Slaughter Beach

No sooner was the school year over (actually we bust the younger two kids out a day early) than we headed off on a much-needed vacation. Our oldest son did not accompany us for a variety of reasons so he stayed home with the cats. One of the things I have missed the most during this pandemic is travel so I was very glad of a break away from my own four walls. We needed to book way back when I was the only member of the family eligible for vaccination, however, so at that time we had to keep our plans modest and be mindful of the need to maintain mitigation efforts. For that reason, we rented a house on Slaughter Beach on Delaware’s bay.

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The house was perfect for our needs. It had everything we needed for family life and easy access to the beach. There was a set of steps that took us from the house, across the dunes, and right onto the shore. Easy peasy. The boys absolutely loved that they could go to the beach whenever they wanted and at all times of the day. My favourite thing about the house was the master suite because it was massive. It was literally the entire second floor of the house. So luxurious. A large bank of windows meant that I could wake up and see the sun rise over the sea from the comfort of the bed every morning. I even had a nook that I could set up as my art table.

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The nearest big town was Rehoboth and we headed there a couple of times. The first trip involved a morning jaunt to a farmers market and from there we walked to the shore so we could have a stroll on the boardwalk. The beach itself was absolutely heaving with people. Even in non-pandemic times, places that crowded set me on edge. I was very grateful that we had access to a very quiet beach with no public access so that we could be isolated and enjoy peace and quiet. Nobody was in the mood for shopping or boardwalk pursuits so we just wandered and people watched for a bit.

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Our second trip to Rehoboth was to have a walk around Gordon’s Pond, which is a nature refuge. It proved to be a pleasant enough walk, especially since it was flat on a hot day, but the pond was very low and wildlife was nowhere to be seen. I think I saw a bird at a distance. We did get a good view of the submarine watchtowers from a raised walkway.

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Because Mr Pict is an outer space nerd, we went out one morning to see a satellite launch.  We were supposed to be able to see it in the sky ten second after launch.  Mr Pict was viewing the live feed on his phone and was counting us down to the point when we should have been able to see the object in the sky.  Alas, the clouds rolled in and we did not see a single speck of anything.  You can see from the photograph how impressed the boys were by that jaunt.

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Our nearest town for things like groceries was Milford. It is one of those towns that is clearly in the process of regenerating after the loss of its traditional industries. There are certainly shabby areas of the town but we found the centre to be quite appealing. We quickly found a favourite bakery and coffee shop and we stopped in there for some treats a couple of times. Their baked goods were among some of the best I have ever scoffed. We also returned one evening in order to buy some pierogis from a food truck since our 15 year old is a massive pierogi fan. It happened to be on an evening when there was some sort of community thing going on so the place was buzzing with people and there was a nice atmosphere. The boys approved of the various pierogis they purchased too.

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On the subject of food, we also returned to the British themed fish and chip place that we discovered last summer. While it is not quite authentic chip shop grub, it is close enough for our stomach-based homesickness and quite delicious. We did takeaway and picnicked in the grounds of the same still-under-construction health clinic that we ate the same food in a year ago. I guess we are establishing new family traditions?

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We visited a Nature Center on the outskirts of Milford one morning. It was not a big place so our visit took no time at all. It was, however, informative and we learned more about some of the local sea life and sea birds. We especially learned a lot about the anatomy of horseshoe crabs, which are truly peculiar creatures, and my 14 year old loved the turtles. We experienced a lot of wildlife on the stretch of beach in front of the rental house. The place was littered in horseshoe crab casts but the boys were most excited by the fact that they kept encountering live horseshoe crabs while they were paddling. We also encountered lots of little burrowing crabs and I even had a visit from a chubby frog one evening on the house’s patio. The wildlife I could most definitely have done without were the horseflies – what I grew up calling clegs. They were vicious and persistent and their bites were very nippy. I actually have a severe reaction to insect bites so the bites were very painful. There were so many swarms of them at certain times of the day that it was impossible to sit still and do anything. I had to take a fly swatter out with me and waft it about constantly just to keep them at bay. The same type of horseflies made us abandon a walk around a wildlife refuge at the end of our week’s vacation. The horde of them was just too apocalyptic to be tolerable.

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The best thing about the vacation as far as Mr Pict and the boys were concerned, of course, was the beach. I am not much of a beach person because I loathe sand. I am happy to sit on the beach or paddle for a while but I cannot do it for hours on end. The ideal thing about our location was that I could just scuttle on back to the house and read or draw while still enjoying a view of the sea and fresh air coming in through screened windows. The menfolk, however, made the most of their time at the beach. They went out at all times of the day to paddle, swim, and kayak. There was a long shelf (is that the word?) which meant the water remained pretty shallow quite far out to shore. That meant we felt comfortable letting the boys take the kayak out without an adult being with them. Even our 12 year old was able to take the kayak out on his own. They really enjoyed that freedom. The 14 and 15 year olds even took the kayak out, took a break from paddling, and had some drinks and snacks while bobbing about in the waves.

