How do you catch a snake? A GBH knows!

Comments 47 Standard
Great Blue Heron

Jacks up, slides in and we were out of there, happy to be heading north from the Alabama coastline into new territory.  Like other folks we’ve been following, we’re glad we came through that vicious storm relatively unscathed.  As longtime Californians, we just aren’t used to this kind of crazy weather!  But we’re reminded that we need to continue keeping weather monitoring at the top of our list as we begin heading into parts of the midwest that are also known for unpredictability.  Among other things, we must:

  • Have the necessary tools to be aware of and track storms.  We use the Weatherbug and MyRadar Pro apps that send alerts, and we have a handy solar/hand-crank NOAA Weather Radio (thanks, Ben!) that will function even while we’re boondocking.  Our cell phones are also programmed to send us severe weather alerts.
  • Eton microlink FR 160Stay tuned to the Weather Channel and monitor the prediction and progress of storms, whenever possible.
  • Always know which county we are camping in, since warnings are usually issued by county, not city.
  • Have some emergency clothing and other items ready by the door, in case we need to get out in a hurry.
  • Learn where any shelters or sturdy structures are around the campground.

Although we realize we can’t outrun a tornado, we hope this short list will help keep us on the go with a minimal chance of major weather problems.   Any other tips you more experienced travelers can add to our list?

Well, that little rant was totally off-topic, but I had to digress and share our recent learning experience.  With that out of the way, here is the real story behind the title – it’s about a snake and a big bird, a Great Blue Heron (GBH for short).  This is a leftover story from our stay at Gulf State Park, where the Great Blue Heron was a familiar sight.  They usually stood at attention around the campground, by the lake, in the woods, on the beach or even on top of a tree, posing for me.  Always focused and waiting for unwary prey, they are really fun to watch!

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron primping its breeding plumage

The tall, long-legged Great Blue Heron is easily spotted, and many of you have probably seen them since they’re very large birds with one of the widest wingspans in North America.  But I doubt that most of you have taken as many pictures of them as I have!  We spent a lot of quality “heron-watching”  time while at Gulf Shores, even witnessing one of them stalking and catching a snake.  I thought it might be worth sharing some of those moments.

Great Blue Heron

Lets have fun with a few heron facts – Great Blue Herons are identified by their red-brown thighs and a pair of red-brown and white stripes running up their flanks.  The neck of these herons is rusty-gray in color, with black and white streaks running down the front.  They have a mostly white face, with the rest of the head being more pale.

Great Blue Heron

This is who I am – tall, pretty and proud of it!

Great Blue Herons look huge in flight, with a wingspan of up to six feet.

Great Blue Heron

Just another day at the beach…

In flight, a Great Blue Heron’s neck is folded back into an “S” shape, and the legs are stretched out behind its body.

Great Blue Heron in flight

A Great Blue Heron is capable of swallowing a fish many times wider than its narrow neck, which has been known to choke and kill them on occasion.

Great Blue Heron

No, no, no!  Don’t put fish parts in the dumpster – that’s my lunch we’re talking about here!

Although they typically nest in colonies, herons hunt alone and that’s why I’ve never seen a group of herons hunting.  Besides fish, they eat a wide variety of prey such as frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes, insects, rodents and small birds.  Just look at that menacing beak!

Great Blue Heron

Hey, don’t get too close or I’ll put your eye out!

They have special vertebrae in their necks that allow them to curl it into an “S” shape. This allows them to make a long and lightning-fast strike at their prey.

Great Blue Heron

On one of those days before the storm hit, Steve and I were reading and relaxing outside when we caught a glimpse of a GBH stalking around.  Of course, I ran for my trusty camera while Steve grabbed the binoculars to enjoy the show.  We watched as it stood completely motionless for a long time, then walked very slowly – almost like a cat – getting into striking range of its prey.  Then, with a quick thrust of its sharp bill, it snapped up a snake and tore it in half.  That poor snake must have wondered what the heck had just happened, as it continued to wiggle around in the heron’s mouth.

Stalking a Great Blue Heron

The following short clip shows that the snake almost got away, but the heron was quicker. And to think I was right in that area a little earlier taking some pictures!  I called that heron our “guard bird” for getting the snake before it could come into our site.

Do I detect a smile on this guy’s face as he enjoys his lunch?

Great Blue Heron

Wildlife scenes such as this may not be spectacular, but to us they’re fascinating and make our lifestyle even more rewarding.  More so when it happens right outside our door, like when the Sandhill Cranes visited us in Sebring, Florida, or when the little Black Bear emptied out our bird feeder in Lake Monroe, Florida.  Good times!

