A Magical Place

There are times in life when you find a new, magical place that nearly defies description. One that almost overwhelms the senses and can take you beyond anything you’ve experienced before. A place that makes all your senses come alive, and you realize how wonderful it is just “to be” in that moment.

There’s a state park in Florida called Hillsborough River that became “that place” for me this past winter. Oh, some might say it’s similar to other state parks there, and it may be, but I want to share some of what I experienced with you. Then you can decide if it’s truly magical.

As the name implies, the Hillsborough River flows through the park. And it appears almost “jungle-like.” It’s dense with overhanging palm trees and sweeping branches of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and epiphytes (air plants). Underbrush can be thick limiting the view in places. Birds erupt in song overhead in the tree tops, and bridges like this one provide trail access to both sides of the river.

A suspension bridge lures you invitingly across the river and onto single-track trails replete with nature where flowers abound. Such as this Carolina Jessamine.

It’s a native vine that blooms with a two-inch long trumpet-like flowers in late winter to early spring in Florida. Its golden yellow color, reminiscent of the sun, fills the eye with wonder and provides a sweet glorious fragrance that embraces you as you walk by.

And winged creatures accompany you on your journey. This Queen butterfly was rather prolific along a portion of one trail. It’s deep rich mahogany color is quite striking with the black wing edging and vivid white spots. It’s a native of some of the southern states across the U.S. and an amazing sight for me as it’s one I rarely see.

Other butterflies in Florida are also quite striking, like this Zebra Longwing (also called Zebra Heliconian). It’s a native of the southern U.S. states and central America and has a wingspan up to 4 inches. It feeds on both nectar and pollen which helps extend it’s life cycle.

On this magical day at Hillsborough River I was also fortunate to watch a Zebra Longwing and a Monarch playfully explore flowers lining the bank of the river. Neither seemed bothered by the others presence as they shared these flowers in their search of nectar.

There’s an interesting trail that skirts along the river, offering spectacular views of nature and wildlife, with boardwalks that beckon you along its length.

The river is truly a pleasure to behold. It meanders through the park and provides not only glorious vistas to the human eye, but also to those creatures that inhabit the park, like this Little Blue heron which finds ample food along the river banks.

The river is a true joy to paddle as well and is rather mesmerizing with its overhanging branches and unique vistas at every turn…scenery that is difficult to describe for its full effect on the senses.

Cypress trees line the stream in places, with water lilies edging the banks. Quiet. Peaceful. Simplistic as you quietly slip the paddle into the water moving the canoe forward in your journey.

You share the river with many creatures, such as this Great Blue heron which was peacefully observing and unbothered by our presence.

Here’s a closer look at a Great Blue so you can truly appreciate its magnificence.

And alligators, of course. Most are preoccupied with absorbing the sun’s warmth, although they usually keep an eye on you.

Birds flitter about the trees and shrubbery. Sometimes just a glimpse, while others stretch out their wings to the sun, like this male Anhinga.

Flowers line the river banks around you. And sometimes, the sun focuses a spotlight like nothing else can. This is a Swamp lily (Crinum americanum) I believe.

Nature provides the most dramatic visions in colors almost beyond the imagination. Like this Roseate Spoonbill which was carefully maintaining its balance with wings outstretched as it moved further up the branch. The outstretched wings give you a good glimpse of the varying rose colors that make this bird so striking.

Turtles bask in the sun where fallen logs provide perfect venues for them. Often you will see six or more turtles on a single log. A turtle’s shell is made of bone and is part of its spine. UV light from sunshine is needed for vitamin D for bone and shell growth, which is why you will see turtles frequently basking in the sun.

One of my favorite turtle photos is the one below with mom and baby, reflecting the exact same pose. “I wanna be just like mom.”

Turtles are truly amazing creatures. I admire their abilities. Many of these little guys balance precariously on a rounded surface, with legs stretched and fully extended. I’ve often wondered whether this is needed for balance, or just because the sunshine feels good on the skin. No matter…it appears they enjoy it immensely.

I could share many more photos of glorious flowers, butterflies, birds, dragonflies, but these photos I’ve shared should be enough for you to decide. So…is Hillsborough River state park a truly magical place? It is for me.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close. I hope you find your magical place too.

