Spring In Our Step

(Header Image: American Alligator) 

(NOTE: We apologize for being away the past few weeks. Computers apparently have a limited life span. Ours exceeded that limit. It took longer than expected to get up and running again. We are back. Rejoice.)  

I married well. Not only is my wife talented, intelligent, compassionate, possessed with an uncommon amount of common sense and the most beautiful woman I have ever seen – she is not squeamish. (Remind me to tell you about when she was young and purposely squirted fish blood on her brother’s new girlfriend.) She is a lady, she exudes “class”, she is a role model for girls and women of all ages. She is not, however, a “girly girl”.  

Therefore, it was not surprising following a rest stop at the state park, to hear her calmly announce: “There’s a really cool spider on the door handle.” A lesser person may have shrieked and frightened a potential photographic subject. The next several minutes were spent trying to focus on a tiny jumping spider who was more interested in challenging me than in posing. 

Spring in Florida is an all-too-brief affair. One day everything is brown as our “winter” fades and without warning trees become green overnight and flowers are scattered across the landscape. Migratory birds check their smart phone calendar and realize they should be in Canada or Pennsylvania building nests and our woods become less busy. Soon, our “wet” season will begin with rolling afternoon thunderstorms.  

This day, we celebrate Spring! 

There are good reasons we enjoy visiting Colt Creek State Park. It is on the edge of the Green Swamp, boasts a fairly diverse array of habitats, is not too busy during the week and offers our three favorite diversions: birds, blooms and bugs. Did I mention it is only 20 minutes from the house? 

“It’s so quiet.” Gini’s understatement while we enjoyed a late breakfast under the pine trees highlighted yet another good reason to be here. 

Our morning was filled with whiplash moments as all the birds seemed to be in a hurry. We patiently stalked dragons, damsels and butterflies in the grass and played the “what’s that flower?” game. Noon arrived rudely.  

Although we left the park and its wonders behind, the Spring in our step, and our soul, has remained. Memories are wonderful gifts which can be re-opened time and time again. 

Oh. I almost forgot. We took some pictures for you. 

The Great Crested Flycatcher has returned from wintering in South America and will breed and spend the summer with us. This was likely a male as he was singing almost constantly. 

A quick snapshot produced a poor image of a Swallow-tailed Kite, but decided to include it here since he’s carrying a lizard breakfast back to his mate sitting on a nest in some tall tree nearby. 

For a butterfly without much color, the Great Southern White (Ascia monuste) is quite attractive. 

I suppose it was mean to photograph this Eastern Meadowlark before she had a chance to fix her hair and have coffee, but that’s just the kind of person I am. 

A white face, “racing stripes” on the thorax and black and yellow stripes along the abdomen help identify this small member of the skimmer family of dragonflies as a female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). 

This is probably the first or second instar nymph of the Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera). The nymphs are almost all black and in the early stages range from 0.4-0.6 inches (10-15 mm). Adults are bright yellow and orange and are 2-3 inches (6-8 cm) in length. 

Despite its common name, the Mexican Pricklypoppy (Argemone mexicana L.) is native to Florida and can be found in most states in the eastern United States. It looks like a thistle and its spiny leaves will leave a mark if you try to pick one of its gorgeous blossoms. “A picture is worth a box of band-aids.”  

The Southern Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata) is, unfortunately, often mistaken for the venomous Water Moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus), which can appear similar when immature.  

Gini The Brave found this little one on the handle to the restroom. It may be a Gray Wall Jumping Spider (Menemerus bivittatus). Less than half an inch (10 mm) long, it moved to face me no matter at what angle I approached. Any help with identification would be welcome! 

Here are two different stages in development of a male Little Blue Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula), one of North America’s smallest dragonflies at around one inch in length (26 mm). When mature, the male will have a blue thorax and abdomen. 

Along most paths around water was a profusion of Narrowleaf Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium). The blooms are really small but in places it formed a carpet of blue that was incredibly beautiful! 

A bright spot in any day is spotting a Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina). 

