Forest Foray

Header Image: Lake Godwin Moonset

“Every day should start this way.”

Gini’s simple statement was not only profound but a goal worth striving toward.

About an hour earlier, we were on the shore of Lake Godwin, a small freshwater impoundment within the Arbuckle Tract of Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. The moon was descending beyond a line of pine trees. As the sun rose behind us, our surroundings took on a golden glow. The surface of the lake was completely undisturbed and we were enveloped in silence. No car noise, no sirens rushing to aid someone in trouble, no radio or television insisting we must have something we don’t need – a blessed audio void.

One of Nature’s snooze alarm’s jarred us from our reverie. A pair of Sandhill Cranes trumpeted their way across the forest heading from their nightly roost to some field where they will spend the day foraging. That did it. A distant woodpecker hammered on a limb. Screaming somewhere in the distance, a Red-shouldered Hawk announced this was HER forest! The Common Gallinules woke up and began clucking among the lily pads. The moon faded. The sun blazed. The day began.

“Every day should start this way.” She is so smart.

A short distance from the lake, we encountered a tree-top gang marauding the local insect community. The ring-leaders, as usual, were the Tufted Titmice. Palm Warblers, tails bobbing, covered the ground territory while Pine Warblers scoured the middle portions of the tree canopy. Red-bellied Woodpeckers checked all the pine cones while their cousins visiting from the north, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, scampered up and down pine tree trunks prying under slabs of bark. From high in the treetops came the unmistakable high-pitched squeaks of the Brown-headed Nuthatch clan. They descended toward us like tiny brown and gray missiles emitting the sound a child’s rubber ducky makes when squeezed incessantly.

Then, they were all gone. The forest was quiet once again.

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest is so-named due to an ancient ridge of dunes that remained above waters which inundated the peninsula over a million years ago. Three separate tracts make up this state forest and we were exploring our favorite, the Arbuckle Tract, named for nearby Lake Arbuckle. The tract consists of over 13,000 acres of pine and oak scrub, flatwoods, sandhill and bottomland hardwoods. Within the state forest are 33 plants and 36 animals which are on state or federal endangered or threatened lists.

Our morning continued with bright blue skies and birds galore. As spring advances, this is one spot we visit often for the wildflowers and insects, especially dragonflies. One main road splits the area and several side roads and trails offer plenty of opportunities for adventure. Check out the link below for more descriptions and maps.

The main road through the Arbuckle Tract is usually in good condition but can be challenging after heavy rains. Be careful. It’s always fun to see the variety of tracks on the road. Deer, raccoon, opossum, coyote, bobcat, mice, quail, snakes – a great place to take youngsters (and even some oldsters!) for a wildlife quiz.

Lake Godwin has a dock and a nice view of the surrounding pine forest. A source of water such as this always attracts wildlife and exploring the shore can be exciting.

From the understory came a loud “Tow-eee”! The Eastern Towhee also reminded us it was time for breakfast with its distinct call: “Drink-your-teeeeaaa.”

The Red-bellied Woodpecker will not only crack open and eat the seeds of a pine cone but knows the cones are great places for bugs to hide.

Brown-headed Nuthatches are among our very favorite birds. Pugnacious and gregarious. They are one of the earliest breeding songbirds in Florida, typically on the nest by the second week in February.

Forest management has helped reconstitute many species of trees decimated during the late 19th and early 20th century by logging. This section of mature planted pines is supported by native understory such as large swaths of Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens).

Migration brings Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers to our many woodland areas and more than a few remain throughout the winter.

Pine Warblers are residents of Florida but their population swells considerably as migrants join the party during migration.

Open spaces with plenty of pine trees in this area usually means a healthy population of Eastern Bluebirds. Right on cue.

This female Downy Woodpecker has spotted something moving atop a snag. Branch brunch.

Wet flatwoods surrounds an open area of Cutthroat Grass (Panicum abscissum). This species of grass is endemic to Florida and only found in areas with sufficient groundwater seepage to support its growth. The Lake Wales Ridge is one of only a few remaining such areas in the state.

Our foray into the forest was enjoyable, exciting, relaxing, memorable – you know, just another ordinary day for your intrepid birders! We hope you have a forest or similar locale nearby where you can go to explore and contemplate the good things in life.

