Monthly Archives: January 2014

PAWA_01252014-03_Ocala NF FR05

The Ultimate Ocala Loop

Forest Road 05, the heart and soul of the ultimate Ocala loop.

Forest Road 05, the heart and soul of the ultimate Ocala loop.

January 26, 2014

I’m always on the lookout for new birding loops.  I do a lot of my birding by road-cruising.  All other things being equal, I prefer to get out of the car and into the habitat.   Unfortunately Florida habitats, like those in every other part of the world where I’ve birded, are not particularly welcoming to my people.  So from a purely practical consideration, I can cover vastly more area and see more stuff by car than by my limited means of self-propulsion.  Natural areas with extensive hard-packed trails are always a treat, but I’ve found that the more accessible a natural area is, the more heavily visited it is.  Profound. I prefer my natural history outings to be populated mainly or entirely by folks I choose to be with.   Which is often no one. Some might call me a misanthrope.  I hate those people.

When birding by car, the ideal trip for me is a big circuit that satisfies several requirements: a) it involves little or no time driving on heavily traveled roads that are impractical for slowing, stopping or wildlife observation or photography, b) it includes as wide a variety of interesting habitats as possible, c) the good light for photography is on the driver’s side as much as possible, and d) it is centered on DeLand and can be completed in a half-day or so.  Finding new loops that meet these criteria is always a big rush.

So armed with a sense of adventure and optimism, I tried a new loop yesterday, and I’m pleased to report that it is the ultimate driving loop for birding Ocala National Forest.  That’s a pretty presumptuous claim given the hundreds of miles of drivable roads in Ocala, so I should probably qualify it by saying merely that it is the ultimate Ocala driving loop that I’ve experienced to date.   Anyway, I was recently accused of being “full of crap” by one of the most accomplished blowhards and bullshitters I’ve ever known; if you buy the premise that nobody can spot a bullshitter like another bullshitter, then my credibility is pretty low to begin with.  Making one more extravagant and insupportable claim probably won’t adversely affect whatever shred of credence I might have.

Paisley sunrise looking south towards Lake Akron

Paisley sunrise looking southeast towards Lake Akron

I left home about a half-hour before sunrise Saturday morning and drove west on 44 across the St. Johns River, heading for the southern edge of the forest, whose boundary is formed by State Road 42.  I was hoping to hit Paisley just as the sun was rising;  a big successional field slopes downwards towards Lake Akron just before you enter Paisley.  When conditions are right, a big fog bank sometimes forms over the lake and creeps up slope across the field, producing at times a spectacular foreground for the rising sun.  The clouds were pretty dense and gloomy on this day, though, and the sunrise was humdrum.  Somber gray skies prevailed until mid-morning.   From Paisley, I continued southwest on 42 through Altoona, arriving at Sunnyhill Restoration Area by about 7:45.   There is a small tract of live oak hammock there that is lovely in its own right, drenched with epiphytes like Spanish moss and resurrection fern, but there were no birds active on this chilly gray morning.   The pastures near the horse trailer parking lot produced a flock of killdeers calling and wheeling, and a barred owl called from a distant hammock, but mostly it seemed as if the birds were still waiting to begin their day.

Sunnyhill Restoration Area

Sunnyhill Restoration Area

I backtracked on 42 to SW 182nd Avenue Road (Avenue Road ?  Isn’t that a bit of overkill?) and headed north a few miles to FR14, and then north on FR 05 (labeled SE 205th Ave and Nfr 579 on Google Earth).   I first visited Forest Road 05 a few months back and was struck by the incredible diversity of habitats it traverses.

The predominant habitat along FR 05 is scrub, but that simple statement doesn’t begin to hint at the wide range of structural and floristic variants that scrub encompasses.  From where I started at its intersection with FR14 on the south to its terminus where it intersects FR50 (Hopkin’s Prairie Rd) some fifteen miles north, FR 05 traverses pretty much every stage of the scrub successional cycle, from recently burned tracts containing nothing but charred trunks and a few scattered survivors to mature monoculture stands of old sand pine, ready to be burned or harvested.  And everything in between.  Throw in non-scrub habitats, such as the frequent ponds, wetlands and depressions that support different plant communities and the result is that while cruising FR05, you are rarely in the same habitat type for more than a mile or so.  If that.

Words are inevitably inadequate to describe the charm of these scrub habitats.  Perhaps images are more revealing.

Mixed scrub

Mixed scrub

A grassy piney depression that clear on what this habitat would be classified as.

A grassy piney depression amid the scrub. I’m not sure what this habitat would be classified as.

Gorgeous Grassy Prairie

Gorgeous Grassy Prairie

An open savannah-like tract in the midst of the scrub

An open savannah-like tract in the midst of the scrub

 

The desolation of recently burned scrub.

The desolation of recently burned scrub.

