Alone in Wild Places (Part 2)

My trip to Ocala National Forest was a far cry from the open trails of Disney Wilderness Preserve. The drive up was pleasant and short (1 hour from Orlando) and centred around FL-19 – a well-maintained road heading north  through the forest, intersected by sandy forest roads. As soon as I turned onto FL-19 I was greeted with a ‘Bear Crossing’ sign. This area is the home of the elusive Florida black bear (Ursus americanus)floridanus), a subspecies of the black bear. There are approximately 4,000 of them in the state of Florida and 1,200 of those are in central Florida, including Ocala National Forest.

I spent 15 years of my life living in Florida, and have never seen a Florida black bear, or a Florida panther, and only once had a fleeting glimpse of a bobcat. Large animals here are pretty elusive due to the availability of vast tracts of habitat. However, black bear habitat in the state is shrinking rapidly, in spite of the species being removed from the Threatened Species List in 2012. My chances of seeing one were, I knew, incredibly slim, but I needed to be vigilant anyway.

Salt Springs Loop Trail

I stopped at Salt Springs Loop Trail for a 2 mile hike through the woods. And when I say ‘the woods’ I’m not talking Sherwood Forest here – I’m talking about dense Live Oak and Slash Pine woodland running into Floodplain Forest.

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The trail itself was clear at first, shortly becoming overgrown (which I’m imagine happens quite quickly in Florida), and within moments it became obvious that I was the first person to walk the trail that morning: the trail was latticed with enormous webs of the golden orb-web spider (Nephila clavipes) – AKA the banana spider. Only slightly venomous, and it has to be said a stunning spider (the females are huge and brightly aposematic with red, black and yellow), it is described by the University of Florida website as being “despised by hikers and hunters, as during late summer and fall the large golden webs of this species make a sticky trap for the unwary“. They’re not kidding.

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Having been afflicted with quite severe arachnophobia since childhood, this was almost the end of the line for me, as within a few minutes of starting the trail I walked straight into a web – the sticky, golden strands pressing onto my face (the strands of this species’ web have a tensile strength stronger than steel, so you know about it when you walk into one!).  I decided that I was going to have to stop being a princess and just press on; I resorted to a tactic that I used when I lived here as a child (back when I was fourteen, barefoot and fearless) and I armed myself with a ‘spider stick’ to clear the area in front of me as I slowly walked, waving the four-foot stick in a figure-eight pattern from head to ground level.

I walked on.

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Bright green eastern pondhawk dragonflies were my constant companions along the trail, escorting me like woodland sprites to the boardwalk at the end, where a grand jewel awaited me to reward me for being so brave: an eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly! With a six-inch wingspan, this stunning ‘fly sat obligingly for a photograph before I stepped out of the closeness and humidity of the trail onto the breezy viewing platform overlooking the St John’s River.

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I was delighted with my butterfly sighting. Although common in the US, this species is literally the largest I’ve ever seen, and (I’m hoping) a portent that I will see swallowtails next weekend on my canoe trip to the Norfolk Broads! I continued on the loop trail, battling spiders, talking to dragonflies and photographing tracks of raccoons, deer and armadillos, before a quick stop for food and gas and driving to my next spot…

Lake Eaton Sinkhole

Pine scrub / oak forest surrounds the Lake Eaton Sinkhole, a depression 80 feet deep and 450 feet across, which formed in a single collapse (rather than a gradual sink). The depth of the feature creates a microclimate which you can actually feel as you descend – temperature and humidity go up; vegetation changes. I had been to this site before and really wanted to re-visit it on my own, so I drove down the sandy forest trail, only slightly worried about beaching my rental car, and parked up to begin the hike.

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The banana spiders were present across the path every 5m or so for the entire mile walk to the sinkhole and back, but I was armed and managed not to walk into any this time (*Morgan walks through the woods like Wesley in the Fire Swamp, slashing away danger…).

Whilst still humid (my shirt and hair were soaked by this point) and plagued by mosquitos and horseflies, the air was cooler and thunder rumbled almost constantly in the distance, with seasonal afternoon thunderstorms looming. Birds were calling but the forest was so dense that I couldn’t see any, so entertained myself with hunting for insects (found a bee-killer fly and a leaf-footed bug!) as I walked, finally coming upon the top of the large, wooden boardwalk steps that spiral their way to the bottom of the sinkhole.

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No sooner had I stepped foot on the wooden boardwalk than I spotted another prize: a five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) basking on the handrail some twenty feet from me. After getting a good look with binoculars and digiscoping him, I dropped my pack and decided to catch him.

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Five-lined skinks are pretty common in the Eastern US but, again, I had never seen one because north central Florida is at the southern end of the species’ biogeographical range. The stunning blue tail is usually a feature of juveniles, but can be retained into adulthood, as with this one.

Feeling, again, rewarded for my bravery, I happily walked back along the trail to my car with the thunder and humidity building as I went. Dragonflies had taken to sitting on my spider stick, so I spent a good portion of the return journey with little hitchhikers.

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So, you’re probably wondering – did I see a Florida black bear????  I only bloody did!!  Not five minutes after getting back to the car and driving down FL-40 back towards Orlando, an adult bear ran across the highway in front of my car! I literally had to pull over to calm down! So, pretty much, it was the best day’s adventuring I think I’ve ever had – unapologetic, guilt-free exploring on my own terms, in my own time and at my own pace. Quiet, perfect and full of awesome things. I have two days left here, so not going to post my full species list yet (just in case panthers, you never know…).

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