Natural Teaching Lab Trails

When visiting the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville (FL), be sure to visit the nearby Natural Teaching Lab Trails. In spring and fall, there are many small animals and interesting plants. The pictures below were taken in May.

Boardwalk. Natural Teaching Lab Trails.
University of Florida, Gainesville.

ABOVE: Green Darner dragonfly.
BELOW: Sliders.

Part of the trail passes around a small marsh.
Other sections are drier.

ABOVE: Sunshine Mimosa is sometimes sold in
the Florida Museum of Natural History gift shop.
BELOW: Bull Nettle (Cnidoscolus stimulosus)

ABOVE: Common Buckeyes.
BELOW: Female Cardinal.

ABOVE: Buttonbrush flower.
BELOW: Begonia.

Spider wraps itself in a leaf

I was watering my hydrangea when I noticed that one of the leaves was tubular. I immediately suspected a caterpillar and instinctively pinched the leaf from its stem.

“Shoot. Why did you do that?”

I’d recently done the same while checking another plant, only to realize the tube held the larva of a Long-tailed Skipper, one of my favorite butterflies. Once I realized, I removed the swollen, sluggish caterpillar and returned it to the plant; and was pleased to discover that, within 48 hours, it had wrapped itself once more.

Had I disturbed another Long-tail?

I held the leaf in my hand and saw something moving within. Gently I separated the leaf’s edges, which had been secured with a sticky webbing. Inside was a small spider, roughly 5 mm in length. A beneficial.

Broad-faced Sac Spider (Trachelas tranquillus) in a Hydrangea leaf.

“Sorry little one.”

I laid the leaf on the plant, close to where it had been clipped. Then went for my camera as the spider immediately worked at repairing the damage.

Trachelas tranquillus curling a leaf around itself.
Photo shows the underside of the spider.

In a short time, it was hidden once more. It even reattached the leaf to its branch using spider duct-tape.

Through the photos, I identified it as a Broad-faced Sac Spider (Trachelas tranquillus). Trachelas is a nocturnal spider that hunts by stalking or running after prey. It’s unusual, however, in that its also scavenges, consuming dead insects and deceased spiders.

Trachelas tranquillus (Broad-faced Sac Spider)

During the day, Trachelas wraps itself in a leaf, hides between rocks, or secures itself among loose tree bark. These locations also serve as nurseries, where females lay 30-60 eggs and watch over youngsters. Spiderlings do not need to eat immediately after hatching and remain with their mother for roughly two weeks, at which time they undergo their first molt.

Sometimes Trachelas overwinters indoors. Although they are non-aggressive to humans, they will bite if squeezed or when defending nests. The bite feels like a bee sting, and may be sore for several days, but isn’t considered serious.

Next time I see a curled leaf, perhaps I can remember to resist the urge to pluck it and, instead, retrieve a magnifying glass, since there are many friendly guests hiding among my plantings.

Note that not all references were specifically about the Broad-faced Sac Spider. However, the various sac spiders seem to have similar life histories.
Broad-Faced Sac Spider – Trachelas tranquillus. Carnivora. Jun 14 2018.
Broad-faced Sac Spider (Trachelas tranquillus). SpiderIdentifications.
Spider Sunday: A Common “Indoor” Spider. Bug Eric. Nov 4 2012.
Sac or tube spiders, Family Clubionidae. Ednieuw.
Black-footed Yellow Sac (Cheiracanthium inclusum). SpiderIdentifications.


The Swamp Comes Alive in Spring

Duckweed covers the swamp and an alligator.

The weather was pleasantly cool and breezy; a good day for day-hiking. Since many trails in northeastern Florida remain flooded, I opted to walk the elevated trails at Sweetwater Wetlands.

Water levels being high, the park’s dry basins had filled. Alligators of all sizes took advantage of the expanded habitat.

One young gator amused visitors when it strolled across a path and settled itself in the grass. A few inches of tail remained on the walkway.

A young alligator hides in the grass.

A group of college students stepped towards the three-footer, engaged in conversation. One man’s foot threatened to trod the tip.

“You’re getting kind of close to the alligator,” a companion remarked.