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It was a lovely week and a very welcome break from our own domestic spaces and our own well-worn routines. It was also great to spend a good chunk of quality family time together after a year of being trapped together while working, learning, and functioning as a family all on top of each other. It felt like we were rinsing some of the stress of the past year off and recharging our batteries.

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Delaware Beach Getaway

We had really big travel plans for this Summer but, of course, the Covid 19 pandemic means that all of our plans were cancelled.  As a family, we are taking the risks very seriously and are being super cautious with what we do.  My youngest brother contracted Covid and had a really gruelling time getting through what is considered a mild case.  That only served to underscore how important it was to stick to our strict way of operating.  However, for various reasons too personal to get into, we did decide to get away for a few days.  We found a beach house in Delaware where we could maintain our isolated ways and that had a robust, Covid specific cleaning regimen to put our anxiety at ease.  We were also the first guests to stay in the house for several months.  Our oldest son opted to stay home with the cats.

We obviously spent a lot of time at the beach.  The property we rented was a two mile walk from the closest public access point and parking lot so it was exceptionally quiet and we never had to get remotely close to any other beach users.  In addition to paddling and swimming, the boys loved collecting horseshoe crab moults (or horseshoe husks as the kids dubbed them).  They gathered husks of various sizes over a few days and then my 14 year old had the idea to turn them into a sculpture.  What my youngest loved doing was finding these peculiar little burrowing sea critters at the shore line.  I think they are a type of isopod but I am not completely confident in even that vague identification.  He enjoyed scooping them out of the wet sand and then watching them quickly burrowing back down.  The beach was also home to a type of crab that ran at comically high speed and scurried from hole to hole.  My 14 year old also found a hermit crab.

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We also experienced some lovely sunrises and terrific sunsets on the beach.  The boys also liked being out on the beach in the pitch dark.  Mr Pict is into astronomy so he enjoyed using his binoculars to pick out details in the clear night sky.

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I can only tolerate sand for so long so I liked having some other outdoor spaces to use.  There was a raised deck at the house where I could sit and read, draw, and paint while being able to see the rest of the family larking about on the beach.  Beneath that raised deck, there was a space enclosed with screens that was perfect for outdoor eating.

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On the subject of eating, we mostly ate food at the house whipped up from ingredients we brought with us.  One evening, however, we decided to have a treat because Mr Pict had spotted a place selling British style fish and chips.  As Brits, how could we not go sample some grub there?  They were doing roadside pickup so we placed our order and then parked up to eat it while it was all still steaming hot.  It really was all pretty authentic and passed muster with our British tastebuds.  The one exception was the brown sauce which was far too good quality for proper chippy sauce.  Just the aroma of clouds of malt vinegar wafting off of hot chips transported me home. It was a delicious treat.

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We did take a couple of excursions.  We thought about exploring historic Lewes but it was far too busy and most people we saw were not wearing masks so we promptly nixed that idea.  What we did instead was head to Cape Henlopen for a wander around Fort Miles.  We have been there before, in 2017, and we planned on also exploring new areas of the coast, but every other spot was just too busy for comfort.

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We went on two woodland walks.  The first of these was at Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge.  We had to pass a few people at the head of the trail but otherwise we seemingly had the whole place to ourselves and we ended up covering the entire network of trails partly intentionally and partly because we got ourselves a bit lost and looped certain trails twice.  We definitely got our steps in that day!  We encountered lots of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and also lots of frogs or toads – I cannot confidently identify the species so please let me know if you can.  My 11 year old also found a complete shed snakeskin but unfortunately we did not meet any snakes.

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Our final trip was to Redden State Forest but that was a much shorter trek and we were literally the only people there.  It was a very humid day, however, and we were being constantly bitten by insects.  I have a severe reaction to insect bites so my left hand ballooned up.  We, therefore, moved around the trail paths swiftly and skedaddled back to the car.

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It was definitely restorative to get away for a few days and be hermits in a different space.  It is not the Summer vacation we had planned for but it were definitely grateful for a simple getaway.

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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.

I’m no Davy Crockett

I regularly find myself relaxing with a steaming hot mug of tea and looking out of the window as various birds, especially blue jays and cardinals, flit around in the garden.  I am no twitcher (my bird identification skills are too lacking) but I am thoroughly enjoying observing birds in the garden and it is quite exciting when a woodpecker comes to visit.  It is also a joy to watch the squirrels playing around in the garden, their curvaceous bushy tails wiggling after them as they dart around.  Now that Spring has completely sprung, they have been joined by rabbits.  Thankfully these bunnies must keep their burrows elsewhere and are not digging holes all over the garden.  As such, I can just sit back and smile as I watch them bobbing around.

