I *Bleeping* Love the Eagles, Man: Lake Harney Wilderness

Hi everyone! Today’s post takes us to the Lake Harney Wilderness Area, about 25 miles northeast of Orlando as the eagle flies. The bald eagle, that is. And it’s not just on the sign for decoration–bald eagles do indeed nest here.

“And the rocket’s red glaaaaaaaaare…”

Our national bird is always a welcome sight. But did you know that they often steal other birds’ prey in mid-air rather than catching it themselves? I’ll let you work out any metaphors on your own.

Here’s the web of an orchard spider. The architect can be see at the top. I find the horizontal, dome-like construction very striking. Orchard spiders are quite common in Florida and do well among the shrubbery of your average subdivision (which is the most ubiquitous habitat of our crowded state).

Boop!

I saw a lot of deer at Lake Harney. This beauty stopped long enough to pose for me and is actually one of my favorite pictures. While doing a little research, I learned that about 1 in 10,000 female whitetail deer has antlers. Biologists think they do this so they can sneak into male-dominated professions and thereby earn more money.

I believe this cute little bird is an eastern phoebe, but please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong. Lake Harney Wilderness is fantastic for bird-watching. Forests, meadows, tall pines, low shrubs and of course the lake itself make for a wide range of habitat and bird types. I even saw Larry Bird, but he bolted into the woods before I could get a picture.

Lake Harney is fed by the St. Johns River, pictured above. The St. Johns is the longest river in Florida and is a major drainage basin. Below you can see where a past period of high water has left its mark on a tree.

Sort of like tan lines, but for the water.

Another of Lake Harney’s cute little residents. That bandit’s mask is quite appropriate, because according to Wikipedia, “raccoons [in a 1908 study] were able to open 11 of 13 complex locks in fewer than 10 tries and had no problems repeating the action when the locks were rearranged or turned upside down.” They have also proven surprisingly adept at inserting USB cables correctly on the very first try.

Here’s a black racer I saw on the forest floor. Black racers are quite active during the day and are one of the most common snakes a Floridian will encounter. Fun fact: they can slither at up to four miles an hour, which is about the same as a human’s quick walk or slow jog. It’s also the average speed of an elderly Florida driver crawling along in the passing lane.

We’ll end our trip to Lake Harney with this cardinal, who’s obviously using quite a bit of product in his hair. That’s just one of the many techniques these birds use to attract a mate. (Hey, it’s gotta be more effective than gold chains and chest hair.) A gorgeous bird.

Thanks for stopping by Professor Gator’s!

Gator In The Grass, Part 2: Orlando Wetlands Park

Hi again. We’re back at the Wetlands this week because it’s just that awesome of a place. Above is one of Florida’s most ubiquitous citizens, the great blue heron. Here are a couple of more I saw on this morning hike:

Really workin’ it for the camera
I call it “Heron Atop a Cypress.” (Trust me, it’s a metaphor).

Aren’t they beautiful, graceful birds? They make for a very serene image, and I’m always happy to see them.

And oh look, here’s one brutally murdering a catfish:

Owie.

The moral of the story? Don’t ever let your guard down in the wetlands.

Moving on now from the most vicious of creatures to the most gentle, here are 2 of my colleagues out for a leisurely swim. Note how blunt their snouts are. They would never be able to stab a poor catfish to death. Nor would they want to! Believe me, our 74 to 80 teeth are MOSTLY just for show. Think of them as our version of ‘bling.’

“Gotta go, I just saw my ex!”

Pictured above is a snowy egret walking on water (probably trying to get away from one of those brutish herons). This is also how they fish, skimming along the surface and dipping their bill under as they go. You might say they’re the original “fly fishers” (har har).

“Gotta go, I just saw seven of my ex’s!”

A gator on the move. Did you know that the length of an alligator can be estimated by determining (in inches) the distance from the center of the skull (between the eyes) to the tip of the nose? So 6 inches would = a 6 foot alligator. For my European readers, that’s about 74 metres. (Hmm…I may have forgotten to carry the 1).

Here’s a gorgeous limpkin. Their bills are specially made for eating their favorite snack, apple snails. They also have a very unique call, which you can listen to here. It always sounds somewhat plaintive to me. Maybe what they’re saying is “dude, apple snails taste REALLY bad.”

I believe this is a female red-winged blackbird — also a very common sight at the wetlands. Only the males have the trademark stark red wings. (How typically chauvinistic that they foist the name on their entire species. Know what I mean, members of mankind?)

Purple thistle. It doesn’t look very friendly, does it? As a matter of fact, its scientific name is Cirsium horridulum, which translates very roughly to “lotsa spikes here, don’t touch.” But the striking flowers of this plant are a haven for bugs looking for nectar.

If you call him “Woody” I’ll break your face.

The distinctive pileated woodpecker. This is a male; you can tell by the red “mustache” behind the beak, which the females lack. The males can also be distinguished by the fact that they NEVER stop and ask for directions.

Check out this cute little bee. That plant it’s on is called matchweed, because of the way the stalk and tip of the flower resemble a match. It’s very striking, wouldn’t you say? (Har har again).

The last picture for today is an anhinga coming in for a landing. It’s not the best picture in the world, but I like the way the bird’s wings are mirroring the tree branches below it.

“Flight four two-niner, you are cleared for landing.”

That’s all from the wetlands for today. See you next time!

The Geneva Convention (of Critters): Geneva Wilderness Area

Wow, do I have a lot of cool photos to share with you guys today! That’s because there is just so much diversity packed into the 180 acres of the Geneva Wilderness Area. It also adjoins the much larger Little Big Econ State Forest, which means you can make this as long or as short of a hike as you want.

We’ve all heard that “curiosity killed the cat” but do you know what creature I’ve found to be just as nosy, if not more so, than our feline friends?

“How much ya pay for that camera, if ya don’t mind my askin’?”

Yep, the dragonfly. They’re always buzzing me on the trails, trying to see what I’m up to, or hanging around when I stop for a snack. Once I even had one hitch a ride on my shirt for several paces. I really don’t mind, though. They’re a delight to watch and photograph. See those eyes? They have nearly 24,000 ommatidia each. That’s a lot of contact lenses. Maybe they receive a bulk discount.

Next pic is a six-lined racerunner.

He had a seventh line, but it was cut in post-production.

These lizards are fairly common on the trails. Here’s another one I saw a little bit later:

I think he needs a pedicure.

As you can see, these lizards like to hang out in the leaf litter–all the better to hunt bugs, I’m sure. These aren’t to be confused with the five-lined skink, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, or the fourteen-lined Shakespearean sonnet (the latter of which is quite endangered, with only 154 remaining in the world!)

Moving from one reptile to another, here is a Florida icon.

Yes, that’s right, IT’S MICKEY MOU–oh, er…wait

The gopher tortoise. When they’re not busy defeating hares in ritual combat feats of speed, they dig burrows that can eventually serve as shelter for at least 360 other animal species! Rumor has it their HOA fees are ridiculously low.

The gopher tortoise is considered as “threatened” in Florida, mainly due to habitat loss. They prefer to be high and dry–which is also where developers like to build. Our state has a long (and not so proud) record of commerce vs. conservation when it comes to this species. Learn more about it here.

“Needs croutons.”

I found this grasshopper munching on some leaves. You can clearly see the classic insect design here consisting of three parts: the antennae blob, the spiky bits, and the wingy things. Grasshoppers are considered good luck in much of the world, with the exception of Bolivia, where for some reason they’re considered “only of marginal luck, and a bit stand-offish if we’re honest.”

Oh whatever, Bolivia.

Now here’s a funny character:

Eyeliner is on point!

A softshell turtle. Here’s another view:

Drone cam shot. (It’s me…I’m the drone).

I wonder how she got those notches at the lower left? Probably fell out of a tree, or lost some bits of her shell due to an iron deficiency. It was most definitely NOT because of a close call with a hungry alligator. We’re actually very gentle creatures, you know.

You may be thinking to yourself That shell doesn’t look particularly soft. Well, it’s actually a hard cartilage covered with leathery skin (like Madonna.) They spend most of their time in the water, but I’m pretty sure this was a female digging a spot to lay her eggs (like Madonna.)

Perfectly camouflaged. (The wood, not the lizard).

Look at the texture on this fence lizard. I was tempted to rub its back, but I have a strict “don’t bother them” rule. Fun fact: this was not a fence, but a bench. I didn’t have the heart to tell the little fellow; he likely would have been rather embarrassed.

Living life on the edge.

