• River Road along the St. Johns River as an afternoon storm gathers. Photo by Pat Foster-Turley/For the News-Leader

Midday drives beat staying in the house

July and August are usually too hot for me to enjoy being outdoors midday unless I’m in the pool doing water aerobics or swimming in the ocean. It is about all I can do to water my potted herbs, let alone pull weeds in the sun. They will just have to wait until one day when I get up early enough to beat the heat. But in the hot midday of summer, I feel too cooped up indoors to chill out and read or write or paint shells or something else.

There are a lot of other air-conditioned spaces we could enjoy: stores, restaurants, movies, etc., but I’m not one for much shopping. Beside food and beverages, I don’t buy much else these days. About once a week I eat lunch with various friends, and that’s fun. Even less often we go to the movies. Nope, even at high noon I want some outdoors in my life. That’s where our car drives come in.

Bucko and I often drive down Heckscher Drive in the afternoon to see what we can see, and there’s always a lot of nature to keep us occupied. In our case repetition isn’t boring; it just helps us notice more and more detail every time we drive the same roads. I have been calling this drive my “favorite drive on Earth” for decades now and it still is, except for those times that overanxious speeders pass many cars simultaneously in near-miss accidents. We can do without that drama.

Most often we end up on Heritage River Road, just beyond the Sisters Creek Bridge. And every time we go there to “our spot,” we see something different. By now we are familiar with the individual bird residents at this location. If there are fishermen, the great white heron hangs around their bait buckets waiting for handouts, and as soon as one fish is tossed to the heron, a mob of laughing gulls shows up to join the feast.

If there are no fishermen, the shyer residents – a little blue heron and a snowy egret – hang out together fishing on the outflow from the marsh. One day we enjoyed watching them jockey for the best rocks to spy fish from while dark afternoon storm clouds filled up the sky. Eventually, the storm blew in and the lightning and thunder chased the birds to cover. We took the hint and left our spot too. Being on a high point next to water in a lightning storm didn’t seem like a smart idea to us either.

While watching the St. Johns River from our spot, we often see bottlenose dolphins passing by. Sometimes they even honor us with a peek at their tail flukes or their low bows in the air. We spent many years working in an oceanarium where dolphins performed daily shows for the public. These glimpses of dolphin flesh are not as flashy as those moves that dolphins are trained to do in captivity, but for us, now, these brief displays from wild dolphins are far superior. The dolphins are doing what they want to do in their own element and all is well.

There is a lot of life in the nearby rehabilitated marsh too. There is little vegetation there, but there must be fish and other small food items. By now, the sight of scores of bright pink birds in the adjacent marsh is normal for us. Roseate spoonbills abound this year. The wood storks that gather there are an expected sight, and we can always count on seeing at least one great blue heron waiting patiently to nab a fish and an osprey or two flying overhead. 

Our favorite bird to spot is “Sneaky,” a clapper rail that hides in and among the marsh grass but sometimes quickly sneaks across the road. One time when I called Bucko on Skype, Bucko was at our spot watching Sneaky. It brought me right there again in my mind; a touchstone for us both. Now something even better has happened! Sneaky has babies! A couple of weeks ago we were delighted to find three clapper rails in the marsh, hanging out together. Two had juvenile plumage.

Well, it’s time to stop writing this column now. I’ve got places to go and things to do this afternoon. OK Sneaky, here we come again!

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