Walking On Sunshine*

Header Image: Swamp Sunflowers, Marl Bed Flats, Lake Jessup, Florida, USA

(We interrupt our irregularly scheduled attempts at blogging to bring you a public service announcement. There is joy in the world. Seek it.)

Or, as our favorite group of all time used to say: “And now for something completely different.”**

*(“Walking On Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPUmE-tne5U

Yes, you may sing along.)

The Narrowleaf or Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) is quite common throughout much of the eastern United States. It likes to keep its feet wet. Growing in sometimes dense patches, the plant normally grows to four or five feet tall and can reach over seven feet. A single plant can produce dozens of bright yellow flowers. Blooming season is from September to November.

Yesterday, October 12, we visited Marl Bed Flats on the shore of Lake Jessup in Seminole County Florida. A short hike through a wonderful oak hammock opened onto the vista of thousands of blooming sunflowers.

We hope your day will be as brightened by the views as was ours.

Many thanks to Ed at https://edrosack.com/2021/10/03/sunflower-status-oct-2-2021/ for turning us on to this spectacular venue! (Be sure to check out Ed’s superb Flickr images.)

**Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit.

The Wrong Shoes

Header: Great Blue Heron At Sunrise

An Osprey called as she flew over my head while I was getting out of the car. She was followed by a flight of several White Ibises heading from their nightly roosting area to some spot they knew would provide an adequate breakfast. A nice paved path led from the parking lot to the dock which jutted a short ways into Lake Crago. Boat-tailed Grackles cranked up the volume at my approach to the lake’s edge. The sun was about to peek over the eastern shoreline as a Great Blue Heron stalked the shallows among the reeds.

My normal walking shoes are something called “cross-trainers”, designed for runners who like to speed across hill and dale, mud and rock, leaves and puddles. This particular pair has never had to worry about being abused in such a fashion. Running is something I may have done once to catch a train in Germany. The shoes have been fabulous for what I do. Walk slowly in easily maneuvered areas, stopping often, occasionally stepping into the edge of a lake or fording a shallow stream. They are very comfortable.

Yesterday, those normal walking shoes got pretty wet and were not dry this morning. Plan B. Hiking boots. Large. Substantial. Heavily lined (“water resistant”). So naturally I selected a venue consisting of paved trails. But I could have gone into the bush, if I had wanted to.

Today’s exploration was short but filled with amazing things. The heron fishing, a group of huge mushrooms, dragons, damsels, a tired butterfly, birds, a snake, alligators. I promised Gini I wouldn’t be long so I was back home in under two hours. Pretty good, for me.

Scenes seen can be seen soon.

The subtle colors of a Little Blue Heron seem really dark before the sun brightens them up.

A group of six large mushrooms was pretty impressive. Each cap exceeded six inches across.

Patience is a virtue. The Great Blue Heron must be one of the most virtuous creatures in the bird world. They seem able to wait forever for a meal to appear.

I could not convince this Red Saddlebags (Tramea onusta) to turn for a better angle so this is all you get.

It should not be surprising there are plenty of Osprey around any water source in Florida. They are not all as cooperative about posing as nicely as this model.

Brightening up the morning was this great-looking Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida). The white stigma near the wingtips are like flags signaling “Here I am!”.

Ms. Cardinal was not happy that I woke her up. I promised next time to bring her coffee.

Looking a bit tattered, a Sleepy Orange (Abaeis nicippe) was visiting as many blooming Spanish Needle, or Beggarticks (Bidens alba) as possible for sufficient nectar.

Although the Variable Dancer (Argia fumipennis) is a damselfly which is common over a large range, it can look very different depending on specific location. In Florida, the species is very dark and is known as a Black Dancer (Argia fumipennis atra).

Sometimes, your feet get tired of sifting through mud for a meal and you just have to find a comfortable branch to give them a rest. A Wood Stork in a pine tree may not be the normal view we have of this big wader, but he looks pretty good surrounded by all that green.

Speaking of giving your feet a rest. I’m headed to the house where I’ll kiss and hug Gini, slip into my bare feet, make a pot of coffee and burn some bacon. Even if you aren’t wearing your favorite shoes, get out early, celebrate a sunrise and all that Nature has to offer!

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Header Image: Immature White Ibis

Why does food taste better in the forest? I mean, a boiled egg is a boiled egg. Eaten at the dining table in comfortably conditioned air and protected from natural elements, it is satisfying. Taking a bite of that same hen fruit under a canopy of pine boughs, surrounded by yellow blooms, purple berries, hammering woodpeckers, yammering jays, brown-eyed deer and with a background of a cacophonous cicada chorus – well, the lowly egg has become a veritable feast for the memory.

Our early morning foray into the forest at the edge of central Florida’s Green Swamp began in fog. Stillness. Silence. Wonderful.

