Monday, May 27, 2013

A Sense of Place

I visited my favorite ditch yesterday and it was as full of life as ever. As we ease into summer, it is hotter and more humid and the afternoon rains have started again. The plant life is changing with the heat. The Skullcaps have finished blooming and now all that remains are the seed pods that give them their common name. The Lady's Tresses Orchids seem to be gone, but I found 2 Grass Pink Orchids, which is a marvel to me because I'd never seen them prior to this year. The carnivorous plants are enjoying the moisture and bugs. The tiny Sundews still cover the ground, although I didn't see any of their flowers. I cannot avoid stepping on them and I feel like a huge monster, leaving destruction in my wake. The Hooded Pitcher Plants were still blooming. One of these days I'll have to remember to look and see if there are any bugs or frogs inside. Pale Meadow Beauties have popped up in the last 2 weeks and there will be other varieties by the end of summer. The grass is pretty with splashes of pink throughout. There are still a few holdout Yellow Colic Root flowers and Oakleaf Fleabane. The Yellow Eyed Grass is blooming, now, and the ground is covered with teeny tiny Eryngium flowers, that I would have probably missed if it hadn't been for the heads up from my friend Bubba. There is an abundance of Blackroot blooming and the butterflies are very attracted to this strange flower with its winged stems. You can smell the strong aroma of Vanilla Leaf as you walk through the Flatwoods. The plants are growing tall and should bloom any day. The Little Metalmark Butterflies were there, as I knew they would be. I can always count on them. Rosettes of the Deertongue plants are growing everywhere on the ground and they should soon be sprouting taller with purple flowers that the swallowtails won't be able to resist. And I'll be watching all summer for signs of big orange Catesby's Lilies and hope that the county mowers won't come by and disrupt the whole scene. I'll have to be realistic and acknowledge that it may still happen, though, whether it's out of concern for fire danger, road visibility, or just force of habit. We'll just hope not.

Skullcap Seed Pods (Scutellaria integrifolia)

Grass Pink Orchid (Calopogon multiflorus)

Tip of My Boot Near the Tiny Sundews (Like Godzilla!)

Hooded Pitcherplant (Sarracenia minor)

Pale Meadow Beauty (Rhexia mariana)

Yellow Eyed Grass (Xyris difformis)

Eryngium baldwinii

Blackroot (Pterocaulon virgatum)

Little Metalmark on Polygala lute
It's great to have a place that you can watch and get to know really well. I have a few of those kinds of places around here in Gainesville, and I try to visit them as often as I can because I can't wait to see what will happen next. I've been visiting them for a while now and have a photo almanac of sorts that I can draw upon to compare year to year. I'd like to keep a journal. When did this flower first sprout last year? Where was I when I saw a certain butterfly? I know when I can see Bluebirds and Nuthatches at Morningside and Cranes and Glossy Ibises at Paynes Prairie, or when I can find hummingbirds at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, and Poppy Mallow at San Felasco. I love going back over and over again, because they make me feel like I know these places.
Hatpins and Polygala in the Ditch
Every year at Memorial Day, for as far back as I can remember, my grandma would make the trip down to her home town, Moroni, Utah. She called it "Decoration Day" and she would visit relatives and bring flowers to the cemeteries in Mt. Pleasant and Nephi where her family and my grandpa's family were buried. It was an important time for her and when she got older she had my aunt and uncle or cousins take her. Somehow, I never made the trip with her, even though it was only a few hours from Salt Lake, where I grew up. But when she died, I finally did go to the cemetery in Nephi. It was a very moving experience, not just because I was burying my beloved grandmother, but because as I looked around at the headstones, I realized that I knew all the names. I've done a little genealogical work and was very familiar with the names of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents. The ancestors born in the harsh environs of pioneer Utah, and their parents and grandparents born in England and Denmark, Scotland and Sweden, who left their families behind, sailed across the ocean and made the arduous trek across the country by wagon train and hand cart to this new land. Here they were, right next to me. And these were actually only part of the family. This was where my grandfather's family was buried. Relatives in my grandma's family were in the cemetery in nearby Mt. Pleasant. My grandma often referred to family in Central Utah as "my people". And that is where she rests, surrounded by her people. My people. As I stood there in the cemetery, I felt this confusing rush of emotions. If these were my people, this must be my place. The names were familiar, and the town was a source of family stories, but it was also unfamiliar to me. I was connected through family but I did not know the place.

