Naturally Motivated

It’s hot outside. The “dog days” of summer are in full swing here in sub-tropical central Florida. Leave the air-conditioned coolness of home or auto and one is immediately enveloped in a steamy cloud of vapor which soaks through clothing and produces an instant soggy mess of a person. Did I mention it’s hot? Weather experts are issuing dire warnings that children and the elderly should remain indoors.

Gini fairly regularly refers to me as “child like”. According to my joints, hair, skin and driver’s license – there is a better than 50% chance that I am “elderly”. We should remain indoors.

The alarm screeched rudely and my beautiful (yes, even in the dark) bride gently rubbed my arm. “Time to get up.” A half-hour later, I put my feet on the floor and went through the ritual of “getting ready”. State parks in Florida, in a rare moment of sanity, decided the proper time to open to the public is 8:00 A.M. This meant we had time to gather our equipment, breakfast components, water tumblers packed with ice and leisurely drive about 20 minutes north to reach Colt Creek State Park precisely at — uhh — well, not too long after they opened the gate.

While Gini settled in to enjoy a good book in the car, I stomped along the edge of tall grass and small trees trying to find an opening into a swampy area. Yes, on purpose. The huge cypress trees thrust up from the green surface of the water and their thick branches allowed only a smattering of morning sun to filter through. It’s quiet in the swamp. After taking a few pictures we ambled along the park roads and found birds, bugs and blooms in profusion.

Breakfast by the lake. A walk through a thistle thicket proved to be a bug bonanza! Trees bordering open fields made great ambush perches for a variety of birds. White-tailed deer loafed along a road edge. A gopher tortoise can move surprisingly fast when it wants to! Shallow water was just deep enough for young alligators to submerge as I approached. A black racer (one of our most common snakes), true to its name, was across the path and gone before I could lift the camera.

Clearly, the inhabitants of the park had not seen the dire warnings of the weather experts.

Clearly, we were happy to have ignored the experts. Our motivation to enjoy what nature offers easily overcame our discomfort from heat and humidity.

Okay, it WAS nice to head home for lunch in a cool, air-conditioned car. Suspicions confirmed:  we’re human.

 

Chaos in the swamp. The cypress trees provide order and stability but everything else seems to grow in all directions with no plan whatsoever. The green covering over the water is an aquatic weed and offers shelter to myriad creatures.

Colt Creek State Park

 

Between the water of the swamp and the edge of the woods is a space where oak, pine and other tree species thrive. Among the detritus on the forest floor, a bright red mushroom asserts its presence.

Colt Creek State Park

 

The vertical, tear-drop pattern on the breast identifies this Red-shouldered Hawk as an immature bird. By this time next year, it will sport the horizontal rusty stripes of an adult.

Colt Creek State Park

 

A quick glance might result in thinking the bright red in the tree top is a Northern Cardinal instead of a Summer Tanager. This tanager’s mate, a subdued yellow-green color, flew overhead and he dutifully followed her into the forest.

Colt Creek State Park

 

In the middle of the road, a Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis) was probably trying to extract a bit of water from – whatever that glop might be. (Don’t want to know.)

Colt Creek State Park

 

More gloppy stuff in the road. This time, a gaggle of Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) were having a party.

Colt Creek State Park

 

This industrious insect is working hard to clear the road of obstacles. Probably coyote scat. Aren’t you glad you asked? There are over 7,000 species of Dung Beetle (Fam. Geotrupidae) in the world (more if you count bureaucrats) and they can be found on every continent except Antarctica. It’s believed if they did not exist, we would soon be buried in excrement.

Colt Creek State Park

 

Off the beaten path, I wandered among a field of thistles. I was not alone.

One of my favorite butterflies, a Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus), refused to come near so I resorted to a distant somewhat fuzzy image. Even blurry, it’s a beautiful bug!

Colt Creek State Park

 

The Dorantes Longtail (Urbanus dorantes), one of the skippers, is frequently seen with a “short” tail as it’s a convenient place for predators to grab.

Colt Creek State Park

 

A loud hum and large profile is always a bit startling and at first it would be easy to think you’ve spotted a Hummingbird. But it’s actually the impressive Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe).

Colt Creek State Park

 

Several Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) flitted past my head ignoring me as they sipped nectar from one blossom after another. These beauties have wingspans that can reach up to 7.5 inches (19 cm)!

Colt Creek State Park

 

The underside of this Cloudless Sulphur  (Phoebis sennae) appears green and may be immature, but if you can catch it with its wings spread you can readily see the yellow from which it gets its name.

Colt Creek State Park

 

An American Bird Grasshopper (Schistocerca americana), as you might suspect, is quick to sprout wings and fly away if you approach too closely.

Colt Creek State Park

 

Found in the southeastern United States and Bahamas, the Eastern Lubber Grasshopper  (Romalea microptera), is considered a pest in many parts of the country as they consume a very diverse assortment of plants. Their bright color warns predators they won’t like the taste and their body contains a toxin which will cause the consumer to throw up. But they ARE handsome!

Colt Creek State Park

 

Heat, humidity and enjoyment. Florida nature at its finest. Even if you don’t have our high temperatures and steamy air, we just know that nature has some wonderful things to show you when you have a little time.

 

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

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

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

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