I think this is an oak toad, but I’m not 100% for sure. If I need corrected, please feel free to comment below, as I am by no means an expert. What I do know for sure is that it’s pretty darn cute. Oak toads are found all throughout Florida with the exception of the lower Keys. I’ve also heard on good authority that they are not wasting away again in Margaritaville.

Well, that’s it from the trail this time. I hope you enjoyed the Geneva Wilderness as much as I did. We’ll be visiting it again later.

Of Pines and Predators: Chuluota Wilderness Area

Nestled in a neighboring county, the Chuluota Wilderness Area is a 625 acre preserve which adjoins the much larger Bronson State Forest. From Wikipedia:

“Chuluota is pronounced “Choo-lee-oh-tah”, meaning “Isle of Pines”, “Pine Island”, or “Land of Lakes and Pines” or “beautiful place”, depending upon whom you ask. The pronunciation is a derivative of the Creek Indian word “Chuluoto”.

I started this hike early one summer morning and can confirm that yes, there are pines.

Or at least one anyway.

Notice the white trail? That’s good old Florida “sugar sand.” Here it was nicely compacted, but when it’s soft, hiking becomes a bit of a slog. You know those dreams where Gordon Ramsay is chasing you with a cleaver and you can’t get away no matter how hard you try? Sort of like that.

Croooooooooooooooww

I like the shape of the crow in this picture, and the tiny little hint of color as the sunlight hits its beak. Do you know how to tell the difference between a crow and a raven? It’s easy once you know. Crow is spelled c-r-o-w, while raven is slightly longer and spelled r-a-v-e-n. Keep this little trick in mind to amaze your friends!

Speaking of friends:

We’re all just deer in the headlights of life, really

Look at these three rascals, out for a good time in the woods. The fellow on the left has just started growing little antlers. I bet his mom told him he was very handsome at breakfast that morning.

***WARNING*** ***SPIDER ALERT***

There’s a spider pic coming up, so be warned, arachnophobes.

5…

4…

3…

2…

1…

It’s the CIRRRRCLE of LIIIIIFE!

I think this is an arboreal orb weaver, wrapping up a cicada for lunch. Or maybe it just got tired of all the noise. Do you know why cicadas are so loud? Here’s a hint: only the males can make noise. So what does that tell you?

Yep.

You guessed it.

They’re tryin’ to get busy with the ladies. From this site :

“The sound of cicadas is distinctive, and species can be differentiated by their calls. Only males can make sounds, most of which are calling songs to attract mates.”

So next time you hear someone complaining about the cicada noise, just remind them that nobody wants to hear Air Supply power ballads either, but it’s the only way some people got any action in the 80s.

This one goes out to Tim Burton

This is the second in my ongoing series “Artsy Black & White Trees.” That stuff that looks like your grandmother’s mascara after watching The Notebook is Spanish moss. The big glow-y thing is either the sun or an alien spacecraft. This was a few years ago, so it’s hard to recollect exactly.

Hey – just in case the dead cicada up there made you sad, here’s an insect who’s alive and well.

This is a buckeye butterfly, which I see quite a few of out on the trail. If you mix up the name a bit, you get Butteye Buckerfly, which sounds kind of like a Harry Potter character. These beautiful butterflies probably uses those eye-spots to fool potential predators.

Ha ha, sucker!

Photo Credit

That’s all until next time. Thanks for visiting Professor Gator’s!

Gator in the Grass: Orlando Wetlands Park

Hi friends! Today’s post takes us a few miles east of Orlando to the town of Christmas (as evidenced by the red and green in the pic above) and Orlando Wetlands Park. If you want to see Florida wildlife, this is the place to do it.

Good advice. Unless you have cookie butter. Please send Prof Gator all your cookie butter.

From the park’s website:

The Orlando Wetlands Park is a man-made wetland designed to provide advanced treatment for reclaimed water from the City of Orlando and other local cities. The Park is 1650 acres in size and located in Christmas, Florida.”

There are several miles of high-and-dry trails winding their way through the wetland “cells.” There isn’t much in the way of shade, but there are facilities and a few strategically placed benches along the way.

One of my favorite sounds in the world (besides someone cracking open a jar of cookie butter) can be heard here quite regularly:

The lesser known children’s game “Duck, Duck, Weeds”

The black-bellied whistling duck. Their whistling calls are just as cute as you would expect. (You can listen here.) Beautiful birds!

