Monday, June 15, 2015

30 Days in June: Day 13, Natural Area Teaching Lab (NATL)

My relationship with the Natural Area Teaching Lab (NATL) on the University of Florida campus goes back to 2002 when I responded to an ad in the paper looking for Volunteer Docent Naturalists for the Florida Museum of Natural History. I can't remember if I had ever been to NATL before that, but after I discovered it, this special outdoor classroom quickly became an anchor for me. I wrote about this in a previous post ("Just Be"), so I won't go into the history much here, except to say that I am deeply thankful for the role NATL played in my development as a naturalist.

Four Ecosystems to Explore

Back when I started as a Docent Naturalist, NATL was much more bare bones. There were several basic paths, a picnic pavilion, PVC pipes for Treefrogs, some insect traps set out by entomologists and a kiosk where the kids could dig for ant lions. We still got a lot of use out of it with the school groups and summer camps. We caught insects in the fields, peered into the PVC pipes, peeked under logs, and played "The Thicket Game" (a Project Wild game about predators and prey) in the woods. We almost always saw or heard something wonderful. But since then it has gotten even better.

Tiny Southern Toad on the Trail
Over the years NATL has undergone some terrific changes. Interpretive signs and trails were added with very helpful labels on plants and trees. Signs with QR signs for smart phone add another educational dimension. There is a trail now around the entire SEEP Area (Stormwater Ecological Enhancement Project) with a boardwalk, where previously we could only walk to the edges of the retention pond. The staff and students who run NATL are working hard to promote the area to the whole community as a nice place to walk and learn about the environment. Social media alerts fans to new nature sightings or changes such as prescribed burns. There are scavenger hunt pages available to encourage families to visit, too.

Boardwalk through SEEP Area

Sign with QR Code for Smartphones

Welcome to NATL, from the Other Entrance

Interpretive Signs Along the Upland Pine Nature Trail

I go to NATL when I want to take photos of butterflies or other flying insects. The open, sunny fields and well maintained pine sandhill provide an excellent source for wildflowers. It's a good place to see Red Headed Woodpeckers and Bluebirds, and I have seen Pileated Woodpeckers building nests on several occasions. In the winter, the pond is a good place to see Hooded Mergansers.

Retention Pond

The wetlands around the boardwalk are teeming with dragonflies, frogs and butterflies. Occasionally I have seen turtles and snakes, and even an alligator.


Snake Shed in the Forest

A few years ago an owl box was placed in a big pine tree to attract Barn Owls. I don't think they have moved in yet, but one can hope. I don't believe that I have seen an owl in NATL, but I have seen hawks and kites. There have been several interesting structures to study the habits of Native Bees. The latest one is so attractive that I think I will borrow the design and make one for our new yard in Georgia.

Owl Box

Native Bee Structure

One of my prized butterfly sightings was at NATL. I had read a Facebook post about Harvester Butterflies on the Hammock Trail, and so I went looking for them. Not only did I see one, but I also found some Harvester Caterpillars eating Wooly Aphids on a Smilax vine (Harvester Caterpillars are insectivores!). When I visited this week, I was very happy to find and photograph another Harvester. I saw Wooly Aphids, but did not find caterpillars this time. I also saw a Question Mark Butterfly, but it flitted off before I could get a photo.

Harvester Butterfly

Question Mark

I spent about 3 hours in the heat on Saturday morning walking all the trails and reliving my happy memories of NATL. I was drenched with sweat and tired when I got home, but I feel like I could have walked all day. I love this place and hope I can visit again before we leave. I am encouraged because there is a teaching forest on the University of Georgia campus, not too far from our new home and I hope it is similar to NATL. Stay tuned for further reports.

Day 13 Total: 83 (no new birds) and 17 Natural Areas

Tread-Softly (Cnidoscolus stimulosus)

Showy Milkwort (Asemeia violacea)

Man of the Earth (Ipomoea pandurata)

Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum)

Green Lynx Spider on Paleleaf Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus)

Florida Milkvine (Matelea floridana)

A Walk in the Woods Always Makes Me Feel Happy

No comments:

Post a Comment