No Work Patch Work

Header Image: Black-necked Stilt

When is a birding patch not a patch? The word “patch” denotes something small. Talk to a birder about their local patch and it will usually turn out to be a city park, part of a forest, coastal area, wetland – but near home and with a chance to see a fair diversity of birds. The patch is a spot where a birder can go often and is easy and quick to access.

What Gini and I call our local “patch” fits the above descriptions except for the size. Tenoroc Public Use Area is nearby (less than four miles from the house) and offers an opportunity to observe a good selection of bird life. That size thing. At over 7,000 acres, it probably is not a “patch”! That much area to explore includes 30 lakes (varying from 5 to 230 acres) and over 40 miles of trails. I suppose to be accurate, we could call it a “collection of birding patches”, but that would be awkward, so we won’t be doing that.

There we were, at our local patch again, just after sunrise and a slight mist hung just above the lake’s surface. Most of the lakes within the Tenoroc complex are reclaimed phosphate mining pits and are deep by Florida lake standards. Many average 20 feet in depth and have very little areas of shallow water, even at the shoreline. This feature means one has to hunt a bit for wading birds.

One of the lakes has a series of reeds and mud bars which is suitable for long-legged waders to search for a meal. On this morning, we were treated to a pair of Black-necked Stilts, Spotted Sandpiper and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs mixing with the “normal” egrets and herons as they chased fish and crustaceans. Terrific entertainment for the first hour of the day!

The remainder of the morning involved several dozen Cedar Waxwings plundering the Brazilian Pepper for the juicy red fruit it produces, observing nest-building by Ospreys and woodpeckers, listening to White-eyed Vireos and Tufted Titmice singing from the tree canopies, chasing dragons and damsels and finding a few Florida Soft-shelled Turtles laying eggs in the soft sand. Most of this adventure was accomplished with an incredible lack of effort. Hiking over hill and dale is great fun, but if one can observe nearly 50 species of birds from the car window or by taking only a few dozen steps, well, who are we to argue with less work?

(Note: This trip report is from 15 April and most migratory birds, such as the Waxwings, are now absent from our area. Fortunately, a whole lotta birds call this place home!)

(Another Note: The first five images below were made while standing in one spot. See what I mean about that less work thing?)

An early morning Great Blue Heron looks pretty stoic from her perch atop a tall cypress tree. We followed her gaze and discovered a young heron poking around the weeds for breakfast.

Handsome and Wood Stork may not seem to fit in the same sentence, but I’ll bet this bird’s mother thought he was adorable when he was young.

The buffet must have been good in this spot. A Tricolored Heron almost blends in with the busy shoreline background. He’s probably hoping that’s true for the frog under that weed.

Long feathers (“aigrettes”) on a Great Egret recall the near-demise of the species when these magnificent birds were harvested solely for ladies’ hats to have a decoration. As a reminder, the National Audubon Society adopted the Great Egret as their emblem.

Black-necked Stilts were a bit of a surprise this morning but a very welcome one! The fact we saw a pair indicates they may well breed at this location. Fingers crossed! The second image shows a comparison in size between the stilt and a Snowy Egret.

The mud bank attracted three Lesser and one Greater Yellowlegs. When both species are not present to compare size, the call of each is different enough to figure out which is which. This photograph is of a Lesser Yellowlegs.

“Golden Slippers” of the Snowy Egret help stir up mud along the lake bottom to reveal potential prey. The feet almost look too big for the relatively small egret. They come in handy for wading across lily pads.

Springtime is alligator mating time! This “teenager” will help raise this year’s hatchlings. It’s not unusual for alligators to remain with their family unit for a few years.

Probably the final curtain call for this spring’s Cedar Waxwings. On our last two visits, Gini and I counted nearly two-hundred of the hungry birds. Today we saw almost fifty. We’ll miss these sleek beauties.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers have adapted very well to human habitation and are Florida’s most abundant woodpecker. Selecting a suitable nesting site may mean excavating a new cavity or choosing a “fixer upper” from last year.

At our breakfast spot, Gini and I found a collection of freshwater mussel shells piled up along the shore. We surmised they were brought here by otters or racoons.

