Scratching An Itch

It is 0645. Sunrise.

Not a hint of a breeze.

The grass path is wet from last night’s rain. Or morning dew. Both.

In the distance, Limpkins call from opposite ends of the wetlands.

Overhead, a pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks whisper about their breakfast  plans.

Sandhill Cranes trumpet loudly from an adjacent pasture where they spent the night.

Morning has begun in the marsh as it does every day. The difference today is – I am privileged to be a witness.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetlands was engineered a few years ago as a method to prevent annual flooding of Itchepackesassa and Blackwater Creeks. The project included digging the wetlands to varying depths to mitigate flooding and potential erosion. A planned side benefit is to offer diverse habitat for waterfowl and other life forms by having sections of deeper, mid-level and shallow water. Care was taken to include plants with filtering properties to help cleanse water as it flows through the wetlands.

A raised berm around the marsh allows for easy walking. The area is bordered on the south and east by stands of hardwood trees which attract a great variety of migrating passerines as well as resident nesting birds.

From an entirely selfish standpoint, one of the best features of the site is on almost any weekday, I can spend a morning here and seldom encounter another human. Especially when it’s 78 F (26 C) with 90% humidity at dawn. Within an hour, it will be 85 F (29 C) and by the time the car is in sight, 94 F (34 C). One must be either crazy or a birder to be out for a two-mile stroll in such conditions! Ahhh, the Sunshine State at its best!

A thin mist clung near the surface of the marsh as I began my slow trek around the berm. Common Gallinules cackled their displeasure as I interrupted their morning routine. Pugnacious Common Green Darners stopped patrolling long enough to challenge my presence, hovering in front of my face, daring me to take one more step. Egrets, herons, ibises – flying singly and in groups, slowly gathered around the marsh to go about the daily business of survival. Beautiful flowers abound in the wetlands, which, in turn, attract pollinators of all types. River otters live here as well as Bobcats. Bald Eagles and Osprey nest nearby and today I saw an American Kestrel family. Very encouraging to see the falcons breeding here! In the woods, I searched in vain for the Yellow-billed Cuckoo I saw last year. My consolation prize was finding two adult and two immature Black-crowned Night Herons perched along the creek.

It’s hot now. Back to the car and a drink of cool water.

Called Gini to see if she needs anything. Home is only ten miles from here. “Cream for my coffee.” Happily. Lox and bagel brunch awaits.

 

(Header image: A Great Blue Heron wings her way across the wetlands against a backdrop of large oak trees draped in Spanish moss.)

 

Steamy wetlands at sunrise.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

A Great Egret greets the day atop a Wood Duck nesting box.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

On patrol, a Common Green Darner (Anax junius) stops long enough to confront me.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks have become quite common over the last couple of decades. These large tree ducks have a high, thin whistle which is unmistakable.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

The marsh is home to a variety of blooming plants which don’t mind wet feet at all.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

Bulltongue Arrowhead (Sagittaria lancifolia)

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

Bandana-of-the-Everglades (Canna flaccida)

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

String Lily (Crinum americanum)

 

One of the small grass skippers, a Whirlabout (Polites vibex) clings to a dew-covered leaf.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

A Great Egret spotted a flock of White Ibises feeding and performed an abrupt aerial maneuver to descend quickly and join them.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

I counted 12 Long-tailed Skippers (Urbanus proteus) in this one area. The nectar must be sweeter here for some reason.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

The uniquely-shaped bill of the White Ibis is designed for probing deep into soft mud and those blue eyes don’t miss much, including a suspicious character on the edge of his marsh.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

There are not that many all-dark dragonflies in our area and the unusually thin abdomen where it joins the thorax helps identify this individual as a male Pin-tailed Pondhawk (Erythemis plebja).

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

The Black-crowned Night Heron family of four was a nice find. Three of them flew away as soon as I rounded a corner, but one youngster remained to gawk at me gawking at her.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

Discovering a new species makes a day special! Today, I found my first Hyacinth Glider (Miathyria marcella)!

