Photo essay: Carlton Reserve offers bounty of beauty

Explorers can find much at which to marvel 

A winter sky offsets the vast landscape at Carlton Reserve in Venice, Fla. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

If I had to pick one word to describe Carlton Reserve in Venice, Florida, it would be “beautiful.” A vast, 24,565-acre tract of pine flatwoods, dry prairies, ponds, swamps, oak hammocks and even a bit of coastal scrub, it is huge — a peaceful place away from urban sprawl.

With 100 miles of trails, Carlton is a paradise for hikers, birders, botanists, nature lovers. Canoers can paddle the Myakka. But it can be tough going. In the rainy season, it is a bit reminiscent of the old Florida, when sheet flow spread unhindered, re-invigorating the land.

Some days, deer bound across the trail or feral hogs root under the oaks in a hammock. The hogs are the legacy of Spanish conquistadors who, 500 years ago, unloaded livestock from their ships to support their New World quests for gold and eternal life. These destructive animals are the descendants of those Spanish imports, now grown to close to a million strong in Florida and high on the list of pests.

Deer make their home here, with plenty to browse. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

The armadillo — this one from Texas, although there were giant relatives here eons ago — is often around scrabbling for ants in the brush.

Thankfully, it is not just invaders at Carlton Reserve. Twice I have been fortunate to run into diamondback rattlesnakes, who hurried on their way when they saw me. Park volunteers will stand guard over one resting in the winter sun, lest a visitor go in for “the kill.” In our ignorance, humans have extirpated diamondbacks from whole states in the Northeastern U.S.

An 8-foot diamondback checks me out. He proceeded on his way peacefully. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

The occasional bobcat pauses a few seconds to look at me. Young otters splash in one of the numerous ponds that dot this tract.

Mostly it is the small things: a green anole becoming rare as the Cuban anoles take over, or a green tree frog clinging to a stalk of grass luxuriating in recent rains. Rabbits dine leisurely on grass along the trails. Dragonflies swoop back and forth. Lubber grasshoppers leap out of my way.

Birds are abundant. Vultures circle high above me, riding winter winds or summer thermals rising from an overheated earth. They elevate my spirits.

A black vulture keeps a wary eye from its perch in a slash pine. Much maligned, vultures collaborate as invaluable clean-up crews. They feast on carrion. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Winter brings tree swallows. With luck, thousands may whirl overhead — a great dark cloud turning on a dime before coming to rest in the tall grasses.

Winter is also when flocks of robins roost in the pines at nightfall. Their familiar chirping transports me to my summer garden in Annapolis.

Sabatia thrives in swamps in summer and dry landscapes the rest of the year. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Some days, the little green heron fishes in a pond, one of many sprinkled throughout the reserve.

Water is a recurring theme in this park — it is a well field for Sarasota County. This summer, storms have progressed across Florida, dumping huge quantities of much needed water, as the Florida Aquifer becomes depleted. Many trails are flooded, reminiscent of summer days of old when south Florida was underwater in summer.

Dragonflies, a favorite of Leonardo da Vinci, grace the park in summer. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Sheet flow has been largely stopped in its tracks by development. At Carlton, I have taken advantage of this unexpected bounty to hang out at the swamp along the Yellow Trail, photographing reflections of bare tree limbs, mainly willow and pop ash in ditches, and shorebirds feasting at a “buffet” of tiny fish crossing a flooded road.

Shorebirds fish on a flooded road. The park is closed much of the time in wet summer. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

As always in these priceless places in Florida, I remain open to the unexpected. The surprises. The possibility of a panther haunts me. “Highly unlikely,” says my head, but my heart yearns for the impossible. I set my trusty Lumix on P. Quite futile I know. Animals can hear (or feel) my every footstep.

In this place the tables are turned. I am usually the observer; here I become small, inconsequential, and it is I who am observed.

When I become just one of the crowd, miracles happen. A huge coyote, big as a German shepherd, melts into the brush. Orchids line up in a row by the wayside.

These are commoners worthy of adulation. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

As always, it is wildflowers that draw me to this place. All times of year, Carlton has an ample supply, thanks to meticulous land managers who carry out prescribed burns to invigorate the soil and keep down invasive plant species.

Often when I am traipsing about, I will think, “This is the one! This is my favorite wildflower.” In spring, Sabatia, pale pink with golden centers etched in red, turn up along the park’s Inner Trails, along with bright yellow bachelor buttons. Beautyberry is everywhere. A shrub for all seasons, its pale pink blossoms in spring attract pollinators; its deep purple berries through winter feed mockingbirds, cardinals and other wildlife.

Lichen make the oaks festive in all seasons of the year. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

It is also in winter that blue flag iris waits in the wings to put forth its magnificent blooms. I may be especially fortunate to find beardtongue, whitest of white with pale green stems, staring me in the face. It dares me to record its beauty.

This is cause for celebration: the first iris of springtime.  Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

My favorite of all is wood sage, a member of the mint family.

Carlton Reserve is a fading Eden. Human disturbance, such as the recent manhunt, has a negative impact on the land. It brings in noxious invasive weeds, which engulf the native plants that support precious pollinators and other animals.

A field of tickseeds brings in the pollinators. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

I, and other longtime volunteers, such as Donna Day, mourn the changes we see at this reserve and elsewhere. But we hold fast to the hope that in time, nature in extremis may repair itself. The Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas is a shining example of what can happen when humans vacate the land.

Floods of rain in summer keep us supplied with drinking water. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In the meantime, we look to our land managers to provide brains and muscle and to conservation-minded citizen organizations to provide funds and the push to preserve. It is our and our descendants’ hope that governance puts into place legislation to protect these lands. The fate of the planet is in all our hands.

Fran Palmeri is a naturalist living in south Florida. Her book of photographs and essays, Florida Lost and Found, can be found on Amazon. A Vimeo of her PowerPoint, Green Pilgrimage, is on Sarasota County’s library website.