I've lived here in Florida, far away from "my people" for going on 17 years, which is getting to be a long time. But no matter how long I've been here, I do not have the ancestral claim to the land that  Florida Natives have. My ancestors came to Utah in the 1850's. My roots go back 5 generations. I don't have that in Florida. I still struggle to mentally place cities and towns because I don't have the geography of Florida in my personal folklore. The family stories we have here are limited to the ones my husband, my daughters and I have made in those 17 years.  But I have made a connection to the nature of Florida. I know that when I need to feel refreshed and rejuvenated, all it takes is a mere whiff of the ocean air. In the summers I crave the cool of the freshwater springs with their deep blues and greens and cypress knees.  When I've been away, returning to the heavy, humid air and buzzing cicadas feels familiar and comforting now. I have become enchanted by the world of Florida's wildflowers, insects, birds and mammals. As I have learned more about them I have also come to appreciate the complexity of their ecosystems, their variety and the changes brought about by seasons, drought, storms and fire. I am getting to know them. Knowing a place makes one feel grounded and connected. You get the inside references. You understand the jokes. You know what's happening. You know what to expect.

We are a nation of nomads who leave our histories and connections behind as we seek new lives--jobs, school, love and adventure. Change is exciting and good, but can also leave you adrift. I imagine that my great-great grandparents experienced this when they left everything they knew behind and started a new life in the desert of central Utah. But they came to that strange land with a purpose--building a religious paradise on earth. Some of them eventually brought their parents and other relatives and settled in. That focus and determination gave them connection. I too have settled in a new place and left behind my ancestral roots. But I have found connection to Florida by learning about its nature, and in the knowing, I feel my own purpose and sense of place.
Southern Hairstreak on Blackroot (Pterocaulon virgatum)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Time for Toads

The summer rainy season has started up again in North Florida. It's hot and muggy outside and the slightest exertion leaves one coated in a sheen of sweat. It takes a little more planning to stay outside for long periods at this time of year (hat, water, sunscreen, bug spray), but I love it anyway. Everything is green and lush and full of life. The birds are noisy and busy feeding their soon to be fledglings and the air is electric with insect life. We've been deprived of a proper rainy season several times in the past few years and it is a relief when things finally return to normal. A dry, parched Florida is a very sad thing indeed. Although the rains are starting up again, our water table is still low and counties south of here are still critically dry. But here, the afternoon rains are back.

For those with backyard ponds, swimming pools, marshes, lakes or creeks nearby, rainy afternoons mean that the Southern Toads will be coming. We have a small pond, and know this to be true. We built our backyard pond about 6 years ago. When I say "we", I actually mean my husband. I balked at first, believing that it would take a lot of work and would look tacky. Boy was I wrong! What a great addition to our home! It is so peaceful and beautiful to watch. And it's been fairly low maintenance, except for keeping the water levels up and cleaning the filters and the occasional equipment hitch. Otherwise, we've had relatively few problems. The koi we bought small because they were cheaper that way, have grown into huge and colorful fish. The water plants just keep reproducing and growing thicker. This beautiful water feature attracts species of frog and toad, as well as squirrels and birds. In the last few weeks I've seen Black and White, Black Throated Blue, and Common Yellowthroat warblers, and an American Redstart furtively making their way through the bushes to the water for a fresh drink. Dragonflies perch on the Horsetail and zip away for a quick bite. Every night some sort of long skinny orb web spiders weave their webs over the pond surface. Fishing spiders live in the skimmer, and somewhere in the mud there are a few Crayfish that I put in for fun. It's like a mini jungle paradise.

