Friday, November 22, 2013

Greeting the Seasons

River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
I heard a small group of Sandhill Cranes calling when I was out at Paynes Prairie the other day. The huge wintering flocks should be arriving soon--a sure sign that Fall is fading into winter--and I can't wait! The sound and sight of cranes flying in from the North has worked its way into my heart and soul and I get an ecstatic rush of happiness when I know they are back again each year. Somehow for me, the return of the cranes signals that things are changing according to schedule and everything is right in the world. Everywhere I look I see signs of the changing seasons and today it got me thinking. People who move to Florida often complain that we don't get to experience the changing seasons or Fall colors. But yet, when I look around, I see the changing seasons everywhere. Why can't everyone see it? I think it's a matter of perspective. If you measure your year by the traditional 4 seasons, as experienced in the midwest and northeast, you're always going to feel out of sorts when things don't match your expectations. But this only describes the experience of a small part of the world. The most southern US does not have a white Christmas. Fall does not bring orange and red falling leaves in the Tropics. The seasons are opposite in the Southern Hemisphere.  And yet, of course, the seasons are changing everywhere. It's just that the changes may not be what some people are used to.
Subtle Colors on the Prairie
Over my time living here, I've reshaped my view of the turning of the year. I grew up in a climate with the distinct 4 seasons, so the first winter here felt a little strange. But one day in that first December after moving from Wisconsin, my husband and I realized that the sky was blue, the sun was bright and were very happy to be experiencing a Florida winter. It was different, but great! You'll get no complaints from us. 
Sparkling Stars--Spent Goldenrod Flowers (Solidago sp.)

I learned that we have fall colors here, too. In the early fall, the colors come from the purple, white and yellow fields of blooming wildflowers and grasses. But later in November, the colors of the trees and shrubs change to more subtle shades of brown and off-white, purple or yellow with the occasional splash of red or orange. They're not the expanses of fiery red and orange that you get in a climate with really cold winters, but the colors do change. Saltbush, Virginia Creeper, Burrmarigold, Asters and Sumac provide accents to the palette. The sun is lower in the sky, taking the edge off the brightness of the light. Everything looks softer. The colors and the seasons are subtly changing right before our eyes. I think you just have to want to see them and you will. 
Purple: Elliott's Aster (Symphyotrichum elliottii)

Orange: Firebush (Hamelia patens)

Green Turns to Brown: Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

Splash of Red: Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Soft White: Saltbush (Baccharis halimifolia)

Yellow: Smilax sp.

Fall Colors: Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
Now that I've lived here for a while, my take on North Florida seasons go like this: Fall is purple, yellow and white. It is the time of brilliant wildflowers and butterflies, drier, cooler temperatures, and golden light. Fall brings migrating Warblers and Monarch and Sulphur butterflies. It's time to open the windows to let in the fresh air. The bees are feeding with increased urgency because they know the flowers that are blooming won't be around long. The winter starts to creep in at about Thanksgiving. The temperatures are cooler still and warm coats, hats and mittens come out of the cupboards. The flowers have finished blooming and the dead seed heads look like shiny stars in the landscape. The cranes arrive. The leaves are changing to gold and red and the greens turn to browns.  A warm, sunny day can bring out the zebra longwing butterflies who can often last through the winter because they eat pollen. You can smell the smoke in the air from woodburning stoves and fireplaces. Winter means sweet, fresh citrus. Winter brings the best hiking and camping and kayaking season. The bugs are gone. Spring starts in January or February with the blooms on the redbud and dogwood. The camellias start blooming around Christmas and merge with the Azaleas in March. Spring is pink and fresh and cool. Toadflax and Spiderwort sprout in lawns and roadsides. The ash trees out front are crowded with loud and hungry orioles who scold me for forgetting their jelly, and the pipevine butterflies are laying their eggs on the new leaves. As it warms up, the cranes head back north. The humidity and heat return. Summer slowly begins in April, warming and building to August where the vines and green leaves cover everything and the cicadas and treefrogs croak, buzz and hum. Summer is wet and green. It's muggy, but it feels good to breathe in that warm, wet air. The summer heat warms up the turtles and snakes, and summer rains bring out the frogs and toads. Summer is Gallinules and Spoonbills, Swallowtailed Kites and Great Crested Flycatchers. It's tick and chigger time. The swallowtail butterflies flit around the Catesby's lilies, eager for the nectar in the deep recesses. The Mississippi Kites fledge their young and then they leave. And we're back to fall again.
Hungry Bee on Powderpuff Mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa)
It's all a matter of perspective. And I think there is a message here. If you spend too much time looking to the past and comparing to past experiences, there is a danger that things won't match your expectations and you might be disappointed. Just be here and now. And enjoy. Wherever that may be.

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher Eating Bugs on Spent Goldenrod

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Paddling the Silver River

7 or 8 years ago my husband and I found ourselves with a cash windfall and we decided to spend it on a pair of kayaks. It turned out to be one of our better purchases. At first we planned to get a tandem kayak, but friends warned us that we would fight so much that we'd never get anywhere. Then I thought it would be safest to get myself one of those kayaks that you sit on top of so that I couldn't sink it (I'm a worrier). Fortunately, the excellent salesperson at Brasington's convinced me that those kayaks were very slow and heavy and that I'd be happier with a sleek, fast boat so I could keep up with my tall, strong husband. It turned out to be excellent advice and I have enjoyed my zippy kayak ever since and have never had trouble keeping up or falling in. In fact the only trouble we have had is that we don't seem to get out as often as we'd like to. But when we do get out it is never disappointing.

