Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park

Even though I do enjoy my adventures, I tend to be more of a homebody. Kind of a contradiction, I know. Most of my hikes and photo safaris are no more than a half hour drive from my house. But I know there is a lot of great stuff out there. The world is huge, the country is huge, Florida is huge and I've hardly seen any of it. I really need to expand my horizons. So I'm always eager when I get a chance to explore outside of my normal comfort zone. Last week I had a chance. My husband had a meeting in Tallahassee and he asked me to come along to keep him company on the 2 1/2 hour ride up and back again. I thought it would be a chance for exploring, so I said yes. I asked our friend Kim, a botanist who works all over the state, if she could recommend a nice place in Tallahassee where I could hike and explore and she suggested Elinor Klapp-Phipps park. I looked it up online and read a nice review of it on Florida Hikes, so I was excited to check it out. If I'd had more time, or if we hadn't been in the midst of a government shut-down where all the national parks and wildlife preserves were closed, I would have wanted to venture a little further outside of Tallahassee. But I needed to be ready to pick up my husband in the afternoon at the end of his meeting and didn't want to be hours away. Phipps Parks sounded perfect.

We headed out for Tallahassee at 6am. It was dark for the first hour of driving, but the sun came up after an hour or so, and it was quite bright and cheery by the time we pulled into the FSU campus. 15 minutes later I was pulling into the parking lot at Phipps park. This park is operated by the city of Tallahassee and includes large recreational facilities for baseball, football and soccer. I unloaded at the Redbug Bike Trailhead and found several well marked trails for hikers, horse riders and bikers. I headed out for the Coon Bottom Loop trail and decided to just go as far as I could in 4 hours. It was very nice. As I mentioned, the trails were really well marked. It would have been very difficult to get lost out there, which was a comfort to me, because I have a terrible sense of direction. But there were very abundant trail blazes and frequent lettered signs that told you how far you had progressed along the trail.  Overall, I ended up walking about 4 slow miles and I had a wonderful time. In the first 10-15 minutes I was passed by a few friendly hikers with dogs, but otherwise I had the place to myself. Closer to the parking lot I could hear the cheers of families and friend urging on the various sports teams, and the cars pulling into the complex. But as I walked further out their voices gave way to birdcalls and frog chirps.
Well-Marked Trailhead
The walk takes you through heavily shaded forest, and along creeks and swamps, eventually ending up at Lake Jackson. I didn't get nearly that far. I walked the Coon Bottom Loop to the Big Tree Cutoff and took the Creek Forest Trail. I encountered birds, frogs, butterflies and fungus, but very few mosquitos or mammals (other than squirrels) and no reptiles. I was a little surprised at the lack of lizards. Here in Gainesville, I always hear the scratching and scurrying of lizards in the leaves. But I didn't see a single one in Phipps park. The periodic information kiosks told me that I might see turtles or Grey Ratsnakes, but, alas, I did not. I did see a lot of birds, thought I only identified a few. I am really not that skilled at birding. I get distracted by all the other things out there. I was able to list some, though. My wimpy list included: White Eyed Vireo, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Barred Owl, Red Shouldered Hawk, Black and White Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blue Jays, Wood Thrush, at least 4 Hooded Warblers and a whole, loud community of Northern Flickers.
Barred Owl

Hooded Warbler

Wood Thrush

Black and White Warbler
The frog population was healthy and happy. I'm still not exactly sure what kind of frogs they were, because they would leap into the water with a loud "meep" as soon as I got within 25 feet of them. At one point, I was walking along the edge of a swamp and for every step I took there was a corresponding "meep" and splash, like I was stepping on squeaky toys. I got one shot and maybe someone can help me identify the frogs. I'm guessing River Frogs, but I can't tell.
Frog Swamp

Skittish Frogs
The trail was heavily forested with large pines, oaks, magnolias and sweet gums. There weren't too many wildflowers because of the thick forest canopy, but the trail opened with a nice bed of Blue Mist Flowers.  There were also a lot of Southern Grape Ferns. I saw quite a bit of poison ivy and there was an unfortunately large infestation of Coral Ardesia. Many natural areas have to deal with this menace. I saw at the end of the hike that some good samaritan had pulled a big pile and left them at the side of the trail. (Great, as long as they removed the berries!) There was also a very healthy assortment of fungi, and I wished I had my friend Maralee with me to identify them. I saw red, yellow, green and blue (which she taught me was the Indigo Milky), as well as lots of brown and white fungi of every shape and size.
Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

Southern Grape Fern (Botrychium biternatum)

Yellowish Mushroom

Indigo Milky

Orange Mushroom

Tiny Mushrooms Decomposing Magnolia Cones

Green Mushroom

Clusters Like Silver Bells!

