Sunday, April 19, 2015

Countdown

Today was my last volunteer shift at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. I've been a volunteer there for about 4 years and I've sure had fun. When I first heard the radio ad asking for people to volunteer at La Chua Trail, I thought--"they let you do that? Yes!" and signed up right away. Through frosty mornings, blazing sun, clouds, rain, mud, fire ants, stubborn gators, bison and drones, our cheerful team works together every weekend from October-April, giving helpful information and talking to visitors about our very favorite place. I've loved every minute. This is not goodbye--I'll visit often! Here are some images from today.
Trail Entrance

Our Info Trailer and Welcome Station

Baby Gator in its Own Pond

Bull Gator Cooling Itself

Noble Profile

Purple Gallinules

Yellow Water Lilies--Nymphaea mexicana

American Coot

Saddleback Dragonfly

Looking Out Over the Prairie

Great Blue Heron Nests

Visitors on the Viewing Platform

Acres of Pickerelweed--Pontederia cordata

Boat Tailed Grackle

Osprey With its Talons Out, Hunting

Yellow Water Lily--Nymphaea mexicana

Common Gallinule

Pied Billed Grebe

Family of Common Gallinules

Little Blue Heron With Bullfrog Tadpole

Down the Hatch

-Gulp-

Full Belly and Beautiful Breeding Plumage!

2 of My Trailer Buddies, Helene and Dave

Friday, April 17, 2015

Santa Cruz, Part 1--How Much Nature Can We Fit into One Week? (A Lot!)

After all the upheaval in the past few months, I feel like things are starting to settle down. I'm getting comfortable with the idea of a big move. In fact, I have to admit that I'm looking forward to it! Things are moving smoothly into place and now I have a little time to think, so I am tidying up loose ends and taking care of things like unposted blogs! So let's take a trip back in time...

At the end of December, my family converged on Santa Cruz, California for a holiday reunion. When we arrived in California, the weather was cool but dry. It had been rainy the week before, but it cleared up while we were there. We were happy that the rain cleared for us because we had outdoor plans. Unfortunately for Californians, who are in the worst drought on record, the rain hasn't returned. One selfish benefit of the rain was that we were allowed more showers and toilet flushes than we had originally expected. Drought is serious business. But we were still stingy with water and practiced the old "if it's yellow, be mellow, if it's brown, flush it down" rule of water conservation and limited showering (probably a little "TMI").

When I awoke the first morning I was still on East Coast time, so I took advantage of being an early riser (a rarity for me) and walked down the street to the Neary Lagoon Park before the rest of the group was ready for our day's excursions. I wrote about visiting this wonderful urban wetland park last January. I just never tire of finding sanctuaries like this in the center of busy cities. Everyone needs a little refuge. I read that this one was visited by a Mountain Lion last fall, so next time I'm in Santa Cruz, I'll keep my eyes open for big paw prints! Neary Lagoon runs right through the middle of Santa Cruz and when I visited it was bustling with birds ready to greet the morning. In the course of a half hour walk along boardwalks, I saw, among other things, a Townsend's Warbler, a Bushtit, a Black and White Warbler, a Western Scrub Jay, Pied Billed Grebes, many Robins and Mallard Ducks, and an Anna's Hummingbird. It was a great welcome back to Santa Cruz!

Townsend's Warbler, right where I left him last year!

Puffy Bushtit

Black and White Warbler

Western Scrub Jay

Robin Redbreast

The Noble Mallard

When everyone was dressed, fed and ready, we headed to Wilder Ranch State Park, just a short drive away. What I really want to do when I visit a new place is check out the wildlife and plants. I haul my backpack full of camera gear everywhere and I want to use it! Luckily for me, my family is interested nature and hiking too, so it didn't take much convincing to get them to go to state parks and take other active outings during our week. My sister-in-law is a huge geocaching enthusiast, so she quickly found that there was one hidden on the trail to the ocean cliffs. And while everyone else was exploring the geocache and signing the log sheet, I was examining the neat pile of innards that was lying on the trail. I don't know what they came from, but I figure some predator tossed them aside, opting instead for yummy flesh. There were no other bits lying around to give hints about what, when or why.