A couple of northern flickers were hanging around and doing the wicka-wicka pair-bonding display in one of the few remaining sand pines.

A couple of northern flickers were hanging around and doing the wicka-wicka pair-bonding display in one of the few remaining sand pines.

Regenerating early regeneration scrub, with mature sand pine scrub in the distance

Regenerating early stage oaky scrub, with mature sand pine scrub in the distance

For the first hour and a half on FR05, bird activity was still quite low.  Cold, cloudy conditions often stimulate birds of forested habitats to stick close to dense cover; trying to find birds at the edges created by the forest roads can be pretty non-productive.   Several big flocks (~100) of American robins flew over, but I only saw a few in the scrub.  A couple of flocks of blue jays and an occasional house wren or cardinal pair were about all I could kick up at first.  By 10, the cloud cover began to disperse, the sun blazed through, and the birds began to appear.   The various forms of scrub can host big numbers of wintering passerines, including half a dozen or more species of warblers.   In fairly short order, I was able to tick off pines, palms (a couple of westerns but mostly easterns), yellow-rumps, yellow-throateds, black-and-white, common yellowthroat, a distant ovenbird chewking repeatedly, and several orange-crowned warblers.   Eight species of warblers within an hour or two in mid-winter?  How are you going to beat that?

Yellow-throated warbler

Yellow-throated warbler

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Palm warbler, eastern race

Pine warbler, male

Pine warbler, male

Pine warbler, 1st year

Pine warbler, 1st year

Black-and-white warbler

Black-and-white warbler

Blue-headed vireo

Blue-headed vireo

Orange-crowned warbler.  I found these birds several times in different mixed species flocks.

Orange-crowned warbler. I found these birds several times in different mixed species flocks.

As FR05 approaches it’s intersection with State Road 40, the main east-west artery through the forest, one can, if one likes, take a 3/4 mile jog to the southwest to the boat ramp on Half Moon Lake.   Expert Florida naturalist and biologist Dr. Steve Christman tells me that he sees bears in this area all the time, but I saw none on this day.  Lots of bear scat, though, along with that of other carnivores.  In some areas of the forest, it seems there is a pile of scat in the road from bear, bobcat, coyote, raccoon, or some other mid- to large-sized mammal nearly every 50m or less.  Which does hint at the answer to the age-old riddle – does a wild bear shit in the woods?  Not all the time, apparently.

Cladonia lichens in a fringing hammock around Half Moon Lake

Cladonia lichens in a fringing hammock around Half Moon Lake

Taking the dead-end spur to Half Moon Lake will spoil the loopular purity of this route, though, so it shouldn’t be indulged in cavalierly.

Across State Road 40, FR05 continues north for another several miles, in the process dipping down to the elevation of and skirting the edge of lovely Zay Prairie.  Just one of many grassland/seasonal wetlands that FR05 passes, but certainly the most fully visible from the road.

Zay Prairie

Zay Prairie

Just before FR05 ends where it intersects FR50, there is a network of trails in the Lake Eaton Sink area.  A small parking lot marks the trailhead; it was here that I digitally photographed my first Florida scrub lizard (Sceloporus woodi) several months ago.  No scelops out on this chilly day, but I noticed something else there for the first time.  Signs with some of my photographs on them!   Tres cool.

Red-shouldered hawk, prickly pear and common yellowthroat by the artist once known as Destructo

Red-shouldered hawk, prickly pear and common yellowthroat by the artist formerly known as Destructo

The turn to the east of the ultimate Ocala loop comes at FR50; I turned right there yesterday, but a turn to the left will take the non-loop fixated visitor to some lovely hammocks and wetland habitats surrounding Lake Eaton.   And Lake Eaton itself is charming.

Mixed scrub along FR50

Mixed scrub along FR50

Forest Road 50 eventually takes you by one of the most gorgeous areas of the forest I’ve yet seen, Hopkin’s Prairie.  And that’s a viable option for modifying the ultimate Ocala loop if you choose to do so.  But I didn’t.  I turned south on FR33 west of Hopkin’s Prairie, stayed on that well-traveled road for scarcely more than a mile, then turned east on FR46, which skirts the northern edge of magnificent Juniper Prairie Wilderness.   If I had to pick one road for birding out of all the roads I’ve been on in the forest, it would probably be this one.  It runs only about 5 miles from its intersection with FR33 to where it ends at State Road 19 just south of Silver Glen Springs, but the range of both scrub and sandhill habitats found in this relatively short stretch usually produces a wide diversity of cool birds.  Including lots of Florida scrub jays.  Last winter during the red-breasted nuthatch invasion, I found these endearing little scuts on several occasions in the mature sand pine scrub tracts along FR46.  The vast landscapes of low-stature oaky scrub visible to the south of this road are awe-inspiring.

Red-breasted nuthatch from FR46 in November, 2012.

