Sign spotting: Part 1- Personal Safety

My little brother loves the Signspotting books. He owns them all. I know this, because he has shown them all to me. Repeatedly.

He typically goes through phases where he is fairly obsessed with one particular set of reading and/or movie materials (sometimes there is a clear connection between the reading materials and DVDs in his stack, other times not). He’s really into series of things, like, say, all of the Star Wars movies, or Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers, or a stack of Cleveland Cavs paraphernalia and Media Guides from the past five years, from which he will regale us with various statistical tidbits, staring intently at me over his glasses, and talking as if I know anyone other than LeBron on the team– wait, he left, right? Haha, just kidding. That’s a terrible joke. I’m sorry).

Anyway, the Signspotting books are on regular rotation. Over the years, I’ve seen most of them. Repeatedly, as I may have mentioned. So I started taking my own sign-spotting pictures as I traveled. And here they are.

To make it even more fun, they’re going to be spread out across a few posts. Then you have to come back and read my blog for more. Though I’m sure you come back regularly and read it anyway. (Thanks Grandma, I love you 🙂 )


So here we go:

Lauren’s Sign Spotting: Part 1- Personal Safety


Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada

Grand Manan Island New Brunswick

Caution: if you run enthusiastically off the cliff, popcorn will fall out of your feet.


Somewhere in Florida, USA

no fireworks at gas station

“No fireworks discharge within 300 feet.”


This is a gas station, somewhere in Florida, that sells fireworks. And gasoline. One stop shopping. Because I generally want to buy fireworks and diesel fuel at the same time. Doesn’t everyone?

But at least there is a fire extinguisher handy. Just in case you don’t pace out those 300 feet quite right.

I took this picture a few years ago, as I was driving back to Ohio from Titusville, Florida, where I had an internship at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

I am alarmed that this needs to be put up as a warning on a gas station. And why only 300 feet? I’m fairly certain I don’t want someone shooting off fireworks 400 feet from where I’m pumping gas, let alone 300. And does that 300 feet start from the door, or from the furthest gas pump?



Phi Phi Island, Thailand

phiphi island thailand


Remember, our body is not a life buoy. Because we, collectively, only have one body, and apparently it doesn’t float all that well.

Also, getting run over by a boat is bad.


Prince Edward Island, Canada

The signPrince Edward Island lighthouse sign

Interpretation: It is unstable to stand on a tilty platform on the edge of a kite, because you might fall on the floating rocks.

Honestly, that picture doesn’t make the bank look all that steep. That’s barely one body length. In real life, the drop is much, much, much steeper. Also, in real life you can’t even get to the edge because they put up a fence. Probably because all the tourists accidentally drive their cars off or something.

This is next to the East Point Lighthouse on PEI, which is on the northeastern tip of the island. It’s all open and exposed around the lighthouse (which I was too cheap to pay to climb, because as I visited on a rainy day, I suspected the view would be similar to the one from the ground– foggy).

If they’re so concerned about erosion, then they probably shouldn’t put unsecured platforms on the cliff edge. Or lighthouses, for that matter.

Conclusion: They are very concerned about you falling off the edges of things in Canada (see first sign).



Thác Datanla, Dalat, Vietnam

dalat vietnam waterfall

This sign was posted along the edge of the waterfall, either because the slippery rocks are dangerous and they don’t want you to fall and get hurt, or because it’s poisonous. Slightly different things. If you read neither English nor Vietnamese, I would think you’d be a little confused. Though I’m sure that if you drank the water in the waterfall you’d probably get sick, so maybe that’s what they meant.

Oh, and this was the waterfall where a man dressed in an elaborate red monkey costume stuck his finger in my ear. He almost got an elbow in the jugular (since I’m taller than most Asian men, the elbow meant for his gut would have hit a bit higher), which would have definitely knocked him into the “poisonous” area behind the sign. Because where I come from, we don’t do that. I do realize that I’m a visitor to your country, and that Ohioans can be a strange breed sometimes, but there are a few core values that I refuse to compromise. Such as having foreign objects and appendages stuck in my ears. That would be a no-no.