Yesterday afternoon we had a batch of thunderstorms. The sky grew dark and the wind picked up. The temperature dropped and thunder boomed while lightning lit up the sky. And then the rain began. It rained most of the afternoon until bedtime. As the storm let up, I could hear the first trills of Toad Songs coming from the corners of the yard. I went outside to take out the trash and nearly stepped on a toad hopping from the vegetable patch to the pond. The sound grew more intense as more toads came and joined in, and it continued all night and can still be heard, a day later.

At 6am I went out to the pond and counted about 15 toads perched on the edge, swimming and calling in the dark. By 9am many of them had paired up and were mating. Lone males called, hoping to entice females with their lilting arias, like tiny aquatic and operatic tenors. The males sing, and the larger females are drawn irresistibly by their love songs. The sound can be deafening. I counted 3-4 males calling, each trying to drown out the other. The sound is loud enough to hear it inside the house, a fact that our younger daughter made sure we were aware of when she was still living with us. I don't know how the neighbors feel about the sound, but other than filling in the pond, there is not much we can or would do about it. Toads gotta do what toads gotta do. As far as I know there are no statutes regarding nuisance toad noise violations. And besides, we live in a neighborhood called "the Duckpond" with a much larger pond that runs through the center, and some evenings the chorus of Southern Toads, Bull Frogs, Leopard Frogs, Numerous types of Tree Frogs, and other loud critters there is truly deafening. It's the nature of our neighborhood, and one of the reasons that we love living here.

Male Toad Beginning to Sing
The Pond at Night. See How Many Toads You can Count. I See 4, Maybe 5.

Pairing Up Begins
After a while, the females will start laying long strands of eggs and the male on her back will externally fertilize them with his sperm.  You can tell toad eggs from frog eggs because frogs lay their eggs in masses, while toad eggs look like strings of tiny black pearls. Each pair will lay hundreds, if not thousands of eggs in the water. Then they will leave and the eggs will transform. In 4-5 days the eggs will hatch and tiny tadpoles will emerge. The tadpoles are voracious algae and plant eaters and they set to work eating and growing as as much as they can, as fast as they can. Tadpoles that hatch in puddles must work against the clock to grow legs faster than the puddle can dry up. Our toads don't seem to know that they can take their sweet time in our pond with perpetual water, so they hurry anyway. It's a nice arrangement for us having batch after batch of tadpoles. The tadpoles perform a much appreciated pond cleaning. In turn, we give them a place to grow. Good deal all around.
Toad Pair with Eggs

Two Toad Pairs, Lots of Eggs!
This is the 2nd wave of Southern Toads to come to the pond this spring. I watched the last batch of tadpoles zipping around the bottom of the pond just last week. But the weather warmed up, they grew their legs, and just a few days ago I started to see tiny toadlings, the size of a peanut, hopping into the leaf litter. Just in time for the next wave.

Here's a short video clip with some toad song audio. Sit back and enjoy hearing the high pitched rock star ballades that drive lady toads mad.

Friday, May 17, 2013

This Land Was Made for You and Me

This Land Is Your Land
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie
This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.
As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.
I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

We are living in difficult, strange times. Many ideas that I've held my whole life such as principles of conservation and the common good are being turned upside down. Some days I feel like Alice in Wonderland as things just keep getting "curiouser and curiouser". Except that Alice woke up and it was all a dream, while our nightmare is real. In our crazy world, selfishness and ignorance rule the day while acting in the common interest and rigorous intellectual inquiry have become negative and suspect. And part of this mass insanity is the idea that publicly held land has been taken away from "the people" by the government and needs to be "taken back". In Utah, where I grew up, this attitude has been working into a frenzy that started in the 70's with the "Sagebrush Rebellion" among the western states. Some people out there feel that the government is infringing on their right to own land and to exploit it to its full potential. In Utah, nearly 80% of the land is under federal or state management, in the form of national and state parks, national and state forests, wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management land. Those who want to take back the land see Public Land as a power grab by the government and an unwarranted interference into their right to the resources (read "oil, coal, gas, grazing, recreational off road vehicles, development"). Never mind the fragile and unique nature of the lands in question, or that the western states never owned the land in the first place. (In "Living Dry", Wallace Stegner reminds us that the land was federal before the Western States ever came into existence, so there's no "giving back" to be done.) In this weird scenario, the idea of Public Lands has been turned around, distorting it into some kind of "governmental abuse". But the premise behind protecting public lands is to serve the common good. Public Lands as they stand belong to every citizen of the U.S., as well as visitors from all over the world. They will not be developed into towns or roads or oil refineries. The plants and animals are protected. The air is clean. It is quiet. There is enough land that there are wildlife corridors. Land that is protected now will be there for future generations. The energy (oil) lobby has been successful in whittling away at this land, however, and there are now roads and oil derricks all over BLM land. Fracking isn't too far behind. There is a constant fight to maintain the boundaries of the national parks and monuments. The battle in Utah and in the West over the fate of Public Lands is fierce and ongoing. I am increasingly thankful for all the hard work of the people fighting to protect our natural heritage.

