Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Florida National Scenic Trail

Many people are probably unaware that there is a 1,400 mile trail that traverses the length and breadth of the Sunshine State and was the brainchild of a man who had spent many years hiking the Appalachian Trail and decided to promote a similar path down here.

The Florida National Scenic Trail starts at the Alabama state line and meanders southward into the Big Cypress National Preserve where solid ground finally gives way to the watery vastness of the Everglades. Travel beyond Big Cypress requires some sort of boat and a whole lot of guts and guile.

We set out to explore two separate sections of the trail this week, one in Seminole County and the other in Orange County, which showcased a diverse set of terrain as well as encounters with a wide variety of wildlife.

Our first hike was in the Little Big Econ State Forest in Seminole County where the trail follows along the steep bluffs of the beautiful Econlockhatchee River (now you know why they just call it the Econ for short). This clear flowing, spring fed stream was brimming with fish as well as bald eagles that were hunting for them in the cool crystalline waters. The next time we hike this section of the trail I'm bringing a fishing pole.

The Big Little Econ

Limpkin (Aramus guarauna)

The Econlockhatchee as seen from atop a high river bluff.

The second section we hiked was in the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area, which is located in the dense bottom land swamp forests along the St. John's River in eastern Orange County. This segment of the trail was very wild and somewhat spooky due to the remoteness of the location and the omnipresent and dense vegetation that seemed to close in around us wherever we hiked. There was lots of wildlife, especially alligators, tucked away in the thick fastness of this mixed hardwood, cypress and palm forest wilderness. We were sort of glad to emerge unscathed from this place.

This gator blended in too well for comfort.

The Florida Trail winds through a dense palm jungle.

Juvenile barred owl (Strix varia)

Golden silk spider (Nephila clavipes)

Back to the Jurassic

A large Florida woods cockroach (Eurycotis floridana)

A gator checks us out deep in the wilds of the Tosohatchee.

The Florida Trail is easy to access throughout its entire length and there is a great website to help would be hikers plan an excursion:

Have fun out there kids, but be careful.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Alligator Removal

As I was leaving the house yesterday I noticed that the truck of the state alligator trapper was parked by the pond nearest to our house. Apparently someone had lodged a complaint about a nuisance gator and they had come to capture it. I dashed back into the house and grabbed my camera and went down to the pond to observe these guys in action.

A lot of the job is waiting and watching for bubbles in the water.

They were able to observe a pair of gators in the pond and captured the smaller of the two. The other gator was a bit older and wiser in such matters and scrammed out of the area altogether. The game wardens waited around for it to reappear but finally gave up and carried their lone captive back to the truck.


Watch your fingers bubba.

Taped shut

The really sad part of the story is that once a gator feels comfortable approaching humans it must be destroyed because releasing it elsewhere runs the risk that it would just repeat past behaviors in a new locale. Alligators become habituated to being around humans because people irresponsibly feed them, which is a violation of state law, and this makes them dangerous because they lose their natural fear of humanity. This loss of fear increases encounters and can lead to attacks and serious injuries.

The warden shows me a gator's ear.

As I walked back to my house I passed the game warden's truck and heard a slithering commotion in the back of it. Much to my dismay I discovered that were three other caged captives awaiting their fate as a pair of shoes or a suitcase. Just another day in the life of the Florida Nuisance Alligator Trapper.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Hontoon Island State Park

Hontoon Island State Park is a wild and beautiful 1,650 acre tract located in western Volusia County that preserves a large island in the St. Johns River. It requires taking a short ferry ride to get to the island (free of charge) and once there it is best explored by kayak or canoe, which are available for a nominal fee. We chose to hike the main nature trail of the park which leads through a variety of forest types and eventually to a gigantic shell mound that was built by the former occupants of this island some 2,000 years ago.

Owl totem (replica of the original)

The first inhabitants of the island were the Timucuan Indians who gathered snails from the shallows of the St. Johns River as a staple food item. Through the years the discarded shells accumulated to form large mounds which can still be seen today.

The Hontoon Island group were known as the Clan of the Owl and they carved a large totem which they placed by the banks of the river to show others their affiliation. The original carving was unearthed in the 20th century and is now on display at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It is said to be the largest native carving ever found in the state.

Visitor ferry to the island

Pine flatwoods occur on the higher areas, while palm and oak hammocks, cypress swamps and marshes border the river and its tributaries. Wildlife is plentiful with West Indian manatees using the shallows around the island as a wintering ground. Other mammals include river otter and raccoon. Wading birds such as herons, ibis and egrets can be readily observed as well as osprey and bald eagles. Watch out for the occasional alligator and on our hike we saw many snakes and lizards.

Dusky pygmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri)

The park is popular for picnics, camping and fishing and there are six rustic cabins in the thickly wooded forest near the campground.

