Friday, May 10, 2013

Sanctuary in the City

I did a little multi-tasking today. I needed to drive my husband to an appointment, so while he was taking care of his business, I took a walk through a City of Gainesville Nature Park. Gainesville is lucky this way. We have about 23 nature parks, scattered throughout the city. They encompass a large variety of habitats and serve multiple purposes--nature sanctuaries, picnic areas, playgrounds, sports fields, and education centers, to name just a few. That's the great thing about urban nature parks. They give people an alternative to sitting inside in fluorescent light, checking email and catching up on facebook. When you have a nature park a convenient distance from you, it is possible to take a quick trip over during lunch or spend quality time while you wait for someone else. A visit to a nature park can give you an excuse to take a walk and get some exercise, a chance to see wildlife and plants close to home, or can give some much needed buffer from the sounds and hubbub of everyday life. In addition, urban nature parks provide important opportunities for habitat amid our growing cities. Pockets of sanctuary for plants and animals gives them a place to thrive and survive amid human development, and gives us a convenient opportunity to enjoy them.

The place I went to today is called John Mahon Nature Park. It is located off of a major street that runs right through the heart of Gainesville. It is on 10 acres, tucked in between a busy medical complex and a blood bank, next to the road. On the way in, you pass a storm water retention pond, where I was greeted by two big frogs. Maybe River Frogs or Pig Frogs--I have a hard time telling. There was a pretty meadow in in the pond area, which will probably be submerged when we get more rain. Lots of dragonflies and butterflies flew around in the sunny area. I walked down the road leading to the actual park and found nice picnic tables and an informative kiosk. Inside the gate, I came to the trail which is a loop through the woods, maybe a half mile long. I walked it twice to make sure I didn't miss anything. (It seemed like a great place for owls, but I didn't see any.)
Dragonfly Watching Me

American Painted Lady on Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)

Pond Frog

Thick, Dark Woods

It was thick with trees and pretty dark. An interpretive sign explained that the habitat was once fire dependent upland pine forest, but now that it was surrounded by homes and businesses, burning is no longer possible and the forest had become overgrown with oaks and vines. Another interpretive sign gave information about the responsibilities of living around a nature park, such as cleaning up after pets and controlling invasive exotic species. Unfortunately, many urban nature parks in the area are plagued by invasive exotic plants such as Coral Ardesia, which I saw all along the short trail. Plants escape from landscapes and end up where they do not belong, choking out native vegetation and decreasing the natural diversity of an area.
Tell-Tale Red Berries of Coral Ardesia
Walking the loop I heard some Cardinals, Carolina Wrens and Chickadees. I saw several Zebra Longwing butterflies fluttering around. They prefer shady areas. There were only a few flowers growing in such a shady place and I could see the leaves of flowers that would bloom later in the season, such as Elephant's Foot, Hammock Snake Root, and Iron Weed. I was pleasantly surprised to find an abundance of Green Dragon plants. They are related to Jack in the Pulpit and have a similar shaped flower. There was also a small bed of Trillium. And a whole lot of poison ivy!
Carolina Wren Singing in the Woods

Green Dragon Flower (Arisaema dracontium)

Trillium (Trillium maculatum)

Leaves of Three, Leave it Be! Poison Ivy
With so many trees and vines it was fun to look closely at the shapes and textures all around me. One tree looked like a huge animal paw planted in the ground, while a Cherry Tree branch had beautiful stripes. Giant Grape vines hung across the hammock, sometimes twining around a branch and squeezing it until it bulged. The Greenbriar vines were prodigious, with many as thick as my thumb and lacy green ferns were scattered among the Saw Palmettos. On the second trip around, next to a big tree root that I thought looked like an animal den, I found a pair of Five Lined Skinks.
Big Oak Trunk--Doesn't it Look Like an Animal Paw?

Cherry Tree Bark

Vine Wrapped Around a Branch

Lacy Fern

Skinks and Their Den

Off in the distance I could hear people doing construction work on houses nearby. I passed a couple with a baby who were walking their dogs. Otherwise sights and sounds of most of the human activity were absorbed by the trees. It was like stepping out of the city for a moment. I spent less than an hour in the park. Then it was time to leave. Sanctuary in the City.
Little Snake Shed on Green Briar Vine (Smilax sp.)

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