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

Salad for breakfast is okay, if you’re a Common Gallinule.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

The bluish wash of color on the wings indicates this is a female Spicebush Swallowtail  (Papilio troilus). The male has a more greenish tint.

Itchepackesassa Creek Wetland

 

 

Hot – yes. Humid – yes. Beautiful – undeniable! Beginning the day exploring the marsh was extremely pleasant and rewarding. Do you have such an area near where you live?

 

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

Metamorphosis

I was recently reminded of a series of books developed for children which explained various aspects of science. That was a v-e-r-y long time ago, but one in particular stuck with me. It showed the life cycle of the butterfly. The fact that a caterpillar could turn into a beautiful butterfly was utterly fascinating. Still is.

We have been blessed with an abundance of butterflies where we live and a few weeks ago had a chance to observe the life cycle of butterflies up close and in person. Gini spotted a larva of the Gulf Fritillary on its host plant, the Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). Later that morning, she forced me to photograph a pair of fritillaries mating. Later still, we found a newly emerged butterfly drying its wings beside the chrysalis it had been encased in for the past week.

The miracle of transformation.

 

Adult Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)  2-4 Weeks

Tenoroc-Bridgewater

 

Mating

Tenoroc FMA

 

Larval Stage  2-3 Weeks

Tenoroc FMA

 

 

Chrysalis Stage  5-10 Days

Colt Creek State Park

 

 

As we all go through changes in our lives, it can be challenging to maintain a positive outlook. Especially these days, negative forces seem almost overwhelming.

Embrace change as an opportunity instead of an obstacle. Live your best life every day!

 

Tenoroc FMA

 

 

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

Diversity Training

Once upon a time (stop me if you’ve heard this one), our primary consideration in planning an excursion into the Great Outdoors was limited to researching what birds might be found at a particular location. Was fall or spring migration in progress? Could we hope for wintering birds? Perhaps new bird families would offer an opportunity to observe chicks pestering parents for food or practicing flight lessons.

As time progressed, so did we. It turns out there are more things in nature than just birds! (Do NOT tell birders this. They will not accept your premise.) My Very Best Friend, who is incredibly intelligent, has always been blessed with an open mind and has avoided the curse of tunnel vision with which I am often afflicted. I might be focused on a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and how best to frame it within the camera’s viewfinder and my VBF will pipe up: “Oooh, what a pretty dragonfly she has caught!”

Evolution. Bird watchers are typically naturalists at heart. Those feathered creations live amongst majestic trees, gorgeous flowers and vast fields all of which also provide homes for hordes of other life forms. It is just not possible to ignore all that nature offers. So, we just try to embrace it.

This poor excuse for a “blog” has been changing somewhat to reflect our interests beyond birds. It is difficult to predict if that trend will continue or if there will be a step back into what has been a “comfort zone”. We’ll see.

Our local state park is 22 minutes from here and provides a pretty good example of how diverse nature can be. Colt Creek State Park contains over 5,000 acres (2,000 Ha) and consists of native long-leaf pine flatwoods, lakes, streams, open vistas, cypress domes and an incredible variety of life which calls it home.

Herewith, a small sampling of what a morning of observation recently produced.

 

Small clouds of gold hovered above the path along the lake. Wandering Gliders (Pantala flavescens) patrol the area to defend their territory.

Colt Creek State Park

 

A pair of Northern Parula tirelessly hunted for insects and delivered their bounty to hungry new mouths unseen in the nearby oak trees.

Colt Creek State Park

 

Although their nests are common around human habitation, we don’t often notice the Black and Yellow Mud Dauber (Sceliphron caementarium) in the wild. Capable of delivering a sting, they are seldom aggressive. They pack the cells of their nests with spiders, so that may be a mark in their favor for some.

Colt Creek State Park

 

Guardian of the facilities! This Squirrel Treefrog (Hyla squirella) was perched on a door hinge to the restroom. Small but colorful.

Colt Creek State Park

 

The “calico” plumage of a Little Blue Heron lets us know she’s likely less than two years old. I interrupted her preening and you can see a feather remnant in her beak.

