Myakka Island / Myakka State Park / Carlton Reserve


Sarasota County southeast of Sarasota.


Florida Park Service and partners.


To reach the state park office from the west at Interstate 75 exit 205: Go east on Highway 72 eight and a half miles to the entrance on the left. The Martin’s Gate trailhead is a couple of miles beyond this on Highway 72 on the south side of the road. $$. Nice campground. No pets.

To reach the Carlton Reserve trailhead from the southwest at Interstate 75 exit 193: Go north on Jacaranda Boulevard three quarters of a mile to Border Road and turn right. Go east on Border Road two and a half miles to where the road ends after crossing the Myakka River. Follow the signs north about one half mile to the parking lot and trailhead. Day use only – gates are locked at night. Free. No camping. No pets. Horses and trail bikes are permitted.


Florida has extensive native grasslands but common plant names and place names with respect to these grasslands are often deceiving. Sawgrass is really a sedge while broomsedge is a grass. ‘Wire grass’ can refer to both the most common native grass of the Florida dry prairie as well as to the non-native Bermuda grass of the typical Florida front lawn. With respect to places many with the word prairie in their name are not grasslands while some ‘forests’ actually are grasslands that humans have intentionally planted over with trees. In Florida more so than in other states the word prairie simply means an open treeless area.

First a few words about some kinds of Florida ‘prairie’ that are not native grasslands: the Everglades, the Florida coastal prairie and the Florida wet prairie.

The Everglades are a wonderful place to visit and from a distance during the dry season even resemble a prairie. However the plants that look like grass here are really rushes and sedges and there are almost no botanical affinities between the Everglades and native grasslands found elsewhere in North America. The heavy seasonal flooding is simply too much.

The Everglades and a few other places in coastal Florida that have been spared development also have an ecosystem referred to as coastal prairie. Coastal prairie in Florida is a flat strip of land slightly inland from the shore that bears some resemblance to a desert – there is usually plenty of sand, succulents and small reptiles. Salt spray from the ocean and seasonal flooding keep tree growth to a minimum. There are some scattered grasses and members of the sunflower family that have counterparts to plants of the Great Plains but they are not dominants. Florida coastal prairie while not really native grassland is worth keeping in mind when discussing the North American prairie because of its role as an entry point for the arrival of exotic plants. Plants and birds have been blowing into Florida on the wind for some time and the place they often land on is the coastal prairie. The coastal prairie may have been a springboard for the arrival of some of the taller grasses from the tropics. Although not really grassland the Florida coastal prairie makes for an interesting visit and an excellent example is along the Coastal Prairie Trail at the southwest tip of Everglades National Park.

Another prairie that is not really grassland is the Florida wet prairie. In general terms the Florida wet prairie is a wetland that dries out for half of the year as opposed to the Florida dry prairie which is a grassland that floods for a couple of months beginning in late summer. Florida wet prairie like the Everglades is dominated by rushes and sedges. Although Florida wet prairie often forms a patchwork with Florida dry prairie and both have similar soil - sand on top of clay or hardpan - it is very much a separate ecosystem. Just a slight change in drainage makes for a completely different set of plants. Florida wet prairie is found throughout the state and under the complex nomenclature of the state’s natural areas inventory system is a broad set of natural communities – coastal prairie is considered a type of wet prairie and so are the pitcher plant prairies of the panhandle.

Having digressed quite a bit here discussing some Florida locales that look like prairie and sometimes even are called prairie but are usually wetlands lets visit a place where there is a prairie that is indeed a grassland. Myakka Island is an approximately one hundred and fifty square mile complex of state and county parks and preserves, conservation easements and water district lands most of which are in eastern Sarasota County or southeastern Manatee County. It is an ‘island’ in the sense that it is a parcel of undeveloped land surrounded by a sea of development. Most of what can be characterized as Florida dry prairie within Myakka Island is east of the Myakka River and was once part of large cattle ranches - in some cases it still is. In terms of the grasslands that you can visit within Myakka Island the core area is Myakka State Park. This park was established back in 1941. To the southeast of the park is the Myakka Prairie which is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District – recreational access to it is administered by Myakka State Park. To the south of Myakka Prairie is the massive Carlton Reserve which is owned by Sarasota County and managed as open space.

