Colors of the Spirit

My Dad was a builder of homes. Much like any kid, I valued those days I rode along in the pick-up truck to a job site. The sights, sounds and smells of a new house being built can be pretty heady stuff for an eight-year old. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but by far the most significant part of the experience was time spent with my Father.

On the way home from a job one day, Dad pointed to a huge billboard advertising “Buy A Piece of Natural Florida!“. He said, “See those trees beyond that sign? Those are cypress trees. They can’t grow if their roots aren’t constantly wet. What do you think will happen when folks try to build houses out there?”

Within 10 years, almost no homes had been built in that spot and those which had, needed a lot of fill brought in to create a suitable foundation. Even then, each summer their houses were surrounded by water. “Nature gives us hints”, Dad said. Wise man.

We surveyed the pine woods. Gini has the eyes (and skills) of an artist and her perception of a scene is usually different than mine. I see dead snags which might harbor a Red-headed Woodpecker nest. She sees the different shades of green pine needles and textures of overlapping bark of the trunks. I observe the dense growth of Saw-palmetto beneath the pines. She marvels at the dull green color of the fans and spots tendrils of several species of vines in the undergrowth.

Nature gives us hints.” A Great Egret stands motionless, patiently waiting for the frog to make a move. The large white wading bird’s presence in the middle of a pine forest may seem incongruous unless one is aware that this area is pock-marked with shallow pools throughout most of the year. Without that knowledge and without the “hint” provided by the egret, one is destined to end up with wet feet.

Our morning was absolutely glorious! No birding checklist, no agenda. Observe. Breathe. Absorb.

In his 1836 essay, Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Nature always wears the color of the spirit.” If we are depressed our view of the woods may focus on the dead leaves. A cheerful attitude may enhance our enjoyment of the varying hues of those same leaves.

We know we are not normal. Our over-the-top zest for life has been known to actually annoy friends and family. Nature seems to appreciate our attitude and always manages to wear the color of our spirit.

Grab your sunglasses. It’s about to get bright in here.

The American Kestrel is North America’s smallest falcon. Bright facial stripes, crisp spots on a light breast and yellow legs really stand out while perched on a bright green pine tree.

Rays from the sun were captured and reflected in waves of sunflowers. Narrowleaf Sunflower, or Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) can grow to four or five feet in height and spread several feet in width. The results can be some pretty spectacular yellow vistas.

That Great Egret we mentioned is actually standing in a shallow pool which is almost completely covered in grass just waiting for the unsuspecting hiker to come splashing along.

As we neared the spot where the egret was hunting, the pool opened up a bit and its surface had the appearance of dozens of fallen stars. The illusion was thanks to the diminutive Virginia Buttonweed (Diodia virginiana). Closer examination of these hairy little plants revealed a really beautiful flower.

More highlights of white around the edge of the pool turned out to be Dotted Smartweed (Persicaria punctata). Again, a closer look at the very small blooms showed an intricate beauty we could have easily walked past.

Down in the weeds around the pond, one of the bright grass skippers, a Phaon Crescent (Phyciodes phaon) ignored our presence as it searched for sustenance.

Ray, a drop of golden sun. We were surrounded by gold! And we truly felt enriched. Pinebarren Goldenrod (Solidago fistulosa) was blooming all along the edges of the forest.

Watching a Red-shouldered Hawk on the hunt was one of the high points of our morning.

Purple! It can be a bit startling to be surrounded by the green of the pine woods and green of the saw-palmetto understory and all of a sudden encounter large swathes of purple. Hairy Chaffhead (Carphephorus paniculatus), also called Deertongue, is impressive in this setting. Plants are nearly three feet tall and each “head” sports dozens of unique flowers. The Deertongue epithet is apparently due to the resemblance of rather large and wide basal leaves to the tongue of a White-tailed Deer. Those crazy botanists sure have an imagination!

So, there we were, watching butterflies nectaring at some tall flowers in the distance. Yours truly set out to get closer in order to present you, dear reader, with an acceptable quality of images. One of the large Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Pterourus glaucus) appeared in front of me and I snapped a quick in-flight shot knowing I would soon be obtaining better pictures once I reached the flowers. In tracking the butterfly through the lens, I stepped in a hole. I didn’t fall, but as I glanced down to see what I stepped into, my gaze stopped a few feet ahead.

