Pat's Wildways

My Birthday This Time


Bucko and I were in a challenge this year: Who could come up with the best birthday outing for one another? A few weeks ago, we celebrated his milestone birthday in our favorite part of Old Florida, and now it was his turn to celebrate my birthday. Admittedly, it took my own planning to pull it off, but we were both happy with the outcome.

The Shed at MacRae’s has live music and a crowd of people our age on weekends.

We went on a three-night journey south to the Tampa Zoo to see Romeo, a manatee I once took care of 50 years ago at Miami Seaquarium and wrote about last week. But that was only the start. We spent two comfortable nights in bed and breakfast lodging along the way: the Mount Dora Historic Inn in Mount Dora and the Magnolia Plantation Inn in Gainesville. Both were perfectly fine. But really, our kind of lodging was the place we overnighted between these two places: MacRae’s of Homosassa. Sure, the beds at MacRae’s were unusually hard, and the room had a lingering odor of wet dogs, but the sheets were fresh, the room was clean, and there was a restaurant with live music, The Shed, and another tiki bar, the Monkey Bar, where we could watch live monkeys.

Bucko’s birthday present for me was in a “Gucci” bag.

So, on the morning of June 8, my birthday, there we were in MacRae’s. Bucko left the room and then quickly returned with a smirk, carrying a big brown paper bag with the words Gucci written on all sides. A Gucci bag! And inside this paper bag was my birthday present: a potato peeler (the German style I’ve used for decades but that was losing its sharpness -- great idea) and a box of kitchen knives (that I absolutely have no use for -- I love the knives I have). He did his best.

An interesting attraction at MacRae’s is Monkey Island, a manmade island in the middle of the river that is the home of three spider monkeys, Ralph, Ebony and Emily. Back in the 1960s, dirt was piled on some rocks in the middle of the river, forming an island that was more visible to boaters than the submerged rocks. When some of the monkeys at nearby Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park escaped from their enclosures and started terrorizing tourists, they were recaptured and sent here to “Alcatraz,” which was fitted with a shelter and various enhancements to accommodate these monkeys. Although monkeys have come and gone here over the years, Ralph, Ebony and Emily have been here through the years, all at least 50 years old.

Spider monkeys roam around the island.

These spider monkeys had to be relocated for nearly three years after a hurricane damaged the island, and their habitat had to be reworked, including the installation of heating and cooling in their hut that was now required by the USDA. But now, in June 2024, they are back, and you can even watch live cams placed strategically around the island that follow the monkeys as well as the nesting ospreys on a pole on the island.

So, on my birthday morning, Bucko and I brought our large coffees to a table in the not-yet-opened-for-the-day Monkey Bar, where we could wait for the marina attendants to feed the monkeys at 9 a.m., we were told. Previously, I had heard that at feeding time, the monkeys followed the attendants around the island -- a show of sorts -- as they distributed food. So, Bucko and I waited and waited and waited, an hour or more, watching for the crew to land on Monkey Island. When they did, I had my camera set to video and I caught the entire event. The boat pulled up; one man jumped onto the island carrying buckets of fruit and monkey chow, exchanged these for empty buckets, and jumped back in the boat. The whole process took 38 seconds! Good thing we weren’t charged admission!

Boyett’s Grove attraction is a hodgepodge of dark rooms with strange artwork and displays.

Leaving MacRae’s, we headed to nearby Boyett’s Grove and Citrus Attraction where the spider monkeys had spent their three years in exile. And wow what an Old Florida place this was, complete with a warren of dark cave-like rooms, with lit-up dinosaurs, fossils, taxidermied animals, assorted antiques, strange artwork, a petting zoo and an indoor dimly lit miniature golf course. You have to see it to believe it, but I don’t suggest making this into a day trip by itself.

Finally, we ended the day in Gainesville, staying at the Magnolia Plantation Inn, a big step up from MacRae’s, and meeting a couple of our close friends for dinner at The Top, our favorite Gainesville restaurant. I’d say Bucko’s birthday celebration for me was perfect!

And now, Bucko can relax until our anniversary in September. Poor guy. With me, it’s always something …

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