Paddling at Lake Kissimmee State Park

Without a doubt, Lake Kissimmee state park is a little piece of paradise, just awaiting those who love to explore. It’s located in the mid-central part of Florida and is quite literally, stuck in “the middle of nowhere” which is exactly where its charm lies. It’s where you go when you want to detach from the world and find your own brand of inner peace.

The photo above is the Zipprer Canal in Lake Kissimmee state park. It connects the park to Lake Rosalie. The canal is shallow but is perfect for kayaks or canoes, with Great Blue herons and Snowy egrets a common sight along its banks. And yes, the water really is that blue.

Paddling Lake Kissimmee is always enjoyable but there’s a wonderful 12-mile loop that lets you start at Zipprer Canal and take creeks and a couple of lakes to get back to Lake Kissimmee. The scenery is varied and absolutely amazing. Come on along on our journey…


Once you begin paddling on the Zipprer Canal, the terrain changes a bit (like the photo above) and offers areas that are habitat for Black-crowned night herons. I wasn’t fortunate enough to capture a photo of the heron just mentioned, but we did see several immature Little Blue herons.


And several majestic Great Blue herons like this one, which was undisturbed by our presence and much more interested in finding breakfast.


Towards the end of the canal and closer to Lake Rosalie, we came upon this scene with overhanging branches dripping with Spanish moss that invited one to continue on. Doesn’t this remind you of something from a movie? Almost mesmerizing…

Add to that a wonderful little Kingfisher bouncing from tree to tree just in front of us. No great photo of it, of course, but here’s a very bad one just to give you an idea of what this little character looks like.


It was a rather foggy morning, so we hugged the shore of Lake Rosalie as we paddled the short distance to Rosalie Creek with friends. Kind of mesmerizing. And very very quiet.


But luckily the fog began to clear and made paddling the winding, narrow Rosalie Creek an absolute joy to experience. Not many power boats dare to enter this little creek, though we did encounter one brave soul who was lucky enough to find a place to turn around and safely retreat.


Paddling this little creek required a few maneuvers to wind your way through, but there was essentially no current and the scenery was absolutely glorious. Eagles and ospreys circled overhead, and the ever-present Anhinga’s kept one company, like this female in the photo below.


And herons of course, Great blues, Little blues (photo below), and Snowy egrets.


After Rosalie Creek, we moved into Tiger Lake which was blissfully calm and allowed us to paddle directly across to Tiger Creek. I’ve heard tales of having to paddle in strong winds across Tiger Lake at a 45 degree angle away from the creek in order to make it to that destination. I was certainly glad it was a calm day as our canoe weighed 69 pounds and could not be considered a lightweight one by any stretch of the imagination.

We encountered a bit of current paddling Tiger Creek, but it was very enjoyable. Blue skies with puffy white clouds above, the canoes moving smoothly through vivid-blue waters, bright green vegetation helping shore birds believe they’re totally hidden. What more is there to wish for?


Of course some birds come out to explore, like this Common Galenule.

If you’re exceptionally lucky on a paddle you might get to see this Snail Kite. It’s a majestic bird of prey. I’ve seen them flying before but have never been able to get a photo of one until now. I believe this one to be an immature Snail Kite based upon photos I’ve seen online, but don’t quote me. Snail kites (as well as Limpkins) feed on freshwater apple snails.


And we couldn’t have a blog about paddling without throwing in at least one photo of an alligator. They’re a fairly common sight when one is near water here. Most are pretty peaceful and just hanging out, till a bird gets close enough to become dinner.


And once through Tiger Creek, you get to Lake Kissimmee, which is big – nearly 35,000 acres. But our paddle is just a short jaunt from the creek into the other end of the canal which lets you return to Lake Kissimmee state park.

It’s been an absolutely wonderful 12-mile paddle beginning and ending at Lake Kissimmee state park. If you enjoy paddling, you will love this one. Put Lake Kissimmee state park on your “to do” list, but be sure to save a camping site for us! Hope to see you there sometime soon.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

A View of Nature with a Florida Twist

In mid-January, we loaded up the camping trailer and headed to Myakka River state park near Sarasota Florida. For a week now I’ve been challenged with acclimatizing my eyes to the radically different change of environment. Very different from Ohio. Palm trees, live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and saw palmettos everywhere you look. And beautiful river scenes like this one of the Myakka River, with shore birds and alligators a common sight.

