Thirty Years at St. Marks on New Year’s Day

Thirty Years at St. Marks on New Year’s Day
By Julia Ariail
Posted January 3, 2015

Birdwatching at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on New Year’s Day 2015. Click this image to see more photographs from this event.

An album of photographs from this event is available here.

A Vineyard article with an area map and planning details about this trip is available here.

What kind of people avoid the six best football games of the year to go outdoors in rain or sunshine, warm or cold to see how many birds they can see? Friends from Christ Church Valdosta, relatives, children and grandchildren, and friends of friends who like the outdoors! Three generations of families are now enjoying this event, with individuals from as far away as Tennessee and central Florida. Our former rector and retired Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia, the Rt. Rev. Henry Louttit, also attends with his wife, Jan, and several other members of their family.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is a nature preserve 23 miles southeast of Tallahassee, Florida. On January 1, 1985, several people from Christ Church drove there to see an amazing number of birds, picnic for lunch, walk the nature trails, ride the Wakulla Springs boat tour, and eat dinner at Spring Creek Restaurant. Every year since then a group affiliated with Christ Church has done the same thing. This year 32 people came to enjoy the picnic at the Refuge’s Picnic Pond talking to friends they see every week or once a year at St. Marks. At least four people have attended 29 years, missing only one year when a daughter got married in Virginia on December 31. There are always first-timers, and someone will take great pleasure in showing them where the eagle roost is, how to spot unusual seabirds off the Lighthouse Point, and where the alligators usually hang out.

We spotted two Bald Eagles on a nest. Click this image to see more photographs from this event.

Over the years many changes have occurred in the refuge:
The Friends of the Refuge group was organized to improve the refuge’s visitor facilities and conduct educational activities, weekend classes, and tours;
The Visitors Center was rebuilt;
Observation towers at the lighthouse and headquarters pond were constructed;
Bathrooms at the headquarters pond were built and come complete with toilet paper (sometimes);
More picnic tables at Picnic Pond were added;
Wintering juvenile whooping cranes at Wakulla Beach (a western section of the Refuge) hide out across the water.

This year the coots were in the Lighthouse Pond by the hundreds. Other birds we saw were: bald eagles, great blue herons, snowy egrets, great egrets, black-crowned night herons, pied-billed grebes, horned grebes, redhead ducks, canvasback ducks, blue wing teals, ruddy ducks, tri-colored herons, brown pelicans, common loons, cormorants, oystercatchers, American widgeons, anhingas, bufflehead ducks, hooded mergansers, black vultures, turkey vultures, grackles, shoveler ducks, laughing gulls, ring-billed gulls, phoebes, palm warblers, and others we weren’t able to identify. The monarch butterflies who failed to get on the airstream to Mexico back during the regular migration period in October and the three alligators willing to be viewed were also there. That’s a great start to our year list and maybe some additions to some life lists!

We enjoyed a picnic beside the appropriately-named Picnic Pond. For many years John and Phyllis Hiers have prepared hot black-eyed peas on a camp stove at this picnic for everyone’s good luck in the coming year. Everyone brings something delicious to share. Click this image to see more photographs from this event.

One highlight of the day is always the river boat tour at Wakulla Springs State Park. The boat travels about a mile down the river where we often see manatees close to the water’s surface. Click this image to see more photographs from this event.

Clay Lovell and his staff at Spring Creek Restaurant greeted the group like old friends. Clay is an artist as well as one of the Lovell family members who own and operate the restaurant. He once won the first prize at the National Art Show at Valdosta State University. His pen and ink artwork hangs throughout the restaurant. The seafood is freshly caught and delicious.

Two of the three tables at the supper gathering at Spring Creek Restaurant. Click this image to see more photographs from this event.

The ride home has improved over the years as passengers can listen to a football game on ESPN radio while the driver avoids the deer, foxes and other creatures who like to reclaim the road busy with visitors in the daylight.