MIXED MESSAGES

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               As with most weather-related phenomena, the transition from fall to winter  in Florida  is completely unlike anything I'd experienced in more temperate areas.  While the avifauna has pretty much equilibrated at typical winter composition by December, the flora is still in a state of flux.  The first hard freeze didn't occur until late December this year, and early in the month there was little hint of dormancy or decrepitude among the plants of the marsh.  For a couple of weeks, some areas of marsh were awash in yellow from dense flowering stands of Bidens aristosa (above right). Even most of the trees still had their leaves, with relatively little change in color. The shots above  were taken before the first cold snap, the one on the left just after.  The grasses have completely browned out, giving the place a very fleeting wintery feel.

Hammock habitats and edges, especially in the wetter areas along canals, showed a bit more seasonal change, but it was still subtle.    We do have colorful fall/winter  foliage in Florida, but it happens on an extended time scale.  You just have to look a little harder in just the right places.   On the right is Haines Creek in early winter, where most of the hackberries and red maples have dropped their leaves.

 
Changes in activity patterns among the fauna are a little more evident.  Although gators can be seen throughout the winter on warmer, sunny days, they are becoming far less apparent, and will remain so until late February or March when spring begins to kick into high gear.  Some groups of birds, such as the raptors, are continuing to shift in composition even into early winter, after most of the other groups of birds have become fairly stable and predictable in occurrance. 
           

Red-tailed hawks (above left) are more and more apparent through December, usually hunting from conspicuous perches at the edges of the dikes, marshes, or hammocks.  Bald eagles also become more frequent, including both adults and juveniles (above right).

Maybe one of the most telling observations about winter's weak grip on Florida and it's birds comes from the other common Buteo of Emeralda, the red-shouldered hawk.  Even as the red-tails and bald eagles (which have already begun nesting) are altering their home ranges in an apparent seasonal shift, the red-shouldered hawks are acting as if spring is already here.  By late December, they are frequently seen perched in pairs, or flying together screaming at each other.  One can only surmise that love is in the air.

            

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