Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don't claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent. ~ Rumi

Thursday, April 12, 2012

After the Fire - Part two

Now, three months after the prescribed burn, in-between the blackened pines with their flush of green and the flowering saw palmettos, a carpet of gopher apple, Licania michauxii, lines this forest floor. Their shiny lime green leaves provide quite a contrast to the once bare and ash covered ground. They are flowering now and I have heard that the ripe purple fruit which is a 1” long elliptical drupe is not only a food source for gopher tortoises and other wildlife but can be eaten by humans as well. I look forward to trying them but hear that they are quite popular with the wildlife and I might not be able to find many once they ripen. It’s not surprising then, that these gopher burrows I noticed so prominently after the fire, border this patch of ground cover. Other ground covers have taken root as well, each according to its own needs. The placement of plants resembles a patchwork quilt and my brain is flooded with all the variables in soil, moisture and light that make this possible.

Among the low growing groundcovers is Phyla nodiflora or frogfruit, one that I also find in my weedy lawn. In other areas the ground is carpeted with perennial seedlings such as rusty Lyonia, beauty berry, groundsel, and wax myrtle. Grape and hemp vines are sprouting up next to the palmettos but the edges between the pines and palmettos contain a large variety of flowering annual wildflowers. Those areas include Spanish needles, fleabane, tickseed, heliotrope, purple thistle, and large patches of ragweed, one of the first to sprout up after the burn. Invasive Caesar weed is also present with bushy clumps of dog fennel. Saw palmettos are in bloom and their inflorescences punctuate the blackened floor with their cascading white flowers.  I find the fragrance sweet as do the bees and treasure the honey made from these flowers that help me fight off allergies. Raccoons, deer and bears go after these plants in the fall when the fruits have ripened. I have tried the saw palmetto berries but can’t recommend them as a taste treat. However, it is used in some medicines.

The diversity of plant life demonstrates how fire can be regenerative and necessary to the health of this pine upland ecosystem and adds to my own health and well being.  In 2-3 years this land will be ripe for another burn either wild or prescribed and this cycle will begin again. Until then, I will compete with the rest of the fauna, waiting for a taste of the ripe gopher apple fruits!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Small Wonder

A small but intriguing spider called the Spiny orb-weaver or Gasteracantha cancriformis has woven her orb web between my bougainvillea and firebush in the pathway of what seems to me to be an insect highway complete with steady breeze. The dorsum of this spider’s abdomen is white with black spots that resemble a smiling face and large red spines on the margin. She is about 5mm long and 10mm wide. The males are smaller and tend to hang below off of the females web but I see no sign of the male. Perhaps they have already mated and he has died as is typical for this species.

How did she figure out that this would be the best place to weave her web? She seems to catch mostly small insects like gnats and mosquitoes of which I am very grateful. I have been watching her for three days now, waiting for bigger events to photograph but the larger insects have been able to avoid her snare so far. I think it is worthy to note, that a bumblebee hovered in front of her for a few seconds before buzzing off and even the monarchs seemingly preoccupied with their mating either went under or over her web. The same was true for the peacock, sulphur and red admiral butterflies.  I did notice thicker places in the web with white tufts of silk close to the center but the rest of the web is practically invisible. It’s a narrow chute three feet across that she has chose to set up camp, with her orb web no more than one foot in diameter and right at my eye level. In the past I have seen them as a nuisance but now I am intrigued at their ability to meet their needs. Her spiny protrusions on her abdomen have always fascinated my young nephews and they don’t think twice about picking them up by their spines to get a closer look. Could this be her protection from predators?  They don’t seem to have a bad bite and they help keep our pesky insects at bay. On the fourth day she is mysteriously gone. The web which is usually rebuilt at night was in pieces. Did she move on? Was she eaten by the mockingbird that patrols this area?  Did she create an egg sac when I wasn’t looking and go off to die? I need to pay closer attention.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Morning Stroll

I took a stroll last week past an oak hammock, down towards the edge where the willows meet the pond cypress swamp near my home in SW Florida. While the lone wood stork flew overhead and turkey vultures rode the thermals, I walked through the still bare leafed cypresses laden with their catkins full of pollen and their smaller female cones ready to receive. The pollen fluff from the willows greeted me first while warblers flitted and called, eating as they jumped, flew or crawled from branch to branch. I stood among stands of tall coastal plain willows mixed with red maples, dahoon holly and wax myrtle, the result of a wet prairie evolving into woodland after years of no fire.

