Our House

When do you consider yourself a true van dweller? Brushing your teeth while you drive as strangers gawk awkwardly, sweeping the van out in the middle of a park like it’s no big deal, mastering peeing in a bottle in the dark or is it when you start calling the van ‘the house’? Jeff and I have just started calling Vanna our house, which is true in a way I guess but are we crazy? I don’t think we’re crazy, we’ve just acclimated ourselves to this life style very well. It’s been just over 11 weeks since we left Idaho, 12k miles with Vanna and 78 days spent together on the open road. We’re seeing a lot and exploring new places all over.

We most recently spent a couple of days at the Grand Canyon. Theodore Roosevelt called the Grand Canyon, “the one great sight…every American should see”. It truly is a place everyone should visit in their lifetime. We spent time at both the South and North Rims which are about a days drive from each other. The South Rim was full of tourist and for good reason too, the canyon below was just breath-taking. We spent several hours walking along the South Rim, back and forth, seeing things we hadn’t seen before, mesmerized by the array of colors within the canyon and of course looking for Condors. Jeff was dead set on finding a Condor while we were there, so finally we asked a Ranger about sightings and he lead us to the right spot. He mentioned there hadn’t been any sightings for about two weeks due to a cold front that came through but wished us luck. The area he lead us to happened to be on our way to the North Rim, so started our long drive that direction.

We finally found the bridge the Ranger had led us to, with the afternoon behind us and the sun slowly slinking behind the hills, we walked onto the bridge with our fingers crossed. Jeff and I walked up and down the bridge for several minutes peering through binoculars and the camera eagerly looking for big birds. As Jeff was just about to give up, I spotted at first what I thought was a Vulture only realizing we found our bird! She was sitting on the edge of a cliff and we couldn’t believe we didn’t spot her before. We stood there taking photos for a while and before we knew it another came flying in just about 6 feet above our  heads! She landed on the bridge structures right in front of us so Jeff was able to get nice shots of her. The other eventually flew in and they snuggled their heads up for sleep so we continued our journey.

We found camping in the Kaibab Forest right before the North Rim for the night still excited about the Condors but tired from walking all day. As we drove our way to the North Rim, we drove through the forest, amazed by the beauty. We both kept thinking there was no way among all of this gorgeous forest was the other side of the Grand Canyon. We were definitely wrong. As we pull up, we notice there were not as many tourist but once we got onto the rim we were puzzled as to why. The North Rim is just as amazing as the South Rim if not more so. I’m guessing more people visit the South Rim due to its size and accessibility. If you take that trip to visit the Grand Canyon, do yourself a favor and have enough time to explore both rims.

We camped again another night outside the North Rim in the Kaibab Forest. This time Jeff was on the hunt to photograph a squirrel. We read at the visitors center and in our National Parks book about the Kaibab squirrel. This squirrel only lives in this forest, it does not live anywhere else, making it a rare squirrel. We could not find any information on how many there are or if they are endangered, etc. But Jeff wanted a picture of one, so we set off on a walk and within 50 yards so from our camp we found one. We ended up finding three total by the time we left the Kaibab Forest. They were pretty cute little critters!

After we left Arizona, we headed for Vegas. Now, I know you’re thinking, ‘didn’t you recently talk about budget’? Yes I did just talk about our budget on a recent blog but there were a few places we’ve set aside money for as we’ve planned for them. (Vegas, Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Park Pass) I had never been to Las Vegas, so Jeff wanted to make sure  I got to go. We got into town around dinner, got ourselves prettied up and headed to the strip. We played penny and quarter slots and only spent $10 on the machines. (got to stay in budget!) It was a nice time and I sure enjoyed myself, staying way up past our bedtime and goofing off.

California was our next destination and as we drove from Nevada we dipped back down into Arizona to stop at Lake Havasu City. We had heard about the London Bridge and had to see it for ourselves. As we drove into town the lake and beating sun tempted us, so we stopped for an afternoon dip. Lake Havasu has to be one of the prettiest lakes we have ever seen. The water was so clear you could see for days! After we dried off, we finally fell back to reality and remembered we had more driving to do and started toward California.

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California Condor, one of the rarest birds in the world
North Rim Grand Canyon
North Rim of Grand Canyon
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Kaibab Squirrel
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South Rim of Grand Canyon
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Goofing off in Vegas
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Lake Havasu

The Hunt for The Elegant Trogon

We recently spent a few days birding in the Patagonia and Sierra Vista areas. A friend of Jeff’s sister’s had recommended the areas to us, saying it would make for a long day of birding but we made it into 2.5 days. We left bright and early the first morning and headed towards Patagonia, which is south of Tucson and just north of Mexico. We were just certain we would find some incredible birds since we were driving so closely to the border. Of course we stopped numerous times along side the road to snap photos of birds that may or may not be something we’ve seen before on our way to our first birding hot spot.

