Stay Curious

Header Image: Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe)

“Those are some tall thistles!”

My mistress of understatement was right. Soon, I would be threading my way through that sticky forest and would discover most of these plants were two to three feet above head height. Did I mention they were sticky?

Our day began later than some as we were heading to one of Florida’s state parks. Apparently, adding the word “state” to a park’s name automatically entitles it to some regulatory status which precludes gates being unlocked until sensible government-paid workers have had a chance for adequate rest.

So, an hour-and-a-half after sunrise, we eased up to the ranger station, forked over our fee and headed off to explore Colt Creek State Park. Actually, the ranger on duty was extremely nice and even had a name which suited her radiant disposition: “Sunny“. She is an enthusiastic photographer and kindly suggested a few areas to search for our B3 specialties. (Birds, Blooms, Bugs)

It is now late spring or early summer, depending on which “authority” you would like to believe. It’s Florida, so heat, humidity and afternoon thunderstorms are now scheduled until – well, until they aren’t. Migratory birds are but a memory. Flowers seem to increase in number with each successive trip. A seemingly infinite inventory of insects await identification.

I know there are plenty of people (a majority, perhaps) who would be quite happy to drive through the park roads and thoroughly enjoy the sights and sounds of Nature. For some, that is all that’s needed. A day out of the house. A respite from the office, the news, the shopping – from life. And that is absolutely fine.

We are curious.

Gini and I have always had an innate curiosity about living things. As a younger lass, my gentle-natured partner in life discovered the fascinating world of dragonflies. She quickly learned that to simply grab one would result in being bitten. Not all that painful, but it resulted in the immediate release of said bug. Her persistence led to a stealthy, from-behind-approach which contributed to a high rate of successful captures. Those eyes! She was intrigued by the many facets and colors of Odonata eyes. When her Mother found her collection of dragonfly heads secreted away in a matchbox and made her dispose of them, she was crushed. (Even today, I must watch her closely as I focus the camera on a Skimmer else it would soon become headless.)

My own budding naturalist tendencies were more diverse. A matchbox was insufficient to house my findings, so a shoebox (or three) under the bed held such collectibles as snake skins, softshell turtle eggs, dried lizards and frogs, birds’ nests and some cool-looking spiky white things I found in the logs on the patio. Turns out those were the eggs of a Black-Widow Spider. Mothers are relentless detectives. Mine eventually followed her nose around the bedroom and, can you believe it, she made me dump my hard-earned treasure in the trash can (outside)! Yes, I, too, was crushed.

Fortunately, we both survived our overbearing Nature-hating Mothers, ultimately found each other and have lived happily ever after searching the globe for Natural treasures!

Oh, here are some now.

This is a young Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera). These large insects go through five or six sub-stages (called instars) as they develop from nymphs to adults. This one is in its fourth or fifth instar based on the length of its new wings and overall size. Adults can vary in color from all black, mostly dark, mostly yellow or light yellow/orange. They range throughout the southeastern U.S. coastal plain states.

Our early morning was brightened by the sight of a patch of bright yellow lilies. Bandanna-of-the-Everglades (Canna flaccida) can be found in many wetland areas and, despite its common name, grows in several southeastern U.S. states.

These are not cones on this cypress tree. They are galls caused by a tiny midge fly (Taxodiomyia cupressiananassa). Although they can become unsightly, they don’t really cause much damage to the tree and, fortunately, they have many predators who help keep their population in check. Due to the high number of natural predators, insecticide treatment is not recommended.

Why did the Wild Turkey cross the road? I have no idea but it certainly wasn’t to provide a better opportunity for the slow-to-react picture-taker!

One never knows what might be around the next bend in the path. These White-tailed Deer were at least as surprised as we were!

The warm morning sun began to dry the vegetation enough to encourage insects to become very active. A tall thistle makes a perfect lookout spot for a hungry Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina).

Nesting season keeps parents very busy trying to feed new hungry chicks. A Great Crested Flycatcher didn’t stay still for long, scooping up anything resembling protein and zooming back home.

The state butterfly for Florida, Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia), is quite a beauty.

Half buried in a thistle bloom is a species of Flower Beetle (Trichiotinus spp.). The nectar is sweet and pollen shall be spread.

