Weekend at Welaka

by Debra L. Klein, Education Chair

I attended the FNPS Natural History Workshop November 8, 9 and 10, 2002 organized by Maria Minno at Welaka State Forest located in southwestern Putnam County near the St. John’s River. Approximately fifty children and adults of all ages attended. Gourmet food was prepared by Renee, mostly vegetarian and delicious. I arrived Friday afternoon and set up my tent near the stables about three quarters of a mile from the entrance. New camp sites had been installed, including picnic tables, a fire pit, chopped fire wood and a grill. Other participants began to arrive... most chose to stay in the bunk houses. There were many fabulous workshops offered, including topics like wildlife, plants, aquatic invertebrates, fungi hunting, butterflies and herpetology, from which participants selected four to fill their schedules for the weekend. Although I was a novice with no scientific background, most of the participants were scientists, naturalists or teachers. Our common thread was a passion for native environment.

External anatomy of a fungus
After dinner Friday night, Karen Garren gave a presentation on fungi. I learned that some are edible, some are poisonous and some are edible but not palatable, and the general rule of thumb is that for every rule there is an exception, so use caution. Those inclined to sample the wild fare should check for shape, color and gill structure. It is helpful to look at the underground root structure when trying to identify terrestrial fungi (as opposed to on a fallen tree trunk). Karen provided many reference books for previewing.  I also learned that scholars have suggested the hallucinatory behavior and hysterics that lead to the Salem witch trials in the late 1600s were caused by the consumption of a fungus that grows on rye.
Feet - the sixth sense

My first workshop revolved around wildlife. Our leader, Tony Davanzo, said that he had not worn shoes in some eighteen years and had learned to use his feet as another sense. He took all of the workshop participants (myself among them) on a walk to the other side of Highway 308, where we saw and identified several roadside plants, including spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), Spanish needles (Bidens alba), and sandspurs (Cenchrus  tribuloides). We then proceeded into Mud Spring, its entrance strewn in pine needles, where Tony rapidly repeated a swishing sound - a bird call. The birds within earshot, including Carolina wrens, blue jays, cardinals and mockingbirds, were quickly engaged and came chirping and flittering into the nearby tree tops to see what the commotion was about.

C.demersum, photo by Alan Boatman
The pathway to the spring was lined primarily with cabbage palms (Sabal palmetto), live oaks (Quercus virginiana), scrub pines (Pinus clausa), lichen, sphagnum moss, magnolias and Lyonia species. Tony pointed out a sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) that smelled delicious. We learned about three different kinds of bay trees, only one of which is the source of the bay leaf spice. We also sampled spiderwort blossoms and learned that sphagnum moss was used as an antibiotic to treat field wounds during the World War I and World War II. The trail wound around, its elevation gradually dropping, and eventually the ground became boggy. We heard water running and the trail opened to a “Walden” looking pond. Mud Spring is a natural spring that moves 18,000 gallons of water per hour and stays at a consistent temperature of 68-72 degrees. The color of the water is aquamarine and very clear with a slight sulfuric odor. A layer of white sand covers the mud. Minnows and other small fish dart back and forth from the source of the spring. Aquatic plants decorate the edges and coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum) is suspended under the surface. Although Tony was a walking encyclopedia of botanical names and uses, I suspected his greater love was with reptilian creatures. Barefooted, he stepped into the wetlands, reached down and pulled out different kinds of frogs for us to see. Only one of their names stuck with me: the Leopard frog. A pygmy rattler drew the attention of the shutterbugs in the group as it warmed itself on the rocks nearby.

Pine snake
The next workshop, lead by biologist George Heinrich, focused on Herpetology (the branch of zoology dealing with reptiles and amphibians). Beginning with a general presentation about herps, he went on to show us a black and yellow striped Salamander whose range is limited to an area just south of Apalachicola. Next he explained turtles and tortoises, and that tortoises are a subspecies of turtles. Then he pulled his very unhappy pine snake out of a pillow case. It hissed in protest while he brought it around for all to see up-close. Indeed, it was a beautiful specimen of muted sand colors. Interestingly enough, the further west one encounters this snake, the darker its coloration will be. George described the negative impacts that both the pet trade and development have had on herps, the latter of which causes habitat fragmentation and limits species’ natural range.

