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April 6, 2017 [LINK / comment]

Photo tour of the "Sunshine State": Florida!

In the movie National Lampoon's Vacation, there is a humorous scene at the rim of the Grand Canyon where Chevy Chase impatiently pauses for a few seconds while his family tries to get a good view of the magnificent scenery. In a way, that describes my brief visit to south Florida, which began exactly one month ago today. "OK, great, now let's go!" Florida was the final leg of my big journey to South America, but unlike my visits to Peru and Colombia, I was not constrained by lack of transportation. I rented a car in order to take care of multiple tourist objectives, and I tried to see as much as possible.

As with my previous photo-travelogs to Peru (Feb. 20 - 28) and Colombia (Mar. 1 - 4), this one parallels the birding blog post I did on Florida, so I will try to avoid duplication. The first destination after arriving at Miami International Airport (early afternoon on Sunday, March 5) was Marlins Park, the almost-new (five years old) home of the Miami Marlins baseball team. I just wanted to get some well-lit photos, in case it wasn't as sunny the next day, when I planned to return for a tour. With its massive, hurricane-proof roof fully retracted, it was a pretty impressive sight:

Marlins Park exterior from the northwest

Marlins Park exterior from the northwest. (March 5; Photo spliced together from two separate images.)

Because of heavy traffic and road construction, driving from the stadium through the southern part of Miami took longer than expected, so I didn't arrive at my motel in Florida City until an hour and a half later. After checking in and resting a bit, I drove west about 15 miles, and made it to the Everglades National Park about 5:15, just after the main visitor center had closed. No matter, I got the information I needed and headed into the park for some late-afternoon sightseeing and birding. I was delighted to see so many birds -- and an alligator! -- at Royal Palm, about five miles away. It was the second time in my life that I had been to the Everglades, the first being in December 1985.

Everglades Ernest Coe Visitor Center

Entrance to Everglades National Park: Ernest Coe Visitor Center. Note the Saw Palmetto, seemingly ubiquitous in south Florida. (March 5)

I got up early on Monday morning, and made a point to visit nearly all of the points of interest along the main Everglades highway. My first stop was at a "skeleton forest" of Bald Cypress trees, which shed their needles during the dry months, and grow new needles when the rains resume. Then I stopped at Pahayokee Overlook, a large observation deck accessed via a boardwalk, located at the edge of the vast open area known as the "freshwater marl prairie." (The excellent map of the Everglades given to park visitors describes in great detail the nine different ecosystems, and where they extend.) Then came Mahogany Hammock, where I did a lengthier circuit walk along a boardwalk, marveling at the variety of plant life, especially bromeliads. (There were lots of those in Colombia as well.) At Paurotis Pond, a few miles further south, I saw densely-packed mangrove trees, which only thrive near the coast where the water is salty. Some of the Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills I saw there were building nests in those trees. Finally, I reached the small community of Flamingo, at the end of the road and the tip of the Florida peninsula. There I had a tasty lunch at a casual screened-patio restaurant at which Jimmy Buffet would have fit right in.

Everglades Flamingo coconut tree

Coconut tree at Flamingo, in the Everglades. (March 6)

On the way back from Flamingo, I stopped at both Paurotis Pond and Royal Palm for a second time. But that put me way behind schedule, so I decided to give up on the idea of taking a tour of Marlins Park, set for 2:00. It was probably for the best, as I was able to appreciate the natural wonders of the Everglades just a little more. Indeed, the group of 12 or so alligators I saw at Royal Palm was one of the biggest thrills of the trip. The Everglades are an amazing, unique ecological treasure, and we are fortunate that those in generations past had the wisdom and foresight to preserve it. But in spite of recent big initiatives to mitigate the environmental damage caused by overdevelopment in Florida, there remain serious threats to wildlife there. "More people, more scars upon the land..."