Tree Fungus with Spore Print
I think my best find of the day was the Purseweb Spider tube web. I had seen them in my Florida's Fabulous Spiders book, but never in person and I've been looking for them for a long time. As I walked on the trail next to a stream, I saw something that looked like a vine or root growing about 1 foot up the side of an oak tree. It looked familiar. Could it be? I reached over and touched it and it was soft and silky. Finally! But the funny thing is that after I identified one spider web, I realized that they were everywhere! I counted at least 20 right around me. It was very exciting. I never saw the spiders, but their webs we enough for me.
Purseweb Spider Tube Web (the large vine-like structure, center, left)

Southern Pearly-eye Butterfly
The park was very well maintained. I didn't see trash and the trails were in great shape. And the City orchestrated the whole trail system so well that the bikes, horses and hikers only rarely overlapped. No watching over your shoulder for someone who might run you over or dodging horse poop. There were single beam bridges with handrails and long boardwalks through swampy areas. The boardwalks were simple, with a rough non-slip surface. Lots of trail blazes, kiosks, benches and mile markers.
It's Hard to Get Lost Here
Simple No Skid Path Through the Soggy Ferns
Meandering Stream
Unfortunate Ardesia Infestation
I really recommend visiting this park. I enjoyed my peaceful and beautiful day. There were no ticks as far as I could tell (and if they were out there, they would have found me) and the mosquitoes were not too bad. I wonder if there is a correlation between low tick population and lack of lizards. I understand that here in Florida, lizards and skinks are the host for young ticks. Without the host, maybe there was a smaller tick infestation in this park. This is just my theory. I didn't see deer, either, so that may have had something to do with it, too. In any case, I would like to go back sometime and hike all the way to the lake, or at least get closer. So if you're in Tallahassee and have a few hours to spare, go check out Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park!
Mossy Tree Trunk

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Killing Me Softly...


Every day
I see or I hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me 
like a needle

in the haystack 
of light.
It was what I was born for - 
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world - 
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant - 
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these - 
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

~Mary Oliver

The other day I read this poem by Mary Oliver and I could hardly believe it. She managed somehow to describe the joyful feelings I have when I am outside and part of nature; the emotions I feel when I walk and listen, when I stop and peer; how my heart pounds with excitement over some new discovery or aches with tenderness for the fragility and everyday beauty of our world. Somehow she looked inside me and saw my innermost thoughts and feelings. It's almost as if she understood how happy I feel to be alive and a part of this wonderful world. Or maybe everyone feels like this. I sure hope so.

These are just a few of the things I saw on recent walks along La Chua Trail in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. While I was walking, I left behind the problems and politics of the world and tuned my mind instead to the colors, sounds and rhythm of the land. Everywhere I turned, there was another marvel. The buzzing of dragonflies and bees, smells of swampy muck and ducking under low flying herons were all exhilarating! I was completely alive. Soon I was bathed in feelings of well-being as the endorphins kicked in, lost "inside this soft world." This is what really matters.

Gulf Fritillary on Dotted Horsemint (Monarda punctata)

Little Blue Heron

Green Anole Peeking Out of the Boardwalk

Prairie Warbler in the Bushes

Red Shouldered Hawk Spreads Its Feathers

Eastern Phoebe on the Rail

Gator Bellowing

Belted Kingfisher Perching

Lucky Snowy Egret with Amphiuma for Breakfast

Paper Wasps and Their Nest

Common Yellowthroat


Wild Spanish Stallion Grazing

Striped Mud Turtle in the Road

Monday, October 7, 2013

My Favorite Trees

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things...
My guess is that everyone has a favorite tree. I know I've had many over my lifetime. When I was a little kid, my grandparents had a Weeping Willow and I loved to grab onto the flexible vine-like branches and swing like Tarzan out over the yard. I don't think it was all that good for the tree, but I sure loved grabbing on and flying! They also had a tree that we called the "Peachcot" (a cross between a peach and an apricot) and it was just the right height for me to climb. It had a short trunk with a nice low crotch in the branches that was easy for me to reach. I wasn't terribly brave and would never dare to climb high, but this one was just right for me.

When I was a little older, my family bought a house with a big Japanese Plum tree in the back yard. I spent many pleasant days and evenings sitting under that tree, appreciating the shade of the purple leaves, eating the little cherry sized plums, and listening to the nighthawks that flew over it every summer night. When my 5th grade class made keepsake plates for our families for Christmas, I drew the plum tree on mine. When we were assigned to write a poem to enter in a contest for a children's magazine, I wrote mine about the life I imagined in that tree.