A female Bar-winged Skimmer (Libellula axilena) is more colorful than her overall dark-colored male counterpart.

It would be easy to pass by a lone stem supporting a single pale blossom in an open field. Upon closer inspection, a Carolina Desert-Chicory (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus) reveals an explosion of yellow details sufficient to brighten any day!

Thistles. Who knew they were so attractive to so many insects? This Bumble Bee for one. Me, for another.

Reaching new heights for surveillance, a Red Saddlebags (Tramea onusta) is easily eight feet high. This particular thistle species is Nuttall’s Thistle (Cirsium nuttallii). Our area has one other common member of this family, Purple Thistle (Cirsium horridulum). C. horridulum seldom exceeds two or three feet in height wheras C. nuttalli often grows to more than eight feet. Additionally, C. horridulum has spiny bracts at the base of the flower and C. nuttalli does not. (There will be a test later, so study hard.)

One of our favorite yellow blooms, with its starched-look petals and deep purple center, is the Mexican Pricklypoppy (Argemone mexicana).

Small and quick, this time of year produces an incredible number of Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) dragonflies. Whether you spot the female with her reddish-brown eyes and yellow-and-black body or the male with bright green eyes dressed in his powder-blue suit, they are quite distinctive.

We had hoped to find this next subject today as we have seen it here in years past. Fortune smiled. The Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) is a large moth which enjoys searching for nectar during the daytime. They love thistles. What a coincidence!

Found in several states of the southeastern U.S. coastal plain, the Palamedes Swallowtail (Papilio palamedes) is one of our larger dark-colored swallowtails. That guy Mr. Linnaeus loved his Greek mythology and Palamedes was one of the heroes of the Trojan War. Papilio is the Latin word for butterfly.

Utility lines are not pretty. An Eastern Bluebird is.

Purple seemed to be everywhere we looked today. At the edge of a lake, Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) was in bloom.

A rose by any other name, would still be pretty thorny, and yet, beautiful. Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) is no exception. This particular specimen was about six feet tall and there were several bushes spread out over 20 feet. Very mean-looking thorns made me thankful for a zoom lens.

We were evidently born with some sort of curiosity gene which has driven us to explore and ask questions about Nature. When we stop asking questions, it will be time to seek professional care. Go outside! Stay curious!

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

Header Image: Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) on Brazilian Vervain (Verbena brasiliensis)

Sweet, tart and juicy slices of tangerine were refreshing as we rested on the shore of the lake a couple of hours after sunrise. We had already seen a lot. New bird babies, morning flowers in bloom, ducks flying overhead and now that the dew was drying from the grass, insects were beginning their day.

Earlier, we entered the Tenoroc Public Use Area and I politely asked Gini which way she would like to go. “Oh, it doesn’t much matter.” I seemed to recall a similar exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat.*

The good news is, at this particular location, it really DOESN’T matter which way we go. We always seem to find good things. Excellent habitat helps.

This morning we really enjoyed flowers blooming all over the place. A little warmer weather plus rainfall certainly encourages new growth! Almost every Osprey nest (we counted nine) had one or two chicks yelling for more food. Vireos and Northern Parulas were singing non-stop. Swallow-tailed Kites flew low over the open fields with that lilting flight as they picked off flying insects. Our regular cast of characters were very active. It might seem that we would become bored seeing the same things over and over. I guess we are easily entertained.

Oh, and a new discovery! More on that later.

For now, we shall finish breakfast and enjoy the sight of a small Osprey chick alone in a huge nest calling for someone, anyone to “FEED ME!!”.

One of the first sights and sounds of our morning was an Eastern Towhee calling loudly. It’s easy to forget this colorful bird is a sparrow.

It’s a good thing this area contains plenty of fish to feed all the new little Ospreys! The chick in the first image leans on Mom as they wait for Dad to return from the fishmonger. In the second image, a lone chick is in what may be the largest Osprey nest we’ve ever seen.

Judging by the position of this Water Moccasin in relation to where I was at the time, it could only have gotten there by crawling by my feet as I was looking through the bins at a woodpecker. Adrenaline delayed.

I haven’t been able to find a very good explanation of why this gorgeous flower is called Man-of-the-Earth (Ipomoea pandurata), but that certainly doesn’t detract from its beauty. It has also been called Wild Sweet Potato.

