Photography often teaches me a lot. I love to be out and about in nature, photographing whatever I see and find or that finds me.
In this case, this beautiful butterfly and I seemed to find each other. I was looking for alligators when I spotted this Zebra Longwing Butterfly flitting around a clump of flowers growing along a stream on a warm, sunny morning. Many butterflies zig and zag and fly erratically, making them difficult to shoot. However, this lovely creature almost seemed to pose for its picture. It cooperated perfectly. The morning sunshine perfectly backlit both the butterfly and the heads of lantana blossoms it was enjoying.
I was able to capture several satisfactory shots of its contrasting colors and exceptionally long, thin wingspan. I couldn’t help but note the hole in the left wing and wondered what had caused the deformity.
After downloading the photos on my computer, I discovered that this butterfly had the perfect name. It looked like a zebra, and it had long wings. Also, I learned that the Zebra Longwing Butterfly is Florida’s state butterfly because they are so plentiful in the state.
The gray, rainy day drove our little group into the local history museum. We enjoyed our 90-minute tour but were ready for a tasty lunch from one of the excellent restaurants in historic Fernandina Beach, Florida. We exited the museum and discovered the rain had stopped, at least for the moment. As I turned the corner of the old brick building to head to the car, these bright berries quickly caught my eye.
I loved the way the glistening raindrops, ready to drip, made the berries shine. Their fire engine red brightened the dull day.
A Bonaparte’s Gull landed in the salty water near where the grandfatherly gentleman stood focused on his seashell mission. The man didn’t notice the majestic bird still in its winter plumage. Instead, he gazed downward as the nearly calm ocean lapped at the shore.
Like so many other beachgoers, this human being searched for treasure. He pursued colorful shells, starfish, and shark’s teeth uncovered from their sandy hiding spots by the steadily moving waters.
The ocean glistened in the late morning sun, still not strong enough to fend off the cold north wind. That didn’t deter the gem hunters.
The joggers or walkers, often with a dog or two attached to leashes, also plied the sandy shoreline. The canines either forged ahead or got pulled along.
At sunrise, the Black Skimmers fed in their fashion, beaks skimming the water’s surface for seafood fare. Later they huddled on the warming sand, preening, resting, readying for their next expedition.
The magnificent Northern Gannets displayed a different approach. They flapped their long narrow wings, black tips contrasting sharply with the rest of their ivory feathers. The gannets sailed and circled. Once spotting their targets, they dived kamikaze-style into the ocean where they sat and swallowed their catch.
The Brown Pelicans mimicked the gannets in style but lacked the grace. The bulky birds sailed on the breeze until they spied their meal, then hurled themselves head first into the water. Their steam shovel-like bill had scooped in their prey before the birds righted themselves and downed the fish.
Trawlers trailed giant nets up and down the waters offshore snaring shrimp and fish. Scores of gulls, terns and gannets swirled madly behind the boat, hoping to catch any escaping seafood.
The ocean itself had split personalities. Sometimes tranquil, sometimes angry, the waters either licked or pounded at the shoreline depending on the ocean’s mood. If gale force winds accompanied high tide overnight, the gritty beach yielded.
What once was a gentle slope to the sea had had a makeover in the new moon darkness. The sunrise beachcombers had one, two or even three terraces to step down to the shore for their strolls.
Helicopters shuttled to and fro from a nearby Naval base just the way a pair of Ospreys zipped and hovered above the beach. The main difference was the birds weren’t practicing. For the Ospreys, a successful hunt meant survival.
Tiny Sanderlings scampered along the shore, too. Probing for nutrition, they zigzagged along the foamy sea edge as it ebbed and flowed.
Youngsters tossed a few gulls bits of bread. It didn’t take long for the boys to wish they hadn’t.
Shore fishermen cast their lines far out into the water, letting their live bait attract the fish they sought to reel in. Until then, they stuck the handle of the rod into a sturdy holder secured in the sand and took a seat.
Others only wanted to warm themselves in February’s sun, using the backs of their beach chairs for windbreaks. They read or were content just to be.
When the waves occasionally called their names, locals dressed in wet suits carried surfboards, waded into the water, and paddled out for the perfect wave. When they got a good one, they rode it until the curl collapsed.
In dawn’s golden light, pods of dolphins coursed the waters for their breakfasts. Their bobbing dorsal fins foretold their way. They were mesmerizing to watch, a model of all activity along a winter’s beach.
