Florida Beaches are Simply Sublime

Florida Beaches are Simply Sublime

Wahoo! I was just there – Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola – a long ribbon of bright white sandy beach so alluring it had to be singing a siren song:

“Come, sift the sand between your toes. Stay here. Stay here. Forget your worldly cares. Stay . . .”

Floarida beaches - beach sand
Different types of beach sand. Photo by David McRee

And the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico echo the beach promise of sun and fun.

Florida beaches will have their way with you

Yep. Florida beaches can and will have their way with you. The sand sighs as you take off your shoes, sink into the sand and sift sand between your toes. There is the promise of natural detox plus getting gritty and feeling great. All this without even getting wet yet. Just stroll and watch the pelicans skim the water’s surface. Bend down and do the shark tooth shuffle, looking for castoffs from the deep. Inhale. Renew. Revive.

And the sunsets, ah well, line up and enjoy the awesome sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s a thought – go to the Sandbar Waterfront Restaurant in Anna Maria, take an outside table and have a front row seat for the sunset.

Floarida beaches - sunset
Sunset photo by David McRee

Sunrises over the Atlantic are pretty spectacular too. Once a photographer and I showed up at Anastasia State Park early, before sunrise, to do a newspaper story on a gentleman doing sandcastle building practicing for a national competition. As the sun came up, casting golden light on the water and the beach, his castle grew taller and taller and more amazing. I looked around and thought: “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

You are nodding your head. You know what I’m talking about. Still it comes as a nice surprise that others are nodding their heads too. Nine Florida beaches, including Gulf Island National Seashore in Pensacola are among the top 25 beaches in the United States, just named in a Travelers’ Choice 2013 award posted by tripadvisor.

The other beaches are Canaveral National Seashore, Titusville; Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin; Pensacola Beach, Pensacola; Clearwater Beach; St. Andrews State Park, Panama City; Fort DeSoto Park, Terra Verde; Siesta Key Public Beach, Sarasota; Pass-a-Grille, St. Pete Beach.

Florida beaches - Mexico Beach
Mexico Beach in the Panhandle. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

My goodness! The only other state to come close to those numbers is Hawaii. These Travelers Choice awards are like winning the Oscars. Everyone wants to go see the movies that won. Let’s go experience all the beaches that one – a nice spring project for you.

Florida beaches include some friendly for dogs

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Obi, my Welsh corgi, accompanied me to the Panhandle last week. Dogs are not allowed on Pensacola or the Gulf Seashore beaches but we found a small beach on a bayou that did the job. Obi isn’t about to get his paws wet. At Bayview Park dog park in Pensacola he enjoyed running around in the sand with other dogs while one dog got really serious about digging a deep hole at the waterline – all the way to China?

Florida beaches - dog beach
Dogs getting acquainted at Bayview Park, Pensacola. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

Patricia Collier is the keeper of a site for Florida Pets that includes lists of dog-friendly beaches. For example, one of the award-winning beaches, Fort DeSoto Park in Terra Verde has a Paw Playground and beach so if your best friend has four legs and likes water, here you go.

Florida is shaped like an upside down boot dipped in water on three sides with a total of 663 miles of beach and 2,276 statute miles of shoreline. Oh, and in addition, Florida has more than 11,000 miles of rivers, streams and waterways – many of these shorelines sport sandy beaches.

The beach sands are calling. Will you answer the call? I have to go now, the sun is setting on Lido Beach and I don’t want to miss it.

Florida beaches - Lido Beach sunset
Lido Beach sunset, Sarasota. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

In my Florida travels I meet fantastic people who are travel writers, residents, newcomers, guides and entrepreneurs, all are digging into the Florida places they love and finding treasures worth keeping.

In his own words, here is David McRee whom I got to know when he served as Beaches Expert for VISIT FLORIDA the same time I served as Authentic Florida Expert. David loves Florida beaches and he is the real deal, he grew up near Florida beaches. Be sure to check out his beach blog. You will like it.

The continental United States has thousands of miles of beaches along its coastal states, but it is Florida’s beaches that reach into the warm waters of the Caribbean.

I started enjoying those beaches with my family before I could even walk. More than fifty years later those are still some of the fondest memories I have: Daddy teaching me to dog paddle, Mama trying to keep me covered with Sea & Ski suntan lotion, and me trying to eat an icy-cold banana popsicle from the beach snack bar before it melts under the hot July sun.

At the beach our senses are awakened. We inhale salty air mixed with coconut oil fragrance and we smell burgers cooking on the grill; we hear the laughing of gulls and the steady roar of the ocean; and we feel the salt from the sea drying to a crust on our skin under the summer sun.

In nature, the most vibrant places are often found at an edge, where forest meets field, where cold meets warm, where east meets west. The beach is the edge where the salt water wilderness meets the familiar.

The beach inspires wonder and invites contemplation. The stark simplicity of water, sand, and sky helps remove us from overwhelming busyness and technological distraction of modern life. We can hear ourselves think again.

Florida beaches - seashells
Seashells on the beach. Photo by David McRee

During my childhood years, my home beach was on Anna Maria Island, a seven-mile strip of white sand and tall Australian pines, with communities where the locals outnumbered the tourists for most of the year.

