Crooked River: The Beginning
Header Image: Pine Flatwoods
It can be exhilarating to be prone in the damp grass early in the morning just after sunrise observing the waking moments of what is likely the smallest damselfly in the country. Rolling to the left provides a view of the nearby tree line just as a Red-shouldered Hawk lands atop an oak tree. Rolling on my back reveals a superbly clear morning of an impossibly blue sky. A roll to the right and I discover the observer is being observed. “Periscoping” is a term used to describe a snake raising its head above the grass line to see what’s in its territory.
A split-second hiccup in my little brain whispers: “Are we sure that was a Black Racer?”. Rolling away from the reptile, actually, about three rolls, began the process known (at my age) as “getting up from the ground“. The process continues by attempting to get one knee under me, then trying to get a foot on the ground and sort of rolling, stumbling upward – never mind. You’ll become familiar with the technique sooner than you would like.
Today, Gini and I are exploring a very small portion of central Florida’s Green Swamp. This precious ecological resource consists of almost 900 square miles and is the source for four of our state’s major rivers. The particular area we are in is within part of the Withlacoochee River State Forest. Over 155,000 acres make up this forest which is adjacent to its namesake river. “Withlacoochee” has been translated from the Creek Indian language as “Crooked River”. Very apt. Bubbling up from springs within the Green Swamp, the Withlacoochee is only one of two Florida rivers to flow northward. In this case, from the swamp it twists and turns about 160 miles to Yankeetown, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
The spot we are roaming around today is typical of the southernmost part of the Green Swamp. Habitats include: upland hardwoods, wet prairies, marshes, pine flatwoods, cypress swamps and floodplain swamps. An incredible diversity of flora and fauna calls this area home. We appreciate them allowing us in the door.
Once I was upright again, I strolled through a small wetland area. As I crossed a boardwalk, I gazed down upon dragonflies beginning the day’s hunt, purple Pickerelweed offering a buffet to bees and others and – uh, oh – a Water Moccasin. That hiccup moment returned with my tiny brain shouting: “Told you so!”. I still believe I saw a curious Black Racer.
Most of the morning was consumed by enjoying the incredible abundance of spring flowers. There were plenty of birds here, but most are busy with parenting duties and none were interested in posing for today’s blog. Blooms and bugs abound, however.
The rich green of the swamp and forest was punctuated with purple today. The Savanna Iris (Iris savannarum) rose above almost any bit of standing water.
At less than one inch (2.5 cm) in length, a Citrine Forktail (Ischnura hastata) can disappear if you take your eyes off him. Likely the smallest damselfly in the U.S., my old eyes are lucky to see them anymore.
Pretty in pink, the Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) decorated the place quite nicely. Even the bees think so.
Small and quick, the Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) perches with wings forward ready to chase down any passing morsel.
Florida lists 30 species of Ludwigia and even the invasive ones are quite attractive. Peruvian Primrosewillow (Ludwigia peruviana) has large yellow blooms that make it hard to stay mad at its unwanted presence.
Turtle crossing! Well, in the swamp, pretty much anywhere is a likely turtle crossing. This little Striped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon baurii) seldom exceeds eight inches (20 cm) in length and will be much more comfortable once she crosses this bright white road and slips back into the inky ooze a few feet away.
Call it Bluejacket or Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) or anything else you like. This is one beautiful bloom!
Who would think a swamp would be so colorful? Bright red sprinkled the landscape throughout our morning meander. Coralbean, Cherokee Bean, Redcardinal (Erythrina herbacea) reminds us we are, indeed, in a semi-tropical environment. Careful with the seeds. They are toxic.
The grass-skipper family of butterflies is aptly named as these tiny insects do seem to skip along the tops of the grass. One Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor) took pity on me and landed for about two milliseconds.
The Green Swamp. So many hues other than green. So much area to explore. So much enjoyment added to our lives.
One of our larger butterflies, a Palamedes Swallowtail (Papilio palamedes) braves the prickly leaves to obtain the sweet nectar of a Purple Thistle (Cirsium horridulum).
One may be forgiven at thinking the Starrush Whitetop (Rhynchospora colorata) is an attractive flower. It’s actually a sedge that has a very flower-like top. It’s not just you. Even the insects help pollinate this grass when most less-attractive grasses have to rely on the wind.
Butterflies have a tough life. They start out as an egg about the size of a pinhead, turn into a larva whose job is to eat non-stop until it’s full, change into a pupa for several weeks when the adult finally emerges. The adult butterfly, after all that, only lives a couple of weeks during which it is chased by every creature on the planet looking for a snack. This Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) has had some nips taken from its wings but is sipping as much nectar as possible until it can find a suitable mate to begin the cycle all over again. Metamorphosis! Nature’s miracle.
A section of Carolina Wild Petunia (Ruellia caroliniensis) with its pale blue beauty caught our eye just off the road. The closer we looked, the more beautiful these flowers seemed!
Fighting off the invaders from nearby tropical islands, Florida’s native Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) appears to be holding its own. It’s always great to come across this bright lizard in our travels.
I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that after taking the previous photograph we found an extensive area of Lizard’s Tail (Saururus cernuus).
Small and nervous, trying to keep up with a Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) causes perspiration, frustration and dizziness. The rewards are worth it all!
The headwaters of the Withlacoochee River, or Crooked River, is a breathtakingly beautiful space to spend a morning. Flora, fauna and us. We think it’s a great combination!
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!