“What alli—“ He looked down then sidestepped into his group. “I almost stepped on it! I didn’t know it was there!”

“We were just talking about it!”

“I didn’t know what you were talking about…”

Further along, a dinosaur-sized gator eye me as he swam, then seemed to follow as I passed. Although I had no intention of approaching the water and could easily avoid him from the trail, I found myself a bit unnerved; reminded that predator and prey are fluctuating roles beyond an urban habitat.

I met a couple who inquired whether I’d seen “the babies.”

“Mmm, what babies?”

“The baby Sandhills. The ranger said there was a pair here with chicks.”

Now I’d be looking for “the babies” too.

I made my way to the boardwalk, where I took pleasure in other wading birds, including an anhinga with bright-blue eyeshadow. It sunned itself among pond vegetation and floating detritus. Once dry, it dove into the water then reappeared, flinging a Red-ear Sunfish between its yellow spears.

A Little Blue Heron foraged in the company of a Glossy Ibis. Another Little Blue said good-bye to its childhood, its white feathers showing patches of adult coloration. Soon it would be impossible to camouflage itself among flocks of Snowy Egrets.

I photographed Eastern Pondhawk dragonflies, which flitted about the boards. The males of this species are dusky blue, while the females are a luminous green.

Female Carolina anoles sunned themselves on the floorboards. Potential mates displayed on the railings above, with bobbing heads and expanded dewlaps.

Carolina anole, likely a gravid female.

I passed the couple I’d spoken with earlier. We talked a few moments before I made my way to the end of the boardwalk. And there I saw them! Two adult Sandhill Cranes emerging from the marsh grass, two chicks in tow.

I quickly retraced my steps to alert the couple, and together we prepared our cameras and waited for the birds to saunter down the trail.

I stood on one side of the walkway, where another woman soon joined me. The couple stood on the other. From behind the birds, another person spotted the chicks and quickened their steps.

The family was surrounded.

The birds stopped. The male raised his head. “The nerve!” he seemed to say.

“I think we’ll do better if we get to one side,” I said. I joined the couple, and the other woman followed.

“We have to stay 20 feet away,” said the woman. “It’s been posted.”

Easier said than done, I thought. That would mean stepping down the embankment and loitering near alligator-infested water. Although I’m aware that storks can use their bills as swords, I decided to chance birds over gators.

The woman left our group, and walked further down the path. “Twenty feet,” she shouted. A few minutes later she called again. “Twenty feet, guys.”

The rest of us stood just off the path, gifting the birds the trail.

As though accepting the invitation and copying our example, the birds went to the opposite side of the trail and walked in the grass. Cameras clicked as they meandered along, pushing their bills into the soil.

A silent parade of visitors fell along the path. Each person politely waited for a chance at family photos.

Eventually, the birds returned to the pond, where the chicks dozed on a mudflat and the adults probed for succulent morsels.

Marsh rabbit

As I continued my walk, a small group of people watched something from the trail. A marsh rabbit nibbled new sprigs of grass.

These are the glorious green days! And, in spite of searing sunburn, leaving the trail was difficult. The marsh has come alive. But it is a long drive home and some months lie ahead before birdsong falls to the crackle of leaves. The celebration will continue another day, but now it’s time for some aloe.

Sixty Days of Exercise

I just completed 60 days of daily exercise. So what has changed since day 30?

