Spring Mix

Header Image: Red-bellied Woodpecker

Ingredients: Baby Lettuces (Green Leaf Lettuce, Green Oak Lettuce, Tango Lettuce, Lollo Rossa Lettuce, Red Oak Lettuce, Red Leaf Lettuce, Butter Lettuce), Baby Greens (Tatsoi, Mizuna, Red Chard, Green Chard, Frisee), Baby Spinach, Radicchio, Ingredients May Vary By Season.

The above is from a label on a package from our grocer labeled: Spring Mix. Most of us purchase a similar package in July or December and don’t really care if it is Spring outside or not. We’re just happy to have something green and fresh-looking we can drown in some oil as we delude ourselves that we are eating “healthy”. Granted, it really is healthier than a hamburger. Taste – that’s an argument you will have to have with your inner self.

Wait a minute! Why are we discussing salad?

Gini and I made a foray to one of our favorite places recently and our morning was incredibly refreshing. You know, like a green salad. (Enough, already!) The day began as many do at this time of year in our low, wet places. Foggy. Also typical, the gray stuff didn’t last very long at all. Sunshine, birds and even some bright blooms made the day special. Before we knew it, it was lunchtime. Wouldn’t a garden salad be a lovely way to dine today? (Stop that!)

Colt Creek State Park never disappoints, because Nature never disappoints. Stepping beyond a line of cypress trees is like slipping behind a curtain where a completely different world is revealed. Here, one can find shallow water, tall trees standing and fallen, a carpet of wet leaves, fungi in abundance, quiet warblers searching for a meal, a noisy hawk alerting all to our presence. Today there was a pair of River Otters busily probing the dimly lit dampness until they spotted us. They silently and completely vanished.

Back in the open again, we disturbed a North American Racer sunning on the road and were immediately reminded why it’s called a “racer“. Wrens, sparrows and an unexpected Northern Waterthrush confirmed that Spring migration was still in progress. A Great Egret in breeding plumage, bright blooms and a few mosquitoes hinted that the calendar season known as Spring was upon us.

No additives needed to enjoy this Spring Mix.

Daylight delayed. Within the swamp, mist had been captured by the cypress trees and provided an ethereal beginning to the day.

We emerged from the veil of the cypress dome to find clear skies above Lake Mac with a few Cattle Egret lounging around last night’s roost.

It’s a bit early for a Northern Waterthrush to show up in our area as it heads northward to its breeding grounds. It is possible it spent the winter here. What’s not to like – plenty of warmth, water and bugs!

More taxing taxonomy. A North American Racer (Coluber constrictor) is also called Racer, Black Racer, Eastern Black Racer, Southern Black Racer and Everglades Black Racer. The latter two monikers are assigned to possible sub-species of C. constrictor. Whatever you choose to call it, this is a very handsome reptile. We have one in the back yard which helps in population control of such things as roaches and mice.

It is not in Carolina. It is not in the desert. It is not related to chicory. So, obviously, it is named “Carolina Desert-Chicory” (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus). Any questions? I happen to think it is an incredibly attractive flower. It has also been called “Texas Dandelion” and “False Dandelion”.

Avian migration brings us several bundles of feathered joy. One of them is the Sedge Wren. As you meander through the weeds, these little brown jobs jump up, fly a couple of feet and melt into the brown undergrowth. Occasionally, their inherent wren confrontational attitudes cause them to remain exposed for about three seconds. Plenty of time for a portrait.

Marsh Wrens are very similar to Sedge Wrens. They typically can be found among reeds growing in water whereas the Sedge Wrens prefer things a bit drier. Physically, the Marsh Wren does not have the strong wing barring and head stripes of its Sedge cousin.

An early-blooming favorite of ours is Walter’s Viburnum or Small-leaf Arrowwood (Viburnum obovatum). A member of the Honeysuckle family, this shrub can grow up to 10-20 feet tall.

Since we are fairly certain a pine tree does not (yet) produce acorns, we assume this Red-bellied Woodpecker stashed his treasure in a crevice during the winter so he could enjoy it on this bright warm day.

A Great Egret’s size makes for an impressive flight display against the backdrop of cypress trees and cattails. The reddish hues of the trees are aging leaves.

More Spring yellow! The Showy Rattlebox (Crotalaria spectabilis) may be an invasive plant, but the flowers certainly are – well – Showy!

(Age alert.)Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman!” You were right the first time, it’s a bird. Some songbirds might think it’s “Superbird“! The Cooper’s Hawk is extremely fast and is very adept at negotiating dense forests and underbrush to capture its prey.

Speaking of small songbirds, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet scours the undersides of limbs and leaves for a bug brunch.

Yet another winter visitor, the Swamp Sparrow, spends migration season with us in fairly large numbers. We found eight of them today.