I was convinced you all didn’t really need any more butterfly pictures. The Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri) agreed with my decision to back up. Rapidly.

Overhead, a Tufted Titmouse observed my predicament. You may not be able to see it, but there is a definite grin on that little beak.

Even more yellow to enjoy! Growing on stems about two feet tall and with leaves like grass, the Narrowleaf Silkgrass (Pityopsis graminifolia) is also known as Golden Aster.

Tangles of bright red stars decorate saw-palmetto and the butterflies appreciate it. So did we! Belonging to the morning glory family, the Cypressvine (Ipomoea quamoclit) has a wonderful combination of beautiful blooms and delicate foliage. A Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) doesn’t care about all that as long as the juice bar is open!

We prepared to leave and were completely ignored by a Red-shouldered Hawk who seemed more interested in something she could have for a snack. Our feelings were not hurt at all.

Our attitudes, emotions and personal circumstances influence how we view life. That view changes as our mental state changes. More often than not, the two of us are able to be optimistic on a daily basis. It truly helps as we explore Nature since she “always wears the color of the spirit”.

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

The Rise of Fall

It’s a beautiful day in our neighborhood patch. The pink/purple/orange dawn sky was clear. Relative humidity was 45% (amazing for Florida!). No wind. Cool air invited one to breathe in deeply. Regular flights of commuters were right on schedule as flocks of White Ibises, Cattle Egrets and Double-crested Cormorants moved from roosts to feeding spots. Quartets of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks whistled at us as they swooped low overhead.

Just like the animals we are, our routine has evolved when visiting this patch based on our prior “foraging” experience. Brushy waysides beyond the entrance gates harbor Eastern Towhee and migratory Gray Catbird. Along the shore of Picnic Lake are the usual wading birds, gallinules, osprey and fall Pied-billed Grebes. Exploring the trees around the cemetery yields a Great-crested Flycatcher, Carolina Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

Our morning continued apace as we checked a few “favorite” haunts. We tended to linger longer than normal at the lakeside locations today as the mirror-like water without a ripple had a mesmerizing effect on us. Gini made a remark about how pleasant and peaceful this was. It almost made birding seem not very urgent…….

Witchety-witchety-witchety!

“That Common Yellowthroat is close.”

Spell broken. Birding resumes.

Glass-surfaced lakes, woods with rusty and brown leaves crunching underfoot, fall flowers still attracting all manner of nectar seekers, cloudless skies where vultures, hawks, eagles and wood storks soared in ever-increasing numbers. Using just our observation data we knew it was autumn. Our tally for the morning was 51 species of birds. That’s over a dozen more than an average day in summer at this spot.

Don’t be scared. We won’t post pictures of all 51. THIS time.

Dawn lookout. This must have been just the right spot as two Red-bellied Woodpeckers kept chasing each other away to claim it as their own.

With a name like “racerunner” one would think of speed. One would be correct. The Six-lined Racerunner (Cnemidophorus sexlineatus) can reach speeds of up to 18 mph in short bursts when chasing a meal. Good news for me – they like to stay on the ground as opposed to scampering to the tippy-tops of tall trees.

Fall means the return of the wrens! It’s like a switch was flipped on today and House Wrens were scolding everything and everyone at the top of their surprisingly loud voices! It was like welcoming a grumpy little friend back home.

Barred Yellow (Eurema daira) butterflies typically become darker in the dry months. The first image below is from August of this year, a “wet season” color form. The second picture, from today’s visit, shows how much darker they become. The darker color helps with heat absorption in cooler temperatures and blends with browning forest detritus.

Several areas were quite busy with yellow butterflies. This Little Yellow (Pyrisitia lisa) is more marked than some we see.

One of Florida’s most common yellow butterflies, the Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae), was pretty abundant today. Extensive underwing markings indicate this is a female.

Another welcome sound in the fall patch is the rattle of Belted Kingfishers. With over two dozen lakes to fish in, this is a pretty popular locale for these winter visitors.