Hammock Trail

Hontoon Dead River

Cypress swamp with abundant ferns along the river

Peacefully fishing the day away along the St. Johns River

This particular locale takes a little extra effort to find and is definitely off the beaten path but is well worth the time spent in transit to see this beautiful gem of the Florida park system.

Be careful where you step on this island.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Florida Faunal Showcase

I've been extremely lucky over the past few weeks to have had the opportunity to both observe and then successfully photograph some beautiful animals in their native Florida habitat. The gorgeous natural backdrops and brilliant sunlight sure make the job of wildlife photography a joyous experience for this confirmed amateur.

(Click on photos to enlarge.)

Royal Terns
Water Sound Beach, FL

Huge fresh water mullet
Wakulla Springs State Park

Bald eagle in a tree above the Suwannee River
Dixie County, FL

Close-up of bald eagle

Green anole in my backyard
Osceola County, FL

Friday, March 14, 2008

Rock Springs Run State Reserve

This delightful park is located about an hour north of Orlando in the thickly wooded wilds of eastern Lake County. Rock Run Springs State Reserve is 8,750 acres of sand pine scrub, pine flatwoods, bayheads, hammocks and swamps. Several artesian springs come together to form the waterway of Rock Run and it is a very popular destination for canoe and kayak enthusiasts.

Along Florida Hwy. 46 near the park entrance

This park attracted my interest because it is a well known habitat for the endangered Florida black bear. Although primarily a nocturnal animal I still wanted to set out deep into woods of this park to see if I could catch a glimpse of this magnificent and elusive critter. Alas, all that we found were some very old bear droppings scattered along the trail but the beauty and quiet of this pristine sanctuary was well worth the trip despite the lack of any encounters with a bear. Better luck next time.

Prime bear habitat deep in the pine scrub

Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus)

Bottom land swamp forest

Tracking my quarry through the brush

Swamp cub

Monday, March 10, 2008

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

The Kissimmee Prairie Preserve presents an opportunity to explore the last large chunk of undisturbed Florida dry prairie, an ecosystem that once covered millions of acres across the central part of the Sunshine State. At 54,000 acres this is one of the largest nature preserves in Florida and is well worth the effort to make the journey on rural back roads into the far hinterlands of Okeechobee County.

It looks just like Africa.

In this park you are encouraged to explore on foot, bicycle, horseback or by guided swamp buggy. Private vehicles are forbidden from venturing beyond the beautiful oak draped campground near the entrance to the preserve. With over 100 miles of dirt roads and trails this place is a hikers paradise.

Slough in the middle of surrounding prairie


The park offers excellent seasonal birding opportunities and is home to the endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow, as well as the crested caracara and sandhill crane. We encountered the largest alligator that I have ever seen in the wild (see photo below) as well as deer and many different species of raptors and aquatic birds. Kissimmee Prairie is also a well known spot for astronomers because it is located in one of the most remote areas of the Florida peninsula with very few urban lights to obscure the dark night sky.

Approaching a thickly wooded hammock

Gigantic leaf-footed bug (Acanthocephala terminalis)

The terrain is characterized by vast open plains dotted with hammocks of palm and oak that is interspersed with shallow waterways and sloughs. The western boundary of the park is the Kissimmee River, which eventually empties into Lake Okeechobee, and links the waters of the Floridian Aquifer in the northern part of the state to the drainage system of the Everglades in the south. The Kissimmee Prairie is an excellent place to experience the subtle transition from swampy forests to grassy open glades which takes place in this part of Florida.

It's located in an extremely remote area so bring plenty of food and supplies before you set out and make sure to stay for at a least a full day to absorb the beauty and majesty of this incomparable landscape that is unique to Florida and a treasure for us all.

A truly monster-sized gator (click on the photo for a better look).

Primordial Florida

Friday, January 18, 2008

Blue Spring State Park

Blue Spring State Park is a 2700 acre preserve centered around a first magnitude spring that discharges 104 million gallons of water daily into the nearby St. Johns River in western Volusia County. During the bulk of the year the park is available for visitors to swim, snorkel and scuba dive in the crystal clear waters that flow for a half mile from the spring to the river. However in the winter months all human focused activities are shut down and these pristine depths are given over to migrating West Indian manatees that use this stream to swim, rest and play.

Along the stream flowing from Blue Spring

The warm 72 degree waters of Blue Spring provide a vital refuge for these mammals when the water temperature in their coastal inlet habitat becomes too cold for them to survive in. A manatee cannot withstand temperatures much below 66 degrees, so these warm water springs make it possible for them to inhabit this part of central Florida.

Manatee in the stream

Closeup in the shallows

Crystal clear depths near the spring

Scratching an itch on a log

A scenic boardwalk trail parallels the entire length of the stream flowing from the spring, affording many vista points from which to view these gentle and fascinating creatures.

Boardwalk trail

Blue Spring

The park is located 2.5 miles west of Orange City off U.S. Hwy. 17/92. Binoculars sure come in handy.