Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Every time I drive into Morningside Nature Center in East Gainesville, I slow way down, turn off the radio, and if it is not too hot or cold, open the windows so I can listen. There's a sign to remind me to take it slow, but I don't need it. I've been there too often and have seen too many things on that entry road to hurry. If I go too fast, I might miss seeing something interesting. Or, worse, I may run over something interesting! Over the years, I've seen deer, raccoons, numerous gopher tortoises, a large family of Northern Bobwhite Quail, a juvenile black racer, a yellow rat snake, a coachwhip snake, and jillions of yellow-rumped warblers, to name just the most memorable. I've also seen a squashed rough green snake and coral snake. Some people aren't so careful.
Slow Down! There really are tortoises in the road!
I worked as a nature educator at Morningside for several years and one of the special benefits of working there was getting to know the park very well. Yes, sometimes there are changes and surprises. But in general, I know where I am most likely to find certain kinds of plants and wildlife. That kind of familiarity is comforting and reassuring. And it's nice to follow the progress after various restoration projects. I've watched burns and regrowth, beetle infestations and re-planting, floods and drought. And I know that there is something beautiful and interesting to be found on any day, at any time of year. Over the years I taught classes and led groups along the trails and in the some of the special outdoor classroom spaces and learned many of the interesting things to look for. After I'd been working there long enough to learn from staff experts like Gary and Geoff about the wildflowers and ecology, I became one of the Fall Wildflower Walk leaders. It was a great thrill for me to lead these groups because I've always been interested in wildflowers. Although I am not a trained botanist, I know enough to lead a group of interested people. And I'm not ashamed to tell them when I don't know something. I just let them know what I do know, and after many years, it's enough to get by.

So I was really happy when the staff asked me to come back and lead a walk again this fall! But now that I no longer work there every day, it's been necessary for me to take trips there weekly to scope out the trails and chart the beginnings of the fall wildflower display. Not that this is a chore! I should mention for Non-Floridians that here in North Central Florida, our best wildflower displays are in Fall. And one of the best habitats to see wildflowers is the sunny, dry, flat Sandhill. Morningside happens to have wonderful and lovingly managed Sandhill, and the wildflowers are magnificent.

This year the land management staff for the City of Gainesville conducted several summer prescribed fires. This is good and very important to maintain the fire dependent ecosystems of Morningside. The problem is that they burned in some of the places I have come to rely on for easily accessible walks! Some things will grow back in time for the walks later in the month (they will take place every Saturday in October), but mine will be the first Saturday (October 5 at 9am!), and it doesn't appear that the burn areas will have recovered enough for me to lead the walk there. But this is not really a problem. Next year everything will have grown back and the colors will be wonderful. This year, we'll just need to walk a bit further to get to the action!

So this week I made a couple of trips to see how things were progressing. I headed over at noon on Sunday, when my car thermometer said the temperature was 100 Fahrenheit.
It was sunny and humid. Not the best conditions for hiking, but I had my water, my hat and my cell phone, and I set out. *SPOILER ALERT* This is the part in my blog where I tell you what I saw on my walk. If you're planning on going on my hike on October 5th, you may want to just plug your ears and thumb through the pictures. Or you can read along and be prepared!

From the parking lot I headed towards Sandhill Road (the name itself is promising for good wildflower displays!) As I walked I could hear the racket of the Red Headed Woodpeckers that frequent the picnic area across the road. I could also hear the sounds of the farm animals in the Living History Farm, who were probably getting their Sunday lunch, or maybe they were just calling to me. The woods along the path were still black from the burn, which took place only about a month ago. I could see green peeking from the Saw Palmettos and grasses that were already growing back. The scrub was mostly burned back, making room for the sun and rain to fall on wildflower and grass plants on the forest floor.
Greening Up After the Burn

Open Spaces
At the end of the burned area I came to a sunny, open stretch. This is always a good spot for some specific wildflowers, but it's a little overgrown and the fall display isn't as good here as other spots. Still, this is a place where I know I can find Pale Meadowbeauty and Seedbox early in the fall. It's also a great spot for Rabbit Tobacco. (When I hear Rabbit Tobacco, I think of little juvenile delinquent rabbits with cigarettes hanging off of their snarling lips, or granddaddy rabbits with corncob pipes, and it makes me smile.) Later in October, the False Foxglove usually stands tall with it's pink, hairy blooms that are irresistible to butterflies and bees. It is also a host plant for Buckeye butterflies, and if you look closely, you can often see the caterpillars with their iridescent blue spikes. I couldn't find any hint of the Foxglove yet, so I hope it shows up in a few weeks. Every year is slightly different. The combination of weather conditions and the regrowth and encroachment of the scrub can change the landscape slowly over the year. I walked by the Goldenrod, covered with eager Lovebugs. Goldenrod is an important and attractive nectar source in the early stages of fall, when there are not as many plants in bloom. All around the Goldenrod I could see that the Slender Flattop Goldenrod (not really a goldenrod!) buds were just about ready to pop open. There was just the tiniest hint of yellow in the tops. I passed a Pocket Gopher mound and wished that just for once, I could be there when one popped out. I know they exist because other people have seen and photographed them. But they just seem imaginary or legendary since I've seen no actual Gophers as proof of their existence. They are crepuscular (love that word!), meaning that they come out mostly at dawn and dusk.
Ceraunus Blue Butterfly enjoys Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana)

Spent Flowers of Seedbox (Ludwigia maritima) . When the seed capsule dries, it has an interesting geometric shape.
You can tip it over and shake seeds out of it, like a little salt shaker.

