Balancing Act

Header Image: Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata)

Early morning sunshine illuminated the forest’s shadowy places and dried the dampness left by last night’s dew. Insects roused from their torpor to start their daily routine of survival. Just above the bugs on the food chain, hungry birds also began their daily routine of survival. Slightly next in line on that food chain thing, a couple of humans raised binoculars in unison to watch the rufous bundle of feathers we call a Carolina Wren probe leaves, twigs and limbs for a bit of sustenance.

We are in awe of nature. (Does it show?) As we are privileged to observe our world’s diverse life forms during our explorations, it occurs to us how incredibly balanced things can be when left unmolested.

Most of us have been informed at different stages of life that “balance” is imperative. We must eat a “balanced” meal or bad things will happen to our health. (Gini and I are of an age where we remember being admonished that failing to clean our plates would somehow result in all the children in China starving.) Parents have been instructed to ensure their kids receive a “balanced” education. Everyone knows the importance of maintaining a “balanced” bank account. As adults, we enter the work force and employers advise us to be attuned to our “work and home balance”. We sign papers assuring the boss we know what that means.

To actually gain insight into the definition of “balance”, we need look no further than just beyond the walls of our cave. Watch the interaction of hunter and prey, the response of plants to water and light, the rising and falling of tides, the timing of insect proliferation and bird migration, the reliable changing of seasons. All of it is by design to maintain “balance”.

This trip was sort of an example of “balance”. It seems we saw nearly equal amounts of birds, blooms and bugs. Very satisfying indeed.

(A note. Apparently, we are simply making too many trips and enjoying ourselves way too much. This has caused our blogging efforts – not to mention many of our other responsibilities – to have been ignored lately. The trip described in this posting actually took place during the first week of September. We shall strive to catch up. Holding your breath is not advised at this time.)

A Carolina Wren seems to have found a cocoon of some sort to its liking. Must be like removing the wrapper from a sumptuous candy bar. (Or maybe it prefers wrapper and all?)

Who knew there were so many ‘hoppers? We parked on the side of the road for a minute and the hood became an instant photo studio (again). A new species for us! The Southern Green-Striped Grasshopper (Chortophaga viridifasciata) is mighty handsome and looks like he means business!

Gini with the laser-sharp eyesight spotted a big dragon zipping overhead and pointed to where it landed. A superb Royal River Cruiser (Macromia taeniolata)!

Florida’ s wild hogs all come from stock introduced by Spanish explorers over 500 years ago. These swine can grow to over six feet (1.8 meter) and reach 150 pounds (68 kilograms)! Typically, they travel in family groups called “sounders” consisting of multiple generations.

The most abundant butterfly of the day was definitely the Spicebush Swallowtail (Pterourus troilus). Butterflies will frequently gather at a spot of sand and rock to absorb salts and minerals. This process is called “puddling”, as the area of leached nutrients is often moist.

Our movements were of interest to a pair of young Eastern Bluebirds. Mom and Dad showed up to shoosh them away from the unsavory looking hunters. Well, one of them was pretty savory looking, actually.

Many species of dragonflies are sexually dimorphic. The difference between female and male Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) is pretty startling!

Pretty but deadly. Showy Rattlebox (Crotalaria spectabilis) has wonderful yellow blooms that brighten the outdoors. This particular species of Crotalaria was introduced from Africa and Asia to take advantage of the nitrogen-fixing nature of the root system. Unfortunately, all parts of this plant proved toxic to livestock, especially horses. Fortunately, most animals avoid it unless they are really hungry.

Its appearance is similar to the female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), but the Great Pondhawk (Erythemis vesiculosa) is a bit larger, slimmer and both sexes are green. We have not seen very many of these dragons as opposed to the huge abundance of the Eastern Pondhawk. This individual is enjoying a healthy meal of White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae). Mmmm, butterfly, it’s what’s for dinner.

Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). Ancient in appearance and fascinating to observe. These wonderful animals dig burrows about six feet (1.8 meter) deep which can reach up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) in length or more. They spend about 80% of their time in these burrows and abandoned ones house an incredible diversity of creatures.

For water birds such as a Snowy Egret, preening is vital to maintain healthy and beautiful feathers.

Camphorweed (Heterotheca subaxillaris) gets its common name from the aroma resulting from crushing the leaves. It’s a common plant across much of the United States and the bright yellow blooms attract a large variety of pollinators.