While chasing a damselfly, this Phaon Crescent (Phyciodes phaon) landed in front of me. Another example of nature providing unbelievable beauty in a small package. Its wingspan is only about an inch wide (3 cm). 

One of the few moths in our area which is active in the daytime is the Ornate Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix). We are happy it chooses to be up and around when we are!

That damselfly I was chasing above? It was a male Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii).  

A long reed, a bit of shade, peace and quiet. The formula for a nice nap. We hope to see these little Green Treefrogs (Hyla cinerea) on our next visit. 

Spring in Florida may be brief but we certainly enjoy all it has to offer! More springtime birds, blooms and bugs on the way. Find some where you live! 

(Please be patient while we attempt to catch up on visiting blogs and responding to queries. The new computer is fast – I, alas, am not.) 

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

Georgia On My Mind

(Header Image: Pecan Tree)

Great segments of the land were decorated in pink. Just for us. Narrow dirt roads had been given the color of the interior of a perfectly baked sweet potato. Just for us. Bright blue skies were punctuated with fluffy formations that were enlarged versions of the cotton which will bloom later this summer. Just for us.

The pink in the landscape was due to thousands of peach trees beginning to bloom. We’ll return in the summer for fresh fruit and preserves. The red clay back roads of rural Georgia will have to wait, also, for our return to explore. Family affairs consumed our time and energy on this visit.

Our niece and her husband have a lovely home in central Georgia and we thank them for being such gracious hosts. Several acres of pecan trees provided a restful setting and more than a few helpings of fresh snacks. As I explored, I would grab two freshly-fallen pecans from the ground, crack them open and dig out the sweetest meat any nut could offer. Migrating birds seemed to be everywhere. They were interfering with my foraging.

The bulk of the avian visitors were Yellow-rumped Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, House Finches and American Robins. Several other guests made cameo appearances and after a couple hours of wandering (and munching) I had counted over 20 different species just in the back yard!

Events of the world and the ebb and flow of familial relationships require our attention, sometimes to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion. In such times, it is comforting to know that Nature offers us a source of stability which is calming and refreshing to our souls.

A few images four-hundred miles from home.

A Northern Mockingbird, singing the enthusiastic spring song of love for his mate.

Chipping Sparrows were feeding non-stop as they fuel up for their return to breeding grounds.

Resident birds, such as this Red-bellied Woodpecker, are preparing nesting sites and getting ready to raise new families.

Eastern Bluebirds were also busily carrying nesting material around the  yard, singing and generally looking gorgeous while doing it all.

The most abundant bird was the Yellow-rumped Warbler. Literally dozens of them hopped around the yard snatching up all sorts of bugs.

Several dozen American Robins flew over the area during the day and about a half-dozen were in the yard most of the time.

A Tufted Titmouse whistled his clear call and rummaged along a pecan tree poking his bill under the bark hoping to find lunch.

With bright golden eyes, Common Grackles perched atop the tallest trees and loudly proclaimed this was their kingdom!

More bright color in the yard! A Pine Warbler staged from a branch as he plunged into the grass, grabbed a bug and returned to the tree to gulp it down.

Tree inspector. A Downy Woodpecker gives his attention to something he spotted within a broken limb.

High-pitched whistling signaled the arrival of a group of Cedar Waxwings. These handsome birds didn’t stay long as they had a schedule to keep on their way to Canada.

As spring arrives, many birds experience a change in plumage. This Palm Warbler is transitioning from a fairly drab brown non-breeding appearance to brighter, crisper and more colorful feathers.

A few pecans gathered for further sorting.

Take two steps. Gather two pecans. Crack ’em. Eat ’em. Repeat.

Pecans ready to pick.

An old barn on a country road and a very old Ford pick-up truck. It appeared the barn likely housed a cotton gin at one time and was probably also used for grain storage.

Pink was everywhere! A peach blossom promised us a fresh juicy fruit when we return.

It was good to visit with relatives and to have a change from our routine. Observing familiar birds in new settings and seeing different landscapes provided a fresh perspective.