It was later in life that I discovered the curious variety of beaches in Florida. We have the most famous shelling beaches in the world: Sanibel and Captiva. We have some of the most important nesting beaches for Loggerhead sea turtles in the world on Brevard County’s Atlantic coast beaches.

Florida beaches - beach
Beach photo by David McRee

We have everything from crowded resort beaches with amenities that could challenge Disney World (Panama City Beach and Clearwater Beach) to quiet natural beaches on islands that can only be reached by boat (Anclote Key and Cayo Costa).

We have some of the purest white-quartz beaches in the world. But which is the whitest? It could be Siesta Key beach, or it could be one of the beaches in the western Florida panhandle, like those on Santa Rosa Island. You’ll just have to visit them all to decide for yourself.

But don’t think you have to have a beach with white quartz sand. How about looking for fossilized shark teeth on the dark gray sands of Venice? To really appreciate the beauty of Florida beach sand, dig your toes into the brown-orange sands of Ormond Beach or the biogenic sands of the Florida Keys, made up not of minerals and shell fragments, but of tiny bits of coral and forams–shells of tiny single-cell marine organisms.

Just because you’ve seen one Florida beach doesn’t mean you’ve seen them all. Explore. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll find.

David McRee writes about Florida beaches and islands at BlogTheBeach.com

Floarida beaches - Beach scene
Beach scene. Photo by David McRee










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Bird Sanctuaries Fill a Need in Florida

Bird Sanctuaries Fill a Need in Florida

Can you roll your R’s and say these words – Rescue – Repair – Rehabilitation – Release? Say them with me now.

Congratulations, you’ve just described the amazing world of bird rescue. And, you can go see this world in action at bird sanctuaries all over Florida.

Bird sanctuaries save birds affected by human cruelty and violence to the environment

Bird sanctuaries struggle daily with heartbreak, beaks to feed and more rescues on the way. Why? The answer is shocking – birds arrive due human cruelty (shooting, running them over, fishhooks) and violence to their environment (BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, clear cutting land). Selfless souls work 365 days a year to undo the damage and repair the web of life.

Daily the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores feeds their resident birds (over 600) some 500 to 600 pounds of fish. Every day 20-45 birds are rescued or admitted. Volunteers square their shoulders, smile and welcome two-legged visitors, admitted free, while wondering if any donations will show up today or if new volunteers will arrive (many have been trained and shipped to the Panhandle to work on birds covered with oil from the BP spill).

In the small sanctuary tucked in between high rise beach condos, brown and white pelicans groom themselves. They seem normal until you look closely and the lower part of a beak is missing or eyes are totally dimmed because of blindness or they stand on one leg, the other one is gone.

The day I visited a young boy imitating a shore bird ran back and forth in front of a cage while a shore bird, uttering the same cries, ran back and forth with him. Perhaps the bird thought they were related.

Songbirds are in cages with mesh so thick it is hard to see inside. Wild birds come to visit and perch on cage roofs. It is surprising to learn this small place, founded in 1971, by Ralph Heath, is the largest avian hospital and sanctuary in the United States, admitting up to 8,000 injured birds a year. In addition to money donations, they have a wish list on their web site. You might want to give it a look and take something with you when you go.

Bird sanctuaries are family friendly and always looking for volunteers

Be sure to walk through the sanctuary and out onto a lovely stretch of beach fronting the Gulf of Mexico. On my visit, terns were nesting right on the sand, a perfect reminder to be careful on the beach (dogs on leashes, children supervised) because many shore birds lay eggs in shallow cavities.

Suncoast is open seven days a week, 365 days a year from 9 a.m. to sunset.

In Ocala the emergency pager (352-402-3894) is always on at Owls-Ocala Inc., Ocala Wildlife Sanctuary. Keith Belisle, a Native American Indian, and Kenneth Lane are on call to rescue birds in Central Florida – eagles, osprey, owls, hawks, doves, waterfowl, the list keeps getting longer. They’ve been doing rescues for 15 years. Owls-Ocala does educational programs to all kind of audiences.

bird sanctuaries - Owls-Ocala
Hobie, a great horned owl at Owls-Ocala Inc., Ocala Wildlife Sanctuary

A recent addition doesn’t have feathers but fur. Belisle and Lane were called when a fawn was spotted running down Fort King Street in Ocala (I am not making this up). Chased by people it jumped or fell into a culvert and was injured. Belisle said the fawn loves blueberries and blackberries. If you have any to spare, call the regular number (352) 895-0451 or E-mail: [email protected]

Their sanctuary is open by appointment only. Call for a guided tour. I’ve gone with my granddaughters, ages 5 and 8, and they loved it. The tour is free but donations are always appreciated. And, oh yes, they love volunteers.

By the way, Owls and Seacoast (and most bird rehab centers) are non-profit organizations and your donation can be used as a tax-write off.

More sanctuaries to visit:

Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, open since 1979, specialized in eagle care and also owls, falcons, hawks and kits. Center hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 10-4. Admission $5 adults, $4 children, under the age of three admitted free.

Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, Tavernier, open sunrise to sunset, seven days a week, free admission, donations accepted. Call (305) 852-4486. They have raptors, songbirds, shorebirds, even turkey vultures.

Coming up:
A great way to learn more about native birds, and maybe get involved in bird rescue – attend a birding festival. Coming up – Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival, September 22-26, 2010. Check their Web site and sign up for guided walks and tours.
For annual Florida Bird Events, visit this Web site

Watch a short video here:Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary

©2010 Lucy Beebe Tobias, all rights reserved.

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Seeing Sandhill Cranes at Paynes Prairie

Seeing  Sandhill Cranes at Paynes Prairie

The air is alive with noise. All around us on Paynes Prairie near Gainesville it sounds like a thousand squeaky doors swinging open and shut on their hinges – creak, creak, creak.

Noise surrounds us. We can’t see the noisemakers but I can almost taste my anticipation. I really want to see the noisemakers and so does everyone else in the group.

Binoculars swing from neck straps. Cameras are hand held but loosely, at our sides, it isn’t picture time yet. We’re walking along a dike called La Chua Trail, a group of day trippers led by Lars Andersen of Adventure Outpost in High Springs and the author of “Paynes Prairie: A History of the Great Savanna.”

Lars tells us about the Indians who lived here ever so long ago. One tribe controlled Paynes Prairie and its riches including churt, also called flint, a material considered prime for making tools and weapons. Surprise! They were early entrepreneurs with a corner on the market.

A bald eagle flies overhead. We take that as a good sign. The morning is warming up but no one sheds fleece jackets, still too nippy for that. We walk on. The noises are getting louder.

Sandhill cranes flock to Paynes Prairie near Gainesville in the winter months

sandhill cranes come to Paynes Prairie in the winter
sandhill cranes, and a few whooping cranes, come to Paynes Prairie in the winter months

Suddenly, the scene opens up, the vegetation along the edges of the dike clears and there they are – hundreds of Northern Sandhill Cranes along with two whooping cranes who seem quite comfortable hanging out with sandhills. We’re seeing hundreds around the prairie there are thousands. They are literally snowbirds.

We’re stunned at the sight. It took me a few minutes of staring open-mouthed before I thought, oh, right, camera, raise camera, turn it on, and take pictures NOW. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a longer lens?

Sandhills obviously like to eat and talk simultaneously. These are long lanky birds dressed in grey with red on the tops of their heads. Their beaks push around the prairie mud looking for food. Little spats flare up here and there about who should be where – two cranes lift necks, flap wings at each other, do a little dance, then settle down again to the business of eating plant and animal materials.

In the winter sandhills migrate from Michigan and Wisconsin to South Georgia and Florida. This is a banner year for sandhills at Paynes Prairie. Why so many? No one has THE answer but lots of speculation.

Lars tells us the birds are eating amaranth seeds. Amaranth is an ancient grain, the first to be cultivated as a crop in the New World. Aztecs used amaranth extensively, even in their sacrifice ceremonies.

When the Spanish came along, all things Aztec were forbidden, including growing amaranth. It is making a comeback these days. The grain grows wild on the prairie. This has been a very good year for amaranth; perhaps the sandhill cranes know that and have come to harvest the good stuff. Some sandhills like Paynes Prairie so much they will stay year round but most go back up North.

We meander to the end of the trail and an observation tower. Way off to the left, in a small body of water, a bison is spotted. Bison? Yes, the prairie has them. On the way back we see several alligators and a bittern. It is a banner day for wildlife sightings.

sandhill cranes - photographer
sandhill cranes – photographer

Sandhill Cranes easy to see on LaChua Trail

For Libby Schecher, every visit to Paynes Prairie is special. Libby is from Maine, staying in Gainesville for one year to study acupuncture. “I love coming to the prairie. I’ve fallen in love with alligators, they are so ancient, with small brains but they care for their young, make nests.”

Ah, alligators. One thing I like about walking on dikes is when we see an alligator; it is down in the water, much lower than we are. That works for me. I do not want to look an alligator in the eye. That small brain thinks everything is lunch.

Libby recalls coming to the prairie last week and seeing alligators sunning themselves at Alachua Sink. Along come several wild turkeys that stop, look towards the alligators, discuss the situation, go forward two steps, go backwards two steps, and finally retreat, leaving the area. Smart turkeys.

Paynes Prairie is a 21,000 -acre preserve with multiple access points. The LaChua Trail that we took is three miles round-trip from the North Rim of the Prairie to the observation tower. Main access is 4801 Camp Ranch Road. LaChua Trail opens at 8:00 a.m. and is open 7 days a week. No pets on this trail. For safety and wildlife disturbance reasons, the trail closes 1 hour before sunset.

Every time you go to the prairie it is different. Right now the La Chua Trail is very popular. Families with baby strollers, couples arm in arm, groups and gawkers – all are coming with hopes of seeing sandhill cranes.
Your turn to plan a visit to Paynes Prairie, a slice of authentic Florida. Go for it.

Lucy Beebe Tobias lives in Ocala. She is the Authentic Florida Expert for VISIT FLORIDA and the author of “50 Great Walks in Florida”

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