 

 



Enjoying and NOT enjoying Gulf Shores, AL

Comments 48 Standard
Brown Pelican

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While writing this post, violent thunderstorms were hammering us again – the worst either of us has ever seen.  We were right in the path as severe storms and even a few tornadoes moved through the area, and at one point there were reports of over 70,000 lightning strikes and 5 inches of rain being dumped per hour.  We had our slides in and did not sleep that night, as the sky looked like a flickering light bulb as lightning struck the ground all around us and the wind blasted for over 5 straight hours.  This was truly an epic weather event that broke all rainfall records for the area, and something we don’t care to experience ever again.  But we weren’t about to head north as originally planned, since tornadoes were occurring and predicted to continue in the Montgomery, AL area.  We thought it would be best to hunker down here, since only moderate storms were predicted, but when the weather spiraled out of control we weren’t so sure.  By the time the “experts” realized how bad it really was, the roads were impassible and we were stuck in the park.  Not a good feeling!

Gulf State Park

The calm before the storm?

Gulf State Park

Yep, looks like it!  The lake came to within about 5 feet of Betsy, and we were watching it all night.  Large areas of the park were flooded out, but fortunately we were on high enough ground.

We feel very lucky to have apparently come out of this with only one wet compartment, and both of us cranky after almost no sleep for 2 nights.  But our new friends Bob and Rox, whom we met through RVillage, were not so lucky.  Their 5th wheel was struck by lightning and suffered some damage.  They are both OK and in the process of having their rig fixed. We wish them and their doggies all the best!

Nature Center, Gulf State Park

The park’s amphitheater before the storm…

Nature Center, Gulf State Park

…and after the storm – we’ll pass on those front-row seats!

In between storms and while the sun shone brightly, we ventured out of Gulf State Park. There’s much to do in the Gulf Shores area, and the city seemed to be “party central” during spring break.  We obviously avoided those crazy kids – we never acted like that when we were their age 😉 – and went where they usually don’t.  Our main focus was on daily biking and walking, to burn off calories from the lumpia and bread we consumed.  And most importantly, we made the most of our last few days to walk on the beach, since there will be no more of those in sight as we head north.

The only “new” outdoor activity we did while here was a visit to Weeks Bay Pitcher Plant Bog.  This is a reserve where fascinating plants like the Gulf Coast Pitcher Plant thrive.  A bog is a unique habitat formed by a combination of water, soil and environmental conditions that are low in the nutrients needed for plant growth.  Because of these poor soil conditions, many of the bog plants have developed interesting and unusual ways of obtaining necessary nutrients.  Carnivorous plants like the Pitcher Plant, Sundew and Bladderworth obtain nutrients by capturing and “absorbing” insects – a fascinating adaptation!

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Heading out to find me a Pitcher Plant

Weeks Bay Pitcher Plant Bog

There are many wooden walkways at Pitcher Plant Bog

Walking along the extensive boardwalk, there were a few Pitcher Plants starting to bloom. The White-topped Pitcher Plant is considered a true beauty of the bog, and is rare in the sense that it occurs naturally only in a very restricted range between Apalachicola, Florida to near the Louisana state line.  Its tubular leaves are death traps for insects.  The other unusual plant here was the Purple Pitcher, locally known as “frog britches.”

The pitcher plant bog is a rare habitat, and many bog plants are habitat-specific.  That’s exactly why the Weeks Bay Reserve exists – to preserve the habitat for future generations.

Pitcher Plants

Pitcher Plants

We also revisited the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama’s last remaining undisturbed coastal barrier habitat.  Like last year, we didn’t see anything spectacular except that it remains a natural oasis of wildlands where wildlife can exist without harm. The name Bon Secour comes from the French meaning “safe harbor”, which is exactly what it is for the plants and animals here.  And, it’s a great place to walk several miles without encountering many other people.  Oh, and it’s free!

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

Little Lagoon, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

Pine Beach Trail

The refuge consists of approximately 7,000 acres of coastal lands, ranging from constantly-changing dunes to rolling pine-oak woodlands.  We followed the 4-mile long Pine Beach Trail, which starts in a maritime forest, then we continued on to a pristine beach.

We were bummed that we couldn’t take the 2-mile Centennial Trail, which would have connected us to the Jeff Friend Trail and added some distance to our walk.  It was flooded from an earlier storm, so we turned around and drove to the trailhead at the other end and walked the 1-mile loop from there.  That gave us another nice view of Little Lagoon.

Jeff Friend Trail

Taking a break on the Jeff Friend Trail

Finally, we took our last walk along the ocean, knowing we won’t be seeing any more of these sugary-white sand beaches for many months to come.