  • Energy level continues to increase. I’m active later into the evening and must force myself to stop.
  • Blood pressure has changed. Was an average of 116/68; now 107/64.
  • Resting heart rate has increased. Averaged 68 bpm before the 60-day period; now 71.
  • I’m struggling with controlling the fat in my diet. I crave foods with a bit more oil. At the same time, I seem to be putting on more muscle than fat.
  • Moving takes little to no effort. Also, I feel steadier on my feet and assured in my movements.
  • My body seems better able to regulate its temperature. Rarely do I suddenly feel hot or cold.
  • My muscles are filling out a bit and becoming rounder.
  • I have small dumbbells at home. One pair weighs 3 lbs each; the other 5 lbs each.  I’m embarrassed to say that, when I started, the 5-pounders were too heavy. I’m now looking into buying 7 and 10-pound weights.
  • When I first started using the equipment at the gym, I could only move small amounts of weight, maybe 10-60 lbs (lesser weight arms; greater weight legs). Now I move 40-145.
  • I’m finding it impossible to increase the weight on certain machines. Either my muscles aren’t capable of doing more or my lifting form deteriorates. Instead of worrying about poundage, I’ve increased repetitions.
  • Exercising has become an ingrained habit. I’ve planned several zero-days in order to rest my body, but have only taken one. Because my energy level is high, I always wind up doing something physical on rest days, such as working in the yard or overhauling my office.
  • My husband keeps complimenting my looks.
  • I’m less judgmental of myself. I now realize that few people are so beautiful that all heads turn in their direction (perhaps one in fifty). In reality, most people are similar to one another.
  • I observe others at the gym, and sometimes worry they’ll think me strange. I’m actually admiring the muscles of the devoted and using it as inspiration; or I’m noting how different pieces of equipment are used. When I first began, I had to read the directions posted on each machine. But by observing others, I’ve gradually expanded my repertoire. I’m now able to use all machines. That being said, I still exclude myself from the free-weight area. “That is, after all, for real athletes.”

Image by unknown photographer at Pixabay.

Eagans Creek Greenway in Fernandina Beach

Mid-section of trail. Eagans Creek Greenway.

Pre-Covid, I’d visited Eagans Creek Greenway in Fernandina Beach, Florida; but the weather was hot, I found the trail signs difficult to interpret, and swarms of mosquitos turned me back at the halfway point.

Today, the temperature was moderate, the sun was shining, and many trails in Central Florida were flooded, so I decided to revisit Eagans Creek on the east coast.

The main trailhead is located at a recreation center at 2500 Atlantic. There is a large, paved lot and, on weekdays, restrooms are available at the west end of the complex (where the swimming pool is located). The trail begins at the rear of the center, behind the swimming pool and near the Pirate Playground.

During today’s visit, I didn’t use the trail markers. Instead I relied on memory and a map downloaded from AllTrails. This made navigating the path easy.

The Greenway passes through swampland and, depending on rainfall and tidal flow, there may be standing water on either side of the trail. Like all well-constructed swamp passages, the trail is wide and roadlike, allowing visitors to spot and avoid lounging snakes and gators. The width also allows cyclists to pass pedestrians easily.

Scenic view from bridge at Eagans Creek.

As one walks, they come across two side-paths with bridges, which allow area residents to cross onto the trail. The bridges are worth visiting, for scenic views and to spot migratory birds and alligators.

This 5-foot gator is missing its nostrils.

Today, a pale-gray alligator rested near one of the bridges. Her coloration was unusual, since most gators are black or dark-brown. But this may have been an indicator of poor health. Her mouth looked strange and, as I processed my photographs, I realized she had no nostrils. I wonder if this was a birth defect, or if she lost her nose from an act of violence. A territorial dispute? A frightened human? An encounter with a boat?

At the halfway point, Eagans Creek Greenway crosses two-lane Jasmine Street and jags west via a sidewalk edged by wildflowers. The earthen trail soon resumes in a southerly direction.

This southern half of trail is where you’re most likely to see wildlife and encounter insects. There were many butterflies and dragonflies, innumerable turtles, and a variety of songbirds. A Green Heron ignored me as it stalked fish beneath the duckweed. It’s likely there were hidden gators beneath the extensive pond vegetation.

At one point, I heard growling reminiscent of my cat when he visits the vet. It may have been a domestic cat or a bobcat. In either case, the uncertain vocalizations seem directed at me, so I backed a ways down the path and moved on.

At the southernmost point of the trail, I encountered a short, muddy section filled with mosquitos. Bicycle tracks revealed the mud to be several inches deep.

I came across other people on all parts of the Greenway, although there were more visitors north of Jasmine Street.

There was additional parking on Jasmine, between Jean Lafette Boulevard and Citrona Drive. Here, parking spaces are limited and one must back onto the roadway. However, if one wanted to do only the southern section of trail, this would be the place to park. Note that there are no facilities.

