15th annual Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival is Tuesday, Sept. 24, through Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013.  The festival offers a variety of programs, field trips, workshops and speakers guaranteed to enthrall nature lovers of all ages. Festival activities span the length of the island chain, from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas, and give participants a unique perspective on the terrestrial and marine habitats of this subtropical paradise.

The festival is anchored at Curry Hammock State Park, mile marker 56.2, which is also home to the annual Florida Keys Hawkwatch, a citizen science effort that monitors the fall raptor migration over the islands.  Hawkwatch coordinator Rafael Galvez will be this year’s keynote speaker. The festival features field trips to Dry Tortugas National Park, the National Key Deer Refuge, Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock State Park and other national, state and private natural areas. The week’s events include several talks and walks covering the flora and fauna of this one-of-a-kind subtropical island chain.

While the festival explores many of the islands’ public lands during its run, Curry Hammock State Park is a home base of sorts for the week, because of our close connection to the Florida Keys Hawkwatch. This park in the heart of the Keys was awarded third place in the 2012 America’s Favorite Park contest sponsored by Coca-Cola. The park garnered more than 8 million votes and received a $25,000 grant from the Coca Cola Live Positively initiative to help enhance the park’s recreational areas. Thanks to the Hawkwatch, the park is also now known as the Peregrine Falcon Migration Capital of the World. That’s because the Hawkwatch tallied a record one-day count of 3,242 of the birds on Oct. 16, 2012

Join us for an all-day birding excursion to the magnificent Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson for the spectacle of fall migration. There are two guide-led groups, and each one is limited to 20 participants, so sign up early!  This all-day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park leaves the Key West ferry terminal on the Yankee Freedom III at 7:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 29, and returns around 5 p.m. The $25 cost is separate from the cost of the ferry, which must be booked directly with on the Yankee Freedom‘s website or by calling 305-294-7009. Ferry cost depends on residency and whether you have a federal lands pass.

Join avid Florida Keys birder and ecotour guide Mark Hedden for an opportunity to learn about the role this isolated island plays in nesting and migration, or shadow wildlife photographers Dick Fortune and Sara Lopez to learn some of the secrets of professional wildlife photography.

Saturday, Sept. 28, offers a full day of activities, environmental booths, food and special music appropriate for the entire family at the Wildlife Festival, 10 a.m. to  3 p.m. at Curry Hammock State Park.

The festival features dozens of booths designed to showcase the spectacular Florida Keys environment and wildlife. Hands-on activities include a guided beach hike with keynote speaker Rafael Galvez and self-guided kayak tours. Participate in our scavenger hunt for a chance to win a festival t-shirt (while supplies last).  NASA Solar System Educator Elizabeth Moore will offer a free astronomy program from 7 to 9 p.m. at the park.

Admission to the state park is free for festivalgoers the day of the festival, which is sponsored by the Friends of Islamorada Area State Parks.

 

Farmers’ Almanac: Florida Keys warm 2013-14 winter

Florida Keys sunset over Florida bay

Florida Keys sunset over Florida bay

Farmers’ Almanac: Florida Keys warm 2013-14 winter.  Unlike our friends to the north, the Almanac says they can expect “shivery”.  It may be time for residents living north of New England and those new the Great Lakes to plan now for a Florida Keys vacation, say… in about December through March.

Farmers’ Almanac says that after the unusually warm and snowless winter of 2011–2012, many people questioned if winter could make a comeback. Well it did. Last winter was cold and especially snowy.

So, what’s in store for this winter? The “Days of Shivery” are back! 
For 2013–2014, we are forecasting a winter that will experience below average temperatures for about two-thirds of the nation. A large area of below-normal temperatures will predominate from roughly east of the Continental Divide to the Appalachians, north and east through New England. Coldest temperatures will be over the Northern Plains on east into the Great Lakes. Only for the Far West and the Southeast will there be a semblance of winter temperatures averaging close to normal, but only a few areas will enjoy many days where temperatures will average above normal.

Precipitation-wise, the Southern Plains, Midwest, and Southeast will see above-normal conditions, while the rest of the country will average near normal. With a combination of below-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation the stage will be set for the Midwest, Great Lakes, and Central and Northern New England to receive lots of snow. Farther south, where the thermometer will be vacillating above or below the freezing mark, Southern New England, Southeast New York, New Jersey, and down through the Mid-Atlantic region will be seeing either copious rains and/or snows.