Those beautiful brown eyes don’t miss much. “What IS that?” It took a while for Gini to direct my focus on what she had found. A honeycomb! Not in apparent use, it was adjacent to an area of commercially-tended bee hives. I have read that in times of stress to the main hive, bees will quickly build alternate hives. I think our recent Hurricane Ian might have caused a bit of stress!

Most of the fruit is gone from this persimmon tree but a young Red-tailed Hawk gave us a backward glare that indicated she was peeved at our intrusion. After all, a hungry opossum might come along any minute to snag one of the remaining orange jewels.

Dragons in the fall. Have I mentioned I love Florida? Male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).

Leave it to an Eastern Bluebird to make a utility pole a thing of beauty. Okay, to at least use a utility pole as a perch for a thing of beauty.

Fields and fences are filling with pumping tails. Palm Warblers are arriving in waves. The little songsters are actually plain looking but the more I look at the details of their plumage the more beautiful they appear.

A member of the Tyrant Flycatcher family, the Eastern Phoebe is one of our more polite winter visitors. She is kind enough to loudly and distinctly announce her presence for us. Phoe-beeee!! She eats a lot of bugs, too. And she sports a pretty spiffy hairdo. What’s not to love?

As we were heading toward the exit, we spotted a ferocious encounter taking place in the ranger station parking lot. Northern Cardinals engaged in a life-and-death territorial battle. Documented for your utter amazement.

(Warning; anthropomorphic silliness dead ahead.)

“You get out of here!”

“I will bite you so hard!”

“It’s no use trying to fly away!”

“Take that you red devil bird!”

“I must say, you really fight well and you are quite handsome.”

“Whew. He’s gone. I am still the King!”

Calendars can help us keep track of days and significant human events. Nature allows us to experience the here and now. The chill of Winter, the renewal of Spring, the swelter of Summer and as we revel in the sight and sound of avian migration – the rise of Fall.

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

(Note: We’re changing to a somewhat more stable header image which will probably be some sort of generic Florida habitat display.)

We love exploring new places. The excitement of finding something different. Anticipating new birds, blooms and bugs. The unknown – what’s around the next bend?

Today is not like that. Today is relaxing with a good friend as she and I talk about our grandson’s recent visit, our son’s European trip, plans for Thanksgiving with our daughter’s family and casually observe the passing scene. The comfort of familiar surroundings.

We were greeted at the entrance to the park by a White-tailed Deer and her fawn. The Red-shouldered Hawk was at his normal station mid-way up the pine tree. Calling White-eyed Vireos have now been joined by fall visitors such as House Wrens and Gray Catbirds, creating a cacophonous chorus of welcoming voices. Fall flowers such as morning-glory, blazing star and butterfly pea dotted the landscape around us. Water birds patiently fished around the lakes, newly hatched butterflies probed for nectar, young alligators soaked up the warm rays of the sun.

“Our” breakfast spot under the aromatic pine boughs was almost quiet. Cicadas are still calling even though most species to the north are quiet during the fall and winter months. We find that sort of “background music” quite pleasant.

Although the morning spent in a regular haunt is calming, we still had those moments of involuntary exclamation and pointing as nature typically has a few surprises up her sleeve. An uncommon Red-headed Woodpecker, the first Yellow-rumped Warbler of the fall, hairy caterpillars in a forest of fennel, the sudden clattering of a Belted Kingfisher unhappy that we intruded into her fishing territory.

We did not see any new exotic sights, nor did we discover any different species of life. Our morning was relatively subdued, spent in familiar surroundings while visiting with a few friends – and each other.

A fall migrant, this female Belted Kingfisher objected noisily to our presence. We usually have several kingfishers remain in our area throughout the winter.

A doe. A deer. A female deer. With a young fawn behind her. The fawn is nearly as large as mama.

In North America, the Red-headed Woodpecker population has declined over 50% since 1900. Likely causes are loss of nut trees due to disease and over-harvesting. Additionally, landowners have aggressively cleared dead and dying trees and snags which are primary nesting sites for this species. In Florida, declination is around 25% for the same time period with some populations holding their own in the past two decades. Fingers crossed for the future. Poor photographs but I was happy to see one at all!