As my sister would say:

False. You will not be doing that. 


And there we have it. Look for part 2 coming soon!

For more entertainment until then, you should read more about Eric in this blog post:

Things My Brother Says 

It makes me giggle every time I read it.


Black Vulture

everglades florida

Everglades National Park, Florida. 2009.

I have no doubt that one day I will be an old black vulture, my face a mass of wrinkles and sparse hair. I will sun myself along the boardwalk, and stare down anyone who gets too close. My walk, ungainly, slow, will take me along. I will pick apart dead things, old things, the decaying bits of conversation no one else wants. Those will be left for me, to have my way with. I will stare death in the face and not blink, I will circle it, be drawn to it, draw life from it.

It is how we gather, all of us, drawn together to bring life from death. To consume death, and become stronger because of it.

Merritt Island: Heart and Soul

Part of my soul lives in the mountains. The steepness, the rough and smooth edges, peaks sharp or rounded, a barren summit or a wooded grove on the hillsides, the view, and the breath of fresh air that carries a special taste of true nature. I feel free of the weights I wrap around myself, the ones I didn’t realize were there.

“Mountains inspire awe in any human person who has a soul. They remind us of our frailty, our unimportance, of the briefness of our span upon this earth. They touch the heavens, and sail serenely at an altitude beyond even the imaginings of a mere mortal… They are cruel, dangerous, and possessed of a beauty one can never grow weary of.”
~ Elizabeth Ason, from The Exploits and Adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy

Part of my soul lives in the desert, in the barren rock. When I look out into the wide-open space and gaze at a rock tower rising up into the sky, I just am. Everything is quiet, and I’m just there. The starkness absorbs all the internal moaning and rattling, and all that’s left is the rock, the dirt, the sun, the endless sky.

Gopher Tortoise, Merritt Island NWR 2012

These places speak to me, resonate with me deep inside, and I feel a special sense of completeness when I am there. They feel right, like walking around your childhood home in the middle of the night. You know the exact number of steps without counting, the placement of each table and chair, so that even in the dark you can find your way without tripping. My soul can live in the mountains without tripping all over itself in confusion. Sometimes I feel that I am laying on the floor in the dark, waiting for someone to turn the light on and notice me, quietly moaning. I tend to feel that way most often when I’m stuck in boring, flat places, probably because I find it easier to have adventures when I’m in the desert or the mountains.

When I was heading down to Florida and Merritt Island, I was not particularly looking forward to my time there. Florida is flat, hot, buggy, boring. Coming from a cross-county road trip, camping in Utah and Wyoming and rock climbing in Colorado, Florida was not where I wanted to be heading. And, well, I found that Florida is flat, hot, buggy, and boring. But, to my surprise, I loved it anyway.

Roseate Spoonbill and Snowy Egret
Heading into the sunrise to look for Scrub Jays

I leave bits of my heart everywhere, tucked in with the people and places I go. Quite a bit of my heart is in Ohio, but there are pieces in other states and countries too, in places I have and have not been, in places only seen by those I love.

White Pelicans
Black-necked Stilt
Playalinda Beach, Canaveral National Seashore

And part of my heart is at Merritt Island. There are some places you stay and you know you are home, even if it’s just for a short while. This is one of them. No matter where I travel, I will always remember that place, that time, those people. Especially those people 🙂

Me, Betty, and Connie (refuge volunteers) after kayaking with dolphins and manatees at Merritt Island NWR
Meghan and Angie kayaking at Blue Springs State Park
Patrick. Blue Springs State Park
Patrick and I are expert kayakers, can’t you tell? Blue Springs State Park

Adventures in Florida: Part 2

A little late, but here it is!
This is the rest of the pictures from our weekend road trip down to southern Florida a couple weeks ago.
The second part of our Great Southern Florida Adventure: Part 2, the final chapter of our epic two-part journey of discovery, hilarity, and deliciousness. In this chapter our trio of heroes visit the Everglades, hunt for skunk apes in the wilds of Big Cypress, and succeed in not seriously maiming themselves by doing odd physical feats in Shark Valley. Also, they see lots of cool birds and other assorted wildlife and have more than a fairly good time in the process.