Gopher tortoise entering its burrow
The day grew warmer as we stomped through the pine flatlands to investigate five gopher tortoise burrows that George had pre-selected. He strolled alongside the group and relayed stories of hidden ecosystems in which reptiles live underground and are rarely seen by humans, with tortoises, snakes, moles, mice, rats and salamanders among them. A gopher tortoise burrow can be 40 to 50 feet deep. One of their food sources is the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa). Gopher tortoises begin digging as soon as they hatch. As with any home, a gopher tortoise’s burrow should be approached with respect. The apron of sand surrounding the burrow should not be trampled, and the area just above the entrance should be avoided, as that is where the ground is the thinnest and a human could cause a cave-in. The burrow becomes significantly deeper as it progresses underground.

Rhexia virginica, meadow beauty
The third workshop, lead by Kim Gulledge, covered plant identification. It began in a pine sandhill ecosystem of longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and wiregrass (Aristida beyrichiana). Additional plants within this community included laurel oaks (Quercus laurifolia), myrtle oaks (Quercus myrtifolia), yucca, and Smilax species. Where the pine flatwoods were opened by the road, Lyonia and gallberry (Ilex ) were the dominant species. There was also plenty of silky golden aster (Pityopsis graminifolia) and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), which was noted as the most common plant on the planet. We moved on from there toward a marshy hammock, where we looked at grasses, sedges, and rushes. Grasses can be identified by their opposite, two-ranked leaves, while sedges have three-ranked leaves with a closed sheath. Rushes, on the other hand, have open, un-fused sheathes. Meadow beauty (Rhexia virginica) was sprinkled throughout the grass.

Giant water bugs are also called "toe biters"
Aquatic invertebrates were the subject of the last workshop of the day. With Marc Minno as our leader, we drove to an ephemeral pond that provided the foreground for the setting sun. The pond had been created by the St. John’s River, whose water percolated through sand dunes into a sink hole. Longleaf (Pinus palustris), slash (Pinus elliottii) and loblolly (Pinus taeda) pines stood tall in the surrounding flatlands.  Natural pockets of oil bubbled to the surface. Equipped with nets and strainers, we captured and learned about aquatic invertebrates. We studied a giant water bug, which looks like a vampire, that stings and stinks. We also collected a damsel fly, spiders, a creature that looked like a praying mantis and back swimmers. Marc showed us water moths which lay their eggs on water lilies and explained that these sorts of ponds contain fresh water sponges.

Dr. Dilcher has spent more than forty
years studying the origin of flowers.
Before dinner Saturday evening, renowned paleobotanist Dr. David Dilcher gave a presentation about the earliest flowering plants and what we have learned from their fossilized records. Dr. Dilcher discovered the oldest fossilized flower in the world. There is a significant overlap between plant records found in the southeast United States and those found in southeastern China. He described various vectors of plant distribution from as far back as 220 million years ago, including animals and air, and the courses they traveled along - through Eurasia, Alaska, and/or the Tethyan seaway when the continents were still somewhat connected.

As we sat around a campfire, folk singer Dale Crider capped the day off a cappella, save for the rattlesnake sound of his Maracas. Under a crisp starry sky, we howled at the moon.

My artistic rendering from the creative workshop
At the creative workshop, held the following morning, we were asked to provide an artistic interpretation of what we felt was a highlight of the weekend. Some worked on it individually, and some made a group effort of the activity. This generated a wide range of delightful responses, from songs and poems to sculptures, paintings, miniature stage sets, and wreaths.

That weekend was but one of the many reasons I decided to join F.N.P.S. over 10 years ago. I thank Maria Minno for her organizational and creative brilliance, and the hard work she put into coordinating such a memorable and special event. I hope that you all enjoyed reading about it and will consider planning or attending a similar workshop in the near future.

Edited and posted by Laurie Sheldon


I wish I had could have been there, but your wonderful description and photos made me feel as if I had. Next time!
Thanks! I've yet to attend a FNPS event that wasn't as educational as it was fun!

Laurie Sheldon
(FNPS Social Media)

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