Andrew, alligators

Yours truly, along with some alligators at Royal Palm in the Everglades National Park. I was on an elevated boardwalk, out of harm's way. (March 6)

After leaving the Everglades, I drove through Miami again, taking some late-afternoon photos of Marlins Park, from the east side this time. The stadium occupies land where the famed Orange Bowl once stood, in the predominantly-Cuban "Little Havana" part of the city. So, I photographed some urban scenes in Miami. As night fell, I then drove north toward Pompano Beach, where I had a motel reservation; it's about half way to Palm Beach.

The plan for Tuesday was to visit the renowned bird sanctuary at Wakodahatchee, which is basically the regional water supply / waste disposal system, but it was closed. So I went to nearby Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge instead. This federally-protected natural sanctuary covers 221 square miles, most of which is closed to the public. The elevated gravel trails which are accessible to the public (mostly bird-watchers like me) are arranged in rectangular grids composed of marshy ponds inhabited by many birds, some turtles, and a few alligators. There weren't many interesting trees or plants to see, but I did see and photograph two new (to me) butterfly species that I will describe in a future blog post.

Loxahatchee NWR canals, alligator

Loxahatchee NWR canals; roll mouse over image to a closeup of the alligator and a Common Moorhen/Gallinule, which may have been just a bit too curious. (March 7)

I then made haste north-northeast toward West Palm Beach, where the Washington Nationals were hosting the Boston Red Sox in a spring training game at the Nats' brand-new "Ballpark of the Palm Beaches." (Actually, they share the facility with the Houston Astros.) The intervening distance was about 15 miles, passing through some upscale luxurious neighborhoods, and the unexpectedly-heavy traffic caused me to arrive a few minutes late to the game. It was a windy day, alternating between sun and clouds.

Ballpark of the Palm Beaches behind home plate

The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches from my ideally-located seat behind home plate. (March 7)

After the game, I decided to drive to Palm Beach, about five miles away, and see President Trump's vacation resort known as Mar-a-Lago. Once again, I was astonished by the opulent lifestyle of the local residents. I noticed that most of the homes of wealthy people in Palm Beach are surrounded by tall hedges that often exceed 15 feet in height. Since President Trump has often boasted about how the wall he seeks to build along the border with Mexico will be "beautiful," that gave me an idea for an alternative kind of "wall" -- consisting of greenery! There was no place to stop near the mansion, but I was fortunate to find a small public beach on the causeway between Palm Beach (which occupies a thin strip of land) and the mainland. There I took a quick photo, just as a television news crew finished taping a report, presumably about the President.

Mar-a-Lago closeup

Closeup (cropped) view of President Trump's vacation resort known as Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach. (March 7)

From Palm Beach, I headed straight west as the sun sank toward the horizon. By the time I passed Lake Okeechobee it was already dark, and I never saw anything of the lake other than some levees along the road. That night I stayed in the town of Immokalee, located about 25 miles southeast of Fort Myers and the Gulf Coast. The town itself was an interesting mixture of cultures, with an economy apparently based on growing oranges and perhaps other citrus fruits. I saw a number of Spanish-speaking people, presumably farm workers. The rural mostly-white populace in the restaurant where I dined (barbecue!) seemed rather familiar to me, as a resident of a mostly-rural southern state.

I woke up before dawn on March 8, wanting to maximize my enjoyment of Florida in the brief time before my airline flight left from Orlando in the afternoon. It took about 15 minutes to drive to next destination: Corkscrew Swamp, and I passed many orange groves along the way. The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is owned and operated by the Audubon Society. The land was purchased by the Society in 1954, as part of an emergency effort to thwart logging operations that would have destroyed the last remaining Bald Cypress forest in the United States. I was generally aware of the different habitat zones in the sanctuary, rather like the Everglades in terms of its ecological diversity, but I only gained a full appreciation for the role played by (for example) Bald Cypress trees after returning to Virginia and reading the background information booklet which I purchased at Corkscrew Swamp. It is a truly special place.

Corkscrew Swamp boardwalk pines

Corkscrew Swamp boardwalk passing the majestic pine trees. (March 8)

Corkscrew Swamp pond, birds

Corkscrew Swamp pond, with Great Egrets, White Ibises, Roseate Spoonbills, and perhaps other birds. (March 8)

I gave myself a firm deadline for leaving Corkscrew, to make sure I would get to the airport on time, but it was hard to leave such a beautiful place behind. I hope it's not too long before I can visit there again.

