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The Nature Walk Project: One Year Later

This is it!  A year in the making!  I’ve been walking around the same lake, once a month for a year, documenting the seasonal changes, the animals and the plants.  Last night I took my final picture of this lovely, little lake path.  Below is a photo compilation of the wooden bridge that crosses the lake.  The photos start in October 2011 and ended last night, the last day of October 2012.

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Nature Walk: Christopher B Smith Preserve in Naples, Florida

Regular Nature Walk posts will return next month with the unveiling of the results of my yearlong photography project.  In the meantime, please enjoy the photos and this recounting of my recent adventures in the Christopher B. Smith Preserve located in Naples, Florida, USA.

I recently had the opportunity to go on a tour of the Christopher B. Smith Preserve located in Naples, Florida, USA.  The preserve is owned and managed by The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, an organization that works to preserve the natural habitats of southwest Florida.  The preserve is “an eight-acre endangered upland and scrub habitat” and “is home to native plants and wildlife including the gopher tortoise, a threatened species in Florida” (Conservancy).

Ian Bartoszek, a biologist for The Conservancy and a friend of mine, lead the afternoon tour. As we carefully stepped through the fence and into the preserve the first thing I noticed was that the ground is made up of fine, white sugar sand.  It is a soft sand compared to the type often found along the beaches of the Atlantic and it is pure white.  The sandy ground made the scrub habitat feel so different from the areas of asphalt and manicured lawns that surround it.  The white ground, a leftover seabed from millions of years ago, made this area feel like I was stepping into another world and into another time.  Covering most of the sand was a light-green species of lichen, Foliose Ground Lichen (Parmotrema spp). As we walked through the preserve Ian asked all of us to stick to the paths, so as not to disturb this ancient species.

Looking around I noticed that The Conservancy had installed small wildlife cameras attached to the base of a few trees.  The motion activated cameras are able to capture animal activity that people wouldn’t normal get to see and the biologists are able to study these photos and share them with visitors of The Conservancy.

Also dominating the landscape are the beautiful purple flowers of the Chapman’s Blazing Star plant, also known as Chapman’s Gayfeather (Liatris chapmanii).  These pretty flowers are typically a pretty purple color but every now and then, a white one will bloom.  Among the sea of purple we found two of these white blooms very near each other.  It felt like something special to see these rare flowers.  Ian told us that seedpods from established plants like these could be harvested by conservation groups and used in other habitat reclamation projects.  The use of these seeds is typical when reestablishing an area that may have had the natural scrub habitat devastated by logging, land clearing and other development.

As we walked through the scrub we could hear a gopher tortoise or two shuffling through the palms and undergrowth.  The tortoises were camouflaged in the thick growth and I wasn’t able to snap a photo of them on this trip.  However, I was able to get a few photos of the entrances to their underground homes, which I put into the slideshow below.  In addition to the threatened gopher tortoise, Ian told us that there is a very diverse group of animal and plant species (about 250 of them), from tiny spiders and amphibians to bobcats and coyotes, which live in this protected habitat.

We also found this amazing beehive that covered a good portion of a palm tree.  I was lucky enough to have a good zoom on my camera and didn’t need to get to close too these amazing, buzzing pollinators in order to get a good picture (also in the slideshow below).

The preserve is part of The Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s new Nature Center.  The center is currently being upgraded and when it is complete it will be open to the public later this year.  Ian was able to give our group a quick tour of the progress so far, along with a visit to some of their animal residents, which I included in the slide show below.

I had a wonderful time on my nature walk and can’t wait to come back soon.  If you’re going to be in Florida, be sure to stop by The Conservancy’s Nature Center and get a tour of this unique area of Florida.  Thank you to our guide, Ian Bartoszek, for showing us around and teaching us about the importance of preserving natural habitats.

