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!

A Grand Day Out*

Header Image: American Alligator

Pre-dawn gray slowly transformed into stunningly bright blue skies and a glance to the east risked temporary blindness as the sun announced its arrival. Every field was adorned with sparkling jewels of dew held in place by gossamer webs spun during the night. A few scrub oak and sand pine trees were scattered here and there among the weedy fields. As we turned onto the forest road, saw palmetto replaced the weeds and longleaf pines became the predominant tree.

Today we are in the Arbuckle Tract of the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest in west-central Florida. Ancient oceans once covered most of what is now the peninsula of Florida. A ridge along the center of the peninsula remained above water where many diverse life forms thrived as the waters slowly receded. Today, the area along this ridge is home to 33 plants and 36 animals which are on federal and state threatened or endangered lists. It is a wonderful place to explore!

This trip is even more special due to a guest adventurer. Our First Grandson came along for the ride. He is visiting from Philadelphia and spending time together was our actual goal. Mission accomplished.

The latter part of our sub-tropical wet season has seen a bit more rainfall than average and much of the area was quite soggy. The good news is all that water has produced an abundance of wildflowers! Most notably, bright yellow blooms of Partridge Pea lined every road and path. Beyond the edges of the trail, we saw bushes of American Beautyberry, loaded with ripe purple fruit. Northern Bobwhite murmured to each other as they skulked beneath palmetto fronds debating whether it was safe to scurry across the path. The echo of woodpeckers hammering on trees was present all morning. A group of a dozen young Wild Turkeys ran alongside the car as we headed out of the forest.

There were plenty of birds around, but most remained beyond the reach of the lens today. Damp red clay roads told the tale of who had passed during the night. White-tailed deer, raccoons, opossums, snakes, rodents, coyotes, bobcats, wild turkeys. Amazing.

Come. The forest beckons.

First Grandson spied a spider. An orb weaver. The web was about three feet in diameter. Turns out, he found a species new to us! Darned smarty pants kids. This beauty is a Florida Garden Spider (Argiope florida).

In some spots the bright green leaves and purple fruit of American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) seemed to be all around us. Indeed, the entire forest was punctuated by purple. The berries are edible and can be made into jelly and wine. Leaves can be crushed and rubbed on your skin for a mosquito and tick repellant. CAUTION!! TEST IN SMALL AMOUNTS FIRST TO BE SURE YOU DON’T HAVE AN ALLERGIC REACTION!

One of our favorite butterfly species is often difficult to find perched for more than a moment. This Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus) was kind enough to hold still for a nice portrait.

Feathery leaves and puffy pink flowers belie the thorny branches of Florida Sensitive Brier (Mimosa quadrivalvis) just waiting to leave their mark on unsuspecting arms and legs. The USDA calls this plant Florida Mimosa and there are a couple of closely related species. One of the diagnostic features of this variant is the uniquely recurved thorns. The “sensitive” part of the name is due to the leaves folding upward when touched (even by raindrops I discovered).

Brilliant morning sun enhances the golden abdomen and wings of a Little Blue Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula). This tiny (about an inch/25 mm long) dragon likes to stay low in the grass and can be hard to spot.

Blue blossoms to match the sky! True to its name, the Whitemouth Dayflower (Commelina erecta) will only bloom for a day. Fortunately, the plant produces a nice succession of blossoms, so the forest floor is dotted with fragments of sky throughout the season. Appearing in today’s photo is a species of Leaf Beetle (Oulema genus).

Mama Nature is nothing if not diverse. Mixing up the color scheme a bit, we ran across the beautiful orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). As one would suspect, this is a favorite of many nectar lovers!

One of the more plentiful dragonflies of the day, a Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina) steadfastly patrols a section of lake shoreline immediately chasing away any intruders.

The color combination of lavender and yellow makes the Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana) easy to identify. Uniquely curved shape of those yellow anthers adds even more interest to an already outstanding-looking flower.

A small lake in the middle of the forest attracts an astounding number of creatures of all sizes. One of the larger residents is the American Alligator. We estimated this one to be about eight feet (2.4 meters) in length. He/she was not shy and made a show of swimming quickly in our direction then checking to see if had run away yet. We retreated respectfully after a few photos.