Red-breasted nuthatch from FR46 in November, 2012.

Wintering eastern towhee.  Our breeding towhees have white eyes.  Towhees are abundant in the oaky scrub of Juniper Prairie

Wintering eastern towhee. Our breeding towhees have white eyes. Towhees are abundant in the oaky scrub of Juniper Prairie

At State Road 19, the slow-rolling, intense birding part of the loop ends and gives way to the high-speed, vista-scanning form of birding.  I usually take 19 back to 40 and then work my way back to Deland from there, still passing through the vast Ocala National Forest along much of the route.   But that only works if you live in Deland.  For those of you non-DeLandites, feel free to modify the ultimate Ocala loop once it reaches SR19 as necessary to return to your place of origin or nearest convenient parallel dimension.

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A snipe hunt in Ocala National Forest

Title credit: E. Eugene Spears

January 12, 2014

Regenerating sandhills on FR11.

Regenerating sandhills on FR11.

My buddies for life (I think) Skeate and Spears made their annual trek from the hellish cold of Banner Elk,  North Carolina to pay me a visit this week.   The three of us met as grad students in the fabled zoology department at UF back in the 80s, and they have been my closest friends since.  All of us were Florida newbies, and we learned about community ecology and the terrestrial ecosystems of peninsular Florida from the same mentors at around the same time.   Nonetheless, it was a major rush for me to spend a couple of days sharing my recently ignited passion for Ocala National Forest and its diversity of plant communities and landscapes with them by visiting a couple of my favorite spots in the forest.   We had all taken Community Ecology at UF with field trips led by the great man, Dr. Archie Carr, whose knowledge and understanding of Florida natural history and ecology were nothing short of miraculous.  So by comparison, my puny attempts to enlighten them somewhat about the scrub, high pine, and associated habitats were kind of laughable.  But all we can do is take what we’re given, G.  We had no particular target taxa in mind; we were just road-cruising, happy as scallops for whatever natural history nuggets we might chance upon.

In fact, this post might be better called the anti-snipe hunt, as it is antithetical in nearly every respect to the traditional snipe hunt.  In a regular snipe hunt, a naïve nimrod is stationed somewhere in purportedly suitable habitat, preferably on a dark, moonless night, to wait for the mythical snipe to appear and bag it.  It’s a very focused pursuit, but typically produces no useful outcome other than amusement for the instigators.  By contrast, we were three unfocused but somewhat knowledgeable fellows, looking for nothing in particular, nearly constantly in motion, covering a lot of territory on a bright morning.   And our efforts produced several useful outcomes, including crippling views of the legendary snipe.  No capture other than digital, though.

Coachwhip

Coachwhip

On Friday, we first visited a tract of private property a bit south of Astor Park that included the remains of some old sand-mining operation, and then we headed southwest towards the Alexander Spring section of the forest.   As we tooled southeast on FR18 towards the 52 Landing boat ramp on Alexander Springs Creek, we saw (incredibly briefly) a 3-4’ snake speed across the road and into the cover along the margin.   Perhaps as quickly as I’ve ever seen a snake cross a 20’ wide roadbed.   I didn’t even get a look at the head before it disappeared out of sight, but the sand-colored caudal half of the body and rapid rate of transit was enough to identify it:  coachwhip.   As we savored the buzz of the sighting, we reminisced about the coachwhip we saw while on a Community Ecology field trip to the Ordway Preserve over 30 years ago.   Most of the dozen or so grad students in the class, and a couple of faculty, were in the departmental van ahead of me.  As I still am, I was a driving fool and so was following the van in my tortured old ’75 Ford Futura.   I had to slam on the brakes and skid to a sudden stop in the sugar sand ruts as the van ahead of me did the same; the side door opened and about a half-dozen people exploded out of it in pursuit of the coachwhip that had crossed the two-track we were driving on through the successional pasture.   Most of these herpetophiles were young men in their physical prime, but the great Dr. Carr, then somewhere in the neighborhood of 71 years old, beat them all to the beast and with a great flying leap pinned the coachwhip with his torso.

Coachwhip

Coachwhip

The nasty masty turned around, clamped down on Dr. Carr’s nose, and held on.  And Dr. Carr stayed chill, knowing that any movement might cause the snake to rake his not-insubstantial rows of sharp teeth through his rostral flesh.  After a few seconds, the coachwhip, still mostly immobilized by Dr. Carr’s weight pressing on him, let go of his nose and looked around.  One of the other members of the group immediately grabbed the snake a bit too far down the neck and pulled it from underneath Dr. Carr.   The coachwhip promptly latched onto his hand and raked, causing him to begin gushing blood from numerous small lacerations.  After they released the snake and it began its retreat from the band of stinking primates, I took two photographs of it as it periscoped and scanned its surroundings before boogying at top speed.  When I received and viewed the processed slides, I saw that a small turkey oak seedling beside the snake was speckled with blood.

