Escape To The Swamp

Header Image: Carolina Redroot (Lachnanthes caroliana)

Wait. Don’t you mean “Escape FROM The Swamp”??

We review the news from around the corner and around the world. Local roads and businesses are packed with people. Drama inserts itself into our lives unexpectedly.

A dirt road leads into welcoming green pine forests where we soon encounter a small stream flowing under an old bridge. Cicadas buzz in a cacophonous wave which washes over our senses reminding us it is summer in the Natural World. In the distance, a Red-shouldered Hawk emits a cry which announces to her community that intruders are present.

No. We have escaped TO the swamp. And we are content.

The particular swamp is the Green Swamp in central Florida. It is less than a half-hour from our front door. Over 560,000 acres (226,000 hectares) consisting of pine sandhills/flatwoods, upland hardwoods, wetlands and cypress swamps. Four of Florida’s main rivers have their headwaters here: the Withlacoochee, Ocklawaha, Hillsborough and Peace. Annual rainfall within the swamp replenishes the Floridan Aquifer providing drinking water for many of the state’s inhabitants.

We began our morning getting our feet wet. Not by fording a mighty river or wading the shore of some alligator-infested lake. A small wetland is one of our favorite stops but a summer morning in Florida usually means grass heavy with dew. Wet feet. Totally worth it.

Several species of dragonflies were going about the business of survival. A pair of Least Bitterns took off from the reeds beside a pond and let us know they were NOT happy with our presence. They likely had a nest there but we couldn’t locate it. A nearby Green Heron fluttered and, I swear, smiled a bit.

A quiet clearing provided a perfect venue for Gini and I to share breakfast, thoughts and that most precious commodity – time. It truly does fly all too quickly.

The rest of our morning included more dragons, some new-to-us blooms, butterflies and birds. A highlight was spotting over two dozen wild turkeys, most of them this year’s new birds. We also observed a dozen White-tailed Deer throughout the morning. After a few hours, we somewhat reluctantly returned FROM the swamp.

Of course there are pictures.

Scarlet Skimmers (Crocothemis servilia) are not native to the United States and were likely introduced to Florida over 40 years ago. The bright all-red male is hard to miss.

Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia) – Female
Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia) – Male

A member of the grass-skipper family of butterflies, the small and very active Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus) visits a Starrush Whitetop (Rhynchospora colorata).

The early light of the sun enhanced the gold highlights of a female Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami). An immature male will soon become more orange/reddish in appearance.

Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami) – Female
Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami) – Immature Male

A Green Heron was unperturbed by our stomping around his pond’s shoreline.

One of our more common dragonflies is the Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida). The mature male will have well-defined wing spots and will be dark all over.

Roseate Skimmers (Orthemis ferruginea) are large dragons. I tried unsuccessfully to photograph a bright lavender-colored male but this female obliged nicely.

So small, I almost thought she was a wasp, but took a second glance and was happy to discover a Little Blue Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula) resting on the tip of a reed.

Not a great picture, but Wild Turkey moms herding new baby turkeys are not willing to pose for some crazy two-legged paparazzo!

We came across a male Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) munching his brunch on a bridge railing.

The male Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta) is one of our three all dark male skimmers. Females look completely different.

With a characteristic “zipper” in the middle of her web, the Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) is eye-catching, not only due to her beautiful colors but she’s a sizable predator!

The Green Swamp is pretty much in the middle of Florida, but someone forgot to tell the lovely Saltmarsh Morning Glory (Ipomoea sagittata). No worries. Any marsh will be just fine.

There are literally thousands of beetles in the outdoors! If only they could give us a hint as to their identification. Perhaps something like, oh, I don’t know, a letter on their back? Delta Flower Scarab Beetle (Trigonopeltastes delta).

The Carolina Redroot (Lachnanthes caroliana) likes wet places, especially if it’s in a pine forest habitat. The plants grow over three feet tall and have a hairy cluster of creamy white and yellow flowers. Many different pollinators visit the blooms. Like the Delta Flower Scarab above. And the butterflies in the header image. The common name “Redroot” is due to the color of lower stems and roots from which Native Americans and pioneers made a dye.

Trying its best to look like a Monarch, a Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) hopes the ruse is good enough to keep it from being eaten today.

Another of our all dark skimmers is the male Bar-winged Skimmer (Libellula axilena). The light colored inflorescence on the rear wings is diagnostic.

Fungus.

This yellow beauty is the Roundpod St. John’s-wort (Hypericum cistifolium). It grows in a single stem to three feet tall and the pretty yellow flowers bloom most of the summer.