There were more than enough clouds of gnats, swarms of flies and assorted larvae to feed this hungry flock of mixed song birds. Finding my spot and being careful to avoid the fire ant piles, I sat and watched the Black-and-white Warbler work the willows. This bird appears to be very successful at finding food between the furrows of the bark, along stems, and under leaves with ceaseless movement. Just as quickly as he appears into my view in front of the willow trunk, he disappears behind. And for just a moment I have an opportunity to look at him straight on. I waited patiently for him to reappear but this time it was near the base of the small shrub. Now, this bird was hammering into the bark. For a fleeting second I wondered if he had learned this skill from the woodpeckers he hung out with and then of course I realized this was the woodpecker he was hanging out with, a Downy Woodpecker to be precise. Often when I am birding I only have a chance to glance at the head , back or wing, so I have learned to catch on to some identifiable characteristics. Both are bark foragers but in this instance the giveaway was the behavior. The warbler is more like a vacuum cleaner, hopping and creeping with his tail held up; the downy is more like a pneumatic drill sitting back on his tail. But they look so similar with their small size and their black and white coloring! Both of their heads are striped but there is a white stripe on the Downy’s back and the belly is white not striped. The absence of a red patch on the head identifies it as a female. The warbler’s strong contrasting black and white stripes with the white eye stripe and white wing bars identify it as a male. And as I looked closely at their beaks, the Warbler’s was thinner when compared to the chiseled beak of the woodpecker. Although identifying them at last gave me satisfaction; their behavior was far more interesting to observe.

When I first arrived 12 years ago this land was still a wet prairie and the wading birds were the ones to see here with flocks of roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons and ibis. But for the time being, the songbirds and woodpeckers are the stars of the show filling their bellies and of course, the hawks and eagles are close behind waiting to fill theirs.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Limpkin's Prize


This is the time of our dry down with little or no rain occurring during the winter months. Some of the water from the sheet flow settles deeper into the pools found in the lowest sections of the cypress swamp. It was here that I was able to witness the bird behavior that keeps me coming back for more. This late winter landscape was a calm scene. Afternoon sunlight lit up the water through the still leafless cypress and the ponds were abundant with aquatic life. Wading birds close by included a great egret, White Ibis, Little Blue Heron, and Great Blue Heron. Anhingas were courting with the males bringing one token branch after another to a female who wanted nothing to do with their offerings. A Black-crowned Night Heron perched on a branch farther out across the pond preening and waking up. Barred Owls called to each other in the distance.

But this late afternoon the star of the show was a limpkin wading in the dark clean water with a tip on the end of his bill that curved slightly to the right, meant for only one thing. This individual was particularly vocal and excited as it continued to find and remove one apple snail after another from their right-handed shell. After retrieving what was perhaps the largest one in this body of water, the great blue heron, the master it seems at wading through these waters with patience and grace, slowly tuned his focus toward the Limpkin. The Limpkin headed toward the shallow end, using some floating vegetation to support his prize. His struggle to retrieve his prey pulled not only me in for a closer look, but the patient and graceful Great Blue Heron as well, a bird that appears to have elevated standing meditation to an art form in the bird world. At the point where the meat dangled from the shell and his satisfaction was imminent, this swamp story unfolded with an unexpected ending. The patient and graceful Great Blue Heron made his move, pouncing from behind with his bill aimed at the apple snail. But the Limpkin was keen to his sneaky ways and slipped out with the expertise of a martial artist, devouring his meal in a less crowded area of the pond. The heron would have to be patient a little longer.


Friday, January 27, 2012

After the Fire Part 1

It has been almost three weeks now since this prescribed burn and as I surveyed these burnt woods in this Lee County preserve I was first impressed with the clear view I had of the scope and bones of the woods. With no brush, vines or understory plants to obscure my view I focused on the berms and mounds that seemed so prominent now. Some pines and cabbage palms had been destroyed and the forest had opened up. The beginning stages of new growth were making an appearance on the saw palmetto but the mounds and subsequent aprons of the gopher tortoise burrows drew me closer. These burrows may be as long as 20-40 ft and up to 6 ft deep, a perfect protection from fire.  Gopher tortoises can live commensally with other animals and provide habitat for the indigo snake and gopher frogs. Some 360 species of vertebrates and invertebrates have been documented using these burrows. But as I entered the hardest burned areas and examined the entrances to their homes they appeared to be abandoned with no fresh tracks from the tortoises or other animals. At the northern edge of the burn I did find signs of life as a smaller tortoise about three inches in length backed into his hole as I walked by. Determined to get this picture and sure that he would resurface to soak up the sun, I set up my tripod and waited, even though warblers’ songs beckoned me to come closer to the green edge. As I waited, varieties of butterflies flew by including Orange-barred Sulphurs, Gulf Fritillary, Common Buckeye and the Zebra Longwing, some landing on the charred ashes. With the staccato of grasshoppers’ wings and buzzing flies surrounding  me I became distracted enough from my task at hand to notice tracks, showcasing the animals that use this sandy forest floor as a pathway. These tracks included a variety of birds, a few deer, raccoons, bobcats and snakes. Cowboys in ranch land further north have reported that cattle often eat the charcoal after a fire; maybe some of these animals did as well. I felt grateful for the observations that waiting for this shy young tortoise brought me but I decided to move closer to the green edge following the pattern of gopher burrows as I stepped.