When visiting the Greenway, remember to bring water, since most paths are exposed. Sunscreen and insect repellent are also advisable. There were worn alligator pull-outs throughout the park; be watchful for wildlife.

Urban Hike to St. Augustine from Vilano Beach

View from Francis & Mary Ursina Bridge,
Vilano Beach, FL

Most of North Florida is only 19-250 feet (6-76 meters) above sea level so, when it rains for successive days, many trails are closed or are so mucky that they’re nearly impassible. At these times, I resort to an urban hike.

This week, I walked from Vilano Beach Town Center (115 Vilano Rd A, St. Augustine, FL) and looped the historic district of St. Augustine, a distance of roughly seven miles.

I parked at the northern periphery of Vilano Beach Town Center (as of this writing, free). The allotted spaces allow people to visit the quarter-mile Vilano Beach Nature Boardwalk, or access the pedestrian walkway along the Francis & Mary Ursina Bridge (part of A1A).

Vilano Beach Nature Boardwalk passes beneath
Francis & Mary Ursina Bridge (A1A)

After parking at the Town Center, I crossed A1A and walked toward Francis & Mary Ursina Bridge. A pedestrian walkway edges the westbound lane of the bridge, while a bike lane edges the eastbound lane.

Although the bridge is 65-feet (20 meters) high, the slope is gently tapered and easy to walk.

As I entered St. Augustine on May Street, I crossed to the opposite side, so I could turn left at the roundabout onto San Marco Avenue (also part of A1A).

Various cafés, restaurants, and amusements are found throughout the St. Augustine historic district, so there are many opportunities to rest or explore. Be sure to budget for food, drink, and admissions however. This is a tourist town, and prices are on the high side.

The Old Jail is one of many attractions
in the St. Augustine historic district.

When I reached Ripley’s Museum, I crossed the road to the Visitor Information Center. Here one can get a map of the area, rest in the AC for a bit, or use well-maintained restrooms.

Exiting toward the rear of the building, I continued on Cordova Street, turning left at the wax museum onto Orange. From here, I went to the Old City Gate, turning right onto St. George Street.

St. George Street is filled with shops, restaurants, and taverns. Buskers perform on side-streets. Here and there, public restrooms are available. Although there are benches to rest on, don’t disturb the bearded homeless man. He is a regular here and stacks his belongings next to him. I wonder if he sleeps during the day to stay awake and safer at night.

I often visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, where I take a few moments to meditate in the building’s serenity. Today I lit a candle for my mother (the requested candle donation is $4; entry to the cathedral is free).

Inside the cathedral, people pray at all hours. Remember to remove hats upon entering, keep voices low, and refrain from using the camera’s flash.

Pedestrians may also cross the Bridge of Lions

Leaving the cathedral, I turned left onto Cathedral Place, which parallels Plaza de la Constitución park. After crossing A1A to the Bridge of Lions, I turned left and continued on the waterside sidewalk, toward the historic fort, Castillo de San Marcos.

This waterside sidewalk leads to Castillo de San Marcos

At the coastal edge of the fort there is a perimeter wall which people are allowed to walk. It’s advisable to watch one’s footing, since the stone is weather-worn and the water below is filled with stone projections. Be on the lookout for dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and stingrays. Occasionally park rangers ask visitors to pause their journey so that the fort’s cannons may be fired.

People sit and walk along the exterior wall
separating the fort from the Matanzas River.

Watch for dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles.

The wall ends in a wooden steps and a short boardwalk. One can exit the fort by taking the wooden steps to the right, or enter the dry moat by taking the short boardwalk to the left. Today I headed toward the moat and continued until I saw a few tall steps in the fort’s exterior wall. These lead to a sandy path which ends at A1A.  

Steps in the exterior wall lead to a sandy path
which ends at A1A.

Taking A1A back to May Street, I again crossed Francis and Mary Ursina Bridge, and took a moment to visit the Publix supermarket at Vilano Beach Town Center, where I picked up a few groceries.