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The Nature Walk Project – Month 9: June

Location: Orlando, Florida, United States from 10:30am-11:30am  
Weather: Sunny, windy and very low humidity, 75°F – High: 86°F  Low: 73°F

Catch up on The Nature Walk ProjectMonth 1: OctoberMonth 2: NovemberMonth 3: DecemberMonth 4: JanuaryMonth 5: February, Month 6: March, Month 7: April, Month 8: May

It’s officially hurricane season in Florida and there is no shortage of wind or rain.  During a typical Florida summer we get a rain shower every afternoon, for about 20 minutes and nearly at the same time everyday.  As I walk around the lake today, the wind is strong and constant.  A downpour last night left everything very damp with a wonderfully earthy aroma coming from every direction, as the sun heats up the damp ground.  I can’t actually photograph the wind for you, just the objects that it blows around, like the pages of my notebook above.  I took this short video with my camera to give you a sense of the breeze as it whips through the cypress trees that grow along the lake.  About 6 seconds in you can see one of the many birds that lives here, flitting from one tree to the other.  I hope you’re enjoying the weather and nature where you are!  This is June.

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[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvHeEN69kuM]

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The Nature Walk Project – Month 8: May

Location: Orlando, Florida, United States from 10:30am-11:30am  
Weather: Sunny and slightly overcast, 70°F – High: 76°F  Low: 63°F

Catch up on The Nature Walk ProjectMonth 1: OctoberMonth 2: NovemberMonth 3: DecemberMonth 4: JanuaryMonth 5: February, Month 6: March, Month 7: April

Spring continues to bloom around the lake.  Every time I visit this bit of nature I see more and more signs of life.  The birds are more active, the tall grasses that line the pathways are bursting out of the ground and have begun to drape over the walkway.  The fresh, bright green growth on the cypress trees is already filling in and beginning to darken.  For months now, I have visited this lake and marveled at the different types of animals that live in and around it.  It turns out, that even after 8 months, there is still something new to discover.  During my recent walk, I saw a family of otters making their way along the edge of the lake to the island in the middle and I was able to snap a couple of pictures as they bobbed in and out of the water.  This family of otters and all of the other little bits of life and nature that I saw are in the slideshow below…this is May.

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The Nature Walk Project – Month 7: April

Location: Orlando, Florida, United States from 10:30am-11:30am  Weather: Sunny and windy, 77°F – High: 86°F  Low: 63°F
Catch up on The Nature Walk ProjectMonth 1: OctoberMonth 2: NovemberMonth 3: DecemberMonth 4: JanuaryMonth 5: February, Month 6: March

It’s April and Spring is official, even though the weather in Florida has felt like spring since late February, but that’s why so many of us love it here.  It was a warm winter so there wasn’t ever a time where the landscape looked completely baron, but what little did turn brown and die, is now coming back in pretty shades of light green.

The animals are busier than they have been.  I saw the first bunny of the season and with Easter a week away, it seems like perfect timing.  This little bird stopped to cool off along the edge of the lake, it was fun to watch him splash around. Continue Reading →

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The Nature Walk Project – Month 6: March

Location: Orlando, Florida, United States from 5:00pm-6:00pm    Weather: Sunny and windy, 84°F – High: 85°F  Low: 68°F
Catch up on The Nature Walk ProjectMonth 1: OctoberMonth 2: NovemberMonth 3: DecemberMonth 4: January, Month 5: February

I spent last month looking down, taking photos of the water’s edge and all of the tiny bits of nature that live along it.  Today, I looked up…

Seasons By The Bird
Every month when I visit and write about this lake and my walk along the crushed shell trail, I almost always mention the unbelievable amount of bird song that you can hear.  It comes from every direction, birds of every size are tucked and nestled among the branches, completely unseen as they call and sing to each other.  As winter continues to thin the branches of some trees, I can catch glimpses of these birds and get a sense of the vast variety of birds that call this little bit of nature, home.

It was this sense of home that got me thinking about these birds and the seasons.  I was born up north in Pennsylvania.  We got “real” winters up there, with lots of snow and ice.  It was toward the end of winter, when you had just about had your fill of cold weather and runny noses, that a sign of spring would appear.  The first birds of the new season, the robins, would return to our woods and you knew that spring wasn’t far behind.  Next we’d start to see the blue jays coming back, followed by the cardinals that would streak across the landscape in brilliant blazes of red.

