I have been pouring over old photos and frequently adding new ones and have finally gotten them organized enough to make my first original contribution to the new incarnation of the forum. I will probably make a series of long posts on specific regions to “catch up.” I used to post here as “Mudsnake6,” but see that I followed the trend of using my real name from now on.
I recently moved to an area that I have been interested in for years. I have made many visits to the area and worked on some projects here over the years, but still haven’t seen all that it has to offer. I hope that living there will enable me to familiarize myself with this region that doesn’t give up its secrets easily.
The Brooksville Ridge is an area of raised elevation running inland of the Gulf Coast from near the Tampa Bay area almost to Georgia. Though the actual city of Brooksville is on the ridge, it stretches miles beyond the city that it is named after. Like the Lake Wales Ridge to the east, the Brooksville Ridge is made up of ancient dunes that were exposed in times of higher sea levels when surrounding areas were inundated. Unlike the Lake Wales Ridge, the Brooksville Ridge is made up of mostly yellowish soils and clays. In areas of well drained soil, sandhill habitats once dominated.
Historically, lightning-produced fires maintained open savannah-like sandhills. This fine example, typified by big, widely spaced longleaf pines (Pinus palustris
) and lots of low grassy and shrubby cover, is probably what much of the area looked like at one time.
Without frequent burning, the turkey oaks grow tall and shade out the grassy understory. Grass, being the base of the food chain, provides food for insects, rodents, gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus
) and numerous other herbivorous animals. Insects and rodents provide food for herps, while gopher tortoise burrows provide shelter.
In the final stage of succession, scrub oaks create nearly impenetrable xeric hammocks. While these oak hammocks are not the most productive habitats, the shady environment is favorable for some amphibians and provides cover for many herps. Oak hammocks are not usually penetrated by fire and require tree removal before burning to be converted back to sandhill. Wiregrass is not known to recolonize the areas.
While plant diversity is not as high, cleared areas, pastures, and olefields on sandhill soils actually can provide quite productive environments for herps.
In areas where higher clay content in the soils reduces drainage or areas where fire is naturally excluded by water features, mesic hammocks with large hardwoods form.
The landscape is also shaped by geological features like sinks and springs. Deep sinks in sandhill areas like this one hold clear water.
Numerous springs flow from the porous karst limestone of the Florida aquifer and create beautiful runs like this one.
The Withlacoochee River drains the Green Swamp to the east and slices through the Brooksville Ridge on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
The gopher tortoise is the cornerstone species and emblematic herp of the area. It is actually one of the easier herps to find. Any drive or hike around sandhill or pasture areas usually produces a few.
Many animals depend on tortoise burrows for shelter and some are only found alongside tortoises. It is thought that there are several undescribed species of gopher crickets (Ceuthophilus
sp.) that inhabit tortoise burrows. This one was caught in a bucket trap on a drift fence study.
Florida gopher frogs (Rana capito aesopus
) probably eat a few gopher crickets.
Another tortoise commensal is the Florida mouse (Podomys floridanus
) a species endemic to Florida. It is considered a species of special concern and occurs in xeric habitats in the peninsula and an isolated colony in the Carrabelle scrub of the panhandle (which probably won’t stop any more development there).
I’ve gotten to observe some interesting tortoise behavior in the last few years on some of my field work in the last few years. I came up on these two males combating while heading to check a drift fence trap.
We had a pretty bad drought a few years ago. Everything was pretty parched. I had the pleasure of being out in the field when the drought broke. This tortoise came out to drink as puddles formed.
This one is actually from the Lake Wales Ridge, but I thought it fit well while we are showing tortoises doing things. Dave Justice and I drove up on this tortoise eating a mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos
A few years ago, everyone was worried about upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) wiping out all of the tortoises. It turns out that some individuals in most populations have URTD and it does kill a few of them, but it hasn’t really wiped out any populations. The worst-case predictions did work to scare up some grant money for research.
Imagine that…researchers garnering funding with apocalyptic predictions…
In any case, there wasn't much hope for this particular tortoise.
But yet, the species carries on.
One creature I have become very familiar with is the gopher tick (Amblyomma tuberculatum
). As adults, these ticks are tortoise specialists. I and others who have worked with exotic tortoises have notices that they gladly latch on to not only the wild gophers, but also captive tortoises in outdoor enclosures. As juveniles, these pesky critters readily eat mammals, including humans. Though they don’t burrow in like adults, they do leave chigger-like itching bumps after sucking your blood. After a day of work in the sandhills, the standard protocol is to pat your legs with duct tape to remove the hundreds of baby ticks. Here is an adult tick attached to a gopher tortoise.
Herpers dream of sandhills with visions of glorious serpents dancing in their heads. Sandhills aren’t crawling with snakes though. In fact, finding snakes can be quite a daunting task at times. If you just want to find lots of snakes, road cruise a swamp at night. Road cruising in the sandhills at night may not produce anything at all. The best way that I have found to hunt snakes in the Florida sandhills, short of trapping, is to roadcruise during the day. Prepare to waste lots of time and gas. Racers are pretty common, but other than those, if you average more than one snake for six hours of cruising you are doing pretty well. That means you might see three snakes in one morning, but get skunked on several other trips.