I got a NASA badge!

 Last week I finally got my NASA badge, which means I can go into the restricted areas on the refuge and over by all the NASA buildings! 
So, on the way back from the badging station, Candice (the acting refuge manager) and I went on a little drive around the Kennedy Space Center and took some pictures. She’s been on the KSC tour so many times she could tell me all about everything, my own personal tour guide.
The Vehicle Assembly Building. Each stripe on the flag is wide enough for a tour bus to drive on without touching another stripe.
The Vehicle Assembly Building, with the display shuttle in front.
Not an actual shuttle. This is the model that was inside. It has been moved outside because they’re putting one of the actual shuttles on display.
Closeup of the shuttle replica.
NASA News!
The countdown clock.
Note the large rectangular door on the side, one way to tell this isn’t a real shuttle.
The long gravel path is how the shuttles are moved from the VAB to the launching site. They are transported on a vehicle called a Crawler, and it takes something like 8 hours to move the shuttle.
Where the shuttles are launched.
The Beach House, where the astronauts spend the night with their families before they are blasted up into space.
View from the Beach House.
View from the Beach House.
View from the Beach House.
The Crawler– how the shuttle is transported from the VAB to the launching platform.
Not sure what the purpose of this structure is.
So we had to get out and walk underneath it.
This is 1 side 2. Whatever that means.

Kayaking with manatees

Great Egret on the lookout for idle manatees.
No manatees over here.

Monday I finally took a kayak out to Bair’s Cove boat ramp, the notorious manatee hangout. Those manatees are a brassy  bunch, they just swim right up to you and shove your kayak around like they own the place. I believe there was some, ahem, bedroom activity going on, which is why they were so active this morning. There was a lot of twisting and possibly some shouting going on by the looks of it.

Barbara Manatee (manatee, manatee) / You are the one for me (one for me, one for me) / Sent from up above (a manatee from heaven) / You are the one I loveYes, that is a Veggie Tales song, sung by Larry the Cucumber.  It gets stuck in my head every time I see a manatee, which is not as often as I would like.
I’ve got your nose!
Manatees can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes (according to but typically surface to breathe noisily every 3 to 5 minutes.
To see my video of some manatee action, click here:
Manatee poo floats. And is very smelly. (Max, this picture is for you).

Manatees can grow to be up to 12 feet long, and I think I may have seen a few that were indeed that large. It’s a bit disconcerting to see the real big guys floating around passively under your kayak and then realizing that, if they decided to get at all frisky, you would be taking a dip. But then you could say that you were attacked by a manatee, so it’d probably be worth it.

I’m going that-a-way
If I was a Brown Pelican I’d stand on that rock too.
Sing a joyful noise, all ye pelicans!

A Journey to the South

Last weekend Meghan, Patrick and I took a trip down south to see what we could see. Between the three of us we took a bazillion pictures (I counted) and I put some of the best of them together to make this video. This is actually only the first half of the trip, Part 2 is coming soon to a theater (or computer screen) near you!
YouTube video link, that may or may not work (they don’t like it when you use music without securing the proper rights):

What is a Public Use Intern?

I suppose some of you may be wondering what it is exactly that I’m doing here in Florida. Well, here are a few pictures:

Sometimes I get to help out at festivals, which are quite fun. We set up a booth and people come by and we tell them about the refuge and some of the awesome animals we have here. The kids get to make a stamp bookmark, and I usually have them touch the bobcat and otter pelts and compare them.

Here I am with Connie and Joann, two of the volunteers, also known as the Festival Extraordinaire Ladies.  They’ve got the festival gig down pat. They have also adopted me as a grandchild, though I told them that no one can measure up to the wonderful Grandma I have who sends me cookies in the mail (Thank you Grandma Cindea! I love you bunches!!)

Yes, those are giant ants on the table. No, they are not real, no, we don’t have ants that big on the refuge, and no, they’re not for sale. Everyone comments on the ants, that’s what really brings people over to our table.