The largest butterfly in North America, the Giant Swallowtail (Heraclides cresphontes), has a wingspan which can reach almost 7 inches (18 cm). Both males and females are mostly dark above with yellow markings and mostly yellow underneath with dark markings. Impressive sight!

At the other end of the size spectrum for its species is the tiny Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera) stretching the tape to about 0.8 inch (20 mm) in length. This one is a male which has very little marking on its golden wings. As a defense mechanism, this dragon dangles its feet as it flies in order to resemble a distasteful wasp to would-be predators. The small friend sharing a leaf with our dragon is a species of Longlegged Fly (Family Dolichopodidae).

Although fairly common, the Barred Yellow (Eurema daira) has a habit of staying down in the weeds and is easily overlooked. This species can be highly variable in coloration and during the winter months many can become quite dark, almost brick-red in appearance.

Foraging on the forest floor, scratching among the leaves and sporting a spotted/streaky breast, it is easy to see why many don’t immediately think of “warbler” when they see an Ovenbird. Its bright and loud song helps place it in that family.

Our birding patch has a large open field with tall grass and is bordered by hardwood trees. Summer rains keep parts of the field in standing water offering the perfect habitat for the striking Band-winged Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax umbrata).

We happened to see a male Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) ambush a grasshopper and drag it under a bush for brunch.

We came across a sizeable section of Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata). Also called Dotted Horsemint, this is a very showy plant and when in bloom attracts a really incredible variety of pollinators. Especially, well, bees. Beebalm. Attracts bees. Who’d a thunk it?

Gini and I have done our best over the years to maintain a balance in our lives. Perhaps nature has been our role model without us even knowing.

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

27 Comments on “Balancing Act

  1. I continue to marvel at the variety of Florida’s flora and fauna. Today I was most intrigued by imagining the life of the Gopher Tortoise. What marvelous creatures inhabit this earth, and how little we know about so many of them. 🐢

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  2. Thank you for capturing so much of the richness of Florida’s natural habitats. Loved the composition of the Ovenbird image and the delightful macro of the Giant Swallowtale. The stacked-up horsemint blossoms have an architectural quality about them.

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    • Thanks Ken. We’ll keep trying to send you a bit of Florida to enjoy, especially once your New England temperatures become a bit lower! Sorry we can’t bottle up some humidity and ‘skeeters for you.

      When I looked at that horsemint image, I had the same thought as you concerning the architectural aspect. Art imitating nature?

      Take good care.

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  3. We see so much here in Florida that we could probably do a post every day! I love the tiny things you see and photograph, like the dragonflies! And it’s SO much fun to see a Gopher Tortoise. We always start smiling or even laughing when we see one lumbering along. Neat to see the Wild hogs too….if it’s at a distance! Enjoy your week and this beautiful weather! Diane

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    • Thank you very much for the kind word, Diane.

      We Floridians really are blessed. Now I’m take my spoiled self out to the woods and enjoy the flowers. And the bugs. And the birds.

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  4. I was surprised to see your hogs. From the photo and from what you’ve said, they seem to be smaller than the feral hogs we have, and I was surprised to see yours out in the open like that. Most of the time, I only see them dead at the side of the road. Two bikers were seriously injured when they ran into one a couple of weeks ago — they were lucky the hog was the only one that perished. Are yours creating the same kind of havoc in terms of land disturbance?

    On first reading, I missed your note that these were September photos. I couldn’t believe how good your beebalm and camphorweed looked! Do you also have the camphor daisy (Rayjacksonia phyllocephala)? I’m hoping that ours will revive a bit now that we’re getting some rain. From what I can tell, the refuges all got at least .75″ to 1.25″ over the past couple of days, and that should help.

    My favorite photo in this batch? The Gopher Tortoise! I wonder if they tell one another to “go-pher it” from time to time.

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    • The hogs in the photo were all young and younger. “Mama” remained in the brush but was easily twice the size of the largest in the image. They plow up large tracts and the state has traps all over trying to cull them. A truly Sisyphean task.

      Camphor Daisy is found in a few counties west and north of us. Good to see you’re getting a little rain.

      I grew up with a horse pasture adjacent to the back yard. My friend down the block and I spent a lot of time locating tortoises and, in the winter, we competed to see who could find the most hibernating rattlesnakes in the burrows. I let him win.

