Wednesday, February 24, 2016

February 20, 2016 - Jones Gap Trail from US276 to Dargans Cascade and Toll Road Falls, South Carolina

Cindy and I have hiked a couple of times in DuPont since my last post, but the hikes were mostly just to get out and knock some more trails off her book list.  There really wasn't much photo-worthy, so I'm not adding them as blog posts.  This outing to Jones Gap State Park was different - it has waterfalls.  Below is some video I shot along the trail, then at three of the 4 waterfalls we saw along the Jones Gap Trail.

The Jones Gap Trail is listed at 5.3 miles and runs between the main entrance of Jones Gap State Park off of River Falls Rd. and US276 around Caesars Head State Park.  Cindy and I had recently hiked the section of the Jones Gap Trail from the visitor center up to Toll Road Falls, so today we wanted to hike from the US276 end down to Toll Road Falls.  This way I could add Dargans Cascade to the list of waterfalls I have been to.  Most of the online sources say the way to do this is to park at the Raven Cliff Falls parking area near Caesars Head and take the Tom Miller Trail down to the Jones Gap Trail and go from there.  However, the map shows the Jones Gap Trail coming all the way to 276 and that's where we wanted to start from.  I knew Brenda Wiley would know where this point was, so I messaged her and she gave me the scoop.  All that info can be found on this page of my web site.

We found the parking spot with no trouble and began the hike there. There was an old broken post with a house number and 'Do Not Block This Drive' sign and we didn't think anything of it until we passed a house on the right a short distance down the trail.  The electricity was on, but it looked like no one had been down this drive (the trail) in a while.  After the house, the trail narrowed to a foot path and continued following the Middle Saluda River down to a point where the trail crossed the river on a foot bridge. Once across, the Tom Miller Trail turns to the right and heads up to the other parking area I mentioned earlier.  Both of these trails are blazed blue which can be confusing if you aren't paying attention.  We continued down river to another crossing of the river - except that this log foot bridge didn't have a hand rail and was right at the top of a sliding cascade. 

Cindy crossing the log on the way back
unnamed cascade

I was using Thomas King's South Carolina waterfall book for reference and he has a picture of this cascade on the Dargans Cascade page.  I figured this was the upper waterfall, but found out later that this isn't Dargans Cascade - and apparently isn't named at all.  What a shame because it's a nice waterfall!

I had seen pictures of what other folks were calling Dargans Cascade and when that waterfall wasn't right below this one, I began to wonder.  We continued down the trail just a little farther and could see that waterfall down below.  The river dropped faster than the trail did, so we were now 75' or so above the waterfall.  A steep scramble trail heads down to the base, but don't take it.  We did, not knowing that if we had kept following the main trail a bit farther, it would cut back and head down to river level near the base of the waterfall - duh.  This is a really nice area with Dargans Cascade (the real one), and a very nice cascade just down river.  After we got back I did some more looking online and found this link where an old document called this waterfall Silver Steps - interesting!

Dargans Cascade
Cindy at the cascade below Dargans

cascade below Dargans

We spent quite a bit of time here, then continued down the trail towards Toll Road Falls. Along this section of trail we could see a big rock dome across the river and later found out that this is called El Lieutenant.  The base of it can be accessed from other trails in the park.  We also crossed several tributaries along the way and a couple of these need further investigating for hidden waterfalls.  We finally reached Toll Road Falls a little more than 3 miles from where we had started.  We took a nice break here, then headed back.  There's a 700' gain in elevation but it's not too bad spread over 3 miles.  With 2 vehicles, the entire Jones Gap Trail would be a very nice shuttle hike!

Toll Road Falls

Thursday, February 11, 2016

February 6, 2016 - Jones Gap State Park, South Carolina

I recently purchased Thomas King's Waterfall Hikes of Upstate South Carolina and wanted to check out 2 of the waterfalls in Jones Gap State Park that I haven't been to - Oil Camp Falls and Eastern Stream Falls. Cindy and I figured that this was as good a place as any to go today, so that's where we headed.  Directions and trail descriptions of these 2 waterfalls (and others in SC) can be seen on this section of my web site.  Look under the Greenville County section.

I'm not sure how this parking area has been in the past since it's my first visit to the Oil Camp Creek section of the park, but it's now horrible.  There's maybe enough room for 2-3 cars to park here and a regular passenger car would probably bottom out trying to get turned around to get out.  Luckily, we were the first vehicle here today.
parking area for Oil Camp Falls hike

This looks like it would be a great area for spring wildflowers and I hope to make it back some time in April - or at least some time when the leaves are back out.  On the hike to Oil Camp Falls, we came across this smaller waterfall not mentioned in King's book.

There's a rusty 55 gallon drum hidden behind the bush at the bottom of the upper section of the falls indicating there may have been a moonshine operation here at some point.  This waterfall is maybe 20' high including the last sliding section at Oil Camp Creek.  Oil Camp Falls is just ahead on the trail and was more impressive than I was expecting.  The one negative is that there are a lot of branches blocking the view, so I'm thinking the view with leaves on will be even more obscured.

