April, 2009

The Okefenokee Swamp is probably the largest remaining wilderness area on the
East Coast of the United States. The swamp is on the border of Florida and
Georgia, with a large portion set aside as a National Wildlife Refuge. My wife and I
had a chance to spend a few days exploring the swamp in April.

It was a little bit cool and overcast for most of our visit, with thunderstorms coming
through on the second night. The weather was both a blessing and a disadvantage.
The cool weather kept away the mosquitoes, which I am sure can get unbearable at
times, especially on hot summer nights. On the downside, the cool weather also
meant we would see fewer of my favorite animals - snakes, lizards, and turtles. With
the plethora of life around us, the slim pickings among the reptiles did not matter
much. Pitcher plants were common, even growing along the roadside ditches.
Alligators were almost everywhere. Barred Owls, Great Egrets, Little Blue Herons,
Swallow-tailed Kites, Bluebirds, and Prothonotary Warblers were abundant. And
even with the cool weather we saw several snakes, and a few lizards and turtles.

The highlight of the trip for me was seeing several Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers, a
species of bird found only in mature pine forests. The destruction of the mature
longleaf pine forests in the southern USA caused a decline in the number of
Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers and this bird is now listed as a Federal Endangered

The highlight of the trip for my wife was seeing a Barred Owl up close as he caught
and ate frogs on the road at night. It was truly amazing to watch as the owl allowed
us to approach within a few feet. We were able to watch the owl for several minutes
and take some pictures in the headlights of the car.
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Okefenokee Pine Forest
Saw Palmetto grows under the pine trees in an upland pine forest at the
Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge.
I slowed the car, opened the windows, and turned off the radio as we approached Steven C. Foster State Park, as I always do
when I drive through a particularly interesting natural area. I wanted to be sure not to miss the sounds and sights by driving too
fast. Sometimes the best way to see wildlife is from a car, where the wildlife doesn't recognise us as a threat and we can cover a
lot of ground much faster than we would on foot. I try to minimize my use of road driving to see wildlife because it uses gas and
pollutes the air, but on the way in and out of the park I thought I might as well make the most of the drive.

The whole way in we could hear Cricket Frogs (
Acris gryllus) calling along the road. Cricket frogs make a click - click - click sound
that has been described as sounding like hitting 2 pebbles together. The male frog calls to attract females. A pouch on the throat
of the male expands as the frog calls. The mating of frogs and most other amphibians is called "amplexus". In amplexus the male
frog clings to the back of the female by his front legs. The frogs appear to copulate; however, there is no penetration of the female
by the male. The female cricket frog deposits eggs in the water and the male frog releases sperm onto the eggs to fertilize them
externally. The eggs hatch into tiny aquatic tadpoles, which metamorphose into legged, air breathing frogs. Cricket frogs are tiny,
about 3/4 to 1 inch in length, and very well camouflaged. Although they are normally very difficult to see, they can be found easily
on damp or rainy spring nights by walking down the road with a flashlight, where they can be caught in the flashlight beam as they
cross the road. Cricket frogs are in the family Hylidae, the tree frog family. They have sticky foot pads, similar to those of other
tree frogs but less well developed. Unlike other members of the Hylidae, cricket frogs do not normally climb.
Barred Owl
We also saw red-headed woodpeckers, white ibis, great egret, turkey and black vultures, and a small alligator on the drive into
the park.

The red-headed woodpecker is an unmistakable bird with large white wing patches and a white rump. The adult has the famous
bright red head that gives this bird its name. Red-headed woodpeckers have declined in numbers in many other parts of its
range, probably partly due to the loss of nesting areas, but we saw many in the Okefenokee. These birds prefer open woods
where they nest in dead trees or dead branches. Removal of dead trees in suburban areas has reduced available the nesting
areas. Red-headed woodpeckers are omnivores, eating insects, berries, and even mice and other bird's eggs.
Cricket Frog
A cricket frog sits on a water lily pad in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
White Ibis
A white ibis forages on the side of the road.
The White Ibis has a snowy white body and a long curved orange and black bill. When they fly are recognizable as large white
birds with black wing tips and an outstretched neck. Several white ibis were foraging on the side of the road and around the
cottages throughout our visit. They eat crayfish, fish, insects, and snakes.
Several white herons are found at the Okefenokee. We saw three of these during our visit.  

Great Egrets are a large white bird seen roosting on trees or standing at the water's edge or in shallow water. Great Egrets can
be distinguished by their larger size, yellow bill, and black legs and feet.

The Little Blue Heron is all white during its first year of life, turning darker with a brown head and neck and a dark blue-grey
back as it matures. The white immature little blue heron can be recognized by the blue bill with a black tip, and greenish legs.

Cattle Egret were introduced from Africa to South America, probably in the late 1800's, and have expanded their range through
the southern and eastern U.S. These birds are small and stocky, with a yellow bill.

In addition to the white herons, we saw Green Herons and adult Little Blue Herons.

All the herons fly with their neck retracted, unlike the Ibises and Cranes which fly with their neck outstretched. Herons eat fish,
frogs, small mammals, and reptiles.
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