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Friday, March 20, 2015

Caladesi Island, Florida

We had a full day today before the Toronto Scrantons come to visit, so we decided to explore Caladesi Island State Park, which is located on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico across St. Joseph Sound to the west of Dunedin, Florida, and north of Clearwater Beach.

It is accessible by ferry from Honeymoon Island State Park, which itself can be reached by causeway across St. Joseph Sound.  The ferry boat runs on the half hour and only seats 49 passengers:

Originally a single, large barrier island, Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island were separated in 1921 when a hurricane created Hurricane Pass, splitting the original island into two parts. Although Caladesi is still referred to as an island, Hurricane Elena filled in Dunedin Pass south of the island in 1985, making Caladesi "Island" accessible by walking northward from North Clearwater Beach, although there is no road accessibility from that direction.

Tocobaga Indians inhabited the island before the arrival of Spanish, English, Caribbean, and American soldiers, sailors and fishermen who used Caladesi as an anchorage stopover or a site for fish camps.  The island was eventually settled In the 1880s by homesteader Henry Scharrer and his family.  After his wife passed away in 1902, he and his daughter Myrtle lived on this island.

The island is a gem among nature preserves, an entire barrier island with coastal dune, mangrove, maritime hammock, and pine flatwood habitats, all teeming with wildlife.  Visitors can walk the beaches or swim in the Gulf of Mexico, hike a 3-mile nature trail along a mangrove hammock, or kayak the mangrove swamps and islands on the St. Joseph Sound side of the island.

We started by kayaking.  Here, Kathy is navigating out to St. Joseph Sound from inside the mangroves:

We encountered a wide variety of wildlife, including this unique fellow, who we finally researched and found was a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron.  Kathy had the camera and first snapped this photo of him as we approached:

But he let us get very close, as if he wasn't aware we could be dangerous.  He fluffed the feathers on his crown but stayed put and posed for this wonderful photo:

We also found zillions of little mangrove tree crabs, scuttling up and down and all along the limbs of the red mangroves.  This little guy produced the best photo of the lot:

Before paddling back out into the Sound, we found this small beach for a short rest:

Back out on the Sound, we paddled close along the margin of the mangrove islands, where hundreds of mullett were leaping after mosquitoes and other bugs.  We got one good action photo of these delightful fish:

After our kayak, we had time to take a 2-mile walk down the island.  The shoreline is essentially undisturbed except for a few visitors enjoying the 76F Gulf water:

Kathy couldn't resist taking a dip herself in those beautiful blue-green waters:

Some little shore birds were hunting an early dinner in the shallow water:

Because this shoreline is not as heavily visited as others, it is sometimes possible to find unique shells.  We found this colorful piece of shell:

And this palm frond base, burnished to a mahogany brown by the water and lying at the edge of the waves:

A nature trail winds along the hammock on the island, and we worked our way back up the trail after having walked south on the beach.  Here is a representative scene from the hammock trail, with cabbage (sabol) palms, sawtooth palmetto, prickly pear cactus, and a variety of grasses and flowers:

There are burrows throughout the hammock, some as long as 35 feet, dug by gopher tortoises.  These burrows can be inhabited by any number of species of animals, including Diamond Back Rattlesnakes!  While we didn't see any rattlesnakes, we did see the tracks of one sizeable snake that crossed our trail.  We also spotted the tracks of a gopher tortoise --

-- and eventually found Mr. Gopher Tortoise himself, moving deliberately away from us toward shelter in the low bushes:

We had to board the ferry back to Honeymoon Island at 4:30, so we didn't have time to linger.  But we felt the four hours on Caladesi Island was well worth the trip, and intriguing for its unique and lush wildlife.  Driving home, we felt refreshed and recharged for our upcoming visit from Sir William & Co.!

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