One of North America’s smallest dragonflies, the Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera), is pretty common here. This is a female, as noted by the extensive wing markings. Males typically have very little wing decoration.

Florida’s state bird, the Northern Mockingbird, is, appropriately, quite common throughout the state. At this time of year, the males sing 24 hours a day hoping to impress a female. (I do that, too, but the resident female remains unimpressed.)

We came across a Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) flitting through the wet grass.

Another sign of Spring. A Florida Softshell Turtle (Apalone ferox) looks for a suitable spot in which to deposit her eggs. The average clutch size for these turtles is 20 eggs and one female may have as many as six clutches per year.

Turquoise antennal clubs help identify a Great Southern White (Ascia monuste). These lovely butterflies will become very abundant as the days become warmer.

With so many lakes in the area, it’s natural to find Ospreys in large numbers. Many nests are constructed atop utility poles, some of which have had platforms constructed by state wildlife workers. As the nest-building is completed, pairs waste no time in laying eggs. Potential intruders are unwelcome, even the two-legged types who just want a photo.

Our local “patch” may not really qualify as a “patch”, but we certainly do enjoy visiting the place! The fact that it requires very little work on our part to see an incredible diversity of birds, other fauna and flora – well, we are not complaining.

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

Small Blessings

Header Image: Halloween Pennant – (Celithemis eponina)

Our daily human existence is boring, busy, chaotic, emotional and all things in between. We have jobs, chores and responsibilities. Our precisely organized schedules are interrupted by unforeseen circumstances. Loved ones need our attention. We need the attention of our loved ones. Bills must be paid. Politics are ignored but nevertheless intrude rudely into our lives. We plan for the future and the future of our children and the future of our grandchildren and for the future of the planet.

No wonder we are overcome with fatigue.

Each of us must find a way to cope with life. Gini and I have been so fortunate to have each other to turn to, to lean upon, to be there no matter what. We learned over the years the importance of having an escape valve for times when the pressures of life build to critical levels. As often happens, our “escape valve” became a habit. A change of venue worked wonders for all sorts of issues. Visiting a Natural Place invigorated our souls and allowed us to reclaim an inner peace.

A trip to “visit nature” doesn’t need to involve a huge amount of planning and preparation. Those would be called “vacations”, which are definitely nice, but may not be practical to achieve with any frequency. We are fortunate to have several spots nearby and all we need do is get in the car and go. Granted, we typically take along some binoculars, camera and water. But we often only spend an hour or two away from the house. For us – it is enough.

Sometimes we see something new and different. Most of the time, we see the same things. But those same things bring us incredible pleasure and we are still able to marvel at Nature’s diversity. Small blessings make our lives better.

Today’s impromptu trip was to the Bridgewater Tract of Tenoroc Fish Management Area, 4.25 miles from our front door. The sky was blue, the temperature was mild and two hours later we were back home.

A poem.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
 

 e.e. cummings

Our constant companion, it seems, no matter where we visit, is the White-eyed Vireo. Now, in spring, constantly singing and lurking low in the understory.

Somewhat rare for our area, a small clear sandy-bottomed creek offers a slightly different habitat than is typical. The difference is enough to attract a dark damselfly, the Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata).

A Snowy Egret patiently tip-toes through the shallow water hoping to locate a breakfast minnow among the weeds.

Large lily pads holding a bit of water make a nice perch for a male Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) to await a passing snack.

New growth each spring at the end of pine tree branches is sometimes referred to as “candles”. On some species, this new growth can take the shape of a cross. Since this growth occurs in early spring, legends are told about how the pine trees know when it’s Easter.

Bright color and extensive wing markings make it easy to identify the Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina).

There’s nothing like an expansive patch of bright blue in a field of brown grass to remind us Spring really is here! The color of the Bluejacket, or Ohio Spiderwort, (Tradescantia ohiensis) really is impressive.

Sporting a yellow thorax with dark racing stipes, blue eyes and a white face, this female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is ready to launch and pursue anything which flies nearby.