Paton Center for Hummingbirds is where we found ourselves first. It was a cute little place nestled in the outskirts of Patagonia dedicated to the education and conservation of Hummingbirds. Trees, flowers, a garden and of course over a dozen of various bird feeders surrounded the tiny home on the lot. A big canopy is set up in the back with benches and chairs which are centered within the feeders for the perfect view of the hundreds of species of birds known to frequent there. Jeff and I found a bench and sat there enjoying the birds for at least an 1.5 hours. We saw a variety of birds while we were there including: Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Inca Doves, Broad-billed Hummingbird and various woodpeckers.

Right down the road from the Hummingbird Center was the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, however it was closed that day due to high winds. We were able to drive up along the dirt road that takes you to the preserve and found Vermilion Flycatchers fluttering in and out of the brush above the creek. We also ran into some other birders whom pointed out a pair of nested Thick-billed Kingbirds. (I doubt we would have seen the birds had they not pointed them out.) After talking a bit with them, they were able to point us to the right direction of the bird we were looking for, the Elegant Trogon. We stayed in Sierra Vista that night ready to get a good nights sleep before another big day of birding.

The birders we met the day before had told us we would be able to find the Trogon at the Huachuca Canyon, which is located in Fort Huachuca. As Fort Huachuca is an military base, we had to sign in and get visitor passes. I thought it was kind of fun to go birding on a base. We finally found our way to the canyon after getting a little lost, and sure enough it was a place for birders! Trucks, cars and bicycles were lined up and down the bumpy dirt road with people clutching their binoculars or cameras. We stopped and asked a couple of people about the Trogon, all stating they were there, just needed to listen for them. As we continued driving down the road and farther into the canyon, we suddenly stop at the sound of birds. Jeff and I were instantly in overload with the many varieties of birds we were seeing and new ones too. We saw birds such as: Painted Redstarts, Red-faced Warblers, Bridled Titmouse, Grey Hawk and Zone-tailed Hawk. After pulling ourselves away and continuing with our search for our Trogon, we finally hear a male calling. He called over and over again at the point we were able to find him, however he was was not impressed with us so we didn’t get the best of views. We got word from some more fellow birders that down at the end would be where we’d find our bird. We made our way down to end of the road, Jeff went one way and I the other to look at different birds until he tells me to come quick. He had spotted a hummingbird on her nest. We kept our distance and watched her settle onto her little eggs, it was such a sweet thing to watch.

Jeff and I  sat, waiting patiently and listening to the wind blow through the leaves of the giant sycamore trees at the end of the road, another male Trogon flew in and started calling. We sat there and watched him fly from branch to branch calling away to his mate. Not too long after a female Trogon silently flies in to his calls landing on each branch he just had. They finally met up with each other off into the distance and we could no longer hear his calls. By the end of our birding at Huachuca Canyon we had seen about 4 Trogons and heard a couple others calling. We ended up counting and had seen just over 20 new species of birds by time we were headed back to Tucson. We also met some genuinely nice people, Jeff and I really enjoyed their conversations. Lots of fun!!

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Spotted Towhee
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Broad-billed Hummingbird
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Female Hummingbird on nest
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Red-faced Warbler
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Vermilion Flycatcher
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Elegant Trogon (male)

Florida: part one

We’ve been spending time going down the West Coast of Florida making our way to the Everglades. It’s been a lovely drive, stopping at various parks and just about any place looking for Manatees on this silly quest to find one. No such luck yet! We have seen plenty of gators though, some in the strangest of places too.

We stayed at a state park while making our trek down, Hillsborough River State Park. It was lovely, the forests in Florida are so dense and beautiful, Jeff and I keep waiting for monkeys to jump out. (Some of the birds even sound like monkeys.) Our stay at the state park was for only one night, but we were able to explore a bit the night we stayed and met a nice family while we were walking about. The next morning we were stuck in the van due to rain but we got showers and that made our rainy day all better!

We’ve also been spending time exploring different cities, and walking along a few different beaches. The beaches have been great birding areas for us, one of the funniest birds we’ve seen was a ‘Monk Parakeet’ or a Quaker. As bird lovers, we also have a pet parrot so it was funny to see a bird we’d generally see in the pet shop outside building a nest.

Our dog Manko has been able to enjoy some time at the beach too. We took her to a dog beach past Fort Meyers Beach and she had a blast! At first we thought she’d be miserable as it was windy and she’s a little bit of a princess but as soon as she realized the leash was off and she could run, she was off! She’s been cooped up in the van for so long, a lot of the areas we’ve been exploring haven’t allowed dogs so we were excited about this beach. She met some friends, ran and ran and ran. It was great to see her be a dog for a little while.

