Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Regal Iris

It's that time of the year when irises bloom. I can't think of a more regal flower, the natural inspiration for the emblem of the French kings, the fleur-de-lis. So many artists have painted it: Van Gogh's irises come first to mind, but so many other artists also.

The ones I bought at the Blandy Farm Arboretum and planted in my garden during my first fall here keep getting more beautiful each year. The first year only the white ones bloomed; the following year yellow and deep purple manifested themselves--the yellow ones are the only ones that seem to have scent, a lemony fragrance in this case.

This year a bi-color purple and cream have shown up. Soon it will be time to divide the clump, to give it more room the expand. And I couldn't resist buying a new iris on sale--white with a lovely purple-veined splash. So, I must dig a new iris bed soon.

In the back bed, the old-fashioned very fragrant irises from my mom's garden that sister Bea gave me cuttings of are starting to spread, though they only produced a few flowering spikes this year. In my old garden in Columbia, my clump of this variety would have had 50 flowers or more. Oh well, next year they'll do better.

And then there's the Dutch iris--I planted a color mix two falls ago. Last year they bloomed together, but this year, the pale lilac with yellow falls bloomed earlier, the traditional blue with yellow spots about a week later. A gardener should always be ready for surprises!

Pale lilac Dutch iris with white salvia

Dark blue Dutch iris with red-flowered yarrow.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Art at the Mill 2015

Blue Gentian (Gentiana scabra) digital print, 16" x 20" matted.

The spring 2015 Art at the Mill show has opened at the Historic Burwell-Morgan Mill in Millwood on Friday April 24. The show will be open the next three weekends, April 25-26, May 2-3 and May 10  (a Sunday), hours are from 10-5 on Saturdays and 12-5 on Sundays.

I have several botanical art pieces in the show. In addition, digital prints of two of my botanical paintings are for sale at a really wonderful shop in Front Royal, called Gathered.

Spring is here and my front yard is looking better and better. The new bed of Thalia narcissus in front echoes the whites of the poet's narcissus farther back and their fragrance spruces up the entire front yard. Several new shrubs and perennials are on the porch waiting to be planted. It's hard for me to keep up with the yard work: digging new beds, re-edging the older ones and putting down new mulch. But the work is so rewarding when the garden looks resplendent after a good rain!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

St Marks River Wilderness and Lighthouse

St. Marks River salt marsh.

Our bird photographer companions on board the Alligator had told us about the St. Marks River Wildlife Refuge nearby, and that a festival was taking place there the next day. The following morning we left the lodge around ten and by the time we arrived at the festival site, many cars were parked alongside the road, we walked about a quarter mile to the site.

I had expected the festival to be of a commercial nature, with lots of vendors hawking arts, crafts, and gizmos, and was pleasantly surprised that most of the booths were informational, with only a few commercial ones. I wish I'd taken photos of some of the exhibits, particularly a wood carver's stand which had some wonderfully whimsical hand-made toys on display, and the elderly gentleman who had created the toys sharpened Herb's pocket knife so expertly for free! But alas, I had left my camera in the car. There was a fisherman teaching children how to cast, an Audubon Society booth, and the local native plant society, whose congenial folks told me about the Florida Wildlife Corridor that state conservationists have been working to establish.

Warning sign

After an hour or so at the festival site we drove out to see the historic St. Marks Lighthouse. Approaching the coast, hardwood forest and stands of slash and long leaf pine give way to expanses of salt marshes crisscrossed with streams. It was getting warmer by the minute, and we quickly shed our jackets. I wished we'd gotten here earlier or later, as the high noon light makes things look too flat and contrasty, but the views are spectacular in any case.

St. Marks Lighthouse

A group of Civil War reennactors had a camp set up at the base of the lighthouse. The lighthouse played a role in the Battle of  Natural Bridge in 1865, reputedly the last southern victory in the war.

Civil War reennactors

Built in 1830, the St. Marks Lighthouse has not been occupied since 1960, when the beacon became automated. In 2000 the Coast Guard stabilized the structure but transfer to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service did not take place until 2013. The old fresnel lens was taken down for hand-cleaning and the old refurbished lantern is now on display inside, along with some artifacts.

The captain in the tower.

The stairs going up to the tower were off-limits--too bad, it would have been wonderful to see the view from the top. One of the reennactors, dressed as a captain, posed for us tourists at the entrance of the tower stairs. The lighthouse keeper's quarters beyond consisted of two rooms, containing a few exhibits. The artifacts on display bespoke of the isolated life the keepers of the lighthouse and their families must have led, even into recent times.

