Salt Marsh Beauty

Native salt marsh grasses and pines. (All photos taken with iPhone XS.)

Beauty exists in Earth’s harshest places. On the Florida coast it’s easy to opt for a leisurely seashore walk and pass up a salt barren. Even the name sounds harsh, but these salt marshes, or salterns, along Florida’s West-Central Gulf Coast present their own simple beauty.

At first glance, I notice the Florida slash pines, longleaf pines and native grasses flowing low beneath an open sky. Closer to the water, seagrape, black mangrove and red mangrove grow. Songs of mockingbirds, mourning doves and northern cardinals blend with the swish of grass and pine needles. Delicate Spanish moss drapes many trees and billows in the unceasing wind. The birds quiet down in the late afternoon and leave a stillness so complete that I feel its weight — and relish it in these unsettling days.

Seagrapes (Coccoloba uvifera) anchor the soil and produce a sweet fruit that makes a fine jelly.

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is an epiphyte, or air plant, not a true moss. It often grows on cypress and oaks for support.

Wildflowers pop up in the dry, salty sand: sea purslane, sea oxeye daisies, sweetscent, coral bean, blanket flowers, dewberry, southern beeblossom, sea purslane, and even prickly pear cactus.

Sea purslane (Sesuvium portulacastrum) is highly salt tolerant and flourishes on the upper edges of salt marshes and coastal dunes. The holes visible above the blossom are fiddler crab homes.

Seaside oxeye daisies (Borrichia frutescens) are common in salt marshes and between mangrove swamps and coastal uplands.

Southern beeblossom (Gaura angustifolia) flowers open white at night and turn pink the following day.

Southern dewberry (Rubus trivialis) is a cousin to the blackberry. It grows on the ground instead of upright.

Native blankert flower (Gaillardia pulchella) prefers dry, sandy soil and tolerates salt well.

Prickly pears (Opuntia humifusa) are a major food source for gopher tortoises in the scrubland.

Sweetscent (Pluchea odorata) grows in salty habitats and attracts butterflies and bees.

Coral beans (Erythrina herbacea) attract hummingbirds and bees.)

Ospreys circle overhead, little blue herons hunt in the mangroves, flocks of ibis gobble tiny crustaceans at low tide in the bayou and pelicans lounge in the marshes. A southern black racer snake darts across the sand path. We spot skinks, anoles and marsh rabbits. My favorite sightings are the zebra longwing, gulf fritillaries and queen butterflies nectaring in the wildflowers. Here are a few other photos from recent walks in the salterns.

American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) feed in a shallow wetland near the marshes. (Watercolor by my husband.)

A little blue heron (Egrella cerulea) hunts for fish, frogs and small crustaceans in the mangroves.

The zebra longwing (Heliconius charitonius) is Florida’s state butterfly.

The queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus), a cousin to the monarch, also depends solely on milkweed for its nutrition.

Gulf fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) are active all year in south Florida.

saltmarshquiet

In the late afternoon, all is quiet. There is only the sun’s heat and the fullness of silence.

 

Seed Story

Prairie grass seeds glow in late-afternoon sun.

Seeds are tiny packets of possibility nestled in the earth. One could easily mistake a seed for a piece of soil, a pebble, or fragment of some spent plant. But each holds a spark of life waiting to ignite in spring’s intense sun and snowmelt.

I have loved seeds for as long as I can remember. As a young child I held morning glory, blue flax, nasturtium and snap dragon seeds as my mother prepared the ground for planting. She cultivated the soil, tossed out pebbles and broke up pieces of clay. We traced a shallow furrow in which I placed the seeds, buried them and watered them with her help.

In elementary school, we grew green beans in Dixie cups.  A bean seed is substantial enough for a child to get a good grip on its silky-smooth shape. Our classroom bubbled with excitement the morning we arrived to find pale green sprouts pushing through the dirt! The challenge was to get the seedlings home without breaking them off. I grew mine on strings attached to the side of our garage; not fancy, but the stalks vined upward, blossomed white and yellow, and we ate fresh green beans a few weeks later. 

Another year, my brother’s class grew pumpkins. He planted his seedlings in a corner of our urban backyard. By mid summer, baby pumpkins grew over, under and even between the wooden pickets of our fence! That October, he loaded his wagon, lugged it around the neighborhood and sold all of his pumpkins at the bargain price of 10 cents a piece.

I also cherish memories of teaching our son about seeds. We planted tomatoes, radishes, beans, carrots, dill, basil, parsley and borage. He loved to watch for the first sprouts and sampled the baby carrots and beans as they grew. On warm summer mornings, we’d gently run our hands over the herbs to release their aromas. One year, the parsley plants were host to eastern black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. They demolished the parsley, but taught the butterfly life cycle hands-on.

Seeds of purple hyacinth (Lablab purpureus) and scarlet runner (Phaseolus coccineus) beans produce colorful blossoms and pods.

