Photo essay: Minor miracles

All around us, we can find healing balm in nature

Slash pines line up for my inspection. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

David and Goliath

At the end of a rainy day the sun peaks through, so I hurry to get outside before dark.

At Deer Prairie Creek Preserve, the usual suspects are lined up for my inspection. The young pines appear to have been planted, but I know this is nature’s work because these trees are different size, some a scant 12 inches tall, others approaching 10 feet. A few wildflowers, mainly black root, are at my feet. Up to now it has been too dry for much else.

In natural places such as Deer Prairie Creek Preserve in Venice, trees grow at different rates. On tree farms they are the same size. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

A red-shouldered hawk lands on the parking lot fence. His frowsy hairdo tells me he is part of the new spring crop. I move in quietly to photograph him and then become conscious of a tiny buzz saw playing in the background. As I take another step, a mockingbird, Lilliputian beside the hawk, arrives. She means business. Finally, she harasses the hawk into flight away from her nest of young ones.

The young red-shouldered hawk is on the lookout for a meal. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
The mockingbird moves in to chase away the predator. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Wrong side up 

One windy afternoon, a strange insect appears on my lanai screen. I grab the Lumix and cell phone and slowly move in for a close-up. The creature does not budge. “Could it be a damselfly?” I ask myself, noting the delicate webbing on the wings.

The ant lion is an unexpected visitor on a windy day. Most likely, it had been sleeping in one of the pines. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Later I consult Mark Deyrup’s bug book (Florida Fabulous Insects, published by World Publications in 2008) to try to solve the mystery, and I settle on ant lion. The larvae of this insect are also known as doodlebugs. I had seen their squiggles in sandy areas, but never an adult, which is nocturnal.

The larvae dig pits in sandy areas to trap ants, their favorite food — hence the name, ant lion. At night, adults feed on pollen and nectar in the grasses under the trees. Mostly likely, my visitor was blown out of a pine at Oscar Scherer State Park.

This close-up shows the intricate patterning of the ant lion’s wings. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Profusion in a very dry time

For many years, I have been botanizing Hickory Lake Scrub in Polk County in search of rare plants, including Florida Bonamia, a morning glory vine with large blue flowers that turns up in a few Florida scrubs. Parks in Florida can be sweeping panoramas of land and sky. Hickory Lake Scrub in the “mountains” of Florida (150 feet!) is the micro. Only 57 acres, this parcel offers lichen, grasses and wildflowers — many of them rare — plus low-growing shrubs such as rosemary and sand pines. All on white sand.

Hickory Lake Scrub Preserve is in Polk County. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

On a recent visit, I step in, expecting little in this very dry spring. But despite no rain and excessive heat, the morning glories are running amok, a profusion of blue flowers with their distinctive green leaves.

Florida morning glory (Bonamia) spreads out all over the sand, which, even at the beginning of May, is white hot. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

How do they stand the heat? Even after just a few minutes in the midday sun, my feet are burning. The blooms are wilted by late afternoon. But heavy dews at night provide enough moisture for the plants to grow. In the long run, Bonamia will be imperiled by rising temperatures lasting longer into the year, as well as shrinking habitats.

The Bonamia blooms last one day. Bees and other pollinators take advantage of this rare wildflower. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
This scrub habitat has sand pines, Florida rosemary, wildflowers and a copious sprinkling of lichen, which are very slow growing. The puffy pale green ‘pillow’ on the left could be 100 years old. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Night into day

After eating lunch in the shade of some pines along a roadside in Lake Placid, I stop by an undeveloped parcel I discovered years before. Making my way up an incline, I pause in the shade of a sand pine to enjoy a brief cool-down. That is when I notice a large bird on a branch opposite me. Ordinarily birds flee instantly, but this one looks me over before taking off.

Hardly ever seen, the common nighthawk is on his daytime perch. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

At home I download the “day’s catch” and look through my bird books. Its large mouth and curved beak tell me it might be a hawk. No luck. So a few days later, I email a photo to my birder friend Nancy West, who excitedly replies, “Where did you see this common nighthawk?” Lucky me to end up in the bird’s bedroom.

A nocturnal bird in the nightjar family, the common nighthawk is rarely photographed. The Chuck-will’s-widow, its relative, can be heard throughout spring and summer in Oscar Scherer State Park. The two birds have much in common. Both are aerial foragers with large mouths. They feed on insects, beetles, crickets, moths and other flying insects. Both lay eggs on the ground. Before summer’s end, these birds will migrate to Mexico or Central or South America.

In contrast, the common nighthawk’s neighbor, the gray squirrel occupying the same tree, is found just about everywhere. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

A couple of Chuck-will’s-widows nest along the edge of Oscar Scherer by my lanai. Their incessant calls keep some residents of my community awake. But I treasure them and each year await their homecoming.

In these fractured times, nature’s minor miracles are a healing balm.

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