Posts Tagged With: wildflowers

Into The Forest

(Part Two of our adventures in northwest Florida.)

… Two roads diverged in a wood, and I  –  I took the one less traveled by …  Robert Frost 

We would have been perfectly satisfied to remain aboard our comfortable houseboat, well, probably for the rest of our lives, but that’s another story. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the living area provided views up the creek, down the creek, across the salt marsh, of the mouth of the river, the bridge beyond which lay the vast bay, the endless blue sky (after that first night!) – why would we want to leave? When we did venture away from our dock to explore along the coast, the scenery was so spectacular we didn’t want to return to the confines of the boat. What might be around that next curve of shoreline? I suspect Gini and I were both explorers in another life. It was inevitable our souls united.

My brother suggested we escape the magnetic forces of the coast to wander for a day in a little different environment. The Apalachicola National Forest covers over half a million acres spread out north and east of Apalachicola. There are at least three major rivers flowing through the forest and myriad creeks, lakes and natural springs. It has the largest remaining stands of longleaf pines and wiregrass in the country, an ecosystem which used to cover the majority of the southeastern United States. Most of the roads are not paved, many require four-wheel drive and there just aren’t many humans out here. Our kind of place.

There’s no substitute for local knowledge when traveling in unfamiliar territory and my brother is as much an expert on this area as one could hope to find. He pointed out Tupelo trees which in the spring will blossom and attract bees which will produce my favorite honey. Out of the way bayous, a road which dead-ends on the shore of a beautiful bay, evidence of recent bear activity, a pitcher plant prairie, a rare flower. And where to have lunch. Just because we were “away from the coast” didn’t mean we were “far from the coast”. So my fear of going a day without fresh seafood was unfounded. You know you’re in the right spot when the “good ‘ole boys” pull up in their swamp buggies and mud-splattered pick-up trucks. Throw in the hound dog wandering through the broken screen door and rips in the vinyl seats and all that’s left is to order a glass of tea and figure out whether you want grouper, shrimp or crab.

Our last evening of a memorable vacation was highlighted by a Bald Eagle drama we watched unfold from the upper deck of the houseboat. The eagle used a channel marker from which he could spot schools of fish. We watched him fail to snag dinner three times. On the fourth try, he latched onto a striped mullet but I think the water was deeper than he anticipated and the fish may have been larger and heavier than he thought. As he attempted to take flight with the fish, he couldn’t become airborne, probably due to soaked feathers and the weight of the fish. Not wishing to fail again , he turned toward his channel marker perch and began “swimming”. As he reached his perch, he realized he couldn’t fly up that far with his fish. Spotting a tree branch in the shallow water, he hopped onto it with his prize only to be dumped back in the water as the branch was not stable. The eagle finally had to let the fish go or risk drowning as the tide was rising. Without the extra weight, the bedraggled bird flew to his perch and hoped the humans aboard the passing shrimp boat hadn’t witnessed his disgrace. We did, but we won’t tell.

 

Moving away from the coast, we encountered vast marshes, creeks and bayous winding southward.

Apalachicola

Cash Bayou

Apalachicola

Cash Bayou

 

At the end of Sand Beach Road, one would expect to find – no sand and no beach. Plenty of shallow water and grass.

Apalachicola

Sand Beach

 

From Sand Beach, looking across East Bay, we could see the long bridge which connects Apalachicola and Eastpoint.

Apalachicola

Sand Beach, East Bay

 

One of the main rivers flowing through the forest is East River.

Apalachicola

National Forest – East River, Gardner’s Landing

 

Even in late fall there are plenty of wildflowers blooming throughout the area, such as this Narrow-leaved Sunflower.

Apalachicola

Gardner’s Landing, Narrow-leaved Sunflower

 

Along Graham Creek we found Tupelo, Cypress, Oak, Maple, Bay and other tree varieties.

Apalachicola

Graham Creek

 

Florida Lobelia and False Foxglove added splashes of color to the prairies.

Apalachicola

Florida Lobelia (Lobelia floridana)

Apalachicola

False Foxglove (Agalinis sp.)

 

My brother found a fairly rare wildflower known as Largeleaf Grass-of-Parnassus. It’s only been observed in four counties in Florida.