Now that I live down south in Florida, the arrival of blue jays and cardinals mean something different here, they mean winter is on its way.  This is the place the birds would come to when they disappeared from our wintery Pennsylvania woods.  As I sit here listening to the birds, I catch glimpses of blue jays flying between the trees and I realize that it’s when the blue jays leave, that I now know spring is on its way.  So this month I pay tribute to the original “snow birds” and I’ve created a slide show full of the tree tops and the many birds that live above and below them, even if only for a short season.

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[slideshow]

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The Nature Walk Project – Month 5: February

Location: Orlando, Florida from 2:00pm-3:00pm    Weather: Sunny, 72°F – High: 82°F  Low: 60°F

Catch up on The Nature Walk ProjectMonth 1: October, Month 2: November, Month 3: December, Month 4: January

As I walk along the lakeside path, the now familiar crunch of crushed shell and sand beneath my feet, feels welcoming.  Shortly after arriving at the lake, I stop and take the time to admire this little patch of nature that I have been exploring and documenting for the last five months.  Every time I arrive, I’m worried that I’ve run out of things to discover here…maybe I won’t have anything to photograph…and every time nature proves me wrong.  This time was no different and as I stood worrying, I looked around and an empty shell along the lake edge caught my eye.  It was then that I realized, for five months now I’ve stuck to the path and never explored more of the lake that I circle every month.  I’ve missed an entire element of this lovely area.  Today, I stepped off of the path and walked along the water’s edge.

It’s winter (yes, even a high of 82°F is still winter) and there is so much new life to discover here.  Tiny fish, delicate little lily pads and bright green shoots of the new water grasses and reeds peeking out of the sand.  I wish that my camera could capture the sparkles that dazzle and twinkle off of the water top as sunlight catches the small ripples moving along the water’s surface.

Some of you may remember my encounter with a snake back in October and it turns out that February offered another snake experience.  You can see (in the slideshow below) the tiny little guy tucked between the moss and grasses as he floats, patiently waiting for me to pass by before darting out of the lake and into the nearby grasses.

The snake wasn’t the only “wild life” that I encountered on this trip.  I caught a cat slinking along the lake edge, chasing butterflies and stalking small bugs.  He visited with me for a few minutes before walking to the path and going on his way.  I stayed by the water, where I continued to explore and find more shells, a feather floating in the water and bits of flora and fauna that I’d never noticed before.

Standing at the water’s edge, listening to the sounds of fish flopping in and out of the water, a bright sun overhead and a delicate breeze blowing through my hair…this is February.

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The Nature Walk Project – Month 4: January

Location: Orlando, Florida from 9:00am-10:00am    Weather: Sunny and Slightly Breezy, 69°F – High: 76°F  Low: 55°F

Catch up on The Nature Walk Project: Month 1: October, Month 2: November, Month 3: December

I step onto the lake path and see that a light drizzle has left everything dewey and glistening. There’s a slight breeze blowing, creating small swells across the lake’s surface. I can hear the constant chirping and tweeting of birds, as they sit invisible, among the branches and leaves of trees on the island in the lake.

As our mild Florida winter eases into January, I look back at my records and see the temperatures haven’t changed much since October. Then a strong wind gust reminds me that a cold front from Canada is making it’s way down the country, bringing colder temperatures and what will be our first freeze in over a year. I hope all of delicate new growth and flowers that I see will make it through the cold blast.

It’s quiet on the bridge that crosses the lake. The wind is strong up here and the biting cold hurts my ears as it blows by. There is a flock of Anhingas today and they start to flap and  call as I approach.  One even leaves its perch, high above the trees, and glides down to the rocks in front of the bridge. Upon landing, it spreads its wings and points his head toward the sky as though he is posing just for me.

As I make my way further around the lake I’m met with a final gust of cold air, followed by a parting in the clouds that reveals a stream of sunlight, which provides a brief reprieve from the bitter cold.  As I stand in this tug of war between sunlight and wind, I am reminded of the traveler from Aesop’s Fable, The North Wind and the Sun. Then I think to myself…this is January.

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The Nature Walk Project – Month 3: December

Location: Orlando, Florida from 1:00pm-2:00pm    Weather: Sunny, 79°F – High: 79°F  Low: 62°F

It’s December in Florida, which means I’m sitting on my bench (see the October post for more about “my bench”) in shorts and a t-shirt. I’m out later than usual and the light is certainly different, very bright and directly overhead. This time of day is quieter than the morning, only a few birds chirp in a nearby tree. A gentle breeze blows through, rustling the leaves of the trees on the island and the grasses that grow along the edge of the lake.