There are about 30 species of Ludwigia (Primrose-willow) in Florida. This can make identification a challenge. One of these species helps by having uniquely narrow leaves and is actually called Narrowleaf Primrose-Willow (Ludwigia linearis). Call it what you will, those yellow flowers are simply gorgeous!

Every few steps produced something wonderful to savor. Case in point: a Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) on Carolina Redroot (Lachnanthes caroliana).

Tall stems, small flowers. The Coastal Plain Yelloweyed Grass (Xyris ambigua) can reach three feet in height and the tiny three-petaled flowers normally only bloom in the morning.

Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) on Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). Rivers of yellow lined many of the roads and paths throughout the forest as the Partridge Pea put on a show. These plants are hosts for several butterfly species, the blooms produce nectar for many insects and the ripened seeds are favorites of dove and quail.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker probes a burnt tree trunk for brunch.

First Grandson was impressed by the variety of spiders we discovered during the morning. He thought this Red-femured Spotted Orbweaver (Neoscona domiciliorum) was particularly striking. I agree.

Purple stripes on a patch of white guide nectaring insects to the buffet bar within. A woody vine which coils around its neighbors for support, the Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum) can reach up to eight feet in length. Pale lavender flowers add yet another hue to the forest panoply.

Florida. Sub-tropical climate. Rainy season. Fungi. Inevitable.

Making tracks.

Nature’s Commuters
Coyote

The Great Crested Flycatcher will soon retreat a bit to southern Florida for the winter.

Grandson. Grandma. Grandpa. The Grand Outdoors. Truly a Grand Day Out*!

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

*(For Aardman fans, no cheese was harmed in the making of this post.)

Postscript.

Seven days after our visit, Hurrican Ian passed slowly over this forest with churning winds of nearly 100 mph and inundating the already saturated ground with over 15 inches of rain in a 12-hour period. Much of the tract remains closed due to downed trees and flooding. The forest will rebound. In its time.

Our Favorite Day

Header Image: Red-eyed Vireo

“What day is it?” asked Pooh.
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.”

― A.A. Milne

As we entered the month of September, thoughts turned to fall migration. Even in a region which barely alters appearance during “autumn“, we can sense all sorts of changes. We actually do have some trees which have leaves showing us a golden or reddish hue instead of forest green. Annual bird migration is turning into an almost constant drip of Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts, Northern Waterthrush and the formation of mixed gangs of Tufted Titmice, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Downy Woodpeckers. Gini is researching new recipes for upcoming holidays.

September should be the seventh month since it derives its name from “septem“, Latin for seven. That was under the Roman calendar. Then an ancient bureaucrat decided that system wasn’t very accurate and suggested the Gregorian calendar instead. So now we have the “seventh” month appearing on our walls and phone apps as the “ninth” month instead.

With the notable exception of visiting medical facilities, our lives are mostly uncluttered by schedules. Most evenings come to a close with “want to go for a ride in the morning”? Occasionally we plan a trip further afield and must figure out how much food and gas to accumulate the day before.

This day was a typical casual visit to the local patch. Boiled eggs and grapes are good “mobile” breakfast items. From the house to the entrance gate is a ten-minute drive so we get to sleep in a bit. The area is not huge so we can cover it fairly well before lunch. Did I mention there are usually some interesting things to see?

I’ll show you.

A Brown Thrasher is a strikingly handsome bird. The bright brown plumage and golden eyes are highlights of this large member of the mimic family. Mockingbirds get credit for copying the songs of other birds, but the Brown Thrasher is equally proficient.

It’s easy to forget the Eastern Towhee is actually a sparrow as it doesn’t quite resemble the “little brown job” appearance of their cousins. This female appears to be in the late stages of molting. Florida has a native species of Eastern Towhee which has pale eyes instead of the red eyes of more northern birds.

Pelicans are normally associated with salt water. We are about 50 miles from the nearest salt water but a small group of Brown Pelicans breed in our local lakes annually. This one spotted a school of small fish, made a dive and filled its pouch with breakfast.

Looking a bit tattered, a Velvetbean Caterpillar Moth (Anticarsia gemmatalis) wandered among the dew drops early in the morning.

The colorful Northern Parula warbler will soon be absent from our woodlands as they head to South America for the winter.