Yet another reminder that this is the season of renewal, a large tangle of Sawtooth Blackberry (Rubus pensilvanicus) offers tempting ripe fruit for those brave enough to work through the mass of thorns. Also, these were growing along the bank of a lake and offer perfect hiding spots for our Water Moccasins. Yes, the ones with the short temper and venomous bite. But, the berries are SO SWEET! Risk management ……

We always find something to enjoy when we visit a Natural Place. The bird checklist may be forgotten, the planning may be minimal, the effort may be small – but small blessings are still blessings. We cherish each one no matter the size.

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

Sweet Spring

Header Image: Pricklypear In Bloom

“As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.” – John Muir

“Where would you like to go?”

“Out.”

The morning air was cool and Gini almost wished she had worn that sweatshirt. Almost. As it always does, the sun rapidly rose above the line of cypress trees on the eastern side of the small lake. Residents of this neighborhood were already going about their daily lives. Mockingbirds and cardinals were especially noisy as males announced their willingness to mate with any agreeable females. (Resisting anthropomorphism is a struggle at times.) Double-crested Cormorants decorated exposed perches as they dried their wings. Pig Frogs grunted from nearby weeds. A Red-shouldered Hawk cruised overhead shrieking – just because he can.

This is such an incredible time to visit nature! New growth on trees, blooming flowers, courting animals and our Florida humidity is still in slumber. Today we are sight-seers. No agenda, checklists or schedule. Ambling, conversing, oohing, sighing – and loving every minute of it! Gini-with-the-acute-hearing (and pretty cute …. uhh …. but I digress) announces Northern Parula Warblers seem to be everywhere.

A small dock on a lake provided the perfect setting for breakfast. Yes, peanut butter and jelly on raisin bread – again. Fresh grapes and a tangerine rounded out a perfect repast. While we munched, a pair of Palm Warblers dropped by briefly. They will soon be absent in our landscape until the fall. A huge Brown Pelican lumbered just above the water’s surface and the uniquely eerie call of a Limpkin echoed from a distant lagoon.

We were stunned to count over one hundred Cedar Waxwings this morning! They are still gleaning fruit from Brazilian Pepper bushes in preparation for the long journey north. We’ll miss that high-pitched call piercing the early morning sky. Gray Catbirds “mewed” at us from the understory and an Eastern Phoebe swooped down to grab a grasshopper. Farewell to our migratory visitors.

Osprey nests dot the shorelines of nearly every body of water and we could tell eggs were being brooded in many of them. We tried to identify woodpecker species by the sound of drumming we heard. Swallow-tailed Kites have returned from South America and an incredible diversity of insects have appeared to show their appreciation of newly blooming flowers. Hello to our natural residents.

The sleek Cedar Waxwing has graced us with its presence for the past several weeks. And we appreciate it!

Once it matures, the Heartwing Dock or Sorrel (Rumex hastatulus) turns reddish which gives the otherwise desolate fields a much more pleasant appearance. The early flowers are small and quite beautiful.

Even a small amount of rain is enough to encourage all sorts of things to grow. Especially fungus.

I have never seen an adult, but the larvae of the Salt Marsh Moth (Estigmene acrea) are abundant! This fairly large caterpillar can be found in a variety of color combinations. (If the identification of either of these is not correct, please let me know.)

I would never say one particular flower is prettier than another, but the yellow of the Pricklypear (Opuntia spp.) certainly is appealing! Picking one can be a challenge so I think I’ll just take photographs.

We think this is a male Osprey (it’s a bit smaller than the bird on the nest) attempting to mate with a female which we believe is brooding eggs. She was somewhat discouraging. He didn’t hang around. Smart bird.

Small, tall (about 24 inches) and looking good. We found a small group of Clasping Venus’ Looking-glass (Triodanis perfoliata) which really added some color to the landscape.

One of the drummers we identified earlier in the day made an appearance. A female Pileated Woodpecker probed a few branches before flapping off into the woods. The females have a black cheek stripe and the male’s stripe is red.

It’s hard not to like spring. Especially if you like to be outside. We can leave our cares and concerns indoors where they will patiently await our return. Meanwhile, among the trees we breathe deeply, hear a bird, see a flower, feel the breeze. And we are alive.