Butte in Desolation Canyon, Utah, on BLM Land
Here in Gainesville, we have a related and potentially precedent setting problem. Gainesville has a vibrant program of purchasing and conserving sensitive natural areas and turning them into nature parks. They become Nature Sanctuaries, where the plants, animals and artifacts are protected, and they contribute to our city's greenway. There are pockets of protected habitat sprinkled all over the city, with attention given to providing nature corridors wherever possible. The problem is that a wealthy and politically powerful property owner has approached the City with a proposal to purchase a section of conservation land that borders his property. He has offered a significant amount of money. A million dollars for about 5 acres. This puts the City in the politically difficult position of possibly turning down money in a time when cash is short, or accepting it and selling out our shared resource to a wealthy person, just because he wants it. The land wasn't for sale. In fact, the City purchased it in order to protect sensitive land. It was an important tract or they wouldn't have purchased it. There are endangered plant species on the property and it connects with a larger protected area that runs through the heart of the city. The wealthy person says he wants a buffer around his property to keep strangers from walking through. Someone argued for him that he will be able to protect the land better than the City can, and others say that the City should take the money and buy an important parcel that would help add more protection to the same large piece of land. But this is not the point. If he owns the land, it becomes private. It is not part of the public holdings. He can do with it what he likes. He'll probably fence in the property, which means that he will cut off that land from other sections. Animals will not be able to travel freely from one end to the other. No one will be able to see the property or enjoy it. The City Commission agreed yesterday to consider this proposal. In our new political climate, and with a new conservative Mayor coming on board in a few weeks, there is a good chance that it will pass. There is still time to try to fight, though, and I think it's important to try.
Invasive/Exotic Air Potato Cleanup in Mason Manor, Next to the Property in Question
This brings me back to the topsy turvy times we're in. When did the Common Good become a bad thing? How can you give Public Land back to "the People"? The Government is us and we are "The People". It is already our land! I am just baffled over the twisted logic. But the fact is that once land is taken out of the "Public" control and given to "the People", it becomes private. Private land with no accountability. No visibility. No access. No constraints. In these science-denying times where it is predicted that we will lose thousands of species in the next century to loss of habitat and climate change it becomes ever more important to protect what we can. Someone once described land conservation in a way I hadn't thought of before. The person said basically that we tend to think of protected land as pieces of a pie. What difference does it make if we just cut off a small slice--develop just a little bit? What we forget is that the pie we see now is only a fraction of the original pie. The pie has been growing smaller and smaller as we have developed more and more. If we continue whittling away at that wilderness pie, pretty soon there will be no pie to take slices from.

Belted Kingfisher in Mason Manor, Next Door to the Property
Public Land is our Natural Heritage. It's our National Heritage. We need to fight to keep the Public Land public.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What Just Happened?!?