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

Additional Information

https://www.fdacs.gov/Forest-Wildfire/Our-Forests/State-Forests/Lake-Wales-Ridge-State-Forest

Short And Sweet

Header Image: Sandhill Crane On Nest

(Whoa! Lower your expectations. This will not be a post about my favorite person. And, please, don’t tell her the title of today’s entry. She fully agrees with the latter description but takes great umbrage with the first. My physical safety is at stake here, so, thank you in advance.)

I was born in a small village in southeastern Florida long ago before the age of flying cars. Oh, wait, that hasn’t quite happened yet, despite the promises of “The Jetsons”. It was so long ago (how long ago was it?), that our main entertainment on television was the “Honeymooner’s” with Jackie Gleason, the Ed Sullivan Show and Sunday afternoon baseball. After church on Sundays during the baseball off-season, a late-afternoon treat would be the “Sunday Drive“.

We got pretty excited at that prospect (we being the children in the group), because we knew the ride usually ended in a stop at Drexel’s Dairy. For city kids (or, more precisely, suburban kids), petting a baby calf or feeding horses a carrot was a special experience. Not to mention the lasting effects (some of it on our shoes) of enjoying the fresh aroma of a working dairy. The highlight, however, was the marketing geniuses at Drexel’s knew a free cone filled with fresh ice cream would ultimately result in dairy items being ordered for delivery the following week.

That small village where I was raised grew a bit over the years. It has been several decades since I have returned to Miami and still can’t think of a reason why I would.

Solidifying the theory that Gini and I have always been soulmates is the discovery that she, too, had a similar “Sunday Drive” experience as a mere child. (Through some time-warp trick of the universe, she was a child only a couple of years ago.) Dairies and ice cream also rest within her memory of those days.

Lately, when we bring up the subject of “going for a ride”, regardless of the day of the week, it automatically triggers the loading of optical equipment, survival snacks and tumblers of water into our trusty vehicle. While none of those items may actually be used, one can never be certain when they may be needed. Cows and ice cream may not (necessarily) be our end reward, but any day spent with Gini has its own very unique and indescribable bonus, just for me. (I’m selfish that way.)

On this day’s drive, we visited a commercial sod farm. Many former citrus growers have been affected by past downturns in their industry due to economic times, natural attacks on groves and pressure from foreign competition. The demand for lush green grass from homeowners, businesses and civic developers convinced many to convert the beautiful bright green and gold landscape of citrus groves into flat squares of turf as far the eye can see.

Benefactors of this evolution, besides tireless marketing consultants telling us we must have green lawns or face excommunication, include several different species of birds, especially shorebirds, which love the constantly dampened soil (AKA: mud) which makes it easy to probe and locate all manner of protein-rich insects. The prospect of finding a sizable number of shorebirds so far from the shore makes these farms a magnet for scope-toting birders all across the land. Especially during migration.

Even better news. Getting to and from the aforementioned lawn-spawning nirvana requires a drive through some very nice birding territory!

Our actual “Sunday Drive” was fairly short as birding outings go, but it had a few sweet rewards to make for a lovely day.

About half a mile in the distance, the spotting scope revealed several hundred shorebirds feeding in the freshly watered turf. Identification was reduced to educated speculation (based on historical data) that the majority of the birds were Least Sandpipers. A small cloud of feathery visitors descended about 200 yards from us and we could identify a couple of dozen Least Sandpipers, a few Semipalmated Plovers and our first look this season of a dozen American Pipit. (Apologies for the blurry images.)

Least Sandpiper
American Pipit

The sod field is bordered by a canal which helps with irrigation. Wading birds line the banks in search of frogs, snakes and fish. A Great Blue Heron proudly displays a catch larger than would be expected from such a small canal.

Not far from the green fields we found a small pond in a large pasture where four Mottled Ducks plied the weed-filled water for their daily salad.

In this same pond, a pair of Sandhill Cranes set up house-keeping on a small island of mud and weeds. Although we are still seeing large groups of migratory Greater Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis tabida), Florida has a resident population (Grus canadensis pratensis) which breeds here. Eggs will be incubated for about four weeks.

A rather uncommon sighting was a very pale version of the Red-tailed Hawk, sometimes designated “Krider’s” Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis kriderii). Speak to a dozen taxonomists and you will find a difference of opinion on whether this is actually a sub-species. This appears to be an immature bird based on breast markings and tail pattern. Beautiful and unique, no matter what you call it!