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

Multitasking Naturally

Header Image: Swamp Chaos

This is a follow-up to our last post about flowers. There was a tremendous outcry from a massive amount of our followers protesting the fact no bird images were included in the entry. Okay, so there was only one complaint about a post with no birds. Okay, so it wasn’t really a complaint, more of a “note”. Anyhow, our trip to Colt Creek State Park recently did provide us with more than just bouquets of blooms.

We were all “multitaskers” before that even became a thing. Even as infants, most of us could hold a parent’s little finger and smile at the same time. I distinctly remember, as a youngster, being able to walk, chew Dubble-Bubble AND blow big pink bubbles of the stuff simultaneously! One of the staples of 1950’s television was that guy on the Ed Sullivan Show (you youngsters can look that one up on the worldwide web) who would spin plates atop tall thin poles, increasing the number of plates/poles as a nation collectively held its breath knowing at some point there would be crashing and breaking. Now, THAT was multitasking!

Don’t get Gini started on the multitasking abilities of a mother and wife! It’s a prerequisite, no matter what it may be called.

You may have encountered “competition” birders who appear to be single-minded as they travel at break-neck speeds through field and forest checking off birds seen, heard and suspected. These athletes seem to be concentrating on nothing other than the next bird while ignoring all other flora and fauna on their path to glory.

While I used to think these high-speed birdwatchers had little appreciation for anything other than their lists (or in today’s technological world, their “app”), spending time with them has proved illuminating. To become an expert birder, they had to learn a bit about their target species. Education included where to find a bird, a bit about their biology, learning what they eat, how they mate, what their nest looks like, what is the best time of the year/day to look for them – they had to become amateur naturalists if they hoped to remain at the top of their game. In short, in their zeal to find large numbers of birds and new species, they had to learn to multitask in the natural world. Granted, most of these speedsters don’t stop to smell the roses, but they can quickly identify different habitats while at the same time scanning the area for the objects of their desire.

Gini and I are like that. Only in slow motion. With less on our agenda. Birding has been an integral part of our outdoor activities for a very long time. Not the only part, however. How could we explore an area such as Colt Creek State Park which was bursting with blooming flowers (re: our last post), rush past all those plants and only report that we saw some birds? Yes, we were excited to see a Cedar Waxwing, but we were equally excited to see the Purple Passionflower and the Blue Dasher and the Phaon Crescent and even the duckweed-camouflaged alligator.

Multitasking. In nature. Who knew we could do it?

Here are a few things other than just flowers we saw on the same day as reported in our “Spring Floral Collection”.

Just inside the park, atop a stop sign, an adult Red-shouldered Hawk gave us a look that said: “Move along. I’m hunting for breakfast here“. We did as requested.

Cattle Egrets are very common in our area and, true to their name, typically associate with herds of cattle. Originally native to Africa and Asia, they began showing up in North America in the 1950’s and are found throughout the south. Plain and white most of the year, spring breeding plumage transforms this male into quite a handsome fellow!

A Groundselbush Beetle (Trirhabda bacharidis) found on the host plant, Groundsel Tree, also called Eastern Baccharis or Sea Myrtle.

Gini practiced a little “Zen Birding” as she spotted a group of Wild Turkeys a few miles before we arrived at the park. She remarked that it had been a long time since we had seen turkeys within the park. This big Tom showed up a half mile into the park and said whatever the gobbler version is of “et voilà“!

We know spring is truly here when we start seeing some of the larger skimmer species such as this Bar-winged Skimmer (Libellula axilena).

Red-winged Blackbirds were very busy around all the water sources today involved in loud territorial spats, nest-building in the reeds and courtship behavior. This one rose above the crowd for a better view.

We are constantly amazed how nature can take plain colors such as brown and gray and produce an absolutely beautiful creature like the Dorantes longtail (Urbanus dorantes).

Gini exclaimed: “Bluebirds”! And followed immediately with: “And they have friends”! The oak tree revealed three Eastern Bluebirds and a half-dozen Cedar Waxwings. Gini’s eyes are not only beautiful, they’re darned efficient!

Eastern Bluebird
Cedar Waxwing

Bright emerald green in the pine forest understory grabs your attention. An immature male Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) will retain the female coloring for two-three weeks before turning pruinose blue.