Under the River Archway
Kayaking is a wonderful way to experience Florida. We have so much water here and in a kayak we can travel along rivers, on lakes, in the Gulf and in quiet bays and sounds. I tend to get kind of seasick, so I prefer to stay away from waves and rocking as much as I can, but otherwise, there are a lot of great locations to explore. One year we kayaked in the Pine Island Sound around Sanibel and Captiva and encountered curious manatees that nudged our boats into the mangroves as they nibbled grass caught on our rudders. We explored water trails where we ducked under mangrove roots covered with little fiddler crabs. Another year we tried to take a trip on the brand new Prairie Creek water trail, but were forced to turn back after we found that the trees hanging over the creek were covered with snakes! We thought that they were Water Moccasins, but they could have been harmless water snakes. Regardless, we were not excited about the prospect of a snake falling into the boat with us, so we turned back. But it made for a great story and adventure!

White Ibis and Cypress
The weather was perfect this weekend, cool and clear, so we seized our chance and drove to the Silver River in Marion County. I couldn't believe how long it had been since we'd kayaked there, or anywhere for that matter. In fact, we managed to miss last year entirely. It was a busy year with other adventures, so I don't feel too bad about it, but it was definitely time to get out again. One reason we chose this spot, besides being one of our very favorites, is that the actual Silver Springs that feeds the river was recently acquired by the State Park system. Until this year it was privately operated and going up the river you would eventually reach the fenced boundaries of the private park. Now, no such boundaries exist and you can paddle all the way to the spring, which we did. We put in at Wayside Park and paddled upstream for 2 hours to the end at the Spring. It was kind of cool paddling around the pier where the glass bottomed boats are docked. The water is clear and deep over the Spring and there were some places where the current was pretty strong! The advantage to putting in at Wayside Park is that you are going with the current on the return trip when you are a little more tired.

It was a pretty busy day and there were a lot of boaters in kayaks and canoes. There were a fair number of people in motorized boats, too, which I don't really understand. It's not a difficult paddle, and the water is shallow and narrow in a lot of sections, and it really doesn't seem like the kind of place you'd want a large motorized boat. I'd vote for this section of the river to be motor free if anyone asked me.  But no one asked me, and so the motor boats passed us both directions, over and over. I hate the noise and the exhaust smell and the wake they leave, even when they're being careful. But I guess we have to share the river, and the animals seemed like they had gotten used to it. Still, I'd be happier if they weren't there.

Making Way for Motorboats
The river was beautiful. We saw lots of wading birds and turtles. I think it was a hundred turtle day! There were surprisingly few alligators, and only one small group of monkeys. [For those not familiar with the monkeys of Silver River, in the 1930's Rhesus monkeys were released onto an island in the river by a park vendor who thought they would be an interesting addition to the glass bottomed boat tour. But what he didn't realize is that monkeys swim, and they immediately left the island and settled into the forest along the river where they've been living and breeding for decades. He was right about one thing--it is a huge and interesting surprise to come upon monkeys when you are going down this river in North Central Florida! I know I'm always excited to see them. But they're also kind of scary and I hear that they bite. They have learned that boaters have food, so you need to keep a watchful eye for marauding monkeys if you bring a lunch.] When the light is right, the water is so clear that you can see the fish and turtles below. Alligator Gar and other big fish zip through the eel grass. There was no sign of the feral pigs, deer or otters that we've seen on other trips, or the black bears that signs tell us to watch for along the highway. I did hear a barred owl in the distance. I have not quite mastered the art of taking photos from a moving kayak, while simultaneously keeping my paddle from knocking into something and flipping me over, keeping the camera dry, and avoiding crashing into the branches and alligators. It's always a juggle for me. But I did manage to fire off a few quick shots. I guess I just have to practice more (translation: go on more kayak trips!).

Turtles Basking on a Fallen Palm Tree

Tiny Baby Turtle Basking--It was only the size of a Silver Dollar!

Rhesus Monkey

More Monkeys
At the end of the trip we were tired and happy. The smooth, dark water is soothing to the eye and the sound of the water flowing and lapping against the boat is so relaxing. Add to that the rattling sound of the kingfishers as they swooped from trees to the water and back, the call of the Phoebes, and the raspy honking of the anhingas that perched on branches all along the river drying their wings, and you have a perfect playlist for a relaxing day. "Splash, honk honk, rattle, Phoebe." And there never was a prettier scene than the yellow Burmarigolds blooming in great clumps among the knees of the Cypress trees next to the glowing Red Maples and the fringed Cabbage Palms. It was pure happiness.

Glowing Red Maple Reflections (Acer rubrum)

Burmarigold (Bidens laevis)

Spatter-dock or Cow Lily (Nuphar luteum) 

Fringed Cabbage Palms on the Water's Edge

Towering Cypress

Beautiful River