Wildflowers and Other Delights After the Inferno: Croom Wildlife Management Area

I have now spent the better part of a month working towards a comfortable pair of hiking boots and a renewal of my long dormant “hiking legs” in preparation for my trip to Greece.  I exercise weekly at the gym and pretend the treadmill is a hill; run up and down our local causeways; and head to our lovely public lands to hike. Florida is the place to be in late winter. This last week I hiked the Croom Wildlife Management Area . Folks from my local chapter of the  Florida Trail Association suggested hiking along “Loop B-C” starting at the Tucker Hill trailhead. Tucker Hill Trailhead

This trail turned out to be quite the treat (yes there were hills) as parts of this trail have experienced a recent “prescribed fire”. These supervised fires clear the underbrush, prevent uncontrolled burns, and encourage new growth.

Sunflower
Sunflower

Happily the resultant open sunny areas abound with spring wildflowers and bright green young pines and turkey oaks. All this attracts butterflies. I even saw some common milkweed that will attract monarchs.

common milkweed
common milkweed

During my hike, though, the place was instead hopping with tiger swallowtail butterflies.

I haven’t often seen wild lupine, but I found a large patch. Many more would bloom soon in the surrounding area.

Wild Lupine
wild lupine

Along the way, a small gopher tortoise literally came running along the path. I didn’t think that a gopher tortoise could run, especially as fast as this little guy.I was waiting to see if a large rabbit was in hot pursuit. The gopher tortoise, a keystone species, plays a critical role during a fire. Many small critters are protected within the gopher tortoise borough during a fire, allowing for quick recovery after the fire.gopher tortoiseThis is for the most part a dry pinewood forest, but surprisingly there is a small amazingly beautiful little wetland near the campground.

Wetland Near the Trail
Wetland Near the Trail

Hiking the Hillsborough River

 

Bridge over the River

When we first moved to Florida I searched the area for hiking spots near our house.  Most of the nearby hiking trails were less than a mile long, so hiking didn’t seem a viable exercise option. During the last couple of years though,I missed my woodland activities, so, I signed up for a hiking trip to Greece. New boots in need of breaking in, I began the hunt for places to hike, preferably, with some hills and less than two-hours away by car. Ah you say, hills in Florida, that’s not going to happen. Well there are some, apparently, though a bit of a drive.Map of Possible Hiking Destination

I set as my goal to have a 100 miles logged onto my shoes by mid-April. Admittedly, some of that would be treadmill hill climbing.

As of this post I have reached about one-third of my goal.  My last couple of trips were up to north Hillsborough County to the Hillsborough River.  In order to hike the river, you need to know who owns the land.  The  lands surrounding the river may belong to a county (Hillsborough, Pasco or Hernando), a municipality, the State (as State Parks or State Forest),  Water Management District (affectionately known as Swift Mud by us locals), or even the Federal Government. The SWFWMD site  and the Fish and Wildlife Site are the most helpful in choosing trails as they have the most up-to-date information. But…and it is a big but, the descriptions of hikes are often somewhat vague.  Google and other online maps may or may not show all parks from all jurisdictions. You may want to check alltrails. com , for the reviews. However, their maps seem to be out-of-date, as do the existing books.

I needed hikes that would be greater than five miles, so the SWFWMD properties seemed to fit the bill. But beware, a lot of the trail here is paved. The unpaved trail is a lightly used hiker-biker trail. The best parking area is the Flatwoods Site.  After paying your $2, walk about a quarter-mile, to the Central Kiosk where there is water and everyone gathers.

If you need information there is usually someone who is familiar with the area.  From here you can do up to sixteen miles hike on the Main Eubanks Trail, a loop trail.

Signage is good at the Flatwoods Park The trail here is well-marked with numbered posts (this wasn’t true at the other parking lots where I couldn’t find the numbered posts).  February is a great time to hike as there are no bugs and the humidity is manageable.

About ten miles north of the SWFWMD property (or according to one map just an extension) is Hillsborough River State Park. The park has a number of well-maintained stacked trails, including part of the Florida Trail.

