Speaking of Nature: What a difference a day can make
Bill Danielson photo
This trio of blue jays spent quite a bit of time resting, eating and keeping their feet warm on my porch railing.
Bill Danielson photo
Named for its soft, leathery shell, the softshell turtle’s most prominent feature is its nose.
The difference between 2013 and 2014 was probably not a particularly sharp one for many of you, but the shift that I experienced was amplified by the fact that I had traveled. My mother-in-law (Fran) celebrated her 75th birthday on Dec. 29 and the entire family decided to descend upon her home in Florida to attend a big party being thrown in her honor. Of course, the weather in Florida is usually nice during the winter, but I assure you that had nothing to do with our travel arrangements.
I did, however, take advantage of the situation by making daily sun-rise visits to two man-made wetlands that are located quite close to Fran’s house. One (the Wakoda-hatchee Wetland) is a place that I have mentioned before, while the other (the Green Cay Wetland) is a recent addition. Both are clever solutions to the problems of wastewater management and wildlife conservation, but they achieve these different goals with dramatically different results.
Wakodahatchee is much smaller in scale and has a strong feeling of artificiality about it. Interpretive signs on the elevated boardwalk and other signs placed on posts amongst the vegetation give one the impression of being in a zoo. The wildlife species using the wetland are right in your face and it is not uncommon to see large groups of photographers with very large lenses on a near-daily basis.
Green Cay feels more natural simply because it is so much larger. The same boardwalk design is employed but the feeling of crowding is replaced with a feeling of wide-open spaces that go on and on. It’s just an illusion, but it is a surprisingly effective one.
On Dec. 30, I started my last full day in Florida by getting up at dawn and heading over to Wakodahatchee. It was cloudy, about 75 degrees, and looked like it might rain, but I was in heaven. Dressed in shorts, short sleeves and sandals, I walked down the boardwalk with a clear understanding that photography was going to be a little difficult. It was simply a little dark, which meant that my hand-held telephoto shots would be blurry if the animals moved much.
In contrast (that’s funny actually), the same lighting problem was a gift because it cut down on the contrast between light and dark. Colors would be richer and details that might otherwise be lost could be recorded. This was exemplified when I found myself staring down at one of the largest turtles I have ever personally seen.
It was a softshell turtle and it was huge. The item for comparison that is probably most familiar to my readers would probably be a large pizza. The particular turtle I was looking at was larger than a large pizza, but its face was what had me hypnotized.
We here in the north see nothing like this. Our large snapping turtles have heavy heads with a strong-jawed “beak.” The softshell turtle is just as much a predator as the snapping turtle, with strong jaws and a healthy appetite for fish, but all of that is overwhelmed by the softshell’s protruding nose. This animal looks rather comic when it is seen for the first time. All notions of powerful predator take a back seat when you see that snorkel-like proboscis.
I eventually had to abandon my pursuit of photography that day when a gentle rain started falling. The heavy clouds suggested that this rain would last for a while and as good as it felt, it would eventually pose a threat to my camera equipment. So I headed back to the car with the perfume of the wetland filling the calm, humid air. A rare and wonderful respite from the cold northern winter that waited for me at home.
Dec. 31 was a day of travel. Again, I woke up before the sun rose but this time I was packed for my departure rather than packed for pleasure. The weather was the same as the previous day with a wonderful, balmy humidity in the air and temperatures in the high 60s. Later that afternoon, I stepped out of the airport into full-blown winter. There were no turtles waiting for me in a landscape that was frozen as hard as iron.
Jan. 1 was actually a rather pleasant day, but then the big storm hit and things went south (though I don’t really understand that expression because south is actually pretty nice). The snow fell, as did the temperatures. Two days of school were canceled, freeing me from the awkward responsibility of greeting students back from vacation on a Thursday. I’ll pay for it in June, but I loved it.
Jan. 3 was the most interesting day of the storm. Deep snow and bitter cold produced a huge demand for food from my neighborhood birds and I was constantly filling and refilling feeders throughout the day. It was so cold that I could actually see the steam of the birds’ breathing in the air. That, my friends, is cold.
I set up my camera near the kitchen window that looks east onto my porch and spent the better part of three hours. I felt a little guilty sitting in complete comfort with a warm cup of coffee and a plate of freshly-baked cornbread on my desk, but not guilty enough to stop enjoying myself tremendously. The temperature on the other side of the glass was 5 below and the birds actually looked cold.
Birds (particularly songbirds) have legs and feet that are well adapted for cold weather. Their lower legs are little more than skin, bones and tendons and all of the actual movement of their toes is controlled by muscles up near their bodies. Human fingers actually work in much the same way, with the strength of our grip being provided by muscles located in our lower arms above the wrist, but below the elbow.
Still, bitter cold like we had on Jan. 3 does alter bird behavior in one subtle, but obvious way. On days with such cold, the birds will often pull up one leg, or sit down on both legs as they sit and feed. All of the birds at my feeders were extremely hungry that day and many had the slight wobble of a one-legged balancing act.
But the truly big development was an apparent marrying of families. Blue jays tend to spend the winter months in small family groups of three to six birds. I have a local family of six jays that comes to eat at my feeders on a daily basis. On Jan. 3, however, the number of jays virtually doubled. A steady supply of food paired with a great need for food seems to have brought two families together. Six jays can carry off a lot of seed, but 11 can really do some damage.
Fortunately, the antics of the jays more than made up for their consumption of seed. At one point, I managed to capture a photo of three jays sitting face to face, as though they were sitting around a cafe table at breakfast. All three of them were exhibiting the behavior of sitting on their feet to keep themselves warm and all three had the bright, alert expressions so common among jays. And once again, the clouds allowed for soft lighting and low contrast.
The bitter cold of those two days was followed by a day of rain and temperatures in the 40s. Quite a shift from 5 below zero! It seems like the only thing that has had sharp contrast is the weather. Who knows what Thursday morning will bring?
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com