Oil Camp Falls

upper section of Oil Camp Falls

It's still a nice little spot and a fairly easy hike up to this point.  To get to Eastern Stream Falls, we had to backtrack a short distance and get on the Pinnacle Pass Trail heading up the mountain.  Both of these waterfalls are on the same stream, but I'm not sure where the name Eastern Stream is coming from.  The stream isn't on the topo map.

Eastern Stream Falls is a really interesting area of exposed bedrock with water flowing over it, creating a soggy environment for plants.  There is supposed to be a cataract bog nearby, so we'll definitely be back to see what plants grow here.  We know there are Trout Lily because there were several in bloom.

Trout Lily

I also spotted some type of Monarda  foliage that had already come up and Yucca plants scattered about on the steep banks.  The Pinnacle Pass Trail continues on from here and it looks like it will be well worth coming back this way for more exploring.  Below is a video of  both waterfalls.


Tuesday, February 9, 2016

February 1, 2016 - Birding in Florida, Day 4

We had already planned to spend our last day back at St Marks and today we actually got up early enough to catch the sunrise at the lighthouse.  We set up on the observation deck next to the lighthouse just before 7AM and shot dozens of shots until about 7:45.

The sunrise wasn't spectacular, but still a very nice way to start the day.  Since we were already down here, we started our quest for more new birds by walking down the trail to the point.  There was a large group of ducks all in a line in the Lighthouse Pool - mostly Redheads with a few American Wigeons mixed in.  We saw nothing of real interest at the point except a crab boat, so I shot it so I wouldn't come away empty handed.  On the way back to the vehicle, we scanned the group of ducks again just to make sure we hadn't missed anything - and we hadn't.

Just up the road from the lighthouse is an eagle nest.  Both eagles were at the nest, so we hung around  hoping for some action.  I gave up too early and one of the eagles took off, snapped a huge limb off of a nearby tree and tried carrying it back to the nest.  It ended up dropping it, but Cindy got some excellent shots with it grasping the limb.

We tried our luck again at Headquarters Pond, but didn't see anything new.  I got an OK shot of a Black-crowned Night Heron, but got a better one later in the day when we stopped back by.  There were several juveniles and adults scattered around the perimeter of the pond that stayed there all day.

Black-crowned Night Heron

We still weren't seeing the number of birds we thought we would - and no new ones - so we decided to hike one of the dikes.  We picked the one that runs next to the East River Pool and is part of the Florida National Scenic Trail.  There weren't that many birds up here either, but it was nice to get away from the people.  It seems like most of the people that visit the refuge don't venture very far from their cars if they even bother getting out of them.

After the hike, the rest of the day was spent going back and forth from the visitor center down to the lighthouse.  At one point, the shore bird action really picked up in the mud flats of the Stoney Bayou Pool.  I have a really had time IDing these birds, so I spend a lot of time shooting everything that looks different and then try to ID them later.  One group of birds really looked different than anything I had, and Holy Cow - they were Short-billed Dowitchers and #203 on my life list.

Short-billed Dowitcher

After shooting, I realized I had Least Sandpipers in the pictures.  I've probably seen these before without knowing it, but I didn't have them on my list or ID'd in pictures, so they are #204!

Least Sandpiper

The other birds in the area turned out to be ones I already had, but I did get better pictures than what I had of some of them.  They included Dunlins, Spotted Sandpipers, Willets, Killdeer, and Semipalmated Plovers.


Spotted Sandpiper

Semipalmated Plover

By now it was late afternoon and the light was fading.  It didn't look like there was going to be a good sunset, so we headed back to the campground and our.  We had a great time and I was quite excited to add 7 new birds to my list.   We didn't get the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, but there's always next time.

Monday, February 8, 2016

January 31, 2016 - Birding in Florida, Day 3

We did a little research before we came down and found Bald Point State Park and Alligator Point listed as a good hot spots on EBird so that's where we headed today.  Both are about a 30 minute drive from the campground.  We tried Alligator Point first and found it to be mostly a residential area with very little public access.  We hit one of the beach accesses, saw nothing and moved on to Bald Point SP. 

The road heading into the state park is bordered on one side by Apalachee Bay with shrub, trees and dunes in between.  We immediately saw a hawk in a tree and got several pictures before we ID'd it as another Red-shouldered.  No too long after that we spotted an eagle sitting in a dead tree.  It was a bit closer than other ones I have shot, so we took the time to get more pictures.

This stretch of road looked like good habitat for the Seaside Sparrow which we don't have, but there wasn't very much activity at all in the areas one would probably be in.  We passed by a couple of hiking trails, then got to the main entrance of the park where we paid our $4 day use fee.  The first place we tried was a very nice boardwalk that extended into a marsh area which is normally a good bird habitat.  The only thing we saw was a very shy raccoon.