Blue sky was visible above the grayness and within an hour after sunrise, the mist had dissipated. Nature awoke. The sounds of the day greeted us from all sides. Against a green brushy backdrop, Gini spotted the delicate form of a String Lily. Stepping closer to the bright white bloom, a large bright yellow Lubber Grasshopper inched lower on a plant stalk, just in case we were potential predators.

With “autumn”* just around the bend, we were hoping to spot early bird migrants. Excitement rose when a Belted Kingfisher flushed from a small pool, perched in a pine tree and chattered her disapproval of our presence. Other likely migratory birds we saw during the morning included a large number of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a few Red-eyed Vireos and a couple of American Redstarts. This, in addition to almost 40 additional (resident) species made the morning a very respectable birding effort.

(*Autumn in the middle of Florida is a term associated with a calendar. The only noticeable difference for us is the appearance of migrating birds. Florida’s autumn is an extension of Florida’s “green” season and a prelude to our “brown” season.)

Over the years we have made a significant scientific observation. As we busied ourselves searching for birds, we discovered a whole bunch of other stuff Nature has to offer! In the same habitat which supports bird life, there is an amazing variety of plants, insects and other animals. Who knew?

Increasingly, we find ourselves so fascinated by a flower or a bug that we almost forget we are bird watchers. Almost.

A small sampling of Nature’s diversity coming right up.

The Belted Kingfisher does breed in parts of Florida, although we are at the southern limit of that range. We visit this area frequently and don’t typically see one during the summer, so this young lady is almost certainly a migrant.

A delicate String Lily (Crinum americanum) brightened up the otherwise green landscape. Also known as Swamp Lily, this aromatic beauty is similar to the Spider Lily (Hymenocallis spp.) but the flower does not have the staminal cup connecting petals like the Spider Lily.

Adding a bit of technicolor to the woods is a large Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera). One day we’ll talk about their spitting habits.

A very common plant in wet areas is the Bulltongue Arrowhead (Sagittaria lancifolia). Long green leaves supporting tall stalks of white flowers around the lake attract a diverse group of life forms. Sometimes, those life forms remain almost hidden. Like a small crab spider which I didn’t see until processing the image.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose – By any other name would smell as sweet.” Perhaps Juliet could have excused the aroma of the Skunkvine (Paederia foetida) and between her and Mr. Shakespeare come up with a more pleasant-sounding moniker. It’s a vine with attractive flowers, but in addition to a foul odor, is also quite noxious in its growing habits, an invasive plant which overcomes native flora.

Gini noticed a group of pretty-in-pink Apple Snail eggs had attracted a Horse Fly (Tabanus atratus). We aren’t sure why the big insect was attracted to the egg cluster, although male Horse Flies are known to feed on nectar.

One of our favorite spiders, the Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) is fairly common in our area. Still, spotting one among green foliage can be challenging. Or, you can use my tried and true method: l-u-c-k.

A bee! On Beebalm! Who’d a thunk it? Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata) and Bumble Bee (Bombus spp.). This plant is also known as Dotted Horsemint. We did not see an actual horse on one today.

There are nearly 30 species of plants belonging to the genus Ludwigia in Florida which can make identification of some quite a challenge. The Narrowleaf Primrosewillow (Ludwigia linearis) simplifies things a bit by having very narrow leaves, rather sparse growth and usually remaining less than a couple of feet tall. The yellow blooms are just as attractive as any in the family!

This small Downy Woodpecker gave me only one chance at a photograph and it is not a good one. The quality of the image does not subtract from the actual beauty of the little bug hunter.

Growing to over three feet tall, Gini thinks the pretty blooms of the Winged Loosestrife (Lythrum lanceolatum) could use an iron. (If you didn’t have to look up “iron” in this context, welcome to pretty-near-to-senior-citizenry.)

Even though I don’t care for the face full of web I often get due to their habit of stringing them across a path, I admire the beauty of the large Golden Silk Spider (Trichonephila clavipes). This lady has invited a friend for breakfast.

We began bird watching many years ago. With each trip we took, it became clear we enjoyed much more than just seeing birds. Nature is so diverse! Hopefully, no matter your specific interest, you will find new and wondrous gifts each time you venture out.

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Late Summer Swelter

Header Image: Black-crowned Night Heron

Florida has a unique combination of heat and humidity which can wilt the best of us at times. Late August typically provides us with afternoon thunderstorms which can help cool us down a bit, but at the expense of maintaining very high humidity. Wiping optics lenses for half an hour each morning becomes a reflex. In our area of central Florida, we average 115 days a year with some rain which results in 55 inches (1392 mm) of water falling from the sky each year.

