Lake Ashby Park – Volusia County, Florida
Jodi: On a Friday morning at 9:00am sharp, Dave and I set out for Lake Ashby Park. Roughly 45 minutes later we turned off the main road following a boat launch sign. We then found ourselves on a dirt road that led to the parking area of the park.
David: The access road to the park passes through some, what appears to be, old-growth pine flatwoods with longleaf pine and saw palmetto. Some of this area may be considered to be a little on the wetter side or “hydric” with another species of pine – pond pine. We drove into the parking area and secured a shaded parking space. This latter action was easy to do as we had the only vehicle there.
D: Our adventure began soon after exiting the car. The cicadas were at full volume. We noticed an undisturbed spider web occupied by a golden orb spider. Since we were still working on some technical issues, e.g. macro (close-up) capabilities of current cameras, we had a bit of a time getting our first picture of the day. Jodi lamented that she kept losing sight of the spider when she tried to view it through her camera’s viewfinder. I, too, was having my problems and only managed to take photos of everything but the patient arachnid. What a start! Anyway, we got things sort of figured out, got a picture and moved on.
J: My job was to attempt to capture images of these findings. (Photography has been a hobby of mine since I was a child. So, if you’ve ever tried to photograph your two-year-old with your fancy new expensive camera, you know that catching skittish creepy crawlies and butterflies isn’t that easy either. So practice I will until I can consistently deliver beautiful photos to our readers. Remember, I’m not the biologist, just the average Jodi. I’m still learning.) Dave and I hoped to spot more creatures for me to chase around.
D: We headed down the trail toward the lake. The trail passed through a section of hardwood hammock with sweet gum and water oak trees and various ferns. The trail exited to a slightly more open area with bald cypress and very large sweet gums. Jodi occupied herself with another golden orb in its web while I checked out the cypress. I could hear some rather colorful mutterings coming from the vicinity of that spider web! Towards the base of a large sweet gum, I saw the shed “skin” of a cicada. (This “skin” is actually called – get ready for this one – the cast nymphal skeleton. Of course, it’s not really a skin either, but the external supporting structure – exoskeleton – of the insect). Anyway, I always thought these things were just plain cool when I was growing up. Some of my peers at the time did not and I remember chasing them around with one of the things in hand. The shrieks were generally not of delight and I seem to recall some promises of getting even! Just sayin’.
J: As we continued on the trail, we found two spiders cohabitating in what looked to me like the same web. Try as I might, my point-and-shoot camera refused to see the big Golden Orb and her much smaller mate hanging in the shade of a parking sign. Thankfully Dave got a nice shot.
D: A small bridge on the trail crossed a kind of ditch or drainage feature. Jodi stopped to admire and photograph a shrubby plant with a small, but showy yellow flower. I put on my best innocent act and asked her what she was looking at. Her response was that she wanted to get a picture of the “pretty” yellow flower. She has a thing for the color yellow. The yellow flower was attractive, but belonged to a non-native plant commonly called primrose willow. More colorful mutterings!
J: Oh boy, Dave was giggling at me because I’m shooting pics of these wildflowers. Apparently, they were a non-native species. Shame, I thought they were pretty. I found some of those pesky yellow flowers filled with bumble bees and butterflies. The ‘flutterbies’ (as my niece called them when she was little) proved quite a challenge.
D: Past the bridge, the area was mostly mowed grass. From here we could see a lone fisherman in a bass boat out in the lake on the outer edge of the yellow cow lilies that dominated this section of the lake. Moving closer to the lake, we noticed that the vegetation was a little taller and included rattlebox, torpedo grass and cow lilies with their single large leaves held high above the surface of the water. I urged a bit of caution for both the fire ant hills present and the possibility of water moccasins in this type of cover. Jodi likes snakes about as much as I’m a fan of spiders. Let’s just say that we spent just enough time in this area for me to get photos of small buttonweed flowers in the grass before moving on.
J: We began walking toward the edge of the lake which Dave mentioned was prime water moccasin territory. “Great”, I said with a bit of sarcasm. So I backed off from the area. Although the grass was mowed, I was glad to have had my jeans and boots on. (As we move along you will come to find that I don’t like snakes. I understand that they like all other creatures have their place in the world. However that doesn’t mean I have to like them. But I digress.)
