August 24, 2013
It’s taken me a lot of years living in north and central Florida to fully appreciate the vastness and diversity of Ocala National Forest. I first became aware of what a huge tract of undeveloped, relatively pristine habitat it is when I first moved to Florida, to attend grad school in Gainesville. I’d guess that during the 9 years I lived in Gainesville, I visited the forest maybe a dozen times or thereabouts. Not much. I’ve lived in DeLand for a couple of decades, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve begun a somewhat concerted effort to comb the forest roads and get to know it a little more intimately. It’s these recent efforts, kind of nibbling around the edges, that have made me truly grok how much of it there is to see. And I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’m beginning to get a better feel for the eastern parts of the forest; the Juniper Springs Wilderness, Hopkin’s Prairie, Riverside Island, the Paisley Road and nearby sections of Alexander Springs Wilderness, and so on. But the northern and western parts of the forest are still pretty much a big black box.
It’s surprising that I’ve spent so little time exploring Ocala National Forest until fairly recently. In the first couple of years I lived in DeLand, when Terry Farrell and I were going through our young hooligan phase of faculty development, we spent many, many afternoons road-cruising the Paisley Road region, looking for snakes, birds, lizards, insects, cool plants (but only the cool ones; just looking for plants isn’t particularly challenging), and the nearest Kangaroo Mart from which to pick up our next six-pack. But only for the passenger, because drinking and driving is so wrong. We made the dubious decision at some point to replace road-cruising and having fun with doing field research on pigmy rattlesnakes, which occupied a significant chunk of our free time for the next decade. So Paisley Road and all the other enticing destinations in Ocala went on the back burner.
Even some parts of the forest relatively close to DeLand remained unvisited until recently. Case in point — Forest Road 06. This minor forest road is only 5 or 6 miles long, but is divided into a north section and a south section by a stream of variable depth and unknown substrate flowing across the road. Terry and I cruised the northern section of 06, accessed by taking the Paisley Road about 4 miles north of its intersection with SR42 in Paisley, many times; I bird there solo once or twice a month during fall and winter. But I’ve never had the nerve to try to ford the stream. Up until last year, I’d never investigated the south section of FR06, even though I pass its intersection with State Road 42 all the time when driving to the Paisley area. When I finally drove this fairly short stretch of well-maintained sand road, I found a delightful variety of habitats there, including some extensive tracts of regenerating scrub still bearing hundreds of snags of the mature sand pines that grew there before it burned sometime in the last few years. Full of red-headed woodpeckers, flickers, and other woodpeckers as you would expect, but almost apocalyptic in its feel on a gloomy, fog-bound morning.
Forest Road 06 and the Paisley area was my destination this morning. I was hoping to dig up a few migrants, but not really expecting it. Mostly, it was an exercise to try and hone my bird-spotting skills a bit before my fall term Ornithology class begins in earnest and I have to lead a dozen sharp-eyed kids on bird quests. If memory serves me correctly (rarely does), when I first began teaching Ornithology it seems like I was always the first to spot distant birds. In recent years, students have been beating me to the punch on a regular basis. Maybe it’s not about me at all; perhaps students are more field-competent these days. Probably not. Whatever, I want to be on top of how ever much game I have left once the field trips begin.
Foggy morning. If I tried really hard I could almost convince myself there was a bit of chill. Slow-rolling up FR06 a little after sunrise¸ listening to Trampled by Turtles, totally grooving on the melancholy music and somber surroundings. Experiencing that spiritual recharging I think so many of us feel when we are in nature. Not much happening with birds, but that’s cool. It’s the immensity of it, the entire experience.
I spent some time photographing Carolina wrens and eastern towhees, both species tattered from their ongoing molt. But as a wise photographer (that would be you, Bone) once told me, we take what we’re given. Scattered along the roadside I saw several clumps of chalky bluestem, Andropogon virginicus. Beautiful plant – I just noticed it a couple of months ago. I thought on the first time I saw it that it must be quite uncommon, or I would surely have noticed it before. My attempts at ID were unproductive; it was identified for me by my Consulting Botanist. Now that I know what it is, I see it everywhere. It’s that plant thing again – too many of them, and far too much similarity within some groups.
A bit further up I spotted a fox squirrel doing its syncopated lope up the roadside, and I slowed down a bit to try and stalk. He immediately headed up the nearest pine, and for the next 15-20 minutes we played a game of patience. He picked a comfortable perch and watched me. My initial intent was to wait until he got tired of waiting in his isolated tree, and photograph him as he descended the trunk, perhaps posing on a picturesque branch or stub on his way down. My capacity for self-delusion never fails to surprise me. I can’t sit in one place for longer than five minutes tops if nothing is going on; every time I started the car and eased up the road a bit closer, he climbed higher to a new comfortable perch. I gave up in less than half an hour. He totally kicked my ass. I actually felt bad for the little dude – he had really skeevy looking skin lesions at several spots. Raw, open wounds. I’m guessing they’re emergence sites of bot fly larvae that have become inflamed after the parasites dropped. Whatever, they’re pretty gross, and can’t be very comfortable for the little man.
Look at me getting all verklempt about one parasite-ridden fox squirrel, when I shoot gray squirrels in my yard by the boatload. Go figure.