Nothing dresses up a drab brown field of weeds like a sprinkling of colorful Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella).

Okay, throw in some bright yellow splashes of Pricklypear (Opuntia spp.) and the drabness almost completely disappears. The second image has a visitor, a Bee-like Flower Scarab (Trichiotinus spp.).

What? Not enough color? A few bushes of Lantana (Lantana strigocamara) added to the scene and drabness has been forgotten.

Heading from one lake to another, a Bald Eagle flying low is very impressive.

Good fences make good perches. (Sorry, Mr. Frost.) A Red Saddlebags (Tramea onusta) likes the view from his bit of fence and it’s a great launching pad when brunch flies by.

A brand new bug! At first, due to its size, I thought it was a Hummingbird Moth. Then I got a good look at it. All gold?? A bee?? It was larger than a nearby Bumble Bee. I wasn’t aware of anything like this. After a bit of research, it appears this was a Carpenter Bee of the Xylocopa species. This particular bee has only been seen a few times east of the Rocky Mountains or outside Mexico. Not sure if it has been reported in our county before. He was very accommodating! The folks at BugGuide.net note this as: “Xylocopa (Large Carpenter Bee) (unidentified species likely adventive in Florida)”.

Very wasplike, the little Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera) would like you to think that is what it might be and therefore, please, do not eat it.

Wild Bushbean (Macroptilium lathyroides) is considered an invasive plant and Florida does not recommend planting it. It was first confirmed in the state in 1944. It has been used extensively in its native country of Mexico and in Central and South America as a cover crop and as forage for livestock. The flower is attractive.

Another invasive, Brazilian Vervain (Verbena brasiliensis), has been around a long time in the U.S. and is very attractive to pollinators.

One more “tourist” who found a home in North America, the Showy Rattlebox (Crotalaria spectabilis) was imported from southern Asia to help build healthy soils which had become depleted of certain minerals. Unfortunately, the seeds are poisonous to livestock and poultry. Members of this species are called “rattlebox” due to the sound of dry seeds within their casing.

Common butterfly in our area. Uncommonly beautiful at all times. Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae).

So we arrived at the entrance gate to this little patch and didn’t much care which way we went. It just didn’t much matter either, since we knew we would find adventure in any direction!

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

Header Image: Pine Flatwoods

It can be exhilarating to be prone in the damp grass early in the morning just after sunrise observing the waking moments of what is likely the smallest damselfly in the country. Rolling to the left provides a view of the nearby tree line just as a Red-shouldered Hawk lands atop an oak tree. Rolling on my back reveals a superbly clear morning of an impossibly blue sky. A roll to the right and I discover the observer is being observed. “Periscoping” is a term used to describe a snake raising its head above the grass line to see what’s in its territory.

A split-second hiccup in my little brain whispers: “Are we sure that was a Black Racer?”. Rolling away from the reptile, actually, about three rolls, began the process known (at my age) as “getting up from the ground“. The process continues by attempting to get one knee under me, then trying to get a foot on the ground and sort of rolling, stumbling upward – never mind. You’ll become familiar with the technique sooner than you would like.

Today, Gini and I are exploring a very small portion of central Florida’s Green Swamp. This precious ecological resource consists of almost 900 square miles and is the source for four of our state’s major rivers. The particular area we are in is within part of the Withlacoochee River State Forest. Over 155,000 acres make up this forest which is adjacent to its namesake river. “Withlacoochee” has been translated from the Creek Indian language as “Crooked River”. Very apt. Bubbling up from springs within the Green Swamp, the Withlacoochee is only one of two Florida rivers to flow northward. In this case, from the swamp it twists and turns about 160 miles to Yankeetown, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

The spot we are roaming around today is typical of the southernmost part of the Green Swamp. Habitats include: upland hardwoods, wet prairies, marshes, pine flatwoods, cypress swamps and floodplain swamps. An incredible diversity of flora and fauna calls this area home. We appreciate them allowing us in the door.

Once I was upright again, I strolled through a small wetland area. As I crossed a boardwalk, I gazed down upon dragonflies beginning the day’s hunt, purple Pickerelweed offering a buffet to bees and others and – uh, oh – a Water Moccasin. That hiccup moment returned with my tiny brain shouting: “Told you so!”. I still believe I saw a curious Black Racer.

