Florida Wildlife Quest

Mr Pict and I do not often get any entirely child-free couple time.  In fact, it is as rare as hen’s teeth that we get some alone time.  Having grandparents on the premises to provide babysitting was, therefore, an opportunity so when they offered to look after the kids so we could spend a day together we were very grateful.  It is not that we do not love being with our kids, of course, just that it is equally important to remember that we were a couple before we were parents.

The kids had shown more interest in spending a day in the swimming pool than go exploring nature so we decided to spend the day searching for wildlife.  We drove out to Merritt Island wildlife reserve, which is near Cape Canaveral, as we felt that gave us the best opportunity to see manatees in December.

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Our first wildlife encounter was with a vulture.  I actually see vultures fairly frequently in Pennsylvania as they like to munch on roadkill.  The first time I saw one was quite arresting.  Used to seeing carrion crows muzzling into splattered beasts, it was strange to drive past something so large doing just the same thing.  A few months ago, I even had to drive around one vulture who was in the middle of the road, refusing to budge from the squirrel remains that were forming his breakfast.  The vulture I spotted on our wildlife excursion was similarly undeterred by my presence.  I was able to get quite close to him before he flew off into a nearby tree.  My eyes following him upwards, I noticed that there were a lot of vultures circling low in the sky.  I hoped it was not us that they had their eyes on.

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Taking a stroll out along the shoreline, we spotted something large and dark emerge briefly from the water at some distance from us.  Could it possibly be?  We stopped and stared and watched as the same shapes emerged, submerged and re-emerged several times.  Rounded head.  Large, flattened tail.  Flippers.  Yes!  It was!  It was my first wild manatee.  I watched, delighted, as it continued to frolic in the water.  It was frustrating not being able to get close enough to see any of the detail of this wonderful, bizarre creature but it was still completely magical to encounter, even at a distance, this rare creature.

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We then headed to Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven mile long, one way drive through marsh land.  We duly paid the $5 into the honesty box, picked up a guide leaflet and set off on the winding road in a slow moving wagon train of at least a dozen other cars.  The cars would the piggy back as each group of people decided to pull over to get a closer look at something.  A good indication of whether there was something especially interesting to see was either if there were a whole herd of cars parked up together or if someone suddenly swerved to the side to pull over.

The whole place was a haven for birds.  There were loads of them to see wherever I looked.  There were several varieties of heron, piercing their beaks into the water’s placid surface to spear an unsuspecting fish; there were crisply white egrets, their feathers fluttering like dancing snowflakes in the breeze; there were hefty wood storks, stalking through the water on their long legs, their heads bald and scaly, their bills curving like a cutlass; pink-hued roseate spoonbills waded in lines, one after the other, their bills comically bizarre; there were coots all over the place, darting between the other birds, hither and thither, and then gathering together as one massive swarm.

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Excitingly, we also saw a couple of alligators.  Both were submerged in the water, either moping around, listless, feeling the ennui of being an apex predator, or else lurking around awaiting an ambush opportunity.  It made them difficult to photograph but it was fantastic to be able to see them so close and witness their behaviour, especially as one slowly slipped beneath the surface, disappearing into the murk, leaving not a ripple behind him to betray his presence.

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We had undertaken some research to find out where we were most likely to see a wild manatee in December.  We, therefore, headed to the Haulover Canal on the Indian River.  According to a sign, this is actually the site of a centuries’ old crossing on a narrow point of the river.  Native Americans and Spanish settlers would haul their canoes and boats over the strip of land and across the water, hence the name “haulover”.  It was dug out, by slave labour, and turned into a canal in the 1850s.The fact that the site has a designated manatee observation deck was a very promising start and, sure enough, no sooner had I set foot on the deck and looked down at the shallow water below than I spotted a large manatee.  Practically bounding and leaping, I followed the manatee along the shoreline until I was almost in reaching distance.  I was so close I could see the thick, wrinkly looking texture of its skin, the barnacles encrusting it, and the spade like tail casting flukes on the river’s surface each time it briefly submerged.  I was over the moon.  Completely exhilarated.  The manatee stuck close to the shoreline where I had stationed myself for a good few minutes before swimming out beyond the tree line and beyond anyone’s line of sight.  Perfect timing.  Had I arrived at the deck a few minutes later, I would have missed out on this incredible encounter.  Mission well and truly accomplished.

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It was mid-afternoon at this point and neither Mr Pict nor I had eaten so we headed into Titusville to see what our dining options were.  In the end we plumped for Sonny’s Pit BBQ, a regional chain.  We started with bowls of fried okra and corn nuggets.  I absolutely adore fried okra and this was the best I had ever had.  It was fresh and crisp and completely delicious.  I had never had corn nuggets before.  They were essentially balls of creamed corn, breaded and fried so that they had crisp exteriors and melting, molten interiors.  Mr Pict was in carnivore heaven so he ordered a sampler plate so he could have a taste of everything.  All the major food groups were represented: cow, pig and chicken.  He pronounced everything to be entirely delectable.  I had the lunch sized portion of pulled chicken with cornbread, coleslaw and fries.  It too was very tasty and succulent.  I doused mine in sweet hot barbecue sauce which made it sing.  Our one criticism of the food was that it could have been served hotter as we both found our food to be lukewarm.

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That ended our child free day of wildlife spotting.  We headed back to the villa to find that fire ants had invaded our en suite bathroom.  I was bitten on the legs by the little blighters.  That was absolutely a wildlife encounter I could have done without.

Fourth of July

Friday was only my second ever Independence Day spent in America and was the first for the children.  We have celebrated Independence Day in Britain because Mr Pict is half-American and frankly because it is a good excuse to barbecue and feast.  However, without the festival atmosphere, the red, white and blue everywhere and the fireworks, it could never be quite the same.