Sometimes I help with school programs and we get to hang out with Florida Scrub Jays. They are very curious, and will come land on your head or hand if you hold it out, looking for peanuts. The biologists have trained them to enter traps in order to band them for monitoring purposes. The traps are baited with peanuts, so the jays get a treat for their hassle.

Sometimes I’m allowed to go out with the biologists and do fun biology things, like help restore scrub habitat. As Mike, the head biologist, was explaining to me when he kidnapped me and forced me to help him fill a spray tank, no one has been really successful at restoring scrub, which is a problem for wildlife managers trying to help the scrub jays and other species that depend on scrub habitat. The area we were working in used to be a grapefruit grove, but they are trying to make it

For us, this meant planting seeds in the hot sun in a quarter-acre plot. It was actually quite fun, and there were scrub jays hanging out nearby watching us, and lots of fun birds flew overhead. Also, a man on a motorcycle rode by blaring “Uptown Girls,” which I then got stuck in everyone’s heads (going on a week now).

The field we planted with scrub plant seeds.

Here we all are hard at work. This is what most of the morning looked like, hanging out in a barren field and contemplating the scrub.

Sometimes I hobnob with famous birdy people. Here I am at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival with two other Merritt Island NWR volunteers and Richard Crossley (in the black shirt). He was the keynote speaker at the festival this year, and because I was helping to sell his books I had the chance to hear him speak and got him to autograph my copies of his books, The Shorebird Guide and The Crossley ID Guide (came out just last year). We chatted for a bit, he’s a fun guy. Also takes fantastic pictures of birds.

Same birding festival, different day, with Kevin Karlson. He is a co-author of The Shorebird Guide, and also autographed my copy. Another fantastic photographer and birder, and also fun to talk with.

Sometimes I hobnob with snakes (this happens a lot, actually). This is Buddy, our education snake. We hang out together a lot, he’s my bud. The other day I had him out at the Visitor Center, showing him to some of the visitor. Buddy decided he wanted to crawl into my shirt, and did so, going up my right sleeve. He was across the front of my chest before I noticed, so I tried to pull him out via the front of my shirt. He was having none of that, and kept aiming for my other sleeve, like he was going to crawl all the way through. This doesn’t really bother me, but I’m aware that quite a few other people are not fond of snakes and the idea that I would even hold him is disturbing, so I tried to excuse myself from the people I was talking to so I wouldn’t bother them too much. I also wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to get him out of my shirt without taking it off, so I figured I probably should do that in the privacy of the back office, or the restroom. The people I was talking with didn’t seem to mind, in fact the woman starting taking pictures of me with a snake up one sleeve and part of his mid-section out the front of my shirt, his head moving back and forth under my shirt on my other shoulder.

I should have asked her to send me a copy, I’m sure it looked pretty funny.

This is a yellow rat snake we fished out of the trashcan so it wouldn’t bother the visitors. After the photo op, we released it back into the palmettos.

Rat snakes are generally very docile creatures, and all of the ones I’ve handled have been quite friendly. They generally like climbing around my person and going through my hair and belt-loops, which can be interesting, having a live snake-skin belt. This is one of Buddy’s favorite activities when I’m not paying attention. He also likes to go through my braid or pony-tail, so I have to undo my hair to get him out.

If you didn’t have enough of the creepy-crawly, here are some toad pictures! This is a spadefoot toad that one of the biologists brought to show us. He found it in the fire garage, and  thought that might not be the best place for a toad to live.

Only a few more weeks left here in Florida, so I’ll try to get more pictures up soon!

Defecating River Otter “Made My Day.”

