Saturday, April 20, 2013

Portrait of Fractal Nature

Cypress knees poke up through the swampy waters, perfectly themselves, completely of place they are. Yet they are also fractal images of other things. Here is a Zen garden of its own creation, needing no silent monks to maintain them. Here is an island chain in miniature, with moss for the vertical forest of some precipitous Pacific archipelago, or some South China mountain range. I wonder, if one looked closely enough, if a tiny temple might be perched somewhere in these craggy peaks, there in joyful worship of its own very nature, the nature of us all. For do we not all, on seeing such a place, exult in some inward place, some hidden temple of the heart?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Cypress Swamp Dreams

The soft, delicate spray of needles of a bald cypress glows with a living light in the early morning hours. There in the shaded confines of the forested swamp, amid large and dark trunks and covered by the dense canopy, I stood still and silent, at peace with the moment, asking nothing more.

There were many birds about, the small ones flitting about in the trees, the larger ones sailing in on outstretched, motionless wings, or filling the forest with strange, haunting calls from afar, quavering screams that seem of another age entirely. These kinds of places don't just feel wild, they feel ancient, a part of the long unbroken continuum. 

This is the way things used to be.  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Six Mile Cypress Slough

I did go back to Six Mile Cypress Slough, as I said I would. How could I not? I knew I'd found something special. My thanks go out to the students who initiated the whole preserve back in the '70s, high school kids who recognized the value and took it to the county commissioners, convincing them and the citizens of Lee County to tax themselves to save it. Much land has been added to the Preserve since, and it is an extremely valuable wildlife corridor and refuge for birds and mammals of many kinds. Such corridors are increasingly rare in our country, and this is especially true here in Southwest Florida, where rampant development has taken a very large bite out of the forests and swamps. But a place like this gives hope to the cause, and someday, and perhaps even now, roaming Florida panthers may make use of wild strips like this as they slowly repopulate the area.

For this is a place of life. Much of southern Florida is, in a way, half desert. I mean that in the sense that there are wet and dry seasons, and the dry seasons are very dry, often with no rain for months. The dryness for half the year is a major limiting factor on living things here, and of course, those dry adapted species must also be able to handle all the rain in the summer. Further, the soils tend to be poor, sandy soils that drain quickly, holding less water and leaching out nutrients faster. It is the wetlands where the biodiversity really thrives here, and this is one such place. The soils are black as night, full of organic material, and of course, water. Even in the dry season, most of the place is still damp, and of course much remains under water altogether even then.

I came to this place just after dawn, having risen before the sun to make the drive out there, for the double reason that dawn is a time of greatest activity for living creatures and that the inverse is true for the human flocks; therefore, I had come early for the relative solitude. The crowds would come later. I again stuck to the boardwalk the whole way. Someday I plan to do some bushwhacking, or more accurately, swamp wading, to get into quieter zones away from all the people. Perhaps find a well sited hummock or stump, and sit quietly for a few hours, seeing whatever comes and whatever is, grokking the wildness of the place.

There was one pond where I spotted several alligators, small ones like this one, young from a few years back, or so I was told. Most were motionless in the weedy shallows, basking in the sun, but this one swam right past me where I stood on the platform, heading for a dry log in the sun on which to do his own requisite reptilian sun worship. A larger one, maybe a 7 footer, had appeared briefly not long before, gliding across another, larger lake, ducking under the glassy surface hardly as soon as I'd spotted it, having raised the camera excitedly just in time.

Not a hundred yards further on, I saw something I'd been wanting to see, though not greatly expecting: a pileated woodpecker. These crow-sized birds favor old growth forests, large birds needing dense forests of large trees, and especially large standing snags, for their nest holes. I knew the swamp housed some, and here I had the great and unhoped for luck of seeing not one, but two, presumably a mated pair, and seemingly unconcerned with my presence.

I stood there taking dozens of pictures while this one hacked at the stump, most of them coming out as a mere red blur. She hardly paused to even look at me, though I was only a few yards away from this supposedly shy and retiring species. Sort of like National Park syndrome, where the creatures know they are safe from hunters and become bold. It was a real treat for me to watch these two. I have only seen pileateds on two other occasions, and then only very briefly. After observing them a while, I think they are misnamed. They should have been called axe-headed woodpeckers. That one in the tree was showering down bark with a vengeance, with each peck sounding out a solid thwack.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Time Lapse

So, I have a little treat for you guys today. I ended up buying a time lapse camera the other day, always wanted one and finally the one I'd been watching went on sale, plus free shipping. Ended up spending $168 for this Brinno TLC200, and thanks to the sale saved maybe 50 bucks, so that's cool by me.

I got excited and had to use it right away. It helps that I had the second half of the day off work. I admit it didn't come out as well as I'd hoped, but here's a time lapse (or really, a stop-motion) video of me kayaking about in a couple canals here in Cape Coral. Next time, I'll try to remember to level the camera, as well as setting the interval to 1 second rather than 2. That's as low as I can go with it, but it would clearly make a difference, cutting the jumpiness by half and slowing it down. But I'll share it anyways, just to give you a more animated view of my neighborhood. I take you with me as I explore for the first time a couple undeveloped canals I scoped out on Google Earth.