Rabbit Tobacco (Pseudognapthalium obtusifolium)

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) and Lovebugs

I do believe in Pocket Gophers. I do believe in Pocket Gophers.
After the sunny stretch, I reached the beginning of what I think of as the "Good Stuff." The Sandhill namesake of Sandhill Road. This area had a prescribed fire about 4 years ago and the results are glorious. Majestic Longleaf Pines stand tall, with plenty of space for new seedlings to sprout and get the sun and space that they need. There is very little scrub and the ground is instead covered with Wiregrass and Wildflowers and Saw Palmetto. Warblers and Woodpeckers flit from tree to tree and the Gopher tortoises have plenty of clearance to burrow and roam for food. Although I hoped all day that I'd see a Gopher Tortoise, I didn't. But I did see plenty of burrows. And I was lucky to see a rare Florida Pinesnake, another sandhill resident. The scene would be complete if the Red Cockaded Woodpeckers and Sherman's Fox Squirrels that were once so abundant in the park could return. Maybe one day again the Longleaf Pines will be be healthy and mature enough to support a population.
The Good Stuff

Gopher Tortoise Burrow

Florida Pinesnake, either going into its burrow, or chowing down on Pocket Gophers.
Wait--maybe that's why I haven't seen any Gophers!
Looking over the sandhill, I could see that very soon the Blazing Star, Silk Grass, Yellow Buttons  and Paint Brush will be full bloom. Palafoxia, Summer Farewell and White Topped Aster will follow close behind. But for now, there are just the stalks, leaves and buds waving just over the grass and palmettos. Occasionally a bud has popped and there is a spot of purple or yellow, a teasing taste of things to come. There is great potential in those woods! But the plants of the sandhill are interesting even without the blooms. They are adapted to living in a dry and fire dependent ecosystem, so they have features such as hairy leaves, close to the ground to conserve moisture or withstand a quick burn-over. Or needle-like leaves, clasped close to the stem, also to conserve moisture.
The Sandhill, Soon to be in Full Bloom

Hairy leaves of Hieracium (Hawkweed)

Hairy Basal Rosette of Chrysopsis (Goldenaster)--Another late fall bloom
Florida Paintbrush leaves (Carphephorus corymbosus)--well adapted to dry conditions and fire
At Morningside there are 3 species of Gayfeather or Liatris. Two (Liatris tenuifolia and Liatris gracilis) are commonly seen in October, and one (Liatris pauciflora), I have learned, blooms earlier. In the past, when I worked there, September was a very busy time with the cleanup after summer camp and the start of school classes, so I rarely got out exploring in time to see them. But now that I can go looking whenever I want and I have learned that this is a good time to find Few-flowered Gayfeather. This year there seems to be an especially large crop. The flower heads are larger than those of the other Gayfeathers, and grow on only one side of the stem. The flowers seem to weigh down the stems, so they flop or arch all over the sandhill. Interspersed among the brilliant Liatris are stalks of Florida Toothache Grass, with their long, comblike heads. When the seed heads dry, they arch and stretch to disperse the seeds. This endemic and endangered grass is thriving in the well-maintained sandhill. When I was first introduced to the plant there were just a few at Morningside. Now there is a huge swath! It's nice to be able to see the benefits of successful land management.

Fewflower Gayfeather (Liatris pauciflora)

Florida Toothache Grass (Ctenium floridanum)
Shortleaf Gayfeather (Liatris tenuifolia) almost ready to bloom
Another very common flower in the sandhill is Florida Paintbrush (Carphephorus corymbosus). There are 3 species of Carphephorus found at Morningside, but each one grows in a different habitat. Paintbrush prefers the Sandhill. It has fine hairs along the stem and leaves in a basal rosette, close to the ground, that help it conserve moisture. The other two species live in slightly wetter conditions. The Vanilla Leaf (Carphephorus odoratissimus) (so named because its leaves really do have a lovely vanilla smell that wafts across the flatwoods in the late spring) is almost done flowering, but there are a few examples in the flatwoods on the other side of the road. Deertongue (Carphephorus paniculatus) prefers much wetter conditions. I see it blooming later in the fall in flatwoods and wet areas like ditches. I love it when the Paintbrush blooms because it is so pretty, and because lots of critters use its flat-topped blooms as as a perch. Butterflies and bees flock to the blossoms, and smart hunters such as Praying Mantises can often be seen laying in wait. I can always count on finding a big, fat Green Lynx on one of these large purple flowers. Smaller Crab spiders hang around, too. They come in an assortment of colors. I've found white ones on Spanish Needles, Yellow ones on Tickseed and Yellow Buttons, and purplish green ones on Paintbrush. Very adaptive creatures!
Florida Paintbrush (Carphephorus corymbosus)

