When you see a gorgeous bird or a beautiful flower, do you find yourself thinking, "That's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen?" I do. So often, in fact, that I realized I MIGHT be exaggerating. Yes, me. The Queen of Hyperbole might be overstating things somewhat. A wee bit. Maybe. So, I asked myself to reconsider and come up with the Ten Most Beautiful Things Often Spotted Along the St. Johns River. Well, MY top ten, anyway. And here, in no particular order, are my winners for your consideration.
1. Most Beautiful Heron
There are several herons that make their home along the St. Johns River, so this was a tricky one. The stately Great Blue Heron always garners a lot of attention, just by virtue of its large size. And the Green Heron by virtue of its smaller stature and less conspicuous nature. But after due consideration, I settled on the Tri-colored Heron (once known as the Louisiana Heron, though you have to have been birding a long time, like me, to remember that). I think this bird is truly a winner, and hope you agree.
2. Most Beautiful Duck or Grebe
This is an easy one. No question about it, our gorgeous little wood duck is the sure winner. There are other handsome ducks, certainly, but none native to this area that even come close to the stunning colors on this beauty.
3. Most Beautiful Passerine (Songbird) #1
Songbirds are truly the showiest and brightest entrants in this little contest. So many beautiful colors and patterns, I had trouble narrowing it down. But I settled on a tie between my favorites. That's the best I could do. For sheer audacity of color combinations, the winner would have to be the painted bunting, a bird so remarkable, it doesn't look like it could be real.
4. Most Beautiful Passerine (Songbird) #2
Equally as stunning as the bunting, though not quite as gaudy, I chose my own personal favorite, the prothonotary warbler, surely the brightest yellow of any songbird. With its contrasting blue-gray wings, it is a showy but elegant little bird, and a very interesting one, as well. These warblers often nest in tree cavities, stump holes, and bird boxes, unlike most other warblers. I have heard that they will also nest in holes in river banks, under tree roots, but I've never seen that, myself.
5. Most beautiful Land Mammal
(Puma concolor coryi)
For my money, there is no more beautiful land mammal than our stunning Florida panther, a subspecies of the much more common western cougar. Just look at that face! So regal, and like all cats, so sure it knows way, way more than you do. There are times I'm pretty sure it's right.
6. Most Beautiful Raptor
Hands down, my choice for the most beautiful raptor (bird of prey) is the stunningly graceful and beautifully marked swallow-tailed kite. To see one of these gorgeous birds drifting along effortlessly on the air currents is to see poetry in motion. And to see one close enough to study its slightly heart-shaped face and black eyes, is thrilling. Drop-dead gorgeous bird! Swallow-tailed kites return to Florida early each summer, and should you want to enjoy seeing a lot of them in one place, they nest at the Orlando Wetlands area. An entire flock skimming the treetops in search of dinner, which they snatch in their talons and eat on the wing, is a spectacle you won't soon forget.
7. Most Beautiful Gallinule or Rail
Rails, coots, and common gallinules are not especially colorful, but their cousin, the purple gallinule, is the peacock of the family. Their brilliant, iridescent blue and purple feathers practically glow in the sun, and the splash of red on their bills and snow white under their tails make the bird impossible to misidentify. Once found almost exclusively in the southernmost part of the state, they are now nesting along the St. Johns River, and to spot them picking their way across the spatterdock and water lilies is a real treat. They use their huge, yellow feet much like snowshoes, to prevent the lily pads from sinking under their weight. Oh, yes! This one's a winner, all right.
8. Most Beautiful Stork
Okay, I cheated here, since there's only one candidate in this category. And even then, it isn't very pretty up close, with its big, bald head, and oversized beak. But I had to include wood storks in my top ten list, because a wood stork soaring overhead is as pretty a sight as you'll see in the sky. (Barring #6, of course.) The large, somewhat ungainly bird exhibits remarkable grace as it soars, and the crisp black and white coloration is striking against a summer sky. See what I mean?
9. Most Beautiful Flower
Lots of pretty flowers along the river and in other parts of the St. Johns River basin habitat, but my personal favorite is the vibrant red hibiscus coccineus, also called scarlet rosemallow. There is just something about that splash of vivid red amidst the bright green foliage that catches the eye, and refuses to be ignored. That's a trait I can admire, and even though the leaves look strikingly similar to something you might see being smoked (for purely medicinal purposes, of course), I'm going to give it a place here on my list. It's earned it.
10. Most Beautiful Snake
Eastern Coral Snake
Saved the best for last. Many of you know I'm a reptile lover at heart, and of all the reptiles in this part of the state, surely none is as beautiful as the eastern coral snake. The bright bands of black, yellow, and red are the snake's way of advertising that it's dangerous, and you should leave it alone. Coral snakes have extremely potent venom, but at the same time, they do have this handy, attention-getting warning system, and they are very non-aggressive, preferring to hide rather than fight. When confronted, they will always try to slip away, or burrow under leaves and debris in the hopes you'll ignore them. This does NOT mean you should attempt to handle this snake. They can and will bite when provoked. Even a graze from those short, fixed fangs (located in the FRONT of their mouths) is enough to be extremely dangerous, or even deadly. Admire from a safe distance, only! That's what I do.
And there you have my Top Ten "Fairest of Them All." Hope you enjoyed the post, and agree with at least some of my choices. Feel free to leave a comment, if you have a favorite of your own!
Stay Tuned For Next Week's Post
(I can say no more!)
See you then!