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Friday, January 30, 2015

Wildlife Stalker - The Merritt Island Chronicles

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Hi Blog! Today is Friday, January 30, 2015. Today's adventure was a bike ride in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Our first stop was the Visitor's Center. We had learned from the internet that there was a seven mile scenic drive called the Black Point Wildlife Drive. We were hoping to be able to ride our bikes along the route. (Great White tends to scare wildlife.) After talking with the volunteer ranger, he confirmed that riding bikes was allowed on park roads, and that it is a great way to see more wildlife. He also suggested a couple other bike rides and hikes for future visits.

Just out back of the Visitor Center is a 1/4 mile boardwalk which goes past two freshwater ponds, a native butterfly garden, forest hammock and wetland prairie. We stopped and ate our picnic lunch next to one of the fresh water ponds. Lucky for us, Mr. Al E. Gator was not interested in sharing our turkey and cheese sandwiches. He never budges from this spot.

Here is an example of what the boardwalk looked like. All of the oranges that were left were just out of reach. Kathy waited patiently for one to fall into her waiting arms. Unfortunately, we couldn't wait for ever. It was time to ride. No free oranges today.

We learned that Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1963 as an overlay of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center.  Consisting of 140,000 acres, the Refuge provides a wide variety of habitats:  coastal dunes, saltwater estuaries and marshes, freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks provide habitat for more than 1,500 species of plants and animals. It also provides lots of open space just in case some of those NASA rockets go astray.

As we rode over to the start of the Black Point Drive, we passed one of NASA's signal towers which a young Bald Eagle was using as a perch.

Just around the corner, we found an Osprey using one of the power lines.

With the weather being so cold, we weren't expecting to see very many alligators. However, we did catch a glimpse of this big boy sunning himself. It was probably about 1:00 p.m. when we took this picture. By the time we finished the loop road it was about 4:30. He was still in the exact same spot three and half hours later. I guess when you got it good, there is no reason to move.

Before long, we were heading down the Black Point Wildlife Drive. Since most folks drive their cars, the wildlife has gotten pretty habituated to folks driving by. Unfortunately, they have no idea what a bicycle is. The first time Dave braked his bike, the birds beat a hasty retreat. We got much better at approaching slowly and not letting the bike brakes squeak.

One of the easiest birds to spot is the Great Egret. He is huge and white, so he stand out. The great egret is a large heron with all-white plumage. Standing up to 3.3 feet tall, this species can measure 31 to 41 inches in length and have a wingspan of 52 to 67 inches. He is also much more likely to stand and pose for a phone than, say, a Great Blue Heron.

This little guys is a Tricolored Heron. The tricolored heron, formerly known in North America as the Louisiana heron, is a small heron. His multiple colors make him standout.

This little guys is an American Avocet. He is a shorebird that spends his days foraging for worms, clams, snails, shrimp and crabs burrowed beneath the soft mud. This avocet has long, thin, gray legs, giving it its colloquial name, "blue shanks". The plumage is black and white on the back with white on the underbelly. The neck and head are cinnamon colored in the summer and gray in the winter. The long, thin bill is upturned at the end.

This is the first time we have ever seen a Reddish Egret in action. The reddish egret is considered one of the most active herons, and is often seen on the move. It stalks its prey visually in shallow water far more actively than other herons and egrets, frequently running energetically and using the shadow of its wings to reduce glare on the water once it is in position to spear a fish; the result is a fascinating dance. Due to its bold, rapacious yet graceful feeding behavior, author Pete Dunne nicknamed the reddish egret "the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the Flats." We watched this guy fish for several minutes and it was pretty amazing watching him dance and swoop and plunge.

While we don't consider ourselves birders, we do enjoy being out in nature and seeing wild things in their natural habitat. That said, we know enough birders to know that one of the most sought after birds in Florida is the Roseate Spoonbill. This species feeds in shallow fresh or coastal waters by swinging its bill from side to side as it steadily walks through the water, often in groups. The spoon-shaped bill allows it to sift easily through mud. It feeds on crustaceans, aquatic insects, frogs, newts and very small fish ignored by larger waders. Like the American flamingo, their pink color is diet-derived. The colors can range from pale pink to bright magenta, depending on age and location. If you look really carefully at the photo below, you will see a bright pink roseate spoonbill, to the right in the mid-ground!