And yet, the Pacific Northwest (or is it “northwet?”) where indeed wet weather is almost a given during the winter months, the overall winter season could average out drier than normal.

Significant snowfalls are forecast for parts of every zone. Over the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, we are “red-flagging” the first ten days of February for possible heavy winter weather. More importantly, on February 2, Super Bowl XLVIII will be played at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey’s Meadowlands—the very first time a Super Bowl will be played outdoors in a typically cold weather environment. We are forecasting stormy weather for this, the biggest of sporting venues. But even if we are off by a day or two with the timing of copious wind, rain, and snow, we wish to stress that this particular part of the winter season will be particularly volatile and especially turbulent.

And mid-March could bring a wave of storminess stretching almost from coast to coast, bringing a wide variety of precipitation types as well as strong and gusty winds.

Dolphins in the florida keys

florida keys , dolphin swims , key largo

Swimming with dolphins at Dolphin Cove in Key Largo, Florida

Dolphins in the Florida Keys live in the wild, only a few reside at dolphin training facilities throughout the Florida Keys.  Bottlenose dolphins are the most common and well known members of the dolphin family.  Even though they live in the ocean all of the time, dolphins are mammals, not fish. Also, dolphins are different than the “fish dolphin,” which are also known as mahi-mahi.

Like every mammal, dolphins are warm blooded and enjoy the tropical waters surrounding the Florida Keys. Unlike fish, who breathe through gills, dolphins breathe air using lungs. Dolphins must make  frequent trips to the surface of the water to catch a breath. Their blowhole is located on top of a dolphin’s head and acts as a “nose,” making it easy for the  dolphin to surface for air.

Other characteristics of dolphins that make them mammals rather than fish are that they give birth to live young rather than laying eggs and they feed their young with milk. Also, like all mammals, dolphins even have a tiny amount of hair, right around the blowhole.  Whales and porpoises are also mammals. There are 75 species of dolphins, whales, and porpoises living in the ocean. They are the only mammals, other than manatees, that spend their entire lives in the water.

Dolphins generally live in groups of up to 30, known as pods, and work as a team to harvest schools of fish. Bottlenose dolphins communicate through burst pulsed sounds, whistles, and body language. Examples of body language include leaping out of the water, snapping jaws, slapping the tail on the surface and butting heads. Sounds and gestures help keep track of other dolphins in the group, and alert other dolphins to danger and nearby food. They produce sounds using six air sacs near their blow hole. Each animal has a uniquely identifying vocalization (signature whistle).

Researchers from the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute (BDRI), based in Sardinia (Italy) have now shown whistles and burst pulsed sounds are vital to the animals’ social life and mirror their behaviors.  The tonal whistle sounds (the most melodious ones) allow dolphins to stay in contact with each other (above all, mothers and offspring), and to coordinate hunting strategies. The burst-pulsed sounds (which are more complex and varied than the whistles) are used “to avoid physical aggression in situations of high excitement”, such as when they are competing for the same piece of food, for example.

While boating throughout the Florida keys, you are likely to see pods of dolphin feeding or playing.  They are known to be attracted to boat noises and may venture over to check you out.  And most times they will leave as fast as they arrived.  If you are interested in learning more about dolphins and would like the opportunity to swim with them, several facilities throughout the Florida Keys offer programs to do so.  You can find a facility by going to Best of The Florida Keys Internet Guide and selecting “Attractions” near the area you plan to visit.

An area of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is home to a resident group of bottlenose dolphins. Many businesses conduct dolphin tours in this area, which can stress the dolphins. To help reduce disruption to dolphins in the sanctuary, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, National  Marine Fisheries Service, the Dolphin Ecology Project, and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society created the Dolphin SMART program. This program recognizes businesses that promote responsible viewing of wild dolphins.

Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center

Entrance to the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center.

Entrance to the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center.

The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is located in Key West.  Rain or shine, this 6,000 square foot facility is open to the public free of charge.  Through it’s numerous interactive exhibits, learn about the complex ecosystem that is the Florida Keys.

The Terrestrial exhibits highlight the above-water eco-systems, including hardwood hammocks, mangroves, and beaches.  Here you can explore how our plant life contributes to the undersea life. The Marine exhibits provide a glimpse of the undersea environment that the Keys are famous for.