And speaking of beautiful…

There’s a joke about Snapper lawn mowers in here somewhere…

One of my kin hiding in the grass. You will see alligators at Orlando Wetlands. They’re in the water, on the trails, hiding in the toilets… Even the valet parking is staffed by gators. (Tip them well; it’s hard to drive and text with only one hand).

Seriously, though, gators want nothing to do with you. Just leave them be and they’ll do the same. Kind of like those creepy neighbors with the trash bags taped over their windows.

Another bird you’re guaranteed to see here is the red-shouldered hawk:

“That stupid valet better not dent my Audi.”
Giving the me cold red shoulder.

You’ll often find them on a lofty perch, scanning the area for their next snack. They’re not to be confused with their cousins the red-tailed hawk, the sharp-shinned hawk, and the Ethan Hawk. Theirs is another distinctive cry which greets me on many trails like an old friend.

That’s totally Bigfoot in the background, I swear it!

Don’t forget to look for the smaller things. This delicate dragonfly is one of approximately 18,064,377 insects that make the wetlands their home. But don’t let that scare you off. Out on these sunny trails, I’m hardly ever bothered by them. And a can of Off is a constant companion for those times I do decide to delve into the shade canopy.

Look closely and you can see The Shining twins down there.

This is a trail that runs along the western and northern perimeters of the park. It offers quite a bit of shade, but as I said, more bugs too. And it’s sometimes a bit overgrown, so spray yourself and watch for ticks. If there’s one thing Professor Gator hates, it’s ticks.

And canteloupe. Yuck.

To end this post on a happy note:

Not a care in the world…except for the never-ending drumbeat of eat or be eaten, I guess.

A female anhinga enjoying a day at the Wetlands. These birds just have tons of personality, and are always a joy to see and film. They are quite at home in the water, spearfishing using their pointed bills. An anhinga sunning itself after a dive is a very common Florida sight–as are Walgreens, silver Lincoln Town Cars, and those really silly “Flo-Grown” stickers.

Thanks for reading! Orlando Wetlands is always a great time, and I feel privileged to have the chance to explore there. It’s a great place for all levels of hikers.

Sandhill Serenade: Split Oak Forest

Hi and welcome back. If you stay with me over the next few months, you’re going to be seeing this name a LOT, because Split Oak Forest is one of my favorite places on Earth. A few miles southeast of Orlando, it’s a 2000-acre oasis nestled up against one of the most rapidly growing areas in the county, Lake Nona. It’s one of the few local nature areas that actually feels a bit (dare I say?) wild.

And of course it’s being threatened (more on that later).

Split Oak is such an awesome place that sometimes you can barely get out of your car before the wildlife shows up. On this particular morning, four sandhill cranes crossed the road into the parking lot just as I got there. (Q: Why did the crane cross the road? A: To pose for a blog that didn’t yet exist. They’re very forward-thinking, sandhills.)

“Hmm…I think I should invest in Zoom.”

They’re also quite vocal.

I call them Elton and Kiki.

I love these fearless birds. You can hear their calls echoing from marshes and piercing the sky during flight. They’ve passed me on trails just inches away, not bothered in the slightest by the guy…er, gator with the camera. And their chicks are adorable! (As you’ll see in a later blog. You should probably subscribe so you don’t miss it.)

WARNING: There are a couple of spider pics coming up. If you’re one of those folks who get wigged out by them, scroll quickly! As a buffer, here’s a photo of my human companion (who I’m going to devour someday, when I no longer need him for this blog. Don’t tell him).

Showing off his lousy opposable thumb.

Not far down the trail from the singing sandhills, I passed what I think were tarflower bushes when something on one of the blossoms caught my eye:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8…yup, it’s a spider alright.

A green lynx spider. Look at that coloring. Are you wondering, as I am, why the legs are reddish if it’s called the green lynx spider? Here are some educated guesses:

  • It’s a British tourist on their first Florida vacation.
  • Camouflage for hiding in a bag of Skittles.
  • It spoke to our crane friend about appearing in this blog and wanted to look its best.

I’m sure any one of those could be true. But if you have another explanation, feel free to leave it in a comment. Especially if you have a degree in arachnology or something.

Moving on to the next round of “Stop Creeping Me Out, Professor Gator” we have a striking golden orb-weaver (or “banana spider” if that sounds more a-peel-ing):

Just like an old banana: yellow, black, and not something you’d want to put in your mouth.