The sub-tropical climate offers ideal conditions for an incredible number of life forms to thrive. Some of the most productive are insects. Species which consume insects as a main part of their diet are happy with this detail. Birders are happy that birds form a large portion of those critters which eat bugs.

So, it may be hot and it may be steamy out there, but the potential for nature watchers is almost infinite!

We keep visiting venues which are close to home because, well, they’re close to home. We can sleep in a bit since we only have to drive ten minutes to reach Tenoroc Fish Management Area near Lakeland, Polk County, Florida. (The fact that it offers outstanding birding doesn’t hurt.)

The eastern sky was turning pink as we made our way along the dirt road. Just inside the entrance gate, Gini spotted a flurry of activity which begged further investigation. A gang of Great Crested Flycatchers were playing tag among the tree tops. Half a dozen Blue-gray Gnatcatchers ignored them as they did their vacuum-cleaner imitation along every twig and leaf. A Red-bellied Woodpecker landed on the trunk of an oak tree about ten feet away and took off immediately when she spotted me. I have that effect on many creatures, great and small.

Gini-the-wildlife-magnet. Leave her alone for a few minutes and something will find her and try to convince her to adopt it. Thus, the find of the day! A diminutive damselfly flew in her open car window and crawled around the windshield and ceiling for awhile. Eventually, it moved to the window sill and posed for a few (dozen) candid photos. It turned out to be our first observation of a Seepage Dancer (Argia bipunctulata). Further, it is only one of two occurrences of the species this far south. Awesome start to the day!

More words and a couple of images coming up.

Snake!” We often encounter snakes crossing the road and I simultaneously try to shift into park, jump out of the car with camera flailing and attempt to focus and click. Wait. That’s a weird-looking snake. Oh, cool! NOT a snake. A legless lizard! The Eastern Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus ventralis). Florida has four species of glass lizard and one species of worm lizard, all “legless lizards”. The glass lizards can reach about 43 inches (108 cm) and this one was around three feet long.

Gini’s new playmate, the Seepage Dancer (Argia bipunctulata). She is still mad I wouldn’t let her take it home.

Time for breakfast. Ours was boiled eggs and fruit. The male Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) seems to have selected the butterfly burrito, possibly a Great Southern White (Ascia monuste).

Walking along the shore of a lake, I disturbed a Black-crowned Night heron. He flew away squawking loudly, made a big circle and returned to the same spot after I had moved away a bit.

We saw several Northern Mockingbirds during the morning. These are not shy birds and often challenge our presence.

On the road, windows open, driving slowly. Gini hears the thin whistling of Swallow-tailed Kites. Most of these sleek raptors have already departed for South America. Driving among the pine trees our vision was limited. Suddenly, a trio appeared overhead. I jumped out of the car (see notes above for snakes in the road) and became dizzy as the three circled low above the trees. The lead kite had snagged a frog and the other two seemed determined to take it away. They were so low and I only had seconds to focus as they zipped across the road that most of the images were unusable. In the second shot, I’m not sure if those menacing talons were for me or the frog-bearer.

(Note to self: Do NOT leave Gini at home if at all possible.) “Stop! Back up!” Yes, Ma’am. She spotted the lime green body and bright blue eyes of a Blue-faced Darner (Coryphaeschna adnexa) hanging from a twig. Not common in N. America outside central/south Florida. Some have been reported in far south Texas.

Nothing like a colorful Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) to brighten up a morning!

Although the Brown Pelican is typically a coastal bird, we have an inland population that breeds locally and remains here year round.

A male Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida) seems to be warning me to back off. Just one more shot and I will.

I couldn’t make out what the prey was for this Ringed Paper Wasp (Polistes annularis). They make some very large and impressive nests.

More breakfast images. This time it’s a Two-striped Forceptail (Aphylla williamsoni) with what is some type of grilled sausage. Or perhaps a larva of some sort?

A side view would have been instructional to show the namesake feature of this big dragon. Unfortunately, the Cyrano Darner (Nasiaeschna pentacantha) was on patrol and didn’t have time to take requests.

As mentioned earlier, Florida’s sub-tropical weather means a longer and often more frequent mating season for many species. Here is one now. Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii).

Dragon leading dragon. A Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida) helps his somewhat larger cousin navigate the lake.

“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” No, agriculture managers hate you because you are an invasive who uproots the natives. Still, she is kind of pretty. Peruvian Primrosewillow (Ludwigia peruviana).

All dark from face to tail, a male Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta) is one of three overall dark skimmers in our area.

The very small Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera) has learned to fly with its legs dangling down like a wasp. A would-be predator may think twice before gulping her down.

There are about 3500 species of orb weaver spiders worldwide. In North America, around 180 live north of Mexico. They are a very diverse group! Here are two we found today.

