Wildflowers

Mellow Marsh

(WARNING: In this post to what is usually a “birding” blog, there are NO photographs of actual birds. Maybe next time.)

We turned onto Pine Island Drive just as the sun was beginning to rise above the distant line of tall trees visible across the vast salt marsh on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. This causeway connects Cortez Boulevard (County Road 550) to Hernando County’s only public beach. Although the beach was on our list to visit this morning, the causeway itself was our initial destination. Finding a safe spot to park along this drive is dicey as there is no shoulder between the asphalt and a drop-off into the black mud of the marsh for most of its length. Tidal creeks snake through the marsh grass and provide food and shelter for fish, crabs, insects and a diverse population of birds. The marsh is dotted with tree islands, commonly called hammocks. These oases have little tolerance for salt and grow only where the elevation is high enough to prevent flooding during high tides. The most common tree species on a coastal hammock are sabal palm, red cedar, pine and live oak. Beyond the marsh, creeks and hammocks to the west is the open gulf.

After wandering along Pine Island Drive and enjoying the golden glow of sunrise across the marsh,  mosquitoes and no-see-ums found me and I retreated to the car. Gini and I drove the short distance to the beach at Pine Island. Our breakfast of fruit and granola was enhanced by a wide-open view of the Gulf of Mexico across sugar white sand with palm trees swaying in a gentle breeze. We almost felt like tourists. But this is home.

Wading in the warm water of the gulf had a therapeutic effect and it was difficult to head back to the car. An incoming tide obscured a line of oyster-covered rocks which made walking in the shallows a little tricky. In a few weeks, migrating shore birds will cover this beach and the adjacent mud flats. We shall return.

Motoring back across the causeway and the expanse of cordgrass, we turned west onto Cortez Boulevard and followed it to its end at Bayport Park. The boat ramp was busy with fishermen launching skiffs into the Weeki-Wachee River. The mouth of the river is an excellent sheltered spot from which to begin a day of cruising the Gulf of Mexico for some of the area’s finest fishing. This whole area is quite shallow for several miles into the gulf and care must be taken or one could lose a propeller to the large rocks prevalent along this stretch of coastline.

The public fishing pier was closed due to severe damage last year from Hurricane Irma. A small park offers an elevated walkway over the marsh, a nice picnic area under huge hardwood and palm trees, a canoe launch and more tables along a seawall with terrific views of the gulf.

With its protected bay and navigable river inland for a few miles, Bayport has had a colorful history. In the early part of the 19th century, Florida exported large amounts of cotton and cattle. As the War Between The States destroyed much of the cotton fields in the southeast part of the country, Florida became a major supplier for domestic and foreign mills. Union forces blockaded Bayport and similar ports along the gulf coast and fierce naval battles were common.  After the war, Bayport became an important port for shipping lumber from the large tracts of cypress and pine that flourished here. During the Prohibition era, rum runners from Cuba made a very good living smuggling the demon liquor into America and Bayport was one of their major points of entry. Tales from that time describe barrels of rum stacked as high as a small house. The alcohol was packed into railroad freight cars and hidden by hay. Invoices were forged to indicate Irish potatoes were the cargo. A thirsty America was thankful.

Once railroads were constructed in the late 1800’s, shipping at the small port ceased and Bayport almost disappeared as a community over the next few decades. Fortunately, a few stalwart pioneers hung in there and today the area is a wonderful place to visit for birders, fishermen, photographers and anyone wishing to experience what Florida was like in the past.

Gini’s radar spotted a new entrance to another of our favorite places to visit, Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, about a dozen miles north of Bayport. She suggested we check it out and see if we could find a suitable lunch location. As usual, her instincts were spot on. We explored a couple of the old logging roads, found some wildflowers blooming and enjoyed our veggie sandwiches on tomato basil bread under a small grove of oak trees overlooking a seemingly endless forest. Black bears are known to have a robust population here but we didn’t see any today. (Gini has added, “and we better not ever, either!”) So there.

Lunch was over. Thunderstorms were forming in the gulf and heading inland. Time to go to the house.

Postcards from Florida. Just for you.

Just after sunrise, new growth of cordgrass (Spartina spp.) seems to flow through the salt marsh like some bright green stream.

Pine Island Causeway

 

A coastal hammock is likely to hold small pools of fresh rain water which attracts all manner of life. The shade provided by a few trees in the open marsh is a welcome relief to wildlife, especially in the heat of Florida’s summers.

Pine Island Causeway

 

Palm trees lean over a tidal creek which winds through the grass toward a distant hammock with the Gulf of Mexico beyond.

Pine Island Causeway

 

At Pine Island, high tide has almost covered a line of oyster-encrusted rocks leading to deeper water.

Pine Island Beach

 

Gini thought this palm tree was dancing the rumba on the beach while the little tree watched to see how it’s done.

Pine Island Beach

 

The full rays of the morning sun were hitting the eastern side of this hammock as we made our way through the salt marsh.

Pine Island Causeway

 

The dark water of a canal reflects the beauty of the cordgrass with lines of green pine and palm trees as a backdrop.

Pine Island Causeway

 

To safely navigate from the Weeki-Wachee River to the open Gulf of Mexico, simply follow the signs.

Bayport

 

Our search for a place to have lunch revealed beautiful blooms along the way. The lavender Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum) is a woody vine and depends upon other plants for support. I don’t know which plant is providing the support here but I hope to find out as it’s very attractive.

Chassahowitzka NWR

 

When the magnolia trees are blooming, one can almost get dizzy at the overwhelming fragrance in the forest. Blooms can be up to eight inches (20 cm) across and after a day or two will close at night for another day or two. Once they re-open, they will drop their stamens (as the one in the image has done) and then turn brown as they expire. Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), is almost synonymous with America’s southern culture.