Now, I'd like to point out, most of the canals in Cape Coral or the rest of SW Florida don't look wild like this. For some reason I ended up living in an area surrounded by relatively built out areas (say, 75% built), while my actual area is probably only 20% built out. Just born lucky, I guess (ha). So, some of the canals around here have a lot of trees. Non-native, invasive trees, mainly, but trees nonetheless. And cattails, sedges, reeds, and other vegetation. Beats paddling past stuff like this all day:

First thing they do when they build a house, it seems, is scrape the lot clean of life and build a sea-wall (though a few homes have no wall), thereby eliminating the main attraction of living in the area (in my humble opinion). I mean, if all the city's canals were lined in cement walls, devoid of the strips of riparian habitat, they'd be little more than water roads and, lets face it, open sewers, what with the murky pea-soup water filled with garbage, pesticides, fertilizer runoff, and effluent from the many old and leaking septic systems that the city has yet to deal with. [[deep breath]]

photo snagged from Google Earth
Of course, in the wealthier areas of the city, mostly the south part near the Caloosahatchee River, the homes are huge and all have pools, are nicely landscaped with palms and flowering shrubs, and don't have big piles of broken concrete in the back yard as the [vacant] home on the right does in the first picture. Most will have boat docks and, in the salt water ocean-access canals, boat lifts. Pretty nice neighborhoods, really. It reminds me of bicycling with my dad back in metro Detroit; we'd sometimes get over to the richer suburbs, and he'd always say how nice it was to bike in such upscale places. Me, I don't really want to look at stuff like that. I always preferred the farm country, open spaces with greenery, or the often-wooded rails to trails. Give me nature any day. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013


So the other day, around 9:30 in the morning, after finishing my first and shorter job of the day, I found out that the rest of my day had suddenly been canceled, and that I was free. Taking advantage of my underemployment, I lit out for the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, over in Fort Myers. I was two thirds of the way there anyway. Sadly, I did not have my camera, even my binoculars, as I had not really planned on any such trip; so I had to make do with the monocular that I found in the woods a few years ago. I hate the thing, causes eye strain, but I always have it in my truck, just in case I need it. Ah, the first world problems of the modern wildlife watcher, eh?

I will be back there, though, to take some pictures for you all to enjoy. In fact, I'm pretty sure the slough (pronounced "slew") is my favorite place in Florida so far. I walked their boardwalk trail of a bit over a mile, moving very slow. I loved the way the cypress trees actually met in a canopy, it felt a lot like being back home in the shadowy hardwoods of Michigan. What a forest should be like, in my mind. Not that I was really comparing, because, this is a subtropical cypress swamp, not a temperate forest. The point is there I was in mostly shade, with the filtered sunlight dappling its way through from a very clear sky, and this felt good to my soul, if I may put it so.

The wildlife, according to this one guy I talked to, was very sparse, with far fewer birds and such out and about than usual. It was late morning, and cold for Florida, in the 50s and windy. But I still saw three small alligators, plenty of birds and turtles, and one close encounter with a grey squirrel. He was running down the boardwalk railing toward me, and came within a few feet of me and the above-mentioned guy. He surely saw us, as he kept running towards us, then back, dithering back and forth before finally going around on the muddy ground.

And that gets me to what I wanted to write about today. This wild animal, if only a common squirrel, only came so close because we were so quiet. I mean, we were sort of tuned in to the stillness of the forest, so we didn't immediately scare him off. This is in contrast to the other people out there that morning; quite a few at that.

It is simply amazing to me how people are when they visit parks, preserves, and nature in general. They act like they're walking around in a shopping mall, they make no adjustment in their demeanor at all. Their footfalls are so loud and heavy, or else shuffling, their gestures and motions sharp and broad, their voices ring out among the trees. Some of them even walk with their heads down, going viewing station to viewing station, I presume. Meanwhile they're missing everything, mostly from scaring it away. Then they have the nerve to complain about never seeing any wildlife!

The guy I mentioned above, he was one of the exceptions; him and his wife. They had some serious looking cameras and seemed to know what they were doing out there; they walked as soundlessly and slowly as I did, stood still a lot, and spoke to me in whispers. My kind of people. For myself, I can't help but be this way. I get out there in the trees, breathing the air, and instantly start quieting down. My motions become slower, steadier. My feet find the ground softly. My mind clears of the usual mental clutter. When I must speak, I do so quietly. It feels almost a sacrilege to speak loudly in nature, where everything is so quiet. And I don't have to think about these things, it just happens, until, within a few minutes, I'm entrained with the world around me, moving into its larger rhythm.

Standing still helps immensely. I think most people who "never see anything" when they go out in the woods must believe that they simply aren't where the wildlife is, and if they could just cover more ground, they'd find it. Quite the contrary! The world is so freaking alive that it would boggle most people's minds, even my own I'm sure, if they'd only stop moving so damn much. I'm better than many, but still a city kid by birth, a civilized man, and I know I have a long way to go to that aboriginal quietude of body and mind.

