This evening as I walked in the park bordering Lake Tsala Apopka, I spotted two limpkins foraging along the edge of the water. These wading birds plucked snails, crayfish and frogs from the water’s edge. One waded out in the shallow water and pulled up a freshwater shellfish, brought it to the shore, pried open the shell and devoured its soft meat. As the sun’s rays dwindled, the limpkins walked into the darkness of the evening landscape.
During an early April Walk along Lake Tsala Apopka in Citrus County Florida, Anne and I spot the spring arrival of the swallow-tailed kite. This hawk-like bird circled over the grassy area and woodlands where it dove to snatch something from the ground. We were not close enough to see what it grabbed, but these birds often eat lizards, frogs, mice and palmetto bugs.
After posting its picture on our community Facebook page, a neighbor reported seeing kites smash through her plantings where mockingbirds were nesting. It is a hunting method to flush prey out of the bushes where the kites have easy pickings.
The kite flew back and forth in sweeping large circular patterns frequently diving into the tops of trees and to the ground. Eventually, the bird flew off into the rural neighborhood out of our sight.
In the spring of 1976, I drove two miles on dirt roads to a remote area of Connetquot River State Park Preserve in New York where I was a biologist. The purpose of my trip was to rediscover a rare plant called Pyxie Moss (Pyxadanthera barbulata). Despite its name and looks, the plant is not a moss. It is a low growing evergreen shrub.
After parking my vehicle, I walked along a path to where the plant is normally found. It was an unusually warm March day. The red maples, black gums and scrub oaks were still barren of leaves. The only green in the landscape was the evergreen inkberry holly, pitch pine and mosses and lichens.
I left the well-trodden trail and pushed my way through dense brush until I came to an opening in the vegetation. Kneeling, I brushed the leaf litter aside to expose the ground and to my delight I found little white blossoms of the pyxie moss.
Walking from one opening to another I found more plants. Not too many were blooming and it did not look healthy. The shrubs and trees and dense leaf litter was starving the plant of sunlight.
In 1977, a spring fire scorched the woodlands where I found the pyxie moss. I returned the following spring see if the plant survived the fire. With the brush burned away, I was able to explore more of the area and to my surprise the pyxie was flourishing. It was everywhere – in more places than I initially found it. Evidently, the fire burned away the leaf litter exposing the plant to sunlight enabling it to grow.
Now retired in Florida and it being March, I think back to the days I spent searching for this New York State endangered plant and hope that current and future caretakers of the state park will continue to preserve the area for future generations to discover the pyxie.
Anyone who has ever fed wild birds shares the same frustrations as I, when the entourage of neighborhood squirrels wreak havoc at the backyard bird feeding station. The squirrels spill seed, chew feeders, and scare birds away. They are clever creatures and it seems that no matter how well you try to discourage them, they always find a way to steal the food meant for birds. I always throw some sunflower seeds on the ground to try to satisfy their craving, but they still prefer the seeds in the feeders despite the easy meal on the ground.
Much to my chagrin, I found a young squirrel all cozy, curled up and sleeping in my pot bird feeder this morning. The sunflower seeds provided a comfy bed for this beast. Not only are they eating the birds’ food, one of them decided that this is home sweet home!!!
Don’t get me wrong. I like squirrels, but not when they rob the songbirds of their food. I have to admit, seeing this young squirrel sleeping in the feeder was a cute sight and I did not disturb it despite my animosity to it. Later in the morning, I checked on the young squirrel and it was gone. I am sure it will be back to pilfer the birds’ food along with its friends, but for now I am enjoying seeing chickadees, tufted titmice, chipping sparrows at the feeders.
When I fill my bird feeders, I always scatter seeds on the ground for those birds that forage on the ground. This persuades a dull colored, but cute little bird called the common ground dove. This dove is easy to tell from other doves because it is small (the size of a large sparrow), has a pattern on its breast that looks like fish scales and pinkish-red beak with a black tip. This species lives in tropical and subtropical regions including the southern U.S. from Florida to California, Central America and northern South America.
The ground dove mates for life and nests year-round as long as there are enough resources for it to raise its young. If you ever saw its nest, you might wonder how it survives because the nest is flimsy with a few twigs in a shallow depression on the ground. It only lays two to three eggs and nourishes its young with a mixture of seeds and crop milk. The youngsters fly in less than two weeks.
In the wild, common ground doves forage for seeds from wild grasses, sedges and rushes as well as the occasional insect. Although it lives in bushy open woodlands, it is adaptable to low density residential areas. My backyard feeding station attracts these doves not only for the food I put out, but because I have shrubs where the they can take cover from predators.
It is March and the wetlands in the northeast U.S. are still frozen. The landscape is gray with leafless trees and shrubs. The ground is covered with decaying leaves, pockets of ice and in some places snow. Yet for as bleak as this environment looks, the first sign of spring appears. Flower heads of skunk cabbage are pushing through the ice-bound ground. This plant does what very few plants are capable of; it generates heat through a process called thermogenesis which thaws the frozen ground it lives in.
Skunk cabbage is aptly named. Every part of this plant reeks with the smell of a revengeful skunk. Flies, attracted to this putrid odor, travel from flower to flower where pollen hitchhikes on the insects’ legs and is carried from one flower to another for the important process of pollination.
As the spring sun warms the wetland soil, the leaves of the skunk cabbage plant poke through the ground. The leaves grow and expand and take advantage of the sun’s energizing rays that easily reach the forest floor. Skunk Cabbage has to grow now to survive. Once the days are long enough to trigger the taller plants to sprout leaves casting shade on the forest floor, the skunk cabbages’ days are numbered.
Although a stinky plant, it is a welcome sight. Like the return of the robin after the long winter, skunk cabbage is a harbinger of spring as it provides reassurance that winter is waning and spring is on the horizon.
Anne and I enjoy watching birds come to our backyard feeders. We get quite a few varieties of birds eating the assortment of seeds offered to them. One of my favorite visitors is the red-bellied woodpecker. It often flies in to eat sunflower seeds from the feeders. It looks very awkward as it dangles practically upside down using its tail feathers to brace itself on the bottom of the feeder as it grabs the bird seed. When in this position, you can see faint red splashes on its belly.
This medium sized woodpecker is often seen on tree trunks picking bugs out of the nooks and crannies of the bark. Its sticky tongue can reach two inches from the tip of its beak to reach insects hiding in the deep crevices of the bark.
Like other woodpeckers, it is a cavity nester and will often take over the nesting cavities of smaller birds where it modifies the hollow to meet its needs.
This woodpecker returns a few times to the feeder, then it is gone until another day. When it warms up a bit, we do not see the bird at the feeder probably because of the availability of insects stirred by the moderate weather. We are happy to help this and other birds survive the winter months and continue to enjoy their exquisite beauty.