Peninsular Florida

We left off last time with our cycad search in Ocala National Forest. We also enjoyed other sites there and elsewhere in the northern portion of the Florida Peninsula. One exceptional feature of this area and the Panhandle is the limestone karst topography, in which carbon dioxide dissolved in rainwater makes it slightly acidic, and capable of slowly dissolving limestone to form caves, sinkholes, underground rivers, and high-volume freshwater springs. The latter often provide terrific paddling venues. We spent one full day canoeing on Alexander Springs Creek, and another on the Silver River. The latter has a lot of kayak and small boat traffic, and so the numerous animals have become very tame, leading to outstanding photographic opportunities. We were particularly pleased to find here the native Boston Fern, Nephrolepis exaltata, from which many cultivars have been derived; this represented a new vascular plant family for us! It’s always fun to find targets ahead of schedule (meaning, before we reach the first location specifically known to us)! We also had very good looks at a foraging Manatee from the canoe.

Gelsemium sempervirens, Ocala NF, FL
Above: Yellow Jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens, Ocala NF, FL

Another nice location was Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park (SP). Florida has a thing for really long park names, and the seven-word example above will be eclipsed by an eight-word name in the next post. Gold Head Branch is a small creek in an abrupt ravine, the water coming entirely from seepage out of the headwall, along a plane impermeable to water. It is a noted location for ferns; we saw two new species here, one quite uncommon. My field journal notes that this day, Feb. 15, was the first time on the trip we wore short-sleeved shirts. Another nice location was Blue Springs SP, usually a great location for viewing Manatees, but they had departed earlier than normal because of unseasonably warm water. However, from viewing areas above the crystal clear waters, we did see three new species, a turtle and two types of gar, which are prehistoric-looking large fish with long beaks.

Alligator, Silver River, FL
Above: Young Alligators, Silver River, Silver Springs SP, FL

Our last north peninsula stop was at Deep Creek Preserve, where we sought a new fern family. Now birders love looking for vagrants, which are individuals well outside their normal range. There are a lot of avian vagrants because they can fly great distances, and undertake long migrations, so the opportunities for going off course, for example due to weather phenomena, are considerable. Similarly, there are some butterfly vagrants, and a few mammal vagrants also, particularly cetaceans, which can swim great distances. There are very few vagrants in other animal groups, and you might reasonably assume that there are no natural plant vagrants, but you’d be wrong. Some fruits and seeds can survive long periods floating at sea and so occasionally colonize new lands after washing up ashore, which explains the wide distribution of certain tropical beach species. But even more remarkable is the fact that fern spores are so small and light that they can be carried to new places during hurricanes.

Wood Duck, Silver River, FL
Above: Wood Duck, Silver River, Silver Springs SP, FL

At Deep Creek Preserve, we were looking for Forked Fern, Dicranopteris flexuosa, a member of a genus we’ve seen on neotropical birding trips and in Hawaii. This species historically has only intermittently sprung up in the U.S., following the rare hurricanes with just the right track, and usually the resulting colonies don’t persist for very long. My research turned up no other potential location to search for this fern, and we did not know whether it still survived here, so it seemed a long shot. We were disappointed when we arrived to find the preserve closed. A few phone calls later, we learned that there had just been a prescribed burn, and areas were still smoldering, but an official kindly gave us permission to enter if we were really careful not to go into any hot areas. We hiked in and at the first water channel we encountered, I scanned way up the banks with binoculars, and suddenly there were the distinctly bifurcating fronds signaling that we had successfully tracked down another new vascular plant family, our tenth of the year!

Red-shouldered Hawk, Highlands Hammock SP, FL
Above: Red-shouldered Hawk, Highlands Hammock SP, FL

We next spent 5 days in the central Peninsula, particularly on Lake Wales Ridge, a long north-south dune system that was the first part of peninsular Florida to be exposed as sea level dropped during glaciation. This area has a unique flora that is arid-adapted. One day, visiting the Ridge Audubon Center in Babson Park, and The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve, we saw 14 new plant species, which I think is the highest number on any single day in our post-retirement travels. Included in this total was the very interesting monocot called Redroot, Lachnanthes caroliniana, representing another new family found ahead of schedule! The common name refers to the flaming orange primary roots that anchor the plant in the wet soil where it grows. On another stifling hot day, on the crest of the ridge, we located Tallow Wood, Ximenia americana, yet another new family. During this week we were camped in Highlands Hammock SP, which has a very nice set of trails that are accessible from the campground.

Sandhill Crane, Ridge Audubon Center,  Babson Park FL
Above: Sandhill Crane, Ridge Audubon Center, Lake Wales Ridge, FL

We next headed to the Gulf Coast near Fort Myers, and western Everglades, using Collier-Seminole SP as our base. Our first target was Beachberry, Scaevola plumieri, a member of a genus we had seen in Hawaii. We found this easily at the north end of Lovers Key, adding another new family. The traffic the next day, getting on and off Sanibel Island, was horrendous, somewhat spoiling our day at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). The Big Cypress area in the northwest Everglades has a number of excellent day paddles, and we availed ourselves of one of our favorites, on the Turner River. There are three long mangrove “tunnels” where the route is so narrow and the overhead branches so low that kayakers have difficulties with their longer paddles, and we have been trapped behind slow-moving alligators and pelicans on such stretches. But they are beautiful places, with the mangrove branches covered with bromeliads and the occasional orchid. These plants are epiphytic, using the mangroves only for support, and deriving nutrients from rainwater they trap in their leaf bases, which then become miniature ecosystems.

Reddish Egret, Ding Darling NWR, FL
Above: Reddish Egret, Ding Darling NWR, Sanibel I, FL

There are some excellent boardwalks in this region, most notably at Corkscrew Swamp, and we visited three of them. The highlight was seeing from each of the boardwalks the essentially leafless Whisk Fern, Psilotum nudum, yet another new family for North America; we had seen this exact species growing natively on Kuaui. Our last Gulf Coast activity was to try to record the Florida Bonneted Bat, one of the most critically endangered North American mammals. A bat biologist was kind enough to obtain permission for us to record in an area normally closed to the public after dark, and to guide us out to the area. We spent several hours there and thankfully got one good recording! Based on timing, it was probably a bat that had just left its roost and was stopping by the lake for a drink, which bats often do first thing before beginning to forage. This was our fourth new mammal of the year.

White-eyed Vireo, Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, FL
Above: White-eyed Vireo, Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, FL

Next time I’ll describe our explorations in the subtropical southern tip of Florida.

Marsh Rabbit, Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, FL
Above: Marsh Rabbit, Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, FL

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