Shorebirds away from the shore, a crane on a nest, an abnormally pale hawk – almost as good as any ice cream reward! Another very satisfying “Sunday Drive“. Our outing may have been short but it was most assuredly very sweet. (Just like you-know-who! Shhhh.)

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

These Are The Good Old Days

Header Image: Atlantic Coast Sunrise

Sleepless nights were common for me about a week before Gini and I were married. Tossing and turning. Worry. Will I really be able to support us? Will she be able to put up with me all day, all night, forever?

Anticipation.

The night before the BIG DAY, was also devoid of sleep. But this was different. All I could think of was – HER. Eyes open, eyes shut – SHE was there. Those brown eyes, that smile. Longing to be with – HER. This was hopeful anticipation that I have never experienced, before or since, with such intensity.

Looking forward to something pleasant, can be exhilarating. Other than my wedding day, the most outstanding example of anticipation for me was the birth of our two children. There is nothing, NOTHING, like seeing the ultimate expression of love manifested in physical form.

On a somewhat less dramatic scale of expectation, my most vivid memories of anticipating a new day are fishing trips with my Dad. He would come home early on a Friday and start walking around the boat, hauling out cushions, oars, cooler and tackle from the storage room. I could hardly contain myself from blurting out the obvious: “Are we going fishing?”

Sleepless nights. Hurry up, alarm clock! I would close my eyes and envision the damp fog as the boat slid off its trailer into the cypress-stained water. The outboard motor exploded in the pre-dawn silence. We glided across lily pads dotting the big lake. My bobber disappeared beneath the surface and headed toward a log — “Wake up, time to go!” No problem, as I was never asleep.

Last Thursday night. Another sleepless night. In the morning, we would start out at 4:30 a.m. in order to arrive at one of our favorite adventure destinations, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Over 140,000 acres of coastal marsh to explore. Hoping to arrive in time to capture an east coast sunrise, we motored through the Orlando area in relatively light traffic.

Anticipation.

We managed a few images. (Not sorry for posting so many. Just scroll fast and it won’t take too long.)

From past visits, I planned to view the sunrise from Gator Creek Road. The rising sun and its reflection could be imagined a rocket launching from NASA’s Space Center. The main launch complex is in line with the sun from this vantage point.

A view back to the west reveals a pre-dawn image of the A. Max Brewer bridge which leads from Titusville to Merritt Island NWR. On a recent post, Ed Rosack (https://edrosack.com/2022/02/06/my-favorite-bridge/) opined this is his favorite bridge: “Not for how it looks (it does look nice!) but because it leads to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.” We couldn’t agree more, Ed!

Early morning movement of birds of all description was extremely active. Here, a Mottled Duck hurried to join the several dozen we had just seen fly overhead.

The post-dawn glow really shows off the plumage of a Northern Flicker. It’s easy to see why this handsome bird was formerly known as the “Yellow-shafted Flicker”.

“If you build it, he will come.” Not a famous baseball player, but this Green Heron is a darned good fisherman. Throughout the refuge, if you find a culvert, look carefully or wait awhile and you are very likely to spot a heron or egret peering at the outflow for a snack to appear.

The most numerous species of duck we saw during this visit was the Blue-winged Teal. This series serves to remind us that Nature continues its cycle of renewal despite the affairs of humans. Also, if you are in a cold climate today, be like the final image of our female teal as she celebrates the imminent arrival of Spring! (Okay, she was just finishing a bath and wing flap after, you know, but it looks like a happy thing to me!)

We counted well over 20 Tricolored Heron in the refuge today and this one shows off the subtle hues of plumage that prompted the “experts” to change its name from Louisiana Heron.

Sweeping a large unusually-shaped bill back and forth through the shallows by this large wading bird helps identify it as a Roseate Spoonbill. Well, that and the fact that its somewhat pinkish plumage is a big hint.

The bottom line is that this line of bottoms belongs to Northern Shovelers. A drake provides a “Ta-Daa” wing flap moment in case there was any question.

Great Egrets were plentiful as they begin to stake out nesting sites among the mangroves and cypresses of the marsh. Preening is vital to ensure all those large feathers remain as clean as possible. Delicate feather patterns underscore why these large birds were hunted nearly to extinction for – hat decorations. It’s also easy to understand why this species became the iconic symbol for The National Audubon Society.

