Photo essay: Jewels of the Gulf Coast

Oscar Scherer State Park offers a bounty of discoveries

The Florida scrub-jay is a distinguished resident of Oscar Scherer State Park. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Sometimes, we are fortunate enough to get to know a natural place intimately. Walking a park or a stretch of beach day after day, we note changes in weather, progression of the seasons, bloom times of plants, what is underfoot and overhead, and the comings and goings of birds and other animals.

Over time, the place comes to own us. It is we who are possessed.

For me, Oscar Scherer State Park has been a voyage of discovery: Great horned owls lay their eggs in the crook of a pine; Spanish moss blooms; mullets jump; Mother Nature paints with fire. That plants thrive in heat and drought is almost impossible for the onetime Northern gardener in me to take in.

On a first visit, newcomers may find the scrubby oak flatwoods rather “Plain Jane.” Short squat oaks, along with scruffy little shrubs, may not be not their idea of Florida. But coastal scrub, increasingly rare around here, has its charms. The Florida scrub-jay, an endangered species found only in Florida, lives in the park.

Unlike blue jays, these birds are homebodies and will venture only a few miles out. They live in extended families, with last year’s young ones helping to raise the new brood. One jay acts as sentry, sitting atop a tree to alert the group in times of danger. As I pass by, I hear his rasping warning.

Scrub oaks line the scrub-jay trail. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

These birds forage for acorns, seeds, insects and small animals. They cache acorns by the thousands in the sandy soil of the scrub. Acorns that are not eaten may grow into the myrtle, Chapman and live oaks that house the birds.

I often think of Elsa Scherer Burrows, who, in 1955, bequeathed her 460-acre ranch to the state with the stipulation that it be named after her father, Oscar Scherer, a New York industrialist. According to her daughter, Anna, Elsa was a “real naturalist loving the land, the birds and all the animals” and was “adamant that her land be turned into a park to remain natural and unspoiled.”

Pine flatwoods stand out against a sky at sunset. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In 1992, conservationist Jon Thaxton, who as a child had spent hours in the park, initiated a plan to increase the acreage to 1,384 acres with funds from the Nature Conservancy and Preservation 2020. In 2008, Lee Wetherington, the developer of the nearby Willowbend community, donated 16.6 acres, bringing the total up to 1,400 acres, a mecca in our increasingly urban area.

The park attracts 250,000 visitors a year. It is a birder’s delight, with many looking to add a scrub-jay to their life list. More than a hundred other species have been seen here — garden variety birds such as cardinals, blue jays, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, mourning doves, white-eyed vireos and rare species such as the monk parakeet.

A little blue heron searches for a snack at South Creek. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

For me, birds define the year. Catbirds are fall and winter. Robins arrive en masse in winter, reminding me of Northern summers. Tree swallows sometimes roost here in winter. The call of bobwhites announces the coming of spring. They nest in shrubby areas, and sometimes I hear the chirping of youngsters.

As the days grow longer, I listen for common nighthawks soaring overhead. At dusk, chuck-will’s-widows start up their incessant call, which can last through the night. Eagles return at end of summer to their nests atop stalwart pines, mate and raise one or two youngsters; some adults migrate north in May.

Coralbean revives a ruby-throated hummingbird after its long migration across the Gulf of Mexico. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

All year ’round, shorebirds — white ibis, wood storks, whistling ducks — frequent Big Lake and Lake Osprey. You can watch gulls and sandhill cranes flying overhead morning and evening, and in spring, see swallow-tailed kites.

Tracks on a trail reveal the comings and goings of creatures: the squiggle of an ant lion, double tracks of gopher tortoises, the curvy line of a black racer; paw prints of raccoons, deer and the occasional bobcat, a nighttime visitor. Could that large paw print be that of the elusive Florida panther?

A couple enjoys a peaceful outing on South Creek. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Tunnels tell of moles and voles passing their days and nights underneath the sand. How do they manage to breathe, eat and sleep in such confined quarters?

Pine lilies, September’s wildflower, attract wildlife. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Renewal

As a gopher tortoise pokes his head out of his burrow, I long for a “drink me” potion so I could walk down the long curving tunnel into the “great room” where hundreds of species congregate in times of fire.

A great horned owl grows up in the crotch of a pine. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Once wildfires raged freely across the peninsula, but now, prescribed burns keep habitats healthy. Once after a burn, I photographed pine hyacinth, Florida’s endemic clematis in the still smoldering pine flatwoods. Some of the bell-like blooms were in fine shape; others were singed. No matter. I knew that in a few weeks, saw palmetto would put out new shoots while bracken fern and gopher apple pushed up out of the ashes. The following spring would bring abundant wildflowers, including the pine hyacinth.

But these days, land managers can do only so much to keep the park vibrant. Oscar Scherer is now totally encircled by development. Biologically, it is a closed system. The green corridors, which conservationists — including Laurel Schiller — fought for, would have allowed wildlife to thrive, staving off some of the heartbreaking local extinctions that are plaguing our planet. The former president of the Friends of Oscar Scherer, Laurel knows that “isolation is the greatest problem animals in this county (and the country) currently face. Confined within the borders of protected lands, they can’t move freely from one protected area to another in search of food or mates. The result can lead to islands of wildlife and ultimately to local extinctions.”

Mother Nature paints with fire! Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Despite these limitations, nature is still allowed to happen here, a contradiction to most landscapes outside the park gates. Even in these days of higher temperatures, plants bloom on a rotating schedule.

Beggarticks and tickseed appear year-round. On a winter day, I am cheered by pennyroyal. Towards spring, pines put forth new growth. Fetterbush, beautyberry and blueberry green up. Sky blue lupine and yellow prickly pear cactus bloom amidst scrub oaks, which put forth pale yellow and pink new growth. I look for the first pawpaw along the red trail.

Oscar Scherer State Park has no shortage of eagles. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Summers are a riot of butterfly pea, goldenrod and gopher apple. Along a service road, blue curls may bloom for months. With summer rains, black-eyed susans and Sabatia take over wet places. In fall, the huge red pine lily shows up, unmistakable amid tawny grasses. Pink muhly grass welcomes visitors at the entrance to the park. Opulent stands of purple blazing star attract legions of butterflies near The Legacy Trail. Yellow blooms of silk grass last into winter.

Oscar Scherer State Park Manager Tony Clements talks about the effects of a controlled burn in pine flatwoods. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Many days it is pure magic. On the most ordinary of days, I can count on clouds lifting my spirits. Unexpectedly, a scrub-jay perches on my head to watch the sunset with me.

A Florida scrub-jay is off to cache another acorn. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Fran Palmeri is the author of “Florida Lost and Found,” a book of essays and photographs available on Amazon.

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