Tag Archives: Florida scrub

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

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.

Club Scrub-Jay

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Cool lake on a hot day at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, last Sunday, when I went on a solo trek to find scrub jays.

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I walked around this lake. It smelled a bit like a northern freshwater lake – cool, fresh, watery and alive!

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This narrow trail was shared by mountain bikers. Best to choose the trails marked for foot traffic only, I learned.

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Jonathan Dickinson preserves a large area of Florida scrub habitat.

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Florida sand pine scrub is an endangered subtropical forest ecoregion found throughout Florida in the United States.[4] It is found on coastal and inland sand ridges and is characterized by an evergreen xeromorphic plant community dominated by shrubs and dwarf oaks. Because the low-nutrient sandy soils do not retain moisture, the ecosystem is effectively an arid one. Wildfires infrequently occur in the Florida scrub. Most of the annual rainfall (about 135 cm or 53 in) falls in summer. It is endangered by residential, commercial and agricultural development.

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Can you see the mountain biker in the above two photos? There is an active club at the park, Club Scrub.

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But count me as a member of Club Scrub-Jay! (They should start one, right?) Here’s a Florida Master naturalist who is a big fan…

Why the Scrub-Jay should be Florida’s state bird, with Eva Ries

It has a beautiful dusty-gray breast, it has a gray collar around the back, it’s blue up top with a gray eyebrow, and it has the most unusual call. When they call to their compatriots, they make a rrih! rrih! rrih-rrih-rrih!

Video of Florida Scrub-Jay “happy song” while perched on a man’s hat! LINK

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They are not hard to find, when you are in their habitat. They are curious and the landscape is open.

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Audubon…

This bird is noteworthy on several counts. It lives nowhere in the world except Florida, it has a complicated social system, it has been the subject of very detailed field studies, and it is threatened by loss of habitat. Formerly considered just a race of the scrub-jays found in the west, it is now classified as a full species.

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Breeds in cooperative flocks. Each nesting territory is occupied by an adult pair and often by one to six “helpers,” usually the pair’s offspring from previous years. These additional birds assist in defending the territory and feeding the young. Studies have shown that a pair with “helpers” is likely to raise more young than a pair without. Nest site is in tree or shrub, usually an oak, with sand live oak strongly favored.

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I saw a total of three scrub-jays but just focused on getting decent shots of this one, close by and in good light.

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Range map.

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A bit jay-like appearance but without a crest. Here is the familiar and widespread (east of the Rocky Mountains) Blue Jay for comparison, from a little later that morning in the park…

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Blue Jays’ behavioral attitude seems a bit fussier and sassier, like they enjoy complaining and picking fights. I watched them a lot in New Hampshire, especially at my bird feeders.

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From a Feb 5, 2015 blog post: Birds are avian dinosaurs 

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The Scrub-Jay seems a bit more peaceful, even elegant, especially for a corvid. Although maybe I need to spend more time observing them.

Saving Florida’s Friendliest Native Bird Matters

For the past 2 million years, Florida has been home to a superlative bird found nowhere else on earth. These birds are remarkably smart, with extraordinary memory and perhaps even the ability to plan ahead. Highly social yet quarrelsome, they’re like the stars of an avian soap opera. And they’re as brash and curious as precocious kids. Many a jubilant birdwatcher has turned to find one mischievously perched upon their shoulder.

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Park sign.

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I also got close to a Yellow-rumped Warbler in a thicket, a winter visitor to Florida.

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The Yellow-rumped Warbler is the only warbler able to digest the waxes found in bayberries and wax myrtles. Its ability to use these fruits allows it to winter farther north than other warblers, sometimes as far north as Newfoundland.

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Yellow-rumped Warblers are perhaps the most versatile foragers of all warblers. They’re the warbler you’re most likely to see fluttering out from a tree to catch a flying insect, and they’re also quick to switch over to eating berries in fall. Other places Yellow-rumped Warblers have been spotted foraging include picking at insects on washed-up seaweed at the beach, skimming insects from the surface of rivers and the ocean, picking them out of spiderwebs, and grabbing them off piles of manure.

I bought an annual pass to Florida State Parks and I will be heading back to Jonathan Dickinson again soon!