Another favorite among the birders is the Wood Stork.  It appears all white on the ground, with blackish-gray legs and pink feet. In flight, the trailing edge of the wings is black. The head is dark brown with a bald, black face, and the thick downcurved bill is dusky yellow. The wood stork is big and easy to spot.

German folklore held that storks found babies in caves or marshes and brought them to households in a basket on their backs or held in their beaks. These caves contained adebarsteine or "stork stones". The babies would then be given to the mother or dropped down the chimney. Households would notify when they wanted children by placing sweets for the stork on the window sill. So, just to be safe, keep all those sweet treats away from any windows.

What can you say about an armadillo?  The word armadillo means "little armored one" in Spanish. Armadillos have short legs, but can move quite quickly, and have the ability to remain under water for as long as six minutes. Because of the density of its armor, an armadillo will sink in water unless it swallows air, inflating its stomach to twice normal size and raising its buoyancy above that of water, allowing it to swim across narrow streams and ditches. This guy had no trouble scampering across the road as we approached. In fact, he did a little hop, hop when he got to the other side. They may look like little tanks, but they are very light on their tiny little piggy-like toes.

The seven miles were over way too fast. Hopefully, we will be able to get back over to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge before we leave on Tuesday. Until then, stay thirsty my friends.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"Space: The Final Frontier"

Today we had a chance to visit the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral - our main goal for our visit here to the Space Coast.  For your information, the two are not the same.  Kennedy Space Center is run by NASA and is primarily focused on civilian space flight.  Cape Canaveral is owned and controlled by the U.S. Air Force and, while the Air Force permits certain of its facilities to be used for civilian launches, the Cape is a military base and is subject to all of the security that one would expect of such a facility.

As we entered Kennedy Space Center, we were greeted by the Rocket Garden, where many of the rockets that launched astronauts are on display:

Another unexpected exhibit as we entered was a full-scale model of the new Orion capsule that NASA plans to use to take astronauts beyond the moon:

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is most reminiscent of Disney World.  We felt like we were in Tomorrowland or Epcot Center, and in some cases, it seemed that the deliberately retro decor was intended to remind visitors of Disney:

That was a real external fuel tank and pair of solid rocket boosters sitting outside the Atlantis Space Shuttle exhibit.  Kathy is taking their measure here:

When we got inside, one of the staff offered to take our photo in front of Space Shuttle Atlantis:

This is one of my favorite views because it shows the massive payload bay:

Kathy snapped this photo of David taking the controls of a shuttle:

The exhibit also boasted the Astrovan, an Airstream motor home that was modified for special use to drive the astronauts from their suit-up facility to the launchpad.  According to the display, it was a custom for the astronauts on a shuttle mission to play a card game.  The astronauts would not exit the van to board the shuttle until the mission commander had lost a game of cards:

After viewing the Atlantis exhibit, we worked our way over to the IMAX 3D movie on the International Space Station, but stopped to have our photo taken with an "astronaut."  This one (male or female, s/he would not tell us - in fact, s/he would not even speak) was a little perkier than perhaps the average astronaut:

The accompanying staff member suggested we take a selfie in the astronaut's helmet shield.  Great idea!

We made it over to the IMAX 3D movie on the International Space Station and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It was one of the most informative, visually interesting IMAX movies we've seen.  Sorry we can't show you more than the link above.

We purchased tickets to the "Then and Now" tour of Cape Canaveral, which gave us a chance to see the facilities associated with all of the manned space programs:  Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the Shuttle program.  Here, in fact, we toured the mission control blockhouse for the launch of the Explorer satellite, our nation's answer to Sputnik.  This is a photo of the interior of the blockhouse, which sat less than a football field's length away from the launchpad:

The computer used to run the Explorer mission had a memory capacity of only 5 kilobytes - only a minor fraction of what each of us has available in our cell phones these days.  The computers used vacuum tubes and not transistors.  Memory consisted of numerous magnetic cores, which were magnetized for "1" and demagnetized for "0" to record the binary information necessary in computer operations.  When changes were required in the programming for the rockets, the 1's and 0's had to be switched by hand.  This gave rise to the geeky in-joke relating to NASA's shooting of the chimp into space:  "How do you launch a monkey?"  "One byte at a time."  I guess you had to be there to appreciate it.