Be sure to check out the Mote Marine Laboratory Living Reef  exhibit, which includes a 2,500-gallon reef tank with living corals and  tropical fish, a live Reef Cam, and other displays that highlight the coral  reef environment.

A mock-up of the Aquarius – the only undersea laboratory dedicated to marine science.  Aquarius is an underwater laboratory and home to scientists for missions up to 10 days long, but to call Aquarius a home is like calling the space shuttle Discovery a mode of transportation. Aquarius is made to withstand the pressure of ocean depths to 120 feet deep. Presently, Aquarius is located in a sand patch adjacent to deep coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, at a depth of 63 feet. The laboratory is attached to a baseplate that positions the underwater habitat (underwater laboratories are also called habitats) about 13 feet off the bottom. This means that the working depth of those inside the laboratory is about 50 feet deep. Located inside the 81–ton, 43 x 20 x 16.5–foot
underwater laboratory are all the comforts of home: six bunks, a shower and toilet, instant hot water, a microwave, trash compactor, and a refrigerator even air conditioning and computers linked back to shore by wireless telemetry! Using Aquarius as a base for research diving expeditions definitely has its advantages.

The high-definition Theater features a 17 minute video on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary by world-renowned filmmaker Bob Talbot.

If you plan to be in Key West, you can visit the Center Tuesday – Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Parking and admission are free.  It is located at 35 East Quay Road, Key West, FL 33040.

The Center is sponsored and operated by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA, the South  Florida Water Management District, Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks, the National Wildlife Refuges of the Florida  Keys, and Eastern National.

Harry S. Truman Little White House

 

A must see for history buffs.  Harry S. Trumans Little White House in Key West, Florida

A must see for history buffs. Harry S. Trumans Little White House in Key West, Florida

The Harry S. Truman Little White House was originally constructed in 1890 as the first officer’s quarters on the submarine base naval station in Key West.  The wooden structure was made up of Quarters A for the base commandant and Quarters B for the paymaster.  Originally, the building was waterfront.  In 1911 the home was converted into a single family structure for the base commandant and fill was brought in to provide additional land in front of the home.  As new buildings were built, the waterfront view was blocked.
In 1912, William Howard Taft would be the first President to visit the property.  His transportation was by way of Flagler’s Overseas Railroad.  During his visit President Taft sailed to Panama to inspect the canal which was under construction.  During World War 1, Thomas Edison was a guest at the house while he donated his services to the war.  He perfected 41 weapons during his visit of six months.

President Harry S. Truman had just completed 19 months in office, was physically exhausted, and ordered by his doctor, Wallace Graham, to take a warm vacation. Truman arrived at the Little White House in November of 1946.  When he was leaving he made a promise to visit whenever he felt the need to rest, which would be his second visit in March of 1947.  A pattern developed and future visits would follow every November to December and February to March.
As technology changed, this allowed the President to with multiple political or world leaders at one time.  He was also able to request staff be sent down from Washington to Key West, which was only a three hour flight.  During one of his visits, President Truman realized that where the President was, the White House was.  Documents are on file from the Little White House that read, The White House, US Naval Station, Key West, Florida.  President Harry S. Truman spent 175 days of his presidency at the Little White House.  During his visits, he would invite foreign officials, Cabinet members and staff for fishing trips and poker games.
President Truman returned to visit Key West several times after he left office.

In 1948-49 General Dwight D. Eisenhower held meetings that eventually created the Department of Defense.  He returned to Key West in December 1955 and January 1956 as President to recuperate from a heart attack.

John Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan held a one day summit in Key West at the Little White House for one day in March of 1961.  President Kennedy returned for a second visit in 1962 following the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The house served as the Naval Station commandant’s home until March of 1974.  This is when the Navy conversion from diesel to nuclear submarines took place.

In 1974 the Little White House was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
The house was deeded to the State of Florida on January 1, 1987 and is held in trust as a public museum.  Just under one million dollars has gone into restoring the house to it’s 1949 appearance. This project began in 1990.
Former President Jimmy Carter, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Former President Bill Clinton are among others who have visited the Harry S. Truman Little White House.

Learn where the Little White House is located, it’s hours of operations and see photos of the property at Best of The Florida Keys Internet Guide.

Transportation in the Florida Keys

One of many means of transportation in the Florida Keys.