The Geocache

Innards

After a short walk, we reached the cliffs and looked out over the water. The ocean is so big and it always makes me feel so small. The warning sign on the edge reminded us that change here is constant. The fault slips a little here and a little there and the waves pound unceasingly, re-forming the coastal landscape. A few days later when we visited another beach, someone actually fell off of one of the cliffs. We didn't see it and were never able to figure out exactly what happened or if the person survived, but the helicopter, ambulances and emergency teams let us know it was a serious accident.

View from the Trail

It's a Long Way Down

I scanned the horizon for spouts from whales or jumping dolphins. No whales or dolphins (that day!) but I could see hundreds of birds, mostly Cormorants, Seagulls and Brown Pelicans out on the rocks. Nearby there were big, fat Harbor Seals, enjoying the morning sun. Surf Scoters bobbed in the waves and Oystercatchers patrolled the rocks looking for shellfish morsels. On the way back to the car I heard a funny sound and found a pair of Meadowlarks popping up and down in a bush. Our best find of the day was the White Tailed Kite hunting overhead. I had no idea what it was but its fluttering actions seemed familiar somehow. I should have recognized it as a kite, but I just wasn't thinking that way. I thought at first it was a gull, but my mom kept insisting that it was some sort of raptor. She was so right! Proof, once again, that you should always listen to your mother.

Mostly Cormorants

Brown Pelicans

Seals and Gulls

It's a Rough Life--Harbor Seals Sunning
White Tailed Kite

Pop Go the Meadowlarks!

When my parents moved to Santa Cruz, I was surprised to learn that there was a major Monarch Wintering spot right down the road from their house. I had thought (incorrectly) that the Monarchs all wintered in Mexico. Over the years I have learned that there are several populations of Monarchs (even some in Florida) and the ones that live West of the Rockies overwinter in the Eucalyptus trees of coastal California. The Monarch Watch website says that the California Monarchs make up over 5% of the world population, so these are important sites. In boom years, Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz has had as many as 100,000 Monarchs sheltering there. So, one day we took a trip to Natural Bridges because we heard that there were still some butterflies clustered in the trees. Sadly, the numbers were very low this winter. Drought, deforestation, lack of habitat and many other factors contributed to the low numbers (I read that the local Steller's Jays have developed a taste for them). I saw the one cluster in the park and it was still breathtaking. But we were told that we were seeing only a fraction of what would normally be roosting there. Numbers in the park were up to 7500 after being even lower in years past. I can't imagine what the world will be like if we lose these wonders.

Wintering Monarchs
Next up, part 2--Giants...


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Springtime and New Beginnings

Signs of Spring in the Garden--Blue Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium sp.)

I am so thankful for spring this year. Even though we didn't get hit very hard, I feel like it's been a tough winter and it is really good to get outside and feel the sun and smell the dirt. My dad died in January, which was hard enough, but on top of that my husband and I have been in the process of deciding if he should take a new job out of state. After long months of discussion, we decided to take the job and make the move and so we're preparing to leave the place we've called home for 19 years. We listed the house just about a week before the wildflowers started blooming in the yard and I had to dig up some old spring yard photos from last year to use for advertisements. It felt a little deceptive since the actual yard was bare and brown, but I knew they'd come back, and now, several weeks later, the yard is exploding with gorgeous spring colors. It felt like the leaves appeared on the trees in just a day. I almost imagined that I could hear them growing. Last weekend the temperature was up in the high 80's and the butterflies arrived en masse. It's like wonderland out there! And that's the hard part. We are making this move not because we were unhappy here, but because something new and wonderful attracted us elsewhere. We still love our home. And when I walk around the yard I feel melancholy, saying goodbye to it all. I've put a lot of myself into creating this lush habitat and nature sanctuary. I've gotten many years of joy from it. I used the yard as therapy, working away issues and problems as I painstakingly pulled out the entire front lawn by hand. I know each little plant and have moved them around many times trying to find just the right place for each one. I can see when something is out of place and can spot weeds from across the yard. It's so satisfying to watch the sprouts of that I planted last year grow and flower. This year the White Indigo I planted from seed several years ago is finally big enough to have blooms. I can finally see the native "cottage garden" that I envisioned taking shape. And last fall I decided to start a sandhill habitat in a sandy, sunny section in the front corner. The plants are coming up and I think it will be very pretty this year. But we will not be able to see our personal sandhill in its fall glory because we will have moved by then. I feel the same thing when I go out on hikes and visit favorite natural places. I am aware every day that I am trying to take it all in because I know this will be my last spring and summer here. I have begun the long process of saying goodbye. I know will come back to visit, but I don't know exactly when or for how long.

