Wild observations

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By Nancy Oakes

In my younger life, I never expected to end up in Florida. Now during the winter holidays I've come to appreciate Florida's appeal. On Christmas I walked in the next door woods, enjoying the soft light on olive green live oak leaves, russets of turkey oaks, golden tans of rushes and brown to gray bark of tree trunks. Bluejays called in tree tops; chickadees chittered in lower branches. Later that some day, as I walked to my landlords' house for dinner, I paused outside their door and listened to goldfinch pweeing and murmuring in their sweet voices as they foraged for food in nearby oaks.

Two days later, I joined my friends on the Withlacoochee Bay Trail, a segment of the Cross Florida Greenway. We started at Felburn Park outside of Yankeetown and rode our bikes five miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Felburn Park offers parking areas, clean restrooms, picnic tables and a playground. The paved path parallels the Cross Florida Barge Canal on one side and travels through portions of Dixon Hammock, a 740 acre public access natural area. Plenty of picnic pavilions and overlooks provide reasons to stop and enjoy the scenery. Toward the end section of the bike path, salt marshes proceed the tidal flats and open water of the Gulf.

The day started out misty, turning by midmorning into a balmy, mild day with a slight breeze, not strong enough to cause much wind resistance. I noticed a difference in vegetation right away compared to the landscape I'm usually traveling through. Banks of cabbage palms grew along the canal edge, joined in many places by cedars, wax myrtles and pyracanthas. Some of the cedars contained frosty blue-looking berries. The pyracantha hosted bright red-orange berries. Several cat birds whined in the thick brush. Mockingbirds flew from perch to perch, wrens scolded in lower brush, towhees scuttled underneath leaves and little birds, some possibly yellow-rumped warblers, chipped energetically.

Out on the canal, brown pelicans gracefully powered over the water's surface, osprey cheeped in high tones, kingfishers rattled out calls and blue heron surged on powerful wings from one wading and hunting spot to another. A small armadillo traipsed through a wooded area opposite the canal. I stopped to appreciate bits of colorful nature like a red maple or golden yellow hickory. Scarlet leaves left on Virginia creeper vines coiled over bushes and tree branches. Another vine, wild grape, still had yellow leaves in places.

Saltbush full of fluffy white seeds grew on both sides of the path. We passed a sandy bank dotted with tall goldenrod now gone to seed. A small open area still had Spanish needle flowers and above the flowers, numerous gulf fritillary, queen and yellow sulphur butterflies fluttered from bloom to bloom. I also saw a few buckeye butterflies and a zebra longwing and checkered white. We stopped at a boardwalk located on the edge of saltmarsh with some open brackish water. Kate pointed out the sounds of mud bubbles popping in the high grasses. The smells reminded me of the coast, and soon we came to the end of the path where the Gulf of Mexico offers habitat for crabs and sea gulls, fishermen and coastal plants. A tiny bluegray gnatcatcher busily hunted insects in salt bushes growing next to our overlook.

While we watched, a fisherman on the shore caught a 15" red fish. He threw it back because it was too small, but the fish gave him a fun struggle before it was landed. Other fishermen used the canal and gulf access to try their luck on shore.

Boats also entered and exited the gulf by way of the canal.

We had a good morning of biking and nature observation. We passed a few other bicyclers plus walkers and two skaters. There are also horse trails and a parking area for trailers reached by a side road. The horse trails loop through a section of Dixon Hammock.

With our gentle winter days, we Floridians can enjoy such outdoor facilities as the Withlacoochee Bay Trail.

Until next time, good observing.