Colt Creek State Park

 

I sometimes think film-makers use nature to inspire their on-screen alien creations. A Leaf-footed Bug (Acanthocephala femorata) would make a good movie star!

Colt Creek State Park

 

A New Species! It’s always exciting to come across something new. Gini saw a large butterfly that turned out to be just that. At first, we thought it was one of our dark-colored swallowtail varieties. But wait – no “tails”! Turns out it is a Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) and this area is probably pretty much the southern limit of its range.

Colt Creek State ParkColt Creek State Park

 

One of the few flycatcher species to breed within Florida, the Great Crested Flycatcher, has beautiful lemon-yellow, rich brown and gray plumage. Their loud, clear whistling call rings out through the forest at this time of year.

Colt Creek State Park

 

Sports model. The Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) with his racing stripe thorax and dusty blue abdomen looks ready to dash off on a moment’s notice.

Colt Creek State ParkColt Creek State Park

 

Blackberries are ripening and Wild Turkeys are quick to take advantage of the harvest!

Colt Creek State Park

 

Here are a few examples of the parks floral selection, which explains why so many pollinators love it here. Us, too!

 

Common Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

Colt Creek State Park

 

Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana).

Colt Creek State Park

 

Leavenworth’s Tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii). (Don’t know the insect.)

Colt Creek State Park

 

Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum).

Colt Creek State Park

 

Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata).

Colt Creek State Park

 

 

We love birds and birding. We love the fact that birding opened our eyes to so much more to discover. Hopefully, you, too, have a love for Nature’s diversity and places to go to see it all.

 

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

Summer is enveloping us. Walking out the front door is like entering a huge sauna. The humidity turns clothing into a heap of sopping wet rags. Camera and binocular lenses fog over and wiping incessantly doesn’t help. Five steps from the car and perspiration runs down your face and stings your eyes.

I. Love. It.

Tenoroc Fish Management Area has become our favorite local patch. With over 7,000 acres of land and diverse habitat consisting of 23 lakes, pine flatwoods, wetlands, hardwood forest and open grassland, the area is extremely attractive to a myriad of flora and fauna species. The number of sportsmen is managed closely in order to prevent over fishing, so it never seems crowded. Opening only Friday through Monday also gives the area a chance to recover from human visitors. Did I mention it takes ten minutes for us to get there?

The moisture has been wiped from our lenses for the umpteenth time and it seems that may have done the trick. Just in time. A pair of noisy Red-shouldered Hawks are yelling at us from atop an oak tree. We normally see an adult hawk at this location and these two youngsters may be from breeding earlier this year. Most of our local raptors and many wading birds nest during the winter months. A new dragon! The Little Blue Dragonlet is tiny and it’s hard to believe we’ve never encountered one before.

Breakfast AND a show! While we munched a granola bar and a Florida tangerine, a young male Eastern Bluebird spent the entire time entertaining us by trying to figure out where all those bluebirds came from on a truck parked at the boat ramp. There was one in the side-view mirror, one in the window, one on the door, one on the windshield, one on the other side-view mirror – whew! Watching the poor thing flutter at all of the reflections made us tired. He must be exhausted!

Osprey nests with chicks were everywhere. The strange calls of Limpkins rang out across the wetlands. Dragonflies flew patrols along lake shorelines. Turtles and alligators stared from their watery comfort zones. Snake! Several species of snake call this area home. Spotting one of them usually causes me to jump from the car, lie flat in the road and snap a few quick images before following the critter into the grass in the hope of a closer image. Not this one. The unique design of a wedge-shaped head with eyes on the side, thick body and skinny tail identify a Water Moccasin. Venomous. Can be unpredictable. I am not afraid of snakes, but I do have a healthy respect for them. Despite Gini urging me to get out for a better photo, I was thankful for a l-a-r-g-e lens. She loves me so much.

As is usual, time flew by and it was almost lunch time. We had seen so many very special sights this morning!

