That Primitive Urge

“Propelled by an ancient faith deep within their genes, billions of birds hurdle the globe each season, a grand passage across the heavens that we can only dimly comprehend and are just coming to fully appreciate.”  – Living On The Wind, Scott Weidensaul

 

It was cold. Just the thought of reaching outside the sleeping bag to find the zipper made me shiver and curl up even tighter. But the darkness was ever-so-slightly beginning to yield to inevitable sunrise. The tall grass around our small tent was barely discernible and resembled the stockade wall of a fortress. My brother, Steve, made the sacrifice and wriggled free of his goose-down cocoon and applied a match to the small burner which would soon heat enough oatmeal to fortify us both for an eventual beach adventure. A week before Christmas found us exploring what Maryland locals call “the Eastern shore”, that coastal expanse sandwiched between the huge Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.  Later in the day we would hike the rugged Atlantic shoreline of Chincoteague and admire the wild ponies of Assateague Island. At the moment, though, we relished hot oatmeal, trying to gulp each spoonful before the frigid air cooled it too much. Breakfast was interrupted when Steve asked:  “What’s that sound?” What followed was one of the most thrilling moments I’ve ever experienced in nature. Canada Geese. Tens of thousands appeared as a dark cloud from the west and gradually swept over us like a tidal wave of noise and darkness. We sat and marveled at the spectacle during which we literally couldn’t hear each other shouting. The geese were a small part of a huge number of migrants along the coast and had roosted in a nearby corn field during the night and were now moving toward the marshes and ponds to feed. What a glorious way to start a day!

More recently, while driving near Lake Okeechobee in south Florida, Gini and I stumbled upon a field being plowed which contained over 500 Sandhill Cranes. Although Florida has a resident population of these large birds, each fall sees huge flocks migrating from the mid-west of the United States. That many cranes trumpeting can be deafening!  Last winter, we visited Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s east coast and were excited to find hundreds of Northern Pintail and thousands of shorebirds enjoying the shallow water impoundments.

Such large numbers can provide a very dramatic birding experience. But at the moment, it’s August in Florida and it’s really hot and humid. It’s difficult to think about the above scenes of masses of migrating birds. Nevertheless, some sort of migration seems to always be happening in the bird world. Right now, a few species are beginning to head south for the winter and for the birder who’s willing to put up with high temperatures, regular thunderstorms and voracious mosquitoes, there are rewards to be found.

I travelled with two birding friends the other day to the southern part of our county (Polk) where there is a commercial sod operation. These fields can be productive for migrating shorebirds, especially if bad weather forces them to stay put for awhile. Alas, our weather was perfectly clear. We found plenty of Boat-tailed Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds and Killdeer, but only a smattering of shorebird migrants. A couple dozen Pectoral Sandpiper and a couple of Semipalmated Plover probed the soft soil of the fields. We did manage to hear an uncommon King Rail in a nearby wetland. Next, we visited a large dairy but again found no shorebirds to speak of. We did find a Solitary Sandpiper and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks with young. Not far from the dairy we heard three more King Rails at various locations. We visited Paynes Creek Historical State Park in Hardee County and found a few Northern Parula, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers and an eastern Wood-Pewee, all likely migrants. A nice bonus was at least four Red-headed Woodpeckers. We know they breed in this park but it’s always a treat to see this strikingly handsome bird! Our last stop of the day was back in Polk County along the Peace River Hammock Trail. We could only hike a portion of the trail due to flooding and the clouds of mosquitoes were particularly dense, but we found three Yellow-billed Cuckoos and a couple of Ovenbirds for our efforts.

Not a large number of migratory birds for the day but a very rewarding trip!

 

The little Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is very active, usually travels in groups with other species and can be quite curious.

Lake Parker Park

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

 

One of the earliest warblers to migrate through our area is the Yellow Warbler. Some individuals can be very bright still in their breeding colors and others, especially first year birds, can be almost dull looking.

Banana Lake Park

Yellow Warbler

 

Although the Northern Parula breeds in Florida, during migration the trees become full of these brightly colored birds.

Lake Rosalie Park

Northern Parula

 

A quiet warbler which resembles a thrush is the Ovenbird. They can often be seen on the ground scratching through leaves but will stop for a look at an old guy stumbling over tree roots.

Fisheating Creek WMA

Ovenbird

 

True to its name, the Solitary Sandpiper is frequently seen alone and will check out any spot of mud for a meal.

County Line Road (Hardee)

Solitary Sandpiper

 

Pectoral Sandpipers resemble a larger version of a Least Sandpiper. As they feed, they seem to be always leaning forward about to fall over.

Avon Park Cutoff Road-Sod Fields

Pectoral Sandpiper

 

The Semipalmated Plover have very small bills and are not very large birds (seven inches). Normally seen in coastal areas, they can be found almost anywhere during migration.

Pool Road

Semipalmated Plover

 

One of our residents, the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck has thrived during the past couple of decades and can be found in large numbers throughout its range.

County Line Road (Hardee)

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

 

Also a resident, the Red-headed Woodpecker has not adapted very well to loss of traditional habitat and populations have seriously decreased in the past 20 years.

Paynes Creek Historic State Park

Red-headed Woodpecker

 

Florida is blessed with a climate which produces some sort of flowering plants throughout the year. Insects appreciate that. A White Peacock poses briefly.

Locklar Road

White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae)

 

A small Delaware Skipper goes deep into the bloom of a Wild Potato Vine, a member of the morning-glory family.

Paynes Creek Historic State Park

Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan)

Paynes Creek Historic State Park

Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan)

 

Dragon down! A Needham’s Skimmer got a bit too close to the water and became too wet to fly.