When we vacation on Amelia Island, Florida, my wife and I usually head to the pier in downtown Fernandina Beach for sunsets. The assortment of ever-changing colors that glow in the western sky and reflect in the waters of the Intercoastal Waterway are fabulous unless it’s cloudy.
We were invited one evening to have dinner with friends at the south end of the island away from the water. Still, I checked on the sunset from the rear of their fourth-floor condo. I wasn’t disappointed. The sun’s rays illuminating the evening’s high, thin clouds created an amazing sunset. The Nassau River was a mere ribbon of orange, snaking through the saltmarsh beyond the canopy of live oaks.
I couldn’t remember seeing so many warm shades of orange. “Florida Oranges” is my Photo of the Week.
As my wife and I walked the beach at Little Talbot Island State Park in Florida, plenty of action played out all around us. Waves crashed against the sandy eastern shore as the strong westerly wind blew wisps from the tops of the waves’ curls. Surfers took advantage of the favorable conditions. Ospreys sailed high overhead, searching the shallows of the surf for lunch. Forster’s Terns and Northern Gannets dove into the ocean in their never-ending quest for survival.
Humans walked the beach, heads down scanning for sharks teeth and pretty shells. Mothers watched their children dabble in the cold Atlantic, which kept them from venturing in too far.
For me, though, the most exciting find was at the end of the large limb of driftwood where seawater still lingered from the morning’s high tide. The salt water brought out the true color of the wood while the sun and salty air bleached the branch’s exposed, dry parts. The result is my Photo of the Week, “Driftwood.”
On a recent, all too short visit to Sarasota, Florida, I was fortunate to catch this Sandwich Tern on a post in a marina in Longboat Key. The tern looks like it is ready for lift off, but the exquisite bird was only stretching its wings.
I thought the back lighting of the late afternoon sun really highlighted this bird’s beautiful winter plumage, and its distinguishing yellow tip of its bill. Not only that, it was a “lifer” bird for me, meaning I had never seen one before. Sandwich Terns seldom venture into the hills of Ohio’s Amish country, where I live. They tend to stick to the east coast, and especially enjoy Florida’s lovely coastlines.
I never thought I would ever be a snowbird. Snowbirds are old people that head south to Florida or southwest to southern Texas or to Phoenix for the winter to avoid the chilling temperatures and the harsh weather of northern latitudes.
I wasn’t going to be “one of those people.” I liked winter’s Jekyll and Hyde fickleness. In Ohio, a dull, dirty brunet landscape can be magically transformed overnight into a fluffy, frosted wonderland.
Really, I cherish the change of all the seasons. I never tire of seeing the verdant transition from winter’s dormancy, whether brown or white, to spring’s greening and glorious floral colors. Splashes of vivid feathers of our aviary friends enhance spring’s sparkle.
Of course after spring, summer’s cottony clouds come sailing over maturing crops and rainbow gardens full of nascent flowers and luscious vegetables. Then there is fall’s full blaze of glory amid the many stands of hardwoods to behold, too.
Through the fog.
Wetlands and woodlands.
We are fortunate that our area offers diverse landscapes, from steep wooded hills to vital marshy habitats for an array of wildlife. I marvel at the hilly farmlands, with their multihued, flowing ribbons of contoured crops, and smart fields of grazing livestock. Contrasting brushy fencerows stitch the agrarian patchwork quilt together.
At middle age, I began to view winter differently. No longer was it the snowy playground of my youth, but a season to appreciate the beauty of white against earthy sepia browns and blacks, and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets.
Even so, I have to confess that my fondness for winter has waned. During February, my wife and I overlooked a sandy beach that gently sloped down to the ever-rolling Atlantic Ocean.
Traveling the interstates to the Sunshine State, we saw many other gray-tinged peers migrating, too. Like us, they fled from Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New England and Canadian provinces alike.
Some drove vehicles like ours, stuffed to the gills with clothes, food, bikes and any other paraphernalia deemed necessary for their extended winter’s stay. Others steered huge recreational vehicles, towing equally crammed cars.
It’s the fourth consecutive year we’ve made the journey to Florida. Our stays have evolved from the original few pleasing days to several weeks in order to maximize the obvious.
I never thought I would ever say that. If I had my preference, I’m a mountain man. But the mountains are cold in the winter, and the cold makes my arthritis ache, and my bones groan. The modest warmth of northern Florida minimizes those maladies.