I was originally hoping to swing through St. Petersburg on my way to Orlando so as to see Tropicana Field, the home of the Tampa Bay Rays. But I realized that the distance from Corkscrew to Orlando was greater than I had estimated, and I just didn't have enough time to do that. So instead, I drove almost straight north, mostly along U.S. Route 27. I recall crossing the Caloosahatchee River at the town of LaBelle, but I didn't realize until later that the river (which goes from Lake Okeechobee to Fort Myers) constitutes a virtual barrier between distinct ecological regions in south Florida. For example, Florida Panthers hardly ever stray north of that river, but some were spotted recently. Later I passed by a highway sign for the oddly-named town of Frostproof. I remember in grade school learning about that town, so named because it was thought that temperatures never went below freezing there, making it safe for orange trees. (There was in fact a deep freeze there in January 2010; see time.com.) As I was driving through downtown Orlando on the way to the airport, I noticed the Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic NBA team. Had I realized that it was soon to be the venue for the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, I might have stopped to take a photo.

It's hard to believe I accomplished all that in just three days (including two half days). The complete set of Florida photos can be seen (along with photos from Peru and Colombia) on the Chronological photo gallery (2017) page. They are mostly 600 x 400 pixels in size; ventually I will post double-sized versions (1200 x 800 pixels) of the best ones... I hope you enjoyed this photo tour!


April 21, 2017 [LINK / comment]

Baseball is back: Opening Day(s) Week(s) 2017!

My, how time flies! Somehow, nearly three weeks of the 2017 baseball season have gone by already. It was "Opening Day" for six teams on Sunday April 2, and home teams used their advantage in each case. The Tampa Bay Rays surprised the visiting Yankees with a crowd-pleasing win, and the Arizona D-backs did likewise to the visiting Giants, and the St. Louis Cardinals did to the visiting Cubs. But since then the Yankees have gradually recovered, while the Cardinals languish in last place in the National League Central, and the Giants aren't doing much better. There are a number of surprises, such as how well the Colorado Rockies and Arizona D-backs are doing.

The World Champion Chicago Cubs (!!??) have been struggling for some reason, perhaps due to the loss of Dexter Fowler to the arch-rival Cardinals. But they have also managed some incredible late-game comebacks. Tonight in Cincinnati, for example, Anthony Rizzo hit a game-tying 3-run homer in the top of the ninth, and the Cubs went on to win in 11 innings.

Nats start on a good note

The Nationals started the season red hot, then stumbled a bit in the second week, but have since won their last five games to put them back into first place. Opening Day in Our Nation's Capital (April 3) rattled some fans' nerves, as the Miami Marlins took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning. But Bryce Harper hit a solo homer in the sixth inning, and newly-acquired Adam Lind hit a two-run pinch-hit homer in the seventh inning to give the Nats the lead for good. After an insurance run, the final score was Nats 4, Marlins 2. And Stephen Strasburg got the win! The Nats won the second game of the series 6-4, thanks to a homer by Ryan Zimmerman, but lost the third game in spite of three homers -- all solo shots. Marlins 4, Nats 3 in ten innings.

Then on April 7 the Nats began a brief road trip to Philadelphia, perhaps a bit overconfident. Three home runs gave them a big lead, but the bullpen faltered and the Phillies almost tied the game in the ninth inning. Nats 7, Phillies 6. Undoubtedly, the low point of the season occurred on April 8 when Jeremy Guthrie started for the Nats, and proceeded to give up 10 runs without even finishing the first inning! Final score: 17-3, tied with June 19, 2007 (Detroit won 15-1) for the worst margin of defeat in Nats history. Guthrie is a former star pitcher for the Kansas City Royals who struggled with some physical problems last year, and his career is in grave jeopardy. That debacle really deflated Nats' spirits, and it carried over into the next day, when the Phillies were about to win 3-0 when none other than Ryan Zimmerman hit a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth inning. It seemed like one of those storybook comebacks, but in the end it didn't matter, as relief pitcher Koda Glover gave up the winning run to the Phillies in the bottom of the ninth.