One of the many members of the morning-glory family is the small-flowered Cypressvine (Ipomoea quamoclit). I believe it is not native to Florida and the feathery leaves certainly don’t resemble those of others in the family.

Looking more like some sort of thrush, the Ovenbird is a warbler which prefers foraging among the leaves of the forest floor instead of chasing insects among the high-altitude limbs of trees.

Exuvia. I just like saying the word. This one belongs to one of the 19 species of Cicada found in Florida. If you prefer, you may call this a “cast nymphal skeleton”, but I find “exuvia” more pleasing.

It seems this young male Northern Cardinal has just about completed his first molt and will soon be more completely red, just like Dad.

We have three species of large dark members of the King skimmer family which are common in our area. The Bar-winged, Great Blue and Slaty Skimmers. This is a female Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta).

As birds begin preparing for migration, they eat almost constantly in order to have sufficient fuel for their long journey south. Some smaller birds form loose flocks which can help provide some protection from predators. For the next several weeks we’ll see larger and larger groups of birds such as the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher chasing down anything that moves in a tree or bush.

We are so fortunate to have a climate that allows us to see many creatures much later in the year than other parts of the world. A Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) was kind enough to allow a photograph from underneath, an angle we don’t always have a chance to capture.

As bright as our famous citrus, a fresh Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) visits a Spanish Needle for nectar.

Another visitor to the Spanish Needles is a Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia), Florida’s state butterfly.

A Red-eyed Vireo silently probes through the trees. They breed in our area but more show up during migration as they head to South and Central America.

Another favorite day! We saw so much yet feel like we could have seen so much more. I suppose we shall just have to return for yet one more favorite day.

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

Ups and Downs of Nature

Header Image: Prairie Warbler

Autumn. In many parts of the world, seasons are marked by distinct, often visible changes. Green in spring, white in winter, bright warm days of summer and colorful leaves in autumn. In our sub-tropical environment here in central Florida, we had to invent the calendar in order to keep up with what season we were experiencing. It is now (looking over at the wall calendar) “autumn”.

Gini and I were born and raised in Florida. Immediately after signing a marriage certificate, I bundled her into a car and whisked her out of the state in case she came to her senses and changed her mind. Second thoughts may, indeed, have entered her conscience when we arrived at our first new home in Syracuse, New York. March in Florida was already hot. March in upstate New York – stuff on the ground called “snow“. Our very first encounter.

A fresh blanket of snow in a forest was a new and amazing adventure. Small birds hopped along a branch and caused a mini blizzard. Tracks on the white forest floor told the story of who passed this way. Deer, raccoons, fox, mice. Exploring nature in this environment was actually quite similar to our efforts in Florida, albeit cooler. In addition to New York, we have been fortunate to live in Maryland, west and south Texas and three different areas of Germany. The climates and habitats differed in each but the method of exploring remained the same.

Birders are afflicted with a physical phenomenon during each spring and fall migration season. “Warbler Neck”. Constantly scanning the tops of trees for visiting birds uses muscles we don’t exercise as much during the rest of the year. Evolving from “just a birder” to becoming a more all-around observer of nature means our necks are getting an even more strenuous work-out. Now we look up high for birds and scan the ground at our feet for insects, plants and evidence of nature’s life cycles.

A recent visit to our local patch at Tenoroc Public Use Area provided a perfect example of our approach to investigating nature. Birds and insects were very active at near eye level, raptors soared high above us, flowers lured us close for a better look which resulted in discovering insects on the plants which led to finding more insects on the ground and then a hawk screamed from above and a lizard scrambled from underneath my foot and … you get the idea.

We will never be quick enough nor sufficiently observant to document all of nature’s wonders, but today was a good day. Migratory birds beginning to arrive, resident birds forming into groups in preparation for heading south, insects going about their business of survival. Enjoy it with us.

Normally, a hawk will fly away screaming as soon as we’re spotted. This Red-shouldered Hawk remained in place as if challenging us to explain our presence.

About the same size as a House Sparrow, a Common Ground Dove surveys a field from atop a gate.

Small and hyperactive describes the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. In preparation for migration, they form into groups along with other species which helps provide a bit of protection from predators.

One of the gang members the Gnatcatcher hangs around with is the Tufted Titmouse. They make a good show of being fierce and aggressive.

