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.