So there I was, a snowbird, partaking in the many amenities that Amelia Island, Florida had to offer. And believe me, it’s a lot.
There I birded without crawling into my insulated coveralls and donning a stocking cap. There we read, wrote, explored, met new friends. There we could stroll the beach for a dozen miles if we wanted. We didn’t.
We were content to walk up and down the same sections of sand, embracing the sounds of the sea crashing the beach, the shorebirds probing for food or skimming the rolling surface for sustenance.
We gathered seashells simply because they were pretty. We embraced sunrises and moon rises shimmering at the ocean’s horizon. A mile west, the harbor sunsets were spectacular.
Our consecutive trips south for part of the winter serve as evidence enough. I readily and happily admit that we are officially now snowbirds.
I greatly enjoy the people I meet along life’s journey.
Many of the people I’ll encounter again I’m sure, if only by proximity to where I live or my relationship to them. Others I may never see again, but I’ll certainly remember their kindness and hospitality.
On our recent trip south, my wife and I met several people who graciously shared those two dynamic characteristics. I’d like you to meet just two of them.
Like much of North America, the winter in the southern United States this year has been hard. With the potential of slippery roads ahead, we decided to stop for the night at a motel in Richburg, South Carolina.
After checking in, we walked to a nearby no frills mom and pop restaurant. Only a few tables were occupied when my wife and I arrived. A kind lady draped with a stained apron and holding a wet washcloth invited us to sit wherever we wanted. We chose a table well away from the door where cold air rushed in at every opening.
The official forecast for that area projected black ice on roadways in the South Carolina Piedmont region, where Richburg is located. Hearing that, the restaurant manager had sent the young help home before dark since they were all inexperienced drivers.
A skeleton crew kept the restaurant open. The thinking was they wouldn’t get many evening customers. Most of the day had already been slow.
However, shortly after Neva and I sat down, several other people filed in and the restaurant was soon abuzz with hungry diners. The kind woman, who later introduced herself as Laura, welcomed everyone the same way she had us, with an apologetic invitation to find a seat.
“I’m so sorry,” Laura said in her soft, easy southern drawl. “We’re short staffed since we sent our young help home because of the weather. Please be patient with us.”
Laura was a stately woman in her 50s. She kept repeating the same thing to every new patron who arrived. She cleared, cleaned and waited on every table by herself. She sent the dinner orders to the kitchen and returned to check on every table. With each visit, she kept kindly apologizing.
Yet she and the kitchen staff seemed to work miracles. The food was not only served in a timely manner, it was as delightful as Laura’s hospitality. The baked chicken, black-eyed peas and grits were scrumptious. This woman defined both graciousness and efficiency. I hope all her tips were generous.
Then there was Bill, an octogenarian volunteer guide who greeted us at the door of an out-of-the way national historical site we discovered by accident in Florida. We easily struck up a conversation with Bill as he greeted us as we entered the Rebault Club Inn. Originally from the far southwestern hills of Virginia, we enjoyed hearing his personal story as much as we did touring the beautiful estate.
Bill’s eyes sparkled and his smile grew with each question I asked him. He had come to northern Florida to get away from the harsh winters of the Appalachian Mountains. He was glad he had.
Imagine my surprise when he told us that he had graduated with honors from Ohio University at age 68. When the dean announced his name, he received a standing ovation. Bill repeated the story like the audience was still applauding.
No matter our destination, it’s people like Laura and Bill who really make our travels memorable.
My wife and I love to travel. It’s a common interest that we’ve had since we met nearly 43 years ago.
We feel fortunate to be at the station in life that allows us to travel when the opportunities arise. Of course we enjoy the various places we visit. We also like the people we meet along the way. We encountered a cast of characters on our latest trip to Florida.
We have learned that a tank of gasoline will take us to Wytheville, Va., where the gas conveniently happens to be cheaper than most locations. We make it a regular pit stop if you get my drift. This go-round there was only one problem. The previous day’s heavy snow had brought down rural power lines. With no electricity, the pumps weren’t working.
I asked the kind clerks behind the counter where the closest station was with power. They said we had passed it seven miles back. I asked about further south, the direction we were going. They said they knew that Hillsville had power, and indeed that’s where we refueled.
