Florida proves its most magical this time of year
On an impossibly warm morning in early February, I drop in on old friends, the longleaf pines at Curry Creek Preserve, their long needles vibrant even in the pale sunlight.
“Youngsters” springing up all around them are strewn with fairy blankets. I can only imagine legions of spiders weaving busily through the night as fog drifted in from the Gulf of Mexico.
So far these woods have avoided the axe, a miracle in this time of “chop it down, build it up.” The huge frames of these trees support eagles’ nests weighing thousands of pounds.
Looking down the trail, I half expect “the little people” to appear from under a huge mushroom. At the entrance to his burrow, a gopher tortoise sits in the sun before stepping out to forage on grasses starting to green up.
Last year’s spent oak leaves flutter to the ground, pushed off a twig by the new growth impatient to unfurl in the sun. Warblers crowd a wax myrtle. Young eagles trumpet their intentions to fledge. Fall lingers on in faded grasses and seedpods.
I find a solitary aster, a fall leftover. One wildflower on a winter’s day is worth a whole field in summer.
That morning I awoke, huddled under covers, deep into winter. By afternoon, it was warm enough to hike a park in shirtsleeves.
Florida is most magical in winter. Even a mundane setting (a strip mall along the Tamiami Trail) can take on a glitter that is hard to find anywhere else. It is when I revel in the “bones” of the forest and what lives in and on them. I rush to take in as much as possible before, all too soon, spring growth conceals the branching habits of the trees.
Trees are the mainstay of many Florida habitats. Because of its north/south orientation, the peninsula supports many different species in a variety of growing conditions. The more temperate species can be found in northern areas of the state, where it still snows occasionally, thrilling “natives” who have never seen the white stuff. Balmy South Florida is home to tropical trees at their northernmost range.
A tree tour from Jacksonville to Key West would turn up tulip poplars, dogwoods and jack oaks in the north. Seven hundred miles south, strangler fig, mastic and mahogany are the order of the day. You would layer up in Jacksonville and at the end of the day, dip your toes into the Atlantic in Miami. You would find the mainstays sprinkled throughout the state: multiple species of pines, oaks and cabbage palms, our state tree — not to forget maples, which not only traverse the state but also can be found in Maine. But with increasingly hot summers, maples are stressed and may disappear.
Winter reveals the architecture of landscapes. Hidden three seasons of the year but now bereft of leaves, cypress drop their needles to become, for a short while, seemingly fragile beings, but actually among the longest lived and toughest trees around.
This is the time when swamps are easily navigated amid the buttresses and bumpy knees of the bald cypress. In the rainy season it can be tough going; in winter it’s a k!
Evergreen oaks lighten up by dropping some of their leaves to reveal parasitic mistletoe, string mosses, dried resurrection ferns and cardinal air plants. Even the pine canopy is thinned down to allow weak sunlight to penetrate.
Always I am reminded that to walk in the woods, I do not have to know everything. I do not have to know anything. Not the names of plants, the species of birds chattering in the trees, what animals made the footprints in the sand. Yes, knowing makes the experience richer, but sometimes it is wonderful to just take in a landscape, listen to bird song and just breathe.
On another winter day, a blue sky beckons. I drive south and east with no itinerary in mind and then remember “Spirit of the Wild” Wildlife Management Area in Hendry County, which I had visited the previous summer. Upon arrival, my spirits are lifted when I am enveloped in an enormous flock of tree swallows rising and falling over the pine flatwoods. Even though it is mid-afternoon with two hours more of sunlight, it appears they were looking to roost.
In the midst of this avian whirlwind I wonder what binds together these thousands of birds. Does one individual decide where to come to earth for the night and lead the others? Or is it a collective decision?
Last summer, the watery prairie was alive with herons and dragonflies. This time of year it is birds and the pine flatwoods.
This desolate park is Florida panther habitat. I know that in broad daylight — or even in dark of night — the chances of seeing a big cat are minimal. On Trail Two, I run into deer browsing in the last light of day, so I know panthers are well fed here. The big cats also thrive on wild hogs, a destructive invasive species bequeathed to us by the Conquistadors.