NOTE:  If one wanted to shorten this hike, parking is also available west of the bridge at Vilano Landing, which is a boat-launch area. Day parking is also available inside the city for $10-15 (be aware that prices fluctuate in an upward direction). A few free spots are available on the opposite side of the Bridge of Lions, but these fill quickly.

Trail Map – St. Augustine from Vilano Beach

Sawmill Slough Preserve at University of North Florida (UNF)

I had been dissuaded from visiting Sawmill Slough Preserve. The University of North Florida web site warns that people should hike in pairs, and a sign at the trailhead reiterates this. However, I started on the trail at 9:15 on a Sunday morning, and there were already many cars in the lot. A short distance onto the trail I came across a family with small children. One wouldn’t find themselves alone long in the event of an emergency.

There were unsafe bridges, which were closed. One spanned a lake; another, at the southern end of the park, crossed a stream.

I tested the remaining boards at the stream crossing. All were severely rotted and some would slide underfoot. Even the telephone-pole support beams appeared untrustworthy. I had to concur with the sign – Extremely Dangerous!

Normally, I would have turned back, but I had waterproof shoe covers in my pack that I’ve been wanting to try.

I took a look at the stream. The water was crystal clear and, probing the bottom with a stick, the bottom proved sandy rather than muddy. I leaned against a tree and slipped on my mini-waders.

During the last step or two, the water threatened to exceed my 15 inches of protection, but I managed to get across with only a few drops flecking my knees. The experience reminded me why I carry a pack and come prepared.

The only other part of the experience that concerned me was that water levels are high right now, and many trails were immediately edged by water (of course, “slough” is another word for “swamp”). And where there is water, there are snakes and alligators.

While walking around the lake, I saw places where alligators might habitually drag themselves from the water, but today I saw no wildlife other than insects and songbirds.

Yellow-sided skimmer (Libellula flavida) female.
I also saw males, which are a solid pale-gray,
making them nearly invisible among vegetation.

Road noise was noticeable throughout the park, but the scenery was so engaging that I often failed to notice it.

Although dogs are not permitted on the trail, there are always individuals who ignore the rules. Today I met a middle-aged couple with a tiny leashed dog. A group of college students was accompanied by a white terrier, which ran up to me unrestrained.

When I saw the unleashed dog, I readied  my finger on the button of my recently-purchased ultrasonic dog deterrent, which blasts dogs with a confusing sound but does no permanent injury to the animal. So far, only off-leash dogs have threatened me on trails, so I come prepared with increasing levels of protection – ultrasonic device; pepper spray; knife.

There are several intersecting trails, which means hikers can extend or shorten their walks as desired.

During the week, there is a fee to park in the lot. Parking is free on Saturday and Sunday, but on these days the restrooms are locked.

Benches and picnic tables are scattered throughout the grounds.

Theodore Roosevelt Area trails at Fort Caroline

There are three trailheads crossing the Theodore Roosevelt Area adjoining Fort Caroline:

  • Paved lot at Fort Caroline National Memorial (12713 Fort Caroline Road, Jacksonville FL). Restrooms. Picnic area.
  • Paved lot opposite the entrance to Fort Caroline. No facilities.
  • Unpaved lot at Willie Browne Trailhead (13303 Mount Pleasant Road). Restrooms.

Today I walked from the Willie Browne Trailhead to Fort Caroline and back, a hike of roughly 7 miles. (For trail map, click here.)

Theodore Roosevelt area trail

I started at the Willie Browne Trailhead. Before long, I crossed Hammock Creek.

Bridge over Hammock Creek. Willie Browne Trail, Jacksonville, FL.

Along the way, I came across a small cemetery, the resting place of Willie Browne. Browne was an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt and bequeathed his land as a conservation area.

A few foundation stones are all that remain of Browne’s humble cabin.

Willie Browne cabin foundation stones.

Further along the trail, I climbed a one-story observation tower overlooking an expansive marsh.

View from observation tower.

Although tree roots cross all trails, they are especially prevalent north of the tower. Here the elevation increases, allowing glimpses of the water and marshland below.

The tower loop links to Spanish Pond Trail, which can be buggy. Today, few insects were present. But on other days, I’ve walked through swarms of mosquitoes.