We see deer a lot around here  – though not in the garden – but I have not yet seen a raccoon or an opposum.  I have actually never seen an opposum in the wild ever and have only once seen a wild raccoon.  My husband thought it was a hunchbacked dog.  The kids are absolutely longing to see a raccoon.  It’s almost tempting to leave a bin bag full of edible goodies out just to tempt one but, of course, I am too responsible to do so.  The youngest Pict and I did, however, see a small groundhog today.  Out of the corner of my eye, I thought it was a plump squirrel but when  look properly it was clearly a small, perhaps juvenile, groundhog snuffling around in a neighbour’s shrubbery.  That was fun.

Another wild critter encounter my kids really want to have is with a bear.  Yes, a bear.  As in apex predator.  They completely understand and appreciate that bears are dangerous.  Indeed, when my youngest two set up a cuddly toy zoo in their bedroom, the littlest one reassured us that the bear would “just” eat our heads.  Nevertheless, they want to see a bear in the wild.  Recently a young bear actually wandered along a street that is just a little distance from here.  It was tranquilised and removed before it could meet my four boys.  They were actually disappointed. 250lbs of presumably frustrated, stressed black bear wandering down residential streets and they actually would have been happy to come across it.  We clearly need to have that wildlife conversation again.  Scotland’s apex land predator is probably a fox or badger.  This is a potentially life-saving learning curve for this pack of immigrants.

This reminded me – yet again – that I still have not researched what the current advice is regarding how to react to a bear encounter.  I remember that at one stage the wisdom was to do nothing but flop around and play dead so that the bear did not feel threatened and ultimately became bored and wandered off.  Because if I was a bear I would get probably get bored with something I had mauled to shreds too.  Climbing a tree is also ridiculous advice because I am pretty sure bears have evolved to climb trees in a way that humans have not.  There is no way that even pumped full of adrenalin I would scale a tree quicker than even a decrepit bear.

I have now diligently (as in half an hour of googling) researched what I should do if I happen to encounter a bear in the wild – or a bear encounter me.  There is lots of advice about not panicking.  I expect I might instinctively ignore that advice.  My kids might be overcome with excitement but I am pretty sure I will experience panic on at least some level.  There is also mention of standing your ground on several sites.  That should not be a problem since the aforementioned panic will have rooted me to the spot.  Apparently it is advisable to avoid eye contact with a bear.  How in the heck do I manage that?  I’ve just seen a bear amble towards me and I am supposed to react as if I’ve seen nothing?  I need to look at it to make sure it is not walking with intent towards me while licking its chops.  How on earth do I assess the situation while avoiding making eye contact?  I also have to apparently walk away slowly if the bear is not approaching but the only way to determine the bear’s trajectory is if I look at it.  So look but without making eye contact?  Tricky.  It’s like some weird etiquette guide.  No yelling is not problematic since I am sure my voice will be a frozen, solid lump in my throat but apparently speaking in a monotone voice is best.  I assume several studies have been conducted to come to this conclusion.  So no shrill Miss Piggy shrieking if I encounter a bear.  I get it.  Could be quite challenging if that previously referenced panic strikes.  Flap hands to indicate status as a human.  Oh.  Kay.  I just have to trust that a bear will know the difference between a flapping human and a giant bird.

Some sites do advise climbing trees.  But only if you can get higher than 33 feet before the bear reaches you.  And you have to back away slowly in order to reach the climbable tree.  Hmmmm.

So if all of these strategies fail, it is necessary to follow further helpful instructions such as deploying pepper spray.  Maybe this is un-American of me, who knows, but I don’t carry pepper spray on me.  I actually don’t own any.  So actually the first piece of advice any of the articles about bear encounters should have mentioned was purchasing and packing pepper spray.  The pepper spray should be discarded once discharged because bizarrely the pepper can lure bears.  So walk into bear territory carrying pepper spray as a strangely alluring deterrent?  Mixed message.  If the pepper spray does not dissuade the bear – and let’s face it the pepper spray may just make it extra angry and determined to shred and pulp – then it is advised that the attacked human drops to the ground and rolls up in a ball on their side or face down on their stomach.  Presumably this is to make it more difficult for evisceration to occur.  I am all for keeping my guts inside my body so that’s some great advice right there.  Of course, I would rather not have a chewed head, nibbled limbs or shredded buttocks either.  But the lesson has sunk in: protect the organs at all costs.  But this is advice pertinent to Grizzlies.  If Black Bears attack then you should fight back.  Apparently this is because black bears are more timid than their grizzly cousins.  But I bet they are not more timid than a Scottish woman who is trying to identify what type of bear she has just met while conversely trying not to make eye contact with it and while backing away slowly and figuring out which backwards direction qualifies as downwind.  Then, once the attack is over, one is told to check the bear has left the vicinity  – all while face down, curled in a ball and absolutely not making eye contact – and then go and seek help as rapidly as your munched legs can carry you.

All of this research just leads to the conclusion that my kids can hope for a wild bear encounter as much as they like but I am countering their vibes with ones that involve never meeting a bear.  Ever.

I am sticking with squirrels and birds, thanks.