Monthly Archives: February 2021

Walton Scrub, dragonflies, seed-eating warblers and a most deadly plant

This is a post about a walk in Walton Scrub, a 33-acre preserve in southern St. Lucie County. We were there around noon on Sunday, February 21.

The interpretive trail is half a mile long. Brochures are at the kiosk near the small parking area. My husband stuffed one in his back pocket and we forgot to look at it.

“Scrub” is a Florida plant community growing on sandy soil that does not retain moisture well. It’s dominated by sand pines, shrubs, and dwarf oaks.

My husband loves hickory trees and recognized this as one right away. Weird to see one in the scrub, we thought. But then I looked at the brochure online later.

Most hickories like moist woods and riverbanks, but Scrub Hickory, Carya floridana, grows in the white sand scrub of central Florida.

This walk lacked a diversity of bird species, but I did see three different kinds of dragonflies. I posted their photos to iNaturalist.org to get help with identification.

This one is a Blue Dasher, a dragonfly in the skimmer family. Love the name, love the color! I would like to paint one room of my house the color of this bug’s eyes.

This skimmer dragonfly is called a Red Saddlebags.

This green fellow is a Great Pondhawk. I can almost taste this color green.

The preserve abuts the Florida East Coast Railway on the west side, which has been in use since the 1890s. Freight runs through here, but they are working on the tracks to get ready to run the passenger service Brightline all the way to Orlando from Miami.

All of Walton Scrub was a pineapple plantation beginning in the 1800s. Before the railroad came through, they would haul the pineapples down to the docks on the Indian River Lagoon.

Pineapples are gone but a few of their bromeliad relatives live here now, like this ball moss, Tillandsia recurvata.

Ball moss is an epiphyte growing in trees that likes high humidity and shady low light.

Giant airplant, Tillandsia utriculata, does look a bit like a pineapple growing up high.

A flock of birds was moving through the pine trees but I had a hard time getting photos. At last I got a dim view of a yellowish bird with two white wing bars.

I’m pretty sure these are Pine Warblers flitting through the pine trees.

A bird true to its name, the Pine Warbler is common in many eastern pine forests and is rarely seen away from pines. These yellowish warblers are hard to spot as they move along high branches to prod clumps of needles with their sturdy bills.

Pine Warblers tend to stay high in pines and can be obscured by tufts of needles, but a bit of patience is likely to be rewarded.

The Pine Warbler is the only warbler that eats large quantities of seeds, primarily those of pines. This seed-eating ability means Pine Warblers sometimes visit bird feeders, unlike almost all other warblers.

Most warblers leave the continental U.S. for winter, but the Pine Warbler stays in the Southeast and is one of the first to return northward in spring.

My first Pine Warbler was in April of 2015 when we lived in New Hampshire. The next year, at the end of March, I attracted a Pine Warbler with my delicious homemade suet dough on a porch railing. In January of 2018 in Florida, I got a look at one in the pine trees on a walk through Atlantic Ridge Preserve.

Here was the craziest thing we found here and there on our walk through Walton Scrub, I realized when I looked it up later. These attractive red seeds are from the Rosary Pea. From WildSouthFlorida.com

Rosary pea, Abrus precatorius, ranks among Florida’s worst invaders, arguably among the world’s worst. It’s also, indisputably, among the deadliest.

Rosary pea is an unassumingly slender vine, with delicate-looking leaves and lovely pink to lavender flowers. However, it grows like crazy, and can smother small trees and shrubs and even challenge larger trees. And it reproduces explosively.

Thing is, the whole plant, but the seeds especially, contain a toxin called abrin, and it doesn’t take much of the stuff to kill a human being. It’s estimated that as little as 0.000015 percent of abrin in ratio to body weight is enough to cause death, whether it’s ingested, inhaled or injected. That’s one seed’s worth. Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Science ranks rosary pea with castor bean, the source of ricin, as the deadliest plant toxins.

What! Shouldn’t we all know this plant, and know to avoid it??

It was planted as an ornamental and it’s highly invasive. I feel like some people got a little carried away when they moved to Florida and realized what they could grow here.

We spotted a few more non-native ornamentals near the end of the walk. This is an Orange Trumpet, or flamevine, native to Brazil.

Kalanchoe pinnata, also known as air plant, cathedral bells, or life plant is from Madagascar.

The writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was an amateur naturalist of some repute, was “passionately fond” of this plant and liked to give the baby plantlets as gifts to friends who visited his home. He also discussed his air plant at length in an essay titled: Geschichte meiner botanischen Studien (“History of my botanical studies”).

I imagine he would have had an interesting blog.

Surinam Cherry is also native to tropical South America.

It has a small, attractive red fruit that is edible, but I guess it’s flowering season now! Florida has strange seasons that take some getting used to.

Nature! … We obey her laws even when we rebel against them; we work with her even when we desire to work against her. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Catch of the day: oystercatchers

Oystercatchers! Go back!” My husband turned the car around and pulled into a parking spot at the Snook Nook.

We were headed north for a walk in the scrub yesterday afternoon, but made a quick detour for a special bird.

Next to the Snook Nook is Fredgie’s World Famous Hot Dogs. The roadside stand lures lots of people to stop for a quick lunch in fresh air at the edge of the Indian River Lagoon in Jensen Beach.

They are famous for the “fredgie” which is a hot dog on a bun topped with chili… and peanut butter. Really.

On the left side of the photo, you can see the dock with the oystercatchers. I spotted them from the road on the right, Indian River Drive.

It was a very windy day, and the surface of the lagoon was pretty rough. The docks and narrow beach here are a popular “hotspot” for birdwatchers to see a variety of gulls and terns.

According to eBird, 78 different species of birds have been spotted at the Snook Nook.

I think this Fredgie’s gull is a juvenile Laughing Gull in the first winter of its life, and already a fearless scavenger of French fries.

The Snook Nook sells everything you need for catching this region’s most popular sport fish, the snook, and more.

I have only seen oystercatchers a couple of times in Martin County, and only photographed one once in May of 2018, at the causeway park under the bridge between Sewall’s Point and Hutchinson Island.

“Bait” for oystercatchers is oysters.

American Oystercatchers dine almost solely on saltwater bivalve mollusks, including many species of clams and several oysters and mussels, and to a lesser degree limpets, jellyfish, starfish, sea urchins, marine worms, and crustaceans such as lady crabs and speckled crabs. Oystercatchers walk slowly through oyster reefs until they see one that is slightly open; they quickly jab the bill inside the shell to snip the strong adductor muscle that closes the two halves of the shell. 

Maybe if we had more healthy oyster beds in this area, as in days of old, we would see more oystercatchers. A wonderful local organization, Florida Oceanographic Society, is working on oyster reef restoration.

Do your part by eating oysters from local restaurants listed at the link!.. FLOOR. Or volunteer to bag oysters and help construct reefs.

More on Martin County’s Oyster Reef Restoration Program, including a reef location map.

A path to the beach

This is not a bird. But it is an American Bird Grasshopper.

I followed this one from a stalk to some grass blades to this sea grape leaf, snapping away.

I found it along this path through the dunes out to the beach. I parked at the sandy pullout known as Beachwalk Pasley on Hutchinson Island, in Stuart.

There were dune sunflowers along the path.

Its bright flowers attract a variety of pollinators, including butterflies, moths and bees. Its dense growth pattern provides cover for many small animals, while its seeds are eaten by birds.

Right in the middle of the path: a Northern Curlytail Lizard.

They are native to the Bahamas but were brought to Florida early in the last century to control insect pests.

We are lucky in Martin County to have a number of simple paths like this to unguarded beaches. Parking in the sandy lots is limited but free. It is one of the reasons we chose to live in this county rather than the more densely populated counties south of us.

It was a mellow beach day, not a lot going on. This Ring-billed Gull is dozing, fat and sleek facing into the southeast breeze.

Nearby, another gull keeps an eye on me.

When wind is from the east (or southeast), especially in winter, we can get Portuguese Man O’ War washed up on the beach.

We think of them as stinging jellyfish but they are actually a species of siphonore, a colony of animals related to the jellyfish. Some people call them Blue Bottles. Do NOT step on or near them!

I walked north towards Jensen Beach, a guarded beach. You can see in the distance where Martin County ends and St. Lucie County begins. Martin County has a four-story height limit on buildings.

I got a nice look at a Willet running in the surf. They are bigger and have longer legs than the other common sandpiper-type beach birds.