We also toured the blockhouse used for launching Alan Sheppard's historic Mercury-Redstone flight into space.  Here, Kathy peers through the blastproof window at the Redstone rocket and model Mercury capsule sitting on the original launchpad:

The oldest structure on Cape Canaveral is the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse.  Because it is located on the military base, it's owned by the Air Force.  However, it is still operational and is managed by the U.S. Coast Guard:

One of the most touching stops on our tour was Launch Complex 34, where the ill-fated Apollo 1 crew was killed in a disastrous fire, and where the Apollo 7 put the U.S. back into its groove in its quest for the moon.

The launchpad structure seems a fitting memorial structure:

Memorial benches have been installed nearby to remember Astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee. The most recent anniversary of the Apollo 1 disaster, which occured on January 27, 1967, was just held two days before our tour, and it was almost unbearable to see the single red roses left on the benches for each of the three astronauts:

As our bus took us back to the Kennedy Space Center from Cape Canaveral, we passed the HUGE, iconic Vehicle Assembly Building, which is 526 feet tall and covers 8 acres.  The interior volume of the building is so vast that it has its own weather, including rain clouds forming below the ceiling on very humid days.

The final stop on our visit was the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where we had a chance to see rare video about Apollo 11's historic moon landing, while sitting above the original consoles and facility where Mission Control ran the mission:

The Saturn V rocket is immense.  One of the rockets is displayed in the hangar and is so large that we couldn't get it into one photograph.  The best we could do was to show the tail and rocket thrusters in one photo --

-- and the top of the rocket in another:

The facility has the original Apollo 11 capsule, in exactly the condition it was in when it returned to Earth.  We could get close enough to touch it (if that were permitted), and it was fascinating to see the almost artistic discolorations on the capsule and heat shield that resulted from the immense heat generated on re-entry:

Having finished most of the tour, the two of us retired outside the Apollo/Saturn V facility to see the VIP bleachers, where important guests view launches across Banana River on Cape Canaveral:

One thing that is very clear from current tours is that the Kennedy Space Center facility is being retooled to integrate private, commercial space flight with NASA  efforts.  Several buildings have been sold to Boeing for its space ventures, and Space X has already reserved four NASA launch sites - and is building a fifth - for its planned launches.  Similarly, NASA and the Defense Department have outsourced some launch services.  United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. ULA was formed in December 2006 by combining the teams at these companies which provide spacecraft launch services to the government of the United States. U.S. government launch customers include both the Department of Defense and NASA, as well as other organizations.  ULA provides launch services using three expendable launch systems – Delta II, Delta IV and Atlas V. The Atlas and Delta launch system families have been used for more than 50 years to carry a variety of payloads including weather, telecommunications and national security satellites, as well as deep space and interplanetary exploration missions in support of scientific research. ULA has also provided launch services for non-government satellites.

To give you an idea what is planned by the private ventures, here is a Youtube video published by Elon Musk's Space X.

As we walked back to the truck to return home from Kennedy Space Center, we turned to look back at the fuel tank and boosters for Shuttle Atlantis.  There, symbolically, was the moon, looking over the rocket's shoulder.  We thought that was appropriate.  Obviously, the shortest distance to the moon must be from Kennedy Space Center, so this is where the launches should take place!

Eddie and George Wake Up on the Space Coast

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Bike Ride to Fort Matanzas

Hi Blog! Today is Tuesday, January 27, 2015 - The Blizzard of 2015. Unlike all our relatives up north, we have a relatively pleasant day ahead of us. Temps will be in the high 50s. There will be a stiff breeze, about 19 miles per hour, which we could do without, but we're not complaining, since we don't have to worry about our neighbors helping to shovel out the driveway.

Today we decided to ride our bikes to Fort Matanzas National Monument. It is about 11 miles away. We'll spend most of that ride on Highway A1A.  It won't be our most scenic bike ride, but we'll have lots of sun and very flat terrain. After biking through miles of suburbia, we came upon a section of A1A where the Matanzas River comes right up next to the roadway. They call this section of the river the Devil's Elbow.

"Devil's Elbow" was named after a treacherous channel, straight across the river, that existed prior to the dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway by the Army Corp of Engineers. The bends of the channel were known to be "the devil" to navigate. This area continues to be famous, not for its twists and turns, but for its great fishing. Here is a view of a couple of the piers out into the channel.