Then as I took in the larger view, I spotted the largest gopher tortoise I have ever seen. Seeing what was perhaps the oldest and youngest of this ancient species in this renovated and reinvigorated environment was reassuring to say the least. I can already imagine the bounty of food that will provide for this species now that the sunlight can reach the ground. So, goodbye dense forest and hello to an open canopy with plenty of herbaceous plants to follow!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


While the red shoulder hawks went about their courtship and nest building activities, a roseate spoonbill soared overhead on a cool January morning. I was in the hydric flatwoods in SW Florida, a moist area filled with tall pines and carpeted with saw palmettos that appeared to have just been trimmed. I was getting a glimpse into the timeline of this ecosystem’s life and into our own awakening as responsible citizen scientists.

It was now January and a fire had occurred here in August. Just before the fire, understory plants such as salt bush, wax myrtle, grape vines and blackberries were beginning to compete with the saw palmettos and dead leaves were thickening the floor. Grasses and wildflowers were being shaded out. The fire that had burned here six months before was called a prescribed burn set by the land managers from the South Florida Water Management District, the primary landowner and one of the partners participating in the Corkscrew Regional Eco-system Watershed or CREW. CREW is the largest intact watershed in SW Florida encompassing 60,000 acres, which contains a 5,000 acre sawgrass marsh, headwaters for the entire watershed, including the Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The CREW Land &Water Trust is the private, non-profit partner that helps to coordinate land acquisition, management and public education and outreach.

The people of CREW have formed a working relationship with the land, so much so, that a paradigm shift is developing. They are beginning to call themselves stewards, a term that more accurately defines their role as caretakers in relationship with the land through conservation and sustainable practices. My appreciation for the work that all members of the Trust do is immense, including their efforts to share their knowledge and recruit more citizen scientists.

We are a part of this landscape; not apart from it.  As citizen scientists, we can focus our interaction through observation and hands on learning. Through the CREW Trust’s education programs, citizens are being called to participate in these fires so that they too can witness the transformative properties of fire and learn how to conserve and sustain the Florida landscape. On this day I was reminded that this ecosystem evolved with fire and that we need to live with fire if we are to maintain healthy plant and animal life.  Fire has always been a part of this environment, having transformative powers on the local landscape. Burning allows the carbon and other nutrients bound up in the over growth and leaf litter to be released back into the soil, controls insect pests and diseases, and improves the quality and quantity of forage plants. Within this stand of pine forest, the hope was that the burn would allow grasslands to remain open at the edge of older pines perhaps creating suitable habitat for the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

Setting a burn every one - two years would also create a habitat favorable for ground foraging birds, while a three - five year burn will encourage understory plants suitable for turkey and deer. In another area the decision to allow the pines to develop into a hardwood hammock was evidenced by the emerging smaller oaks and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker sampling them all. This succession into a hardwood hammock will bring another diversity of species, contributing to the variety of habitats that evolved with this land.

I saw that this activity is both a science and an art form. Land stewardship involves reading the land and making decisions about the succession timeline. The variables for determining when and where a fire needs to be set are many. They consider the time of year, every detail about the weather, plants and animals, as well as educating partners in the burn, which can be many volunteers. Safety is always on their minds. Wait too long for a prescribed burn and the resulting wildfire could be catastrophic, burning so hot as to wipe out the forest entirely and threaten homes. The demonstration burn this day was a small one set against the oncoming wind referred to as a back burn. This patch of palmettos and cabbage palms had been overrun by the understory plants and leaf litter. Within just a few minutes after setting the fire the brush was gone and green still remained on the tips of the palms. With the passage of time, I will report on the wonders that I find there.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

True Colors

Pausing to take in the magnificence of the wet grass prairie, hoping for a glimpse of a deer, and hearing the cry of a bald eagle, I was eventually pulled in to witness the red shoulder hawk making a kill. I turned toward the stand of pond cypress and focused my gaze. I heard a scuffle and time seemed to slow down, as I sensed the stand of shedding cypress holding this hawk, struggling to gain his footing on a branch. Then, slowly and deliberately he peeled back from his talon full of leaves, his prize of a katydid. He ate it slowly and I wondered if the bird was actually tasting his morsel or being careful not to drop it. After the meal the bird flew to a nearby perch to bathe in the sun and look out with me and my companion over the wet prairie. As other visitors came and went along the boardwalk, they were oblivious to his presence just a few feet away from their footsteps.

This is what I love about being at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary here in Collier County, Florida; an opportunity to experience the daily life within this wetland wonder and use it as my own nourishment for my heart and mind. The three of us continued our meditation of sorts until my human companion and I felt the pull to enter the forest and travel down toward the bald cypress further into the swamp. Finding more moments like the one I had just had was tempting and irresistible.