This Independence Day, therefore, was special because it was our first one spent in America as a family and also because my parents are here visiting.  The fact that three of us are fully non-American did not deter us.  We might be British but we all believe in a nation’s right to self-determination anyway so even politically we would have supported the Revolution.  And, of course, we get to barbecue and feast.  All celebrations end up revolving around food so this was no exception.  Mr Pict grilled up everything from hot dogs and sausages to pork chops, steak and chicken and I made up salads and potato salads.  Because we were not quite bloated enough, we then had chocolate cream pie or a patriotically decorated sponge cake.

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The only other time I have been in America for Independence Day was 19 years ago.  Mr Pict and I sat on the hard, cold, bum-numbing steps of the Lincoln Memorial for hours to snag a prime spot for viewing the fireworks over the National Mall.  That was a pretty spectacular experience but our rumps did pay the price.  This time we decided to keep it simple by staying locally so we headed out to one of the local High Schools to view their fireworks display.  Woefully ill-prepared, we had entirely failed to move our new lawn chairs into the boot (trunk) of the bigger car and we didn’t even have a blanket to sit on.  We were going to plonk ourselves on the grass when we spotted a long bench tipped over so we were able to right it and perch on it.  A chap running for Congress was offering people free water ice (which is a bit like a UK slushy) so the boys even got to have a snack despite having parents who had not adequately forward-planned.

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Daylight swiftly became dusk and settled into darkness and the sense of anticipation and expectation was palpable as the sky darkened to an inky blue.  Finally the fireworks started.  My kids are used to fireworks being in November (for Guy Fawkes night) and have usually watched displays while standing on the side of a loch, freezing cold and with their welly boots sinking further into sodden grass.  The only exception was watching fireworks during the last Summer Olympics.  It was, therefore, a welcome and lovely experience to be sitting on a balmy night watching the sky lit up with colourful, sparkling gunpowder.  It was a really good fireworks display with a fantastic finale.  We would definitely go to the same event in future years.

Overall it was a very successful Independence Day.

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A Memorial Day Weekend Birthday

Memorial Day was one of those American holidays I had heard of but really knew nothing about.  I knew it vaguely marked the beginning of Summer and that was it, the sum total of my knowledge.  It turns out that it echos Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day in Britain, a time for the nation to pause and remember the dead of their wars.  I guess I did not twig that because it is marked in May rather than in November.  I am culturally hard-wired to associate such commemorations with slate grey skies, sombre colours and drizzling rain.  Originally called Decoration Day, the traditions of the holiday apparently emerged during the Civil War with family visiting war graves and memorials to remember their lost loved ones and gradually evolved into a three day weekend that has been co-opted to somehow celebrate the beginning of summer at the same time as being a solemn reflection.  That is quite an odd combination.

Memorial Day happened to fall this year on the youngest Pict’s fifth birthday so we were obviously celebrating and being festive.  We, therefore, did not attend any parades or commemoration services as the juxtaposition would have been confusing and possibly a bit distasteful.

Our celebration of the mini-Pict turning five began on Sunday with a trip to Elmwood Park Zoo, an animal park not too far from home base.  Our first stop was to see the eagles.  The boys have seen eagles in flight but it was good for them to see the scale, the bulk and power, of these birds close up.  They were also amused to see one eagle walking in a way I can only describe as a gawky sashay – definitely much less graceful than when in flight.  Then we went to see some “snowbird” giraffes who live in Florida but some to Pennsylvania in the summer.  Does Florida really get too uncomfortably hot for African mammals in the summer?  A viewing platform allowed us to get pretty close to the giraffes.  The kids enjoyed seeing one perform the splits in order to drink and to get close enough to its head to see it’s long purple-blue tongue.

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We saw a snoozing fox, lazing bighorn sheep, dozing wolves and – right at the very back of its enclosure – a slumbering cougar that rolled over from its back to its belly just like a moggy cat.  Clearly it was a tad hot for the animals as many more – such as the bobcats – were completely idle.  I guess I too would probably be prone to laziness if I was cooped up on a baking hot day.

The indoor animals were, therefore, much more active.  The boys loved seeing the alligator roaming around in its tank.  She had her snout pressed against the glass for a while and when she clambered out of the water they were able to see her impressive claws and powerful legs.  There were also lots of writhing snakes and swimming turtles.  One enclosure housed some iguanas, a funky South American porcupine and a pair of Golden Lion Tamarins.  My oldest son found the latter to be captivating and swiftly became engrossed in watching them groom each other.  I have to agree that they do have such gorgeous little faces.

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The boys fed sheep and goats in the petting barn, watched bison urinate in impressive quantities, stared burrowing owls in the eye, watched some capybara faeces give new meaning to the game of “Pooh sticks”, witnessed a jaguar being spoon fed, watched one turtle hustle another off a rock and felt the pelt of a coyote.  They also had a blast playing in the playgrounds around the park.  All in all it was a fun day out, relaxing and laid back.

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Memorial Day itself was the birthday – his fifth birthday but his first ever birthday in America.  This was the first year when the littlest one has had mounting excitement and anticipation building to a head of steam in advance of his birthday.  In a victory for his numeracy skills, he had been counting down the sleeps until his birthday.  He was almost combusting, therefore, when I woke up and saw all of his presents and cards on the coffee table.  He was over the moon with each card he opened and with each gift he unwrapped.

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We then went for a play in the school playground.

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Then, because it was a glorious scorcher of a day, we had a barbecue for dinner – or “barbecube” as the now five year old calls it.

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And, of course, special cake for dessert.

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And so a great long weekend of family fun was enjoyed by one and all. 

And now only one Pict has yet to experience a birthday in America.