The Barred Yellow (Eurema daira) goes through seasonal color changes. Very light during spring and summer and turning darker during late fall and winter.

A Great Egret scratches an itch in the early morning light. With those nails it needs to be careful! A bit later, it’s time for a fish brunch.

In the pine forest, purple seems to be an abundant fall color. We found several vines of Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum) winding around whatever support it could find.

Northern Parula warblers breed in our area and become scarce during the winter months. Some will spend the winter in the southern part of Florida while others travel on to South America.

Tievine (Ipomoea cordatotriloba) is a member of the morning-glory family. It has fairly large flowers and can spread quite some distance if it can find supporting structure. The leaves can be sword-shaped or heart-shaped. In the second image, we found a dead-looking tree which the Tievine had made its own. The tree was over 20 feet tall.

A group of immature White Ibises passed overhead.

Appropriate for Florida with a combination of citrus and sunshine orange, the Gulf Fritillary (Dione incarnata) is a common butterfly for the area. Uncommonly beautiful.

More purple. Gayfeather, blazing star. There are 17 species of Liatris in Florida. This is one of them. No matter what you call it, we think it’s gorgeous!

In a field of Dogfennel (Eupatorium capillifolium), we found a number of caterpillars hungrily munching away. They appeared to all be the larvae of Salt Marsh Moth (Estigmene acrea). These caterpillars vary greatly in appearance depending on instar (developmental) stage. Similar to “wooly bears” but different family.

If events in our lives tend to become overwhelming, having a comforting familiar oasis in which to spend a morning can help us see more clearly. The batteries of our souls are recharged. A small change in perspective can yield large rewards.

As Johnny Nash sings it:

It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, nothing but blue skies
.”

*https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_rB4v75jqU

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

Field, Forest, Fun

Header Image: Sandhill Cranes

Thank goodness we have venues nearby where we can travel less than ten minutes and enjoy birds, blooms and bugs! If we had to plan for a long drive, we might “accidentally” oversleep. Our unscientific research reveals that sunrise and the early birds wait for no birder.

One of our current favorite patches is Tenoroc Public Use Area. It is near the city of Lakeland in central-west Florida in Polk County. Our population is a little over 100,000 but 99.9% of those folks seldom visit our little paradise which is okay with us. This area consists of around 7,000 acres which was once mined for phosphate. Over the past 50 years, extensive reclamation has turned it into a diverse natural habitat with 39 trails and 29 lakes. Efforts have been made to re-introduce native plant species which, in turn, have lured a large number and variety of animal life to call the place home.

We had an early morning surprise when a Coyote sauntered across the road. Poor guy looked like he had a rough night. Coyotes are not uncommon in the area although we usually just see their tracks. Around sunrise, the earliest callers of the bird world are Northern Cardinals and Mourning Dove. As the night gives way to the new day, flocks of White Ibises and Cattle Egret move from roosts to feeding areas. Hammering of woodpeckers can be heard throughout the forest. Common Gallinules gabble from all the lakes. A Red-shouldered Hawk’s scream ensures any creature still asleep is now fully awake.

Two bird calls we only hear during the months of migration belong to the Eastern Phoebe and the Gray Catbird. These were by far the most common calls of the day. Fall flowers are in bloom. Insects are busy visiting the blooming flowers. We are privileged to be here to witness a small sliver of nature beginning yet another day.

The bright male Northern Parula points us in the direction of a pretty flower. This warbler species is already diminishing in number as fall progresses and will soon almost disappear until spring.

Wild Bushbean (Macroptilium lathyroides) is a non-native species which has been prevalent in Florida for at least 50 years. It can become a nuisance if it grows in large clumps due to its tendency to crowd out native species. We like the bloom’s unique brown/purple color.

Poor coyote looks pretty scroungy. Probably just needs coffee.

Male Common Ground Dove have a bluish crown that the female lacks. These small dove are, well, common in our area.

Male
Female

This has been the year of the Red-femured Spotted Orbweaver (Neoscona domiciliorum). I don’t know if it’s because they’re more abundant this year or if we just happened to have been in the right spots at the right time.

Just when we think we won’t see many butterflies as the year progresses, dozens of the critters are fluttering all over the place! This Spicebush Swallowtail (Pterourus troilus) was one of many this morning.