One of many means of transportation in the Florida Keys.

Transportation in the Florida Keys can be different from one Key to another.  For instance, the Florida Keys is home to two airports.  One is located in the Middle Keys, on Marathon Key.  It’s small, open to cargo and private pilots, but currently does not have any major airlines flying in or out of their facility.  The other airport is the Key West International airport which operates much like a larger facility of the same kind, only a much smaller version.

Many visitors choose to fly in to Miami International or Ft. Lauderdale airport, rent a car and drive down to the Keys.  This is a cost effective way and once in the Florida Keys, the drive is spectacular, crossing many bridges as you work your way down U.S. 1.  If you fly in to Key West and are staying in Key West, as you read on, you will learn that their is no need for a rental car on the island.

If you drove down on vacation, you have the ability ( as someone who rents a car) to traverse throughout the Florida Keys and perhaps experience other means of transportation in differing locations.

Lets begin in Key Largo, the northernmost point of the Florida Keys.  Here you will find a fascinating ride to our living coral reef aboard a glass bottom boat.  Or perhaps sit in the very seat once occupied by the great actor Humphrey Bogart.  Hop aboard the original steamboat, “The African Queen” and take a pleasure ride through the canals and waterways of Port Largo.  Stop for lunch overlooking a beautiful lagoon and try your skills at captaining the steamboat on the return trip to homeport.  You may also enjoy an afternoon sunset cruise on Key Largos Paddleboat, brought here from the Mississippi area.

Islamorada is home to a car turned boat, the floating pink Cadillac, which cruises the docks of the Lorelei.  Take a step back in time with a horse and carriage ride during events at Founders Park, or take to the water on a headboat out of Bud and Marys Marina for a day of group fishing.

Heading down to Key West you can plan to park your car and discover many different methods of getting from one place to another on the island.  Realizing that Key West is only 5 miles, you can see how a bicycle rental will work just fine.  And no need to worry about parking a car… which is not as easy as it may seem.  Key West is home to a trolley service and Conch Tour train, both perfect for learning about and seeing history in comfort.  You can also choose to rent scooters, electric cars and even motorcycles.

Most all of the Keys from Key Largo to Key West, and points in between, offer jet ski rentals, kayak and canoe rentals and powerboat rentals.  You will also find taxi and airport shuttle services that run to all major airports to and from the Florida Keys.  Take a look through Best of The Florida Keys Internet Guide to see what is available in the area you plan to visit.

So, you can see how parking your car and discovering transportation in the Florida Keys can be an adventure of it’s own.

Key West Aquarium

The Key West Aquarium, from then to now:

During the Great Depression, Key West had turned over it’s charter to the federal government.  Economic disaster had hit the island.  The federal government saw Key West as a perfect tourist destination with it’s great weather and location.
Beginning in 1933, the Works Progress Administration Program came into town and built the Key West Aquarium, providing jobs to many locals.

It took two years to build and the Key West Aquarium opened it’s doors to the public in 1935, charging 15 cents for adults and 5 cents for children.  Another purpose for the aquarium was to provide sea life to other aquariums throughout the country.
Just seven months after opening, the great Labor Day hurricane hit the Middle Keys.  It was 1935 and the Overseas Railroad was destroyed.  It also took with it any success for the Key West Aquarium attraction to survive.  For at the time, the railroad was the only way to reach Key West, other than by boat.
The U.S. Government leased the Key West Aquarium building in 1943.  It was to be used by the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard as an indoor rifle range.  All of the hard work put in to the Aquarium displays were leveled for the military.

1946 brought new life back to the Aquarium.  It was returned to the city of Key West and also returned to it’s former glory.  In the 1960′s it was decided that the open air Aquarium should have a roof, which would  cut down on algae growth in the exhibits.
Today, the Key West Aquarium offers various exhibits.  You can visit the touch-tank and actually pick up a conch, sea star or horseshoe crab.  How about petting a shark or sting ray!  You can also see a shark feeding at different times throughout the day, or take a tour to learn about the habitats of our sea life.  Be sure to look for the eel.  He’s bright green and hides in the rocks, only swimming out to feed.  They also have an area with young alligators and a few other reptiles.
The Key West Aquarium is actively involved in conservation of the delicate Florida Keys eco-system.  Come see how you can help make our underwater world a better place.  This is a great place for all ages to visit.

