A peaceful day at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge
Written by David Kyle Rakes
Adapted for Conservation Conversations by Marlowe Starling and Cyndi Fernandez
Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge is located northwest of Deland, Florida and is well known for its lakes, marshes, waterfowl and migratory birds. The openness of this wetland, with its almost treeless expanse of water and grass, makes for a glorious and captivating place.
As our nation’s population continues to grow, more forests and marshlands are destroyed, and more species have become endangered. A refuge is a protected place where wild creatures can live undisturbed by humans.
The first refuge was started here in Florida in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The three-acre Pelican Island on the Atlantic coast became a protected place for birds. The president was then concerned about native birds that were being killed because of a fashion craze for hats made from their feathers. Today, there are 567 National Wildlife Refuges covering more than 146 million acres of land as of September 2018, and they exist in every state of the United States.
The lake and refuge were named in honor of Major Joseph Woodruff, who in 1823 acquired the De Leon Springs property, when it was known as Spring Garden. These two springs contribute much to the freshwater marshes, streams, and lakes within the 21,574-acre refuge. Lake Woodruff and the surrounding wetlands became a refuge in 1964 to “preserve, improve, and create habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl, according to a 2002 U.S. Fish and Wildlife brochure.”
Entering the Refuge
The summer sky was an azure blue, sans clouds, when I drove down Mud Lake Road to the park. The road was straight and hard-packed, but because of large potholes, I drove in zigzags. The park road meandered through oak and pine habitat, past the Myakka and Live Oak trailheads and through a swampy area. I parked, I strapped my water bottle and binoculars to my belt, sprayed some bug repellent on my arms, legs and clothes, put on my large straw hat, grabbed my satchel and journal and walked through the opening to the marsh.
When I walked away from the tree line toward the first pool, I noticed how the cloudless sky surrounded the flat marshlands like a warm blanket. I walked a little closer to the water, which was bordered with tall sedges, rushes, and cattails.
The pools are connected by underground pipes with gates to manage water levels for the waterfowl. Park officials manipulate the water levels in the impoundments by flooding and draining “to discourage undesirable vegetation while encouraging desirable plant species.” These management techniques in the wetlands are said to benefit waterfowl, such as wading birds and ducks.
Past the pond, a lawn-like grassy road led me along the east side of one pool. The water was low, revealing yellowish dried grass with some pockets of green vegetation. This was much different from my last visit in February, when the pools had more water. During that trip, I saw the blue-winged teal, a dabbler duck, sitting quietly on the cold water as red-wing blackbirds swooped overhead, disappearing into the cattails before making their common “congaree” calls. The sandhill cranes honked loudly as they flew in V-formations, and American coots gathered together by the hundreds. Along the pools’ edges, savannah sparrows darted in and around the swamp hibiscus.
Now, these birds were missing, and the embankments along the pool had overgrown grasses, fennels and sedges that ranged from three to six feet tall. Growing with the grasses were two different species of large pink hibiscus flowers. One species of hibiscus was called the swamp rose mallow, and the other was called the swamp hibiscus with smaller flowers. I could not help admiring the blossoms, which seemed to be blown up large as if they were under a microscope.
Trekking to the Tower
As I walked between Spring Garden Lake and a pool, a white peacock butterfly flew by me. The butterfly traveled fast, just a couple feet off the ground along the wild grasses. The bobbing and weaving of the butterfly on its impossible-looking course reminded me of my zigzag drive around the potholes earlier. Scientists say the erratic flight of the butterfly helps it elude birds and other predators. How differently the white peacock butterfly flew compared to the zebra longwings that floated through my backyard. The white peacock is a unique butterfly and thus not often confused with others; it is mostly white on the forewings and hindwings, with a few dark spots and dull orange scaling along the margins. I often see this butterfly by pond edges and marshes. Some of its affinity for wet areas no doubt comes from the adults looking for the frog fruit or water hyssop plants to lay their eggs on.
