A Grand Day Out*
Header Image: American Alligator
Pre-dawn gray slowly transformed into stunningly bright blue skies and a glance to the east risked temporary blindness as the sun announced its arrival. Every field was adorned with sparkling jewels of dew held in place by gossamer webs spun during the night. A few scrub oak and sand pine trees were scattered here and there among the weedy fields. As we turned onto the forest road, saw palmetto replaced the weeds and longleaf pines became the predominant tree.
Today we are in the Arbuckle Tract of the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest in west-central Florida. Ancient oceans once covered most of what is now the peninsula of Florida. A ridge along the center of the peninsula remained above water where many diverse life forms thrived as the waters slowly receded. Today, the area along this ridge is home to 33 plants and 36 animals which are on federal and state threatened or endangered lists. It is a wonderful place to explore!
This trip is even more special due to a guest adventurer. Our First Grandson came along for the ride. He is visiting from Philadelphia and spending time together was our actual goal. Mission accomplished.
The latter part of our sub-tropical wet season has seen a bit more rainfall than average and much of the area was quite soggy. The good news is all that water has produced an abundance of wildflowers! Most notably, bright yellow blooms of Partridge Pea lined every road and path. Beyond the edges of the trail, we saw bushes of American Beautyberry, loaded with ripe purple fruit. Northern Bobwhite murmured to each other as they skulked beneath palmetto fronds debating whether it was safe to scurry across the path. The echo of woodpeckers hammering on trees was present all morning. A group of a dozen young Wild Turkeys ran alongside the car as we headed out of the forest.
There were plenty of birds around, but most remained beyond the reach of the lens today. Damp red clay roads told the tale of who had passed during the night. White-tailed deer, raccoons, opossums, snakes, rodents, coyotes, bobcats, wild turkeys. Amazing.
Come. The forest beckons.
First Grandson spied a spider. An orb weaver. The web was about three feet in diameter. Turns out, he found a species new to us! Darned smarty pants kids. This beauty is a Florida Garden Spider (Argiope florida).
In some spots the bright green leaves and purple fruit of American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) seemed to be all around us. Indeed, the entire forest was punctuated by purple. The berries are edible and can be made into jelly and wine. Leaves can be crushed and rubbed on your skin for a mosquito and tick repellant. CAUTION!! TEST IN SMALL AMOUNTS FIRST TO BE SURE YOU DON’T HAVE AN ALLERGIC REACTION!
One of our favorite butterfly species is often difficult to find perched for more than a moment. This Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus) was kind enough to hold still for a nice portrait.
Feathery leaves and puffy pink flowers belie the thorny branches of Florida Sensitive Brier (Mimosa quadrivalvis) just waiting to leave their mark on unsuspecting arms and legs. The USDA calls this plant Florida Mimosa and there are a couple of closely related species. One of the diagnostic features of this variant is the uniquely recurved thorns. The “sensitive” part of the name is due to the leaves folding upward when touched (even by raindrops I discovered).
Brilliant morning sun enhances the golden abdomen and wings of a Little Blue Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula). This tiny (about an inch/25 mm long) dragon likes to stay low in the grass and can be hard to spot.
Blue blossoms to match the sky! True to its name, the Whitemouth Dayflower (Commelina erecta) will only bloom for a day. Fortunately, the plant produces a nice succession of blossoms, so the forest floor is dotted with fragments of sky throughout the season. Appearing in today’s photo is a species of Leaf Beetle (Oulema genus).
Mama Nature is nothing if not diverse. Mixing up the color scheme a bit, we ran across the beautiful orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). As one would suspect, this is a favorite of many nectar lovers!
One of the more plentiful dragonflies of the day, a Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina) steadfastly patrols a section of lake shoreline immediately chasing away any intruders.
The color combination of lavender and yellow makes the Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana) easy to identify. Uniquely curved shape of those yellow anthers adds even more interest to an already outstanding-looking flower.
A small lake in the middle of the forest attracts an astounding number of creatures of all sizes. One of the larger residents is the American Alligator. We estimated this one to be about eight feet (2.4 meters) in length. He/she was not shy and made a show of swimming quickly in our direction then checking to see if had run away yet. We retreated respectfully after a few photos.
There are about 30 species of Ludwigia (Primrose-willow) in Florida. This can make identification a challenge. One of these species helps by having uniquely narrow leaves and is actually called Narrowleaf Primrose-Willow (Ludwigia linearis). Call it what you will, those yellow flowers are simply gorgeous!
Every few steps produced something wonderful to savor. Case in point: a Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) on Carolina Redroot (Lachnanthes caroliana).
Tall stems, small flowers. The Coastal Plain Yelloweyed Grass (Xyris ambigua) can reach three feet in height and the tiny three-petaled flowers normally only bloom in the morning.
Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) on Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). Rivers of yellow lined many of the roads and paths throughout the forest as the Partridge Pea put on a show. These plants are hosts for several butterfly species, the blooms produce nectar for many insects and the ripened seeds are favorites of dove and quail.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker probes a burnt tree trunk for brunch.
First Grandson was impressed by the variety of spiders we discovered during the morning. He thought this Red-femured Spotted Orbweaver (Neoscona domiciliorum) was particularly striking. I agree.
Purple stripes on a patch of white guide nectaring insects to the buffet bar within. A woody vine which coils around its neighbors for support, the Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum) can reach up to eight feet in length. Pale lavender flowers add yet another hue to the forest panoply.
Florida. Sub-tropical climate. Rainy season. Fungi. Inevitable.
The Great Crested Flycatcher will soon retreat a bit to southern Florida for the winter.
Grandson. Grandma. Grandpa. The Grand Outdoors. Truly a Grand Day Out*!
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
*(For Aardman fans, no cheese was harmed in the making of this post.)
Seven days after our visit, Hurrican Ian passed slowly over this forest with churning winds of nearly 100 mph and inundating the already saturated ground with over 15 inches of rain in a 12-hour period. Much of the tract remains closed due to downed trees and flooding. The forest will rebound. In its time.