We finally made our way all way down to the Everglades! Our first night we stayed in the Big Cypress area, parking our van in lot for back country parking. We were nervous we’d get told to move as it wasn’t a real campground, but I think one of the best parts of living in the van is people don’t always realize you’re in there. We weren’t bothered at all that night, only noises of some critter investigating our smells around the van. The next morning we drove into the actual Everglades National Park, stopping at the various visitors centers, then one of the big boardwalks however we were rained out and ended up sitting in the van for quite some time watching people and birds. Given our weather situation we decided to stay in the van for the day driving around and ended up at the Flamingo campground at the very end of the park.

We had planned on originally going on this big trip of ours in June but had decided last minute to leave sooner and one of the reasons was that we read the ‘dry season’ at the park would be better for bugs (aka relentless mosquitoes) A park ranger had warned us the Flamingo area had more bugs then the other campground we were originally going to stay at but that one didn’t have showers and we’d have to drive the 30 miles to Flamingo for showers anyway. So we figured a few extra bugs would be worth the 30 miles and the showers. Since it had poured rain pretty much all day, the mosquitoes were everywhere and it seemed that no amount of bug spray kept them away. So we quickly made dinner and spent the rest of the night in the van. We were entertained though with about a dozen Black Vultures going campground to campground scavenging, they truly are vultures.

Our second day at the Everglades was a much nicer day, no rain and the sun shined down on us with lots of warmth! We made our way back through the park, very eagerly looking for that Florida Panther. We found lots of birds, of course many gators and stopped on the side of the road two separate times for a soft shelled turtles. The park is very pretty, some areas even look like an Africa Savannah, giraffe and elephants should be stampeding through. Or the other areas of hammocks and swampy lands are so dense, you can only imagine what is lurking around the corner or peering through the vines at you.

There are many things to there at the park but only a few if you’re only exploring by foot. They offer many areas for canoes/kayaks etc. We only explored by foot so we felt there was so much more to be seen. If you’ve ever wanted to go, you definitely should, there really is no other place like it. And we must recommend going during the dry season if you don’t want to be pestered with those relentless mosquitoes!

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Yes, please swim with caution
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The ‘Monk Parakeet’ building his nest
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Warning signs everywhere, ‘Vultures may destroy your car’
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So many beautiful birds on our walks
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Soft Shelled Turtle, so ugly he’s cute!

Birders Don’t Travel Far

We left Pecos and headed towards San Antonio. Although San Antonio is much bigger of a city than what we are use to, we thought it was a nice place. We spent our time there at a park walking the dog and looking for birds. We saw our first Northern Cardinal while we were in San Antonio, which made us quite excited. We stayed there over night and headed toward Houston in the morning.

As birders, or people who watch for birds, we always have our eyes in the sky. On the way to Houston, a small break at a rest stop quickly turned into a birding excursion. More Cardinals, Black Vultures, and a Black Crested Titmouse were among the handful of birds we saw at the rest stop. Not having a time frame to get anywhere really gives us the ease to enjoy the things like this that we like to do.

We finally got back on the road, but still focused on finding birds. Looking at our map, we spotted a refuge on the way to Houston; The Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR. So, as birders we naturally took the detour to explore. However, we discovered we were either unable to access any part of the refuge or not smart enough to figure out where the access was. The drive out there though was very pretty, as we drove on country roads and got to see a handful of ranches.

We make our way to Houston at about 3:30 in the afternoon and traffic was already slow and go. Realizing how big the city was and with traffic already testing Jeff’s patience, we decided to drive through and not stop. We ended up stopping in Baytown, Texas where we found a little park to make us a nice dinner and to play with the dog. We spent the night there at our trusty spot, good old Walmart!

While continuing our drive SE, we found another refuge to explore in the morning, the Anahuec National Wildlife Refuge, it is located along the coast of Texas west of the town High Island. There was so much to see there and so much area to cover, we ended up spending the entire day there. The refuge itself was absolutely gorgeous, one of the prettiest places we had seen. We definitely saw more birds than we could count too, and a lot of new species we had never seen as well. One particular bird that I was excited to see was the Roseate Spoonbill. A handful of them flew over us and then we were finally able to spot some resting in the grass later on. They are very pink birds and oh so pretty. (We also saw our first wild alligators and an armadillo.) The further SE we travel the bigger of a variety of birds we will see than we are use to in Idaho.

Today we continued along the coast and went into Louisiana making our way into the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. As we were driving in along the coast we must have stopped a dozen times or more to look out into the water and onto to the beach at the various types of birds. We spent a good portion of our morning and afternoon cruising the coast and walking around the refuge areas. We’re now in Lafayette, Louisiana where we will stay for the night and try to go through all of the bird photos Jeff has taken over the last few days.