We learned from a brief visit last winter that our destination, Amelia Island, Fla., had equally friendly and helpful people. It didn’t take us long to prove that correct again this trip.
After settling into our rental lodging, we went to the Happy Tomato Café in Fernandina Beach, Fla. for a late lunch only to discover that the eatery had closed for the day. Not to fear. A staff member came out and steered us to a competitor just down the street. We weren’t disappointed.
The waiter at this café was kind enough to direct us to the local grocery store. His directions were perfect.
On my first long walk on Main Beach on the Atlantic coast, I was photographing a flock of wintering gulls and skimmers. A middle-aged couple and their teenage son apologized to me for disturbing the birds and making them fly. I told them they actually had helped create the picture I had wanted, some birds on the wing, others on the sand.
In further conversation, the couple and their son revealed that they were lettuce farmers near Jacksonville, and rattled off local restaurants that purchased their produce from the local farmers’ market. I indicated that we had sampled the fare of several of them.
Later an elderly man walking his dog on the beach struck up a conversation with me about surfers and para-surfers he had seen. In our protracted discussion, I learned much about the man’s long, productive life as a government contractor.
At the Amelia Island History Museum, it was volunteer guide Paula’s turn. A retired social studies teacher, she was ideal for the job. She rattled off more information than my brain could absorb. I’m glad she didn’t give us a pop quiz at the end of her lecture.
At the Maritime Museum on the waterfront, Don was equally congenial, though more laid back. Retired Navy officers are like that. We spoke as if we were long lost friends. Now we’re just new ones.
On a day trip to Savannah, Ga., we met Nate, who made roses out of reeds for his living, which was modest by any standard.
“Just call me Peanut,” Nate said. And so I did.
My wife and I savor our travels together. We enjoy the outgoing people we meet even more.
It seems no matter how much planning my wife and I do for each trip we take, we find at least one unexpected gem along the way. Amelia Island, Florida was just such a place on a recent trip to the Sunshine state.
The unpretentious island initially was to be no more than a one-night layover to our final destination, Sarasota. It didn’t take long to realize what a diamond in the rough we had found. The island’s natural amenities alone deserved a closer look.
On the way home, we stopped at Amelia Island for a two-day self-guided tour. Once we started to uncover the island’s riches, we could have spent two weeks there.
Steeped in history and oozing with natural beauty, Amelia Island’s chief charm seemed to be its modesty. Just inside the Florida line from Georgia, I sensed the island and its people knew what they had, but just didn’t want to flaunt it.
On the Atlantic Ocean side, Main Beach runs the entire length of the 13.5 mile long island. In the off-season, resident and migrating birds far outnumbered the exploring humans combing the beach or local teens windsurfing.
On the inland side, historic Fernandina Beach graces the island’s picturesque waterfront. Here’s where the island’s modesty reigned. The beautiful little town was actually settled three years before St. Augustine, which bills itself as the oldest in the country.
Fernandina Beach lost its historic distinction when the Spanish conquistadores massacred the French settlers and all the island’s indigenous people, too. An open grassy square in the old town section still marks the spot.
Ironically, one of the many distinctive houses in the town stands adjacent to the infamous slaughter. The old place was used as the setting for the 1988 Pippi Longstocking movie.
Back in town, the oldest bar in Florida was temporarily converted into an ice cream parlor for a scene in the movie. The island’s elementary children were recruited for an ice cream fight until the reality of the hot Florida weather melted the main prop. Colored mashed potatoes were instant replacements to complete the filming.
Well-preserved historic buildings make up the impressive downtown. Locally owned restaurants serve locally caught seafood, while upscale boutiques attract shoppers from near and far. Stately, well-maintained homes from bygone years line the north-south streets off of the main drag.
To say Amelia Island’s attitude is small town would be an understatement. A fender bender outside our hotel brought four cruisers.
The desire to keep things as they are reaches far beyond the town itself. An outstanding state park features a Civil War fort. Egan Creek Greenway runs down the middle of the island for birders, joggers and bikers to enjoy. A charming lighthouse, still in operation, keeps watch over it all.
Take a boat cruise and you discover even more gems about this unheralded island. Rare birds, bottle nosed porpoises, wild Spanish stallions, and salt truncated live oaks are all part of the treasure chest of Amelia Island.
Even in the two additional days of exploration, we couldn’t uncover all of the island’s hidden nuggets. That will make our next visit all the more exciting.