"I have a little treehouse way up high. And what do you think may come passing by? Maybe a bird, maybe a butterfly. You never know what may come passing by."

I don't think I was destined to become a poet, but I was very proud of my poem, and remember it still, because it represented my vision of perfect happiness, living in a tree.

Many years later when my soon-to-be husband and I lived in the mountains outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, our trees were the Piñon and Ponderosa Pines. Each year pollen from Piñones covered the ground and made golden rims around dried puddles. And every other year they produced a bounty of delicious pine nuts. We would lay bed sheets underneath the trees to catch the seeds when we shook the branches. The Stellar's Jays perched on top of the low trees and squawked at our dogs when they wanted access to the dog food. When it was cold and snowy we burned Piñon Pine to heat our cabin and cook our food and the smell of Piñon smoke flavored the air all around Santa Fe. During the warm months we could smell the delicious vanilla from the giant Ponderosas when we went out walking, and frequently we gave the trees a great bear hug, burying our noses in the thick bark to inhale the sweet scent. (Hugging trees is the best way to get to know them well.) When we decided to get married, we knelt under the Ponderosa Pines made our promises with engagement rings formed from their long needles.

Our neighbors in the Santa Fe National Forest had the best idea. They created a children's camp with cabins built in the trees. Santa Fe Tree House Camp. The children spent a week or two living in the forest and sleeping on bunk beds in the houses nestled in the trees. From inside those cabins you could hear the wind blowing through pine branches and feel the movement as the trees swayed. I had the chance to stay in one of the cabins with my husband and kids when we visited many years later and I slept like a baby, resting in the arms of the pines.

When we moved to Florida, our first home came with lovely landscaping that included my first and favorite Japanese Magnolia tree. It was perfectly situated to get enough light and and space to grow to its full shape without pruning. When it bloomed in February the yard lit up with the huge pinky purple blossoms. That tree helped me appreciate the glory of living in Florida in the winter.

Now we live in a house with a magnificent Sweet Gum tree. It is enormous and stands guard over our back yard. I think it's one of the bigger Sweet Gum trees that I've seen. I was told that the tree had been topped once, so it isn't as tall as it might be. But it has a huge circumference, measuring almost 14 feet around at the base where I can reach. There is an apartment over our neighbor's garage with windows that look out at the tree. One of the renters told me that waking up every morning to the sight of that giant gave him such joy. I get it. I love to sit and watch the branches against the blue sky. I like to look up at the branches and imagine just how many creatures call this tree home. It is like a whole ecosystem in and of itself. You can see holes in the trunk and on the branches from Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers. Chickadees, titmice and vireos hop through the branches, hunting for bugs or waiting their turn at the bird feeder below. Squirrels scramble up and down the branches, leaping from tree to tree on their own arboreal highway. Barred owls call from the tree at night and bluejays scold during the day. In the fall, when we're lucky, maybe we'll find a Luna Moth.

Standing Guard

Looking Up into the Canopy

Sapsucker Holes

Squirrel Interstate
In the winter the star-shaped leaves drop and the tree will stand gray and almost naked, except for the Spanish Moss that blankets the branches. A strong wind can cause the moss to fall down to the ground, draping other bushes and trees. I admit that the seed pods, the "Gum Balls" (or Porcupine Eggs, as some people call them!) can be annoying. The tree is so big that when they fall, we have thousands of large, hard, spiny, balls on the ground, to pick up, fish out of the pond, and roll on like so many marbles. But they provide food for finches and squirrels, and they are so interesting to look at that I can't really hate them. When the weather warms up we see the first signs of green and soon the starry leaves are back again and the tree returns to life.
Blankets of Spanish Moss
A Fresh Gum Ball

Green Stars
I love this tree in a different way than the previous trees in my life. I feel like it is a gentle grandparent, my gray bearded friend. My husband and I sit outside under the shade of its massive limbs and we feel protected from the rest of the world. Maybe I'm just more sentimental now, or maybe I'm more appreciative of all the ways that the tree provides home, habitat and happiness for so many of us creatures and thankful for the oxygen it makes and the organic matter it contributes to the soil of our yard. I revel in its hugeness and seek serenity in its greenness and grandeur. I breathe its air and I feel happy and grateful.
Sweet Gum Bark

This is a link to a video by Bartholomaus Traubeck who has figured out a way to play the "music of trees". He has built a special "record player" that scans the rings of rounds cut from tree trunks and digitizes the scans to make a musical image. I think the sounds are eery and beautiful and sound just about like I'd think a tree would sound. See for yourself.