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      • If you have a half-hour, this interview with Billy Higginbotham is wide-ranging and especially interesting. This was his first interview with a local radio host, and he’s been on many times since. Billy’s with Texas A&M and is known as one of the most knowledgeable hog experts in the state. One note: the interviewer loves word play and has quite a sense of humor. His references to ‘aisle hogs’ went right over Higginbotham’s head; of course he was using the phrase to talk about a certain kind of human behavior.

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  5. All too many people don’t appreciate the importance of balance in nature. All those tons of chemicals spewed into the environment for a perfect lawn that only keeps demanding more and more. Nature left on its own balances everything perfectly. Even the interlopers that create temporary suffering among trees and other plants meet their own doom naturally without our interference. Enough from me. My neighbor, and so many others like him, really fuels my complaints.
    That Royal River Cruiser is quite regal.The Eastern Amberwing shot is terrific. The Ovenbird is one of my favorites to hear but I rarely see one. We used to have a couple in our small woods behind the house but no longer. Wonder if I can blame my neighbor for that.

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    • Our feral hogs would like to have a word with you about that perfect balance. They’re interlopers, for sure, and they’re not going to meet their doom without some serious human interference. The damage they cause to the land, to other species, and to the balance of nature generally is beyond significant. They’re tearing up huge sections of the Brazoria and San Bernard refuges; last weekend it was worse than I’ve ever seen it. But, to balance things out a bit, they do make for a nice sausage!

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      • You are right about the hogs creating havoc with nature’s balance. “On balance”, I should have left the porkers for another post!

        Sausage is good, but hawg shoulder smoked and served with swamp cabbage (heart of palm) and sweet ‘taters is hard to beat.

        Florida has an open season on hunting feral hogs. Need a permit for federal and state lands. Ranchers and farmers are encouraged to take as many as possible. As you point out, without human intervention they can ruin the landscape in a hurry.

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    • I think we’re on the same wavelength regarding those who don’t appreciate nature’s balance. I would offer to trade neighbors, but you would never forgive me.

      It hit 91 degrees today so I’m hoping tomorrow will be a good day to go dragon hunting. Fall in Florida. Brrrr!

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  6. Another perfect day meeting the denizens of one of your favorite patches. One huge realization – I had no idea that the pale-leafed plants I’m seeing in our prairie environments is a Beebalm! That was a revelation – I’ll have to study it more closely. Thanks for taking us along!

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    • Thank you, Sam. It’s a nice place to roam around in and we always seem to find something different.

      Do take a closer look at those beautiful Beebalm blooms. Just don’t get a bee in your bonnet!

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  7. Hi Wally and Gini. And thanks for explaining how you two are perfectly balanced and always in tune (most of the time). If only our politicians could practice the home economics of balancing the books and having a little left over for a rainy day, instead of increasingly turning to the money tree?

    You show us other fine examples of perfect balance and poise in those insects, especially the Giant Swallowtail of 7 inches!

    Ah yes, the hood. That made me stops for a moment to remember that our bonnet began when referring to the sweet little Austin Sevens and Morris Minors driven by sweet old ladies. I’ve seen some of your trucks and Cadillacs where a hood or hoodie is probably the best description. And now I’m trying to place you both in a make of vehicle. I guess you drive a Honda or a Jeep but definitely not anything fast and furious?

    Our weather is completely out of kilter again with six days of rain & wind and one half decent day. Three and four would be better , ideally seven of the best.

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    • Nature has taken care of our pairing as one of us is quite unbalanced and the other joyfully overcompensates.

      Politicians. I blame their parents.

      You’re pretty close on vehicles. We have been in a Honda and Toyota Land Cruiser (the very early basic metal model, not the luxury “SUV” of today). Lately we have evolved into a Subaru Outback. Surprisingly comfortable and agile in mud and sand. Alas, it still lacks the ability to clean itself.

      I was going to mention how good our own weather has been, but I didn’t want to depress you any further. — Ooops.–

      Here’s to fair weather for our fowl hobbies!

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  8. For me, this is photographic perfection added to an entertaining and informative commentary, Wally. The subjects featured are gorgeous with, as I’m sure you will understand, the dragons being my favourite and the supporting cast not far behind. The balance is unsurpassable!

    Things are getting to be a little more interesting in the garden here – which is a good thing as I’m not currently getting out much!

    With my very best wishes to you and Gini – – – Richard

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    • Payment is on the way, Richard, for your over-the-top kind remarks! Made my day.

      Interesting gardens are to be cherished. (And photographed!)

      We are very well and the new week is off to a great birdy, buggy start!

      Hoping you and Lindsay have a joyful week.

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