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Florida has become, especially over the last hundred years or so, a mecca for tourists (although two of the first real tourists, John Bartram and his son William Bartram, visited in the Eighteenth Century, with nary a theme park in sight!)  Unfortunately it is now overrun not only with too many people in my opinion, but way too many introduced animals and plants. I never thought that I would live to see the day that pythons would be a problem for the Everglades!  The environmental degradiation has been fought by a number of wonderful people, including former Florida wildlife biologist Dale Crider (See:, whom I heard in concert during my stay in the Sunshine State.

I lived there for over five years in two shifts, while I attended the University of Florida at Gainesville and also had a postdoctoral position there.  It was a good time to be a student in field biology at UF, as it was one of the last universities that had a respectable field zoology program.  I reveled in the association with several well-known biologists - Archie Carr, H. K. Wallace, Willard Whitcomb, Minter Westfall, and several others. Both Archie and H. K. (both now deceased) introduced me to the wild part of the Sunshine State, as well as part of Georgia (primarily the Okefenokee Swamp). Among the wonderful areas I visited in Florida were San Felasco Hammock, the Ocala Scrub, the River Styx, the Everglades, Goldhead Branch, Seahorse Key, Jonathan Dickenson State Park,  Ichetucknee  and Manatee Springs, Woodyard Hammock on Tall Timbers Biological Station,, Oleno State Park, the Osceola National Forest, Highlands Hammock, Archbold Biological Station, and Welaka Reserve. I never went to Disney World!

My first introduction to wild Florida was at Welaka Reserve, to which I went with my major professor, several other researchers and a group of graduate students shortly after I arrived in Gainesville.  The area was pine flatwoods and swamp and I was especially enthralled by the night visit we made through the flatwoods, by a flatwoods pond and the night life shown to me and the rest by H. K. Wallace.  It was here I was introduced to the large orb-weaving spider, Eriophora ravilla.  The flatwoods pond especially intrigued me.  We had nothing like it in Arizona and it teamed with life.  Beautiful water lilies and other aquatic plants covered the surface.  It was a joy to behold!

Welaka Nature Reserve swamp, FL

Swamp on Welaka Reserve, Florida.


Over the next four years of my first stay in Gainesville I wandered over much of Florida from the Apalachicola forest to Big Pine Key, but my favorites were the Big Scrub of Ocala and the Cedar Keys (including Seahorse Key) in the Gulf of Mexico.  I also really liked Collier-Seminole State Park and the River Styx, which flowed into Orange Lake (now apparently completely dry!), and the Archbold Biological Station.  This was the Florida that I liked and where I had my best experience of the land of flowers.

Apalachicola River, Florida

Apalachicola River at Torreya State Park, Florida.

River Styx

The River Styx flowing toward Orange Lake, Florida.

The Big Scrub, which was immortalized by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in "The Yearling" and "South Moon Under," was a favorite field trip destination. The sand pines were spindly trees that made noises when the wind blew and the forest floor was covered with tribble-like lichens that crunched under foot. Clearings often had prickly pears and  dwarf Sabal palms, but the area was also dotted with swampy bayheads (usually heads of creeks noted for their small "bay" trees) and crossed by streams up to the size of the Oklawaha River.  This was one of the locations that Archie Carr (Archie unfortunately died in 1987) took his Community Ecology students, including me, along with Seahorse Key, San Falasco Hammock and the Okefenokee Swamp just across the line in Georgia.  

Archie Carr's field ecology class

Archie Carr and his Community Ecology Class on Billy's Island, Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia.

Of these the Scrub was unique and included a number of species adapted to living on the islands that made up Florida over a million years before.  Archbold Biological Station, which is part of the Lake Wales Ridge, was thus also part of an island.  Our visit to the scrub with Archie resulted in finding a huge soft-shell turtle crossing a dirt road, a glimpse of a cottonmouth along a woodland stream, and a huge bayhead, with sweet bay Magnolia virginiana, and loblolly bay Gordonia lasianthus, among other small trees and shrubs like wax myrtle Myrtica cerifera.  Archie cautioned us about diamondbacks, but we never saw one.  