One more yellow bloom found this morning is the Mexican Pricklypoppy (Argemone mexicana). Such a wonderfully bright flower with a delicate poppy-like appearance but protected by a very thistle-like array of thorny leaves.

As we headed toward the road home, an male American Kestrel posed near the park exit. These handsome falcons nest within the park and we look forward to seeing a new family this summer.

Lunch time! Let’s see, what shall we have today? I know! A big, green, luscious salad! Perhaps a – Spring Mix? Try to get outdoors once your local weather permits and seek your own mix of Nature’s changing seasons.

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

Header Image: Great Egret

To say we had a nice afternoon would be a world-class understatement. It is difficult to believe we were there less than three hours. Not only did the birds cooperate, human visitors were extremely kind as well. The efforts to improve Orlando Wetlands Park have been quite successful. A new visitor and education center is under construction and will add even more to the total experience one may enjoy at an already satisfying wildlife destination.

Birds continued to carry nesting material to waiting mates, alligators splashed around us, flocks of ducks careened in blue skies, non-nesting birds flew in and out of the dense foliage, cries of Limpkins echoed across the wetlands, the sun descended – we reluctantly trudged back to civilization.

We shall return.

The Great Blue Heron can look ungainly on land or perched in a tree, but in flight – it is magnificent!

Adding even more color to an already colorful day, a Purple Gallinule is a blend of an incredible amount of subtle and not-so-subtle hues. Those large feet help it maneuver across lily pads with ease.

Tricolored Herons develop a patch of blue at the base of the bill and a white plume atop their head during breeding season.

A Snowy Egret cruised by dragging its golden slippers behind.

They’re loud, they’re bullies, they hang about in gangs, they steal food, they aren’t pink or yellow or red. The Boat-tailed Grackle, however, is quite a handsome bird when we take time to look at it in the right light.

This image is pretty much the landscape in which Gini and I have lived as native Floridians. Clean lakes, lush lily pads, reeds and cypress trees draped with Spanish Moss. Oh, and a few birds, too.

Great Egret series.

During breeding season, a green patch develops on the egret’s face and long delicate plumes grow from its back. It was these plumes which hunters gathered primarily for ladies’ hats in the 19th century and the Great Egret nearly became extinct as a result. Conservation groups such as the Audubon Society and federal laws were created to protect the species. Today it thrives in habitat such as these wetlands.

At the bottom left, you can see a bluish egg in the nest.

Somewhat similar to the Grackles, the European Starling may not have a sterling reputation, but they sure can be very attractive.

Spoonbill Island. Looks like they hired a contingent of Black Vultures for security. With binoculars, we counted over 20 Roseate Spoonbills within this image. Some are hidden in the shadows.

All black except for silvery-white streaks on its wings and back, a male Anhinga has a pretty good grip on a palm tree stump with those webbed feet.

Happiness is sharing a good snag with friends. And singing about it. Roseate Spoonbills and a Wood Stork late in the day.

Similar to its Tricolored Heron cousin, the Little Blue Heron develops a patch of blue at the base of its bill during breeding season. As the season progresses, its eyes will turn almost all black.

The plumage of the male and female Blue-winged Teal is different but both are equally attractive. In the second image, a flock shows their namesake wing patch which matches the blue sky.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, hundreds of ducks across the wetlands moved from feeding areas to nightly roosting spots. It was an incredible scene.

Orlando Wetlands Park. Truly a unique venue – even for Florida.

It is easy to become overwhelmed by everything this location has to offer for birders, photographers and anyone who enjoys nature. We have chosen to follow the ancient advice on how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. So we will return for a series of trips and report on other areas of the park as the seasons progress.

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

An Abundance of Riches

Header Image: Roseate Spoonbill

We are so very fortunate in many aspects of our life here in central Florida. Beautiful beaches are within an hour of our house. Nearby lakes teem with fish begging to challenge the sportsman. Forests, swamps and fields offer incredible opportunities for birding. Of course, the crowning glory of interplanetary entertainment is a mere 30 minute drive from our front door. (Well, 90 minutes in “normal” traffic.) For a couple hundred dollars, Walt Disney World says we can visit and they will make our “fantasy a reality”.

Or –

Less than 30 miles east of the Magnificent Magic Kingdom of the Mouse is a park which is filled with many objects of our flights of fancy. No charge for admission.

Orlando Wetlands Park was formed from a project to reclaim waste water from the city of Orlando. Consisting of 1650 acres, the wetlands area became a magnet for all manner of birds and wildlife (e.g., deer, raccoons, otter, bobcat). Turns out a few humans who happen to like all manner of birds and wildlife are attracted to the area, too.

It had been a long time since our last visit and we received notice from a couple of extraordinary photographers which motivated us to make the trip last week. Many thanks to Jess (https://www.blog.catandturtle.net/blog/) and Ed (https://edrosack.com/) !! Visit them if you enjoy quality photography.

