By Allison Vincent
Do you know that feeling of Florida fall? When a subtle temperature change transforms the muhly grass from commonplace to extraordinary, the pine lilies are in bloom and poison ivy is tempting you to pick some classic autumn-colored leaves for your seasonal table. September passes and October slowly creaks along toward the season when we observe the shortening of days with pumpkin patches, delicious goodies and general spookiness. Somehow, the mood of the season enhances even the most commonplace hike at CREW.
Here be dragons
Early morning fog punctuates the stark blowing grasses – skillfully brushing the sky like a paintbrush – transforming it into a grey hidden world with the stroke of each breeze. Dark shadows envelope the edges of the marsh, never fully unveiling their inhabitants as animate or inanimate – where each worn water-soaked log floating half submerged could just as easily be a 7-foot alligator.
Mornings like this play tricks on the eyes, part of the fun of winding your way around the hidden corners of the trails – each turn welcoming a curious new view, usually complemented with a spider web at the level of your eyes. Near the lakes at CREW Flint Pen Strand Trails, the path opens up to a field of sawgrass and the deepest sections of the lakes’ steam in the morning sun as the insects awaken from the edge of rust-centered flowers.
Above, you feel a whoosh of small wings and discover that hovering just above your wide-brimmed hat is a swarm of dragonflies! Not just any whirling dragons either – but a spirited bunch of Halloween pennant dragonflies. Zooming in closer with a long-lens camera or binoculars, one can make out the intricate painted pattern of the aptly named Halloween pennant with its alternating stripes of burnt sienna and translucent orange hue. Their eerie witch-like hovering puts a spell on you as they patiently wait for the moment one holds still long enough for a proper seasonal photo.
Hidden in plain sight
The next time you’re out hiking the CREW Bird Rookery Swamp Trail, keep an eye out for these straight out of ghostbusters, Slimer-green, green lynx spiders. Catch how they camouflage in the verdant world that is southwest Florida and beware, because while you’re admiring a lovely flower they might be admiring you back. Many hikers have discovered a green lynx spider just inches from their nose when suddenly their eyes focus on this fuzzy movement coming from some segmented appendages that look like part of the flower and they realize it’s a spider instead.
Like a Dia de los Muertos painted skeleton, their colorful bodies craftily pieced together, for the swift purpose of keeping in check the smaller insects of the ecosystem. In fact, the aggressive attack of the green lynx, the largest North American lynx spider, is the reason many are released by agricultural pest management companies, not to mention the fact that they very seldom bite humans.
On a long winding path through Caracara Prairie Preserve accessible by the CREW Cypress Dome Trails, your boots crunching through fallen pine needles and oak leaves of early fall, you hike quickly through the Caracara Prairie Preserve path – hoping to make it back to the parking lot before night begins its shift. Steady paced and calmly watching the colors change in the sky, you peek around the corner of a particularly large oak tree, its branches haphazardly low over the trail – hovering just like a standing bear – making even darker still the fading light of time passing away.
Suddenly, there’s an unusual crunch underfoot and, hoping not to have disturbed one of the bee-hives that sometimes break away from the decaying oak branches above, you look down. What you see is quite a different thing indeed. Opaque and eggshell white with etches of brown earth worked into its crevices – these things are long, segmented and curving into brachiated points. Bones! And they look human!
Panic begins to set in as your backwoods comfort zone is suddenly put to the test. Instinct overcomes fear and you quickly excavate the area enough to find the rest of the decayed fingers and notice something distinguishable and entirely not human about them. They have claws! Skunk ape? No. Black bear!
Relief sets in as the wild ways of nature come hand-in-hand with the cycle of life. The hikers take a note of the location with their GPS and finish the trek feeling stronger and more in touch with the darker side of the CREW trails.
Survivors of the swamp, the greatest and strongest, the lubber grasshoppers inhabit all the CREW Trails, but seem to prefer the CREW Marsh and Cypress Dome Trails. They begin their lives as part of a hoard of black-bodied swarms, survivalists banding together to deter predators from eating more than one, given their pesky poisonous innards (evolution is maniacal).
Their gastrointestinal group defense expands and transforms with their exoskeleton into the adult formation, a neon-orange pumpkin color like the holiday isles everywhere starting around September.
These native hoppers persevere through the devastation of their nemesis – the loggerhead shrikes, also known as butcher birds, who feast during lubber season, ready with a deadly preconceived attack. Butcher birds will in fact spear the lubber carcass on spikes, draining the poison before enjoying their meal.
Still, the lubber grasshoppers survive and by mid-October they’re at their most terrifying stage yet. The remaining can resemble the walking dead hobbling along the trails – missing limbs and sometimes whole abdomens. Yet their Frankenstein-like potential for survival, with or without their whole body – because who really needs all that poison – means they’re still out there, the zombie grasshoppers of CREW just biding their time, until the next generation returns, to strike their revenge.