Outdoors again, we drove out towards one of the nearby salt ponds overlooking the lighthouse, where I could work on a small watercolor sketch. The afternoon sun was merciless, and there was no shade there to protect us from it, so we stayed in our car with all the windows open to keep the heat at bay, and shed even more layers of clothing while I painted as fast as I could.

St Mark River Lighthouse

After my sketch was finished we drove back through the refuge towards Wakulla Springs Lodge for our last night there. After dinner we went out in the gardens for a last look--the starry sky dazzled, and in the night's frosty air it it didn't take much imagination, one could almost see the Creature from the Black Lagoon creeping along the foggy shore...

This last photo was taken the following morning, as the mist was lifting, just before our departure. I hope we will have a chance to visit beautiful Wakulla Springs another time soon.

For more photos of the St. Marks area see my Flickr album here.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Wakulla Forest

The Creek from Sally Ward Spring.

In the afternoon we took a walk in the Wakulla Springs Forest. The trail begins just on the other side of the guest parking lot. A boardwalk takes one around a small sinkhole before crossing the road, then enters the old-growth forest. Edward Ball purchased the property to preserve the forest around Wakulla Springs back in the 1930's. The irony of a financier who had made his money on paper mills which dictated the cutting of thousands of trees for pulp trying to preserve this particular forest did not escape us, yet we are all fortunate to enjoy his legacy.

The trail goes through about six miles of forest to reach the boundary of the state park, but it's not a loop, so however far one goes, one must walk back the same distance. We knew we didn't have the stamina to undertake the entire twelve-mile round trip, so the question was to gauge how far we could get before the prospect of our feet giving out and/or nightfall made returning imperative.

Fortunately the terrain was flat and the trail well-maintained. Wooden boardwalks took us over swampy areas where cypress knees abounded as we approached the bridge that crosses over Sally Ward Spring creek, which marks the first mile.

Cypress knees

On the other side of the bridge, the trail becomes more rugged, with tree roots breaking up the level ground. The immense size of the canopy overhead can best be appreciated at this time of the year (I was glad there were no insects to deal with). Huge southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) grew amid oak, sweet gum (tupelo), bald cypress, pine, red maple and hickory trees of enormous size. To reach such size some of these trees had be about two hundred years old or more. Young cabbage palms grew in some of the seeps.

Hardwood forest with cabbage palms.

Magnificent Magnolia tree

We went deeper into the forest, passed the second mile marker and pushed on hoping to make it to the next bridge, reported to be around mile three. The vegetation on the forest floor varied depending on the tree canopy, from very open in drier ground to dense in other areas. We came across squaw-root (Conopholis americana) and other fungi here and there.

Squaw-root (Conopholis americana)

Oyster mushrooms with ferns on a log

We crossed a fire road with fences along both sides, and still no bridge in sight. We continued for another half mile or so as the afternoon waned, and still hadn't found the next bridge. It made sense to start back at this point, when our feet were beginning to feel stressed.

The walk back seemed to take less time. It's telling to me, that somehow the return trip always seems shorter than the trip going out. Is it because the return is familiar, where the initial exploration takes longer because one is looking around, perhaps subconsciously noticing any landmarks and other useful information that might be needed later on, or simply taking the time to enjoy new sights?

Squirrel in a tree

As we were returning we encountered a family group going out on the trail--it seemed a bit late to be starting on this trail but perhaps they weren't planning to go very far. Our feet were definitely feeling the five-mile hike by the time we reached the lodge. We didn't see any birds of note and the only animal we encountered on our hike was this sassy squirrel--we probably would have done better if we'd gone earlier in the morning or later, closer to dusk, when animals are more active.

I had just enough time to rest a bit in our room before going back to the previous afternoon's site to finish my watercolor. I'm afraid I rushed the second stage of the painting and it didn't come out as well as I'd hoped--the reflections in the water were too strong in color, particularly the Gamboge yellow. I went back and fixed some things the next morning, lifting the excess of color from the water. I don't find this painting as satisfying as the one I did on the Chazz, but hopefully it communicates some of the haunting atmosphere of Wakulla Springs. I'd love to return sometime in the spring to see the cypresses with new foliage, and bathe in the springs.

