Botanizing with Bears
Written by David Kyle Rakes
Adapted for Conservation Conversations by Marlowe Starling
One early morning in April, I went walking on the Florida Trail at Juniper Prairie Wilderness area in the Ocala National Forest. It was a day I planned to take my time walking so as to identify and study some of the plants and animals that were denizens of the scrub habitat. After paying to get in at the ranger station, I parked and walked about a hundred yards to where the Florida Trail crossed over the entrance road of the Juniper Springs Recreation Area. I walked off the road, turning right onto the Florida Trail heading west.
The sandy trail meandered back and forth as I walked through scrub oaks and Christmas-tree-like pines called sand pines. These trees were head-high level, or a few feet taller, and trimmed like a privacy hedge along the trail. It was like walking through a botanical garden labyrinth of trimmed hedges where one gets lost a few times before finding the way out.
The area is known as Big Scrub, a unique habitat in the Ocala National Forest known for the largest sand pine forest in the world. Trees and plants that grow here are smaller and have adapted to the poor sandy soil and oppressive heat.
As I continued walking the trail, it turned north with a long stretch of saw palmetto, rosemary and rusty lyonia. The saw palmetto was shorter than waist-high and most noticeable due to the pointed green to greenish-silver fronds that sometimes flicked back and forth as if trying to get my attention. The saw palmettos reminded me of the taller sabal palm, which is our state tree.
The rosemary shrub was here along the trail too, and it looked like an oversized tumbleweed, or something you would see in the American Southwest. The shrubs had small pine-like needles, and the numerous woody stems at the bottom grew out sideways. The plant has nothing to do with the herb rosemary that is used for cooking, though I suspect it was named after it because of the small needle-like leaves that look like the herb. A few years ago I found out there was a grasshopper, aptly named the rosemary grasshopper, which made its home only in Central Florida and restricted itself to living in the rosemary shrub. It has been most difficult to meet this grasshopper, which is only active at night and chooses to hide deep in the shrub during the day. Additionally, the grasshopper has brown and green body colors to camouflage itself, so it is even harder to find. This insect hides so well that it was not even discovered until 1928.
When I came out from the scrubby hedges, I found myself in a place with sandy soil and low-scattered vegetation beneath a wide-open sky. I continued walking north on the sandy trail, which took me near the top of a ridge for a panoramic view of low-growing myrtle oaks and saw palmetto. The scrubby vegetation on my left continued up the slope with tall, branchless dead trees or snags here and there. A nearby sign had a short paragraph about wilderness areas and told about a hurricane that recently came through and destroyed all the trees. The dead trees were standing as if in defiance of the hurricane.
As I walked, a couple of red-bellied woodpeckers were flying and landing on the snags and making their familiar “chur-chur-chur” calls. Another woodpecker was nearby and at the top of a snag calling “qweeo-qweeo.” This was the not-so-common red-headed woodpecker, which to me seems more striking in comparison to the red-bellied woodpecker because its entire head and neck area is bright red, along with a white breast and black wings with white patches. Two blue and gray scrub jays took turns flying and landing on snags not too far from the trail, appearing to keep pace with me as I walked. Behind me, probably in the myrtle oak I had just passed, was the meowing sound of the catbird. These avian arias sweetened every step I made.
The trail beckoned, and I continued wading through a sea of saw palmetto. Here and there on the east side of the trail were some young evergreen pine trees, while on the west side the tall snags still prevailed. Surprisingly, I heard a summer tanager singing nearby, so I stopped to hear one of my favorite songs, “Break it up, tear it up, tear it.” The summer tanager is the only entirely red bird in North America. The birds are dimorphic; the male is red, and the female is a dusky yellow. These tropical birds are known for catching bees on the fly, and landing to remove the stinger before they eat the insect. They have made enemies of beekeepers in Central America. The birds not only forage heavily on the larvae and pupae of wasps that attach their paper nests to buildings, but they also seize domestic bees as they fly to and from their hives. Beekeepers fearing the loss of their hives have been known to shoot them. I began walking again and heard a similar summer tanager song, “Stay here, stay right here, hear me,” the sound getting fainter the further I went from it.
Wiregrass grew here, and in the wetter areas were the numerous carnivorous pink sundews and hatpins, or bog buttons. The pink sundews are a very different kind of plant in the genus Drosera. To think that we have plants that eat small animals is like having aliens come down from Mars to live here. There are not many plants that have evolved on Earth to work like an animal. There must have been hundreds of them living here in the wet, dark prairie soil. They had small, pink, five-petal flowers that grew from a smooth, short stem above their reddish basal leaves. These basal leaves looked dewy from the sticky secretions. The plant produces the secretions in order to trap insects, which they later digest.
Charles Darwin studied the sundews and made some unique discoveries. He was so fond of them he was known to have called one “my beloved Drosera.” Darwin found out that not only did the sundew feed like an animal, it also had muscles! When the sundew leaf was curling up to form a cup, the leaf was actually contracting its muscles, and to prove this he worked with botanist John Sanderson, who used a galvanometer to find that a definite electric current existed in the leaves of these carnivorous plants. Therefore, the sundew not only digested food like an animal but also moved like an animal!
After I had loitered around the wet depression, I turned around and walked back up the incline. It seemed amazing to me to see so much diversity. The prairie wetlands had much to see, and even on the slope that was hit by a hurricane, the birds and wildflowers seemed to be thriving. All of these plants and animals had unique adaptations for living here in the scrub and prairie, and it was a thrill to be able to see all this life around me.
About halfway up the hill, I stopped, because I saw something large and black on the trail. The animal had its head deep in the palmetto, and all I could see was a black shape. As I was trying to discern what it was, it backed up farther onto the trail and I could see it was a Florida black bear. The bear was about sixty feet away, its nose was moving in and out of the palmetto. It had thick black fur, a long snout and stood at two to three feet tall on all fours. This was the first time I had seen a bear this close in the wild, and though I was excited, I was also apprehensive.
I thought for a minute of what I should do, and since bears and most other wildlife are afraid of humans, I decided simply to let it know I was there. So I sniffed, loudly enough so the bear could hear me, and it worked, for the bear looked up at me. We both just stared at one another for a couple seconds; then, the bear turned around, made three low groaning sounds — “oool, oool, oool” — and dashed back into the palmetto on the other side. I could see the palmetto fronds moving back and forth as the bear retreated.
Not too far away, and separate from the other, more palmetto moved, indicating there was probably another bear with this one that I did not see. I looked around to see if I could see the bear, or bears, or any more movement in the palmetto. There was no movement at all, just all the palmetto growing under the big blue sky. When I was ready to turn around and walk away, a bear head popped up above the palmetto. The bear was standing up on its back legs, as if it were a circus bear performing for an audience. When it saw me, it dropped back down behind the palmetto and disappeared.
I left the bear and continued up the hill. I walked back to the trailhead thinking how fortunate I was to see the bear, and how much fun it was botanizing here. It occurred to me that bears and other animals are also botanizing when they search, taste and learn about what plants to eat. Even though bears are scientifically classified as carnivores, their diet is less than 10% meat. Most of a bear’s diet is comprised of nuts, berries and tender grasses and forbs. The bear I saw on the trail in the palmetto was probably looking for the berries of this plant. It was certainly a treat seeing a Florida black bear in the wild for the first time, and it could not have been more appropriate than in the wilderness of the Ocala National Forest.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or writing to him at PO Box 2706 Belleview, FL 34421.