Skeate, Spears and Buckeye.

Skeate, Spears and Buckeye at Alexander Spring Creek.

Buckeye.  This charming little canine played no significant role in any of the adventures related here, but he's so damned handsome I had to include his portrait.

Buckeye. This charming little canine played no significant role in any of the adventures related here, but he’s so damned handsome I had to include his portrait.

We had no comparable adventure with the Ocala coachwhip yesterday; it was gone before the three of us had even processed our sensory input and identified the snake as a coachwhip.   Conclusion from this and countless other anecdotal evidence:  Dr. Archie Fairly Carr Jr. was a great, great man.

Dr. Archie Carr, Jr.  The most amazing man I've ever known personally.

Dr. Archie Carr, Jr. The most amazing man I’ve ever met.

The rest of Friday’s trip, which included Paisley Road and FR06, was lovely but unproductive of anything other than stunningly beautiful habitats.   Our sampling of gorgeous and diverse habitats resumed on Saturday, when we took FR11 north from SR40, a bit west of Astor Park, and followed it to its end at Ocklawaha Lake, on the boundary of Ocala National Forest.   Unlike most forest roads, the stretch of FR11 between SR40 and its intersection with SR 316 just northwest of Lake Kerr is paved.  This section of FR11 passes mostly through scrub, though the range of scrub subtypes spans nearly the entire gamut, from recently harvested clearcuts to mature, even-aged stands of nearly pure sand pine, and all the intermediate successional stages connecting these two endpoints.

The first of the two black bears we saw on FR11.

The first of the two black bears we saw on FR11.

Once north of 316, as FR 11 approaches the Riverside Island tract, the road reverts to the more typical yellow sand. It was here that within a stretch of no more than a mile or two we spotted two different black bears poking around the road margins. We stopped and glassed both animals for a minute or two from a distance of a couple hundred yards, and they glanced up the road at us but remained unconcerned until I tried to drive closer to them, at which point they both slowly retreated back into the sand pine scrub.  It seems like there must be some meaning to the observation that in the 35 years I’ve lived in Florida, I’ve seen black bears in natural habitats (I’m not including the young bear I saw at 2 a.m. in the morning from about 5’ away destroying the bird feeder and pole just outside the window of my DeBary home, nor the one that wandered onto the Stetson campus one fall a few years back, climbed up into a smallish oak tree in front of the student union, and snoozed there for several hours as students and staff treated it like a rock star and gathered around to ooh and aah) maybe 11 times, and that eight of those sightings have been in the last 6 months.  But more likely it is just a reflection of the random and unpredictable nature of actually seeing uncommon and wary wildlife.

Regenerating sandhills

Regenerating sandhills

Further north on FR11 the habitat transitions from scrub into regenerating sandhills, and then a bit further on, mature tracts of longleaf savannah where I had several killer encounters with roving clans of red-cockaded woodpeckers last year.  The bright cloudy skies on this breezy morning provided the perfect diffuse lighting to accentuate the panoply of brown hues produced by the numerous conspicuous grasses.   Luscious golden browns of Andropogon, creamy tans  of wiregrass, a diverse range of intermediate tones from other grasses and senescent forbs – it’s a beautiful time of year to be in the sandhills.

Mature sandhills with wiregrass

Mature sandhills with wiregrass

At Rodman Dam, I was hoping for a variety of dabbling and diving ducks, but the only aquatic swimmers to be found were big flocks of American coots.  While watching a couple of killdeer exploring the broad grassy berm of the dam, I saw a lone Wilson’s snipe toddling slowly up the slope.   Confident that it would flush with a buzzy prrrrrt as soon as I got anywhere close to it, I idled towards it hoping to grab a shot or two.  And behaving exactly like a consummately cryptic bird should, it surprised me by never flushing, ultimately allowing me to drive within about 15 feet and fire away to my heart’s content.  It was still hunkered in the same spot as I slowly pulled away.

Wilson's snipe.

Wilson’s snipe.

The friends I made in graduate school were some of the finest people I’ve ever been privileged to know, and those relationships seem to sweeten and intensify with time like a fine wine.   Can’t go back to those halcyon, treasured times, I know, but spending time with old friends like Skeate and Spears is maybe the next best thing.

Coco and her dude.

Coco and her dude.

The post-script to this story concerns stuff we didn’t see.  Before their visit, I was totally jazzed by the prospect of showing off the pair of painted buntings that had been visiting my gardens for the previous couple of weeks.  But both those birds disappeared about a week before my friends arrived, and despite my repeated entreaties to the bird gods, the male never returned while they were here.   Coco, the female, did put in brief appearances on Friday and Saturday afternoon, but the incomparably beautiful male waited until 3 hours or so after they pulled out this morning to make his return.   The serendipity of natural history.   Next year, my friends.