April 21, 2014

Exploring the Everglades

For us, no road trip to Florida is complete without a visit to the Everglades, especially since we have become interested in butterflies. Unfortunately, the habitats that support many rare butterflies, particularly the pine rocklands, are disappearing rapidly. 

The centerpiece of the Everglades is Everglades National Park, a vast area of land and water that is well worth visiting. The actual Everglades habitat was originally much larger than the park boundaries, and in certain areas it still remains. One stop that we make prior to entering the park is pineland preserve which is near the park entrance. This is one area where the rare Bartram's scrub-hairstreak butterfly can be found, and when we visited there in February we were very fortunate to see this beauty for the first time:

This is a very tiny butterfly, smaller than my thumbnail. When we were there in March we didn't see them, but we did see lots and lots of a dragonfly called the Halloween pennant:

Hopefully the pennants didn't eat all the Bartram's scrub-hairstreaks!

One of the first stops in the national park is the Anhinga Trail. Most visitors stop here and it can get crowded. We were there in the morning after a rain and the black vultures were drying their wings, which was a good thing because often they can be found pecking on the rubber on the cars in the parking lot!

I loved this look at an anhinga:

and here is a pair of anhingas tending their chick:

All sorts of birds were in full view and standing still. Here is an American bittern, waiting for prey to come by:

And we couldn't pass up the chance to photograph this intense-looking green-backed heron:

Most park visitors want to see alligators, and they generally aren't disappointed along the Anhinga Trail. We counted at least 30 of the big reptiles:

And I couldn't resist taking a picture of this glamorous purple gallinule:

After the crowds at the Anhinga Trail we enjoyed a quiet hike along a dirt road nearby that is closed to traffic. Rarely are there more than a couple of other people there. The trail has good wildflowers including one of our favorites, the lovely pine-pink orchid:

We saw a viceroy butterfly along the road--it is much darker than the viceroys here in Ohio. The speculation is that in Ohio the lighter form imitates monarchs while in Florida the viceroy mimics the darker queen butterfly.

Also present was the zebra heliconian, a butterfly that has such a graceful, undulating flight:

We couldn't miss the Julia heliconian--what a stunner!

We were really thrilled to see this Florida leafwing butterfly right after we got out of our car to start our hike:

It looks very "tree colored" in this picture, but the upperside is brilliant orange. This is one of the rarest butterflies in North America; suitable habitat for it is limited to just a small area of pine rockland in south Florida. Its near-term fate is unknown at the moment; hopefully there is enough habitat to sustain and increase the population.

Eventually we drove all the way down the main park road to the Flamingo area. Many, many years ago we stayed at the hotel there, but it was completely destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005; now the area is much quieter. We were looking for one of my favorite butterflies, the silver-banded hairstreak. Apparently the hurricanes devastated its population by eliminating much of its caterpillar food plant, the balloon vine. Since then, though, the balloon vine has staged a comeback. 

So off we went following some pretty good directions. Eventually we found the balloon vine, so named because its seed pods look like little inflated balloons:

With a little hard looking we found the silver-banded hairstreaks. These gorgeous butterflies are tiny--maybe 1/2 inch wide. 

One of the highlights of any trip to Florida is getting a good look at one of our most beautiful birds, the roseate spoonbill.

Here in the Everglades it was feeding in a quiet pond, along with some elegant-looking black-necked stilts:

As these recent blog posts show, there is much more to Florida than high rise condominiums, fancy shopping malls, crowded beaches and Disney! Many pockets of the "old Florida" remain and are well worth visiting.

April 13, 2014

Sampling the Florida Keys

In recent years we have kind of avoided going the Keys when we are in Florida. The road is long and frankly rather depressing with seemingly non-stop gas stations, surf shops, fast food places and other establishments that have little to do with the beautiful scenery and wildlife habitat that is the "real" Florida Keys. This winter, though, we heard about some specific places to visit that harbor rare butterflies; it seemed to be worth the effort so off we went.

One of our main stops was Bahia Honda State Park. This relatively unspoiled area is what the Keys are all about: turquoise water,

uncrowded beaches,

coconut palms,

and interesting flora and fauna. As we approached the beach, we saw this yellow-crowned night heron poking along the shore. Not the usual type of place that we see this bird!

We were hoping to find a very tiny butterfly that has a very limited range, the martial scrub-hairstreak. We knew that its caterpillar food plant is bay cedar and that it tends to frequent that plant even as an adult. Fortunately, the state park has a nice nature trail and butterfly garden so we were able to learn to recognize the bay cedar so we'd know where to look for the butterfly! Here is a bay cedar shrub, with a martial scrub-hairstreak:

It often is seen upside down like this, likely in order to fool predators into thinking that its antenna-like rear end is its head. If a predator takes a bite out of the hindwing, the butterfly is not really much worse for wear.

Soon we saw another tiny butterfly, the mallow scrub-hairstreak. Like the one above, it was flaunting its false antennae:

The park hosted numerous stunning gulf fritillaries:

Even the bay beach at the state park wasn't too crowded:

From Bahia Honda we headed on down the road to Big Pine Key. Here we got a quick look at the key deer, a small, endangered subspecies of the white-tailed deer that we see in Ohio:

Another butterfly that we looked for in the keys was the mangrove skipper. We had heard about a site for it on Big Pine Key that involved a hike across a salt pan that had eastern pygmy blue butterflies, and then a walk along a tidal area that reminded me of Robinson Crusoe stories:

Red mangroves, with their stilt-like prop-roots line the shore and help stabilize the land:

On top of a big sea lavender shrub we found the mangrove skipper--what an unusual looking butterfly!

