Northerners who think of Florida as a one-season state may be surprised to learn that in late February thunderstorms bring on a unique and lushly lingering spring. Its delights are particularly noticeable along the Weeki Wachee River, where the season slowly blossoms into summer through March and April. After the first rains, frogs and toads crawl out from the mudbanks and go in search of still ponds. Overhead, the migratory birds pass through in waves, stopping only to feed on newly emergent insects. Resident fowl assemble in noisy, overcrowded rookeries, made noisier by the continuous hatching of many different species. The details of this rich and variegated tapestry are enlarged on the following four pages in photographs by Shelly Grossman, and are interpreted by Mary Louise Grossman on page 43.
REBIRTH IN THE SOUTH
No sudden blossoming, prompted by quiet, prolonged April showers—and gone in a fortnight—is the Florida spring. Its arrival, fully four to six weeks earlier than the northern spring, is heralded by low-flying clouds and drenching but brief thunderheads. In the intense green of the new cypress needles and the bell-shaped green flowers of the trailing gray Spanish moss, in the perfume of the jasmine, the boom of the black vulture's courtship dive, the wail of the limpkins and the whistles of the otters on the river, in the throngs of migrants passing through from South America and Mexico on their way to northern nesting areas, the season surges forward in gentle and repeated ground swells, from the end of February to the first week in May.
One of the first signs of spring on the Weeki Wachee River, the southernmost of the big spring-fed rivers, is the soft, musky odor of fish bedding—shell crackers, stumpknockers and bluegills laying their eggs on the bottom in circular beds. Its northern equivalent would be the smell of the new growth of grass after a rain.
The temperature of the main spring, that wells up from a deep crevice at the rate of 168 million gallons every 24 hours never varies from 74.2� the year round. So it is not the rain or the rise in air temperature that initiates the renewal of life underwater; it is the longer hours of sunlight and the heavy growth of algae on the eel grass, on which mullet and flagfish graze in schools. From a depth of 10 or 15 feet, tiny white flowers are shooting up on vinelike stems to be pollinated at the surface by wind or insect. Ocean blue crabs, grown pale over winter, turn bright blue, and the males of all the 71 salt-and freshwater fishes are displaying their breeding colors.
Having no watershed, the Weeki Wachee never floods its banks in the spring. Along its 12-mile winding course to the Gulf, flowers and trees grow to the water's edge, and their roots are never drowned, even though some are cacti and pines of the sandy scrub. The hammock, or climax forest, is only yards away from the cypress stands that thrive in water. It is a perversity of this climate that the cypress and other conifers drop their needles in the fall, and stay stark and bare until new ones grow in the spring. Live oak, myrtle and magnolia are green all winter and, even though the turkey oak turns brown and the maple red, the big leaf drop does not come until spring, when buds on all the deciduous trees push the old leaves out.
The early-blooming flowers are the copper iris, the trailing arbutus, the jasmine and the ground nut, which was once sought for food by aboriginal Indians, the Calusas and Timucuas.
Coinciding with the flowers are the universal spring peepers, which chorus here as loudly as in the north. The difference is that a small breeding pond is populated with many more species of frogs—barking frogs, gopher frogs, cricket frogs, emitting almost unbearable throbs of sound after a rain. The bull-frog's hrr-r-umph vies with the bellowing of the alligator.
The dragonfly nymph, which has lain on the bottom of a pond or tributary for a season, molts into five different skins before it begins to grab with pincherlike mouth every bit of available animal food—little aquatic insects, tadpoles, even smaller dragonfly nymphs. Finally, at about the 10th molt, the nymph has wing pads and climbs onto a pickerel weed. In a miraculous few hours it is transformed into a perfect flying machine. It then joins the myriads of other insects arising from the water and the earth, and will prey on the new crop of little white cabbage butterflies, damselflies and luna moths, and on one of the few hibernating butterflies, the morning cloak, as it comes out from its hideaway under the bark of trees.
The insect crop feeds migratory birds, filtering through from south of the equator, or massing to go north. Strangely, the songs of these feathered travelers are garbled. Even the adults seem to have forgotten the notes that they will have practiced to perfection by the end of their journey.