Photo essay: The park year

Months marked by variety of sightings and sounds

Editor’s note: This essay originally was published 13 years ago. Last week, Fran Palmeri’s friend and mentor, John Roche, former park manager at Oscar Scherer State Park, died. Palmeri felt that reprinting the article would honor his memory. “John was a wonderful educator, a conservationist, a devoted State Park Service Employee for more than 30 years,” she wrote. He worked at Oscar Scherer and Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys. 

January

In January at Oscar Scherer State Park, nature is resting. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

January is a quiet time at Oscar Scherer State Park. Nature is resting.

Along a trail, a solitary sunflower livens up the subtle landscape of tawny grasses, pines, palms and oaks.

In their huge nest atop a pine on the Green Trail, eagles are raising the new brood.

The great horned owl is just getting started. She lays her eggs on the bare crotch of a tree.

The weather is quixotic, with cold starts, but spring-like afternoons make for perfect hiking or canoeing.

February

In February, lupines trumpet spring before the calendar makes it official. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

February trumpets spring before the calendar makes it official. Pawpaw’s creamy white flowers are sprinkled through the flatwoods. Brown “candles” on the tips of branches announce new growth of slash pines. Clumps of lupine, with their sky-blue flowers, brighten up this last month of winter.

Already half-grown, the eaglets prance about the nest trying out their wings.

“Snowbirds” fill the campground and almost on cue, alligators surface in South Creek to thrill them.

Mid-month, runners turn out before dawn for the annual Scrub Jay 5K race. A double star in the heavens marks the occasion.

March

Florida scrub jays, the state’s only endemic bird, nest in March. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Coral bean, true harbinger of spring, bursts forth in March, attracting ruby-throated hummingbirds migrating north. For all too brief a time, blue flag iris blooms in damp areas. Pennyroyals bloom, each tiny flower attended by a bee. A ballet of bees drifts from flower to flower.

The eagles have fledged. Mottled brown in color, they will not acquire the distinctive white head and tail of mature birds for five years.

Shedding fuzzy coats for feathers, young great horned owls await their turn to fledge.

Florida scrub jays begin nesting. The park is an “assisted living facility” for this dwindling species. Eggs hatch in about 17 days; the young are fed caterpillars and other insects. Later, they will forage for acorns, which scrub jays bury by the thousands each year. Forgotten acorns grow into the scrub oaks the jays call home.

Gulf fritillaries make the rounds, nectaring on passion vine. The striking black and gold zebra longwing, Florida’s state butterfly and year-round resident, prefers firebush. Monarchs, Southern dogface, bright yellow giant sulphurs, and swallowtails are just a few of the full-time residents or migrants at Oscar Scherer.

April

In April, bobwhite sings out his name in his quest for a mate. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

It is April, and the chuck-will’s-widow is back! High in the sky, he flutters and dives to attract a mate. As darkness falls, this bird, which is related to the whip-poor-will, lands to sound his familiar call through much of the night.

Bob White! Bob White!! The quail calls for his mate. Ground nesters like the chuck-will’s-widow, bobwhites produce 10 to 15 young.

Lightning bugs, their tiny lights twinkling in the treetops, make the park festive.

In the hammocks, Spanish moss is strewn like tinsel over live oaks. Deer feed off tender shoots of shrubs.

Pine hyacinth, Florida’s endemic clematis, blooms. Yellow flowers of prickly pear cactus brighten up the scrubby flatwoods. Purple thistle attracts swallowtails, one of dozens of butterfly species in the park.

On Earth Day, thousands of people gather to celebrate in this beautiful 1,400-acre state park. They picnic, hike trails, fish in South Creek, swim or paddle a canoe in Lake Osprey.

May

Prescribed burns set by rangers in May revitalize the landscape, including pine hyacinths. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In May, after a heavy rain, fields are a tapestry of wildflowers. Yucca shoots white blossoms 6 feet into the sky. Butterfly pea vine runs rampant over saw palmetto. Dragonflies surf the trails, feeding on mosquitoes and each other.

It is fire season. Once wildfires ran freely across the peninsula, but now park rangers set prescribed burns to rejuvenate the land. Scrub jays fly out of harm’s way while other animals find refuge in gopher tortoise burrows that are 6 to 10 feet underground. Huddling together in time of fire, rats, rabbits, snakes and hundreds of other species are friends; the rest of the year, wary housemates.

Throughout the park, eagles and ospreys use snags (standing dead trees) as hunting perches. Woodpeckers hammer on the snags in search of insects. Eastern screech owls nest in the cavities. Scrub jay “sentries” may sit on one to keep track of predators. The eastern towhee uses them as a singing perch.

June         

All the world’s a greenhouse in June. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

All the world is a greenhouse in June. Tarflower is sprinkled like confetti through the flatwoods. Blackberry, blueberry and prickly-pear cactus produce tempting fruit for man and beast.

Gopher tortoises mate this month. Females lay one clutch of four to six eggs in sand near their burrows. They will watch over them, but most eggs are lost to predators.

