Happy Habitat

Header Image: Anhinga

Miles and miles of miles and miles. That was the description of west Texas landscape we heard from more than one Texan as we settled into our new neighborhood. Exploration of the area confirmed the truth of the statement. Most of those miles, at first glance, appeared completely inhospitable. Upon closer examination, we discovered the most incredible array of life forms which had learned to adapt to what, for us, was an extremely harsh environment.

That was in the early 1970’s and once we learned how and where to look, our time in west-central Texas remains among our most cherished memories of finding a fascinating natural place.

Meanwhile, 1400 miles to the east.

Look at that butterfly!” Gini directed me to the dull orange Variegated Fritillary resting next to a brown leaf on the ground. Fritillaries, swallowtails, skippers, crescents – the grass edges of the road were alive with color! Today we’re ambling through the Bridgewater Tract of the larger Tenoroc Fish Management Area a few miles away. There are eight lakes in this area and included are wetlands, sandhill pines and a bit of oak/hickory/bay woodlands.

As we enjoyed our fresh tangerines and bananas at the edge of one of the lakes, Brown Pelicans and Ospreys crashed the water’s surface to retrieve their own breakfast. On either side of us, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Northern Parula warblers scoured tree limbs for anything that moved. At one of the boat ramps, our first fall Belted Kingfisher acknowledged our presence by abruptly flying away with her loud rattle of irritation. Terns are normally associated with salt water, but we have a small colony of Caspian and Royal Terns which remain inland here all year. We watched a Royal Tern demonstrate its aerobatic prowess over one of the lakes.

A combination of plentiful clean water, wetlands, forest and some open fields produces a favorable habitat for many species of life here. Nature tries to ensure equilibrium and, as long as humans don’t interfere too much, this place is a wonderful spot to explore. Often.

A Northern Mockingbird has not quite completed its seasonal molt. Even when ragged looking we think it’s a handsome bird.

The Royal Tern can be distinguished from its slightly larger relative, the Caspian Tern, by a more orange bill with no dusky tip and a cleaner white forehead.

Most areas visited recently have large numbers of Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus) actively feeding. This is a female, showing a blue swash at the base of her wings. Males display a more greenish color.

Very likely a fall migrant, this female Belted Kingfisher made it be known very loudly she didn’t appreciate us interrupting her morning fishing session.

It would be easy to pass by this Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) as it almost blends in with the brown oak leaves littering the ground. Unless your companion happens to be Gini with the keen brown eyes.

All the lakes in the area attract a large number of fishermen. And fisherwomen. And fisher-children. Not to mention fisher-birds, such as a gorgeous Tricolored Heron.

Even the bugs like it here. Near the water’s edge at this time of year we usually find good numbers of Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii). The field guide describes this species as a “large” damselfly. They have a different definition of “large” than what I thought it meant.

Throughout Florida one of the most ubiquitous water birds is the Anhinga. Unlike many water birds, their feathers are not waterproof, and they must spend a lot of time drying their wings. We grew up calling these “water turkeys” due to the shape of their head and broad tail.

Red Bull Assassin Bug (Repipta taurus). Sounds scary. I love it. Any bug which dines on aphids, flies and mosquitoes is a true friend!

Reluctantly, we headed to the house. Near the exit gate we bade farewell to one of nature’s centurions, a Red-shouldered Hawk.

Whether it’s semi-arid west Texas or semi-tropical central Florida, nature provides a suitable habitat for a startling array of living things. Discovering it all is a happy hobby.

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

Swamp Sojourn

Header Image: Pine Flatwoods Dawn

“And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!”

(From The Creation by James Weldon Johnson.)

We often visit the swamp. Florida has quite a few areas which meet the definition of a swamp. One of the shortest informative descriptions I’ve run across says a swamp is a “forested wetland”. Marshes, on the other hand, are distinguished by the main vegetation being grasses rather than trees.

Our “local” destination is central Florida’s Green Swamp. Over 560,000 acres (227,000 hectares) of river swamp, longleaf pine sandhills, hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods and cypress ponds located between Tampa and Orlando. It sounds odd, but the Green Swamp is actually on a “plateau” surrounded by sand ridges. A vast underground aquifer rises near the surface in this area and as rain falls it trickles through the soil to replenish what is the state’s main source of drinking water. Annual rains here also form the headwaters of four major rivers: the Withlacoochee, the Ocklawaha, the Hillsborough and the Peace.

Light fog filtered early rays of the rising sun through the dense pine forest. Clearings were thick with lush ferns, saw palmetto and wildflowers. The most prominent bloom was Pale Meadowbeauty, providing a pink welcome mat into the depths of the swamp. Gossamer nets woven by industrious spiders covered the open glades forming bowls in the grass as well as stretched between tree trunks and tall plants. Woodpeckers and Brown-headed Nuthatches scolded from high above. The scream of a Red-shouldered Hawk alerted all in the area of our intrusion into their world.