Defecating River Otter “Made My Day” Says Young Woman
Merritt Island NWR, FL—Friday, February 10, 2012: a day that will live in infamy. Well, at least to one young woman. It was on that day that Lauren A. Smith, age 24, saw her first river otter (Lontra canadensis) in the wild, along Black Point Wildlife Drive in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. “I was so excited, I’d only seen them in zoos before!” she gushed.
Resting for the big event
The river otter in question spent a few minutes poking around the edge of the impoundment before it lifted its tail and defecated. It then scampered off into the bushes, but not before Smith managed to snap off a few pictures. “This is why I always carry my camera with me, you never know when you’re going to see a pooping otter,” she said.
Lifting the tail
Smith is a Public Use intern at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, located near Titusville, Florida. Smith, a zoology and English major who graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, has always loved animals. “I’ve known since 5th grade that I wanted to be a zoologist and work with animals,” she said. “The other kids were going around saying, ‘I want to be an astronaut’ or ‘I want to be a ballerina.’ No one even knew what a zoologist was.”

A birder and ornithologist, she jumped at the chance to internship at Merritt Island. “People come from across the country to see the birds here,” she said. “There are fantastic opportunities to see some fantastic birds.” She admits there was an additional consideration in her internship choice— “Spending the winter in Florida was also pretty appealing.”

Taken from the backseat, before Sam opened the truck door to let me out. That is Sam’s hair and beard in the rear-view mirror, not mine.
Merritt Island NWR is a pretty appealing place to a number of animals, including river otters. River otters are found in many of the wetlands areas of Florida. Ranging over large expanses, up to 50 miles, river otters unfortunately often end up as road kill. They can be active both during the day and at night, and are often found hunting for food along water edges.
Playful hunters, river otters will catch and eat a variety of critters found in the marshes including minnows, catfish, crayfish, mollusks and frogs. Because they have very high metabolisms, an adaption to help them keep warm in the water, they must consume at least 15% of their body weight every day.
Otters can range in weight from 10 to 31lbs, males typically weighing more than females. They have webbed feet and short, thick, brown fur to help keep them warm while in the water. While swimming, they close both their ears and nostrils.
Time to head back to the bushes
“I absolutely love working at the refuge,” says Smith. “Any place where you have the chance to see painted buntings, roseate spoonbills, scrub jays, gopher tortoise, bobcat, and alligators every day can’t be all that bad, right?” she adds with a smile.

Cinammon Teal in Florida!

There has been a Cinnamon Teal at MINWR for the past few days now, and no one really knows what it’s doing here. Cinnamon Teal are normally found in the western part of the U.S., and this time of year they should be wintering in Mexico, Central and South America. According to the Merritt Island bird list, the last time a Cinnamon Teal was seen here on the refuge was in 2000.

I went out yesterday morning with some of the volunteers to see if it could be spotted. We met up with three other birders/photographers, and between the six of us we found it (and by that I mean one of the others found it while I was busy watching the Black Skimmers– pictures to come). I tried to take a few pictures through the spotting scope, but every time I clicked this happened:

The Cinnamon Teal is the one in the middle, with its head underwater.

So I decided to take a video instead, because then I wouldn’t have to worry about my timing. That, and we had to go pick up a fire truck for a school program later that morning, so we didn’t have much time to mess with taking pictures.

The Cinnamon Teal is the reddish-cinnamon colored bird in the middle that keeps putting its head underwater. There are quite a few Northern Pintail swimming about in front of it, and a couple Blue-winged Teal snoozing behind it.  The black on the side is because I took the video through the spotting scope with my little point-and-shoot, and I’m still learning the ins and out of digiscoping (taking pictures with a camera through a spotting scope, i.e. using it as a big lens to get pictures of far away birds that otherwise would be little specs).

I also took pictures of the fire truck, and I got to ride in it. It smelled like smoke, and was basically just riding in a big white truck with lots of extra buttons I wasn’t allowed to touch.

USFWS fire trucks don’t have sirens, because they don’t exactly need them to fight forest fires and manage controlled burns. The animals already know to get out of the way, they don’t need a siren to tell them something’s burning. They’re smart like that.

Cary, a volunteer, demonstrating the fire hose

The kids loved the program, and hopefully they learned a little bit about controlled burns as well as all the animals that depend on scrub habitat.

Some of the school group and a chaperone, their teacher, and volunteers Cary and Betty Salter (in fire-fighting garb) and volunteer Bill Nunn