One of the most alluring things about nature is the unexpected. This great wondrous creation, that we’ve been gifted, is constantly changing with surprises around every turn. Many of the special places we write about are favorites we return to again and again, excited with the knowledge there’s a chance we’ll see something truly special. That’s where our story leads us today and as the saying goes, expect the unexpected.
Two weeks ago, we were hiking down the Red Maple Boardwalk nature trail. The trail is part of the University of North Florida’s Environmental Center and is an integral component of the Sawmill Slough Preserve. With 382 acres and approximately 5 miles of trails it’s a true treasure and an important natural area inside the Jacksonville city limits. Please look forward to more information on the preserve, nature center and trails in future posts.
It was about 2pm and the sky was grey and spitting rain off and on. There was a nice breeze to keep the bugs down and the temperature was warm, unlike the blazing sweat producing sweltering heat and humidity of a normal July day in Northeast FL. In other words, the weather was perfect for an afternoon jaunt through the woods in search of our avian friends. With our binoculars attached securely to our bodies & cameras in hand, we set off on our adventure of the unknown.
The boardwalk borders the entire southern end of a beautiful lake and has a raised loop in the middle that circles through a mixed wetland forest. We walked down the the boardwalk and took the loop through the woods. This eco-system is full of all types of lush green foliage, vines, palmettos, hard woods and soft woods. We had the entire trail to ourselves accompanied only by the sites, sounds and smells of what could have been an ancient southern forest. These are truly special moments when the worries of the day to day world melt away and we become part of nature itself.
We observed a Pileatted Woodpecker high in a pine tree searching for his next meal. They are the largest woodpeckers in North America (except for the Ivory-bill which are considered extinct) black and white with a beautiful large flaming crest. That’s right, they look like Woody Woodpecker. Next, we came into a flush of migratory birds mixed with our local residents.
One of the really exciting things about birding is sometimes you can walk for the longest time and see almost nothing and all of a sudden there’s a group of birds. Usually if there’s one species, you’ll see other species as well. It’s beautiful and rewarding to see how different types of birds work together to keep each other safe. A lesson that would prove poignant later on during our afternoon escapade.
We continued down the boardwalk and turned right on the trail that circles the rest of the lake. On the other side is a bridge that takes you to an island. I stepped onto the bridge and crossed slowly as there were 3 turtles sunning themselves on a piece of wood in the water near the bridge. While I took a moment to watch them, a snapper turtle splashed out of the water just under the bridge where I was standing. He was a big un’ and fun to see!
When I finally crossed the bridge, Frank had been over on the island for a bit & I noted that he was off to my right. When I looked over at him, he motioned for me to be quiet & approach with caution. Instead of turning right off the bridge, I continued forward & flanked him after I walked about 100 ft. It was at that moment that I saw what had him paused & pulling his camera from his pack.
There on the ground about 8 ft from where Frank was standing was a red- tailed hawk. At first I thought it was injured as it was hopping around on the ground. This was certainly a rare situation. Most birds of prey will fly off into a tree as humans approach, but not this guy. I started clicking off shots & shooting video. What I couldn’t see was what the hawk had in its talons on the ground. Now the hopping made sense but I still didn’t know what was on the ground.
With us standing right there, the hawk flew from the ground to a lower branch of the small tree in front of us and covered something. As it covered its wings around the branches, I knew it was a nest. The male & female cardinals were chirping up a storm, fluttering from bush to bush and flying in and out of the tree, trying anything they could to distract the hawk. Nothing worked and my heart sank.
Any video that I was taking at this point became pointless. I was shaking and upset and feeling sick. Now I know as much as anyone who loves being out in nature, that hawks have to eat too. The balance of nature and the circle of life is what it is. Even with that knowledge, this was difficult for us to see.
As hard as that was to witness, the death of those baby birds wasn’t the part that made me sick. I was reliving a terrible memory of what happened in my life 12 years ago. Our beautiful beloved love bird Tweety was sunning himself on his perch in the backyard after his bath. Out of nowhere, Tweety was knocked off his perch and onto the ground by a red-tailed hawk. The same thing happened. The hawk covered him with its ginormous wing span & flew away with him in the grips of its talons. Just like the cardinals, it happened right in front of me and there was nothing I could do about it.
As nature promptly broke our hearts when we saw the circle of life happen before our eyes, it made the moment we had seen earlier so special. We saw Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Carolina wrens, Carolina chicadees and Yellow-Throated Warblers…five different bird species working together in the woods. They traveled from tree to tree eating, resting and watching out for each other as if they were a family.
When we see and live experiences like we had this day, we feel alive and a part of something so precious and so special. As we like to say, open your eyes to your surroundings and see what is really there. You never know what’s around the corner.