Logging roads crisscross the area we were exploring. Care must be taken as rains and fallen trees can make some of the roads hazardous to navigate. A combination of driving slowly and hiking an interesting-looking trail reveals an incredible diversity of life. Today should we be birders, budding botanists, promising herpetologists, intrepid dragon hunters or just visitors who love the aroma of fresh pine and the beauty of a simple flower? All of the above.

We seldom encounter many humans in this area. The solitude enriches our souls. As we turn onto the paved road and head to the house, we sigh in unison and instinctively know each other’s thoughts about the morning: “That’s good!“.

A few images may illustrate why we love our swamp.

Open meadows adjacent to the pine forest are common and always seem to offer something different each time we visit.

The likely engineer of this intricate bowl-shaped web is one of the Orchard Orbweavers (Leucauge species).

Carolina Redroot (Lachnanthes caroliana) is plentiful throughout the swamp and is loved by a host of nectar-loving insects, such as this Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus).

Pink is the color of the day at this time of year in the pine woods. Virtually every open spot we passed was filled with Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana). We didn’t mind one bit.

Some early fall foliage was provided by a native Red Maple (Acer rubrum) inviting us to explore a creek through the forest.

Horsetail or Scouringrush (Equisetum hyemale), is a reed-like plant which loves wet areas. It reminds us of asparagus. (No, we didn’t taste it on this trip.)

As we look around at birds and flowers, we are likely to miss some colorful jewels right at our feet. Small but beautiful, a Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) looks like a little flying stained-glass window.

There are a few physical differences between a Pig Frog (Rana grylio) and an American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), but if you’re able to hear them call you will have no doubt.

Pig Frog https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EsYi_NbGJE

Bullfrog: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtAdhpTKmgg

Pig Frog

More Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana) and lower in the vegetation is Yellow Milkwort (Polygala rugelii), a species endemic to Florida.

Adding another dimension to our already colorful experience is a male Golden-winged Skimmer (Libellula auripennis).

A sprinkling of white decorated the edge of a section of forest as we left the area. Standing nearly three feet tall, the Flattened Pipewort or Hatpins (Eriocaulon compressum) added a delicate touch to the landscape.

Away from the noise of human endeavor, amid the calls of Blue Jays and Pig Frogs, Gini and I recharged our internal batteries. We indulged our appetite for nature’s beauty at one of her bountiful banquet tables. We will repeat the process again. Often.

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

The Half-Full Glass

Header Image: Dawn at the lake.

Early mornings in nature are consistent. Weather can cause variations in the routine, but creatures go about their daily business of survival regardless of whether we are there to observe. When we are lucky enough to be there it is impossible to see everything but what we DO see adds to our data base of experience and, once in a while, special events become memories.

It is the potential for a “memory” which keeps us answering the shrill alarm of a new day.

We answered the alarm today. Well, Gini answered the alarm with a lightning-quick “slap” of the snooze button. That was followed by a slap to the head of yours truly. (No, of course she did not hit me. It was a “virtual” slap and included faces and lips and …… suffice it to say, I was now awake.)

The short drive to our patch took us past familiar sights. A pond where a Snowy Egret hunted along the bank. Flocks of White Ibises moving from roost to fields where they’ll feed all day. The tall utility structure filled with dozens of vultures which will continue to rest until the sun warms the air enough to create thermal layers upon which the big birds depend for soaring.

The sun breaks the horizon and paints the tops of the tallest trees with golden light. No hint of a breeze yet and the surface of the lakes are an expanse of mirrors reflecting the clear blue sky of our new day. It didn’t rain last night but drops of water adorn every tree leaf and blade of grass from our typically heavy dew.

Nature has its own version of a shrill alarm. A Red-shouldered Hawk flies from a tree limb as we drive by and her cry could be heard for the next several minutes. She was NOT happy and was letting the world know about our intrusion. An Eastern Towhee called from a field. Northern Cardinals chirped from the woods. More flocks of White Ibises poured across the brightening sky.

The sun was now well above the tree line and as dew drops began to dissipate, drowsy insects began their daily chore of survival. Almost imperceptibly, we were surrounded by more and more active creatures. Fresh air, birds, bugs, flowers, trees, lakes. We are so spoiled.

Our hope of spotting early migratory warblers went unfulfilled. However, we saw a total of 42 species of birds.

Our hope of catching a glimpse of a bobcat did not materialize. However, we saw dozens of colorful dragonflies and damselflies.

We could talk about all the failed hopes of our day. Instead, let’s show you a few reasons we return here so often.

White Ibises can look a bit ungainly as they probe the ground with that long, curved bill. Once airborne, they are infinitely graceful.

Blending in can be crucial to survival. This Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) excels at camouflage in the dried weeds.

