Pat’s Wildways: Best birthday ever!

By Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D.
June 24, 2021

It was that time of year again: my birthday. Bucko is always stressed about what to do to make the day special for me, but this time I had my own idea. No, I didn’t want a fancy dinner out. And I have plenty of flowers in my own garden, too much chocolate in my cupboard and pretty much everything else he might think of gifting me with. What I wanted instead was a day in the country.

A softshell turtle trudged along next to the path in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and a black racer snake passed in front of me.

So, on my birthday morning we left the house early and headed about an hour away to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Folkston, Georgia, one of our favorite places. We drove slowly down the refuge’s loop road looking for alligators in the roadside ditch and admiring the pitcher plants and blooming wildflowers of many types, some new to me, always fun. This birthday visit I was determined to take a walk to the observation tower, something we hadn’t done since a fire in 2011 destroyed the boardwalk and it was eventually replaced. As we set off on this path we saw something ahead of us. A soft-shell turtle was walking along the grassy edge, unperturbed as I took photos. We see pond turtles and gopher tortoises often in our world, and occasionally a box turtle or snapping turtle too, this soft shell turtle was a species we hadn’t seen in ages. Great!

A bit further along a black racer snake was resting on a clump of wet vegetation, another great sighting. But then things got rough. I was fully outfitted in my field clothes: long pants and long-sleeve shirt to protect me from biting insects. Not so, Bucko. Before we left the house I questioned his attire of shorts and t-shirt but he assured me, “If the bugs are biting you will be the first to bail out.” Usually he was right about this—I am a notorious bug magnet, I flee from noxious flies and I swell up at even the smallest mosquito bite. But the gods were with me this birthday. The biting yellow flies did not even try to penetrate my clothes. Instead they were all over poor Bucko. Before long he understandably quit the trail to go back to the safety of the car.

I kept trudging along alone, admiring yet another black snake right in front of me on the path. But the fire had changed the landscape since we last had visited. Where there was once a canopy of trees, these, along with the boardwalk itself, had burned to ashes and my solitary walk to the observation tower turned out to be a blazing hot ordeal made beautiful with many different colored flowers on the many plants and shrubs recolonizing the land.

In my bug-proof field attire, I happily fed carrots to some of Cynthia Wade’s horses.

Done with the Okefenokee, we headed to Folkston to fill ourselves with a full country buffet of fried chicken, pork chops, catfish, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and all the southern staples at the Okefenokee Restaurant. And then it was off to my friend Cynthia Wade’s ranch just across the river in Florida. I came armed with a huge bag of carrots, and joyfully walked along her paddocks, feeding and stroking a dozen or more horses as they lined up along the fence line to greet me.

Back at home, after a brief rest, we headed out to our favorite restaurant, the Sandbar and Kitchen for an early dinner where we perched on barstools watching the activities on the beach in front of us. Finally at home at the end of a busy day I logged into Amazon and ordered a few items I’ve been thinking about: a rack for our pantry door, and a light table to sort my zillions of slides before I ditch most of them. I guess I did get birthday presents after all, even if I choose them myself.

And, finally, I opened up Facebook and was greeted with dozens of birthday wishes from friends around the world, some people I have known for decades, some more recently, but all appreciated. As birthdays go, this couldn’t be better. But poor Bucko now is starting to worry about next year. How can he possibly top this one? Only time will tell…..

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations at [email protected]