As I neared a tall wooden observation tower, I noticed a southern black vulture perched on a frondless sabal palm. Nearby were three more topless palms, each with a single black vulture perched on top. I wondered why the tops were gone from the palms. The apex, or heart of palm, is at the top of the tree where the fronds grow. It is sold in stores and restaurants, but once it is removed from the tree, the tree is doomed to die. It seemed unlikely that someone would take the edible tops from the trees in a wildlife refuge. Perhaps the palms had succumbed to old age, disease, insects or something else. These four scavenger birds were motionless and reminded me of those creepy stone gargoyles near the rooftops of old buildings. Even when I climbed the observation tower and had a panoramic view of the pools and lake, the vultures remained eerily still and silent.
I continued walking along the canal and stopped again to say hello to an older man taking pictures of a great blue heron fishing in the canal below. We both looked down at the wading bird craning his long neck over the water. The bird had a straight yellow bill and staring eyes; the neck was so long that if the bird had his head up, it would have been almost five feet tall. In fact, the neck vertebrae of this heron are of unequal length, forcing the bird to carry its neck kinked in an S-shape when flying and sometimes when at rest. I waited to see if the heron was going to spear a fish with its bill. Many times, I had seen the neck project the bill forward into the water with lightning speed and come up with a fish or frog attached to the open bill. The open bill gives the heron two points with which to hit its mark; in case it misses with one, the other may spear its prey.
Wading through Flooded Flatwoods
I followed the trail west into a waterlogged piney flatwoods known as Jones Island. This was August, the middle of summer, and the rainy season for most of Florida. I left the open marsh to traverse trails that were as much as a foot deep in water. Young loblolly pines with an understory of the subtropical saw palmetto predominated on the island.
Walking along the grassy road, I saw an alligator in the distance. It moved across the surface of the canal waters and hid in some tall grasses. The sun was much higher in the sky now, and I had to stop a few times to wipe the sweat from my brow and to hydrate myself. Looking south was a postcard view of the marsh with many open miles of grass that ended in a horizon below the blue sky.
After walking about another quarter mile along this straightaway, I saw a red rat snake up ahead in the grass, sometimes called a corn snake. It is nonvenomous but known to bite. Its body was colorful, with gaudy deep-red and yellow-brown bands. I got out my binoculars to look closer at it. The snake remained very still; its head was lifted up a few inches off the ground and looking my way. I wondered what the snake would look like in motion, so I walked to the left toward the snake’s tail, and when I got directly behind it I gently grabbed the tail. The snake turned its head around. I jumped back a few feet and watched as it seemed to slither back and forth in one place, not going anywhere but producing a most unusual effect. Amazingly, the snake appeared to compress most of its body, making itself taller and flatter on the sides. When the snake slithered in the grass with its compressed body, it looked like a banner or ribbon turning and spinning as a kite tail would in the air. While I stopped in awe to watch its performance, it quickly slithered across the grass and disappeared. It seemed like the unusual movement of the snake was a ruse to startle me, so it had some time to escape.
Red rat snakes are beautifully colored, so they have been very popular in the pet trade business. However, when this snake is encountered in the wild, it is often killed by humans who mistake it for the copperhead, which has similar markings. Its other common name, corn snake, was said to have come from its regular presence near grain stores, where it preys on mice and rats that harvest corn. This red rat snake would help control populations of wild rodents in the marsh.
When I drove out of the park and once again steered the black and white warbler in the zigzags around the potholes, I cheerfully recalled the erratic flight of a butterfly and the crooked backbone of a snake. I left the park feeling quite satisfied with the walk and lucky to have seen so much wildlife.
David Kyle Rakes has been a volunteer nature walk guide at Silver Springs State Park in Ocala, Florida, for the last five years. He is the author of Botanizing with Bears and Other Florida Essays, available to purchase at the Silver River Museum and Springside gift shop at Silver Springs State Park for $15. You may contact the author directly by emailing him at email@example.com or writing to him at PO Box 2706 Belleview, FL 34421.