A foot bridge railing provides a nice spot for perching. The Great Blue Heron looks a bit out of place since we normally see them knee-deep in the water.

Handsome may not necessarily spring to mind when describing the visage of a Black Vulture.

Like its larger cousin, the Little Blue Heron thinks the bridge rail is a fine place to soak up some of the sun’s early rays while keeping a lookout below for a frog.

Yet another rail lounger, a Turkey Vulture cannot believe you don’t think she is gorgeous.

Mud attracts all sorts of life. We spotted about a dozen of these Bronzed Tiger Beetles (Cicindela repanda) scurrying around the edges of a puddle.

Around the puddle mentioned above, several male Band-winged Dragonlets (Erythrodiplax umbrata) chased each other in the never-ending battle for territory.

The Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) is one of the largest sulphurs in our area. This is a female. The male has less conspicuous wing markings.

Typical habitat in our patch contains numerous lakes bordered by large cypress trees. A Tricolored Heron is a common visitor along the shallow shoreline.

Not as colorful as her male counterpart, the female Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) is distinct with her complex thorax pattern and relatively large size.

A local collector let us snap a portrait of her latest find. A Loggerhead Shrike impaled this Banded Sphinx (Eumorpha fasciatus) on a barb. She was likely lurking nearby hoping we wouldn’t steal her prize. We didn’t.

Dragon for brunch! This looks like some sort of darner that the Tropical Orb Weaver (Eriophora ravilla) snagged in its substantial web.

Florida’s sub-tropical climate allows us to enjoy lush growth in the forest most of the year. Large expanses of ferns provide beautiful green highlights to our early morning wandering.

Hints of gold and a unique thoracic pattern help identify the female Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami).

White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae). Common butterfly. Uncommonly beautiful.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker, like many woodpecker species, will cache food as the year progresses. Here, a male tucked an acorn into a crevice of a utility pole.

Early morning by the side of a lake. We stop here often for breakfast. A peaceful spot to visit any time.

There was much we did not see today. As with most things in life, we could be disappointed. Instead, we choose to be delighted with our day. Life has so much to offer. For us, time spent together is, by far, the most valuable treasure we have. All else pales by comparison. Embrace the positive in your day. See you soon.

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

Colt Creek Critters

Header Image: Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)

A pine forest is welcoming in so many ways. The unique green of the trees, the scent that has become synonymous with “fresh“, the cones on the branches as well as those littering the understory, the texture of the tree bark and the incredible diversity of life which calls the forest home. No wonder we like such a venue!

Colt Creek State Park is one of our favorite places to visit for several reasons. It consists of over 5,000 acres of upland pine forest, mixed hardwood trees, swamps, cypress domes, lakes, creeks, open fields, campgrounds and over 15 miles of well-maintained trails. Okay, the fact that it’s 20 minutes from the house doesn’t hurt.

Today’s visit was short, by our standards. We usually manage to linger here for three or four hours. This time, we spent less than two hours, didn’t stray far from the main road, didn’t get any photographs of birds yet still managed to discover a smorgasbord of life!

Just after passing through the entrance gate a coyote emerged from the trees but retreated as soon as he saw us. No time to swing the camera up, doggone it. A bit further and White-tailed Deer enjoyed their breakfast alongside the road. The neighborhood watch system, a Red-shouldered Hawk, alerted the population that intruders were out and about. Although we saw plenty of birds, none were anxious to have a picture taken today. Must all be in some sort of witness protection program. No worries. Nature provides plenty of subject material!

Gini pointed out all the weeds with dragons lounging around. I had to take photos quickly and move on lest her urge to collect the colorful creatures might overwhelm her normally calm demeanor. We found a new moth species in addition to all those Odonata as well as a few spiders. All too soon, it was time to head back to the house. Next time, we have no doubt the birds will be more cooperative.

No critters were harmed in the production of this adventure to a natural place. (Well, except for a few mosquitoes, who ignored our warning shots.)

Breakfast weeds. The White-tailed Deer in the park are accustomed to humans and sometimes allow a fairly close approach.

The Bar-winged Skimmer (Libellula axilena) is one of three species of the “king” skimmer family in our area in which the male is all dark. A particular wing pattern helps identify this species. We were fortunate to find both male and female today.

Male
Female

Another of the “king” skimmers, a Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans) is easy to identify by the white face and blue eyes of both sexes.

Male
Female

“Become The Branch.” A Cuban Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei) does its best to avoid detection on a sticky looking pine limb.

Some species can display a wide variation in appearance. Different shades of the Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantius) are common. The characteristic zig-zag zipper design in the middle of their web is called the stablementum.

Our new species of the day! A very small critter, the Black-bordered Lemon Moth
(Marimatha nigrofimbria) was pretty hard to miss among the green grass blades.

