On Bird Brains and Wild Spaces

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Little Blue Heron         Photo by Tara Powers

 

I needed an adventure.   Not a big one, just something fun for a day.   Florida only gets a few pleasant months for exploring before the heat and mosquitoes make my Irish blood miserable, so the clock was ticking.

The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge has been on my bucket list for years.  I’ve been to the Kennedy Space Center a few times.   As my husband and daughters marveled at NASA’s engineering feats, I’ve stared off into the swamp and admired the birds and gators.   So we packed a cooler and made the two-hour drive north.

At the visitor center, we walked past tourists taking selfies with an orange tree.    Songbirds darted about the boardwalk, and a pair of ospreys guarded their nest.   Leaving there we drove down a dirt lane that opened up to a vast vista of mangrove swamp and open water.   NASA’s launch pad and Vehicle Assembly Building towered in the distance, a stark reminder that though surrounded by wilderness you weren’t far from modern society.

The Refuge is a bird watcher’s dream.   My daughter grabbed binoculars and checked off species on her list. I grabbed my camera and clicked in every direction.   My husband grabbed his lunch.   Everyone was happy!

Merritt Island spans diverse ecosystems—swamp, pinelands, scrublands, and coast. We viewed alligators, shorebirds, passerines, and birds of prey.   Florida scrub jays greeted us with their raucous screeches, and a bald eagle swooped just over our heads.  An elusive roseate spoonbill tormented me by staying too far away for a decent photograph, but the herons cooperated for the camera.  The Black Point Wildlife Drive—a single lane unpaved trail–is the heart of the Refuge.   It winds through three miles of wetlands filled with herons, egrets, and waterfowl.   But the highlight of our trip was the nest of Great Horned Owls. It was almost dusk when we found them.   Two little fuzzball owlets popped their heads up over the side of the nest while Mama (or Papa) sat nearby.  I was in heaven.

What a perfect adventure.   I needed that day in old Florida–a Florida that existed for eons before the population grew and paved everything around it.   We birdbrains still need the wild spaces.

 

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American Coots       Photo by Tara Powers

 

 

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American Bittern–He was so well camouflaged that we almost missed him.  Photo by Tara Powers

 

 

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Florida Scrub Jay      Photo by Tara Powers

 

 

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Northern Shovelers      Photo by Tara Powers

 

 

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Roseate Spoonbill        Photo by Tara Powers

 

 

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Snowy Egret–His massive yellow feet are hidden underwater.              Photo by Tara Powers

 

 

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American Alligator       Photo by Tara Powers

 

 

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Pied-Billed Grebe            Photo by Tara Powers

 

 

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Great Horned Owl with Owlet in Nest             Photo by Tara Powers

 

 

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Great Horned Owlet            Photo by Tara Powers

You Never Get Over Losing Your Mother

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My sweet sister-in-law joined our club this week. I wish she never had to face the initiation. She became another daughter who has lost her mother. Too soon. Much too soon.

Sadly I know just how she’s spent the past days. The phone call that feels like a punch in the stomach. The frantic packing. The twelve hour drive in the middle of the night—devoted husband at the wheel and frightened daughters in the back seat. Walking into the brightly lit ICU to find Mom, dearest friend and confidante, hooked up to all manner of tubes and wires. A sister—who just faced the same sequence of events—racing in with her baby. Dad with the vacant look in his eyes. Talking to Mom. Hoping she hears us. Holding her hand. The last kiss goodbye.

I realize most of us have to face this someday. But someday is supposed to be a long time from now. When we’re older. When our daughters and sons are grown up and might understand why Grandma won’t be there for hugs and kisses, birthdays, holidays, and tea parties.

I want to tell her it will be okay. I want to tell her that time will soothe the pain. I want to reassure her that as the years pass the hole in her heart will heal. I want to tell her that as her daughters reach each milestone, there won’t be tears wishing Mom could have been there. But I can’t lie to her.

You never get over losing your Mother.

 

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Lime Time

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Pumpkin Patch in Georgia

 

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Margarita the Red Rat Snake

Fall may be pumpkin season around the country, but here in Florida it is key lime season. My tree is drooping from the weight of so many limes. While others are baking pumpkin bread, molasses cookies, and snickerdoodles, I’m trying to decide what to do with all these tart and tiny fruits.

Key lime pie is obvious—and delicious! But sometimes I feel like Forrest Gump’s friend Bubba as I dream up ideas: key lime cake, key lime chicken, margaritas, key lime white chocolates, key lime cookies, margaritas, key lime frozen yogurt, key lime iced tea, key lime shrimp, margaritas, key lime salsa, key lime cupcakes, key lime mahi—did I mention margaritas?

Last weekend I harvested a basket of the beauties. I was just about done when a little face popped out through the leaves. There was Margarita, the red rat snake who resides in the lime tree. She wasn’t happy that I was disturbing her, but she tolerated the tree shaking as I picked the limes. She even let me snap a few photos showing off her vivid colors. A tiny tree frog hopped from leaf to leaf, likely saved from becoming a snake-sized morsel by my interference. Margarita finally tired of the photo shoot, plopped on the ground with a loud “thump,” and slithered into the saw palmetto. I imagined her muttering under her breath as she retreated.