Small and fast, this female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is looking quite tattered. The males have green eyes and a blue abdomen. Both genders have the “racing stripe yellow” thorax.

As is typical, you wander off in search of some new creature, see some nice things, but nothing different and when you return to your parked vehicle, there, perched on your window – something new and different! In this case, a handsome Obscure Grasshopper (Schistocerca obscura).

Our escape to the swamp worked wonders for our morale the rest of the day. Hopefully, you, too, have a “swamp” in your area which will offer the same sort of respite. If not, you are welcome to use ours any time!

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

Header Image: White-tailed Deer At Dawn

The early morning mist was light and the woods were just waking. Rude Blue Jays did their best to ensure no one slept in. Nature did not provide them with a “snooze alarm”. Over the path, drops of water rained down from an overhanging oak tree limb as a squirrel scampered to another branch as though late for her breakfast meeting. In a clearing of scattered pine trees and thick palmettos, a distant Northern Bobwhite sounded his name – “Bob WHITE”! A Red-shouldered Hawk joined the Blue Jays in letting the natural world know that a couple of two-legged interlopers were tromping around in their world and were likely up to no good.

Gazing around the tableau of damp woods, small flowers and the endless green of spreading palmetto fronds, there was a sense of being watched. He materialized just beyond a line of pine trees, barely visible above the green undergrowth. The softness of velvet covering his antlers presented a somewhat ethereal image in the filtered morning light. Was he real? The White-tailed Deer and I stared at each other for what seemed like several minutes but which was actually less than 30 seconds. I very slowly raised the camera. He allowed a few clicks before bolting away. The pulse of the day had been set and adrenaline flowed for quite some time.

Gini and I have developed a fairly set pattern of exploring Colt Creek State Park. The park is a patch of central Florida diversity. Lakes, creeks, swamp, open grassy areas, pine woods, hardwood forest – all fairly accessible, much of it by vehicle. Our pattern may change a bit depending on time of year or time of day, but we have a few favorite spots which usually seem to provide something interesting. Today was filled with interesting stuff!

Summer birding can be a bit light due to many species caring for babies or some well into their annual molting cycle, at which time they have limited ability to fly and therefore try to remain inconspicuous. We were happy to spot a few birds and were even happier to find plenty of other subjects which attracted our attention.

All of that habitat diversity I mentioned above attracts a diverse amount of life forms. Even in the middle of summer, flowers of some sort are in bloom which provide food and shelter for a myriad of insect species. Butterflies, moths, wasps, bees, flies, spiders, beetles and unknown small things abound. In addition to the birds, throw in the occasional deer, raccoon, otter, alligator, turtle or snake – and one can understand why we return to this place so often.

Another not-so-small delight is sharing a quiet breakfast with my best friend under a pine-scented canopy while listening to a Northern Parula warbler serenade. This morning, Gini brought fresh Florida tangerines, cherries and boiled eggs.

Recent rains made some of our regular paths too wet to explore. I had the idea to head down one anyway. After all, wet feet will eventually dry out. A few yards down the path, a Water Moccasin slithered into the standing water and I decided Gini needed some company back in the car. (Mine, not the snake’s.)

Humidity and heat once again combined to make the late morning uncomfortable. No complaints. It had been a spectacular day!

A few images to illustrate the diverse nature of – Nature.

A Little Blue Heron heads across Mac Lake.

The early morning light gives a bluish tint to the clear wings of this Red Saddlebags (Tramea onusta).

Gini spied a Sleepy Orange (Abaeis nicippe) butterfly deep in the grass. We followed it until it finally perched for a brief moment and we could record its beauty.

One of the Monarch butterfly imitators, a Queen (Danaus gilippus) has her own beauty for which she can be proud.

A new insect for us! A Brown-legged Grass-carrier (Isodontia auripes) wasp uses long blades of grass to create compartments within its nest.

In addition to its long tail, the body and wing bases of the Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus) is a blue-green color which helps in identification.

A marshy area provides a great potential food source for wading birds such as this Great Egret.

It is not that easy to make brown look good, but Horace’s Duskywing (Erynnis horatius) pulls it off admirably.

Scrub Palmetto (Sabal etonia). Ubiquitous in Florida. As kids, Gini and I would cut a branch, trim it of its leaves and sharpen it to a point. Perfect for a hot dog or marshmallow roasted over a campfire. Great – now I’m hungry.

Strong fliers which seem to seldom land anywhere, the Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) is simply breathtaking.

Primarily a tropical species, the White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae) is found throughout Florida and in some southern states.