Birds in motion and birds at rest at Indian Riverside Park

This Snowy Egret was dancing across the water at Indian Riverside Park in Jensen Beach.

Black legs contrast with the snowy’s bright yellow feet, which are nicknamed “golden slippers.”

Those feet seem to play a role in stirring up or herding small aquatic animals as the egret forages.

In contrast, this juvenile White Ibis was perfectly still and perfectly balanced on one leg along the shore.

This cormorant surfaced after searching for fish under water.

Muscovy Ducks were loafing near a place where people bring bread and even popcorn to feed the birds.

Also happy to chow down some popcorn, a pair of Egyptian Geese can often be seen around the edges of this popular pond.

The Egyptian Goose in Florida

I like butterbutts and I cannot lie

Butterbutt!

I was peering up into the tree shade, trying to figure out what all the little brown birds were when this one turned to flash his signature “butterbutt” in my direction: Yellow-rumped Warbler!

I did not invent the butterbutt nickname; it’s a birder thing. I was lucky enough to learn it on a field trip a couple of years ago.

You can see a bit of yellow under the wings too. These birds have more striking colors in summer breeding season, but we only see them here in winter.

They were attracted to this tree because of its ripening berries. (I’m not sure if it’s a banyan or some other type of fig, gotta work on that ID.) It stands near the freshwater pond at Indian Riverside Park

This bird has one berry in its mouth and one clutched in its right foot.

YRWs are fairly large compared to other warblers and can digest waxy fruits that other warblers can’t. This allows them to “winter” farther north than most other warblers. In summer they mainly eat insects.

Yellow-rumped Warblers flit through the canopies of coniferous trees as they forage. They cling to the bark surface to look for hidden insects more than many warblers do, but they also frequently sit on exposed branches and catch passing insects like a flycatcher does. In winter, Yellow-rumped Warblers join flocks and switch to eating berries from fruiting shrubs. Sometimes the flocks are enormous groups consisting entirely of Yellow-rumped Warblers.

I could only find Yellow-rumped Warblers in this tree, not other birds. This one came quite close and was easy to photograph.

While foraging, they were making chek calls like this.

Tiny athlete, the hummingbird

It’s a short flight from flowering shrubs to telephone wire to laurel oak in the southeast corner of our backyard where I often see this female Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

She never has to go shopping: she is always dressed beautifully in a metallic green cloak that shines in the sun.

The skinny-bird look with neck extended means she knows I’m watching her.

She weighs a little less than a nickel. She can beat her wings 80 times per second. At rest, she takes 250 breaths per minute. Her heart beats over 1,000 times per minute.

During flight, hummingbird oxygen consumption per gram of muscle tissue is approximately 10 times higher than that seen for elite human athletes.

Hummingbirds’ brains are the largest relative to their size of any bird and their hearts are the largest relative to their size of any animal. And…

Muscles make up 25–30% of their body weight, and they have long, blade-like wings that, unlike the wings of other birds, connect to the body only from the shoulder joint. This adaptation allows the wing to rotate almost 180°, enabling the bird to fly not only forward but backward, and to hover in mid-air, flight capabilities that are similar to insects and unique among birds.

Watch: Hummingbirds in Slow-Motion

Fire and water in the Savannas

I brake for gopher tortoises.

This one was crossing a sandy road in the section of the Savannas Preserve State Park off Walton Road, in St. Lucie County.

I parked at the Canoe Launch area. The launch ramp itself, pictured above, is closed (for repairs?) right now, but there is a small beach where it looks possible to launch a canoe or kayak.

The visitor center near the entrance is also not open right now.

Common Gallinule among the lilies.

This spot provides access to one of the park’s basin marshes. The 7,000 acres of Savannas Preserve State Park protects southeast Florida’s largest freshwater marsh system.

You can see the Canoe Launch on both these maps, posted to a bulletin board there. A few days ago I took a slow walk on the Yellow Trail, over two bridges, and looped back on the White Trail, around two miles of travel.

It looks like there was a prescribed burn maybe a few weeks ago. In Florida, we burn it before the lightning fires do.

My first “captured” bird was this Gray Catbird, Dumetella carolinensis.

The name Dumetella is based upon the Latin term dūmus (“thorny thicket”; it thus means approximately “small thornbush-dweller” or “small bird of the thornbushes”.

I got a good look at a brown anole, near the trail. Males have dewlaps.

