Wild observations

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By Nancy Oakes

This weekend has been one glorious day after another. Still, when is the colder weather going to arrive? Perhaps the birds know something. This morning flocks of them chittered, scolded, hopped and flew outside my cabin.

Robins and towhees traversed the wood edges. Palm warblers swooped over the ground. Wrens chattered and warbled to each other along the fence row, and bluejays, titmice and cardinals flew among the trees, commenting in their own voices.

I usually write this column while sitting on my porch, but I couldn't scare the wild birds away, so this time I'll stay inside.

I have the usual seasonal observations to report. I still find them exciting. I found a batch of Indians pipes erupting from the leafy and acorn-strewn ground in the next door woods. These unusual plants grow beneath oaks, although I have found them in pine plantations. They are easy to miss but fun to find.

I took a bike ride with friends on part of the Florida greenway rails-to-trails. This section starts near Dunnellon and continues some 45 miles south. We did about ten miles of the trail on a quiet day. Several gopher tortoise sat partially outside their burrows dug into sandy banks along the trail. A wild persimmon tree near the trail held lots of fruit, which look like a miniature version of cultivated ones. I'm told the taste of wild persimmons can be sweet but also astringent. Quite a number of wild plum trees grow next to this trail. I saw a few white plum blossoms on trees confused by our warm days.

On Saturday I joined a group of kayakers going on the Waccasassa River. The leader, Mr. Barker, conducts guided kayak tours as part of his business, Wild Florida Adventures. I was an invited guest for this trip sponsored through Continuing Education at Santa Fe Community College.

I met them at the boat ramp at the end of 326 outside Gulf Hammock. I was told by Mr. Barker that the name Waccasassa in the Seminole language means cow range. Mr. Barker also said that ivory-billed woodpeckers once lived in the wild tracts of land including Gulf Hammock and south to what is now Gulf Hammock Wildlife Management Area.

As I waited at the boat ramp I counted over twenty parked trucks with boat trailers, fishermen already on the water. Several airboats put in before the group arrived. Most of the traffic goes towards the Gulf. We headed left on the Waccasassa and soon had the river to ourselves. When we came to the place where the Wekiva runs into the Waccasassa, we continued on the Waccasassa as it narrowed and became shallow enough to easily see the bottom.

At this time of year, the cypress trees have leaves turning gold. Several large cypress grow along this stretch. Other trees with fall colors included tupelo, red maple, sweetgum, hickory and river birch. Our guide pointed out the bright red berries of dahoon and yaupon hollies. I was introduced to an unfamiliar tree, the swamp dogwood, a shruby plant with leaves turning pinkish red. This small tree is also called stiff dogwood.

I saw my first air orchid thanks to Mr. Barker, who showed us the tiny flowers of greenfly orchids growing on overhanging tree limbs. I also saw a type of ladies-tresses in the woods when we took a walk through an area of limstone caves and bluffs. I'm used to finding ladies-tresses in the spring, but several species do bloom in the fall. We also looked at fossils in the limestone, in particular a type of sea biscuit fossilized in the stones.

As the sun warmed the air, monarch butterflies took to wing and fluttered by us. Monarch, gulf fritillary, and sulfur butterflies visited the remaining pale violet aster flowers. Cormorants swam and dove in the river, great blue and little blue herons and ibis hunted the banks, flocks of black vultures roosted in trees and feisty belted kingfishers battled over fishing territory.

I saw huge flocks of robins moving across the area. Among the tree tops, goldfinch murmured in their sweet sounding voices. Two large alligators slid from the muddy bank and disappeared before we got anywhere near them. A small raccoon hesitated when we approached it and then ran into tall rushes. Turtles usually plopped into the water before we reached them, but one brave scooter held its place on a log as we paddled past.

This stretch of the Waccasassa is great for kayaks. It's quiet and full of natural plants that provide habitat for animals. I believe I could go back many times and always enjoy nature observing there.

Mr. Barker is a Williston resident. He instructs kayaking and conducts tours. He can be reached at 528-3984 or at tours@wild-florida.com or www.wild-florida.com.

Until next time, good observing.