I'm still scratching my head trying to piece it all together. I was wrapping up a trip through the Natural Area Teaching Lab at the UF campus this morning when I saw a Pileated Woodpecker fly over to a snag. I watched Pileated Woodpeckers excavating a nest in another snag nearby a few weeks ago and thought maybe I might get a glimpse of some woodpecker chicks. As I got closer, though, I heard a lot of bird ruckus. Bluejays were screeching out "thief, thief, thief", the Mockingbird was making a lot of noise, and Red Headed Woodpeckers and other smaller birds were diving from the tree branches. Something was wrong. Then I saw and heard the Crows sitting in branches on either side of the tree.
Crows at the Woodpecker Snag
It looked like the Crows were trying to get something. Probably woodpecker eggs or chicks! I hurried over, hoping that my presence would shoo them off. (I know, I know, Crows have to eat, too. But I was emotionally invested in these particular woodpeckers, so I felt duty calling.) I stood near the tree, watching the activity and feeling sad at the likelihood that the woodpeckers would lose in this particular match.
Scaring off the Crows?
But then something odd caught my eye. The Crows were focused on something on the branch. It was a Yellow Rat Snake! More drama in the Pines!
Yellow Rat Snake!
I guess I had misjudged the Crows. It appeared that they were just joining in with the other birds to chase off the snake. After a while, though, the Crows flew away, accepting the outcome. The smaller birds also left. But the Pileated Woodpecker remained, which made me think that she was protecting her nest.
Guarding the Nest?

One Good Peck!
I watched in fascination as the woodpecker hopped up and down the tree, closing in on the snake, but never getting too close. It seemed like a big bird like that with its powerful bill could just peck the snake to death. But I also know that a big snake like that can eat a squirrel, so the woodpecker was smart to keep its distance. I couldn't tell at first if the snake was trying to get into the nest or if it was finished, but when I walked to the other side of the tree I got my answer. I could see 4 distinct round lumps--presumably the woodpecker eggs. The deed was done.
4 Round Lumps
Then the snake started inching down the tree. The woodpecker seemed interested in preventing this from happening. The snake persisted, and then disappeared from my view. I thought the snake had decided to climb into the nest cavity. I figured it was either going in for more, or was settling in to digest the big meal. The drama was over and I felt sad for the woodpeckers. All that work of nest excavating and laying eggs wasted. I packed up my camera and started to walk away. Then I heard a rustle in the tree and turned just in time to see the snake drop some 60 feet from the branch to the ground with a startling "thump"! I thought for a second about walking in and trying to find it, but came quickly to my senses and decided not to trail blaze. Anyway, that snake would be long gone by the time I started walking. Now, I thought, it was really all over. But wait--there's more! With the snake out of the picture, the woodpeckers started flying around again. 2 Red Headed woodpeckers flew to the snag and scuttled up and down the branches. Then the Pileated woodpecker flew to the tree next door where I had watched the nest building in several weeks ago. She flew to the nest opening and waited.
Meanwhile, Back at the Other Tree...
A Downy woodpecker flew to an upper branch in that same snag and started drumming. Then the Pileated poked her head into the nest, then climbed inside! She stayed inside for about 30 seconds, poked her head out and then flew off.
Off in Search of Food for the Babies!?
So, there is a chance that the Pileated nest is still intact, and there may be babies inside. I believe now that the eggs the snake ate belonged to the Red Headed woodpeckers, and that the Pileated stood watch by the other snag to make sure the snake didn't get into her own nest next door. That could still happen, and the chicks will be vulnerable as long as they are in the nest, even if they are big. But the amount of bird cooperation in this episode was extraordinary! And layer upon layer of intrigue! I could still have the whole story wrong, but this is the best I can come up with. I'm tired just thinking about it!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Rescue Me

The weather has been absolutely gorgeous this week. I was a little mad at myself for wasting a perfectly good day yesterday cleaning a cupboard, so I was determined to get out and enjoy the yard today. (I'm pretty happy about the results of the cleaning, though.) Everything is in bloom and it's so gorgeous! I mentioned a while ago that our yard was part of a study of diversity in yards with native plants. Some days the researchers come and count bees, other days they count butterflies. Today they had the unenviable task of counting all the flowers. It was pretty funny to be outside with them and listen to the mad clicking of their hand held counters as they counted the profusion of Carolina Petunia, Powder Puff  and Cherokee Bean blossoms.