Most of the morning was consumed by enjoying the incredible abundance of spring flowers. There were plenty of birds here, but most are busy with parenting duties and none were interested in posing for today’s blog. Blooms and bugs abound, however.

The rich green of the swamp and forest was punctuated with purple today. The Savanna Iris (Iris savannarum) rose above almost any bit of standing water.

At less than one inch (2.5 cm) in length, a Citrine Forktail (Ischnura hastata) can disappear if you take your eyes off him. Likely the smallest damselfly in the U.S., my old eyes are lucky to see them anymore.

Pretty in pink, the Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) decorated the place quite nicely. Even the bees think so.

Small and quick, the Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) perches with wings forward ready to chase down any passing morsel.

Florida lists 30 species of Ludwigia and even the invasive ones are quite attractive. Peruvian Primrosewillow (Ludwigia peruviana) has large yellow blooms that make it hard to stay mad at its unwanted presence.

Turtle crossing! Well, in the swamp, pretty much anywhere is a likely turtle crossing. This little Striped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon baurii) seldom exceeds eight inches (20 cm) in length and will be much more comfortable once she crosses this bright white road and slips back into the inky ooze a few feet away.

Call it Bluejacket or Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) or anything else you like. This is one beautiful bloom!

Who would think a swamp would be so colorful? Bright red sprinkled the landscape throughout our morning meander. Coralbean, Cherokee Bean, Redcardinal (Erythrina herbacea) reminds us we are, indeed, in a semi-tropical environment. Careful with the seeds. They are toxic.

The grass-skipper family of butterflies is aptly named as these tiny insects do seem to skip along the tops of the grass. One Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor) took pity on me and landed for about two milliseconds.

The Green Swamp. So many hues other than green. So much area to explore. So much enjoyment added to our lives.

One of our larger butterflies, a Palamedes Swallowtail (Papilio palamedes) braves the prickly leaves to obtain the sweet nectar of a Purple Thistle (Cirsium horridulum).

One may be forgiven at thinking the Starrush Whitetop (Rhynchospora colorata) is an attractive flower. It’s actually a sedge that has a very flower-like top. It’s not just you. Even the insects help pollinate this grass when most less-attractive grasses have to rely on the wind.

Butterflies have a tough life. They start out as an egg about the size of a pinhead, turn into a larva whose job is to eat non-stop until it’s full, change into a pupa for several weeks when the adult finally emerges. The adult butterfly, after all that, only lives a couple of weeks during which it is chased by every creature on the planet looking for a snack. This Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) has had some nips taken from its wings but is sipping as much nectar as possible until it can find a suitable mate to begin the cycle all over again. Metamorphosis! Nature’s miracle.

A section of Carolina Wild Petunia (Ruellia caroliniensis) with its pale blue beauty caught our eye just off the road. The closer we looked, the more beautiful these flowers seemed!

Fighting off the invaders from nearby tropical islands, Florida’s native Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) appears to be holding its own. It’s always great to come across this bright lizard in our travels.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that after taking the previous photograph we found an extensive area of Lizard’s Tail (Saururus cernuus).

Small and nervous, trying to keep up with a Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) causes perspiration, frustration and dizziness. The rewards are worth it all!

The headwaters of the Withlacoochee River, or Crooked River, is a breathtakingly beautiful space to spend a morning. Flora, fauna and us. We think it’s a great combination!

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

Light Drawing

Header Image: Least Bittern

Clear skies and the wind had subsided. Two hours before sunset. I had a sudden notion to wander along the western shore of the lake where the sinking sun would provide strong but warm light as I peered into the reeds and trees lining this side of the lake. I knew there were breeding egrets and herons here, but would their nests be visible?

When attempting to learn about photography (a work STILL in progress), we’re told how important light is in making a pleasing image. Indeed, the very word “photography” is formed from two Greek words for “light” and “drawing”. We are further instructed that, in nature photography, the very best light is available a couple of hours around sunrise and sunset. The “Golden Hours“. Some very intent students take that a bit to the extreme and almost refuse to carry a camera outside those parameters. Fortunately, I’ve never been a very good student.