Apalachicola

Largeleaf Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia grandifolia)

Apalachicola

Largeleaf Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia grandifolia)

 

Carnivorous plants abound in some areas here attesting to a healthy bug population. Pitcher Plants seemed to be everywhere at the same location we found the Grass-of-Parnassus.

Apalachicola

Pitcher Plants

Apalachicola

Pitcher Plants

Apalachicola

Pitcher Plant

 

This type of Pine savannah used to cover the entire southeastern United States.

Apalachicola

Pine Savannah

 

The Bald Eagle is a mighty hunter, but even the best of us don’t always bring home dinner on time.

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle, Shrimper

 

One more outstanding sunrise greeted us as we prepared to head across the Apalachicola River toward home. Among the items we packed for the journey are some very special memories.

Apalachicola

Sunrise – Apalachicola River

 

 

We made it home safely. It took a few days for our bed to stop “rocking” with imaginary waves. We’re looking forward to returning.

 

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

 

See more birds at:   Paying Ready Attention   (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Long Water

Droplets of moisture decorated the edges of everything in sight like so many small jewels displayed for all to admire. Stepping from the solid platform of wood firmly attached to dry land into a small boat which felt like it was ready to slip out from underneath your feet always seems like the proverbial “leap of faith” that it won’t. In the early morning fog, we moved slowly across the mirror-smooth surface of the lake straining to see ahead and listening for other boats. Common sense prevailed and we slipped into a cove covered in lily pads and pretended to fish until it was safe to travel. Finally, the sun forced the thick mist to begin its retreat and we sped to our favorite spot and began the ritual of gathering what would be several meals of fresh fish.

Raised in a land surrounded by water, it would be easy to take for granted the luxurious environment we enjoy. We know, however, there are many in the world without sufficient water resources and we pray for solutions.

One of the lakes we really love to visit is within an hour’s drive and not only provides outstanding fishing but is in the middle of a diverse ecological system which produces superb birding opportunities. Lake Kissimmee is in central Florida and covers about 35,000 acres (over 14,000 hectares). It forms part of the northern Everglades watershed and the Kissimmee River flows south from the lake for about 100 miles to Florida’s largest natural lake, Lake Okeechobee. “Kissimmee” is derived from a Native American word meaning “long water” and the name is descriptive as you view the lake on a map.

Along its 100 mile journey south, the floodplain of the river, historically, was about three miles wide and was inundated by annual rains. The runoff from this periodic flooding trickled southward through small tributaries, was filtered by vegetation and eventually replenished the vast Everglades with fresh, clean water. As human settlement spread into the area, this flooding began to devastate farms and ranches and strong hurricanes took many lives, over 2,000 in the early 1900’s in one storm. In 1947, the government authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to “do something” to control the flooding. They began a program of building levees around huge Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River was “channelized”. This once meandering, beautifully wild stream was turned into a dredged 30 foot deep straight-line canal which became deprived of oxygen and life over time. Additionally, the floodplain-dependent ecosystem was destroyed resulting in over 90% of the waterfowl disappearing and a 70% reduction in the nesting of Bald Eagles.

With significant help of concerned scientists and residents, the government realized (too late?) the error of their ways. In 1999 a project began to restore the Kissimmee River to its original flow and completion is targeted for 2019. There is some good news to report. For the portion of the project completed to date, there has been a significant return of waterfowl and the ecosystem does seem to be recovering, albeit slowly. We continue to hope future generations will be able to enjoy the land as it once was.

In addition to all the water, the area south and east of Lake Kissimmee contains one of the largest tracts of grass prairie in the United States. One of our favorite destinations is the vast Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area (which includes the Prairie Lakes Wildlife Management Area). Over 8,000 acres (3200 hectares) of dry prairie, wet prairie, marsh and pine-flatwoods. This area boasts the largest concentration of nesting Bald Eagles in the contiguous United States and is home to several endangered bird species including the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Florida Grasshopper Sparrow and Snail Kite.

Recent trips on Lake Kissimmee and to the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area produced a diverse list of birds, interesting wildlife encounters, tremendous open vistas of grassland, beautiful wildflowers and a couple of days filled with deep breathing of fresh air. We are truly blessed.