Speaking of tiny, the Little Blue Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula) is only about an inch (25 mm) long. This is the male.

Not too much larger than the Little Blue Dragonlet, a Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) male is ready for brunch.

Going to the head of the brunch line is a richly colored female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis).

Our adventure today may have been short as measured by the clock, but it was long on satisfaction. A new species discovered, activity happening all around us, holding hands under the pine trees. Life is good.

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

Additional Information

https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/colt-creek-state-park

Header Image: Prothonotary Warbler

It’s her fault, you know. She said: “Go birding. I have some crafting to catch up on.” I should have known to be wary.

For some time now, I’ve wanted to explore part of the “Blue Loop Trail” at Tenoroc Public Use Area. According to the map, about a quarter mile from the trail head is an “overlook”. Along the way are huge oak, bay and hickory trees and some willow tangles that looked promising. The overlook was okay, especially since it was from a rare Florida ‘hill” created a few decades ago when this area was mined for phosphate.

The plan. Walk to the overlook. Return to the car.

A few birds flitted along the short walk. Northern Cardinals, a White-eyed Vireo, a Carolina Wren. Then, a flash of bright yellow in the willows! Those slate-colored wings! The first Prothonotary Warbler of the fall migration! Camera – uhh, no. The target took off down the trail.

That is the moment I should have paid attention to the “wary” alarm.

For the next 30 minutes, a frustrating game of hide-and-seek took me further along the trail. In a grove of hardwood trees adjacent to a lake, I finally managed a few poor-quality images. As a bonus for my efforts, a pair of Prairie Warblers and a trio of American Redstarts made an appearance. Throw in two more Prothonotary Warblers, Carolina Wrens, woodpeckers, flycatchers, spiders and butterflies – well, a good day became better.

Then, reality smacked me in the face.

How far was I from the car? Check the map on the phone. No signal. How long was this trail? Senior memory failed. Go back or go forward? Might as well see what the rest of the trail looks like.

It looked good! Lots of great habitat and things were going great. Another 30 minutes through some heavy weeds, soaking wet from dew and humidity, temperature rising. A drink of water — the bottle is — in the car. After all, it was only going to be a brief quarter mile walk. Sigh.

An hour-and-a-half later, phone back in service! Map says another half-hour to the parking lot. Called Gini to let her know I was going to be later than anticipated. “Did you take breakfast with you?

Looking forward to lunch. But first, water.

It was, in retrospect, a terrific morning! The trail is a good one and at least I’ll be better prepared the next time. The Prothonotary Warbler has been a bit of a nemesis for me in past years, so I was happy to get any images at all.

The even better news in this episode is, with the sightings of American Redstarts and Prothonotary Warblers, we can officially say “autumn” migration is under way! Yep, it is still hot. The “dog days” of summer, according to some almanacs, ended a couple of weeks ago. After today’s sightings, I feel cooler already.

To the overlook, and beyond.

As always, beware masked bandits along the way. This must have been a young Raccoon as it just stared a bit then calmly walked into the brush.

The overlook. This is actually a somewhat unusual scene for Florida. We seldom have a chance to be this far above the landscape. There is a trail on the other side of this lake, too. Another day maybe. (Photo-bombed by a dragon.)

Several Carolina Wrens were seen and heard during the morning. Some are still in the process of molting.

At this time of year, several species of birds begin to form into groups as they prepare for migration. I encountered four Prairie Warblers today in the same general area.

Walking through spider webs is an occupational hazard for birders who sometimes amble along gazing upward instead of looking where they’re going. Thankfully, I saw this one just in time to duck under it. The owner, an Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge argyra) appreciated my consideration.

A resident in central Florida, the Great Crested Flycatcher is an eye-catcher with that lemon-colored underside.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is very common in our area and has been able to adapt to human habitation. The woodpecker in the second image doesn’t have much red on its head yet as it is an immature bird.

In just a few more days, the Swallow-tailed Kites will be gone. By the end of August, they will be well on their way to enjoying the juicy grasshoppers of the Argentine pampas.

A Northern Cardinal still molting new plumage.

Thankfully, this thoughtful Golden Silk Spider (Trichonephila clavipes) spun her web to the side of the trail. These webs are surprisingly strong and once you walk through one face first, it seems to remain with you the rest of the day.

The Prothonotary Warbler has pretty basic coloration. Perhaps the simplicity is what I like.

With no red marking on the head, we know this is a female Downy Woodpecker.

I counted over two dozen Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) butterflies during the morning. They liked this trail as much as I did. But they didn’t have to hike back to the parking lot.

The intensity of the Dog Star is on the wane. Our hot weather will subside. Birds will move from breeding grounds to warmer climates. Nature moves forward pulling us inexorably toward what awaits.

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

Further Information

https://myfwc.com/recreation/lead/tenoroc/