Crab Spider waiting on Carphephorus bud. 
Continuing down the road, I saw acres of Liatris and Carphephorus, not quite ready, but soon! There were small patches of Fragrant Eryngium and Black Senna (another host plant for Buckeye caterpillars), Partridge Pea and Hedge Hyssop. Along with Elephant's Foot, these few early blooming plants provide important nectar for the hungry insects. Plants that bloomed in the spring are now producing fruits. Gopher Apple, Paw Paw, Gallberry and Palmetto fruits provide food for the larger animals such as birds, raccoons and gopher tortoises. Fall is a time for feasting, and in a week or so there will be a feast for our eyes. I will be at Morningside in the next few weeks, checking and getting ready. I hope to see you in October!
Fragrant Eryngium (Eryngium aromaticum)

Black Senna (Seymeria pectinata)

Elephant's Foot (Elephantopus elatus)

Rough Hedge Hyssop (Gratiola hispida)

Saw Palmetto Berries (Serenoa repens)
Jean Dorney Memorial Fall Wildflower Walks take place at Morningside, every Saturday in October at 9am. Click here for more information.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Blue Skies

On September 11, 2001, I was taking care of chores around the house, listening to Public Radio and drinking my morning coffee. The kids had caught their bus to school, and my husband was at work. I don't recall what my plans were for that morning, but I do know that it was a perfect fall day. Chances were that I was going to be outside in any case. And then began the reports of planes and towers and death and destruction. The day is a blur after that. I know I was scared and stunned and sad. I wanted my family close to me. I needed to hold them. Everyone was in shock. I heard over and over again how 9/11 started out as a spectacularly beautiful day.
Blue Skies--Cranes Migrating
Jump ahead to September 11, 2013. It was another beautiful fall morning. Pretty blue skies, the occasional puffy cloud. I spent the morning outside in the garden, pulling weeds, watching butterflies and birds, and feeling happy. But in the back of my mind was the nagging knowledge that today was 9/11. Every time I looked at my phone or the computer, I was reminded again. It just felt like there was a blog post in there somewhere. But I couldn't figure out how to relate a national tragedy to my theme of sharing nature. This was such an incredibly unnatural act.
Blue Skies--Barn Swallow Resting
But as I thought about it throughout the morning, I found the connection. All these years later, the sock in the gut feeling is gone. I'm still sad when I remember, but it's not fresh and painful. I didn't lose anyone, so for those people who did I'm sure the experience is much different. But I lost my sense of safety. For me, time is healing those feelings. They are muffled and diluted, and I have to dredge deep to recall the ache. But what I do remember well is that clear blue sky.  I can smell the perfect autumn air and see the cloudless sky that everyone remembers so well from that day. We had the same weather all the way down here in Florida. Each year on the anniversary, people recall the blue sky. And it seems like September 11 is often a pretty day with blue skies, reminding us of the promise in store that lovely morning. If only...
Blue Skies--Red Tailed Hawks Courting
But today was not like that 9/11. Yes, the sky was blue, but there were clouds. It was hot and muggy and it rained hard in the afternoon. Today is a brand new day. We are not trapped in a cycle of ever repeating perfect blue sky days where everything starts out nicely and then the whole world goes to hell. It happened and it is done. We are healing. Life must go on. This is the eternal cycle of life, death and regrowth.
Blue Skies--Regeneration After The Burn
Our family visited Ground Zero in 2002. There was a huge, gaping hole in the ground and the air still smelled like wet dust. It smelled like destruction and pain. The memorials for the missing and fallen were still in place. It was very difficult to see and experience. I fought back tears most of the time we were there. The lump in my throat ached. It was really sad.
Blue Skies--Swallowtail Feeding
We visited the site again in 2011 and saw the new, beautiful memorials. The huge waterfalls dropping down into the deep marble monuments evoke so much--falling, empty space, inverted skyscrapers, and healing, soothing water. There is renewal and regrowth all around the site and it feels solemn, respectful, and hopeful.
Blue Skies at the 9/11 Memorial 
The tragedy is part of us, but it is what we do with it that matters now. We can choose to scratch open those wounds and relive that hurt over and over again. We can remain fearful and scared. Or we can pick up and keep going and be hopeful. The birds and butterflies in my yard have no concept of our history. Life goes on. Chicks hatch, caterpillars transform into butterflies, flowers die and seeds disperse. The weeds need pulling. Life goes on. And I see blue skies.
Blue Skies--Paper Cranes for Peace