There haven’t been any drastic changes to the landscape since last month. The Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) has lost its brilliant mauve colored ends, which are now a light tan color. The browning Cypress Trees (Taxodium distichum) continue to lose needles but if you think that means autumn has set in, just look through their thinning branches where you’ll see lush trees surrounded by green grasses.

It’s during the month of November, and into December, the Florida Coontie plants (Zamia floridana, Z. integrifolia, Z. umbrosia) develop cones and set their seed. The seeds are a brilliant yellowish-orange color that slowly darkens to a deep reddish-orange color.  Coontie plants are prevalent in Florida and are very slow growing. I find these plants fascinating because they are part of an order of plants called, Cycadales or Cycads.  Many of these plants have been in existence since dinosaurs walked the earth over 200 million years ago. These are the direct descendants of plants that the herbivorous dinosaurs ate. How cool is that?  If you live in Florida, you probably have one of these prehistoric plants growing in your backyard right now. So, next time you pass one, take just a second to marvel at the Jurassic leftover that’s slowly and steadily growing through yet another century.

On this nature walk I was lucky enough to spot an Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga …seriously) warming itself on the rocks that line the small pool under the bridge.  These birds are common in Florida and are also known as Water Turkeys, Darters or Snake Birds because of their long, bending, snake-like necks.  They often swim through the water with only their head out, then dive below the surface to fish.  They can often be seen, as I saw, sunning themselves along the water’s edge with their wings outstretched to be dried and warmed. This day, as the Anhinga finished drying himself, he slipped into the water where he swam unseen, only to reemerge with a flopping fish in his beak. The little fish did its best to get away and I could see it wriggling furiously all the way down the bird’s throat, which I suspect is an odd feeling for both bird and fish.

I’m so glad that I get to welcome another month in this beautiful location, surrounded by such a wide variety of animals and plants.  After just 3 months of nature walks I feel like I have been able to see some pretty unique things and this month has been no exception. I’ll leave you with more pictures of the Coontie plants and the Water Turkey’s fishing expedition.  Until next month…this is December.

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The Nature Walk Project – Month 2: November

Location: Orlando, Florida from 11:00am-12:00pm

Weather: Sunny, 69°F – High: 74°F  Low: 65°F

It’s already been a month since my first Nature Walk! During October the temperatures crept up to the high 80′s and even the low 90′s, but now they’ve dipped back down into the 70′s. I suspect this won’t last long and we’ll get few more weeks of warmer weather before the real winter weather settles in.

As I step onto the shell path, there are scattered Fall leaves and down by the water’s edge there are fresh green plants with delicate white flowers.  There is a near constant breeze today and it creates a pretty rustling noise among the trees on the nearby island.  I sit on the wooden bench that overlooks the lake and the cool breeze gently swirls my hair, while the brightly shining sun warms my back.  The branches on a nearby Cypress Tree (Taxodium distichum) bounce in the wind and I notice a small, abandoned wasp nest.  After many attempts, I finally manage to catch a clear photo of it.

As I continue down the path, I can’t help but notice that the Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), that lines the path and circles around the entire lake, has started to bloom.  It fills the water’s edge with bursts of feathery, mauve colored mounds.  I run my fingers along them as I step onto the wooden bridge. I can see that the water is clear today and peering over the railing, I can see straight to bottom of the small pool above the falls. Lily pads are blooming and the flowers bob back and forth as fish swim beneath them.  The near constant wind is stronger on the bridge and it carries the light scent of lake water, reminding me of all the other lakes that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting over the years.

I let the gentle sound of the falls calm me as I watch the fish darting to and fro among the reeds.  Occasionally I can hear bird calls in the background and overhead. Fully restored by the serenity of this spot I continue on my way, circling around the lake, all the while snapping pictures of the micro bits of nature tucked here and there.  A gentle breeze and the warm sun accompany me. This is November.

Learn more about the Nature Walk Project here: The Nature Walk Project

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