The native grassland of Myakka Island is Florida dry prairie which grades into Florida pine flatwoods. The grassy understory of the pine flatwoods is open and very similar botanically to dry prairie – the fauna rather than the flora most differentiates the two. Florida dry prairie was recognized as a native grassland ecosystem comparatively late – it really was not until the 1990s that much effort was made to research or preserve it and even the actual definition of Florida dry prairie still has many loose ends. Like the prairies of the Midwest and Great Plains Florida dry prairie is clearly a pyrogenic (‘fire induced’) ecosystem. The source of what set the Florida dry prairie ablaze at regular intervals most likely was summer lightning which is very common in central Florida – historical records (or rather their absence) suggest that native Americans did not torch the Florida grasslands as frequently as they did grasslands elsewhere within North America. What is not entirely clear is the role of cattle ranching in maintaining Florida dry prairie. Besides the grazing activities of the cattle themselves it was also common practice on many ranches to conduct extensive winter burns something for which there was no natural counterpart. There was probably an ecosystem similar to the Florida dry prairie prior to settlement - with the introduction of cattle ranching that ecosystem likely grew in extent. However a certain subset of plants and animals sensitive to grazing and winter burning probably decreased as a component of the original Florida dry prairie.

As a historical footnote the artist Frederick Remington visited the area in the 1890s and has left us with an unflattering description of the landscape and its Cracker cowboys. Remington summed up the area as ‘ooze and rank grass,’ a ‘sad country’ that was:

‘Flat and sandy, with miles on miles of straight pine timber, each tree an exact duplicate of its neighbor tree, and underneath the scrub palmettoes, the twisted brakes and hammocks, and the gnarled water-oaks festooned with the sad gray Spanish-moss--truly not a country for a high-spirited race or moral giants. The land gives only a tough wiregrass, and the poor little cattle, no bigger than a donkey, wander half starved and horribly emaciated in search of it’. (Cracker Cowboys of Florida. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. August 1895. Remington, Frederick. pp. 339-346).

Regarding the Crackers themselves Remington described one typical individual as ‘two-thirds drunk, with brutal, shifty eyes and a flabby lower lip’ and more generally:

'There was none of the bilious fierceness and rearing plunge which I had associated with my friends out West, but as a fox-terrier is to a yellow cur, so were these last…..The heat, the poor grass, their brutality, and the pest of the flies kill their ponies, and, as a rule, they lack dash and are indifferent riders, but they are picturesque in their unkempt, almost unearthly wildness... These men do not use the rope… Indeed, ropes are hardly necessary, since the cattle are so small and thin that two men can successfully "wrestle" a three-year-old.’ (ibid.)

Frederick Remington’s description of this area in the 1890s as primarily pines, wiregrass and ‘scrub palmettoes’ is a pretty good description of the dominant plants of an overgrazed Florida pine flatwoods – subtract the pines and that in essence is a Florida dry prairie. The principal grass is the fall blooming Aristida beyrichiana often referred to as ‘three-awn’ or ‘wire grass.’ Actually three-awn is a common name overall for the grass genus Aristida which is widely distributed in semiarid regions – the grasses within this genus are easy to identify at a glance by their characteristic seeds which have three awns. From above the inflorescence of three-awn looks like the inner three spokes of the Mercedes-Benz logo and from the side like a thin piece of barbed wire.