Powder Puff (Mimosa strigillosa)

Cherokee Bean (Erythrina herbaceae)

So Many Blooms! (Note insect trap by pole and the people counting by the fence) 

Each year when the yard gets growing, I start seeing plants that I want to move around. It's hard to envision them when everything is small and dormant and easier to move, so I always end up doing it in the heat when they're big and awkward. Also, my idea of what I want the yard to look like changes every year. This year I'm striving for a more planned look. It tends to get kind of crazy out there. I had a list of things to move today, and it included starting a new bed of Woodland Poppy Mallow. These are gorgeous hot pink flowers that I first encountered walking in San Felasco Hammock State Park. I absolutely love them and was thrilled when I was asked to help re-locate some from a piece of land that was going to become a sub-division. I got to take home a few plants and now have a happy bed of them by our front door. Today I wanted to start another bed on the other side of the door.
Happy Bed of Woodland Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe palaver)
I dug up the plants that I wanted to move and started lifting flower pots out of the way, when suddenly I saw a tiny little snake under one of the dishes! It was a Pine Woods Snake (Rhadinaea flavilata), and is one of two varieties of snakes that I've seen in our yard. (The other was a yellow rat snake that I saw once in the wood pile.) I've seen them a few different times and in a few places around the house, so I think we have more than one. From what I can read, Pine Woods Snakes are somewhat uncommon and are usually found in moist pine flatwoods. That we have them around our house in downtown Gainesville is pretty special to me. They are considered to be non-venomous and do not bite people. Apparently do have a mild (to people) venom in their rear fangs, but only to kill their small insect, lizard and frog prey. They are very shy. They prefer to hide under flower pots, mulch and rocks. When I saw this little one, I hurried inside and got the camera. Then I lifted the pot again and scooped up the snake to hold it and get a better look. It struggled to get away for a few seconds and then it curled around my hand. What a beautiful animal! It was so smooth and soft. I could see it breathing hard, so I just looked and photographed for a few minutes. I was so excited that my hand was shaking a little. The snake was excited, too, because it musked me. After a bit, I gently put it back and it slid into the bark. I think it will stay around the same area because I could see its tail sticking out of the mulch for 10-15 minutes after I released it. Also, I found a Pine Woods Snake in this same spot several years ago. The musk made my hand smell awful, so I washed up with some super smelly, all natural, patchouli scented hand soap. I bought it the other day and the patchouli was so strong that I couldn't bear to be around myself. But it's perfect for covering up snake musk.

Pine Woods Snake Curled Under the Dish (See the leaf and pine needle for scale)

Beautiful Little Pine Woods Snake
So I'm happy with the new location of the rescued Poppy Mallow, and I'm pretty sure the snake will stick around. Especially if I remember to water the Poppy Mallow, which will keep the pine bark nice and damp, and promise not to pick it up any more.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sanctuary in the City

I did a little multi-tasking today. I needed to drive my husband to an appointment, so while he was taking care of his business, I took a walk through a City of Gainesville Nature Park. Gainesville is lucky this way. We have about 23 nature parks, scattered throughout the city. They encompass a large variety of habitats and serve multiple purposes--nature sanctuaries, picnic areas, playgrounds, sports fields, and education centers, to name just a few. That's the great thing about urban nature parks. They give people an alternative to sitting inside in fluorescent light, checking email and catching up on facebook. When you have a nature park a convenient distance from you, it is possible to take a quick trip over during lunch or spend quality time while you wait for someone else. A visit to a nature park can give you an excuse to take a walk and get some exercise, a chance to see wildlife and plants close to home, or can give some much needed buffer from the sounds and hubbub of everyday life. In addition, urban nature parks provide important opportunities for habitat amid our growing cities. Pockets of sanctuary for plants and animals gives them a place to thrive and survive amid human development, and gives us a convenient opportunity to enjoy them.