The Big Scrub of Ocala, FL

The Big Scrub near Ocala, Florida.

On the trip to Seahorse Key he told us about the unusual population of cottonmouths on the island that feed on discarded fish and nestlings from the white ibis rookery.  I could not find any cottonmouths and mentioned this to Dr. Carr.  He said "What about the one you just walked over?"  I am not sure to this day whether he was pulling my leg, as I retraced my steps and could not find the snake! Seahorse is another unique habitat in Florida, with the rookery - including pelicans and cormorants -  a winter population of common loons and a fairly huge shark population in the muddy waters.

Path to Beach- Seahorse Key, FL

Path to outer beach at Seahorse Key, Florida.

The Florida Keys and the Everglades still have some parts that remain wild.  On Big Pine Key a fellow graduate student and I watched numerous fireflies drift through the thatch palm and slash pine one night and during the day I discovered a resident 'gator in a freshwater pond nearby.

Alligator at Big Pine Key -

Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, in pond at Big Pine Key, Florida.

I also found other interesting biota on nearby keys, such as this male brown anole (Anolis sagrei).

Anolis - Florida Keys

In the northern Everglades Pinecrest (now a ghost town) was one of the least visited parts of the state.  On one trip with another graduate student I drove south from Alligator Alley to the town of Pinecrest to examine the fauna on the palmettos there.  On the way we came across a young cottonmouth crossing the road.  The area certainly must have changed since we were there, but it was worth the visit then.

Young Cottonmouth at Pinecrest Loop

Young cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus, on Pinecrest Loop road, Florida.

Pinecrest, FL - Palmetto Scrub

Slash pine, Pinus elliottii, and palmetto savanna at Pinecrest, Florida.

Near the Big Cypress Swamp, I came across orchids and bromeliads growing on dwarf cypress not far from Naples. These are certainly among the most spectacular of the Florida epiphytes and have always impressed me.

Air plant near Naples, FL

Tillandsia fasciculata near Naples, Florida.

Collier-Seminole State Park contained a few of the native Florida royal palms which are better represented in Royal Palm Hammock in the Big Cypress.

Royal palm at Collier-Seminole, FL

Royal and cabbage palms at Collier-Seminole State Park, Florida.

Even Lake Kanapaha, west of Gainesville, and much of Alachua County as well, was full of life, including sandhill cranes, greenfly orchids, live oaks, gopher tortoises, Spanish moss, lovebugs, giant silk spiders, coral snakes, green tree frogs and droves of mosquitoes, among others.

Gopher tortoise - Lake Kanapaha, FL

Gopher tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus, at Lake Kanapaha, Florida.

Coral snake - Gainesville, FL

Coral snake, Micrurus fulvius, Gainesville, Florida.

Greenfly orchid on oak- Lake Kanapaha

Greenfly orchid, Epidendrum magnoliae = E. conopseum, at Lake Kanapaha, Florida.

Lake Kanapaha at sunset, FL

Lake Kanapaha at sunset.  A good finale for this diary, which could go on and on.  Suffice it to say that, like Dale Crider and Archie Carr, I'm an environmentalist and damn proud of it.  As Archie has said it does no good to lament what we have lost because people soon get bored with the gloom, but I hope my little photo essay will show the beauty of some of the wild Florida that is still left.  It is, if you well, my Valentine to the swamps, scrub, bayheads, beaches, rivers, ponds, lakes, hammocks and pine lands of a nearly vanished paradise.

An excellent reference is "A Naturalist in Florida: A Celebration of Eden" by Archie Carr, published in 1994 by Yale University Press.

I would also recommend and PHScott's other Florida diaries.

Again all photos by me.

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sun Apr 01, 2012 at 05:45 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech.

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