Information they provided got our attention. In December, the park completed construction of a 2200 foot boardwalk into the wetlands. Part of the boardwalk passes within close proximity to a wading bird rookery area. It is breeding season for many of those birds.

Bad news.” Gini is not accustomed to hearing this and it’s usually followed by “thunderstorms predicted” or “nuclear holocaust scheduled for today”. I had to inform her we were not going to set the clock for 0-dark-thirty and could have a leisurely lunch before heading to the park. Naturally, this did not compute without further explanation. Thanks to a hint from Jess, we knew the afternoon sun would be behind us and would provide better light for viewing the rookery. Good move.

Less talk, more images.

(I tried. Honestly, I really tried. There are just so many things to share this will be yet another two part post. Not sorry. You’ll just have to scroll faster.)

A Glossy Ibis displays that delightful “mother-of-pearl” plumage.

Wood Stork series.

All occupied Wood Stork nests.
Gathering nesting material.

Black Vulture. Her mother would be proud of her beautiful daughter. The rest of us – admire the perches.

Roseate Spoonbill series. (Warning: Pink Overload.)

Carrying nesting material.
Asleep on the nest.

Where there is water, there will be Red-winged Blackbirds. There is a LOT of water out here!

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck series.

Coming and going. Where is air traffic control?
With a Blue-winged Teal tag-along.

We were a little early in the nesting cycle and didn’t locate any baby birds within view. There will be plenty of them in the coming weeks based on the number of birds we encountered. A return trip may be required.

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

(Stay tuned for Part Two.)

Additional Information


A Return To The Forest

Header Image: Florida Scrub Jay

It was a dark and stormy night. The day was bad, too. The last few days of September saw Hurricane Ian gain incredible strength in the Gulf of Mexico before roaring ashore in southwest Florida at nearly a Category 5 level with winds around 150 mph. Five months later, many areas of that beautiful coast are still reeling from the amount of damage the storm caused. Some lives were lost and many others were changed forever.

We live inland and had a very windy, rainy experience but were spared the brunt of the catastrophic storm. Our power remained on for the duration and we picked up tree limbs from the yard for a couple of days. For us, it was no worse than any other hurricane we have experienced in over 60 years. Our location in relation to Hurricane Ian’s path was key in our relatively favorable experience. Only 15 miles to the south, the storm cut a wide swath of destruction as it marched eastward across the peninsula.

One of our favorite spots to explore is the Arbuckle Tract of the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. The tract was closed for a couple of months due to downed trees, flooding (24 inches in 12 hours) and washed-out roads. A few weeks ago, we returned to once again marvel at nature’s resilience.

The forest service did a great job repairing roads and trails. It was obvious that a great many trees had been lost. The flood waters had receded and streams ran clear and the tract’s one lake, Lake Godwin, was once again accessible. And beautiful.

Our entrance to the forested wonderland was met with an early morning ground fog which burned away quickly after the sun had been up an hour. The red clay hauled in to resurface the roads revealed who had been traveling this way during the night. Tracks of White-tailed Deer, Raccoons, Opossums, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Coyotes, snakes, lizards and several unknown creatures were encountered every few yards.

Winter migration is still in full swing and there were bird sounds coming from the side of the road as well as from distant trees. The view of Lake Godwin shortly after sunrise was incredibly peaceful with not a ripple to be seen on its surface. The pine trees smelled great and were filled with small birds going about the business of surviving another day. We were treated to a dramatic battle for a dead tree snag. Gini reminded me I promised to rent a dump truck so she could fill it with millions of huge pine cones for craft projects.

Once again, we were in the forest, at peace, satisfied with life and all was right in our world.

Welcome to the forest.

Ground fog settled across the pine savannah.

The bright sun peeked through the fronds of a Saw Palmetto and then made short work of dispensing with the bit of remaining morning mist.

Lake Godwin provides a pleasant view of lily pads and pine trees. In the distance we heard the trumpeting of Sandhill Cranes. The day was beginning.

It seemed spider webs adorned every available stalk of grass and tree limb.

The diminutive Brown-headed Nuthatches are our area’s earliest nesting songbirds. They typically travel in loose family groups. This morning we counted at least eight of the little balls of feathers probing every part of the trees in search of breakfast.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers visit with us during migration and will be gone from the forest by Easter.

Although we see many migratory Pine Warblers, Florida also has an abundant population of resident birds.

Another winter visitor, an American Robin, perched long enough for a picture before flying off to join a flock of dozens of cousins feeding in the distant pines.

Eastern Bluebirds breed in this area and they are attracted to pines with nearby open spaces.

(Warning: Flight Of Fancy Dead Ahead)

A Bird Tale

This is a fine snag“, said the Florida Scrub Jay. Her partner agreed.

Oh, no! A Common Grackle!”