The place I went to today is called John Mahon Nature Park. It is located off of a major street that runs right through the heart of Gainesville. It is on 10 acres, tucked in between a busy medical complex and a blood bank, next to the road. On the way in, you pass a storm water retention pond, where I was greeted by two big frogs. Maybe River Frogs or Pig Frogs--I have a hard time telling. There was a pretty meadow in in the pond area, which will probably be submerged when we get more rain. Lots of dragonflies and butterflies flew around in the sunny area. I walked down the road leading to the actual park and found nice picnic tables and an informative kiosk. Inside the gate, I came to the trail which is a loop through the woods, maybe a half mile long. I walked it twice to make sure I didn't miss anything. (It seemed like a great place for owls, but I didn't see any.)
Dragonfly Watching Me

American Painted Lady on Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)

Pond Frog

Thick, Dark Woods

It was thick with trees and pretty dark. An interpretive sign explained that the habitat was once fire dependent upland pine forest, but now that it was surrounded by homes and businesses, burning is no longer possible and the forest had become overgrown with oaks and vines. Another interpretive sign gave information about the responsibilities of living around a nature park, such as cleaning up after pets and controlling invasive exotic species. Unfortunately, many urban nature parks in the area are plagued by invasive exotic plants such as Coral Ardesia, which I saw all along the short trail. Plants escape from landscapes and end up where they do not belong, choking out native vegetation and decreasing the natural diversity of an area.
Tell-Tale Red Berries of Coral Ardesia
Walking the loop I heard some Cardinals, Carolina Wrens and Chickadees. I saw several Zebra Longwing butterflies fluttering around. They prefer shady areas. There were only a few flowers growing in such a shady place and I could see the leaves of flowers that would bloom later in the season, such as Elephant's Foot, Hammock Snake Root, and Iron Weed. I was pleasantly surprised to find an abundance of Green Dragon plants. They are related to Jack in the Pulpit and have a similar shaped flower. There was also a small bed of Trillium. And a whole lot of poison ivy!
Carolina Wren Singing in the Woods

Green Dragon Flower (Arisaema dracontium)

Trillium (Trillium maculatum)

Leaves of Three, Leave it Be! Poison Ivy
With so many trees and vines it was fun to look closely at the shapes and textures all around me. One tree looked like a huge animal paw planted in the ground, while a Cherry Tree branch had beautiful stripes. Giant Grape vines hung across the hammock, sometimes twining around a branch and squeezing it until it bulged. The Greenbriar vines were prodigious, with many as thick as my thumb and lacy green ferns were scattered among the Saw Palmettos. On the second trip around, next to a big tree root that I thought looked like an animal den, I found a pair of Five Lined Skinks.
Big Oak Trunk--Doesn't it Look Like an Animal Paw?

Cherry Tree Bark

Vine Wrapped Around a Branch

Lacy Fern

Skinks and Their Den

Off in the distance I could hear people doing construction work on houses nearby. I passed a couple with a baby who were walking their dogs. Otherwise sights and sounds of most of the human activity were absorbed by the trees. It was like stepping out of the city for a moment. I spent less than an hour in the park. Then it was time to leave. Sanctuary in the City.
Little Snake Shed on Green Briar Vine (Smilax sp.)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Thanks, I needed that!

My husband had a bike accident last week and broke his collarbone. He's healing well, but I've been doing a short stint as his caregiver since the accident and thus have not been able to get outside as much as I'm used to. So it was a welcome treat when I was able to swing by Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park after dropping him off at work today. I had to renew our annual State Park Pass (great deal!), so I went to the main entrance of the park rather than La Chua Trail, where I usually go. I decided to check out the area around Lake Wauberg, by the Puc Puggy Campground. It was late morning by the time I got there, so I didn't think I'd have much chance of seeing Otters and Eagles, but it was still beautiful. I have not been especially taxed as a caregiver. My husband is able to take care of most of his needs. He's in pain, which is hard to see, and he's very uncomfortable. And he can't lift anything, or do his contact lenses (I hold his eyelids up). But otherwise, my work is relatively minor. Still, I've been tired and tense, and the cool breeze through the big oak trees felt so good. It was great to step out of the car and hear the "cheer, cheer, cheer" sounds of the Cardinals and the White Eyed Vireos chattering about "beer, Jack".