So it’s Lime Time. While other states are enjoying crisp weather, colorful leaves, and pumpkins, I’m swimming in the pool and looking at a bushel of key limes. One thing is certain—I will never suffer from scurvy.

 

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Margarita in the Key Lime Tree

 

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Baby Tree Frog Hiding from Margarita

 

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Margarita Slithers Away

 

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Key Lime Harvest

Renegade Reptiles

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Cuban Knight Anole
Martin County, FL

 

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Rat Snake in the Garage

Dear Reptilian Neighbors,

I am a lifelong Floridian, so I am accustomed to sharing my world with you.  We go back a long way.   As a toddler, I tried to teach a green anole lizard to swim.   It didn’t end well, and I apologize.

When I was five we found a corn snake in the back yard.   We kept him in a large coffee can and played with him everyday—until Mom found the empty can in the living room.   We searched all day for “Corny” and finally found him when we couldn’t open the sliding glass door.   He was stretched out in the track.   Mom insisted “Corny” be released, so we bid him farewell and set him free.

I do regret that incident with the rattlesnake.   But you have to concede that it was a dangerous situation.   My friend and I wandered down to the creek, and he was coiled up where all the kids liked to play.   He struck out at us, and we raced home.   Worried about the neighborhood children, Mom called for help and the police removed the threat.   I’m sorry it had to end that way.

But for the most part we have peacefully coexisted.   As a kid I remember alligators roaming the streets during mating season.   I’ve admired rough green snakes, gracefully draped in the mangrove trees as I’ve paddled a canoe underneath them.   Box turtles are adorable, and I’ve helped many gopher tortoises safely cross a busy road.   You lizards have overrun my patio while puffing out your red dewlaps to challenge me to “your” territory.   And I don’t complain when ringneck and brown water snakes insist on swimming in the pool.   I’m not thrilled when I surface and find you in my face, but you have to admit I rescue you and return you to the safety of the backyard.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed some changes around here.   Some odd relatives of yours have arrived, and our encounters are more frequent.   A couple years ago I was shocked to see a large black and orange African Agama lizard at the CVS pharmacy.   I thought some joker had painted an iguana until I looked up your species and learned how colorful you can be.   Now I see your kind all over town.   Then last year I found an invasive neon-green iguana in my White Bird-of-Paradise plant.   But this week you have gone too far.

I was carrying an armful of recycling into my closed garage, and I almost stepped on a large red rat snake.   Now I am not afraid of you, but you startled me.   I don’t expect you inside the house.   And did you really have to leave that disgusting pile of scat at the entrance?   Later that day I saw the beautiful hawk in the backyard.   Racing out with my camera, I barely avoided tripping over “Licorice,” the southern black racer snake who resides in our privet hedge, peering up like a periscope to spy on us.   And yesterday as I was watering plants, something large leaped from the Petrea Vine into the neighbor’s hickory tree—and it wasn’t fluffy with a bushy tail.   Almost invisible, it crept through the branches.   The military should study its camouflage pattern.   After twenty minutes and thirty mosquito bites, I had enough photos for my zookeeper daughter to identify it.   We now have a Cuban Knight Anole, another invasive species, in the yard.

So let’s call a truce.   I will watch my steps more carefully and make a lot of noise so you can slither away quickly.   And you will stay outside and not leave poop on the door step.   We have a long history together.   I know we can work this out.

Sincerely,

Florida Girl

 

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Neighborhood Gopher Tortoise

 

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Southern Black Racer–“Licorice”

 

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Cuban Knight Anole with Amazing Camouflage

 

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Baby Florida Box Turtle

It’s Sprummer!

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Orphaned baby opossum on his way to the wildlife sanctuary.
Photo by Tara Powers


 

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Male painted bunting visiting the feeder.
Photo by Tara Powers


 

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Cattleya orchids in full bloom.
Photo by Tara Powers

It’s Sprummer!—the season in Florida that follows our two brief months of winter.   If you live here, you understand.

I’ve heard folks from other states opine that Florida does not have seasons.  As a native Floridian I can attest that we actually do.   They are just more subtle than those up north.   We joke that we only have two REAL seasons—Tourist and Hurricane–but observant individuals will notice the changes we experience.

True summer sets in during May.   It gets hot—really hot.   And if a west wind blows across the Everglades, it gets even hotter.   Early in May twenty years ago, I chaperoned a field trip of kindergarteners to Miami’s Metro Zoo.   It was 98 degrees in the shade with a hot wind blowing from the glades.   I can’t remember the animals we saw, but I can recall every water fountain we stopped at.   May can be fickle—nice one day, brutal the next.   But some of our most beautiful trees—like the flame red Royal Poinciana and purple Queen’s Crape-Myrtle—burst into dazzling bloom at this time.   By June the daily afternoon thunderstorms build up, and this pattern lasts through September.   To make things more interesting, this also coincides with the height of hurricane season.