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

(Header Image: Female Painted Bunting)

Time. It doesn’t wait around for us. It seems we were enjoying New Year’s dinner and all of sudden we remarked how wonderful Easter Dinner was!

Just a few days ago, in my mind, the yard was filled with nervous Palm Warblers and Chipping Sparrows combing through the grass for insects. We just realized we haven’t seen one in a week. Our winter flycatcher is no longer singing her name each morning. We miss “Phoe-BE“.

On the other hand, the bright red cardinal gently placed a sunflower seed in his mate’s bill the other day. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are attempting to bully the White-winged Dove from the feeders as they have selected a nesting site nearby. The mockingbird is singing 24 hours a day. Loudly.

Breeding season is in full swing. That means hot weather is just ahead. We thought we had done a lot of birding since Christmas but now it appears we almost missed spring entirely? How does this happen?

I blame time. We stop thinking about it for a minute and – whoosh! – it skips ahead of us and we try to play catch-up. A game we cannot win.

So, today I try to catch up a little bit with a report on a short pre-Spring visit to a small park near the house. Lake Crago Park was initially designed to be a “dog-walk” spot for urban pet owners. Lake Crago is a small lake just north of large Lake Parker and the two are connected by a canal. Dog owners have a nice fence-enclosed area where their canines can run and exercise. The city added a boat ramp where fisher-folk can launch a boat and there is quite a bit of open area for exploring. Recently, the park expanded and opened a recreation center which includes a canoe launch and fishing pier.

With the additional space, one can walk for a couple of hours with virtually no people in sight and travel through several different types of habitat. I have neglected this park for too long and will try to make it a regular spot to check for birds.

This visit occurred on February 3. The morning was cool and clear. Exiting the car, a flock of three dozen American Robins flew over my head and a couple stopped briefly in a tree top for a quick photo. Small flocks of White Ibis and Cattle Egret moved from roosts to feeding areas. Although nothing rare was spotted, I was surprised at the variety and total number of individuals tallied. The morning’s highlight was a female Painted Bunting, a species not usually seen in this particular area. An aerial dogfight between an Eagle and an Osprey was also pretty exciting.

Let’s see: lots of birds, interesting habitat, walked two hours without seeing another human, six minutes from the house … why haven’t I been coming here regularly??

American Robins will be hard to find here after Easter.

It’s hard to resist taking a shot of the moon. Hand-held photo by these shaky hands makes me thankful for “Image Stabilization” technology.

An Eastern Phoebe awaits in ambush for an unsuspecting flying tidbit.

Even in “drab” non-breeding plumage, a Yellow-rumped Warbler is beautiful!

It’s easy to see how the female Painted Bunting was given the nickname “Greenie”.

In a 1784 letter to his daughter, Benjamin Franklin had some comments about the Bald Eagle (he was not, as some have suggested, opposed to the eagle as a symbol for America, but that’s another story):

            “He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly.

            You may have seen him perch’d on some dead Tree near the River, where,

          too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk;

           and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to

            his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle

   pursues him and takes it from him.”

I managed a few distant shots of a Bald Eagle attempting to steal a freshly caught fish from an Osprey (“Fishing Hawk”). Quite a display! They twisted and turned until out of sight. I choose to believe the Osprey was victorious.

Large and bulky, a Brown Pelican kicks up the water during take-off.

The Roseate Spoonbill suddenly appeared over the tree line and gave me only a small chance to capture its pink plumage.

Just as pretty (said his Mother), a Black Vulture cruised over to make sure I was still breathing.

It may have been hiding in the foliage, but this Gray Catbird was constantly making the little “mewing” calls which earned it the name.

A relative of the above catbird, the brown-eyed Northern Mockingbird hopped up to a prominent perch as I approached and escorted me along the path for awhile to make certain I wasn’t up to anything nefarious.

The canal which connects Lakes Crago and Parker is a fine place for a Great Blue Heron to stand watch.

Trumpeting her approach, an impressive Sandhill Crane passed low overhead, trailing a bit of moss from her last perch.