The payoff is that you will eventually see some good snakes.
Adult southern hognose snakes (Heterodon simus
) are on the move looking for mates in May and June.
This one started its defensive routine soon after being confronted.
Occasionally you get lucky and see multiples. These ones died soon after being placed together.
Eastern coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum flagellum
) are fairly common, but good luck getting a hand on one. Here are a couple we managed to slow down for pics.
Rough green snakes (Opheodrys aestivus
) are fairly common, even in the heat of the day.
Having lived on the Lake Wales Ridge and never finding yellow rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta quadrivittata
) in that scrubby area, I was surprised to find rat snakes to be pretty common on the Brooksville Ridge. They are probably more common now as many former sandhill habitats are overgrown into hammocks. I saw this snake shining in the distance as it crossed a sandhill road late in the afternoon. I was sure I had a pine snake.
With the adrenalin still pumping from finding the rat snake, I was even more thrilled to see this beauty on the next pass. A young adult eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus
A little ways down the road, I saw just the head of this five foot beast coming on to the road. As another car passed, it turned around and raced off the road as fast an EDB can go. With great difficulty I was able to persuade it to settle next to a tree for a few pics. It never struck or assumed the classic coil, but its nervous nature made it very difficult to deal with.
Eastern coral snakes (Micrurus fulvius fulvius
) might be the most abundant venomous snakes on the Brooksville Ridge, especially in hammocks. They can be seen crossing roads early in the morning or at dusk.
Anthony Flanagan, my wife Lisa, and I cruised up this indigo (Drymarchon corais couperi
) in June, an unusual find for that time of year.
Indigos typically move to tortoise burrows in the sandhills in the cooler months. They restrict their home ranges to mere hundreds of acres during that time and breed while they are concentrated in the uplands. Most move off into lowlands for the summer, where food is more abundant. The females lay eggs in tortoise or pocket gopher (Geomys pinetis
) burrows and may be seen at the burrows later in the spring than the males.
This big male was found basking near a tortoise burrow in the winter.
This attractive eastern slender glass lizard (Ophisaurus attenuatus attenuatus
) was seen crossing in the late afternoon.
A peak under the bark on a dead pine revealed this cute rodent, the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans
Here is a winter time view of a bend in the river.
Here is the same bend (slightly different view) in the summer.
What is that turtle out on the log?
A closer look revealed it to be a Florida chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia chrysea
), in a river!
I investigated a potential study site in an area with sandhills, flatwoods, and depression marshes.
Unfortunately, in the time it took to drive to the end of the road and back, I missed this:
Bill Love and I were attempting to photograph a pasture full of pocket gopher mounds, but we were blocked by a strange creature.
I finally got the shot.
We figured with so many pocket gophers around, we had a good shot at a southern pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucas mugitus
). We walked an olefield with lots of gopher burrows, both the rodent and the tortoise kinds. It was a cool February day with a high around 70 F.
Our first find was not spectacular, but interesting nonetheless. We found a nicely colored southern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus undulatus
It was afflicted by some nasty ticks!
Around midday, I saw a medium size snake with its head just in view in a tortoise hole. I did what my mother told me never to do and reached down the hole as quickly as I could and was lucky to come up with a lovely snake. For some reason it didn’t dawn on me exactly what it was when I first saw it. I thought it might be a corn snake. Of course, a baby pine snake is the same size as a young adult corn snake.
Gray rat snake (E. o. spiloides) influence makes it way down the Gulf Coast in the form of the Gulf Hammock intergrade (E. o. “williamsi”). However, just a few miles inland on the ridge in Levy County, yellow rat snakes still prevail.
The rat snakes near the northern end of the ridge are pure gray rats, like this one from Suwannee County.
Nick Mesa and I made a particularly unfruitful snake hunting trip to the area. This juvenile coachwhip was one of our only finds.
A more interesting find was this Central Florida crowned snake (Tantilla relicta neilli
), a snake which primarily occurs in north Florida.
On one of our turtle research trips, Chris Lechowicz and I took a slight detour to hunt for southern hognose snakes at a locality known to produce outstanding examples. To our surprise, we found this baby eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platyrhinos
) instead. It did not play dead.
Lisa and I joined some friends for a day of turtle hunting in a spring run.
Before we shoved off, someone shouted “Snake!” so I went over to investigate. It was the expected culprit:
We dug the big brown water snake (Nerodia taxpilota
) out of the rocks and I cheesed with it for a minute before releasing it.
Now it was down to the serious business of the trip: Finding turtles!
Chris has an underwater housing for his camera and got this pic showing the eel grass (Vallisneria americana
) that carpets the bottom.