Boardwalk on Spanish Pond Trail.

Fort Caroline National Memorial has restrooms and ample picnic tables, so this was a good place to stop for lunch. Afterwards, I visited the small fort and the adjoining nature trail.

The trail is moderately to heavily traveled, so wildlife sightings will be limited. Today I saw this Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis). Although I have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these animals, I’d never seen one a raised crest. Perhaps a rival was in the area.

Green Anole with raised crest.

Learn to Hike at Jacksonville Arboretum

Jacksonville Arboretum is a city park that is managed by a non-profit organization and maintained by volunteers. Its stated goals are to:

  • Sustain biological diversity
  • Maintain a natural area that can be used for research
  • Educate the public about nature and natural resources
  • Provide a peaceful place where people can self-reflect and enjoy nature

[Resource Management Plan, December 20 2010]

For those who are considering taking up hiking, Jacksonville Arboretum is a good place to start. With 3.5 miles of looping and interlacing trails, it’s a great place to practice trail navigation while sampling terrains common to Florida. Since even the longest loop is moderately trafficked, one is unlikely to become lost for long, or remain unnoticed if injured.

From the parking lot, you enter the Lake Loop Trail, which is paved and affords scenic views of Lake Ray, the park’s centerpiece.

Lake Loop Trail is actually a central, paved loop that connects with additional unpaved trails.

North of Lake Loop, routes are longer and lead through scrubland. They include:

  • Live Oak Trail
  • Sand Ridge Trail
  • Deer Moss Trail is a connector which cuts across the middle of Sand Ridge Trail, allowing one to shorten the route.

South of Lake Loop, routes are forested and travel across streambeds and around gorges. They include:

  • Jones Creek Trail
  • Lower Ravine Trail
  • Aralia Trail
  • Upper Ravine Trail is a connector, which links the Lake Loop Trail entrance to Jones Creek Trail.
Stream at Jacksonville Arboretum

Most of the trails have sub-loops, and most of these are extremely short. You won’t get lost if you take one of these. Just remember whether you need to turn right or left when you exit.

During the spring and summer, the Arboretum is a good place to learn about native plants, since various trees and shrubs are labelled.

For pictures of native pines taken at the park, click here.

During today’s hike, I encountered a trail token, a little gift left by another hiker in an obvious space.

This trail token will be added to a shrine at my house.

During other hikes, I’ve found a coin with the Lord’s Prayer on it and a tiny gnome. Note that I am not recommending people leave trail tokens. If everyone did this, the forest would soon resemble a flea market. But it is something that people sometimes feel motivated to do.

This 1.5 inch (3.8 cm) gnome was
hiding in the crevice of a tree stump at
Suwannee River State Park.

People also seem compelled to chisel their names and initials into things. Below, a creative volunteer must have attempted to add a bit of whimsy by carving a turtle from a felled tree.

But others are whittling it away as they add their own marks. Again, not something I recommend doing, since it degrades the experience for others and forces the replacement of benches, railings, and sculptures before their time. And in this park, “all of the trails, benches, board walks, and picnic tables were built by volunteers from the community.” [Arboretum web site].

As I walked, spiky palmetto fronds cast barber-pole stripes across a sapling. I also encountered lichens growing in the shape of a mask.

When one hikes frequently, they’ll occasionally discover items which have fallen off of heads or packs. When possible, it is the custom to post these at eye level, so that they can be seen and recovered by those backtracking their steps. Today someone found a hat.

It is customary to post found items at eye-level,
although I draw the line at discarded socks.

Jacksonville Arboretum is located at 1445 Millcoe Road, Jacksonville Florida. A small donation of $3/person is requested, which can be paid online. There is a single commode on the property which serves both men and women.

Native Pine Trees in Florida

There are seven pine species native to Florida:

Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda)
Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris)
Pond Pine (Pinus serotina)
Sand pine (Pinus clausa)
Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii)
Spruce pine (Pinus glabra)
Shortleaf or Yellow Pine (Pinus echinata)

Below are photos of four of the seven, taken during early spring at Jacksonville Arboretum. All trees were mature and of similar girth.