Small but colorful with blue eyes and yellow and brown racing-striped thorax, a Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) brightens up the landscape.

The Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) is a member of the Brushfoot family of butterflies and is one of the most common in North America. Common, maybe. Beautiful, definitely!

One of the park’s security guards kept a watchful eye on us during our visit. Red-shouldered Hawk.

We really enjoyed the peaceful location, astounding variety of life and, most of all, each other’s company. Hopefully, you can all find those same things near you.

*The title of today’s blog is from a poem of the same name by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

An excerpt:

O gift of God!  O perfect day:
Whereon shall no man work, but play;
Whereon it is enough for me,
Not to be doing, but to be! 
Through every fibre of my brain,
Through every nerve, through every vein,
I feel the electric thrill, the touch
Of life, that seems almost too much. 

(See the entire poem here: https://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=56)

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

Morning Buffet

Header Image: American Kestrel (Female)

The sun had been up for half an hour as we made our way along the crushed shell road. Summer. We miss the numbers of migrating birds which spend winter with us but relish the sights and sounds of our local avian residents as they go about the routine of courtship, mating, nest building and rearing a family. Northern Cardinals seem to be everywhere! Florida’s long warm season encourages them to have two or three broods each year. Eastern Towhees sing from the tall grass: “Drink-Your-Teeeeeeea“. An Osprey swoops low overhead with a fresh fish clutched in his talons and lands on a huge nest where he is greeted by Mom and Junior with open beaks. Spider webs spun during the night glisten in the morning sunshine as they have captured thousands of jewel-like dew drops. Raucous Blue Jays and Fish Crows try to chase a Red-shouldered Hawk out of the neighborhood.

A new day is underway.

One of my favorite memories from childhood is a Sunday-after-church visit to a local cafeteria style restaurant. Moving along the buffet line, I was mesmerized by the choices in front of me. I can still smell the roast beef and gravy! Unfortunately, my Mother would always insist my plate included “green stuff” or boiled carrots. Yuk. At the end of the line, the sheer volume of desserts available was almost too much for my undeveloped senses to handle. Cake? Pie? Pudding? Ice cream? Mother again: “Only one.” Sigh.

Today, Gini and I experience that sort of feeling each time we venture into Florida’s natural world. An additional benefit is Mother Nature allows us to enjoy as much as we can stand! No limits. We are so fortunate!

Highlights of our morning were a new family of Swallow-tailed Kites, a pair of unafraid Black-bellied Whistling-ducks, our largest hawk and our smallest falcon. Bonus: damsels, dragons and butterflies. (Oh, my!)

Grab a tray and go through the buffet line with us.

It is a joy to watch these graceful raptors hunt and often munch on their prey as they continue to fly. Habitat destruction has greatly reduced the Swallow-tailed Kites’ numbers over the years. We are very thankful they spend the summer with us.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are, like most wild things, skittish and take flight when we get close. This pair remained on their log and permitted a few photographs. It occurred to me they may have a nest nearby, so I backed off and thanked them for the opportunity.

An emerald green female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) contemplates whether to fly or attack. She remained for a moment.

Down the road, a slate blue male Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) lies in wait for breakfast.

A young Osprey has fully fledged and we watched as he practiced his flight training for awhile. Mom was perched nearby clucking her approval.

It may be one of our more common butterflies, but the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) is like a flying bundle of sunshine. Bright and beautiful!

Yet another new family. Biologists have concluded American Kestrels which breed in Florida are a sub-species (Southeastern American Kestrel – Falco sparverius paulus) of the northern species Falco sparverius sparverius. We were quite fortunate to find an adult male and female with two immature birds hunting insects in a large field. North America’s smallest falcons – it was a fascinating treat to watch them work!

American Kestrel – Female
American Kestrel – Male

At the other end of the field where we found the Kestrels, Florida’s largest resident hawk, the Red-tailed Hawk, kept watch atop a utility pole. Once we arrived, she didn’t hang around and went in search of a hunting spot without humans pointing and gawking.

A pair of Brown Thrashers were busy flying back and forth to and from a particular tree. We suspect nest-building was in progress but didn’t actually see them carrying construction material. Perhaps they were just shopping for a good location.

For me, more feared than toothy alligators are some of our large wasps. Painful memories! These are Ringed Paper Wasps (Polistes annularis).

Once in awhile, my photographic motto (“Better Lucky Than Good”) actually works. Today I found an Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera) and a Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) sharing the same reed.