I don’t see nearly as many of these as I used to. I’m hoping that I’m just overlooking them in my old age and that it’s not indicative of the the impending ecological disaster we’ve brought about. That would be nice for a change.

Let’s leave the spiders behind and welcome back the people who ducked out into the lobby for a moment. Hi guys. Thanks for your patience. Here’s an artsy photo of a tree.

Black and white = artsy. Don’t @ me.

Moving on: one of the most common birds I see/hear in Split Oak is the eastern towhee:

“Guys, what’s a blog?”

Which I’ve just found out through research is actually a member of the sparrow family?? I didn’t know that. Research also says that they scratch the ground with their feet while foraging. That I did know; I’ve mistaken their rustling for an armadillo a few times. And apparently the eastern towhee refuses to talk to the western towhee because of a centuries-old feud which neither side remembers the cause of. (I’m a bit skeptical of this one. I mean, surely it’s written down somewhere…?)

Oh, and I also snapped pics of two deer butts.

Was it something I said?

Split Oak Forest is a magical place, with a wide range of habitat. From the Florida FWC Website:

“Split Oak Forest WEA was acquired in 1994 with funds received through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Mitigation Park Program. The now-defunct Mitigation Park Program was established in 1998 as an off-site alternative to on-site protection for rare species impacted by development. When developers eliminated habitat for an endangered or threatened species, they paid fees that were used to buy and manage high quality habitat elsewhere.”

So while not a perfect solution to habitat destruction, at least something was given back to nature…something that still perseveres and will continue to give wildlife a safe haven from now until the end of time…

LOL, just kidding. They want to put an expressway through the middle of it.

That’s right. Land set aside to make up for bulldozed trees is now being threatened by a highway–a highway whose sole purpose is to open up even more land for wanton development and urban sprawl. That’s just plain wrong.

To read more about this (and join the fight to stop it) check out the Friends of Split Oak Forest Facebook Page. There are some amazing heroes in that group.

Next time, I’ll be sharing my second-favorite place in the Orlando area. (HINT: Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way…)

Welcome to Professor Gator’s

That’s me!

Hello and welcome! If you’re reading this, it means one of two things: you’re either lost (gator holes are even worse than rabbit holes) or you want to see some of the wild and beautiful places that natural Florida has to offer.

Not pictured: Body Shots III: The Strippening

No, not THAT. Here’s the kind of thing I’m talking about:

Two sandhill cranes on the edge of a pasture. (Sounds like the title of a really obscure Twilight Zone episode)

Florida is home to more than just theme parks, copy/paste subdivisions, and some of the scariest Wal-Marts known to man. Believe it or not, you can find solitude here. And beauty. Forests, swamps, marshland, palmetto prairie, dunes, jungles — and of course all the plants, trees & wildlife that go with them. That’s what this blog is for. Sharing these places that are special to me, places that may be new to you, and hopefully illustrating the vital need for conservation.

A year or so ago I was in the airport talking to a couple from upstate New York while we drank some caffeine in liquid form that I’m not generous enough to call coffee. At one point I mentioned how much I love Florida hiking (a subject I always manage to bring up; I’m rather predictable that way.) The husband looked at me as if I’d just said Clooney was the best Batman. “There are no mountains in Florida,” he said.

NOT Florida. If you think you know where I was, post it in the comments!

He’s not wrong. Our highest point is Britton Hill, a mere 345 feet above sea level. That’s the same height as this tower at Orlando International Airport:

Photo Credit: Twitter https://twitter.com/MCO/status/902659362140942337

So yeah, while I wouldn’t want to fall off of it…I realized that good old flat Florida doesn’t exactly scream “HIKING!” to a lot of people (it just sort of mumbles it, like an errant schoolboy forced to apologize to his teacher). And that’s a shame, because I wouldn’t trade my experiences out here in the wild for anything.

Not so tough now, are ya Florida sun??

Can it be hot? Brutally. Are there bugs? Yup. “What about the lightning storms, Professor Gator?” Oh sit down, my child, and let me tell you a tale…

To me, though, it’s all part of the experience. I hope you enjoy visiting these places through my pics. Whether you’re a local or perhaps hope to travel here someday, maybe you’ll find a spot you want to explore.

(I would be remiss if I didn’t mention https://floridahikes.com/ as an invaluable resource and inspiration. Please visit their site for vastly better write-ups on the many trails, parks, and preserves in our lovely state).