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.

Making tracks.

Nature’s Commuters
Coyote

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.)

Postscript.

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.

19 Comments on “A Grand Day Out*

  1. What marvels you encountered during your outing. It’s sad to ponder how many of the beautiful trees, flowers, birds, and insects lost life or limb when the hurricane rampaged through the area. 😢

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    • Try not to be too sad. It is nature’s way of replenishing herself. The weak and diseased are thinned out making way for new, vibrant life!

      We’ll try to report on that vibrant new stuff as we encounter it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These ‘grand’ days are the most special days! And boy, do those grandkids find some cool things that we miss, lol. Beautiful captures, Wally! To think those captured subjects are all but gone because of Hurricane Ian is heartbreaking. I’m behind but had thought of you during Hurricane Ian. Hoping as I continue catching up with your posts, I find a bit of good news if/when you were able to return to see the aftermath.

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  3. I’ve a few Neosconas in the yard and I’d be thrilled with that red-femured character. Very nice n-flight shot of the Carolina Saddlebags. The local swamp where I find Grass Pinks and Rose Pogonias also sports the full blown Meadow Beauties although sometimes they can be pale like yours. Great shot of the Zebra Swallowtail. Well, that’s just a few. All are great shots. Nicely done, sir.

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  4. Come. The forest beckons…oh how true! And how nice to get out in nature with your grandson. It really makes it special and it does seem like they have an eye for spotting the special sightings. The wildflowers are as plentiful now as they were in Spring. I even like your spiders! lol Enjoy your week!

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    • Thank you, Diane. It was a good day.

      Fresh eyes are always a welcome addition. We tend to gloss over details in our search for something “different” and those eyes which are new to a natural setting focus on everything!

      We’re really enjoying the mild mornings and prolific flowers. And spiders!

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  5. I must report that son Carl and family returned from Florida “skint”. Young Isabella declared that even she did not want to eat a pizza for a few days but that she was well pleased with her two football shirts that cost her approximately 60 dollars each. I rest my case.

    I am pretty certain that although the whole family saw Mickey Mouse they did not sample the delights of a magnificent looking beautyberry or see a Zebra Swallowtail on their tour through Animal Kingdom.

    You and Gini had a great day out with Young First Grandson who has has a fine pair of tutors. I am also positive he had a much better day in Arbuckle Tract than if you had taken him to Disneyworld.

    And if he gets too smart arsed, as he undoubtedly will, remind him of the jaws of an alligator.

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    • At the very least, Carl and family created some memories which shall remain with them for a long time. And a proper football shirt can keep one warm through a chilly winter.

      First Grandson was born a smart aleck and has continued to regress ever since. He is held somewhat in check when visiting due, not to fear of alligators, but of that ultimate arbiter of good manners “Grandma”. Much more fearsome than any silly ‘gator.

      Condolences on your short-lived Prime Minister and good luck with the newly anointed one. I would offer to trade national leaders, but I believe the end result would be barely noticeable.

      Fair weather abounds and we are off to check out a potential roosting orchard for migratory flycatchers.

      Cheers.

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  6. A delightfully colorful post, Wally! I was especially taken with the red-femured spotted orb weaver. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m glad you had the opportunity to see this area before Ian crossed over; it will be interesting to see how it recovers from the drenching and wind. And it will recover, one way or another. Nature is good at that.

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    • Thanks for the kind remarks, Sam!

      We have some unique spiders, that’s for sure! They have just re-opened that area this week, so we’ll try to check it out in the next few days.

      You are so right about Nature and her powers of recovery.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Your grandson appears to be a talented arachnid spotter, Wally, and what fine arachnids they are too – those colours are amazing.

    Although it wasn’t a very birdy visit, the range of other wildlife more than makes up for that fact. Flowers, those amazing purple fruits, butterflies and, of course(!) dragons, plus your (as always) delightfully articulate narrative make for a most entertaining blog post, with just the Alligator bringing me back with a sobering start!

    All is chugging along steadily here, but I’ve not been out in the wild for three weeks – I must fix that soon.

    My very best wishes to you and Gini – – – Richard

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    • It was great being out with the grandson. He lives in a very large urban setting, so it was fun watching him absorb nature. “Look at that!” was heard many times.

      They have just re-opened the area and we’re headed there later in the week to see how it looks post-storm.

      We’re enjoying your Scilly adventures and hope you’re soon able to get out and about locally.

      Gini and I are doing great and hope the same may be said for you and Lindsay.

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  8. Wonderful trip. You provided a real sense of this enchanting area. The Zebra Swallowtail and the flight shot (!) of the dragonfly stood out– but maybe it was the butterfly pea or the Pipevine that make it impossible to pick a favorite and just enjoy the entire experience.

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  9. You know what I most admire in this post? The water. Granted, you’ve had a bit more water in your world than might be absolutely necessary, but our dry ponds and desiccated plants are just sad. That said: rain’s in the forecast, so we’ll see how it goes.

    I was utterly taken with that Red-femured Spotted Orbweaver; it’s so striking. My compliments to your grandson for spotting it. I smiled at the Partridge Pea and Spurred Butterfly Pea; it’s always nice to see plants that we share. I can distinguish three Ludwigia species now — the thought of thirty species makes my head swim!

    Seeing the Yellow-eyed Grass makes me long even more for east Texas. It’s such a lovely plant, and so photogenic. But speaking of photogenic, that alligator among the lily pads is a fabulous photo. I like the strongly horizontal lines that the combination of flora and fauna creates.

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    • Just prior to Hurricane Ian, we had plenty of rain although it was about average for August/September, historically speaking. Hope you get enough to fill a few tanks without making the Brazos escape its banks.
      (Oooh, that there is almost Texas poetry!)

      Several “Spotted Orbweavers” appear to have no common name but appearances are quite different. I’m amazed they rebuild their big webs every night.

      I wanted to get closer for better shots of that Yellow-eyed Grass but the pond owner (see header image) convinced me wading out from the shore might not be in my best interest.

      We didn’t spend a lot of time by the lake. Experience has proven if you are an alligator agitator your day can become worse in a hurry.

      Thank you for the kind compositional words!

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  10. DEFINITELY a grand day out. ANOTHER grand day out. Thank you (again) for sharing the beauty and the wonder. And I am glad that nature will rebound after Ian’s depreciations.

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