Wednesday, June 24, 2015

30 Days in June: Day 23, O'Leno State Park and Old Bellamy Road

O'Leno Used to be "Keno"!
I have been working on my big list of favorite places I want to visit again before we move, but I have another list of places I never quite got around to seeing and always meant to. Yesterday, my photo buddy, Maralee helped bring me up to speed on a couple of Alachua County birding staples that I had managed to miss over the years. The first was O'Leno State Park, on the Santa Fe River. I had actually been to O'Leno once before for a butterfly count, but the year I was there the state was in the height of drought and there was almost no water. It was an entirely different experience, and I didn't walk any of the river trails, so this was like a first visit for me.

Suspension Bridge Over the Santa Fe
O'Leno is a CCC era park, one of the oldest in the Florida State Park system. The picnic pavilions and cabins are charming log and chert rock structures. You cross the river over a beautiful suspension bridge and walk down to the water on sturdy block steps with rock retention walls. The river is the border at that part of the county, so we tried to concentrate on the Alachua County side of the bridge so any bird sightings would count for me. In the end, it didn't matter, because the Yellow Throated Vireo called but stayed invisible, despite our best efforts to draw it out. O'Leno did turn out to be an excellent birding location, but I had already checked all the ones we saw off of my list: Red Eyed and White Eyed Vireo, Yellow Billed Cuckoo, Pileated Woodpecker, Red Bellied Woodpecker, Barred Owl, Cattle Egret. We were met in the parking lot by a very friendly deer that people have probably been feeding.

Looking From the Alachua County Side

CCC Era Construction

The sound of the river as the water goes over the rocks and little drop is so soothing

Green Waters
Closer to the river banks, we found a some beautiful wildflowers that we don't usually see around Gainesville; Coastal Rosegentian and Swamp Milkweed. The Southern Toads are finally making an appearance for the summer and we had to watch our step so as not to squash tiny toadlings the size of beetles. There were also quite a few dead Red Bay trees, killed by the exotic Ambrosia Beetle that spreads Laurel Wilt Pathogen. It is sad to see so many of these beautiful trees dying or dead, and I wonder what this is doing to the population of Palamedes Swallowtails that use the tree as a larval host plant.

Coastal Rosegentian (Sabatia calycina)
Frog in the River

Minute Toadling (Compare to Size of Oak Leaves in Back)

Dead Red Bay
Florida is currently experiencing drought conditions, and though they are not yet quite as severe as the year I visited O'Leno when there was no water in the swimming area, sections of the park were very dry. We climbed around in a dry Cypress Swamp, looking for the Yellow Throated Vireo that we never saw. Walking through Cypress knees feels like walking in a strange alien landscape.

Cypress Knees

Gnarled Tree Roots
We stopped to look at the exhibit of rescued Gopher Tortoises by the nature center. I wanted to photograph at least one Gopher Tortoise this month and they were the only ones that I had seen in my explorations this month. Predictably, just as we were exiting the park we saw a tortoise grazing by the highway. Our cameras were stowed, so the captive tortoises will have to do for my photo record.

Rescued Gopher Tortoise and Burrow
We finished the trip with a quick visit to Old Bellamy Road, a place I had heard many naturalists mention for birds, butterflies and wildflowers, but I had never been there. All this time I thought it was just the name of a road. But it is actually a historic old road, and part of the state park system, with a parking lot and interpretive signs! Old Bellamy Road was Florida's first Federal Highway, built to connect Pensacola and St. Augustine in 1824. The road crosses the Santa Fe River over a "natural bridge" where the river goes underground for about 3 miles at what is now O'Leno State Park and comes out again at River Rise State Park. Parts of the old historic road run through state park land, which is where we went. We saw a Summer Tanager and heard Eastern Towhees and Vireos. Long-tailed Skippers darted along the grass, and we found nice clusters of Indian Plaintain, Butterfly Pea, and Sensitive Briar. I had been missing a real gem all these years.

Historic Old Bellamy Road

Old Green Grassy Bellamy Road

Sensitive Briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis)

Atlantic Pigeonwings (Clitoria mariana)

Fluffy Tanager
Every time I think I know my surroundings, I get a little reminder of how big Florida really is and how little I have seen of it. I feel like I know my area so well and then I find a place I've never been to in 20 years of living here, yet it was only a short drive from home. There are so many wonderful places, in Florida, in the US and in the world. I guess this means that I have a lot more exploring to do.

Colors on the Santa Fe River

June Challenge Count: Still the same, no new birds, but I've been to 28 natural areas.


  1. Love the bridge and frog in the river

    1. Thank you! It's a pretty park and I can't believe we didn't spend more time there.