Brown anoles are native to Cuba and the Bahamas and an invasive species in Florida, taking over habitat especially from the native green anoles.

The weather was beautiful, warm with a light southeast breeze.

The lingering scent of the burn smelled like someone had a big campfire the night before.

Regular fires keep the understory open, preventing shrubs from becoming dominant in the pine flatwoods and scrub.

Two roads diverged in a burnt woods and I took the Yellow Trail.

I really appreciate the people who design and build bridges and boardwalks through Florida’s wet spots, so we can get a good look without getting wet.

Small flocks of Palm Warblers crossed my path a few times.

They wag their tails up and down constantly and spend a lot of time hopping around on the ground, which is weird for warblers.

I think this yellow-flowering plant near wetlands is in the tickseed/ coreopsis family.

The view from near the second footbridge.

Serene, right?

Looking down at lily pads. Their colors now, in the dormant season, remind me of autumn leaves.

This trail is still a little wet in the dry season. My daughter and I turned around here a couple of months ago, when the puddles extended too far and deep across this way.

New growth after fire.

This eerie landscape held signs of hope.

A burn actually promotes the flowering of saw palmettos.

Returning on the White Trail, one side had been burned and the other one not.

Antidote.

For still there are so many things that I have never seen: in every wood in every spring there is a different green. – J.R.R. Tolkien

White ibis on high

The ibises got to the tree first. The egret was late to the game.

Something disturbed these wading birds in the shallow waters where they were feeding on Monday at Savannas Preserve State Park. It may have been me, though I wasn’t very near them. I zoomed in to get these photos.

This is what it looked like when they all took off. I was the only person out there. It would be odd if I had spooked them, when ibises especially don’t seem to mind people.

There was a prescribed burn in this part of the Savannas recently.

White Ibises on a burnt tree trunk, the lone perching spot at the edge of wetlands. Their curved pink bills are distinctive.

The Great Egret gave up and flew on.

White Ibis are…

One of the most numerous wading birds in Florida, and common elsewhere in the southeast. Highly sociable at all seasons, roosting and feeding in flocks, nesting in large colonies. When groups wade through shallows, probing with their long bills, other wading birds such as egrets may follow them to catch prey stirred up by the ibises.

From this high spot they got a good look at things and soon decided to go back to the shallow waters.

The last bird was joined for a few moments by a Boat-tailed Grackle.

I find grackles and crows

This grackle is like a centerpiece in a cabbage palm bouquet.

Blue-black with a tinge of green, I love the iridescence of a male grackle’s feathers.

Female grackles are dark brown and smaller than the males. They go about their business, foraging with focus, while the males flash around, calling, and stirring up trouble.

This male grackle is pestering a crow who is working to get a peanut out of its shell.

I find grackles and crows under in the east causeway park, under the Ernest P. Lyons Bridge between Sewall’s Point and Hutchinson Island. I was there yesterday. It’s close to home and I wanted to grab a few bird photos before the front passed through.

Looking north into a coming storm. It’s a busy park on weekends, in good weather. People fish here, have picnics, launch boats at the ramp, or go kitesurfing off the narrow beach.

Chubby gull.

The black band on its yellow bill identifies this as a Ring-billed Gull. There are more of them here in winter. They breed elsewhere, in summer.

A study in coastal grays. (That’s the Jensen Beach Bridge, further north in the Indian River Lagoon.)

Adults are clean gray above, with a white head, body and tail; their black wingtips are spotted with white. They have yellow legs and a yellow bill with a black band around it. Nonbreeding adults have brown-streaked heads. 

Why do I think these are Boat-tailed Grackles? The other two species in North America are Common Grackles and Great-tailed Grackles.

Great-tailed and Boat-tailed have long tails like the bird above, but Great-tailed are not found in Florida. Common Grackles are smaller, with shorter tails, and they favor open fields, lawns, towns, but not marsh or saltwater areas.

When you smell saltwater on the East Coast, it’s time to look out for Boat-tailed Grackles. The glossy blue-black males are hard to miss as they haul their ridiculously long tails around or display from marsh grasses or telephone wires. The rich, dark-brown females are half the size of males and look almost like a different species. Boat-tailed Grackles take advantage of human activity along our increasingly developed coast, scavenging trash and hanging out in busy urban areas away from predators.