Back in the 1500s, every European country was fighting for a piece of North America. France set up a colony at  Fort Caroline near the Georgia/Florida border (near present-day Jacksonville) at the same time Spain was setting up its colony at St. Augustine. They each were hoping to kick the other out of Florida.

In 1565, a group of Huguenot Frenchmen sailed south from Fort Caroline with the hope of destroying Spain's new outpost at St. Augustine before reinforcements could arrive. A storm blew the raiding party further south and their ships were destroyed. The Spanish got word of the attack and found the remnants of the raiding party at the mouth of the inlet. While the French soldiers, facing sure death by starvation or battle, surrendered to the Spanish in hopes they would at least live, the Spanish chose instead to slaughter all their captives.  In all, nearly 250 Frenchmen were killed. From that time, the inlet was called Matanzas, the Spanish word for "slaughters." Here Kathy stands by the entrance sign.

The fort itself is located on a small island in the middle of the Mantazas River. The National Park Service ferries visitors over to tour the fort. We had about an hour before the next ferry, so we ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and then took a walk on the nature trail. Here is Dave getting lost in the nature of things, looking for the theory of everything.

Along the trail, a small memorial was erected to the French who were massacred by the Spanish here. However, the actual burial site of the massacre was never uncovered.

Fort Matanzas National Monument also protects over 100 acres of salt marsh and barrier islands along the Matanzas River on the northern Atlantic coast of Florida. The area is full of wildlife. Here are some tracks from Mr. Racoon as he made his way along the shore of the river.

Here is our first glimpse of the fort. The fort is 50 feet wide on each side with a 30 foot tower. It is built of coquina, a local shellstone. We took a pontoon boat just like this over to the island.

Fort Matanzas was built by the Spanish in 1742 to guard Matanzas Inlet, which could be used as a rear entrance to the City of St. Augustine. Such an approach would otherwise be able to avoid St. Augustine's primary defense system, centered at Castillo de San Marcos.

 In 1740, Gov. James Oglethorpe of Georgia used the inlet to blockade St. Augustine and launch a thirty-nine day siege. St. Augustine endured the siege, but the episode convinced the Spanish that protecting the inlet was necessary to the security of the town.

Under Gov. Manuel de Montiano's orders, construction of the fort began that year and was completed in 1742. Engineer Pedro Ruiz de Olano, who had worked on additions to the Castillo de San Marcos, designed the fortified observation tower. Convicts, slaves, and troops from Cuba were used as labor to erect the structure, which was sited on present-day Rattlesnake Island and had a commanding position over Matanzas Inlet. At the time it was built, it was completely covered in white-washed stucco. It would have really made an impression on anyone sailing up the river.

In 1916, the U.S Department of War began a major restoration of the badly deteriorated fort. By 1924, three vertical fissures in the wall were repaired and the structure was stabilized; in the same year, National Monument status was proclaimed. Fort Matanzas was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service on August 10, 1933. As an historic area under the Park Service, the National Monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. Here is the view from the back of the fort as our boat approached the dock.

Ranger Matt led us up into the fort to talk a little bit about what life was like for the Spanish soldiers. This fort only had four guns, but that was more than enough to keep ships from coming into the river.

We had a few minutes to poke around on our own. Our first stop was the top. We climbed the stairs into the Officer's Quarters and then up a very, very small ladder to the observation deck at the top of the fort.  Here is the view down.

After taking in 360 degrees of view of the river and marsh, we went downstairs to check out the soldiers' quarters. Six men had to share this bunkroom. Notice the bed only has room for four - because two men were always on duty at any one time.

When not defending the river from enemy attack, the fort also served as a coast guard station and a place where vessels heading for St. Augustine could get advice on navigating the river - especially the Devil's Elbow!

An RV adventure just wouldn't be complete without a selfie!

Just as we were boarding the boat to head back over to the mainland, our captain pointed out a couple of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins swimming by. We were just able to snap this pic of one of them, just before they swam too far away.

Before long, we were back on our bikes. However, we did see one more dolphin on the way home!

Again, it wasn't the most scenic of drives, but it certainly was easy. We did pass one "photo op" at the St. Augustine Beach Veterans Memorial Sculpture Garden.

And so ends another adventure. Tomorrow is moving day. We are heading down to Mims, Florida - near Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center.