 

Here are a few images of why we like it here.

 

Sunrise on Lake Kissimmee.

Sunrise

Sunrise

 

This is the first lock on the Kissimmee River as it exits Lake Kissimmee. If you look on the right side of the photo, you can see the channelized river heading straight south in the distance.

Kissimmee River - Lock

Kissimmee River – Lock

 

The Kissimmee River flows into Lake Kissimmee from Lake Hatchineha to the north. This is looking northward into Lake Hatchineha from the river.

Kissimmee River

Kissimmee River

 

Cypress trees abound in wet conditions throughout Florida. The complex root system of the trees can be seen here as they’re exposed by low water.

Cypress Trees

Cypress Trees

 

An immature Bald Eagle checks us out from a fence post and an adult cruises for a fresh fish breakfast.

Bald Eagle - Immature

Bald Eagle – Immature

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

 

This is one of the many reasons we love this lake.

Grassy Island - Lake Kissimmee

Grassy Island – Lake Kissimmee

 

An endangered Snail Kite hovers over a spot where he hopes to find an Apple Snail.

Snail Kite

Snail Kite

 

Food for wading birds such as this Great Egret is plentiful around the lake.

Great Egret

Great Egret

 

Back on dry land, a road through part of the prairie within the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area indicates the openness of this environment.

Prairie - Three Lakes WMA

Prairie – Three Lakes WMA

 

We think about a time when people traversed this area on foot or horseback. Hard to imagine.

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes WMA

 

A few scattered palm trees don’t offer much shade and those trees in the distance are a very long walk!

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes WMA

 

Grassy plains such as this used to cover a huge area of central and south Florida.

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes WMA

 

False Dragonhead provides a little color along the way.

False Dragonhead  (Physostegia purpurea)

False Dragonhead (Physostegia purpurea)

 

Splashes of yellow Black-eyed Susan dot the prairie.

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes WMA

 

This is a spot which is normally filled with water. You can see the white sand “slide” that this alligator has used often to lay in wait for food. He apparently didn’t get the memo about the low water.

Dry Watering Hole

Dry Watering Hole

 

Pitted Stripeseed usually spreads along the ground but occasionally stands tall to display its beautiful blooms.

Pitted Stripeseed  (Piriqueta cistoides subsp. caroliniana)

Pitted Stripeseed (Piriqueta cistoides subsp. caroliniana)

 

We were privileged to watch the courtship flight of the Common Nighthawk. The male will fly high, hover for a moment, then fold his wings for a steep dive. Just before he crashes, he opens his wings and flies back up to do it again. The wind rushing through the suddenly open wings makes a distinct “hum”. Hopefully, this will impress the female and they will soon produce little Nighthawks.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

 

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

 

This open land is inviting for Swallow-tailed Kites as they soar above the grasses hunting for insects.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite

 

A female Needham’s Skimmer is quite lovely, but the mature males are a bright reddish-orange and usually grab the limelight.

Needham's Skimmer - Female  (Libellula needhami)

Needham’s Skimmer – Female (Libellula needhami)

 

No, this is not ZZ Top preparing for a performance. It’s a species of Robber Fly with a wasp/bee thing he snagged for lunch.

Robber Fly  (Asilidae)

Robber Fly (Asilidae)

 

An Eastern Black Racer grudgingly moves off the path for us. Gini wanted to play with it but I persuaded her to not molest the wildlife. (She’s bad about that.)

Eastern Black Racer

Eastern Black Racer

 

As the prairie merged into pine-flatwoods, we heard the sweet song of Bachman’s Sparrow and very soon an accommodating male serenaded us and posed for a few candid pics. It was by far the best look we’ve had of one of these beauties. Not too long ago, they were known as Pine Tree Sparrows, which is quite descriptive of their habitat.

Bachman's Sparrow

Bachman’s Sparrow

 

Another tree-dweller, the Red-headed Woodpecker, probed for bugs on a utility pole. Too bad they’re not more brightly colored …..

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

 

The Long Water refreshes – and we take advantage and are thankful. If you have a chance, go and marvel at what Nature has to offer.

 

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

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Wildflowers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

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