Autumn heralds its arrival with a change in the light.   The sunlight shifts and softens in the house.   Usually by the third week in October we finally get some relief with a mild cool front.   Migrating birds pass through, and our family of painted buntings settles in for the next six months.   It often warms up again for Thanksgiving, just in time to wilt the holiday trees that have sprouted under roadside tents.   By Christmas I am praying for a blast of arctic air, but more often than not I’ll have the air conditioning chugging away as we open gifts and listen to carols.

Finally January brings some beautiful crisp cold air, and my Irish blood is happy.   Some trees, realizing they missed autumn, now change color and drop their leaves.   I enjoy two months of cool weather while listening to tourists complain that they came down here for warmth.   I smile and invite them to return in August.   The backyard is full of wildlife enjoying the bird feeder.   The birdbath is even busier as winter can be dry and parched.   And the golf courses are dotted with the flamingo pink and lime green plumage of the annual snowbirds.

But in March Sprummer sets in. It’s too warm to call it spring.   The patio orchids explode into bloom, and flowering trees decorate the landscape.   Brightly colored butterflies and bees flitter and buzz among the blossoming bougainvillea and petrea vine.   Winter birds journey back north while native ones court, nest, and raise their young.   Yellow crested flycatchers return to the nest box, and catbirds splash in the birdbath with delight.   Bunnies scamper through the yard, a muddy mess from the raccoons digging for grubs and worms.   Meanwhile the house periodically shakes from the squirrels rampaging across the patio screen.   Alligator mating season commences, and they occasionally wander around the neighborhood looking for love.   And baby opossums, turtles, snakes, and lizards appear, delighting (or terrifying) residents working outside.

So enjoy our Florida Sprummer.   It’s warm enough to enjoy the pool and beach, but the humidity is still somewhat tolerable.   That won’t last.   The sunlight will strengthen and shift again as we prepare for the long hot months ahead.   I dread the thought of a hurricane, a constant concern once June arrives.   But on the plus side, traffic is a lot lighter.   And for those tourists seeking warmth—you’ll really enjoy August!

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Momma Gator and baby.
Photo by Tara Powers


 

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Petrea Vine in full bloom.
Photo by Tara Powers


 

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Gulf Fritillary Butterfly emerging from chrysalis.
Photo by Tara Powers


 

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Orphaned adorable baby opossum on his way to the wildlife sanctuary.
Photo by Tara Powers

Winter Walk on the Wild Side

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Reflections on the St. Lucie
Halpatiokee Park in Martin County, Florida
Photo by Tara Powers

 

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Osprey near Vero Beach, Florida
Photo by Meaghan Powers

When many people think of Florida, they think of palm trees, beaches, and Disney World.   As a huge peninsula, we certainly have some beautiful beaches.   And Disney World is, well, Disney World.   But most people don’t realize that Florida still has some wonderfully wild spaces left in our rapidly changing state.

While the Everglades are well known for being remote, there are many other settings to spend a quiet day or even take a short walk.  Thankfully caring local and state leaders have had the foresight to preserve these areas as parks, and you can take a walk back in time exploring these trails.   As I wander these paths, I imagine what life was like for the early pioneers and original inhabitants of our state.   They must have faced many challenges settling the territory.

Diverse ecosystems are highlighted by these parks.   In some places the terrain is wet, dense, and jungle-like; other areas can be dry scrub or pinelands.   Some of these trails actually cover different habitats mere yards apart.   One minute you can be walking through a dry sandy path, and a few feet later you enter a thick cooler hammock.   There are various critters inhabiting these places.   Lizards, snakes, and gopher tortoises thrive in the sandy patches.   Squirrels and birds dart through the hammocks.   Deer graze and sandhill cranes forage in the grassy fields.   If you spot a dead pine tree, look up.   You’ll likely see woodpecker holes in the trunk.   If you’re lucky you’ll see an osprey or hawk surveilling the terrain from the top.   Take care on your hike, though.   These may be designated parks, but they are still wild places.   You can encounter snakes, alligators, and invasive wild hogs.   While some of us enjoy seeing these critters, others might not feel the same way!

Winter is the best time for this exploration.   The cooler dry air keeps the mosquitoes at bay, and the crisp days are too gorgeous to stay inside.   We Floridians have only limited days of cool weather to enjoy—those are the best times to go on these adventures.   So check your local parks to see what trails they have to wander.   The Florida Trail Association lists interesting ones to explore.  You can go for a day trip or just take a short walk.   Either way you’ll discover a different Florida and hopefully see a beautiful part of our state that we need to preserve and protect.   And admit it, the trails are a lot prettier than the treadmill at the gym.   So go ahead, take a winter walk on the wild side.

 

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Red Bellied Woodpecker in Halpatiokee Park
Photo by Tara Powers

 

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Deer Munching on Leaves
Western Martin County, Florida
Photo by Tara Powers

 

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Sandhill Crane Foraging for Food
Martin County, Florida
Photo by Tara Powers

 

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The Wild St. Lucie River
Halpatiokee Park
Photo by Tara Powers