Big Oak Trees
I walked over to the short boardwalk on Lake Wauberg and saw an Anhinga that had just caught a fish. There were scores of Dragonflies in the Pickerel Weed. After many tries, I finally caught a shot of one mid air. I saw a Catbird in the blackberries and a female Blue Grosbeak perched on some Dog Fennel, and watched a pair of Osprey successfully fishing. The Fish Crows were Ca-ha-ing from the oak trees. The Green Anoles blended in perfectly with the water plants, taking on green and yellow backgrounds. Squirrels rustled in the tree leaves and scolded me as I walked along.

Mid Air Dragonfly

Blue Grosbeak

Hiding Anole

Wary Squirrel
I continued to the short Lake Trail, through the magnificent Oaks. Just past the Oaks there was a clearing and I could see a Gopher Tortoise walking towards me on the trail. I tried to speed up to get a closer look, but the Tortoise saw me, turned around and practically ran to its burrow! I caught a couple of shots of it tearing through the grass, and one more as it dove into the opening. I felt a little bad and selfish about scaring it, but I hadn't seen one for a long time. Right across from its burrow was another burrow that also looked active, but it also looked as if something had been digging in front. I suspect that something dug up and ate eggs that were buried in the apron of the burrow. I couldn't tell from the tracks what did the digging, but I suspect it could have been armadillos.
Gopher Tortoise Trotting Along

Turns Around and Runs Away

Tearing Through The Grass

Whoosh Down Into the Burrow

Digging--Maybe An Egg Thief?
I continued along the trail, passing fields of cactuses in bloom. Years ago, I thought it was odd when I first saw cactus in semi-tropical Florida. But I understand now that many Southwest desert species, including the Gopher Tortoise, Florida Scrub Jay, Burrowing Owl and Cactus have ancestors that migrated to the Southeast a million or so years ago.  It's our funny connection to the West where I grew up. The butterflies were excited about the early spring blooms of the Cactus, Tread Softly and purple Heliotrope.
Flowering Prickly-pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)

Tread Softly (Cnidoscolus stimulosus) with Visitor

Clasping Heliotrope (Heliotropium amplexicaule) and Fiery Skipper
As I walked I looked down and noticed that the sandy road was covered in animal tracks. I saw tracks from Raccoon, lots of birds, squirrels, armadillos, lizards, deer, some sort of canine, and huge bird tracks that I figure were probably Turkey or Sandhill Crane. I looked for signs of snakes and bobcats but didn't see any indication. It's always interesting to look at tracks to see what animals have been in the area . This road was very busy!
Armadillo Tracks (See the Funny Feet and Tail Marks)

Birds Hopping

Raccoon Tracks on the Left and a Lizard Tail through the Center

Big Bird Track (Turkey or Crane?)

Intersecting Lizards

Critter Hoe Down!
On the return trip a Great Crested Flycatcher flew down and took a dust bath in the road right in front of me, while a Red Bellied Woodpecker thrashed around in a Palm Tree looking for good bugs. I watched a White Eyed Vireo catch a big bug, maybe a dragonfly, and feed it to its chick. The Cardinals called from every corner, and the Crows chased an immature Bald Eagle away from the lake. Back at the boardwalk, I saw a Common Yellowthroat and a Northern Parula looking for bugs in the bushes, and a Spider web sparkled in the woods on the way back to the car. It was all so soothing and pleasant and much appreciated.
Great Crested Fly Catcher Takes a Dust Bath

Red Bellied Woodpecker in the Palm

White Eyed Vireo

Cardinal Peeking Through the Leaves

Immature Bald Eagle Flies Away from Crows

Sparkling Web

Which got me thinking. Luckily and thankfully, my stint as a caregiver will be short and relatively easy.   My husband has the hard part. But many people do this difficult and important work every day for loved ones with serious, ongoing conditions and get little respite from the caregiving. Wouldn't it be nice if those caregivers could get away for some mind-clearing, soul-healing Nature Therapy? A little time outside gives you new energy and perspective. Here's an idea: If you are a caregiver, take a mental health day and go for a nature walk! If you know a caregiver, give them a restorative gift. Help them to take some time--a morning or afternoon, or even a whole day--to get away and go outside. Tell them to find a park, listen to some birds, watch the butterflies and breathe some fresh air. It will make a world of difference!
Nature Therapy