Check out the book What the Robin Knows, which goes into detail about how birds sound alarms, are tuned in to the different creatures in their world, how they flee perceived threats, and basic insight into ecosystem communities. The author states that it may take up to 40 minutes for threat levels to fall back to a background level, and it may take the neighborhood residents getting to know you as well; that is, over several visits. One thing I liked best about this book, by the way, is that it reminded me that the animals I see around my yard, live there. I mean, that blue jay, that squirrel, that hawk, is the same one I see every day, they are individuals, my neighbors. They're watching me as they watch each other, and they know the area better than I do. Their lives depend on it as mine doesn't, you see.

And of course the same is true in the woods. You walk into a forest (or anywhere), and the animals there don't know you, may not really know what to make of you. You aren't one of the locals, all of whom they know. So someone calls an alarm and everyone hides until you go off somewhere else. You are a foreign element. The least you can do is to at least move in forest ways, so you at least seem to belong a little bit. Maybe they'll be a bit less frightened and a little more curious about you, or at least indifferent.

And I can vouch for that, by the way, having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and only seeing, by and large, what I spooked into flight, from chipmunks and grouse to bears and moose. Hiking is great, and I highly recommend it, but the rewards of hiking lie in areas other than wildlife viewing. It's just too motion-oriented, too much hustle.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On The Basking Log

Making my way slowly down the canals via kayak, I spotted this basking Florida cooter ahead in the distance. I ceased paddling, and allowed myself to drift for the most part, only occasionally dipping the paddle in to keep myself straight, for the wind was coming somewhat crosswise from behind. Slowly I gained on him, taking pictures as I floated nearer. Finally, I came too close; really, it was the wind that did me in, as it was making my boat pivot. I tried to stop it with a very slow paddle, but it was too much for this turtle, and he dove at last for cover.

I'd never seen a turtle laying as he was, with his legs kicked out behind him. I am sure, however, that this is the local basking log, as there are very few other such logs in that canal; only one, actually, and for much of the day it is shaded, being mostly under the trees on the south bank.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Cape Coral Wild

Sorry 'bout the blurriness.
I did some day tripping last weekend and this week. Not out in the depths of wild and woolly Nature, but right here in the guts of Cape Coral. See, this city, blight on the world that I think it is, is huge, and only partly built out. Much of the northern half of this sprawling town (second largest in area in FL) is quite sparsely developed, with only one or two homes per block. Some blocks have no houses at all. I could rant about the leveling of whole forests for neighborhoods that won't be built, at best, for several decades, if ever... but I'll try to contain myself.

I had discovered through the wonders of the interwebs that there are several bald eagle nests here in Cape Coral; being a threatened species, many all over Florida are documented and monitored. So I went to see one, having also learned that in Florida, bald eagles begin breeding in October or so, meaning the new crop of eaglets are about to fledge. If I wanted to see some young eagles in a nest, I'd best go soon, or I'd have to wait until next winter.

Note the homes nearby. The block this tree is on is
undeveloped and so long as the nest is there, off limits.
(I also found this website, the southwest florida eagle cam, set up in North Fort Myers on the property of, of all places, a real estate group. I watched for several hours one day while I was doing other things, and was lucky to see a parent bring back an egret it'd caught, which it and the two kids tore apart right on camera. Some would call it gruesome, but I found it engrossing).

Another day took me, again, to the northern reaches of Cape Coma, this time to see another threatened species. We have several around here, as I'm sure many places do, given the rampant habitat loss across the nation. Some I see all the time: wood storks are relatively common around here, and bald eagles too can be easy to find, in the right areas. There are burrowing owl burrows all over the place, many marked out with white stakes so they aren't mown over. I have four burrows right in my neighborhood. Unoccupied this year, unfortunately.

Hey. Yeah, you. Gimme all your cashews and no one gets hurt.
But the Florida Scrub Jay, these are found only in this state, and only on quite specific habitat, namely, Florida Scrub, a habitat that has nearly disappeared in the state thanks to development. While I was watching the eagles, I was surfing around and discovered that the Cape has a couple families of them, and with a bit more research, I located them. Apparently there is supposed to be a park created for them, but since the city has no money anymore since the only industry in SW Florida (housing) collapsed, so I think the plan is in limbo. Still, the birds remain.

What, what is it? Is there something on my face?
So I drove up there to try to get a look; before I'd even stopped my forward motion one of the blue devils was barreling through the air towards my truck. Apparently, these are the friendliest birds in the whole world, with no hesitation at all. This is probably bad, being so trusting of us duplicitous humans, yet, it worked out for me this day. I actually had some cashews with me and shared them with two of the jays, and I enjoyed that one of them would fly right up onto my hand to pick the cashews from my palm. I've never seen a wild bird up close like that.

nom nom nom
I know I shouldn't have done it, and I usually don't do such things, this feeding of wildlife, especially threatened species. Obviously, this probably goes a long way toward explaining their friendliness, it's more of a habituation really. On the other hand, though, if I can pass a few calories to birds living in a place with little resources for them to live, where the developers are just dying to make more cookie-cutter houses, once the market comes back (as if), well, so be it and good luck to them. The birds, that is.