White Lilies

There are lovely old trees and many flowers and quite a few remnants of the Civilian Conservation Corps as this park was one of ten Florida Parks built by the CCC.

CCC Picnic Table

The trail here follows the river so has some awesome views. Three stacked trails, including the nature trail, the Barnyard Trail and the Seminole Trail allowed for a seven-mile goal on my visit to the park (could have gone ten). It was slightly hilly.

Myakka River State Park: Great Florida Hiking!

Myakka River State Park

I bought a pair of discontinued COLUMBIA Women’s Culvert Mid Omni-Tech Hiking Trekking Boots for the upcoming hiking trip to Greece.  I had managed not to have to buy boots for decades as my feet hate boots. The guides for my upcoming hiking trip to Greece, though, were adamant on the need for ankle coverage as the hiking would be rocky and dusty.

With two-and one-half months to go, I need to get movin’ and get these boots broken in. So every week I will seek out a place within an hour or two of home to break in the boots. With this in mind, Hubby and I set out for Myakka State Park, a little over an hour drive, near Sarasota. We hiked three trails using the State Park trail map we got at the visitors information center, an old Civilian Conservation Corps building.

We had a really nice trip and expect to go back another day as we missed out on getting permits to hike into Deep Hole Lake. Most of the hikes in the park are short unless you hike out onto the backpacking or bicycle trails, but you should try all of them. Everyone needs to visit the Canopy Walk, near the river. It’s ultrashort, but provides different view of the park from above.

Next, we hiked out onto the Birdwalk boardwalk.  We came upon a female Florida Softshell Turtle, busily laying eggs.  She was huge, probably two feet in diameter. Mostly these turtles aren’t easy to see as they only come on land to lay eggs.

Next, we headed onto the Myakka River trail.  Backpackers and mountain bikers use this trail to reach primitive campgrounds throughout the park. Although, we had the book and a park trail map, we found the trail to be confusing as there were red, blue and unmarked trails.  But I did get my boot workout.  Though it’s February, it is already warming up and so the unshaded parts of this trail are already getting warm.

If you don’t want to hike, a boat tour and rental kayaks may interest you.  This is certainly worth another trip in the future. The boots may even be comfortable by then.

Myakka River State Park View

 

Panama’s Lake Gatun: Monkeys, Monkeys, Monkeys

Geoffroys Tamarin
Geoffroy’s Tamarin Eating a Grape

We Traveled on Lake Gatun after our walk along the Pipeline Road. The Lake has a touch of Disneyland to it, but it is well-worth the visit. People have likely been visiting the Lake because of the ease of seeing wildlife for hundreds of years, so the animals don’t seem to be bothered by us.  It didn’t hurt that the gentleman piloting our small boat came with a supply of grapes, something that seems legal in Panama. The Geoffroy’s Tamarin in the trees have been a look out:

Once it let the troop know, about a dozen or so of these small monkeys boarded our boat. In exchange for grapes, they pose for photos.

Waiting For a Grape

We also encountered more White-headed Capuchins, though they stayed up in the canopy.

The canopy around Lake Gatun also held quite the assortment of wildlife. Fabio, my EcoCircuitos guide, who accompanied me on the boat (the boat captain didn’t speak English) spotted these tiny bats (definitely taking to the limit of the capability of the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm lens here).

This next photo is interesting. I was going through my photos at the end of the trip and I couldn’t quite remember why I took it and nearly deleted it.

Before: Can you see anything?

As I looked at it a bit more closely, I started enlarging sections. Much to my surprise, I found this Green Iguana. These guys grow to six feet in Panama.  Unlike here in Florida they are Panamanian natives.

After: A Green Iguana

Given that I live in Florida, I tend to be selective in the birds I photograph. Egrets for example; well let’s just say an egret needs to be doing something pretty special to garner my attention. And, well some birds are just too fast for me (I do keep trying). This Broad-winged hawk, on the other hand, was neither too common nor too fast for me. It  just sat and stared at us, so I had to take this photo.

Broad-winged Hawk

We only spent about an hour on Lake Gatun before we headed out to the Panama Canal to take photos of a very different sort. It was well worth the visit.

Jungle Boat