The next area we visited was a short hike to the point where Ochlockonee Bay and Apalachee Bay meet.  There were a few birds out here, but it looked like ones we already had - Brown Pelicans, Ruddy Turnstones, Willets, and Royal Terns.  We've learned in the past that in areas like this you have to take a really close look around and shoot anything that moves - just in case.  Cindy spotted a sandpipery type bird with the binoculars that she thought looked a little different, so we pointed the cameras in that direction and blasted away.  The bird seemed busy with feeding, so we were able to ease a little closer for better pictures.  After getting back to the car and looking in the bird book, we discovered that it was a Marbled Godwit - bird #200!  Yippee!!

Marbled Godwit

Before we got back to the car and getting all the Godwit pictures we wanted, we also shot some kind of duck way out in the bay.  Even with the binoculars and zooming in to 100% on the image preview, we were stumped.  It wasn't until after we got back home, that I determined (with the help of that it was a Common Goldeneye.  Another new bird and #201!  We had been looking for one at St Marks and weren't counting on seeing one here.

Common Goldeneye

After visiting all of the sections of the park in this area, we headed back out to one of the hiking trails.  The trail was through some pine and scrub areas and we were hoping for some new smaller birds - different sparrows, warblers, etc.  We did see a few flitting about, but didn't manage to get any new ones.  We passed near a small pond and I spotted a bird sitting in a dead tree in the distance.  This looked different in the binoculars, so we started shooting before it decided to fly off.  Could it be #202?  Yes - it was a Merlin!


We finished the hike and decided to try a different way back to the campground which took us through other sections of the St Marks refuge.  We stopped several times at roadside ponds, but there were hardly any birds at all.  The rest of the day was spent at the campground.  We felt very fortunate to have picked up 3 new birds considering the low number of birds we actually saw.      

Sunday, February 7, 2016

January 30, 2016 - Birding in Florida, Day 2

We had already planned that today would be spent in the area of St Marks NWR between the visitor center and the lighthouse.  There's a wide variety of habitats for the birds and lots of places for birders to observe from either by just pulling off the road or by taking short and longer hikes.  The refuge is about 45 minutes from the campground and we thought we had gotten up in plenty of time to catch a sunrise and early light.  We should have set the alarm for about 30 minutes earlier, but did manage a post sunrise view along the road to the lighthouse.

By the time we got to the lighthouse and got our gear ready, there was enough light for birding, but not as many birds at the Lighthouse Pool as we had seen on previous trips.  We hoped this wasn't a sign of things to come.  The lighthouse overlooks Apalachee Bay and when the tide is out, you can walk the shoreline towards Cedar Point.  There's also a shrub lined trail if the tide is in, but you miss out on seeing what's in the bay.  There wasn't too much in the bay today - a few pelicans and terns sitting on the posts of an old pier and some birds too far out to ID.  I did bring along my landscape camera and got these shots before we got to the point.

When we got to the point there were a very few birds on the rocks, but 2 of them happen to be American Oystercatchers - a new bird for me and number 197!

American Oystercatcher

Maybe our luck was about to change.  We took the Lighthouse Pool Trail back to the vehicle and chased some smaller birds in the bushes along the way.  Most were either sparrows that we already had or Yellow-rumped Warblers which we see waaaaay to many of while in Florida.  Our next stop was Headquarters Pond not too far back up the road from the lighthouse.  We drove slowly along the road - as do other birders - hoping to spot something in the other ponds and canals along the way, but no luck.  Headquarters Pond is right next to the road, but there's also a small parking area and short path that leads to an observation deck overlooking the pond.
Headquarters Pond from the observation deck
The pond is a good place for ducks and some of the wading birds, but a Purple Gallinule had recently been spotted and posted on  That would be a new bird for me and it wasn't long until eagle-eye Cindy spotted it.  It was out kind of far, but close enough to be ID'd.  My photo isn't great, but it's good enough for now - and #198!

Purple Gallinule

It wasn't long after that that the observation deck was overrun with a student group from UF.  They were loud, so we gave them our dirtiest looks and left.  Turns out they actually did us a favor.  We headed up the road a bit more any pulled in to a small peninsula used as an observation area.  Here we met 2 guys who we would have missed if we stayed at Headquarters Pond.  They mentioned that they had spotted a Vermilion Flycatcher up the road at the double dikes.  Really? Wow - thanks!  We left but forgot to ask where exactly the double dikes were - dammit!  We pulled off at one possibility, but nothing.  Then we pulled off at another area and there it was just flitting around catching bugs.  We were able to get some good shots of it as it hung around and didn't seem to mind having it's picture taken - #199 on my list.

Vermilion Flycatcher

There should have been some other birds in this same area, but there weren't many at all.  Now we didn't seem to mind the lack of quantity.  Both of us wanted the flycatcher and weren't really counting on getting it.  By now it was way past lunch time, so we headed to one of the picnic areas and cooked our big meal of the day.  We spent the rest of the day flitting around the refuge looking for birds, but didn't come across anything exciting.  The last light of the day was spent at the East River Pool which has a dock area facing west over the pool.  A spectacular sunset would have been a bonus, but it wasn't to be.  It was a lot better than some we have stayed out for and a good way to end the day.