Wild things provide many clues to forecast the changing seasons and Florida’s Panhandle has some spectacular displays to witness for the observant naturalist.
One obvious sign of the approaching Spring in our area is the sighting more immature bald eagles, recognized by the lack of the adult’s characteristic white head and tail feathers. Our eagles raise chicks through the winter months. Often, during this time of year, I see groups of young eagles hanging out together on sand flats in the bay during low tide. I’m not sure if they have a food source or are just in a socializing mood. It is not long after this that most of them disperse from our area on migratory flights, only to return the following September. Sometimes you can see six or even eight standing together; obviously fledged from more than one nest. The flood of migrant songbirds is also about to begin as they stream back into the coastal environs. Some will stay and nest here, while many others continue the journey farther north. When you begin to hear the loud breeding trills of male cardinals and Carolina wrens, start looking for some of our impressive Neo-tropical migrants that are soon to follow.
Peak migration period for many of the species from Central and South America will usually occur during April. Brightly colored tanagers, buntings, warblers, and grosbeaks are just a few of the eye-catching birds that depend on our coastal habitats as a stopover after crossing the Gulf of Mexico.
Breeding season for most birds in our area really kicks into high gear during March and April. Learning to recognize birds by their breeding songs is a good way to find a particular species that you may be looking for. Males of the species are very persistent with calling and often pick a few particular perches where they like to advertise their presence to females. I have had orchard orioles calling from the top of a few different pine trees in my yard for several years in a row and this allowed me to recognize the species then pinpoint its position for a good look with binoculars. This is a primary tactic for turkey hunters each spring also. However, a wary gobbler is not easily fooled, nor approached.
We also have some early-blooming flowers that are a sure indication Spring is on the way. These blooms are critical to many nectar-feeding insects. One of the first to bloom in late January are the red maple trees in our plentiful wetland hammocks. The provide nectar and pollen for many bees and wasps to get their spring brood started. The flowers are a pale pink in comparison to the brighter red winged seeds, which are just now becoming obvious on many trees. Another early bloomer, in mid-February, is the black titi (pronounced tyty). This wetland species creates a dense shrub layer in many low-lying shrub wetlands. The profuse white blooms make it appear as if a dusting of snow has miraculously survived above-freezing temperatures. Also, be on the lookout for yellow Jessamine (pronounced jasmine by most), a climbing vine with bright yellow flowers that can be seen high up in the pine canopy on occasion.
If you take a hike through our piney woods at this time of year you should also notice the blooms of our native blueberry shrubs beginning to break out. We have a low shrubby species that has tiny leaves but can be a prolific (although small) fruit producer as summer approaches. Wild turkeys and many other birds and mammals depend on these types of resources to raise their young each year. Fire is a key element in the landscape that allows these low shrubby species to survive under the pine canopy. Exclusion of fire allows woody shrubs to grow densely, shading out these low growing species. All in all, it is pretty easy to find some aspect of nature to revel in during any time of year here in the Florida Panhandle. Take a hike and discover your inspiration for the day.