On this day, however, I actually saw the words “Golden Hours” illuminated within my brain and that motivated me to go forth and shoot birds. I even took a tripod. And used it. On purpose. No, really.

A two-mile meander (I don’t think bird photographers actually “walk” and we most certainly don’t “hike”) along the edge of the lake was not only pleasant, it turned out to be what, in another lifetime, I recall Air Force combat jet pilots referring to as a “target-rich environment“. Birds were busily preparing for a night of roosting by very actively hunting for a last-minute meal.

A pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks prepare for a quiet evening by preening and taking care of an itch.

The best roosting logs are occupied early or else a young Limpkin might have to sleep in the reeds or in a tree.

This particularly tall cypress tree is serving as an Anhinga nursery. These water birds tend to nest in colonies and I counted eight nests in this one tree. Immature birds, seen here, retain an overall whitish plumage for about the first three weeks after hatching, at which time the feathers turn light brown as they prepare to fledge.

Let’s just check out this dock which offers a good view into the reeds. Hmmm. It seems other nature lovers are already here. We wouldn’t want to disturb them so let’s just see what’s on down the shore line. (Those are empty apple snail shells on the dock left by Limpkins and/or Snail Kites.)

The chamber of commerce has hired a few event actors to pose for eco-tourists such as yours truly. A Glossy Ibis shows off an impressive wingspan and then folds the wings neatly to exhibit the “mother-of-pearl” iridescence which is its namesake.

Once upon a time, we had friends over for barbecue. One of the visitors stated he didn’t care for BBQ, not because of the taste, but because he couldn’t eat it without getting messy. Gini, always the helpful hostess, advised: “If you don’t get it all over yourself, you’re not eating it properly.” (She then pointed the picky diner to the cabinet holding the peanut butter.) This adult White Ibis would have felt right at home at our BBQ table, based on the amount of mud on its bill. Breeding season has turned the bird’s bill and legs a brighter shade of red than normal.

Immature White Ibises are brown, white feathers begin to appear during their first summer, they show more white during the winter and by their second summer they will achieve full adult plumage. The bird in this image is likely about a year old and will be all white by summer’s end.

Stealth is the means by which many birds survive. Watching this Tricolored Heron move in on its prey was like watching the hands of a clock. I knew he was moving, but couldn’t see it happening. Note the white head plume, only present during breeding season.

At the end of the day, a Great Blue Heron hopes for just one more frog. Don’t we all?

Somewhat surprising was finding a very busy Spotted Sandpiper. They breed in our area but I haven’t seen many around this lake. Nice to see one with all its spots, as opposed to the plain winter plumage.

Several years ago, the city erected a Purple Martin house by the lake. It has enjoyed full occupancy every year since. Indulge me for a little while as it is supper time.

Adult male Purple Martin. We typically see them flying at high speed and they appear black. Good light reveals how they got the name.

Mom brings a Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida) to a hungry chick.

Junior receives a regal repast of Prince Baskettail (Epitheca princeps) as Dad watches to be sure the kid doesn’t choke.

The diligent parent cleans up after junior’s meal by removing the fecal sac from the nest. (Many bird species nestlings produce a mucous sac to contain feces which is removed by a parent to keep the nest clean.)

Another female brings a last-minute dragon as it will soon be dark and time for young Martins (as well as Mom and Dad) to rest.

During breeding season, the bill turns blue and the eyes of the Little Blue Heron turn quite dark. There were heron and egret nests in these reeds but they were not visible from the shore.

A male Snail Kite conducts one last sortie for some escargot to go with his lemon garlic butter.

Sunset. A Least Bittern tried her best to become a tall reed. I pretended not to see her, but I’m pretty sure she could hear all that “click-click-clickety” going on. It was a great way to end a day.

Although I covered a couple of miles, I can’t really say I benefited from very much “exercise”. Walk three steps, take pictures, walk two steps, take pictures, etc. There was a lot of bird activity at the close of the day and the “golden hours” lived up to their billing. The light was perfect, the drawing was enjoyable.

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

Header Image: Moonflowers (Ipomoea alba L.)

5/15/22, 9:09 p.m.

5/15/22, 10:55 p.m.

5/15/22, 11:48 p.m.

5/16/22, 00:31 a.m.

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