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Northern Cardinal
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Roseate Spoonbill
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Ibis

Zion

So far, everything has been going well. Vanna is holding steady and we’re slowly learning the ropes of things. This life on the road is a whole new beast to conquer and we haven’t even passed through the gates. Our ‘kids’ seem to be adjusting well also. We did bring my parrot Leonard along, I just couldn’t leave him with someone if we end up staying out for 6 months as we are planning. He’s a pretty easy going bird and so far hasn’t been fazed by any of the new commotion, just enjoys the sunny car ride. Our dog Manko is usually a nervous dog but is very use to riding in the car for long weekend trips and now after a few days seems to be settling in. Both of us are starting to get a system down already too, I think living in the 5th wheel prior really helped us prepare for this. Our space is definitely limited but it’s still livable!

We’ve spent the last couple days at Bryce Canyon and Zion Nation Park. Bryce Canyon was beautiful, but Zion is just breath taking. We spent one night not too far from Bryce Canyon, finding a nice ATV road to park the van for the night. While we were camping there, we saw our first “wild”Peregrine Falcon. In Boise, we have a pair that nest downtown and there are live web cameras to watch them. But this guy was ‘wild’ and soaring above the cliff! That next morning was quite chilly as we were at about 7,000 some feet elevation. As we drove into Zion we just couldn’t believe the views, photos really don’t do it justice. We spent the rest of that day driving through the park, looking at various informational maps, perusing the visitors center and we had lunch at the park in Springdale. We found another pull off road over looking a canyon outside of Zion to sleep for the night and returned to the park again today. This time we rode the shuttles which take you through Zion Canyon with 9 different stops, all with numerous walking trails and hikes. We hiked to the Lower and Upper Emerald Pools, then walked the Grottos Trail. The hiking took us a few hours, stopping frequently for photos, to look at birds, peer through the binoculars into caverns and to give my back a rest. The weather was perfect for hiking today too, we got up early so it was a touch chilly and windy when we started but by the time we were headed back down, our jackets were off and our foreheads sweaty. We haven’t seen the sun much lately living in Idaho, so we even got a little sunburn on our faces! We drove back through the park one last time this afternoon and just took it all in. Tired and sticky from our hike today we headed toward Arizona. We are now in Flagstaff, Az where we will stay for the night and in the morning will decide where to go next.

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Inside Zion Canyon
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Our morning hike had some great views

We now have a Facebook page where we will be able to post additional photos of our adventures. Please follow us HERE

 

And We’re Off!!

The van is finally ready and so are we! We got the 5th wheel parked at my aunt’s place over the weekend and have been staying at Jeff’s parent’s the last few days while we get the remaining things finished up before we head out. ‘Vanna’ is now fully loaded with everything we should need and hopefully we haven’t forgotten anything!

Leaving yesterday we were both silent in the van for what seemed like an eternity but I’m sure it was only 15 mins or so. Finally one of us spoke up, ‘We’re on the road!’ I joked about the scenery being so beautiful as we hadn’t even left Canyon County. It is a little surreal to think we are actually doing this, so much talk and hype and now we’re finally on the road. This is quite a journey we’re about embark upon, we’re quite excited and let’s be honest a little nervous too. We have left the tiny 5th wheel we call home behind and this van will now become our home for the next few months.

For this first part of our adventures, we are actually aiming to travel to the Florida Everglades. We will slowly meander our way towards Florida taking stops at national parks, hidden camping sites and hiking trails along the way. I also have two younger siblings who live in the Daytona Beach area, so as we traveling through to the Everglades, we will be able stop and visit with them. Jeff has never met them and I haven’t seen them for a few years, we’re all excited.

Yesterday we made our way SE to Utah, finding ourselves at the Bear River Bird Migratory Refuge. We got there just about 30 minutes too late to enter the visitors center but were able to drive the ‘auto tour’. We saw a handful of water fowl and few Red-winged Black Birds. We drove around a bit more and landed in Ogden for the night to sleep.

After coffee was made this morning we made our way through SLC rush hour traffic to go view the Great Salt Lake. We didn’t get as close as we wanted but she sure was a big and beautiful lake! So South back through the crazy traffic we went! We’re headed down toward Zion National Park area today. Looks like it may be a long drive today, we will continue to keep our eyes peeled for birds and wildlife. We’re keeping a birding list, so we can keep track of what kind and how many birds we see during the entire trip. I also started playing the license plate game yesterday and am amazed at how many we’ve seen already and we’re only in Utah!

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Manko ready to take off in our fully loaded Vanna’