The big cooters love to eat eel grass and the smaller turtles use it as cover and forage for snails among the green stalks. Here is Chris’s photo of one of our targets, the loggerhead musk turtle (Sternotherus minor
Male loggerheads are aptly named.
The female’s head is smaller by comparison.
Here is a male/female comparison shot. The male on the left has a longer and thicker tail.
Lisa had her typical bout with hypothermia in the cool 72 degree water and waited the rest of the trip out in the boat.
The turtle I really wanted to photograph today was the Suwannee Cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis
). Chris told me it was the most abundant cooter in this run.
My first cooter was a Florida redbellied turtle (P. nelsoni
). They are reportedly the least common of the three Pseudemys
This view shows the cusped jaw characteristic of the species.
The next ones we found were peninsula cooters (Pseudemys floridana peninsularis
The P. floridana
cooters lack the cusped jaw.
Chris teaches his son Marrick about cooters.
Cara shows off a nice cooter.
We finally did see a few of the turtles I wanted to photograph. Randy Thomas got these basking shots.
I finally managed to secure one for myself to photograph.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with Ray Ashton at the Ashton Biodiversity Research and Preservation Institute. The main focus of the Institute was research and conservation of the gopher tortoise. Ray did more for herp conservation in Florida than just about anybody. Other people have written papers and made comments, but Ray got stuff done.
My work was based at the Ashton Preserve.
On my first trip, I was not disappointed as I saw several tortoises crossing the dirt road on the way into the Preserve.
The Preserve was a wonderful example of sandhill reclaimed from old pasture. Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris
) was replanted sparsely.
Ray and Pat Ashton ran the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative to provide biologists, land managers, and environmental consultants with information and hands on experience in managing tortoises. One of the activities in the GTCI class was to demonstrate proper burrow excavation technique for instances where tortoises must be relocated. For the class, we used an inactive burrow.
When run by a skillful operator, a backhoe is the most efficient way of excavating tortoise burrows. Here, Ray explains proper backhoe technique.
One of my main duties was to curate a captive collection of rare tortoises. We did the same research and data collection on the captive tortoises that we did with the wild gophers. Here I am with one of our cute radiated tortoise (Geochelone radiata
It got really cold in the winter here, especially for tropical tortoises!
Here is the feed bucket on the pond, which stayed frozen for several days. I know you northerners are scoffing at this, but this just isn’t supposed to happen here!
I did a little bit of drift fence trapping on the preserve. I was here in the cooler months of the year and the herps were somewhat sparse, though I did make a few interesting finds.
One of my first serpentine finds in the traps was a Central Florida crowned snake.
Here is another one, found under a rock in the tortoise enclosure.
Here are a few other snakes from the area. This is a typical Brooksville Ridge corn snake (Elaphe guttata guttata
). They are not overly colorful here, but are interesting nonetheless.
An impressive eastern coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum flagellum
) with a cool banded pattern
A juvenile southern black racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor
One of my more surprising finds on the preserve was this Florida softshell turtle (Apalone ferox
) that seemed lost. It was walking along the drift fence in the sandhills, possibly trying to reach the pond a few hundred yards away. We moved it to pond, which already contains several other softshells. The drought is forcing many animals to search for water as many small ponds and wetland dry up.
In the fall, the baby southern hognoses appear. The first chill of October seemed to put them on the move.
I have heard that southern hogs are more reluctant to play dead than easterns. I have not found this to be the case as everyone that I have seen has done it.
Here is a baby that I found with Ray and Pat on our way back from lunch.
Here is another one spotted by Ray.
I worked with two awesome tortoise-catching dogs, which is very helpful when you need to round up a bunch of cold-sensitive tropical tortoises in large outdoor enclosures before a cold night. They occasionally barked at wild tortoises crossing the driveway to the lab. As I was working in the lab, they started barking. I took a peek out of the door and saw the dogs circling an angry, hissing pine snake. The dogs kept it in place until I arrived.
This one measured out at exactly five feet SVL with nine inches of tail.
Here is another pine snake that Anthony walked up nearby on a cool November day. The pines here tend to have indistinct patterns.
Box turtles are not common in the sandhills, but do occasionally show up. This is a pretty typical example of the Florida subspecies (Terrapene carolina bauri
I was amused in watching the behaviors of the numerous squirrel tree frogs (Hyla squirrella
) that gather under the lights at night to feast on various hapless bugs.
I caught this one in mid leap.
I did a tortoise relocation with Ray on a development site down in southwest Florida. It was disappointing to have to remove gopher tortoises from the place they had lived all their lives, however it was better than having them plowed over by bulldozers. I made the grab of the day when I jumped off the backhoe to secure these two that were trying to jam down the same hole.
We released the tortoises in a fenced area of several acres. They establish a home range after six months or so and the fence is taken down. Most will stick around in the new area, which will be protected.
Here is the old gopher tortoise himself. Thanks for all you did for wildlife conservation Ray!