Palm Warblers are migratory in our area and are becoming scarce as they return to their northern breeding grounds. The yellow on the belly of this one indicates it is the eastern or “Yellow” sub-species. Palm Warblers west of Hudson Bay typically have light-colored bellies without yellow.

Rounding a bend in the trail, we caught a White-tailed Deer by surprise. She didn’t seem too alarmed and eased into the brush and disappeared.

Frogs were on the brunch menu as every time this Little Blue Heron stabbed at the water you could here a high-pitched “squeak” and a splash.

Just pretend you can’t see her. She knows you can but she worked so hard on that camouflage we don’t want to hurt her feelings.

American Alligator

By far, the most numerous butterfly species we encountered this morning was the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae). The Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is one of their main host plants and was blooming profusely. This individual was visiting a Florida Hedgenettle (Stachys floridana).

Those green eyes, a white face and blue abdomen advertise the little male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is present and accounted for.

One of the few moths active in daytime is the Ornate Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix). We’re happy about that as it certainly looks good in full sun!

Although we’ll soon be seeing them everywhere, the first sightings each spring of the Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) is like finding a gold pendant you haven’t seen in a long time.

The grass beside the trail hides a large number of small creatures. It’s hard to believe we could miss such a bright thing as the Phaon Crescent (Phyciodes phaon), but unless they move, which they do constantly (!), you would never know you almost stepped on one.

Very small and jewel-like, an Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge argyrobapta) busily attended her weaving duties as we watched her toil against the backdrop of a massive cypress swamp.

Accomplishing several things at the same time. Multitasking. Call it what you will, once you enter Nature’s bailiwick, you just can’t help yourself.

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

Spring Floral Collection

Header Image: Field of Purple Passionflowers

We spent a couple of hours the other day ambling through one of our our favorite venues, Colt Creek State Park. Twenty minutes from the house, it is an easy decision to go often. Located on the edge of the vast Green Swamp, the habitat of pine and mixed hardwood forest, a couple of lakes, a couple of creeks, a bit of wetland, some open grassy areas – I mean, if you’re a wild thing, what’s not to like?

As we enjoyed seeing a few lingering bird migrants as well as plenty of resident birds, my very own wild thing piped up to mention how colorful the joint was since our last visit (only a week prior). Indeed, there were patches of color as well as individual blooms standing up to be noticed. As we ventured off a path, our eyes began to adjust to very small bits of color as well. Flowers were hiding, literally, underneath the blooms of larger flowers.

Breakfast in a grove of tall Longleaf Pine Trees was accompanied by Eastern Bluebirds flitting in the canopies, a Downy Woodpecker tap-tap-tapping, a Red-shouldered Hawk screeching as it circled overhead and butterflies and dragonflies hurrying to some nearby appointment.

Spring is a seasoning to be applied liberally to one’s soul.

Our morning exploration included birds and bugs, but it was the blooms which highlighted the day.

(If you can offer any corrections to identifications we would really appreciate it.)

Come with me into the woods. Where spring is advancing, as it does, no matter what, not being singular or particular, but one of the forever gifts, and certainly visible.” – Mary Oliver

Spiny Sowthistle (Sonchus asper)
Spiny Sowthistle (Sonchus asper)
Lyreleaf Sage (Salvia lyrata)
Lyreleaf Sage (Salvia lyrata)
Cutleaf Evening Primrose (Oenothera laciniata)
Bulltongue Arrowhead (Sagittaria lancifolia)
Small Venus’ Looking-glass (Triodanis biflora)
Camphorweed (Heterotheca subaxillaris)
Purple Thistle (Cirsium horridulum)
Purple Thistle (Cirsium horridulum)
Mexican Pricklypoppy (Argemone mexicana)
Mexican Pricklypoppy (Argemone mexicana)
Mexican Pricklypoppy (Argemone mexicana) and Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)
Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
Common Yellow Woodsorrel (Oxalis corniculata)
Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) on Florida Hedgenettle (Stachys floridana)
Oakleaf Fleabane (Erigeron quercifolius)

It is all too easy to become excited when we spot something special in nature and in our enthusiasm we can overlook the small bloom, quiet bird or inactive insect. Go slowly, observe, stand still often, kneel (easier for some than others!). There is infinite beauty in nature so we shall always be able to find something new to savor!

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