Some seeds are nondescript. Others hold beauty in their patterns, pods and shapes. Purple hyacinth bean seeds look like ice cream sandwiches and scarlet runner bean seeds are colored crimson and black like the last bit of light in a stormy evening sky. Canada columbine, Siberian iris and day lily seeds are shiny black beads that gleam in their spilt pods. Others, like white snakeroot and asters, are clouds of fluff designed to disperse on the wind. Whether humble or eye-catching, each must fall to the dirt, be buried and moistened. Only then can its journey to light and life begin.

Oblong black seeds and fluff of native white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) ripen in October.

Ripe Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) pods break open to release shiny, black seeds.

Seeking Winter’s Beauty

Nature’s beauty is spare and uncomplicated in winter.

In the Upper Midwest, there’s little that isn’t hidden under layers of snow in January. What remains is pared down to basics: bare branches, open seed pods and stripped down stalks. Their lines are clean, sharp, punctuated by frozen fruit and picked-over seed heads.

Prickly seed heads of Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).

Plump apples of the dwarf Tina Sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii ‘Tina’).

January’s color palette is simple: white, black, shades of brown, berry reds and green hues of conifers. Cloudless skies range from deep to powder blue during daylight, softening to a blue tint after sunset, and on moonshine nights, the snow glows with a cold, blue light seen only in midwinter.

 

Tart fruit of the nonpoisonous staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina).

Male downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens).

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

To find winter’s beauty requires ignoring the persistent desire to “just go back inside” to warm up! It is necessary to open one’s senses to the more subtle signs of life: perhaps you’ll hear the call of a black-capped chickadee, the tap-tap of a woodpecker looking for food, or the soft hoots of courting great-horned owls. Maybe you’ll spot the showy red of sumac fruit or plump crabapples. Perhaps you’ll touch the satiny inner lining of a milkweed pod, or the prickly seed head of a black-eyed Susan. If you’re fortunate enough to have native grasses growing nearby, stop for a moment and inhale their sweet, ripe scent — a lingering gift of autumn. Whenever you go outside, try to be open to winter’s spare beauty so very different from its abundance in spring, summer and autumn. Already the days are lengthening and the the sun is warmer. Winter will soon give way to spring.

A quiet place to observe winter’s beauty.

Opt for Gratitude

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum).

Gratitude is a choice, a state of heart and mind as clean and uncomplicated as a butterfly, or a sky-blue October day. It requires a shift from ruminating on the negative to touching all that is good about a particular moment. Gratitude is not Pollyannaism; one acknowledges that life is often difficult and sometimes unfair, but chooses to find and embrace joy and goodness anyway. 

A perfect October day in Minnesota.

Gratitude is unique to each of us and our circumstances at a specific point in time. As we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for nature’s endless beauty, a stranger’s warm greeting, the radiant smiles of my niece’s baby and preschooler, my husband’s tenderness and patience, our son’s thoughtful calls, my aging dad’s mostly positive attitude, the kindness of my siblings and friends, and the insights and laughter of the women in my spirituality group. What inspires gratitude in your heart?

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

 

 

October’s Gifts

I began cutting back our garden on one of the few warm days before last week’s hard frost. It was sunny and windy. Yellow maple and apple leaves sailed through the yard. Blue jays called raucously. Chimpmunks and squirrels ate nuts and stashed others for the winter. A few flowers still bloomed, though most now sported full seed heads. Among the blooms were the last native bees and butterflies of autumn. Here are a few of late October’s simple gifts:

A tiny green bee (Agapostemon virescens)) looks for nectar in a blanket flower blossom (Gaillardia pulchella).

Common bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) are a hardy native bee. This one looks for nectar on a native sunflower (Helianthus spp).

A painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) suns itself on a native sunflower.

This tiny garden spider built a large web among some spent daylily stalks.

Thin-leaved coneflowers (Rudbeckia triloba) resemble miniature black-eyed Susan’s and bloom into early November.

The seed heads of the native perennial white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) are soft and fluffy.

These spent purple flowers of Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) will ripen to a mass of soft, brown seeds.

Common milkweed pods (Asclepias syriaca) split open and released their soft, parachute-like seeds.

An eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) enjoys the mild afternoon on our back stoop.

An albino eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) snacks on nuts from its perch under the arbor vitae hedge.

I love hearing the sassy blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) call when most birds are quiet in the fall and winter.

Beacon apple leaves (Malus domestic ‘Beacon’) glow in the afternoon sun.

Quaking aspen leaves (Populus tremuloides) quiver and rustle in the smallest breeze creating a peaceful sound.

Red maples (Acer rubrum) smolder on crisp, late October afternoons.

Belted Kingfisher

The rusty band across this bird’s abdomen identifies it as a female belted kingfisher.

I first met the kingfisher on paper in a British literature class. The 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems feature themes of nature and religion, included the kingfisher in his sonnet, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” Many of his poetic works include beautiful images of nature and humankind, each one reflecting the Creator by fully being itself. 

