Ordinarily, I run off into the woods solo or with a few buds, but today I did something different – I went with an organized group called the North Central Florida Explorers that operates under the MeetUp.com banner, and I was the only caver there (I can just hear the gasps). We met at the Land Bridge Trailhead of the Cross-Florida Greenway and hiked to the bridge over I-75 and westward before heading back to the parking area, a total of 4.3 miles (butterscotch line).
It was not one of my usual hard-(old)-man treks, much less one of my occasional death marches. It was instead more leisurely and social, and I’m not worn out, scratched or bruised at the end of the day. I didn't know you could do that! I had the opportunity to walk and chat with several interesting people. It is good to get out in the woods with new acquaintances and trade knowledge banks, plus I met some naturalists that I plan to invite on my next bike-n-hike. New blooood, bwa-ha-ha-haaaaa!
Ecologically, the Land Bridge Trail is nothing to write a home blog about. The trail from trailhead almost to the land bridge is second growth, very low diversity broadleaf evergreen forest totally dominated by live oak and laurel oak. In fact, I saw only one other tree species in there, and that was a single individual sugarberry. Oh, there probably was sweetgum or water oak in there, somewhere, but I didn’t see them. Nonetheless, the canopy is mature and shady, and the live oak limbs are draped with resurrection fern, so it is quite pleasant. Since most of the participants today were not botanically inclined, I may have been the only one there noticing the floral poverty. Prem Subrahmanyam, one of my blog readers and an orchid aficionado, suggested in a previous post comment that I should be on the lookout for Triphora orchids, as this is the time of year when they begin to flower, which I did but saw none. Maybe next time?
Approaching the land bridge, the topography rises and the plant community becomes a sandhill habitat. It has been thoroughly modified by timbering, the absence of fire and earthmoving associated with the abandoned Cross-Florida Barge Canal. (Pause for a moment to remember that we have Marjorie Carr to thank for being the first person in America to defeat a major US Army Corps of Engineers water works project, this damnable canal, and say hallelujah!) The profound disturbances have transformed the habitat from a dominance of longleaf pine and turkey oak to one of a mixture of scrub oaks and ruderal pines, including myrtle oak, scrub live oak, Chapman’s oak, sand pine, loblolly pine and (rarely) longleaf pine. Before being stopped, the canal was partially dug with short segments excavated down several tens of feet but not deeply enough to reach the water table. The trail we walked took us alongside and atop some of the spoil banks, which had been piled up so long ago that the second-growth sandhill scrub vegetation has colonized and blurred the line between them and the original sandhill soils.
Despite this native Florida ecologist’s haughty attitude toward the floral fiasco, the trail here is carpeted in quietening pine needles and is quite peaceful and scenic.
Garberia (Garberia fruiticosa) was blooming all along the sandhill trail, its light purple blossoms slightly fragrant and attracting a few pollinators. It probably would have lured in many more pollinators and my pics of it might have been less blurred from shivering if the day had been warmer. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) was everywhere but its flowers were fading into brown and thus unworthy of pictorial attention. Likewise, dense blazing star (Liatris spicata) was past its prime but still attractive. Deer moss (Cladina evansii), a lichen composed of a fungus and an alga, formed large beds in places, indicative of the long-term absence of fire which kills it.
A single fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) was spotted by an alert hiker and pointed out to me, hanging out in the sun on a pine log in the chill wind. Possibly, because it was so close to the ground and flattened against the log, it was within a “boundary layer” of still air that protected it from the cold. It allowed me to approach to within 4 inches, so it must have been desperate for warmth. Ordinarily, just you try and approach this “swift;” it will dart away before you can get within a yard of it. Compare it to the photo of a scrub lizardat the end of this post – they are closely related, and possibly the latter evolved from the former during a higher Plio-Pleistocene sea level when the Florida peninsula was reduced to a series of islands. The scrub lizard is found only in xeric scrub plant communities in Florida whereas the fence lizard is found in many open xeric and mesic woodland habitats throughout most of eastern North America.
I should also point out the rockwork on the land bridge. Ever since I saw the intricate, imaginative, mortar-less stone walls of central Mexico in the late 1970s, I have closely inspected literally every rock wall that I have walked by to compare them with their Hispanic hermanos. Frankly, I find American rock walls wanting, most being slathered with mortar and some being nothing more than random, long stacks of rocks (Bruce J. Morgan’s sublime stoneworks being the sole exceptions). But I have to admit that the one on the land bridge is a good one. True, it uses mortar, but there is rather little of it and the stonemason took care to closely match edges.
The hike lasted from 10am until noon. After lunch, the trip organizer, Linda, and I got on our bikes and pedaled back to the land bridge and beyond (green line on the Google Earth image above). We had intended to ride the Christmas Trail, but it was closed for unknown reasons so we took the limestone road down the center of the Greenway property and then back, covering another 6 miles. I hope to do more outings with this friendly group.
Tomorrow I’m off to the low hammocks along the west side of the St. Johns River floodplain in the Ocala national Forest. I have seen some really cool serpentine cabbage palms, snail middens and older growth forests there in the past, and have stayed away too long. Who knows what treasures for Buford Nature lay in store for the morrow?