Brack, Bruce and I got a late start on our mountain bikes, not getting into the woods until about 4:30pm. We dropped off the autos at James’ house in the Holiday Farms area just south of the Alachua-Levy County line, rode west on the limerock grade to the edge of Goethe State Forest, and continued west paralleling the north edge of the abandoned Bailey Mine (limerock). We were looking for exercise and neat biota.
I used to live about 1.5 miles from our entry point into the Forest, in scrub oak and wiregrass sandhills. This ecosystem used to be dominated by longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and wiregrass (Aristida stricta), but overlogging and mismanagement by previous landowners had all but eliminated the longleafs. Instead, the forest is dominated by turkey oak (Quercus laevis), scrub-live oak (Q. geminata) and bluejack oak (Q. incana). Fortunately, the land has never been plowed or cattled, so all the historic vegetation is still present. This includes rosemary, native xeric grasses and many species of wildflowers.
Being winter, the leaves had fallen from the turkey and bluejack oaks. I moved in and out of my former residence twice during winter, so most of my memories of wandering around out here are of wintertime conditions. In short, I felt like I was back at home during our outing, and being with friends who are fellow adventurers made it all the more satisfying.
These sandhills used to have numerous nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) and chuck-wills-widows (Caprimulgus carolinensis) in the spring and summer, the former’s calls and wing-sounds being heard late in the day and the latter’s calls being common by night. Occasionally, during winter, I would even hear a whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferus) make a single call in the evening. But I no longer hear these ground-nesting caprimulgiforms in the sandhills – I think coyotes and free-roaming house cats have eliminated them from this habitat.
I didn’t bike thru the sandhills when I lived there because of the deep sand. My feeling back then was that the sand was too deep and powdery to bicycle. And the sand is indeed deep out there, up to 40 – 50ft thick. It is a very sterile quartzitic sand, sugar-white on the surface and light yellow underneath, so sterile that ground cover averages barely more than 50 percent. Its woods roads are too sandy for those unaccustomed to driving on it, altho I never got stuck. We Florida natives know how to drive on sugar sand.
After going counter-clockwise half way around the Bailey Mine we headed south on a woods road that was once a railroad grade toward another, unnamed mine lying 2.5 miles to the south. Leaving the relatively flat, hard-packed terrain around the old mine we enjoyed a downhill coast into a broad depression and then came back up out of it on a high, steep hill. Towards the top of the hill the loose road sand got deeper and deeper. I could feel my quads burning going up it, and at some point my quads and the soft sand ended the ride and began the walk.
Pushing the bikes up the last hundred feet or so, we crested the hill and biked off again on a high, undulating plateau. The top of this plateau is dominated by rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides). This species belongs to a family that I once read had representatives only in the Arctic, the Antarctic and Florida. Way cool! Rosemary has a rounded, almost bulbous profile, with its numerous branches arching out and up until they get too heavy and then collapse to form a brushy rosette. Their tiny yellow berries are consumed by overwintering sparrows, including chipping, white-throated and song sparrows.
Another neat thing about rosemary is its tendency to form monocultural patches with few if any other plant species amongst them. I have heard it said that this is a consequence of alleleopathy, wherein the plant extrudes chemicals that inhibit the survival of other flora. Those who disparage exotic plants because of their monocultural tendencies should compare with rosemary.
We skirted around the rosemary patch and headed back to the north, climbing yet another, taller and steeper hill. Once again the sandy soil and gravity beat our quads and we had to walk the final hundred feet to the top. The old road then took us to the east thru an immature scrub-live oak hammock. Scrub-live oak also forms monocultural stands of saplings that I believe are clones from a single root system. They grow very closely and their leaves are evergreen, and thus they shade out most ground plants and shrubs.
In my 20s I used to monkey around in the oaks of these small hammocks. You can easily orangutan your way from one sapling to another without going to the ground first. They weren’t always close enough together, so it was a challenge to go from one side of the hammock to the other. I had to learn to jump from one to another at times to reach my goal. That was scary to me, altho trained gymnasts would find it easy to do.
After reaching heights of 20 ft or more, Spanish moss Tillandsia usneoides), ball moss (T. recurvata) and lichens become common to abundant on the scrub-live oaks. My favorite is the bubble-gum lichen, which is a bright red (I cannot easily find its scientific name, but would like to know it). I rarely see bird nests in these trees, probably because their branches and leaves aren’t dense enough.
Coming out of the little scrub-live oak hammock we came to a subdivision’s graded road, and took it almost a mile east and then another mile south. Reaching the end of the road, we biked off to the east down a fire lane, which quickly petered out, and then rode our bikes thru a maturing laurel oak hammock until we found a woods road heading south, which led us to the corner of an open agricultural field.
The last time I was at this field was perhaps 30 or more years ago. It has a single pecan (Carya illinoensis) tree in its center and 8 or 9 old pear (Pyrus sp.) trees in its southern reaches. I once ran across the pear trees when their pears were fully ripe. The fruit was a little on the hard and grainy side, but it was also sweet and delicious. I suspect they are one of the heirloom varieties. Finding such fruit on a hot summer day is gratifying. Contrary to what Paul Harvey says, those pears were one of the best “drinks of water” I ever had! But there were no pears on this winter’s day.
By this time it was getting dark and we had only one flashlight among us, so we headed back to the graded road and pedaled back to the cars. Again, some parts of the roads were quite steep, giving my quads even more of a burning. Good! I estimate that our route was appx 5.5 miles long.