In visiting any park in Florida, my first question is what is here for animals to eat? Availability of food and water determines the extent and diversity of wildlife. Increasingly, species are diminished or, even worse, missing. Herbivores such as deer do fine in most parks while carnivores such as bobcats are forced to scavenge in the “burbs.”
In such a desolate place, I am careful to note turns in the trail. Unless I know a place well, it is in and out. Sand is my salvation. Following my Reeboks’ distinctive pattern leads me in the right direction.
Sand also lets me know who is around. Alligators scramble up banks and across roadways, mashing everything down. Most common are tracks of raccoons, rabbits and gopher tortoises. Smaller animals reveal themselves, mere blips in the sand, like ant lions. Deer are creatures of habit, browsing grass and shrubs in the same areas. They create narrow paths through the brush.
I am fortunate to have excellent hearing, which makes walking a multi-dimensional experience. Sometimes I “hear” snakes, a long rapid rustle. Rabbit hops are obvious. Hogs grunt. Learning birdsong could take another lifetime. On winter evenings, robins roosting in the trees remind me of Northern summers. All times of year I hear the “tap tap tap” of woodpeckers extricating insects from bark, along with the cooing of mourning doves.
I am learning “eagle” from a nest atop a snag in Oscar Scherer State Park, near my home. Am I imagining that crows make raucous comments as I pass by them by? If I could master one bird language, it would be crow! My botanist friend, John Beckner, used all five senses, even sampling berries and smelling leaves.
At Myakka River State Park, I always step onto the Florida Trail off Foxes Low Road to feel I am deep into woods, an illusion since this park is just 9 miles east of the Interstate 75 in Sarasota. Prominent blazes on the trees lead the way, and I keep one eye on my feet to avoid potholes created by seasonal rains and roots that could trip me up.
A spider’s web, white against the blackened trunk of a pine, catches my eye. A long “leader” of the web is strung between two trees; the weaver, a tiny crab spider.
Nothing in nature is alone. Trees exemplify the interconnectedness of living things. Not only vines, air plants, ferns and mosses live on trees, but fungi grow at the bases, lichen dot the trunks, bacteria and viruses surround the roots. Just the water that flows up and out into leaves is a whole city of living things.
Biologist Edward O. Wilson, who passed away last year at the age of 92, once wrote, “When we cut down trees, there are invisible reverberations under our feet. You are not just removing trees, and a few birds fluttering around the canopy; you are drastically imperiling a vast array of species within a few square miles of you.”
A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Dr. Wilson spent his life researching and educating people about nature. In his 2016 book Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, he inspired the human species to designate half the planet’s surface a natural preserve to protect bio-diversity.
Innumerable species of animals live in, eat from and roost in trees. Even dead trees have their place in the great assembly of beings. Snags are endlessly useful as perches, roosts, nesting areas. Trees have their own companions: Live oaks consort with cabbage palms; in the extreme south, with royal palms. Getting back on the main road out of the park, I note a great blue heron so stationary in the prairie he looks like a yard bird. I stop at the bridge to watch alligators, limpkins and other shore birds feeding. “Snowbirds” from all over the world are enthralled as an alligator opens his maw to gobble up a tilapia and then steams up the center of the river, undeniably master of the place.
In winter, dried grasses and spent seed heads are the theme.
The scrub, Florida’s desert, calls to me on cold winter mornings. I am guaranteed lots of sun plus heat reflecting off white sand to warm me. Flowers bloom there all year ’round, so I am bound to find some. The seasons are fluid these days so I could find out-of-season garberia from fall or early pawpaw in rosemary scrub with sand pines. Rare scrub morning glory I have seen in early fall and spring.
Rarities are the order of the day in Polk County parks such as Hickory Lake Scrub in Lake Placid. Even roadsides and edges of citrus groves can turn up treasures, so the trip itself is a delight.
Next door, Oscar Scherer is a refuge on a damp day. Scrubby flatwoods are no one’s idea of a desert. This area is more like woods, with diminutive oaks 8 to 10 feet tall, if fire-maintained, and with Florida scrub jays. The jays not only eat the acorns, they cache thousands of them each season in the sand, some of which grow into trees. In effect, the jays provide their own food for upcoming years.
No need to make elaborate preparations for a long trip. Daily excursions to various natural habitats are as rewarding as a long journey. You do not even have to drive. A pocket park in your neighborhood might qualify.