But perhaps Zimmerman's heroic effort paid off psychologically, as the Nats roared back the next day (at home in Washington), beating the St. Louis Cardinals 14-6. Utility player Stephen Drew, filling in for the ailing Trea Turner, was the slugging hero that day, getting 4 RBIs. Three home runs the next day keyed the Nats to an 8-3 victory, but errors and suddenly-silent bats doomed their attempt at a series sweep the next day, as the Cards won 6-1.

After a day of rest, the Nats welcomed the Phillies to Washington on April 14, and the game went to the tenth inning, when Daniel Murphy (who had homered earlier) hit a double to left field, allowing Bryce Harper to score all the way from first base. Nats 3, Phils 2. One of the photos of Harper sliding into home head first was a classic. That guy is a maniac competitor! The Phillies came back to win it 4-2 on Saturday April 15, but the Nats won the rubber match game on Sunday, as Bryce Harper hit home runs in both the 3rd and 9th innings: yes, the first Nats walk-off homer of the year! Final score: 6-4.

Then the Nats headed south to Atlanta, where the Braves had already won their first six games in brand-new SunTrust Park, in addition to their exhibition game win over the Yankees. (I need to check on winning streaks for newly-inaugurated MLB ballparks.) The Nats won the Tuesday night game 3-1, thanks to clutch hits by Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper, as well as near-flawless pitching by Max Scherzer, who threw seven shutout innings. Wednesday night was a blowout of historic proportions, making up for the lopsided defeat at the hands of the Cardinals the previous week. Bryce Harper hit a solo homer in the first inning, and then hit a grand slam in the second inning! But that's not all!! Ryan Zimmerman also hit a grand slam later on, only the second time in Nats history that they hit two grand slams in one game. (That happened in Milwaukee on July 27, 2009, when Josh Willingham hit two grand slams in the Nats' 14-6 victory over the Brewers.) On Thursday, the Nats completed the sweep thanks to another homer by Zimmerman (his fifth), some amazing defensive plays by Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, and Adam Eaton, and superb pitching by Stephen Strasburg. It was a tense, close match, and this time the Nats bullpen hung on. Final score: 3-2.

Tonight in New York, the Nats pulled off a similarly harrowing and dramatic win against the Mets. Bryce Harper homered in the first inning (again!), and Jose Lobaton surprised everybody with a solo homer that gave the Nats back the lead. But the Mets tied it 3-3 in the sixth inning, and the game went into extra innings. That's when Bryce Harper hit a one-out double, and before you knew it the bases were loaded and relief pitcher Jeurys Familia walked in a run as Trea Turner, in his first plate appearance since returning from the disabled list (hamstring) got an RBI without having to swing the bat. Shawn Kelley got three quick outs to get the save. Final score: 4-3.

Since the Marlins also lost tonight, the Nats (11-5) now have a three-game lead in the NL East. No other team has a five-game winning streak right now. How long can they keep this up?

Nats make modest acquisitions

The Nationals had two significant roster vacancies to fill during the 2016-2017 off-season, and the front office did their job well in both cases. In place of Ben Revere in center field, will be Adam Eaton, formerly of the Padres. In place of Wilson Ramos behind home plate will be the former star catcher for the Baltimore Orioles, Matt Wieters.

The Washington Nationals finally got former Orioles catcher Matt Wieters to sign on the dotted line. It's just a one-year contract, so his future depends on how well the Nats do this year -- as in how far they get in the postseason... Wieters replaces Derek Norris, who had been acquired in a trade with the San Diego Padres. Norris is now playing with the Tampa Bay Rays.

The pitching rotation will remain virtually the same, although the fifth spot was a question mark as Joe Ross failed to make the 25-man roster after spring training. Ross was finally called up this week, and after giving up two runs in the first inning he pitched against the Braves in Atlanta earlier this week, he regained his composure and ended up getting credit for the win.