Longjawed Orbweaver (Tetragnatha spp.)
Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge argyra)

When you visit Florida and wander the trails enjoying our vast array of natural wonders, you may have a feeling you are being watched.

Our late summer is wet and hot and incredibly productive for those who love Nature! We put up with these horrible conditions in Paradise – so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Dinner And A Show

Header Image: Sunset After The Storm

“They sure know how to cook fish right!” Once again, I was admonished not to speak with my mouth full.

Gini and I were profoundly fortunate to have been raised in Florida. Surrounded on three sides by salt water with plentiful freshwater lakes throughout the state, it was only natural that fish was on the menu quite often. We were both blessed with parents who taught us the art of fishing and Gini was doubly blessed as her Mother taught her how to properly prepare the catch for the table. We weren’t aware of it when we were growing up, but our knowledge resulted in us becoming “fish snobs”.

An abundance of seafood eateries does not, unfortunately, equate to an abundance of correctly prepared seafood. Indeed, there have been long periods of time when we would shun any such restaurant, preferring to catch and cook our own seafood.

A few years ago, we stumbled across a small shack with a dozen picnic tables under an overhanging roof with a sign out front: “Fresh Mullet”. For anyone not raised along Florida’s Gulf coast, they would most likely think the place sold fish bait. There are apparently some scientific reasons that mullet found along our west coast taste good. I won’t go into that here. Striped (or black) mullet (Mugil cephalus) and white (or silver) mullet (Mugil curema) are the two varieties of mullet commercially harvested in Florida. The most common methods of preparing them are fried and smoked. We somewhat reluctantly ordered two mullet dinners. On our next visit, they had fresh grouper. On the next, shrimp. Each time we have been extremely satisfied with the results.

So there we were the other day, scraping up the crumbs of our most recent grouper meal and Gini wondering aloud if I felt like driving around before heading home. My usual reflexive response jumped out of my mouth like a mullet breaking the surface of the bay: “Is that a trick question?”

It was already late afternoon and there was a better that 50% chance of running into a thunderstorm, but that has never slowed us down before. We headed over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge which spans Tampa Bay and entered Fort DeSoto Park as clouds began to darken in the east.

Along the east beach, a few shorebirds were scurrying along the receding tide line and exploring the wrack for small invertebrates hiding in the seaweed. Large Brown Pelicans were crashing into the deeper water and scooping up sardines. I had the bright idea to hurry to the north beach, thinking there would be millions of birds seeking the shelter of the dunes due to the approaching storm.

Wading across a shallow channel, I explored a sandbar that is normally teeming with birds. I found about a dozen plovers and sandpipers, a few seagulls and ten Black Skimmers. The protective sand dunes along the adjacent beach were devoid of any life. Except me. The storm front began to move westward into the Gulf of Mexico and it began to get dark. Really dark. Turning around, large raindrops smacked me in the face and streaks of lightning lit up the inky sky to the east. Removing the camera from the tripod, I wrapped my hat around it and trudged through the deep sand toward the car. Yes. I got wet.

As we sat in the car, thunder booming and rain pelting down, I asked Gini if she was ready to head home. Since she hesitated to answer, I took advantage of the moment and asked if she minded one more visit to the east beach. The rain had stopped and a break in the clouds just at sunset provided the light I had hoped would materialize. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge, distant shoreline, moon, more gathering clouds and calm water provided a rewarding climax to a thoroughly enjoyable day.

There were several Wilson’s Plover at the east beach. We found a mix of adult and immature birds. The adults were already changing into their non-breeding plumage. A relatively large dark bill helps identify this species.

Wilson’s Plover – Adult
Wilson’s Plover – Immature
Wilson’s Plover – Adult

A bit larger than Wilson’s, the Semipalmated Plover has a smaller bill and shows more yellow in the legs. This one is still in breeding plumage.

In a few more weeks, this Red Knot will be a dull gray all over. Timing is everything.

Juvenile European Starlings have dark bills and some dark feathers with white tips beginning to show. This one was part of a flock of about two dozen.

Hopes of finding large numbers of birds at the north beach were dashed as storm clouds passed overhead. Birds, having time and again demonstrated they are mentally superior to yours truly, were most likely in the local cafe enjoying a shrimp cocktail.

A Black Skimmer searched for a last-minute snack before the heavy rains started.

Peeking through the sea oats among the dunes, dark clouds moved out into the gulf and teased us with a bit of blue sky. Directly behind me looked like midnight and the rain (not to mention the lightning) persuaded me it was time to find the car.

As I approached the car, a racoon wondered why I wasn’t climbing the nearest tree like she had. Didn’t I know it was raining? Everyone’s a critic.

Perfectly prepared fish dinner, a few birds, a little storm, sunset, moonrise. Our dinner and show could not have been better.

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!