Monday, November 21, 2011

LHW: Flatwoods from the east

Of all the regions in Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve, Flatwoods Park is the best known and most visited. And as I alluded in my previous post, this is largely because it contains a seven-mile paved trail that attracts droves of joggers, bicyclists, and in-line skaters. However, the overwhelming majority of those visitors never step off the pavement to venture onto the earthen routes which I consider to be “the true Flatwoods” -- and which I set off to experience when temperatures dipped into the forties a couple weekends ago.

Rather than accessing Flatwoods from its popular western entrance on Bruce B. Downs, I chose to use the isolated eastern entrance on Morris Bridge Road. After driving to the end of the park’s east road, 0.8 miles past the visitor center, I stepped onto the trail pictured below. As if to demonstrate that the word “wetlands” applies to much of the forest through here, that structure you see is one of several covered footbridges across areas that usually have standing water.

Although a sign at the beginning of the trail says it leads 0.4 miles to a trailhead and another sign along the way says you are 0.1 miles from an interpretive center, I never encountered anything that qualifies as either. The trail ends at a T intersection with another one, at which point there is no signage to tell you what lies in either direction. I arbitrarily decided to go left, and as you can see, the second trail is wide enough that “dirt road” might be a more apt description:

This trail proved interesting because it follows a line of separation between two ecosystems. To my left was the hardwood forest from which I had just emerged, where the tree canopy is dense and the underbrush sparse -- while to my right was a pine flatwoods habitat, where the canopy is sparse and the underbrush dense:

Six minutes later I came to a narrow, unsigned path that slips into the flatwoods. I followed it to its end, then backtracked off of it and resumed my course until I came to these blazing stars:

While crouched down to photograph them, I heard the sound of something big moving nearby, and a moment later a deer bolted across the trail from left to right.

Shortly after again resuming my walk, I saw a buck and doe standing in the hardwood forest to my left, only twenty or so feet away. When I made eye contact with the buck, the two of them ran deeper into the forest and disappeared.

Seconds later I heard a sound, glanced right, and saw a fourth deer bounding away into the flatwoods with its tail held aloft.

Before long another wide trail branched off to the right. After turning onto it and walking for three minutes, I came to a well house where I again went right. The next landmark was a T intersection where I turned right yet again. Eventually the next trail’s direction shifted ever so slightly into the sun and the glare whited out my vision...and right after moving forward a few steps to escape the glare, I saw a large animal that I believe was a coyote. At first I thought it was another deer, but in the blink of an eye it took for it to turn and flee into the woods, I noticed its tail was long and held outward (unlike a deer’s, which is short and held up when it runs).

Anyone who has seen a moving creature for a mere fraction of a second and tried to figure out what it was in hindsight, knows about the confusion and second-guessing that are caused by such encounters. On the one hand, coyote are nowhere near as tall as deer so I wondered how I could have mistaken one for the other…but on the other hand, that tail definitely did not belong to a deer so it must have been a coyote’s…or maybe it actually was a deer’s and I “misperceived” its length and position because everything happened so fast…or maybe it belonged to some other wild animal I was forgetting about…or maybe it was just a big stray dog that happened to wander out here into the backwoods.

I walked forward hoping to get a glimpse of the creature off to the side of the trail, but there was no glimpse to be had. I did see tracks, however, and they resembled the illustrations of coyote prints in my Audubon Society field guide -- except that I couldn’t make out any claw marks in front of the toe pads. Maybe some knowledgeable reader can help me out with this one?

In any event, my wildlife encounters continued before I even moved from that spot, because when I stood up from looking at the tracks and turned around, I was treated to the sight of a bald eagle gliding just over the tops of the pines. Unfortunately, it was out of sight before I could take a picture.

I made my way back to the car, and just so you know, I continued past the first T intersection for several minutes to see if I could find that alleged interpretive center. For the record, I found nothin’ but wasn’t bothered by it because the sky was blue and the temperature was cool and I enjoyed being outside.

To reach the eastern entrance of Flatwoods, take I-75 to the Fletcher Avenue exit then head east for 5.3 miles, by which time Fletcher has become Morris Bridge Road. The entrance is on the left and you can’t miss it.

Also, be aware that you need to pay a $2 fee because this is a county park. It is an honors system by which you stop at the kiosk in the visitor center parking lot; put your money in one of the provided envelopes; detach the hang tag from the envelope, and hang it from your rear view mirror.

And lastly, be aware that of all the trails mentioned in this post, the only one with any signage is that first one that starts at the end of the road.

Happy Trails!

1 comment:

  1. Hi there - that looks like a really good place to go for a walk - and sometimes we need to be lead by our own noses rather than other people signs!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Australia