Wakulla Springs, watercolor, 10" x 14"

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Morning on the Wakulla River

Friday morning I woke up at sunrise to the sound of vaguely familiar bird calls--what kind of birds were these? Eventually it dawned on me, they were cardinals, but with a southern accent! It was hard to get out of bed and dress with the chilly temperature in our room. Looking out the window over the guest parking lot, I saw only one car besides our own--there was frost on them--it must have been below freezing last night. They did say these months were their slow season, and it was great to have the place nearly to ourselves.

After breakfast we went down to the dock to arrange for a morning boat tour. We were told they rarely ran the glass-bottom boats these days, and only when the water was clear enough to permit viewing. Out of a fleet of about six tour boats operated by the park service, we boarded the aptly-named named Alligator. Our group consisted of six avid bird photographers equipped with incredibly large telephoto lenses, and us.

Looking down the Wakulla Springs basin

The hour-long tour cruises down the Wakulla River below the springs for about a mile and circles back up along the opposite shore. There were lots of birds to be seen this morning: coot, moorhen, ducks, herons, white ibis, and many anhingas.



Anhinga perching on cypress knees

The anhinga is among the few birds that lack oil glands, so its feathers cannot repel water. It's also called the "snake-bird" because it hunts for fish underwater. After a dip, the anhinga must dry its wings before it can take flight, accounting for its classic posture perched with spread wings.

Another anhinga near the Cypress trees on the Wakulla River

Ancient cypress trees draped in Spanish moss formed islets in the shallows, giving the river a marvelous atmosphere. We pass by a blue heron, the feathery plumes on its breast showing hints of its mating plumage. 

Blue heron

White Ibis on the Wakulla River

The birders on board were as knowledgeable as our captain--one of them actually spotted a limpkin! The captain said limpkins had become a rare sighting since the mysterious disappearance of its main food, the apple snail, about a decade ago.



A pair of Hooded Mergansers

Further on, they pointed out a pair of Hooded Mergansers swimming near our boat--Herb and I had never seen this unusual duck before. Once the boat reached a certain point, it began to turn around to cross the river towards the northern shore, passing islands of vegetation where birds fed, and alligators and other reptiles basked.

Alligator on the Wakulla River
Turtles basking on a log

Along the other shore the water was a bit clearer, indicating the flow of another spring into the spring basin. A few islands with large trees shelter the mouth of a creek that flows from Sally Ward Spring. The captain told us that this was where the old horror classic "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" was filmed back in the 1950's, adding another note of fame to the springs.

The Black Lagoon

The fossilized bones of mastodons and other prehistoric creatures have been found in the depths of Wakulla Springs since before the Civil War. These are mostly in museums now, though they keep one original and a few reproductions on display for the public here.

Black Vulture

I got this amazingly close shot of a black vulture here before we wound back towards the spring basin--don't think I've seen this sinister creature so close before. Our boat circled by the main spring on its way back to the dock. Despite the murky water, we saw a pod of manatees there; they probably stay right over the springs to keep warm on frigid winter days.

Manatee surfaces in Wakulla Springs

Our tour was over much too soon (I was tempted to get on the next boat to take the tour again); we'd have to figure out what to do in the afternoon. For more photos of Wakulla Springs see my Flickr album here: Wakulla Springs.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Wakulla Springs

Wakulla Springs.

After our happy stay at Chassahowitzka we drove north on Rte. 19/98 towards Wakulla Springs, where we would spend the next three nights at the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs Lodge. On the way there I had hoped to stop at Fanning Springs State Park for lunch, for a quick look at another of Florida's wonderful springs. But as we were about to enter the state park, the ranger at the booth told us that due to flooding of the nearby Suwanee River, the springs had become muddy and were not very scenic at the moment. We opted for the free picnic grounds along the Suwanee, on the eastern bank of the river. The river was at flood stage indeed. I was glad we had given up on our original rental house along the Suwanee, as the currents would have made navigating the river on a canoe or kayak too dangerous.

Elena on the Suwanee River

It was quite chilly at the park and we were the only folks there except for a workman in a minivan, also stopping for lunch. In spite of the chill, the purple-pink blossoms of redbud trees were starting to open. Ahh, Florida! I wish I could be like the birds who migrate south every winter, to return north in the spring.
Herb after our picnic

After our picnic lunch we drove across the bridge into new territory. We passed a series of small towns, rural and more or less impoverished. At a town named Perry, we turned west on Rte. 98 toward the Florida panhandle. Truck after huge truck loaded with raw pine logs passed us going the other way. Stands of pine trees in all stages of growth from saplings to mature trees ready to be harvested grew along both sides of the road.  There must be a lumber mill nearby, and we wondered if the harvested logs were to be milled into lumber for construction, or for turpentine, or paper pulp.