One of my absolute favorite things about our latest trip to the Keys was seeing magnificent frigatebirds. Wow--these huge birds are so well adapted to their life on the ocean, with their hooked bill for catching fish and their narrow wings and forked tail for flying in the wind and over rough seas. They just really conjure up the Caribbean for me, and I can picture them winging their way over pirate ships way back when. That's possibly because these birds are, in a way, pirates themselves; they get much of their food by attacking other seabirds and making them disgorge their food! Interestingly, they never land on the water, spending both days and nights on the wing. Here is the best we could do for a photo; unfortunately you can just barely see that the tail is forked:

We have really enjoyed our recent Keys adventures and hope that we have the opportunity to visit again next winter!

April 7, 2014

Spring Has Arrived!

I thought I'd take a break from posting about Florida in order to celebrate the arrival of spring in Ohio. It certainly is a welcome change from the cold, snowy winter! We have been visiting nature preserves in central and southern Ohio whenever we can, and I hope that these photos can illustrate the amazing changes that have taken place since the official arrival of spring in late March when there was still snow on the ground in many places.

Now the streams are running full and the waterfalls are beautiful:

Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve near Yellow Springs. 

Among the first wildflowers to bloom were snow trillium,

tiny harbinger-of-spring, which is also called pepper and salt,

and hepatica, which comes in beautiful colors including pink and blue, shown below, and white:

Now the white trout lilies are in bloom,

along with spring beauties

and bloodroot:

Here is an interesting flower of a small tree called leatherwood, so named because its twigs are quite flexible. This is probably wind pollinated, since it doesn't have fancy petals to attract insects:

Down by the Ohio River, things are a bit further along than here in central Ohio. Virginia bluebells are showing some color

as are these lovely Dutchman's breeches:

We saw large numbers of dwarf larkspur in bud but this past weekend only saw one in full bloom:

Lots of sessile trilliums are in bud but only a few were showing their intense maroon color. I don't think I've ever noticed before the maroon edging on the sepals. This is about as open as this flower will get:

I actually prefer one of sessile trillium's other names: toadshade!

And here is a treat, one of Ohio's rarest wildflowers called the goldenstar lily. It looks very similar to the yellow trout lily but there are subtle differences. It only grows in a couple of areas in the southernmost part of the state, and is a real beauty:

Wildflowers are not the only signs that spring has arrived. The salamanders are migrating to their vernal pools to mate and lay eggs on warm, rainy nights. Here is a spotted salamander

and a Jefferson's salamander:

The butterflies have just started to appear. In addition to eastern comma

and spring azure

The upper side of this butterfly is brilliant blue, but they rarely rest with wings open for a photo!

we've seen mourning cloaks and a cabbage white. Falcate orange-tips and tiger swallowtails can't be too far behind!

Spring has always been my favorite season--my April birthday might have something to do with that--and this one is shaping up to be excellent!

April 2, 2014

A Wonderful Morning at Corkscrew Swamp

One place that we always visit when we do a Florida road trip is Corkscrew Swamp, a 14,000 acre Audubon preserve that is easily accessed from the Naples area. It has a 2.2 mile boardwalk through a variety of habitats and we always see interesting plants, birds and other animals. This red-shouldered hawk greeted us as we entered the area:

The edges of the preserve have a lot of open grassland:

The sunshine in these areas allows some lovely wildflowers to bloom like these blue-flag iris:

Most of the preserve, however, is very wet with dense vegetation. Huge baldcypress trees dominate the canopy and some have been encircled by strangler figs:

Many different types of ferns grow in the dim light:

Some scenes seem almost primeval:

Here an anhinga waits for unwary prey:

Many trees are covered with epiphytic plants such as resurrection ferns, and, rarely, orchids. Sadly, most wild orchids in Florida that were at all accessible have been illegally taken for private use or for the nursery trade. Most, if not all, soon die because their complex need for partnership with specific types of fungi cannot be met in a home garden. We were, though, able to see a couple of blooming epiphytic orchids, with the help of a preserve volunteer. They were pretty far away from the boardwalk but it was exciting to see them regardless. Here is a lovely yellow Epidendrum amphistomum; I don't think it deserves its common name of dingy-flowered star orchid!

And this is called delicate ionopsis:

It was located about 50 feet from the boardwalk and beyond the range of my camera, but we did see one later in the trip that was closer:

We spotted several terrestrial orchids called beaked orchids or scarlet ladies' tresses as we walked along the boardwalk. They are similar to our ladies' tresses orchids, although the beaked orchids are much bigger and the ladies' tresses are all white.

We couldn't miss this young alligator basking in what little sun reaches through the trees:

And way back in the forest the barred owl enthralled many visitors who had binoculars:

One of the most spectacular birds of south Florida is the painted bunting, which is a frequent visitor to feeders at the preserve:

As we left the boardwalk and the preserve, we were thrilled to see a soaring swallow-tailed kite, a raptor that, according to preserve naturalists, had returned from its winter home in South America just a few weeks before our visit. Photos can't really capture its elegance and incredible flying skill but here is an attempt:

Corkscrew Swamp is a popular and worthwhile destination for any visit to south Florida!