Open daily 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m..  Located at 1 Whitehead St.

Florida Keys lobster season

Florida Keys lobster, Betsy, located in Islamorada.

Florida Keys lobster, Betsy, located in Islamorada

Thousands flock to the Florida Keys for lobster season, or as we locals call them, “bugs”.  By days end, everyone is telling fish tails about who got the largest bug.  To set the record straight, the Florida Keys largest bug has a name.  She …is Betsy and stands 30′ high and 40′ long.  Betsy was created in Marathon by artist Richard Blaze and has spent most of her life in Islamorada.  Betsy is said to be the second most photographed icon in the Keys, right behind the Southernmost Point in Key West.

As for our tasty Florida Keys spiny lobster, we have two seasons when they can be harvested.  Well known among sport lobstermen, the Florida Keys lobster season begins with a “mini” two day event.  It usually takes place on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July, but always check with the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) to make sure it has not changed.  Their are many rules with lobstering in the Florida Keys, some that are different than the rest of our state rules.  Some of the waters that surround the Keys are off limits for both Florida Keys lobster seasons.  And “mini” season, just like regular lobster season, which begins August 6, 2013 and runs through March 31, 2014 requires a saltwater license along with a lobster stamp.  Each lobster must be measured, no egg bearing females and a limit of 6 lobster per person per day are just a few of the rule for our Florida Keys lobster season.

You can always go to myfwc.com to get up to date rules and regulations.  Don’t forget your dive flag!  If you are heading down for vacation and would like to lobster on a dive charter, check out businesses on the Key you plan to visit at Best of The Florida Keys Internet Guide.

Florida Keys Key deer

Florida Keys Key deer

Florida Keys Key deer

The Florida Keys Key deer live only in the Florida Keys, mainly the Lower Keys area.  They are known to swim from island to island in search of food, but mainly for fresh water.  Key deer inhabit nearly all habitats within their range of the Lower Keys.  They feed on many available plant sources ranging from mangroves and thatch palm berries.

The Key deer is a subspecies of the white-tailed deer, yet is small in size.  The adult male Key deer (known as bucks) averages 55-65 pounds and from it’s shoulder is almost 30 inches tall.  While the adult female (known as a doe) averages 41 pounds with a height from it’s shoulder of 26 inches tall.

Key deer were hunted as a food supply by native tribes, passing sailors, and early settlers. Hunting them was banned in 1939, but poaching and construction caused the Key deer to plummet to near-extinction by the 1950s. The National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957.

Recent population estimates put the population between 300 and 800, putting it on the list of endangered species. Road kills from drivers on US 1, which traverses the deer’s small range, are also a major threat, averaging between 30 and 40 kills per year, 70% of the annual mortality.

However, the population has made an encouraging rise since 1955, when population estimates ranged as low as 25, and appears to have stabilized in recent years. Still, recent human encroachment into the fragile habitat and the deer’s relatively low rate of reproduction point to an uncertain future for the species.

Today, you can see Key deer living close to humans.  The Key deer has little of the natural fear of man shown by most of their mainland relatives. The deer are often found in residents’ yards and along roadsides where tasty plants and flowers grow. This often results in car-to-deer collisions, as the deer are more active (and harder to avoid) at night. It is not unusual to see them at dusk and dawn, and it is common to see them beside the road as you drive through the Lower Florida Keys.

Seagulls in the Florida Keys

Seagull flying in the Florida Keys

Seagull hovering above the beach at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.

Seagulls in the Florida Keys are very clever. In fact, they learn, remember and even pass on behaviours, such as stamping their feet in a group to imitate rainfall and trick earthworms to come to the surface.  Amazingly, they can drink both salt and fresh water.  Seagulls have a special pair of glands located right above their eyes that allow them to flush the salt from their systems.  Their are over a dozen different species of seagulls, all range in size and global location.  All seagulls seem to have a language for communication.  From high and low pitch squawks to differing body movements.

Seagulls pair for life.  They take care of their young together, with each taking their turn incubating the eggs.  As the chicks get older, the male and female both feed and protect their babies, and passing on certain learned skills.  Young seagulls form flocks.  They play and learn skills they will carry into adulthood.  Their will usually be several adult male seagulls keeping an eye out on the younger flock, which stays together until they are old enough to breed.