Male Northern Parula warblers have a distinct band separating a bright yellow throat and breast. They have two white wing bars and a lovely yellow-green patch on their back.

Don’t forget to look down. A blade of grass covered in droplets of dew is a perfect perch for a small Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus).

Remember to look up again. A flash of bright yellow in the top of a tree reveals a Prairie Warbler.

Down again. Partially hidden, the blue eyes of a Barred Yellow (Eurema daira) stare back at us.

Changing from breeding to non-breeding plumage is not always an attractive affair. This male Indigo Bunting was a bit of a surprise in this area.

An uncooperative model. Most of the time, we have to be satisfied with what’s offered. I followed this Hyacinth Glider (Miathyria marcella) for quite a while hoping for a better angle. Sigh. At least from the rear you can see the dark “saddle” spots on the hindwings and the golden wing veins.

It seems most areas we visit lately have an abundance of Spicebush Swallowtail (Pterourus troilus) butterflies. That’s okay with us! The bluish wash on the wings indicates this is a female. The male wash is more greenish.

A colorful dragon with blue eyes and striped face, the Two-striped Forceptail (Aphylla williamsoni) is always a treat to find.

That bright green could be part of the plant, or it could be the Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) spinning her web around a stem to form a nest. She will then produce an egg sac containing hundreds of bright orange eggs. Fairly large for a spider, the female body can reach about an inch (26 mm) in length and a total with leg span up to 2.75 inches (70 mm).

No matter where you may live on this beautiful planet, when you understand that Nature has its ups and downs, you will know exactly where to look for her treasures. Oh, don’t forget eye level. And behind you. And over there, too!

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

Willful Wander

Header Image: White-tailed Deer

Avian fall migration brings out the worst in me. Years of conditioning to be a better “birder” forces me to peruse local birding reports and to visit locations which have historically proven to be “hotspots” for our annual autumnal visitors. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, in the past few years I have discovered other interests in the natural world. I blame the inexorable advancement of the human aging process.

For whatever reason, Gini has avoided this affliction. However, don’t ask about her first sighting of a Bullock’s Oriole, which involved a primal scream, an arm flung across my chest while driving and a near-vehicle accident. That was “excitement of the moment” as opposed to my “addiction” issues.

I knew things were changing in my approach to birding when more and more time was spent driving and walking around somewhat aimlessly with no specific “birding” goal. Nature revealed heretofore unexplored worlds. The camera focused more often on insects and plants. There have even been moments when I removed the “big lens” and replaced it with a “wide-angle lens”. On purpose.

Our present-day methodology is still one of exploration, especially of new places, but our focus has shifted to observing ALL life forms within the environment. No longer do we move about with no goal in mind. Our wandering is now – willful.

Today we enjoyed a rather short but rewarding wander. Gini refers to our “new” agenda as the three “B’s”: birds, blooms and bugs. What could be better than that?

A small Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus) on Alligatorflag (Thalia geniculata). (Alligatorflag is also called Fireflag and Bent-alligatorflag.)

This Wild Turkey is standing in a field enjoying the view. For reference, this adult bird is probably close to 40 inches (100 cm) tall which gives you an idea of the height of the weeds.

We’re fortunate to have a sub-tropical climate which allows us to enjoy insects such as this Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina) a bit later in the year than some areas.

This model dropped by the studio for a photo session. Actually, he hitched a ride on the car and remained long enough for a picture. A new species for us, a ruggedly handsome Ridgeback Grasshopper (Spharagemon cristatum).

A curious Eastern Bluebird flew to a snag overhead. Turns out there were four more bluebirds in the branches above.

Likely an older female Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans) as her eyes have turned from dull greenish to blue.

Should we photograph a butterfly or a flower? Happily, a solution was presented. Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) at Saltmarsh Morning-glory (Ipomoea sagittata).

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos). Equally beautiful from above or below, this view of the small butterfly shows the namesake crescent near the hindwing margin.

Pretty sure at least one of those many eyes is looking at me. Small, colorful and quick dragonfly describes a male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).

Love in the shade. I felt like I should apologize for interrupting this pair of Sleepy Orange (Abaeis nicippe) butterflies. Turns out, they ignored me completely.

Going birding will likely still be a part of our lives. Exploring all aspects of our natural world will continue to expand. The aimless wanderers will try to be more willful in scope.

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