As a precautionary move, the Nats pushed Max Scherzer toward the bottom of the pitching rotation, to give him more time to heal his finger which suffered a stress fracture last year. Instead, Stephen Strasburg is the Nats' premier pitcher for the time being. Scherzer has pitched fine so far, going either six or seven innings in all three games he started. Likewise, except for April 8 (see above) and April 10, Nats starters have lasted at least six innings in every game. That is a very solid performance

But the big failure was in the relief pitcher department. Mike Rizzo couldn't get any big-name closing pitchers to come to terms, leaving the Nats to make do with what they already had. As spring training came to a close, it was announced that Blake Treinen will serve as closing pitcher. After reviewing my previous blog posts on him (June 9, 2014 in particular), I remembered that Treinen went to South Dakota State! Treinen showed occasional signs of promise but flinched when it really counted, and was officially demoted this week. In his place, Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley will alternate in the role of closing pitcher. That's fine with me; I don't think such a big deal should be made over who is going to be the closer.

Koda Glover

Koda Glover, at the Nats-Red Sox spring training game I saw on March 7.

I have updated the Washington Nationals page to reflect the new roster.

Other transactions of note

The Cleveland Indians demonstrated their firm goal of making it to the World Series again by signing free agent Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year contract, with an option for a fourth year (2020). He had been with the Toronto Blue Jays since July 2009, when he was acquired in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds. He has hit an average of 39 home runs over that past five years, during which time his batting average has been in the .270 range. He will give the Indians a good chance to win back-to-back AL pennants for the first time in franchise history. The Indians are presently in first place in the American League Central, but all five teams are within two games of them.

U.S.A.! U.S.A.! World Baseball Classic champions!

For the first time since the event began in 2006, Team U.S.A. won the World Baseball Classic championship. And it all took place in Dodger Stadium, the scene of some memorable baseball triumphs and tragedies from yesteryear. Washington Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark played a key role in winning the penultimate game. Another Nat star, Daniel Murphy, was on the U.S. WBC roster, but didn't get much playing time. I paid a brief visit to Marlins Park just a few days before one of the first rounds of WBC games was played there.

New labor deal

The small but very real possibility of a lockout was averted on last month, as the 30 franchise owners and Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. One key part of the deal is that the World Series will no longer be tied to the All-Star Game, as first reported by The Associated Press. Instead, the pennant winner with the better regular-season record will get home-field advantage

Stadium changes for 2017

I saw the Atlanta Cobb County Braves' brand-new Sun Trust Park in the televised exhibition game against the New York Yankees, and I was fairly impressed. Brick walls in the outfield!!?? (Padded, of course.) Thanks to a big comeback rally in the sixth inning, they actually beat the Yankees. I had a much better look at it during the Nationals' three-game series with the Braves. One downside from the players' perspective: the lights are affixed to the rim of the roof, as at Target Field, and the relatively low position seems to blind outfielders trying to catch fly balls. Anyway, with help from photos sent by Mike Zurawski, I should get the diagram completed by the end of the month.

In Houston, the Astros unveiled the renovations to Minute Maid Park, with a new center field bar area, perched atop a vine-covered wall. It occupies land on which the big slope known as "Tal's Hill" used to be. I thought that slope added lots of fun and excitement to the game (plus some nostalgia), and I think what they have done is a shame. Anyway, I made a preliminary update for the "standard" diagram, based on some artists' renderings at MLB.com, but I won't change the rest of the diagram variants (lower deck, etc.) until I see better photos or video images.

And finally, the Chicago Cubs have finished the next big step of their renovations to Wrigley Field, and now the bullpens have been moved to beneath the bleachers in left- and right-center fields. Three additional rows of seats have been added where the bullpens used to sit, further shrinking the already-tiny foul territory in the Friendly Confines. As with Minute Maid Park, I have already made an initial diagram update to reflect that change, but further tweaks are likely...

Finally, the St. Louis Cardinals have completed the big "Ballpark Village" project on the north side of Busch Stadium (III). See ballparkdigest.com; hat tip to Mike Zurawski.

Raiders will move to Vegas, baby!