American White Pelicans in small numbers spend each winter around the cities’ lakes. About every 3-4 years, one lake to the south of town hosts several thousand of these normally coastal birds.

While on the way back to the car, I spotted a Wood Stork headed for an area of flooded woods between the two lakes.

It was good to know security was on the job as the light pole next to the car was occupied by a guard with particularly sharp eyes. Handsome, too, is the Red-shouldered Hawk.

Called Gini to see if she needs anything from the store. “Just you.”

 –> Me = Luckiest Man In The World.

Be certain to check out smaller parks in your area. There may be some surprises in store!

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

(Header Image: Shorebirds At Dusk)

There are some occasions when birding becomes secondary. (GASP!!) This was one of those times. The birds were numerous, it was exciting to see species we don’t normally encounter at our inland home turf, observing feeding behavior was fascinating – it was a birders dream day.

The mid-afternoon sun was warm and the breeze from the Atlantic Ocean was gentle and kept the air refreshed and comfortable. I was with the most important person in my life. Our range of conversation ranged from birds to nature to childhood memories to episodes in our life together to family – our normal pattern. We take so much for granted each day and I am all too guilty of that transgression. Birding is fun. Her, standing right next to me – THAT is what life is all about.

(We now return you to our normally scheduled broadcast.)

“I think I got some on my shoes.”

“Some what?”

“Primordial ooze.”

The Horseshoe Crab is not a crab at all. It is more closely related to scorpions and spiders and is in the Order Xiphosura. There are three separate species, one in North America and two more in Asia. Fossilized remains of relatives of the “modern” horseshoe crab have been dated to over 400 million years ago, before dinosaurs roamed around the planet.

Humans have eaten Horseshoe Crab but it has never caught on as a dietary staple. Commercial fishermen use them to catch eels which they in turn use for bait to catch fish. In the spring and early summer, Horseshoe Crabs crowd the Atlantic Ocean beaches in spots where they dig a shallow burrow and deposit millions of eggs. To the delight of shorebirds.

In the 1960’s, biomedical researchers discovered an anti-coagulating agent within Horseshoe Crab blood. Since then, they harvest thousands of the creatures each year, extract some of their blood and return them to the sea. Survival rate for the crabs is around 70%.

The combined pressure of fishermen, biomedical use and those pesky hungry shorebirds (who have been eating crab eggs ever since both have existed) has resulted in the Horseshoe Crab becoming close to achieving endangered status. The good news is, Asian medical researchers have learned to artificially synthesize the anti-coagulant and have stopped using the crabs. American bureaucratic processes have to date prevented the Food and Drug Administration from approving the process here in the “enlightened” United States.

Meanwhile, some shorebirds have shown population declines due to reduced availability of Horseshoe Crab eggs over the past few decades. Notably, the Red Knot seems to have been particularly hard hit.

We were, therefore, extremely privileged to observe this ancient life form come ashore along West Gator Creek Road on a warm spring day within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and deposit their eggs in the soft sand of the Indian River. The simultaneous appearance of dozens of shorebirds and gulls was equally inspiring as we were witness to the cycle of life play out right in front of our eyes. Incredible experience!

While thoroughly engrossed in the Horseshoe Crab egg-stravaganza going on, life around us was continuing with a normal day on the marsh. A flock of Dunlins buzzed along the shoreline looking for a spot in the buffet line. Black Skimmers apparently prefer more meat in their diet and headed for deeper water. We seldom encounter all three North American “peeps” (the smallest of shorebirds) in one location so it was great to be able to compare them at close range.

The day was quickly coming to a close and we decided to go around Black Point Wildlife Drive for a grand finale to our awesome day. Good decision.

We found large numbers of ducks looking for a safe place to spend the night, egrets and herons grabbing a snack before bedtime, raptors scaring up shorebirds and, as the sun began to disappear, waves of ibises and egrets sought refuge in the tall marsh grass for the night.