County Line Road (Polk)

Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami)

 

 

As migrants begin their long journey to warmer climates, we look forward to the privilege of sighting a few birds we don’t otherwise have an opportunity to observe. Hopefully, you, too, will be able to spot a few visitors as they snack their way through your neighborhood!

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

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Small Doses

“Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul And sings the tune without the words And never stops at all.” ― Emily Dickinson

 

“Second honeymoon.” How can such a thing exist when the first one never ends? It was a week’s respite from classes for me, and for Gini a break from budgeting, meal preparation, housework and the myriad chores of a wife which are usually taken for granted and for which precious little appreciation is expressed. Gini was a new wife, whisked a thousand miles from her home, given no instruction manual on how to run a household much less how to handle a husband who she was convinced knew everything about everything but, alas, who only knew how to present a brave facade and actually was scared spitless that he wouldn’t be able to make this union work. (Update:  Forty-eight years later, Gini still takes care of us and I still don’t know everything. The honeymoon continues …)

Our week-long break in upstate New York was in a one room cabin on a small lake near the Finger Lakes region. The proprietor, with the improbable name of “Mrs. Fish”, demonstrated how to open the clamp of the rubber hose over the kitchen sink for water. We discovered the source of our water was a small, clear spring on a hillside just outside the cabin. The big feather mattress of the brass bed folded around us to form a warm and intimate sandwich each night. The pond was full of fish, the surrounding fir forest full of birds and deer and the two of us full of love. “I wish we could stay here forever”, I loudly declared. Ever the wise one, Gini reminded me small doses of extra special things in life would ensure we appreciated them all the more.

So, as much as I like peach ice cream, fried mullet and freshly-picked strawberries, I’ve tried to understand that too much of a good thing may not provide the continued pleasure for which I hoped. But when something so wonderful is available, a little is all that’s needed for satisfaction.

Lately, we have not been able to explore as much as in the past. A temporary situation. So when we do get a chance to be out for a bit, a little goes a long way toward happiness.

The other day, there were errands to run. I had some time between appointments and decided to visit a city park on the south side of Lakeland. Holloway Park is not large and was designed with cross-country running in mind. During the week, it isn’t busy and the running trails make for easy walking. From different points in the park, one can see a nearby high-traffic expressway, two “big-box” type discount stores, my doctor’s office, a business center and the sounds of a mid-size metropolitan area intrude constantly. With all that, a visitor can still find solace in a small section of woods which muffle rude noises, enjoy a small stream and pond, find wildflowers in any season, watch birds going about the business of raising families and surviving and come across innumerable insects which are easy to miss unless you slow down. I like to think one of the purposes of places like this is to provide a sort of “speed bump” for our hectic lifestyles. I spent less than an hour here, mostly kneeling near the edge of a stream watching an incredible array of life spread out before me.

It was a small dose. A little birding, a bit of insect discovery, some casual photography. And it was enough. No planning, no extensive driving or hiking, no supplies, no worries. I returned to my errands totally refreshed.

As I watched a dragonfly steadfastly patrol a section of shoreline, vigorously driving away all intruders, I found out there was something going on within me. I know it happens each time I’m able to enjoy nature’s beauty, but it’s usually a subconscious thing. Today, it was more like a clarion call. All of the color, beauty, excitement and experience of Life literally screamed at me:  “There Is Hope!”

We tend to become quite glum about our world sometimes and wonder what’s the use of trying to change anything since all is lost. But here I was in the middle of the hustle and bustle of an ordinary weekday with thousands of humans all around me doing what humans all around the world do each day, which is the same thing all the animals around me were doing, just trying to survive another moment – all of that intense activity – and yet there was so much pure beauty. Right in front of me. How could I see a young Bluebird in his first summer or have a purple dragonfly hover within inches of my face and not realize we all have at least one common thread in our existence – hope. Just reach out and touch it.

 

An immature Eastern Bluebird has learned how to catch a grub.

Holloway Park

Eastern Bluebird – Immature

 

The male Roseate Skimmer is a stunner in his colorful outfit! As with many dragonflies, the immature male resembles the female.

Holloway Park

Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) – Male

Holloway Park

Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) Immature Male

 

One of our larger dragonfly species is the Slaty Skimmer. The male is dark all over and at a glance appears totally black.

Holloway Park

Slaty Skimmer – Male (Libellula incesta)

 

A mature male Needham’s Skimmer can be very bright reddish-orange. It’s difficult to differentiate them from the Golden-winged Skimmer. One distinction is the upper portion of the hind legs of the Needham’s is brown as opposed to black in the Golden-winged.

Holloway Park

Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami) – Male

Holloway Park

Needham’s Skimmer ((Libellula needhami) – Male

 

A male Great Blue Skimmer can appear similar to the Slaty Skimmer above except for a white face. I think this is an older female Great Blue. Younger females have reddish-brown eyes which may turn blue in some older specimens.

Holloway Park

Great Blue Skimmer – Female (Libellula vibrans)

 

This is a new species for me: a Two-striped Forceptail. The thin abdomen curves when in flight.

Holloway Park

Two-striped Forceptail (Aphylla williamsoni) – Male

 

One of the few butterflies which held still long enough for a photo op was this dainty Sleepy Orange. I got dizzy in the mid-day heat following this one through the telephoto lens hoping it would land.

Holloway Park

Sleepy Orange (Abaeis nicippe)

 

Another young bird. This Red-bellied Woodpecker played “peek-a-boo” from behind some Spanish moss.

Holloway Park

Red-bellie Woodpecker

 

A stately looking Tricolored heron asked for a portrait as I prepared to leave. How could I refuse?

Holloway Park

Tricolored Heron

 

The trip was short. There weren’t many photographs taken. Not many birds were about. It was a small dose and for today it satisfied. A reinforcement of the concept of hope provided my system with renewed energy. Life is good.

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

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

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