Earlier this month the NFL announced that the Oakland Raiders will move to Las Vegas, presumably for the 2019 season, but maybe 2020 if stadium financing arrangements and construction take longer than expected. It's a shame that the franchise owners couldn't do more to help Oakland, after all the financial inducements that were made to pave the way for Los Angeles to get a new football stadium. Inevitably, the cloud of gambling will taint the Raiders for the foreseeable future. (To quote Claude Rains from Casablanca, "I am shocked ... shocked! ... that gambling is taking place!") smile Will the Oakland A's follow suit in moving to Las Vegas? If so, maybe Pete Rose can become a part owner of the franchise! If they do stay in Oakland Coliseum while trying to get a decent new home, I hope they demolish that monstrous "Mount Davis" that hangs over center field.

Comiskey Park photos!

One more thing: I received some great photos of old Comiskey Park in Chicago from Al Kara, who submitted some photos of a football game at Guaranteed Rate Field (a.k.a. "U.S. Cellular Field," a.k.a. "New Comiskey Park." Here's one of them:

Comiskey Park from 3rd base

Comiskey Park from 3rd base, Sept. 1990; courtesy of Al Kara.

Coincidentally, I was watching an Orioles-White Sox AL Championship Series game on MASN a month or two ago, and noticed the reduced dimension markers (e.g., 341 feet to the foul pole, rather than 347), so I started work on a 1983-1985 diagram variant. For the final five years (1986-1990), home plate was moved back to where it had been before 1983.

"Series won't be same without McCarver"

If you think this blog is failing to keep up with regular updates, some web programmer at MLB.com really must be asleep at the wheel. Up through the early months of this year, the very same headline was appearing (near the bottom) just about every day since mid-2015, when it was still true. The text read as follows: "Tim McCarver played in three World Series and has been an announcer for an incredible 23 more, leaving big shoes to fill as he revealed this will be his last season with FOX." Sheesh. Wake up, somebody!


April 21, 2017 [LINK / comment]

Wilson's Snipes on Bell's Lane

Somehow, I haven't managed to post blog updates about birding recently, and in fact I haven't done as much actual birding as I would like, given that spring migration is in full swing. The big news locally is that two Wilson's Snipes have been seen repeatedly on Bell's Lane since early in the month. I first reported the sighting via Facebook and (a few days later) via the shenvalbirds e-mail list-serve.

Montage 15 Apr 2017

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Purple Finch (M), Eastern Bluebird (M), Yellow-rumped Warbler (M), Wood Duck (M), Blue-headed Vireo, ChippingSparrow, Blue-winged Teal (M), and (in center) Wilson's Snipe. (April 15)

There has been some confusion over the species of one shorebird: What I originally thought was a Solitary Sandpiper was probably a Lesser Yellowlegs, but it may be that both species have been to that same beaver pond off and on.

As can bee seen on my Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page, since early this month I have seen several Eastern Towhees, Brown Thrashers, Field Sparrows, Gadwalls, Blue-winged Teals, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Eastern Phoebes. On April 17, I stopped at Lake Shenandoah east of Harrisonburg, where I had a nice view of a pair of Ring-necked Ducks, except that the lighting was poor.

Today I went to Betsy Bell Hill in hopes of seeing some warblers, but the only significant sighting was a male Scarlet Tanager, my first one of the year. Then I went to Bell's Lane once again, and saw two more first-of-year birds: a Gray Catbird and an Orchard Oriole. I also heard a Yellow Warbler, but didn't see it.

Montage 21 Apr 2017

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Orchard Oriole, Wood Duck (M), Red-winged Blackbird (M), Lesser Yellowlegs, House Finch (M), and (in center) Wilson's Snipe. (April 21, except for the Wood Duck: April 18)

Tomorrow is Earth Day, and I hope to lead a bird field trip -- weather permitting! On Tuesday this week I led a group of Augusta Bird Club members on an Earth Day-related cleanup mission along Bell's Lane, which our club has "adopted." It's the second time I've done that, the first being three years ago. This time there was a reporter from WHSV Channel 3 television station in Harrisonburg, and I appeared on TV explaining why Bell's Lane is such a special natural area to preserve for the sake of birds and other wildlife.


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