Of course crows also take advantage of human activity, like this one that has scavenged a peanut. The male Boat-tailed Grackle is on the left and Fish Crow is on the right. Crows are a bit larger than grackles, with a thicker bill and duller black feathers.

I know it’s a Fish Crow rather than an American Crow mostly because I learned a general rule from local birders that all crows east of Route 1 in this area are Fish Crows and I heard this one’s nasal call and saw it fluff its neck feathers like a raven.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: How do you tell a Fish Crow from an American Crow?

All my Fish Crows. All my Boat-tailed Grackles.

eBird: Grackles – Are you getting them right?

From scrub to swamp at Seabranch Preserve

We went for a walk at Seabranch Preserve State Park. Is it weird that I think this landscape is beautiful? There was a controlled burn not many years ago.

“Sand pine scrub” is the name of this now-rare habitat, found on the ridges of ancient sand dunes along Florida’s central and southern Atlantic coast and in a small stretch along the Gulf Coast.

Watch out for prickly pear cactus along the narrower trails.

The scrub is a xeric plant community, very dry, though it rains as much here as everywhere else in subtropical Florida.

The habitat generally consists of open pinelands with an understory of various oaks, shrubs, and palmetto. The sandy soil is unable to hold water so rainfall and nutrients leach down through the sand, leaving a dry, nutrient-poor substrate. There is little or no silt, clay, or organic matter in the soil which is often called “sugar sand” because of its fine texture and light color.

It was a cold day on Thursday but the sun was warm in the late afternoon. We went out on the southern loop through the park. There are 8 miles of trails in total.

A rare silver variety of saw palmetto was calling out to be photographed.

I think this flowering plant is called sandhill wireweed, also known as largeflower jointweed. It’s a Florida native.

After I gaze at the beauty of this flower and its surroundings, I go home and my neighborhood yards seem a bit cluttered and “busy” with their layers of hedges and geometric shrubs, imported tropical plants, bright colors and thousand shades of green.

I would like to walk out my front door onto a sandy pathway past stunted pines and scrub oaks and a few scruffy wildflowers.

At the southern end of the park the trail bends around, heading in the direction of the Indian River Lagoon, then descends just enough that the scrub gives way to a “baygall community” of plants at the edge of a mangrove swamp, named for the loblolly and sweetbay trees and gallberry holly that grow there.

My 6’1″ husband poses, for size.

Baygall community from The Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI) is “slope or depression wetland with peat substrate; usually saturated and occasionally inundated; statewide excluding Keys; rare or no fire; closed canopy of evergreen trees; loblolly bay, sweetbay, swamp bay, titi, fetterbush.”

I think the trees are loblolly bay?

Loblolly-bay (Gordonia lasianthus), also called holly-bay, gordonia, and bay, is a small to medium-sized evergreen tree or shrub found in acid, swampy soils of pinelands and bays on the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains.

Me for size (5’5″). You can see a burned trunk of a palmetto to the right, where fire-controlled scrub gives way to a lusher place.

The trail gets narrow, a bit mucky and damp (and it’s the dry season) and I sort of wished I had a stick for poking ahead of me and warning the snakes that I was coming. (We didn’t see any.) Cool moist air flows out from the plant-shade.

Lavender tasselflower, another Florida wildflower you probably won’t find in anybody’s tidy front yard. It’s also known as Flora’s Paintbrush and Cupid’s Shaving Brush. Give me a bouquet for Valentine’s Day!

(He doesn’t look like he needs to shave.)

We saw evidence of wild hogs, where they root around and leave muddy shallow holes, but not as much as we see at the Savannas Preserve. I’ve never see one “in person.”

Finally, a bird!

When we were almost back to the trailhead, I found a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

This is a bird I know, a fairly common winter visitor here. I recognized the bird’s call before I saw it… “The nasal, wheezy, rambling song and insistent, squeaky calls are great first clues to finding them, particularly as these tiny birds can get lost in the generally taller habitats used in the eastern part of their range.”

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher‘s grayish coloring and long tail, as well as the way it mixes snippets of other birds’ repertoires into its own high, nasal songs, have earned it the nickname “Little Mockingbird.

This one is perched (for a brief moment) on a sand live oak, Quercus geminata, a common tree in Florida’s scrublands. The bird quickly resumed its hunt for tiny insects and spiders, and we went home for dinner.