 

Siblings? A pair of Red-shouldered Hawks kept screeching at us until we were well out of sight.

Tenoroc FMA

Tenoroc FMA

Tenoroc FMA

 

A new dragonfly species for us, the Little Blue Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula) is really small with a total length of about an inch (25-27 mm). We were extra lucky and found female and male at the same spot.

Tenoroc FMA

Female

Tenoroc FMA

Male

Our breakfast friend, an immature male Eastern Bluebird. He tried his best to make some new friends but, alas, it was not to be.

Tenoroc FMA

Tenoroc FMA

Tenoroc FMA

 

Butterflies obtain needed minerals from mud as well as other materials which they can’t get from plant nectar. That’s why it’s common to see a multitude of them gathering around a mud puddle. Here, a Horace’s Duskywing (Erynnis horatius) tries to extract a bit of salt from the sand at a lake shore.

Tenoroc FMA

 

Dressed all in black with a dark face, the Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta) is the only large all black skimmer in our area.

Tenoroc FMA

 

During the months of migration, American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) fly through Florida headed for South America. A few remain all winter. Florida also has a resident population listed as the Southeastern American Kestrel (Falco sparverius paulus) which breeds from mid-March through June. These non-migratory falcons are currently listed as a threatened species due primarily to loss of habitat. It was very encouraging to see this female in summer!

Tenoroc FMA

 

Water Moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus) average 2-4 feet (61 to 122 cm) long when mature, have “cat-eye” pupils and a wedge-shaped head with a somewhat thinner neck. Their overall appearance is “blocky” or “thick”, with head and extreme tail appearing small in proportion to the rest of the body. Their nickname is “Cottonmouth” due to the inside of their mouth being bright white. They open their mouths wide when in a defensive posture. Their venom is quite potent and consists of hemotoxins which prevent blood from clotting. FATALITIES ARE EXTREMELY RARE. If you think you’ve been bitten by any poisonous creature, seek medical help immediately. Unfortunately, each year many harmless snakes are killed needlessly because someone didn’t take the time to learn how to identify them. If you’re going outdoors where dangerous creatures live, learn what they look like! Killing a snake (or any other animal) is seldom necessary.

Tenoroc FMA

Tenoroc FMA

 

Our morning ended on a very bright note. A Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia) put in a brief appearance. We don’t care that he is not a native Floridian, having been introduced from the Caribbean several decades ago, probably through landscape plants. He’s simply beautiful!

Tenoroc FMA

 

It seems no matter where we explore nature, we always find something at which to marvel. From a small dragonfly to a magnificent hawk to – yes – even a poisonous reptile. A day spent in nature’s realm is never ordinary! You should go. Soon.

 

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

 

Additional Information

Tenoroc Fish Management Area

Plan B

Anticipation. One dictionary definition describes it as “pleasurable expectation”.

As my memory cells fade into unreliability, a few still meld and conjure up examples of “pleasurable expectation”. Fishing trips. When I was very young, Dad would come home on a Friday afternoon and walk around the boat, check the level in the gas tank, put the tackle in the truck – “Want to go to Panasoffkee in the morning?”

Anticipation. Now I couldn’t sleep. Vivid thoughts of the boat sliding into the cypress tree tea-stained water, fog hugging the lake’s surface, dipping minnows from the bait bucket, the tug-tug-tug on the line, sandwiches up the creek by the spring. No sleep. Let’s go!

One would think now that I am an old man, such childish dreams of upcoming trips would fade. One would be mistaken.

An otherwise ordinary plan to visit a local fish management area to search for young birds, insects, flowers and to just enjoy a day in nature results in tossing and turning during the night. Visions of the island rookery with alligators cruising all around it, new dragonflies to discover, the aroma of pine trees in the air, purple passionflower in bloom. Let’s go!

The rising sun illuminated the small guard building where we would check in and get our permit to visit the lakes of the Mosaic Fish Management Area in south Polk County, Florida, just northeast of the community of Bowling Green. We’ve been here many times and always discover something unique.