Our dessert today came in the form of a Cicada exuvia. A few years ago, a female Cicada laid eggs at this location. The eggs hatched and the ant-sized nymphs fell and burrowed into the ground. They found a root of grass or tree to feed upon and remained underground for several years, undergoing a series of molts. The final molt causes the nymph to exit from the ground, climb a tree or weed and fasten itself securely. The adult Cicada emerges, sings its summer buzzy song, eats, mates and dies within a few weeks. The cycle begins again.

Our morning buffet was truly outstanding! Nature has a similar offering for you not too far away.

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

Swamp Road

Header Image: Pygmy Rattlesnake

Hot. Wet. Oppressive. Taking a breath almost requires effort. In the time it takes to walk from the car to the trailhead, your clothes are soaked through from the humidity. There is not even a hint of a breeze. We are in central Florida. The Green Swamp surrounds us. It is summer.

Glorious!

It is that time of year we simply LOVE to be outside! The stillness of early mornings allows us to hear the Common Nighthawks “booming” over the pine forest. Distant drumming by a Pileated Woodpecker changes in pitch as he tries to locate just the “right” sound which will attract a mate. Cicadas buzz in waves which wash over us like warm waves breaking on a beach. Shortly after lunch, dark clouds will gather on the horizon as thunderstorms move across the peninsula dumping fresh water on the land which will filter into the underground aquifer providing life-sustaining liquid to over 20 million Floridians.

On this summer day, we are in the Richloam Wildlife Management Area in Sumter County, Florida. Old logging roads crisscross the Green Swamp and provide slightly different environments for us to explore. We begin near a wetland which is bordered by a meadow and a small pond. A short drive through a section of hardwood trees (oak, hickory, bay) brings us to a vast pine forest. The understory of palmetto is interrupted by occasional potholes which fill with water during the wet season. Another mile along the road and we are crossing a small river and are enveloped in what most people think about when envisioning a “swamp”. Large cypress trees standing in shallow water, alligators slinking in nearby weeds, herons and egrets wading as they hunt for breakfast. Beyond the “wet” swamp, we enter upland pine woods where there are many open areas, lots of white sand and a variety of plant life.

Gini had thoughtfully (as usual) packed a bit of nourishment which we enjoyed while Eastern Bluebirds and Carolina Chickadees flew back and forth in a stand of tall pines. The strong scent of the conifer trees, bright blue sky and a perfect companion made it difficult to continue. Can’t we just stay here a few more minutes/hours/days? Okay. A few more minutes. She is SO good to me.

Somehow, I remembered to take a few pictures.

The grass adjacent to a wetland was an agreeable hunting ground for a Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile), a small and fairly common damselfly in this area. Laying down in the damp grass provided a unique perspective, not only for the damsel, but for all of the surrounding habitat. Getting up – we shall not mention the process.

Although we didn’t spot the bright red male Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia), the female is quite attractive, thank you very much.

Our largest grasshopper, the Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera), wasn’t interested in posing for a portrait. She held still just long enough for an intimate close-up then exited into the tall weeds never to be seen again.

With a total length of about one inch (25-27 mm), the Little Blue Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula) is the second-smallest dragonfly in North America. I chased after this pretty female for awhile before she sat still for a microsecond.

At the edge of a pond, we found a large male Gray-green Clubtail (Arigomphus pallidus). We normally only see these dragons on the ground but this one obliged by perching on a nice twig over the water.

Dragons in flight. Not my forte, but I keep trying. A very unique wing pattern helps identify a male Prince Baskettail (Epitheca princeps). They fly back and forth tirelessly patrolling a specific area to protect a female during her egg-laying efforts.

Fortunately, we found this fellow crossing a nice white road. The Pygmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius) is well-camouflaged for his typical habitat on the pine forest floor. This is an immature snake. Soon, the yellow tail will evolve into the namesake “rattles” which will allow him to “buzz” and warn us of his proximity when we pass by here next year.

With our rainy season comes abundant new life. Insects of all types flourish during this season. A particularly beautiful example is a Phaon Crescent (Phyciodes phaon), a small butterfly with a wonderful wing design.

Splashes of color greeted us all throughout the morning. We found a small bed of Yellow Milkwort (Polygala rugelii) providing a bit of sunshine among the dull green palmetto fronds. Beautiful from a distance, a close-up of a flower seemed like a completely different world.

Perhaps not as showy as the milkwort above, a Rosy Camphorweed (Pluchea baccharis) still has an attractive quality all its own. This is actually a member of the sunflower family and they are sometimes referred to as “stinkworts”. When crushed, the leaves give off a unique odor.