D: Back away from the lake and close to the ditch, there was a live oak tree draped in Spanish moss. An understory saw palmetto held a eastern lubber grass hopper. These are the ones that are so big that you hesitate to step on them and instead revert to garden shears or the like to dispatch. This one was safe and seemed to know it as it submitted patiently to being photographed several times by Jodi who acknowledged that she “liked those things”. “Really”, I thought, feeling a little guilty over my earlier thoughts of garden shears and dispatching. Moving on.
J: Have you ever seen one of those huge grasshoppers that look like mechanical toys? We spotted one hanging out watching a fisherman in his bass boat out on the lake. Dave was swatting at himself. He had some kind of fly chasing and biting him. Did I mention bug spray might be a good idea?! The air felt thick with humidity and the clouds looked full of rain.
D: We could see our ultimate destination, the boardwalk, a short distance away. Moving closer, we saw more oaks draped in Spanish moss. We also saw more cypress trees and their associated “knees”. Multiple darting and splashes greeted our approach to another section of the ditch. Finally, a small leopard frog halted its movements long enough to be photographed. It had to be somewhat assured that it was camouflaged against a background of leaf litter as it allowed a number of photographs.
J: As we walked back toward the walkway, we heard a small splash into the marshy area near the bridge. Dave spotted this frog who thought we couldn’t see him. Can you? (For some reason I always feel compelled to call them her or him as opposed to it. Forgive me. I also thank them for their patience as I point a camera at them and scare them with my size – all 5’2”, 115 lbs. of me – which I’m sure looks HUGE to them!) Look at the cattails. I didn’t realize they grew here in Central Florida.
D: We finally reached the boardwalk. It was a nice change to walk up there, elevated above the water and surrounding shoreline. But, we were also exposed to the sun when it did appear on this mostly cloudy day. A little breeze almost compensated for the fact that both the temperature and the humidity were both in the 90s at, what was now, mid-morning. Almost. Let’s just say that the pulls on the water bottles became a little longer and more “deliberate” as we headed down the length of the boardwalk. It has been mentioned that this area of the lake had yellow cow lily dominating in the waters along the shoreline. As a rooted plant, it can only grow in water to a certain depth and then gives way to the open water. The fisherman on the boat that we saw earlier was gone now, but he had been concentrating his efforts on the outer margins of this vegetative cover. If one wanted to photograph or just observe this interesting and attractive aquatic plant, this was the place to do it! Jodi got a number of photos with plants in various stages of blooming and post-bloom when seed pods were evident.
J: As we broke out of the shade onto the walkway over the lake, I was happy to be wearing my favorite shades. The sun was bright and the temperature was soaring high into the 80’s already. It appeared that the fisherman had motored off in search of some shade. How pretty! The cow lilies were in various stages of bloom. Some young and just springing out of the water, others had long past gone to seed. Still others were in full bloom.
D: The vantage point of the boardwalk also allowed us to observe the shoreline from the lake “side”. A number of tall cypress trees were evident along with red maple and longleaf pines in the background. But, as is becoming more undesirable, a number of nuisance and exotic species such as the previously mentioned primrose willow and Carolina willow were also present. Still, this vantage point allowed us to more readily see great blue herons, egrets and other wading birds as they stalked their prey. (The occasional alligator may also make its presence known as announced by a very large splash we heard).
J: Here are some purple flowers that were also popping out of the water. (David identified these as pickerel weed.) Dragonflies were also plentiful out here. This one looked like it had seen better days!
D: The walk to the end of the boardwalk was more urgent now. The August heat was building and there was shade up ahead. The skies had also darkened and I could see a curtain of rain off in the distance. There was a person up ahead of us. Fisherman? Yes, as it turned out. An open tackle box and spare poles rested on the bench in the boardwalk’s small covered observation deck. As Jodi and I approached, we exchanged greetings with a middle-aged gentleman wearing white rubber boots who was casting out into an area of open water. We were given a brief lesson in fishing for largemouth bass. The gentleman explained that he had left his boat “up nort” and was doing the best he could from the boardwalk. We wished him “good luck” and, with the promise of shade just ahead, took our leave. This Good Samaritan gave us a friendly warning to watch out for panthers up ahead. With what appeared to be honest conviction, he assured us that they were here. Jodi wondered aloud about how big a panther might be. I told her that they can get around 120 pounds or larger. Almost under her breath she noted that that was bigger than the family dog. Fortunately, we did not run into any panthers.