This is a very special place and we had a fantastic day. Crossing over the Indian River and heading home, Gini sighed and said wistfully: “When can we do it again?”

Horseshoe Crabs laying eggs in the wet sand. Females are larger and the male fertilizes the eggs as they are being deposited.

A Ring-billed Gull scoops up eggs as quickly as they become available.

Black Skimmers present a unique profile from the rear and quite another as they make a turn.

Dunlin, in non-breeding plumage, were the most numerous shorebird we encountered on this day. You can see a horseshoe crab egg in this Dunlin’s beak.

An elegant American Avocet. No doubt this is a wading bird with those legs! Sometimes, one just has to stop and enjoy the view as she nestled among the shells and gazed at the incoming waves.

North America’s smallest shorebird, the Least Sandpiper, can be distinguished by its small size (5-6 inches/13-15 cm), slightly curved bill and yellowish legs.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper is named for webbing between its toes, but that’s hard to see in the field. They are slightly larger than the Least, have a bit shorter/stouter bill and blackish legs.

Also a bit larger than the Least, a Western Sandpiper has a bit longer and dropping bill, usually a less-smudgy breast in non-breeding plumage and blackish legs.

In non-breeding plumage, the Sanderling is pretty easy to spot as it is white below and light gray above. It is a little smaller than a Dunlin and has a shorter bill.

Here you can compare a Dunlin and Least Sandpiper. They look like twins! Except for that size thing.

A Ring-billed Gull among Dunlins and Sanderlings gives an idea of their size difference.

Along the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a Snowy Egret hunts for supper before it becomes dark.

We couldn’t tell if this Lesser Yellowlegs was hunting or simply admiring himself.

Not much doubt about a Northern Harrier being serious! He made repeated passes where dozens of shorebirds were foraging. The Harrier prefers small rodents but will readily take a shorebird, as they are apparently aware!

As the sun begins to get low over the marsh, we begin our exit, albeit reluctantly.

We watched waves of wading birds search for roosting spots in the tall grasses of the refuge. Glossy Ibises numbered over a hundred.

Over two-hundred Snowy Egrets fluttered in front of us and eventually vanished in the reeds as darkness enveloped the marsh.

A dozen Great Egret in one group is quite a sight. We saw four such groups.

The last rays of the sun ended our day in spectacular fashion!

From before sunrise to after sunset, what a day! If you have a chance to visit a similar refuge, take advantage of it as often as possible. We can’t wait for a return trip!

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

It was getting warm. Comfortable. Not hot. Blue skies, salt water and the constant sounds of birds enveloped us in a cocoon of contentment.

We exited East Gator Creek Road after thoroughly enjoying the performance of the Reddish Egret and drove out of the refuge to Parrish Park. The park is just outside the refuge at the beginning of the bridge over the Indian River to the town of Titusville. It’s a small park with a few covered picnic tables, fishing piers and boat docks. There are beach areas adjacent to and across the street from the park.

Parrish Park can be a good place to spot all sorts of birds with the combination of sandy beach, deep water under the bridge, shallow water areas, pier pilings which attract fish and crustaceans and, of course, that reliable source of free food – human beings. If one plans ahead, the park is also a good place from which to view rocket launches as Cape Canaveral is only a couple of miles away.

Today, we saw several dozen Black Skimmers napping in the parking lot and Ruddy Turnstones doing the same thing at the end of a pier. A multitude of gulls were screeching overhead, wood storks and pelicans were harassing fishermen and osprey were crashing into the water all around.

We returned to the refuge and turned onto Pump House Road. The road stops after about 50 yards and you must park and walk in order to explore this area. Hiking around here takes one along levees between vast shallow water tidal pools. I only walked about a mile and encountered a wonderful variety of water fowl. In the distance, I could see thousands of ducks massed on the surface of these impoundments. Alongside the path, I found two large groups of several hundred American Coot. Among the mass of coots were a few surprises!

As we turned back onto the main refuge road, Gini suggested (she is, you will recall, the smart one) we drive by the Black Point Wildlife Drive, in spite of the sign at the refuge entrance still flashing that it was closed. Lo and behold, it was just opening! Timing (and the right partner) is everything.

