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Wildside: Snowbirds find other snowbirds down south

Turkey vultures roosting in the trees at the confluence of Manatee Springs and the Suwanee River in Florida. (River Falls Journal photo by Dan Wilcox)

Carol and I continued south after a good time with my family and friends in Ohio over Christmas. We were fortunate to escape the way-below-zero cold at home that made the news. We visited friends near Gulf Shores, Ala. over New Year’s Day. Our friend Jane cooked us a great seafood dinner; oysters Fenton, shrimp cocktail with remoulade sauce, blue crab claws and oyster shooters.

The weather there was relatively warm (for us); in the 50s, windy with some rain. We hiked along the beach and through sand dunes, live oaks and pines in the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. There were quite a few loons spending the winter in Little Lagoon between Gulf Shores and the mainland. Those were the common loons that summer on northern lakes, not the college-age loonies that show up on the beach to party.

Because we had never been in southern Florida, curiosity and the quest for warm weather drew us farther south.  We stopped in Pensacola at Joe Patti’s Seafood where they dock their own boats and sell fresh-as-can-be seafood in a giant but well-organized market. We stocked up on shrimp, blue crab and some more remoulade sauce.

We followed the coast down to Cedar Key near the mouth of the Suwanee River.  Cedar Key is a small “Old Florida” fishing community on an island surrounded by mud flats and oyster bars. There are no beaches, no high rise condos, but nice people and real working fishermen, clammers, and oystermen. We had some delicious clam chowder.  We stayed in a nice cottage overlooking a bay covered with gulls and wading birds.

Cedar Key fell on hard times in 1995 when the State of Florida banned near-shore commercial fishing with nets in order to protect the sport fishing industry. Some of the Cedar Key fishermen began a farm-raised clam industry. They induce adult clams to spawn in a hatchery, raise the small clams in a nursery, and then place the small clams in mesh bags to grow out on the sea bed in submerged leased areas. After a couple years when the clams reach market size, they harvest and ship the clams all over the county.

We canoed around the tidal flats and saw lots of wading birds like egrets, herons, ibis, willets, and killdeers. On a cold day at nearby Manatee Springs, we saw manatees staying warm in the spring water and a big convention of turkey vultures roosted in the cypress trees. Like the manatees, they were apparently also keeping warm in a sheltered place at the confluence of Manatee Springs and the Suwanee River.

After a couple cold nights camping in Florida State Parks we checked into a small motel in Chokoloskee in the 10,000 Islands. Being a good snowbird tourist and fan of author Peter Matthiessen, I visited the historic Smallwood’s Store and Museum in the village where the people of Chokoloskee gunned down Edgar J. Watson in 1910. The story was made more widely known through Peter Matthiessen’s book, Killing Mr. Watson, published in 1990. 

The 10,000 Islands area in the Everglades National Park is a maze of rivers, bays and tidal estuaries among mangrove islands. Paddling out of Chokoloskee, we managed to avoid getting lost among all the islands and oyster bars while casting for sea trout and redfish. A manatee startled us when it took off from under the canoe.

Now we are on Conch Key in the Florida Keys luxuriating in the warm breeze under coconut trees. We are enjoying our time down south with the other snowbirds. There are lots of people from Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota down here where, like the migrating birds, we have found a place where it’s warm in winter.

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