At one time, the Tarflower (Bejaria racemosa) was thought to be an insectivorous plant due to the sticky nature of its stems and flower parts. Instead, this turns out to be a defensive strategy used to prevent physical damage from some insects. This woody evergreen shrub can grow to ten feet tall and provides a load of beautiful blooms throughout the summer.

A new plant for us! The Clustered Bushmint (Hyptis alata) is pretty unique looking. The four stamens of the flower remain hidden until a pollinator lands on the bloom. As one can tell from the name, this member of the mint family emits a slight aroma when crushed which is reflected in its alternate name, “Musky Mint”. Whatever you call it, insects love it.

Gini’s outstanding hearing skill led us to a section of older pine trees where we found what was likely a couple of family groups of Brown-headed Nuthatches (eight individuals). Typical of small birds, this species has an extremely aggressive nature and they wasted no time letting us know we were trespassing!

It’s possible one must be a native to tolerate our hot, humid weather. Having said that, we give thanks to the inventor of modern air-conditioning! If you can stand to be warm and damp, find a road through a swamp to explore!

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

Perpetual Tourists

Header Image: Swallow-tailed Kite

“Are you a birder?”

The question was simple enough. My answer was quick: “Yes.”

Once upon a time, I considered myself a “bird watcher”, but somewhere along the way I discovered that term had become replaced with the more trendy “birder”. Sitting next to Gini that evening, sipping tea and taking comfort in her physical proximity, what’s left of my mind drifted into dangerous territory. Deep thought.

Are we really “birders”? Well, the dictionary defines a birder as: “a person who observes or identifies wild birds in their habitats.” So, yes, we are birders.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

For us, a typical “birding” trip consists of looking for birds, identifying them, perhaps photographing them and maybe sending an electronic report of our observations. Also, we see trees. Not just the ones where the birds may be perched, but whole forests. Big trees, small trees, flowering trees, dead trees. We are easily distracted during our “birding” trips by flowers, vines, shrubs and even weeds. Looking at all that vegetation we can’t help but notice there are bugs living among the leaves, branches, stems and buds. Lots of bugs. While we are outside, we find ourselves marveling at a sunrise, cloud formations, rainbows, streaks of lightning, sunsets, stars, the moon.

So, shall we call ourselves “birders who like a lot of other stuff, too”? Not very succinct. How about “naturalists”? Sounds good, but connotes a level of knowledge we don’t really possess. Let’s approach this from a different perspective. What do we actually DO?

We visit places in nature. We look at things. We like the things we see. We like doing this more than going other places which are not in nature.

Just before I drifted off to sleep, I put the tea cup aside so as not to drop it (experience!), squeezed Gini’s leg and revealed the results of my deep thinking.

We are simply tourists. Rather than visiting monuments, museums or massive commercial theme-parks, we prefer the sights and sounds of forest, swamp, field and coast.

Here are our postcards from a natural place. (Tenoroc Fish Management Area, Polk County, Florida.)

The early morning sun created a somewhat ethereal effect at the edge of the woods where spiders had been busy during the night.

Despite his name, the Common Grackle is less common here than the slightly larger Boat-tailed Grackle.

The male Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta) is a fairly large, all dark dragonfly.

Blue, maroon, white. The aptly named Tricolored Heron concentrates its red eyes on the shallow water waiting for breakfast to swim into view.

A large patch of yellow caught our eye. Walking toward the area revealed there had been a fire, likely a prescribed burn to stimulate new growth. The flowers of Yellow-eyed Grass (Xyris Spp.) are small and not very showy, but closer inspection showed us a beauty we couldn’t see from afar.

One of our favorite insects to find is the Robber Fly (Asilidae spp.). Worldwide, there are over 7,000 species of this unique creature. This one may be Promachus, a species of Giant Robber Fly.

Each spring, toward the end of February, we begin to see Swallow-tailed Kites returning from South America. These aerobatic raptors remain through the summer, breed and by the third week of August are gone again. I managed a series of photographs of one of these sleek hunters which I thought was a great example of how the bird eats a captured insect on the fly. Alas, close inspection of all the pictures depict how thoroughly this one cleaned its talons. Sigh. Next time.

A group of butterflies known as Pierids (family Pieridae) include many white and yellow individuals. The small yellows and sulphurs rarely open their wings when perched and it’s a challenge to be able to observe their upper wings. Some believe the rich yellows of this group is what led to them being called “butter” flies. This very small individual is a Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole).

Whether you are a birder, an entomologist, a wildlife biologist, a botanist or, like us, someone who simply loves nature – embrace your inner tourist and savor the view!

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