I’ll get his attention while you attack from the rear!”

Alas, the Grackle was prepared and fought viciously!

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, there appeared a red-haired stranger! (Known to his friends as the Red-headed Woodpecker).

The ensuing epic battle seemed to last forever! (At least five minutes.)

At last, peace returned to the snag and the Jays relaxed with their new Friend.

The End

The Florida Scrub Jay is endemic to Florida and will only breed in very specific habitat. They can be found in higher and drier areas with Sand Pine and Scrub Oak (from 3 to 6 feet tall). Loose family groups help tend nests and young birds during their first year.

It is always sad to see destruction and injury from any cause. We are constantly amazed at how quickly nature can recover from severe damage. Returning to an area we love to find it in such outstanding condition was more than gratifying.

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

(Note. Our blog posted on 10/23/22 described a trip I made with our grandson seven days before Hurricane Ian hit the area. https://ournaturalplaces.com/2022/10/23/a-grand-day-out/)

A New Dawn, A New Day

Header Image: Anhinga

The morning was cool and clear. Standing by the small lake, the silence was broken by a Limpkin calling in the distance. That served as a wake-up for several local residents. Common Gallinules gabbled from the shallow-water grass, an Anhinga squawked as it flapped from a nearby cypress branch, White-winged Dove demanded to know “Who-Who-Who Cooks For You”.

We had arrived a little while before the sun rose and just as the moon was setting. Light from the imminent dawn provided a bit of warm color to the opposite shore of the lake. A short distance away, we found another small lake with a bit of mist hanging above the surface and the moon still hanging above it all. Turning around, the sky was becoming bright. Our new day was beginning and we were reminded how truly fortunate we both continue to be.

Our adventure began with watching a pair of Blue-winged Teal feed in the shallows as the bright sun warmed the air and water. I coined a new (?) term for the water droplets on the spider webs: “Dewels“. Gini rolled her eyes. Flocks of Double-crested Cormorants and White Ibises moved overhead as they left their nightly roosting spots. Wading birds waded. Warblers warbled. We came across a mystery. (How did THAT get THERE?)

After an hour of leisurely ambling we shared a small breakfast. Gini is an extraordinarily talented cook. One of her holiday treats is banana bread. She decided to expound on that theme and incorporated some of our area’s famous fresh strawberries in her bread recipe along with walnuts and other secret ingredients. The result has been phenomenal. Her announcement of taking these loaves of love and giving them to family and friends elicited whines of resistance from yours truly. I am almost ashamed of being so selfish. Almost.

After enjoying a slice of heavenly bread, our morning continued to reveal nature’s beautiful diversity. The incessant calls of a White-eyed Vireo allowed us to locate the bug hunter as she scoured the undersides of leaves and limbs for a bug brunch. We couldn’t believe it was so late! Time and birds fly when we’re having fun.

The setting moon viewed from two different lakes.

After taking the second photograph above, I turned around and took this image. It is a chaotic scene of the rising sun through distant pine trees, grasses, brambles and palm trees. Welcome to our “patch”!

A pair of Blue-winged Teal in the early sunlight.

It is so fascinating to find a seemingly infinite number of spider webs which have been spun during the night. This one is bedecked with (you know what) “dewels”.

“Churrr-churrr-churrr.” Even from a distance, a Red-bellied Woodpecker wants all his neighbors to know there are intruders out and about.

A bit of a mystery. Yep, it’s a bat. Impaled on a barbed wire fence. We have read that the Loggerhead Shrike would take small mammals as prey but we had never seen evidence they ate anything larger than lizards. I’m trying to visualize a shrike chasing a bat, catching it and holding on to it long enough to stick it on this barb. I couldn’t come up with any other scenarios.

An American Coot displaying how simple it is to run on water.

It’s nearly breeding season for many wading birds. This Tricolored Heron sports a small white plume on its head and soon its bill and eyes will turn dark.

I was peeking at it. It was peeking at me. This Yellow-bellied Sapsucker never would pose in the open. Another month or so and these beautiful woodpeckers will have all returned to their northern nesting areas.

One of the bird world’s “little brown jobs”, a Swamp Sparrow quietly sat in the underbrush. Their unique head pattern, gray neck and rufous wings help separate it from other “LBJ” relatives.

Another migratory visitor, the Yellow-rumped Warbler, shows off its other yellow bits.

Loud. Aggressive. Confrontational. Troglodytes aedon is here! With a Latin name larger than the actual bird, a House Wren is first on the scene to scold any potential threat.

Heard more often than seen, the White-eyed Vireo is a welcome sight to all except an insect. This bird cocks her head as the warm sun encourages bugs to become more active.

The sun indicated it was nearing noon and with no strawberry bread in sight, it was time to head home. It had been a superb new dawn and new day. And we’re feelin’ good!

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