Cottage Garden Taking Shape

First White Indigo Flowers (Baptisia alba)

One of the plants from my homemade Sandhill--Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)

The Butterflies arrived! Horace's Duskywing resting on the bark
There's a lot that I will miss. The sweet smell of Orange Blossoms and dainty purple Toadflax flowers in the spring, the Anole lizards doing pushups and flaring their dewlaps, the Honeybees with their tummies colored purple and filled with grape jelly from the Oriole feeders, the Glass Lizards flopping across the sidewalk, the Southern Toads singing their mating songs in the backyard pond, the Cooper's Hawks that perch on the bird feeder, the tiny Pine Woods Snakes that live under the flower pots, the endangered Woodlands Poppymallow that has stubbornly planted itself in the crack on the front step. I will miss the Orioles scolding me when their jelly dishes are empty. I will miss being able to observe the whole Pipevine Butterfly Lifecycle in our yard each year. I will miss the Giant Swallowtails that blew my mind when I first moved to Florida. (They are so big and waft so slowly that they hardly seem real.) I will miss having people stop as they are walking by and tell me how pretty the yard is. (Someone last week said he saw the for sale signs and just wanted to thank us for building a beautiful habitat that he enjoyed.) I will miss seeing the 2 foot tall (now) Buckeye tree that I planted as a tiny sprout, mature and bloom some day. I will miss the call of the Mississippi Kites that nest in our neighborhood in the summer. I'll miss crawling through the Ditch with Maralee and volunteering at the La Chua trailer at the Prairie. I'll miss wildflower walks at Morningside. I'm going to miss being an hour and a half from the beach, and I'll miss those amazing springs. Florida has worked itself into my heart in a way I never imagined possible we I came here 19 years ago. I'm really going to miss it here.

Woodlands Poppymallow growing in the cracks (Callirhoe palaver)

My little baby Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Toadflax (Linaria canadensis)

Purple Honey Bee

Brown Anole in the Garden

The Pipevine is starting to grow back, ready for a new batch of hungry caterpillars (Aristolochia tomentosa)

Blue Butterwort from the Ditch (Pinguicula caerulea)

Alligators just hanging around at the Prairie
But as they say, with every closing door, another one opens, or something like that. We're moving to Athens in Northern Georgia and that will be a whole new adventure. It's about a 6 hour drive from here. My husband and I found ourselves another neat house in Athens with a big yard. The landscaping is pretty formal with traditional azaleas, camelias and rhododendrons, but I can fix that. Formal landscaping didn't stop me with our Florida house! I predict that by this time next year there will be some very informal looking butterfly and wildlife gardens around our new home. I'm looking at Georgia Wildflower books on Amazon and will connect with Native Plant, Audubon and Butterfly folks when I get there. There is much overlap in Florida/Georgia plants and animals, but I will still have a lot of learning to do. I was pleased when we visited last time to find that the William Bartram Trail runs through our new hometown, just like down here in Alachua County. But the climate and terrain are different from Florida. Georgia has winters and hills and mountains. Georgia has rocks! I'm looking forward to learning about Georgia--getting to know salamanders and The Piedmont, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Okefenokee Swamp. And the barrier islands! There is a lot to love up there and I already know I will love many of the plants and animals that I will meet up there. The State Bird is one of my favorites--the Brown Thrasher--and it turns out that we have some living in our new front yard. The State Reptile is another old friend, the Gopher Tortoise, which I take as a good sign. I know that new birds will come to our feeders, new butterflies and flowers will fill the yard, and next spring when the Sandhill Cranes leave Florida and stop in Georgia on their way up to the Great Lakes, it will be like having familiar visitors bringing greetings from our old home. Here's to new beginnings.

We Bring You Greetings From Florida!