J: We encountered another fisherman. He was casting off the walkway into the lily pads for largemouth bass. He warned us of Florida panthers that might be seen here. I had my doubts about any dangers like that at that time of day, but anything was possible…right? As we left the fisherman we saw a shy Blue Heron that was anxious to get out of sight. I popped off a few quick pics before it flew off.
D: We stepped right into a cypress swamp at this end of the boardwalk. (Not literally, but…) It was almost as if the stuff at the other end was the teaser and this was the real deal. There was even signage although a bit curious in both placement and content as we saw it. The first things we observed were some huge cypress with equally impressive knees. The trees themselves, and these were huge “bald” cypress, were massively buttressed with equally massive root systems. There was a cavern-like quality to the bases of these trees that left both of us speculating what creature(s) might take advantage of these spaces. Bats? Bees? Panthers? Sorry. The cypress knees were several feet tall in places and spaced so close together that navigating between them could have been an issue, but we were, fortunately, above them on the boardwalk.
J: Back in the shade we observed a huge bald cypress with lots of tall ‘knees’. Dave said it was hundreds of years old.
D: As mentioned, the signage was, well, curiously placed in some instances. For example, the first sign was dedicated to the yellow cow lily. Nice sign, but nowhere near the plant itself as the sign was a good 50 feet into the swamp. Maybe the sign placement folks wanted a nice shady spot for one to read the sign? An example of curious content was the sign for Urena lobata or Caesar’s weed. Again, a nice sign, but one for an undesirable, exotic plant. In other words, this was a permanent sign with an example of the invasive, exotic plant growing below it. I thought it might have been best just to “lose” the plant. May be just me.
J: Onto the walkway we went where I spotted this lizard that had picked up a late breakfast. Can you see him?
D: “Oh look”, Jodi exclaimed as she maneuvered to get a picture of something I had yet to see. She snapped away at whatever it was she saw. It was, “right here”, she said, this time a little exasperated as if “it” was in plain sight. I couldn’t see crap and this was after explaining to her that my powers of observation had been heightened by my years in the field. I was approaching almost a panic when finally I saw the green anole in the green leaves. Whew. We had, apparently, caught it in the midst of devouring some hapless insect. Cool photos in hand, we moved on.
J: How tall do you think that tree was, 30-40 feet? Dave said 60 or more feet. I looked at him questioningly. We were looking at two different trees…me a palm, he a towering pine tree. No wonder.
D: A short way further along the boardwalk, Jodi asked, “Did you see that?” “Oh brother”, I whispered to myself, “not again”. An insect had crash-landed on the boardwalk railing right in front of her. It was a handsome thing, metallic green. It appeared that the abrupt landing may have stunned it as it made no attempt to move as Jodi took several photographs. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall it moving even as we walked away. Maybe “stunned” was too positive a thought!
J: We continued on noting that this pine tree had grown around the walkway railing.
D: Jodi soon stopped again intently looking at something ahead. Another spider or web? We had been pretty lucky this far as to walking into or through webs. I saw where she had focused her attention and was pleased to see this five-lined skink on the boardwalk railing.
J: “ROYGBIV”….Huh? Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. My husband, Jeff, said this later looking at this photo. Those are all the colors of the rainbow. This skink sure was showing them off!
D: The end of the boardwalk at last. It was time to think about how good air conditioning was going to feel. I was not really complaining given what we had been allowed to see and experience that day, but it sure was hot!
J: “Gotcha!”, Dave heard as he was walking away laughing at me again. I was celebrating catching this beauty…a Zebra heliconian I believe. What do you think Dave? “I “googled” it”,I said with a laugh.
J: It was awfully hot that day so we called it a day after a quick trip to the facilities. As I walked out of the building, Dave cautioned me to step quietly and slowly. He had spotted the best surprise of the day. A blue and yellow striped lizard was kind enough to smile and say cheese for me. I quietly thanked the little dude as we continued back to the car. Time for lunch!
J and D: Till next trip!
More images from our adventure…