Edward Ball Wakulla Springs Lodge grounds

After crossing the St. Marks River we arrived at our destination in the late afternoon. The Wakulla Springs Lodge is a hotel built in the 1930's by financier Edward Ball at the site of these spectacular natural springs. The hotel has all the charm of its era, several modernizations in the succeeding decades have not altered its Spanish Colonial style so popular in its time in Florida. We were told the lodge was about to undergo renovations again this spring.

Main Lobby of the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs Lodge

After checking in and getting settled in our room, I went out to scout the views. The gardens surrounding the hotel had huge camellia trees loaded with blossoms. Unfortunately, the springs here had also been flooded and the famously clear blue water was the color of strong tea--one couldn't see beyond the first few feet of water. Even so, the surrounding trees densely draped in Spanish moss made for a lovely scene. I saw one brave tourist in the bathing area (probably German), getting out after a brief dip--I had brought my bathing suit hoping for a dip in the springs, but this air was way too cold for me.

Lone bather after a dip in Wakulla Springs

Despite the bone-chilling breeze, I was determined to capture this beautiful scene in a painting, and found a bench near the water where I could sit and spread out my gear. The garden was deserted so I had the place all to myself. I worked on my watercolor for about an hour as the sun was going down until I was so thoroughly chilled I couldn't stand it--I'd have to return to finish my piece the next afternoon.

Doorway to the grand salon

 I came back inside the lodge to warm up with some hot tea and met up with Herb. We sat in the main lobby admiring the grand salon: the unique painted ceiling beams, the arched windows, the huge fireplace--wish they'd light a roaring fire in it! A cocktail pianist played on a grand piano through the evening hours, adding to the atmosphere. We ordered a bottle of wine to enjoy here and take along to dinner. Later on we drifted into the dining room and had the best Southern fried chicken dinner we've ever had--delicious! The meals at the lodge were all wonderful, our compliments to the chef--we really enjoyed the food.

Our room was so cold, we were grateful for the extra blankets. We retired early to keep warm and be ready for a boat trip down the Wakulla River the following morning.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Magic of Weeki Wachee


On the third morning we drove to Weeki Wachee State Park for a trip down the river. We knew the drill, having done it four years before--the concession operators set your rental out below the swimming area and arrange to pick you up at Rogers Park, some six miles downstream, a few hours later. We rented a canoe for the two of us this time, so I could record video and take photos without having to worry about navigating at the same time. The Weeki Wachee has a six-knot strong current so paddling is not strictly necessary--the current will propel you along nicely--but with so many sharp curves and low-hanging vegetation, negotiating the turns can be tricky.

Herb on the Weeki Wachee

As we began our drift downstream a couple of people on kayaks who had left after us overtook us, nearly colliding with us as we passed the tour boat Aquabelle on its return voyage.

After the tour boat and the others had passed, the magic of the Weeki Wachee enveloped us. The  songs of birds and the gurgling of the stream were the only sounds beyond the hum of traffic from the road near the refuge. It was heartening to see the water level much higher this year than four years ago, though we didn't see any alligators or turtles basking along the banks. It was cooler than the other day on the Chazz, but not as cold as it had been on our previous trip, and the water seemed warmer--could that be the reason?

It was fascinating to notice how the water flow contoured the banks--deep pools tended to form on the outer edge of the curves while the sand built up on the inner edges, making those very shallow. My camerawork was interrupted at each sharp bend to help Herb manage the turns, keeping our prow pointed forward. A few times we came close to getting hit by low-lying branches.

Halfway down the river, I began to notice my camera battery was running low, and I had forgotten to recharge the spare the night before. I tried to save as much power as I could for a bit of video of our old neighborhood on Dawn Lane, and managed to accomplish that.

Shortly after, the battery ran out--I was not able to photograph the lower Weeki Wachee and Hospital Hole, where we came across more manatees. There were several groups of fishermen casting at the hole, as well as a few kayakers ooing over the manatees. We had a hard time maneuvering around them all before deciding it was much too crowded here--it broke the meditative mood of our solitary sojourn down the river.

All too soon we arrived at the end of our run: Rogers Park. Ahh, I could be happy paddling down the Weeki Wachee every day of the year!