Wait. The door is locked and no one around. A notice says “This office will be open Friday through Monday, 6:00 a.m. until Noon.” It was Friday. It was 6:20 a.m. A drive by the access roads to the lakes confirmed all the gates were locked.

So much for anticipation.

Time for:  PLAN B.

Without hesitation, Gini The One With Common Sense says: “Hardee Lakes Park is not far from here.” Let’s go!

This is our first visit to the county park this year. It’s one of our favorite spots to spend the day due to the diverse habitat surrounding four lakes. We pull past the entrance and immediately hear Sandhill Cranes trumpeting and the clear songs of Eastern Meadowlarks. Parking under tall pine trees near the shore of the lake, Gini spots a large bird flying low and landing near the lake. As I begin to wander in that direction, “It’s an owl!”. She got a terrific look at the Great Horned Owl perched in a pine tree as it was mobbed by Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds. As I maneuvered to get a photograph, the big raptor took off. I managed to get the tip of her tail in focus.

It was an exciting beginning to what would be a glorious day of discovery! And I didn’t even lose any sleep thinking about it the night before.

 

One of our smallest dragonflies, the Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera) takes on a golden glow in the early morning sunlight. Females usually have dark wing markings while the males are more clear-winged.

Hardee Lakes Park

 Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera) – Male

Hardee Lakes Park

 Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera) – Female

 

With a wingspan of nearly 30 inches (76 cm), the Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive sight. The flash of black and white wings and flame red crest can be quite attention-grabbing!

Hardee Lakes Park

 

We probably saw over a hundred Four-spotted Pennants (Brachymesia gravida), one of the area’s most common dragonflies. As with many Odonata species, young males resemble females until they mature.

Hardee Lakes Park

Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida) – Male

Hardee Lakes Park

Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida) – Female

Hardee Lakes Park

Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida) – Immature Male

 

Complete with sporty racing stripes and cool blue abdomen, the male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is ready to “dash” after any likely-looking prey at a moment’s notice.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

A fairly large dragonfly, the immature male Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) resembles the female but is beginning to show a slight purple tint to its abdomen which will eventually turn almost neon in the near future.

Hardee Lakes Park

Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) – Immature Male

Hardee Lakes Park

Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) – Female

 

Probing the bark of a pine tree for breakfast, this young male Red-bellied Woodpecker will soon display the brighter reddish-orange cap and nape of a fully mature adult.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

We will pretend to be scientific when we refer to this shiny green insect as a Halictid Bee. It just sounds so much better than Sweat Bee. (Halictidae spp.)

Hardee Lakes Park

 

A Cuban Brown Anole (Norops sagrei) surveys its kingdom.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

I stood in one spot for about 20 minutes observing and photographing near a lake shore. Turning to leave, I discovered a Purple Gallinule about 20 feet away had been observing ME!

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Orange body with golden-edged wings describe the male Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami).

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Unlike the invasive Cuban Brown Anole above, the Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) is a native resident. There was concern the invader would negatively impact the native population but recent studies suggest our Green Anole is doing okay.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Male and female very often look nothing alike in some species and dragonflies are no exception. The male Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta) is dark overall while the female is lighter and displays a sporty wing pattern.

Hardee Lakes Park

Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta) – Male

Hardee Lakes Park

Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta) – Male

Hardee Lakes Park

Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta) – Female

 

 

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) looks like a beautiful green jewel shimmering along the edge of the marsh.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Our day wouldn’t be complete, it seems lately, without finding one of our more efficient predators, a Robber Fly (Asilidae spp.). For those familiar with rock bands, you may recognize a member of “ZZ Top”.

Hardee Lakes Park

ZZ Top

 

 

Anticipation of a specific event need not turn to disappointment when that event cannot occur. Our “pleasurable expectation” was fully satisfied. “Plan B” was executed flawlessly, whether by intention or happy accident. We hope your plans, no matter what letter they may involve, include a heavy dose of anticipation and satisfaction.

 

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

 

Additional Information

Mosaic Fish Management Area

Hardee Lakes Park