All around us, we can find healing balm in nature
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.