Migratory gang leader. Small songbirds tend to flock together as they migrate each year which may be a strategy for protection from predators. The Tufted Titmouse is typically the first to show up and yell at us as the other gang members flutter around, join in the yelling and eventually flee to the upper canopy.

Flashes of yellow usually mean some sort of warbler is nearby. This Prairie Warbler casts an upward glance and for good reason. (See the next image.)

Although small warblers are not usually on the menu, a Bald Eagle should not be ignored as a threat if you’re a Prairie Warbler!

One of the few moths to be out and about in the daytime, an Ornate Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix) has a terrific mix of color and pattern.

Now that fall has fell, Palm Warblers are part of the landscape. They can be easily identified even at a distance by their habit of constantly pumping their tails up and down.

We will soon see an influx of American Kestrels as northern birds head south. A few will remain here all winter. This bird is likely a Florida sub-species as it was in a field where we observed a breeding pair produce two new falcons over the summer.

We love our swamps and seashores. Some may forget that Florida has an abundance of open fields and fantastic forests to explore. As long as we continue to have fun, we shall continue to visit them all!

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

Header Image: White-tailed Deer

“What a really nice morning!” This was the second time Gini had made that statement since we left the state park. As we pulled into the Bar-B-Que restaurant, she observed that we always seem to say that no matter where we have been. She is right.

This particular morning had not been particularly unusual. We saw a few birds, a few insects, enjoyed nice scenery and we talked about the kids, the coming week, ate some fruit while small birds chipped around us. A “normal” day. We again marveled at how blessed we are to have bits of nature so close at hand for us to explore. It makes us happy.

I started thinking, what is it about these trips that make us “happy“? Analyzing the ingredients resulted in an epiphany. Turns out, it isn’t the things we see or the places we go which make us “happy“. It is – us.

We are content staying at home, visiting a park, driving across the country, dining out, being with our children and grandchildren. Weird but true. We actually like each other’s company! There it is – the secret formula which makes us “happy“. That guy Frank sung that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Turns out he was right.

Happiness can be enhanced. Here’s some of the things we saw this morning which didn’t hurt our happiness quotient at all.

Running head-first down a tree trunk, a small Black-and-White Warbler gives the impression of a nuthatch.

Dragonflies today were skittish and didn’t offer many opportunities for photographs. This Red Saddlebags (Tramea onusta) perched for a moment then took off for parts unknown.

As fall migration proceeds, we will see fewer of many small species of songbirds such as the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

It’s always surprising how many species of insects visit the small and extremely common Beggarticks, or Romerillo (Bidens alba). The little flower doesn’t seem like it would offer much in the way of nectar, but visitors like this Dorantes Longtail (Urbanus dorantes) prove that it must.

A unique wing pattern helps identify this fairly large dragonfly as a Bar-winged Skimmer (Libellula axilena).

Florida has five species of “black” swallowtail butterflies. This is an Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) showing once again the Beggarticks flower has tasty nectar. Photobombed! The first image has a small Crab Spider (ThomisidaeĀ spp.) hiding under the flower. The second image shows a beetle, possibly one of the Leaf beetles (Polyphaga spp.).

The eyes have it. And the White-eyed Vireo has some special eyes!

When one thinks “wasp” the word “sting” often comes to mind. In this case, “handsome” might apply. A Gold-marked Thread-waisted Wasp (Eremnophila aureonotata) visits a Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata) and gets dusted with a bit of pollen.

By now, this flower should be familiar. Another visitor, a Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus), loves the flavor of that Beggarticks bloom.

While admiring a group of tall, gangly yellow blooms, Gini said, “that flower looks weird, like it has a sort of shadow on it”. She insisted I hike around and look at the back of the blossom. She is so smart. A Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) on a Florida False Sunflower (Phoebanthus grandiflorus) had captured a bee for brunch. This particular plant is a member of the Aster family and is endemic to Florida.

We really did have a nice morning. My post-trip analysis of why we seem happy no matter our situation was informative. Although, I’m pretty sure the smart one of the partnership has known it all along.

“If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.”

From Morning Poem, by Mary Oliver

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