The wildlife drive is about seven miles long with occasional pull-off areas and a few spots for hiking. We found tons of birds. Ducks, waders, raptors, shorebirds.

Our next stop was Biolab Road. We had started our day at the Biolab boat ramp where we took sunrise photos. Now we drove the length of the road which travels along the western shore of Mosquito Lagoon. A nice surprise was finding evidence that spring is fast approaching – dragonflies and damselflies. Also, a woodpecker excavating a nest and alligators acting territorial confirmed that Mother Nature may not read a calendar but sure knows when the time is right for a renewal of life.

Time for lunch. Scenic spots everywhere. Oh, great! Now what? Take a bite of chicken, grab the binoculars. Take a bite of chicken, grab the camera. Life is tough for birders in paradise.

At Parrish Park, we found Black Skimmers dozing in the parking lot. Interestingly, Ring-billed Gulls were standing around the perimeter of the sleeping birds. As a car approached too close, the gulls would fly up noisily and the skimmers would look up. Avian alarm system?

Ruddy Turnstones seem to like the ends of piers. We often see them resting in such locations.

The impoundments at Pump House Road contained several large groups of American Coots. The poor Coot is often disparaged as not very photogenic. I happen to think they’re quite handsome with those red eyes, white bills, black feathers and those feet!

Hiding among the coots were several other species of water fowl. Here, a Lesser Scaup shows its iridescent head. (Sorry for the poor quality. Distant shot, highly cropped.)

American Wigeon were numerous at most stops we made and they seemed to enjoy the company of coots just fine.

I couldn’t manage a good photograph of a Redhead, but several were busily feeding along with their fowl friends.

“One of these things is not like the others.” A lone Canada Goose does its best to appear coot-like.

A short walk around the levee provided looks at a lot of birds! We found more American Avocets, some taking advantage of the protected area to snooze under the warm Florida sun.

American White Pelicans are a common sight here and large numbers are often seen along the Atlantic Ocean beach nearby.

The happy occasion of Black Point Wildlife Drive being open found us stopping often to gawk at stupendous numbers of birds. Spring is surely not far away as territorial squabbles were breaking out all around. Male Blue-winged Teal were busy biting and trying to drown each other as innocent-looking females floated nearby.

A Green Heron knows the water flowing through a culvert is quite likely to eventually deliver a meal to its waiting beak.

Shallow salt water studded with mangrove trees is a perfect place for waders such as a Tricolored Heron to hunt.

This group of three adult and two juvenile Little Blue Herons were across the street from the above Tricolored Heron. In a couple of months, the young herons will begin to become mottled blue/white/gray and they will attain their adult plumage by this time next year.

We came across a couple of palm trees with interesting fungus growing on the trunks. Looks like something melted.

Biolab Road also had its share of interesting life for us to enjoy. Here, a Northern Flicker excavates a nest cavity in a palm tree. (You can see a chunk of wood flying through the air behind her.)

More signs of spring! A collection of Rambur’s Forktail in several forms kept us busy for quite awhile. We counted at least a dozen individuals of this beautiful damselfly in less than ten square feet.

Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) – Male
Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) – Immature Heteromorph Female
Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) – Immature Andromorph Female

One of the larger members of the dragonfly family, a Common Green Darner (Anax junius), was kind enough to pose for a few minutes. We normally only see these big insects in flight.

A NEW Odanata species for us! An Ornate Pennant (Celithemis ornata) landed in view for a millisecond before heading for the salt marsh.

We were having so much fun with birds and bugs that we almost forgot to acknowledge who owns this part of the marsh. Good afternoon, Ms. Gator!

American Alligator

The middle of the day had been filled with Florida residents (such as alligators and coots), winter tourists (ducks and a goose), a surprise opening of the wildlife drive and even strong hints of impending Spring (damsels, dragons and fighting teal).

Next – creatures with ancestors over 400 million years old, a plethora of peeps and the end of the day.

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