Tricolored Heron portrait. Just because.

Obligatory American Alligator.

We enjoyed lunch at Parrish Park back at the A. Max Brewer Bridge. The Indian River flows under the bridge and there are very nice pavilions, boat ramps and restrooms here. And birds. Boat docks in the warm sun make very nice napping spots for Sanderlings, Dunlins, Ruddy Turnstones and Gulls.

Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Dunlin, Sanderling
Ruddy Turnstone

Not trying to rub it in for those in chillier climes, but our day saw only a few fluffy clouds and at noon the temperature had reached 84 F/29 C. Salt flats can be pretty bright places. Thank goodness there was shade.

One of the premier destinations for birders and photographers visiting the refuge is Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven mile one-way auto tour through the marsh. Several pull-off spots offer great views and there are trails if you prefer a more up-close and personal experience. One scene we came across was a large gathering of mostly gulls and terns. A few other species enjoyed the company of the white-feathered gang. Safety in numbers, perhaps. Good thing, too, as (in the last image) everybody suddenly took to the air. We scanned for a raptor but didn’t see one.

Great Egret, Gulls, Terns
Great Egret, Gulls, Terns
Black Skimmer, Ring-billed Gull
Dunlin, Ring-billed Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Caspian Tern, Black-bellied Plover
Caspian Tern, Ring-billed Gull, Laughing Gull

A Marbled Godwit looked a bit lonesome, but I suspect she preferred it that way. More crabs for her!

During the day we saw thousands of American Coot, hundreds of Blue-winged Teal, nearly a hundred Northern Shoveler, several Northern Pintail, Gadwall and American Wigeon. Most were at such a distance that photographs were not feasible. A pair of Redheads allowed us a couple of clicks before scooting back in among the coot crowd.

Watching an Osprey hunt never gets old for us. This one made a few unsuccessful attempts before finally scoring lunch.

Finally (the crowd goes wild!), we leave you with one more symbol of Nature’s cycle of renewal. A very young American Alligator soaking in the rays of the sun. The beautiful pattern on her tail will fade as she ages to become the apex predator surviving each day at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Our return westward across the Florida peninsula included an extra bit of time as we inched through the dense commuter and tourist traffic of Orlando/Disney World. We didn’t mind. The day had been spectacular. We hope you have such a special place nearby where you can explore Nature’s treasures or simply sit and quietly observe the pleasures life presents.

Anticipation, anticipation
Is making me late
Is keeping me waiting

These are the good old days.

(Carly Simon, 1971)

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

Drive-By Birding

Header Image: Lake Shore

When is the best time to go birding?

Early in the morning. Or – When the birds are feeding. Or – During migration. Or – Late in the day as they feed before roosting.

All of the above. None of the above. Any of the above.

My Dad was an avid fisherman. Tides, phase of the moon, time of day – all can influence when fish are more likely to be feeding. All things considered, Dad’s sage advice: “The best time to go fishing is when you have a chance to go fishing.”

The same is true of birding.

Sure, it would be wonderful to plan each trip down to the last detail. For a trip to some specific, perhaps distant venue, such planning is essential. However, for day-to-day bird watching, the best time to go is when you have a chance. Our lives can become so busy with jobs, family, appointments, shopping – it’s easy to become overwhelmed by life and forget that we need some balance to maintain our health and sanity.

Naturally, birding provides that balance!

So, there we were, innocently finishing a bowl of porridge adorned with fresh strawberries when we received word of a postponed appointment.

Want to go for a ride?

I know, it was already mid-morning. Yes, there’s a roast which needs a bit of preparation for dinner. Not to mention, we just visited our “patch” yesterday.

“I’ll load the car.”

I continue to marvel at my genius for marrying so well. Gini is not only my anchor in life, my motivation for making it through each day, my confidant, my best friend and lover. She can hear the birds.

Our birding patch is seven minutes from the front door. Tenoroc Fish Management Area consists of reclaimed phosphate mining land which has been designed as a fishing destination. In recent years, a shooting range, archery course and equestrian trails have been added. It is designated as a Gateway for the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.

There are 19 miles of hiking trails here. They were in no danger of being overused by us on this day.

We only had a couple of hours available so we drove around the dirt roads and simply enjoyed being out in the sunshine and fresh air. A few birds begged to have a picture taken. How could we refuse? I think we only got out of the car once. Sometimes, this birding thing can almost be too easy!

