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Wilcox column: Walking among the swamp things

Although we aren't freezing our faces off in Cedar Key, Florida, the northern Gulf Coast is rather chilly for this time of year. Air from the brutally cold north has found its way here. High temperatures are barely into the 60's with colder days forecasted for this week. Water temperatures in the shallow sea here have fallen from 68F last week to 54F yesterday.

The falling water temperatures have discombobulated the fish, driving the red drum far up tidal creeks where they seek out warm pockets of fresh water. We launched our aluminum skiff far up one of the tidal creeks yesterday and got skunked fishing but enjoyed a day on the water in the sun. Our neighbors went up tidal creeks into isolated ponds at low tide where regular boats can't go with their air boat and caught as many red drum as they wanted. They said it was a cold early morning ride and more just "catching" than fishing.

We have enjoyed taking long hikes in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge covers 53,000 acres along the lower 20 miles of the Suwannee River and over 30 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline. There are many miles of mowed foot trails that follow old logging trails. The fascinating thing about this refuge is the variety of habitats; pine flatwoods, hardwood "hammocks" on slightly higher ground, cypress and tupelo gum river swamp, salt marshes and shell-mound islands built long ago by native Americans eating oysters.

Walking on trails is easy in the refuge. It's nearly all flat and low ground. On one of the roads nearby is a sign that reads, "Caution — Hill Blocks View" on an ancient sand dune. You aren't far from water anywhere in the refuge. There are many streams draining toward the Suwannee River and old ditches along the trails. We enjoy walking through miles of swamp, under stately spreading live oaks festooned with Spanish moss and bromeliads, and along the edges of salt marsh with red cedars and cabbage palms.

Since 2003, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service foresters have thinned the non-native planted pines and have planted native long-leaf pine and wire grass. This coupled with controlled burns, is restoring the native pine flatwoods habitat that supports a diversity of species like the gopher tortoise. The tortoise digs burrows that are used by hundreds of other species like rabbits, mice, armadillos, burrowing owls and pygmy rattlesnakes.

Coyotes, black bears, white-tailed deer, red and gray foxes, otters, mink and bobcats all thrive in the refuge. We have seen deer, feral pigs, bobcats, otters and mink so far. There is a popular hunting season for the feral pigs that escaped from the early Spanish explorers and that damage habitat by extensive rooting.

There are many species of wading and shorebirds to be seen on the tidal flats and oyster bars. Greater egrets, great blue herons, tricolor herons, little blue herons, green herons, oystercatchers, willets, avocets and ibises can be seen feeding when the tide is down. Ospreys, bald eagles, turkey and black vultures, brown and white pelicans are often flying overhead looking for fish or carrion to eat. Large flocks of robins are wintering in the refuge, feasting on cabbage palm fruit.

It's a treat to walk through the swamps in the refuge, watching monarch, queen and zebra heliconian butterflies fly about without any mosquitoes. I'm sure that in the summer the swamps are buzzing with insects and that we would be eaten alive. We have seen many alligators in the refuge but in winter they are pretty lethargic. They mostly stay hidden in their watery lairs to stay warm. Our dog Jack has gone swimming in the Suwannee River and hasn't become lunch for an alligator.

Now with the New Year and the "super moon," we will have to be careful. The sea monsters and giant squids will be out in force seeking to devour small boats and the Swamp Things will be walking around at night.

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