Frisky young scrub jays charm hikers with a personal greeting. A rare “cooperative” species, they stay at home at least one year to help rear the next generation.

After swimmers have departed for the day, Lake Osprey is home to black-bellied whistling ducks. Frogs frequent wet places. Toads — some no bigger than a thumbnail up close — take on a richness of muted patterns and color.

Tiny green anoles favor saw palmetto.

On the summer solstice, the white-hot sun is directly overhead. Stand on your shadow around 1 p.m. Then seek refuge along shady South Creek Nature Trail, where a bench awaits you.

July

Clouds take center stage in July. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Clouds take center stage in July. The afternoon sun fuels huge thunderheads, which rain down their fury by day’s end. After the storm, a Gauguin palette of pinks, purples and oranges accentuates a dark azure sky. Expect rainbows.

Areas burned just months ago are verdant with new growth. Shoots of saw palmetto, bracken and tiny scrub oaks push up through the ashes.

Unmindful of the heat, black vultures ride the thermals overhead.

The park is awash in rabbits. Spring’s bumper crop of greens feeds cottontails that in turn feed eagles, owls, bobcats and even snakes.

Brilliantly colored lichen embelish tree trunks blackened by rains. Moss coats cabbage palms. Resurrection ferns on branches of oaks green up only to “die” back again in dry times. Trumpet vine cascades down the pines. Tiny blue dayflowers dot waysides.

August

Mullet may mass in South Creek with August’s heavy rains. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In August, blazing star appears in the flatwoods. Purple and white climbing aster covers shrubs and small trees. Red pokeberry, gopher apple and sprays of shining sumac all hint of the coming change of seasons.

Lovebugs swarm.

A hurricane turns things topsy-turvy. Dark clouds spiral counterclockwise over the land where ancient snags stand stark against a threatening sky. Winds strip trees of dead branches. Sheets of water send bobwhites scurrying for higher ground. Mullet may mass off South Creek.

After the storm, Mother Nature, scrubbed clean and gleaming, smiles again. The heat is matched only by the humidity. Live oaks festooned with Spanish moss provide a cool green canopy in playgrounds and picnic areas.

After hours a contingent of raccoons keeps picnic areas picked up, but the true stewards of the park are faithful rangers. Behind the scenes but everywhere apparent, they bring beauty and order to the place every day of the year.

September      

September turns the park to gold. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

September turns the park to gold. Waves of goldenrod spread across the fields. Yellow tickseed, sneezeweed and goldenaster dot the flatwoods; Florida paintbrush adds purple accents to the scene.

Tamped down by heavy rains, sandy trails read like a “Who’s Who” in the park. Tracks of the gopher tortoise are blips a foot apart. A large line curving diagonally across the trail might be a snake. White-tailed deer leave large two-toed tracks; raccoons, a five-fingered “hand”; bobcats, a four-toed oval pad. Herons, scrub jays and other birds all make their mark. Molehills crisscross the trails.

On clear nights the Milky Way splashes across the sky. The bobcat emerges for his nightly prowl. All around, Luna moths and other creatures celebrate the night. At full moon campers hike a silvery world.

October

In October, pine lily blooms in the pine flatwoods. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In October, grasses come into their own. Bushy blue stem, bright pink muhly grass and lopsided Indiangrass provide a colorful backdrop for wildlflowers putting out a last burst of blooms before cooler weather sets in.

The Catesby lily blooms in the pine flatwoods. Named after scientist/artist Mark Catesby, who immortalized this crimson beauty in the 1700s, it stands almost 2 feet tall and is pollinated by the palomedes swallowtail butterfly.

Flocks of robins roost in the trees after their long journey south, their familiar chirping reminiscent of summer evenings up north. Chuck-will’s-widows depart for winter quarters. Mockingbirds, blue jays, crows, doves and the Eastern towhee are permanent residents.

Around mid-month, the first cold front slides down the peninsula, banishing heat and humidity.

November

Great horned owls lay claim to their territory in November. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In November, fogs drift in from the Gulf of Mexico, painting everything luminescent white. In the fields, cabbage palms float. Spider webs beaded with nighttime dew disappear when the sun breaks through to whisk them away.

Night and day, owls and hawks are heard laying claim to their territory. White-tailed deer leap through the tall grasses along the Red Trail. The buck shows off a full set of antlers.

Thanksgiving brings celebrants with turkey dinners to the park. Wild turkeys are safely hidden away in the recesses of the wild areas.

December

December brings Sunday painters to the park. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In December, a frost may occur.

Waves of migrant warblers, tree swallows and cedar waxwings ride in on the heels of a cold front.

But most of the time, forget the calendar. Winter tries to get a foothold, but usually it is springtime. Tickseed insists on blooming while warm weather holds sway. Warm afternoons bring plein airpainters to the park. When the morning sun hangs low in the sky, its rays penetrate under saw palmetto, where a wood rat sits for a spell before turning in for the day.

In the big pine, the eagle is sitting on her eggs. Once again, the cycle begins.

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