Gulf State Park Beach

Under the Gulf State Park Pier

Gulf State Park Pier

Gulf State Park Pier

Gulf State Park Beach

Rough seas on the day before the big storm

Gulf State Park

Goodbye, Gulf Shores!

With that we bid our final farewell to Gulf Shores, Alabama.  It was an interesting stay!

 

Next up:  How do you catch a snake?  A GBH knows how!



Outdoor fun before the storm – Gulf State Park, AL

Comments 37 Standard
Hugh S Banyon Backcountry Trail

Bugs BunnyWe have been dilly-dallying near the Alabama coast before continuing our trek north, wanting to make sure that Spring has sprung and temperatures are on the rise before we continue our adventure.  So here we are, hanging out at Gulf Shores for the next three weeks.  There’s lots to do here, but because this is our second trip into the Gulf Shores area, we’re trying to do a little more relaxing this time around.

While staying at Gulf State Park, we have finally found what we consider a perfect “10” campground.  Hearing a lot of good things about this huge 496-site park in the past, we tried to make reservations for our stay last year but discovered they were fully booked through March.  This is the only state park we are aware of that allows monthly stays from November through March, and a 14-day maximum all other times.

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Gulf State Park as seen from Gulf Oak Ridge Trail

What’s to like about this park?  First, it met all of our personal criteria; park location, site levelness and spacing, and not too much road or “people” noise.  It was just a great atmosphere to hang out in.  Easy access to several hiking/biking trails and many other amenities were icing on the cake.  If we were really going to be picky, we might complain about the lack of hills or mountains to scale or look at.  But that’s not the park’s fault, and besides, the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast are only a mile away!  To see more things to do while at this park, click here.  We strongly recommend it to anyone coming to this area.

Live Oak Road, Gulf State Park,

We’re at site #37, Live Oak Road

Middle Lake, Gulf State Park

Middle Lake as seen through our dinette window

After birding with Laurel and Eric on our first two days here, we began to explore the park and hit the trails before the forecasted storm, wind and rain arrived.  Just walking through the campground can be a workout – it’s 2 miles end-to-end, not including any of the side roads or walking trails.  But to make it even better, it also has easy access to the Hugh S. Branyon Back Country Trail.  Traveling between Gulf State Park and Orange Beach, this complex of 6 attached paved paths covers 12 miles.  It’s believed that the area is historic, as it was once used by indigenous people and early settlers.  It took us 2 rides, one at 19 miles and another at 15 miles to cover all of the paths and get back to the park.  The Hugh S. Branyon Back Country Trail traverses a wide diversity of habitats, running along marshes, secondary sand dunes, swamps and over several creeks.

Hugh S Branyon Backcountry Trail

Trailhead of Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail from within the park

We took our rides early in the day and observed that the paths got busy later on. Leaving early also allowed us to encounter some wildlife along the way.

Lefty, the alligator

This mother alligator was seen along Rosemary Dunes Trail with her five babies on board

Gulf Oak Ridge Trail, Hugh S Branyon Trails

We liked Gulf Oak Ridge Trail, as it was shaded with a few mild elevation changes to keep our hearts pumping

Catman Road Trail, Hugh S Branyon Backcountry Trail

Looking at yet another water snake along Catman Road Trail

Rattlesnake Ridge Trail, Backcountry Trail

Steve with “helmet hair” at Rattlesnake Ridge Trailhead

Great Blue Heron on top of tree

Can you find the Great Blue Heron?

On other days, we walked all 9 of the unpaved connecting trails within the park.  It was flat, but we got fairly good workouts nevertheless.

Alligator  Marsh Trail, Gulf State Park

No, we did not see any alligators on this trail

Gulf State Park

Along Campground Road

Bear Creek Trail, Gulf State Park

Bear Creek Trail

On these walks I practiced capturing some wildflowers up close and low to the ground using my Point and Shoot Panasonic DMZ-ZS19.  It got some pretty decent shots.

We took the one-mile walk to the beach and then added several miles while walking along the shore.  There are over 3.5 miles of white sand beaches available in both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama.  Best of all, it’s free!

Gulf State Park Beach

Gulf State Park Beach

Brown Pelicans

Brown Pelicans in a feeding frenzy were fun to watch

Common Terns

Unlike the Common Terns in Florida, these guys were skittish and wouldn’t let us get too close

Lowes RV Adventures

Yes, we are enjoying our last few days at the beach before moving on!

All of these activities were done within the confines of the sprawling Gulf State Park, with no driving required.  The park also offers birding, golfing, boating, fishing, kayaking and canoeing.  After four days of active fun the storm hit, and it was a doozy just like the forecasters predicted.

 

Next up:  What do you do when cooped up for three days?