Chassahowitzka NWR

 

Florida is home to three varieties of yucca (of more than 20 worldwide). This one, Adam’s Needle (Yucca filamentosa), produces clusters of large bell-shaped white flowers. As the blooms mature, they become too heavy for the stalk to hold upright and are often seen bent over to the ground. The green fruit of the plant is said to be edible but I’m happy knowing that and don’t intend to test the theory personally.

Chassahowitzka NWR

Chassahowitzka NWR

 

We left home early, enjoyed the post-dawn salt marsh, relaxed at the beach, wandered a river bank, gawked at the gulf, smelled the flowers, picnicked bare-footed (but found no bear feet), dodged lightning bolts and arrived home safe and sound before dark. Life is good. Find a marsh. Be mellow.

 

We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

Additional Information

Alfred McKethan/Pine Island Park

Bayport Park

Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

Categories: Florida, History, Photography, Travel, Wildflowers | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad

From our house, in about an hour-and-a-half (or four hours if we miscalculate rush hour), we could be standing in line waiting for our opportunity to enter the greatest entertainment complex in the universe: DISNEY WORLD! Depending on how many of the FOUR UNIQUE THEME PARKS we would like to visit in one day, we would only need to provide the happy ticket vendor with from $240 to $350. The keys to the Magic Kingdom could be OURS

Or —

From our house, in about an hour-and-a-half, we could be surrounded by pine trees, grass prairie, cypress hammocks, scrub palmetto, blue lakes, huge oak trees draped in gently swaying Spanish moss. No happy ticket vendor.

Small patches of ground fog hugged the low-growing palmetto surrounding the cypress domes which dotted the land. It is estimated that as late as the mid-1800’s, dry grass prairie covered over one million acres in central and south Florida. Due to population growth, cattle ranching and farming, these very unique environments can now only be found in a few areas north and west of Lake Okeechobee. We feel privileged to be able to enjoy all which this biologically diverse and special area has to offer.

Driving the dirt roads through the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area while trying to avoid the numerous pot-holes , we found a bounty of blooming wildflowers, white-tailed deer and a good selection of summer birds. Gini’s radar-like hearing detected the distant calls of a gang of feeding Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. This endangered species nests here and populations are highly managed which has resulted in an amazing recovery from near extinction. Alas, none of the group wanted to be photographed today.

In the middle of this vast wilderness is Lake Jackson, one of the “Three Lakes” in the management area. We enjoyed a light breakfast on the lake’s shore while watching ducks, wading birds, alligators and soaring vultures. I took a bit of a meander through the adjacent hammocks where there was ample evidence of a healthy feral hog presence. The ground was so uneven from the pigs’ rooting it was difficult to walk.

By lunch time, we had made our way to the shore of another of the “Three Lakes”, huge Lake Kissimmee. Sandwiches under shady oak trees just seemed to taste better with a gentle breeze, clear blue sky, calling Limpkins, splashing Gallinules, Bald Eagles and Ospreys catching fish. Sigh.

The third lake in this vast management system, Lake Marian, would have to wait for another day. It was time to head home. As we drove by the exit for Disney World, we didn’t even notice.

We regret we have not yet figured out how to reproduce the aroma of the wildflowers or the feel of the breeze on your face. Hopefully, you can enjoy a few images. Close your eyes and imagine …

 

Lake Jackson is a shallow bowl-shaped lake of the kind typically found in central Florida. The fishing is very good and each year endangered Snail Kites nest along the remote shore line.

Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area

 

During breakfast, a pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks kept a close watch on us and a pair of Wood Ducks flew overhead.

Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area

Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area

 

Wandering around a low place (hammock) near Lake Jackson I discovered this oak tree. It’s impressive spread supports so much life. Ferns, lichens, moss, air plants, vines. Not to mention the diverse animal population which could call it home.

Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area

 

Some form of Coreopsis is so prevalent in Florida that the entire genus has been named as the state wildflower. This is Leavenworth’s Tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii) and, fortunately for us, it was blooming throughout the management area.

Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area

 

Part of our lunch time entertainment was a Great Blue Heron stalking his own lunch v-e-r-y slowly.

Joe Overstreet Landing

 

Although the Limpkin’s plumage can be great for concealing its presence among reeds, once it emits its eerie call there is no doubt he’s nearby.

Joe Overstreet Landing

 

With so much water around (uhh, it IS Florida!), insects abound. The Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) and Four-Spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida) are two very common dragonflies for our area.

Joe Overstreet Landing

Joe Overstreet Landing

 

Even though part of this area is called “dry grass” prairie, when it rains (and we have had abundant rain lately) the “dry grass” is interspersed with a whole lot of color. This pretty pink blossom is Rosy Camphorweed (Brachymesia gravida). When its leaves are crushed they give off a citrus odor. Early settlers may have used it to ward off fleas from bed linen and an old colloquial name for the plant is “Marsh Fleabane”.

Prairie Lakes

 

These white flowers were abundant along one stretch of road. Alligator Lily (Hymenocallis palmeri), is one of 40 members of this genus in the New World, 13 of which can be found in Florida. Plants in this group are known collectively as “Spider Lilies”.

Prairie Lakes

 

We bypassed the glitz and glare of crass commercialism and discovered our very own Magic Kingdom. No keys required. Hopefully, you all have a magical spot not too far from your own front door. If not, I know a place ready to take your hard-earned cash.

 

We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

Additional Information

Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel, Wildflowers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: