Tag Archives: Tate’s Hell State Forest

Broadhead skinks – Womack Creek – May 4, 2018

It was a perfect day for snakes and while scanning the shrubs and overhanging branches, this redheaded creature popped into view, above me on an oak branch.  Most snakes we’ve seen on Womack creek are at kayak eye level or about a foot above that down to the water, so not just the coloration of the head, but its location suggested that it was not a snake.

Unlike the water snakes on the river which allow one to get really close without moving, this creature quickly escaped down the oak tree and into the leafy bank below.

This is a broadhead skink (Plestiodon laticeps), the largest skink in southeastern US, which can get to 13 inches long.  It is a common semi-arboreal skink  from southeastern Pennsylvania, central Indiana and eastern Kansas to to eastern Texas, the Gulf coast to Central Florida.

This is a male adult skink, more likely.  Juvenile and to some extent female skinks have five to seven stripes along its upper body, similar to another skink species called five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus).  Juveniles have a bright blue tail. Male heads become larger and turn orange as they approach mating season, usually late spring (May 4, in this photograph).

Males smell through their tongue, the better to smell the pheromones emitted by females who are ready to mate.  Females seem to prefer larger males with brighter colored heads.  Once bred, a male will stay with a female for about a week, challenging other males from approaching her during this time.  The male is not monogamous.

The females lay from 8-13 eggs in a nest in decaying trees or leaf debris.  These hatch from 3-8 weeks from laying, the female leaving the nest only to feed.

Newly hatched skinks are on their own within a few days of hatching and are sexually mature when they reach over 3 inches long.

They feed on insects, spiders, mollusks, rodents and smaller reptiles, including juvenile skinks. They, in turn, are food for carnivorous birds, larger reptiles and cats.  Skinks have break-away tails which continue to wriggle, thus distracting its predator while making its escape.

 

Three brown water snakes – May 4, 2018

17-P109088118-P109088419-P109087749-P1100006

With temperatures starting at 72F and inching up to 82F at end of the trip, we knew we’d spy at least one snake.  They are usually seen sunning under leaf-canopied stems of shrub branches extending over the water.  Unlike cooters, skinks and gators, they tend to remain in place if one approaches them without undue motion or vibration.

We saw only brown water snakes, but we did see three, one barely discernible.

Yellow-crowned night heron – Womack Creek 4-24-2018

3-IMG_00924-IMG_0102

After perching long enough for several shots, this yellow-crowned night heron flew upstream as we paddled upstream.  Much like kingfishers like to do, it stayed within visual distance, perching on a tree branch then flying away as we got too close.

Late spring flowers starting to bloom – Womack Creek, April 24, 2018

Within a week and for about a week after, expect the heavy scent of blooming sweet bay.   They will overpower the lighter, cinnamon scent of the swamp roses which are now blooming on bushes throughout the creek.

Finally, the clematis crispa vines are bearing buds and flowers.  This black swallowtail butterfly was taking its fill of nectar from a bloom.   With the pinxster azaleas going to seed, the clematis blossoms may keep these butterflies on the creek.

Blue flag iris and pickerel weed add bright blue color to the landscape, but they are usually in sunny pockets behind the shrubs and trees at water’s edge.

The cow creek spider lilies are blooming and should continue its bloom for about two weeks.

And within two weeks, masses of false dragonhead blossoms will be seen along the creek.

 

Did you know that ogeche tupelo trees are either male or female?

25-P1090173

One will bear fruit, the other will not.

The ogeche tupelo is one of the last blooming trees on Womack creek.  By the end of April, the buzz of honey bees will be heard around the trees.

Apiary owners station their bee hives in certain locations throughout Tate’s Hell State Forest.  One such station is on Jeff Sanders Road east of county road 67 near the Womack Creek Campground.

Low voltage wires are strung around the clutch of hives to deter black bears.  Bears lead by their noses (their sense of smell is exceedingly keen) and one experience with electrical shock is sufficient to keep them away.

Only April 11, 2018 on Womack Creek,  we saw only 1 honeybee and it was on a Virginia sweetspire flower.

Recent flowering plants on Womack Creek – April 11, 2018

05-P109016403-P1090055

These are flowers which were in bloom on April 11, 2018 on Womack Creek.   The American wisteria has a much thicker cluster of blooms and it does not invade the forests as do the exotic Japanese wisteria.   There are three locations with wisteria vines, but only one of these were seen blooming.  The bloom period is short-lived when the temperatures are in the high 70’s and low 80’s.

Blue flag iris plants can be seen throughout the creek, but are not prolific bloomers, unlike the Crooked River, which connects the Ochlockonee River on the east and the Carrabelle River on the west in Tate’s Hell State Forest.  Whole stands of them bloom along the Crooked River.

One of the most eye-catching flowers are on the narrowleaf primrose plant.  Here shown with Virginia sweetspire.

12-P109002913-P1090026

Cowcreek spider lilies will be in full bloom within two weeks.  The frame on the right shows a mass of buds and one flowering spider lily.

On Womack Creek landing you will see star grass and the pineland pimpernell, both are small flowered plants and may escape your notice, but look down and you will see them.

09-P109023608-P1090224

One bush of swamp roses on the upper left branch leading to Nick’s Road campsite are beginning to bloom and spreads its fragrance before you see the roses.

17-P1090108

In the water, spatterdock buds are opening up.

20-P109019338-P1090198

In about two weeks expect to see swamp titi, southern arrow wood, ogeche tupelos and muscadine flowers.  By early May, perseus bay and sweet bay will add a heavy fragrance to the creek.

At its peak now are swamp dogwood, swamp sweetbells, Virginia sweetspire, False indigo, candy root (at both landings) and butterweed.

The rusty haw, pinxster azaleas and fringe tree blossoms will not last in high 70 temperatures.  The cross vines may be at their end of bloom, also.

There are no exotic plants on Womack creek, unusual in Florida waterways.

Apple snail eggs: can apple snails and limpkins follow?

34-P1090116

In the last two years we have seen apple snail eggs on an indiscriminate number of woody or leafy or stemlike objects in the creek.  These are the eggs of the native apple snails, a major food of the limpkin.

We have seen only one apple snail case on the creek, but no live snails.  The native snails are much smaller than the exotic snails which have taken over Lake Jackson in Tallahassee.

This was the first sighting of the year, although last year and the year before we saw them throughout the creek.  We expect to see more through the season.

 

 

Perhaps…a New Pair of Barred Owls on the Lower Womack Creek?

P1080958P1080959

Over a year ago, we photographed a dead barred owl, tangled up in a bait line not far from where the owl above was perched.  Soon after that incident we camped at Womack Creek campground and did not hear the sounds of barred owls calling.

On April 11, 2018,  paddling upstream we saw this barred owl, well camouflaged.  Later we either saw the same owl or another.

Hopefully, campers will hear the sounds of a pair of barred owls calling across the creek.

Why primitive camp with kids? Why primitive camp?

Several years ago, two mothers asked if we could recommend a good camping spot for them and their four kids. It would have to include paddling.  No other conditions.  And would we join them?

We recommended Nick’s Road campsite off Womack Creek: a very large individual campsite in Tate’s Hell State Forest, 3.75 miles upstream from the Womack Creek Campground landing.   It is very secluded and Womack creek above that site  narrows and then forms two options which can lead to all sorts of adventures for active kids.

They could scream their heads off and no one would hear them (except us).  That campsite has a raised grill, a picnic table and a fire pit. No other amenities.

Fire pits are very important with kids.  Ask most camp savvy kids what words would come to their mind when you say “firepit”.  In most cases you will get  “graham crackers, marshmallows and milk chocolate” or just “some more’s”.   That’s why fire pits are important.  It also conjures up stories: ghost stories for the older kids, just stories for the littler ones.

It was to be a two night camp, but heavy rains were forecast the first night, so we delayed camping till the next night.  However, the kids made the most of it.   The river was high which meant that the upper reaches of the creek beyond the campsite were open for a longer explorations by boat.

One canoe, one stand up paddle board, two sit on top kayaks and four sit-inside kayaks.  Going down the river we were a motley crew: no one was going straight and mid-way there was an exchange of boats: SUP to canoe, to sit on top and variations — every child in a different boat they started out in.

There was enough wood to have both an evening and a morning fire.  Stories were told, some more’s were eaten and no one was concerned about bedtime.  The night was clear and the stars were out — perfect.

As it was, the kids got up earlier than the adults and had already explored the upper reaches of Womack creek.  They were waiting for us to get up so they could announce how many snakes they had seen.  And other wild things.  There was much to see, much to do and, yes, they were starving for breakfast.

It was a great two days of camping and we had that section of Tate’s Hell all to ourselves and the barred owls, the snakes and all the critters seen and unseen.

Just this week we took two grandchildren camping at Wright Lake Campground in the Apalachicola National Forest.   It’s gotten much more traffic since the forest adopted a Recreation.gov reservation system.  We like that people have found this great campground, but wish that they would appreciate the natural light of day and night.

A camper turned on the large camp light over the absent host’s site even before it got dark.  We’ve camped at that campground many times and the host would usually ask us if we preferred it off or on and we would always say off.  This is the first time we have camped where that light was on.  Even though our usual campsites were far away from the host’s site, we preferred the light of nature — that’s why we were camping.   The restrooms were very well lit and we wore headlamps.

This time, however, the light was almost over us.  When dusk turned to night, our fire lit and going,  it seemed we were on a stage — with floodlights on us.  We could barely make out the stars.  So one of us turned the light off.  Within fifteen minutes a troupe of three returned to turn the light on.  The older grand daughter who has a droll sense of humor asked how many people does it take to turn on one switch.

Hard to feel that sense of wonderment of the night sky with its sparkling lights coming from eons of light years away when artificial light masks it all.   We were unable to give our grand kids that sense.  And, the 8 year old wants to be an astronaut.

It reminded me of the camping trip in Tate’s Hell.  Except for our fire and our headlamps which were turned off most of the time, there was night all around us.  The night creatures could continue to hunt in the dark; the stars were oh, so, visible. And, by contrast, the fire looked and felt so great compared to beyond the perimeter when it’s light no longer cast shadows.  We humans are drawn to light and fire, but that does not mean that we should extend artificial lighting beyond our immediate need for safety.  It gave them experience of the night in the woods and the kids loved it.

Next year, we’re camping instead at Tate’s Hell State Forest.  Either on the New River to paddle and camp, or Womack Creek and camp at Nick’s Road campsite. On the New, if the river is at moderate height,  there are lots of sand bars to explore; if the river is low, there are even more exposed sandbars and wading areas.  Of course, regardless, there will be paddling.  Fishing is another option on the waterways of Tate’s Hell SF.

The other good site with kids is Loop Landing on the Crooked River — there is a family of river otters which has a burrow under one of the tree roots near the landing.  There is a family of river otters past Nick’s road campsite, also, but one has to paddle quietly to find them.  In both sites one can hear the barred owls call at night.   For extended stays, $2 day use fee will allow you to use the showers at the Womack Creek campground.

After this week, I am so thankful for the primitive sites in Tate’s Hell State Forest which can still give campers a sense of day and night, of night creatures and day creatures and the sense of wonder which our ancestors many hundreds of years ago must have felt when all they had was a small fire to give light at night, warmth when cold and heat to cook, but which night sky produced a glory of possibilities, including direction to other areas not yet discovered.

The lights at Wright Lake campground did produce something which caught our eyes for a long time:  the light attracted insects; bats flitted around having a feast.  It was good to know that there was an active colony of bats nearby and that they were having dinner at our expense.

Everything is blooming on Womack Creek – Easter, 4-1-2018

See it before the pastels shades of green, pinkish green, bronze, yellow-green of spring turn into the heavier colors of summer.

Not just the leaves of the Florida maple and the Ogeche tupelo which leaves are beginning to appear.

The view of the creek is dotted with clumps of light pink, pinxster azaleas at their peak bloom.

False indigo blossoms,  It’s dominant purple bloom stalk encircles by lavender stamen.

The creek’s white flowers are at their peak bloom or beginning to bloom:  swamp sweet bells, swamp dogwood, Virginia Sweetspire, Fringe Tree, Blackberry blossoms, Yaupon, Rusty Haw and an yet to be identified flowering ground cover.

Yellow flowers, not to be missed are butterweed, located in large patches behind the immediate shoreline, candy root and a yet to be identified flower both at Nick’s Road campsite and just beginning to open, spatterdocks.

The first swamp rose is blooming — hard to say yet whether this will be a good year for these roses. There were just a few blooms on the many rose bushes throughout the creek.

But this year is definitely the year of the pinxster azaleas and the orange cross vines.  These vines are blooming profusely throughout the 3.75 mile stretch from the Womack Creek campground landing to Nick’s Road campsite.

And, if you can see those shiny purple balls of sweet-tart berries — blueberries are beginning to ripen.  A few now, but more to come.

A feast for your eyes, a tidbit for your stomach.