Shore birds are quite eye-catching. Like these two Black-necked stilts. They prefer shallow wetland that allows them to search for food such as dragonflies, small fish and sometimes floating seeds. I’ve read male and female stilts share nest building and only have one brood per year, with usually 2 to 5 young. It’s mesmerizing to watch them racing through the shallow water.

The Limpkin is one bird you won’t be able to ignore, even if you wanted to. Its loud siren call can be heard from great distances; it is the “town cryer” letting all know that non-birds (such as humans) are in the area. This one seems to have had a successful fishing adventure this morning. Limpkins live in the wetlands in Florida as well as in central and south America. They’re large birds – about 27 inches long and a wingspan of about 40 inches.

The alligator is one of their primary predators, and there’s plenty of those at Myakka River. The park is filled with weekend visitors whose primary purpose may be to see gators. On a recent paddle on Myakka Lake we saw about 50 of those “floating flotillas” slowly easing off the bank and into the water just ahead of our canoe. But there’s really nothing to worry about; though caution is required so you don’t inadvertently surprise one of them. (And yes, I have a great zoom feature on my camera to capture this photo.)

There are so many beautiful shorebirds to amaze the eye. I loved watching the antics of this Lesser Yellowlegs. It has bright yellow legs with a mottled gray back and white belly. Of course there’s also a Greater Yellowlegs – and yes, you guessed it, they’re a larger version with a bit longer and thicker bill.

White pelicans are fun to see. Big magnificent impressive birds. Beautiful in flight.

Not to be confused with Wood Storks. Which are also large and predominantly white with some black on the wings. But the heads of the two are extremely different. In flight, the Wood stork is beautiful but not so much when on the ground and one gets a closer look. Not sure why but its head sometimes reminds me of a turkey vulture. Now I feel the need to apologize to the poor Wood stork.

One bird that everyone will fall in love with is the Roseate spoonbill. It’s a glorious combination of white, pink and rose – hence part of its name. These creatures are so fun to watch when they’re “fishing” as they put their spoon-like bill beneath the water and then swing back and forth, rather like they’re dragging the bottom for food – hence the “spoonbill” part of the name. This photo was taken on a quite foggy morning, but I was thrilled to be able to get the picture nonetheless.

Another bird we find here is the Black-crowned night heron. This one we also see in Ohio.

On this morning, the big guy was roosting in a tree, snoozing away. As their name implies, they are primarily active at night. This is a medium sized heron, but fairly stocky as compared to others. Like this Little Blue heron below. Both are about 24 to 25 inches long.

Oh, by the way, the phrase “birds of a feather flock together” does seem to be true like these American White pelicans and the Black Skimmers in the foreground. We would frequently see various types of birds along the shore sharing habitat generally, but still staying within their own grouping. Black Skimmers are amazing to watch as they skim along the water with their lower mandible (which is longer than their upper mandible) slightly under the water until they contact a fish and snap their mandibles closed. Breakfast; check!

One of my favorite shore birds is the Snowy Egret which has black legs and yellow feet. These egrets are about two feet long and have a black bill with yellow around the eye. I love their plumage. Almost looks long enough to be combed.

Another white bird you will frequently see is the White ibis, though it is not all white as it has black wing tips. This one won’t be confused with other white birds if you look for the curved reddish bill. It’s almost of a similar size to the herons previous mentioned, being about 25 inches long.

And not to be outdone, here is bird I learned more about just today…the photo below is of a jake. No, I didn’t name it. It’s an immature male tom turkey. And yes, I had to look it up to see if what someone told me was accurate. According to what I read, a jake turkey is differentiated from a tom by its beard, tail feathers, head color, spurs and behavior. And it can sometimes be confused with a hen turkey. It becomes a tom turkey officially at two years of age. The jake has more of a pale red or blue head rather than a vivid red or blue head. And its beard is 2 to 3 inches rather than the 10 inches of the tom. But, don’t quote me on this one!

There are so many other photos I could share of the wildlife at Myakka River state park. It’s a fabulous place to visit, and one that we enjoy immensely. And just in case you want to canoe Myakka Lake, it’s absolutely beautiful, even with the alligators!

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.