Here are a few things we saw from the car.

Common Ground Dove, true to their name, love to forage on, you guessed it, “the ground”. They like open areas with a bit of grass and the edges of roads seem to fit that bill (and theirs) just fine.

One of our migratory visitors, the Yellow-rumped Warbler, has been provided with the nickname “Butterbutt” by some of the more academically inclined in the birding community.

This image was taken just after 10:30 a.m. It is a member of the morning glory family, so blooming “in the morning” appears totally understandable. Except, this is a Moonflower (Ipomoea alba), also called Tropical White Morning-glory. These flowers typically begin to open late in the day, bloom during the night and close once the sun rises. Indeed, this specimen is looking pretty ragged as it retreats from the sun. Most resources indicate the plant shouldn’t be blooming at all in January.

In our area, the Boat-tailed Grackle is quite common and the Common Grackle is usually not seen in great numbers. Tenoroc is one area we normally see at least a couple of the latter, noticeable by its bright pale eyes.

Winter brings good numbers of small Pied-billed Grebes to our lakes and ponds. Gini, having achieved the aforementioned status of more academic birder, prefers to call them by the lofty scientific moniker “Fuzzy Butts”.

Driving around a large open field which is maintained for fall dove hunting (sigh), utility poles make a convenient observation perch for the American Kestrel.

If you are an Eastern Bluebird, those Kestrel perches are just fine for tenderizing a big beetle.

So, there you are in the buffet line and there’s always that one guy who pushes his way in front of you to see what’s available today. Then, you get that uneasy feeling that perhaps YOU are the buffet item. Maybe we’ll just step over this way ……

American Alligator, Glossy Ibis, White Ibis

Planning an outing is a very good idea and can help ensure a successful trip. Once in awhile, though, a spur-of-the-moment drive-by may be just the ticket to help recharge your soul’s batteries.

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

Testing — Testing

Header Image: Snail Kite

“BBQ!”

Ribs or chicken?

“Chicken!”

Almost dark but as it’s winter it wasn’t late. Dinner time, as a matter of fact. Since I forced Gini to accompany me on an impromptu trip to the park this afternoon, it only seemed fair to treat her (okay, and me) to a dinner of her choice. Smoky chicken, green beans, potato salad. She said something about going birding late every day but I didn’t hear much of that part of the conversation.

Earlier in the day, I had been fiddling with camera equipment and suddenly had an impulse to test the results of different camera body and lens arrangements along with a variety of settings. The local park usually offers some large birds that would make suitable targets and the low afternoon angle of the sun should provide some pleasant lighting.

That luck thing was in force. We parked, I slung a camera and long lens over my shoulder, saw a woodpecker and gnatcatcher in the branches above and Gini loudly whispered: “Kite!” At the water’s edge atop a small cypress tree was a male Snail Kite. I walked in his direction trying to keep a large oak tree between us in the hope I wouldn’t scare him away. No worries. He was intent on hunting what would likely be his last meal for the day. The luck held as I was even able to change camera body and lens and came away with a few images I like.

The Florida subspecies of Snail Kite (formerly Everglades Snail Kite) (Rostrhamus sociabilis plumbeus) appeared on federal and state endangered species lists in 1967. They remain threatened due to degradation of habitat mainly by agriculture and urban development. Their very specialized diet is almost exclusively made up of apple snails (Pomacea paludosa), which demand a clean water environment to survive. We began seeing Snail Kites at our local patch, Lake Parker Park in Polk County, about five years ago. Last year, we counted six individuals and confirmed they are breeding around the lake. Good news, indeed!

A group of White Ibises strenuously objected to one individual attempting to join their party. A stoic-looking Wood Stork stirred the shallow water and snapped up whatever tried to scoot away. Big yellow feet seemed odd-looking supporting a smallish Snowy Egret. As if to remind us of the time, an Osprey headed across the lake as the sun was setting and the moon rising.

Testing was instructive. The birds were cooperative. Dinner was delicious.

Snail Kite
Snail Kite
Snail Kite
White ibis
White ibis
Wood Stork
Wood Stork
Wood Stork
Snowy Egret
Osprey

Whether you need to test equipment, taste BBQ or just enjoy a late afternoon in the park, we hope you find the time to do what makes you happy. Life continues to be good.

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