Several years later, I saw my first live belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) on the banks of the Snake River in east central Minnesota. A long, harsh rattle pierced the quiet river valley. Then, a flash of steely blue-gray sporting a shaggy crest swooped past as a belted kingfisher hunted for its dinner. Perching on a silver maple snag, it eyed the river intently for small fish, crayfish, mollusks, insects and other fresh-water delicacies. Soon, it hovered over the water, then plunged into the river headfirst and emerged with a small fish, scattering shards of sparkling droplets in the air.

A female belted kingfisher hovers over the river just before dropping into the water to catch a fish.

Belted kingfishers are similar in size to a blue jay — 11 to 14 inches in length — with a larger head, a dagger-shaped bill and a stocky body. The male and female both have blue-gray upper parts and a white breast with a blue-gray breast band. In addition, females have a rusty belly band that makes them easy to identify.

Notice the dark, pointed wing tips and blue-gray upper body coloration.

Unlike most perching birds, belted kingfishers nest in the ground. Usually both the female and male excavate a burrow high up in a riverbank, though some choose a gravel pit or similar area away from water. In northern regions, kingfishers mate once each spring. A clutch of 5-8 pure white eggs is typical. The eggs hatch after 24 days and the young are dependent on their parents for about six weeks. Though kingfishers in Canada and the far northern United States migrate south for the winter, they remain year round in most areas where they can find open water.

Kingfishers primarily eat small fish and crustaceans, but may also eat tadpoles, insects and berries if fish aren’t available. Belted kingfishers don’t have many predators, but are eaten by foxes, raccoons, snakes and hawks, such as Cooper’s and sharp-shinned. 

The kingfisher’s shaggy crest and long, pointed bill are identifying characteristics.

Worldwide, there are more than 110 species of kingfisher — and many of them are vividly colored, unlike their North American cousin. Most, such as the Philippine-dwarf kingfisher and the rufous-backed kingfisher are found in Asia. If Hopkins could have seen these handsome kingfishers, I think he’d have been even more delighted with the beauty of creation.

For further reading about kingfishers worldwide, visit:

Wildlife Journal Junior – Belted Kingfisher

Allaboutbirds.org

 

 

September Hatchlings

Newly hatched snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are half-dollar sized and usually charcoal or black in color.

September is hatching time — but don’t look to the trees for these babies: they are common snapping turtles! Every spring, in late May or early June, a large female snapper lumbers out of the Snake River, digs a nest nearby and lays between 20-50 (or more) round, leathery eggs. She picks a sunny location, and when she’s finished, she returns to the river to let the sun warm and incubate her egg clutch.

Three months later, the eggs hatch and the baby snappers dig their way to the surface. (We couldn’t locate the nest site this year.) Our neighbors, Ed and Melinda, who live year-round next to Pine County’s Snake River, say the snappers usually hatch on September 2nd. Some years there’s a slight variation; this year it was September 3rd and I was there to see part of it.

This hatchling still carries mud on its shell from recently leaving the nest.

The babies take off in several directions, but generally head toward the river or the swamp across the road often stopping to rest. It’s a slow, dangerous journey from nest to water for the half-dollar-sized hatchlings. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, between 60 and 100 percent of each egg clutch is lost to predators. Baby snappers are a favorite food of many woodland creatures, such as herons, fox, skunks, mink and raccoons. Once they reach the water, they are vulnerable to many other predators, such as fish, frogs, northern water snakes, some birds and other turtles.

The turtles moved slowly, many taking naps along the way. I lost sight of them in the tall vegetation on the riverbank. However, this little one popped out on the rocky shore.

Those who survive infancy take at least 5-to-7 years to reach adulthood. Most settle in quiet water with a muddy bottom, such as a pond, stream, marsh or slow-moving river. They feed on crayfish, frogs, small birds and mammals, insects and many types of aquatic plants. They also scavenge dead plants and animals, which helps to clean their aquatic environment.

As adults, snappers typically measure at least 8-to-14 inches across the greenish-brown carapace or upper shell, and weigh 35 pounds or more. They have one main predator: humans who hunt them for their meat.

The hatchling headed straight into the water. Notice the grass and seeds picked up during its trip to the river.

Snapping turtles are shy by nature. They are often docile if encountered in the water and will sink and swim away. However, on land they are vulnerable because they cannot completely retract into their shell. That’s because the plastron or lower shell is much smaller than that of most turtles. The smaller size makes it much easier for a snapper to move its head and neck, but provides less protection. If they are harassed and feel threatened, they may become aggressive, lunge forward and bite very hard.

Scientists believe that common snappers evolved in North America about 90 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. They outlived the dinosaurs and survived several ice ages. Today they populate North America from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, and from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Humans are the main threat to their long-term survival. In addition to being hunted for their meat, many are killed by motorists during the nesting season when females and hatchlings cross roads moving to and from water.

The baby snapper began to swim upriver. It was not taken by predators while I watched it. I hope it will be part of the slim percentage that survives infancy.

To learn more about snapping turtles, check out these resources: Tortoise Trust, The Staying Power of Snapping Turtles, Common Snapping Turtle.