On Bird Brains and Wild Spaces


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.



American Coots       Photo by Tara Powers




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




Florida Scrub Jay      Photo by Tara Powers




Northern Shovelers      Photo by Tara Powers




Roseate Spoonbill        Photo by Tara Powers




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




American Alligator       Photo by Tara Powers




Pied-Billed Grebe            Photo by Tara Powers




Great Horned Owl with Owlet in Nest             Photo by Tara Powers




Great Horned Owlet            Photo by Tara Powers

Lime Time


Pumpkin Patch in Georgia



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.



Margarita in the Key Lime Tree



Baby Tree Frog Hiding from Margarita



Margarita Slithers Away



Key Lime Harvest

Renegade Reptiles


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.


Florida Girl


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Neighborhood Gopher Tortoise



Southern Black Racer–“Licorice”


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Cuban Knight Anole with Amazing Camouflage



Baby Florida Box Turtle

It’s Sprummer!


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



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!


Momma Gator and baby.
Photo by Tara Powers



Petrea Vine in full bloom.
Photo by Tara Powers



Gulf Fritillary Butterfly emerging from chrysalis.
Photo by Tara Powers



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

Lizards and Pythons and Toads…Oh, My!

Green Iguana in Stuart, FL Photo by Tara Powers

Green Iguana in Stuart, Florida
Photo by Tara Powers


Ball Python in Florida

Ball Python in Florida


Earlier this month, the Palm Beach Zoo in Florida hosted their Second Annual Exotic Pet Amnesty Day.   It was an event in which owners of exotic non-native critters turned over their animals with no penalties or questions asked.   Some people acquired these pets and then found their needs were too difficult to meet.   Other owners were facing life changes that prevented them from keeping their beloved pets.   Whatever the reason, these folks made the unselfish decision to turn in their pets to give them a better life.   Once surrendered, these animals were given to homes that had been prescreened and qualified by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to care for the specific species.   This year the animals that were turned over included birds, reptiles, skunks, prairie dogs, hedgehogs, a fennec fox, lemur, and a kinkajou.   The goal of the Amnesty Day is to find the animal a proper home and ultimately keep it from being turned out into the wild.   Too many people simply release animals in the environment when they become difficult to handle.   With its warm climate, Florida is an ideal place for these critters to thrive, but their invasion is causing disastrous results to the native species.

One could say that the worst invasive species Florida is facing arrived about 500 years ago.   Humans from the Old World “discovered” North America and began changing everything in their path.   But Florida is now becoming overrun with invasive critters who have either escaped or been set loose in the wilderness.   These creatures compete with the indigenous animals for territory and resources, and the result has been catastrophic.   It’s believed that there are more species of non-native reptiles breeding in the state than native ones.   Burmese pythons are quickly overtaking the Everglades, and there is not much to stop them.   They can grow over seventeen feet in length and have no natural predator here in Florida, so they are reproducing quickly and pushing themselves to the top of the food chain.  Wading birds, opossums, and bobcats have been decimated by the reptiles.   Even alligators have been preyed upon.   The Everglades is home to many threatened and endangered species, and these snakes are hastening their decline.   It has been estimated that almost all marsh rabbits, foxes, and raccoons in Everglades National Park have been killed off by this new predator.   In a classic example of closing the barn door after the horse bolted, Florida finally imposed a ban on the acquisition of Burmese Pythons in 2010, but it was a bit too late to stop the problem.   Hunters can kill the snakes, but they are almost impossible to find.   A 2013 challenge hunt only brought in 68 of an estimated thousands of the reptiles!

Floridians don’t have to venture into the Everglades to see the problem.   Housing developments have been pushed so far into the glades that the critters—both native and invasive—are crawling in the backyards of what used to be their homes.   But on a daily basis we see exotic bufo toads, iguanas, tegus, lizards, snakes, parrots, wild hogs, and odd mammals roaming our neighborhoods.   Besides pushing out the native species, they can be deadly to beloved pets.   Many dog owners have faced the heartbreak of losing their pup to the bufo toad’s toxin.   Dogs—being typical dogs—chase after the huge toad.   If they try to bite it, they wind up ingesting the lethal toxin on the toad’s skin.

We human invaders are here to stay.   But being human, we can at least understand the consequences we have had on the environment and work to keep our beautiful state sustainable for the future.   I, for one, want my grandchildren to have clean water to drink and enjoy long after I am gone.   I want them to see a gorgeous Florida sunrise and sunset and watch great blue herons fly low over the water seeking their roosts for the night.   I want my descendants to marvel at a bobcat, slow down for a gopher tortoise, admire the pink feathers of a roseate spoonbill, and coo at a Mama opossum carrying her babies.   But this won’t happen if people keep releasing their unwanted exotic critters into our Florida ecosystems.   The native species will not survive the onslaught.

So thank you to those who responsibly turned in your precious pets.   I’m sure the decision was difficult, but rest assured you have made the right choice for both your animal and the Florida environment.   And thank you to those who were approved to adopt the pets.   You are tasked now with caring for these critters, and I hope you have many happy years together.



Argentine Black and White Tegu



Ball Python in Florida