As a result of research into the effects of fire upon plants in longleaf pine savanna it has been known since the 1980s that flowering in three-awn is stimulated by growing season burns (Clewell, A. 1989. Natural history of wiregrass (Aristida stricta Michx., Gramineae). Natural Areas Journal 9: 223-232). Three-awn is also an overgrazing indicator – it is not nutritious to large ungulates. There are other more palatable grasses in a Florida dry prairie that also have stronger affinities to the grasses of the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest - Aristida beyrichiana if not the most desirable or showiest grass here is distinguished as the most common. The other plant that caught Frederick Remington’s eye - scrub or saw palmettos Serenoa repens - are almost always found to some extent in a central Florida grassland. Where they are small (knee to waist high) they indicate a grassland that has been burned often. Saw palmettos that are much bigger than that begin to shade out the surrounding grasses.

Myakka State Park was the first public land set aside within Myakka Island. The condition of the Florida dry prairie within in its boundaries rapidly deteriorated the first few decades after its establishment. Ironically the condition of the grassland ecosystem at the state park was much worse than at many of the private cattle ranches surrounding the park. Fire suppression was part of the reason but another was the well intentioned work of the Civilian Conservation Corps that besides constructing park buildings also planted thousands of trees. Since the 1980s prescribed burns and mechanical mowing have been conducted regularly on thousands of acres and the Florida dry prairie is coming back in a few places.

Florida dry prairie is endemic to central Florida but it does have some loose ties with native grasslands in the central portion of the continent. I will attempt to describe some of the similarities between the Florida dry prairie and prairie elsewhere as well as what makes a Florida dry prairie unique.

The four major grasses of a typical Midwestern tallgrass prairie – indiangrass, big and little bluestem, and switch grass – all have counterparts in a Florida dry prairie. Some of these counterparts were once considered varieties or synonyms of the grasses of the Midwestern tallgrass prairie but have since been designated as separate species. The indiangrass that is a dominant grass within some Florida dry prairies is Sorghastrum secundum or lopsided indiangrass. The golden spikelets of a plume of lopsided indiangrass are all arranged in a row on one side somewhat like a comb. Lopsided indiangrass is highly palatable to livestock and serves as a larval host to several species of skippers. Lopsided indiangrass typically reaches maturity in early October – a bit late for a grass - and after fire its regrowth response is not immediate instead peaking a few years later (Penfield, Scott. 2006. Notes on Some Characteristics of Lopsided Indiangrass Sorghastrum secundum in R.F. Noss (Ed.) Proceedings of the Florida Dry Prairie Conference. Sebring, FL. pp176-181). The 'little bluestem' of the Florida dry prairie is creeping bluestem Schizachyrium stoloniferum. Creeping bluestem looks very similar to little bluestem but has vigorous stolons - above ground horizontal stems which are probably an adaptation to periodic flooding. Big bluestem does not have an exact counterpart in a Florida dry prairie but several members of its genus - Andropogon glomeratus (bushy bluestem), Andropogon gyrans, Andropogon ternarius var. cabanisii (splitbeard bluestem) - often occupy relatively wet areas while broomsedge Andropogon virginicus is a reliable indicator of recently disturbed soil. Switch grass Panicum virgatum and several related species are also found in the Florida dry prairie.

Besides the grasses Florida dry prairie also shares some other botanic affinities with prairies elsewhere. The grasslands of the Pacific northwest are notable for their Columbia and camas lilies while the northern Great Plains have their prairie lilies - the Florida dry prairie has a showy signature lily as well. The reddish orange pine or leopard lily Lilium catesbaei is the largest North American lily. It blooms typically in September or October. Lilium catesbaei is closely related to Lilium philadelphicum which has a common name of both 'wood lily' and 'prairie lily.' Both Lilium catesbaei and Lilium philadelphicum have erect orange flowers and nectar guides with spots in roughly the same pattern. These two differ most markedly in terms of seed germination and bulb size – the pine lily has a smaller bulb probably accounting for its greater variability in blooming and incidentally the difficulty of transplanting from the wild. A Florida dry prairie in the early fall full of pine lilies and their pollinators – large swallowtails - is a fine sight indeed. Such a prairie likely has been burned regularly in the past if for no other reason than that lilies in general are fairly short plants and need sunny open areas to thrive.

Most grasslands in North America have a few goldenrods. They seldom are dominants but very late in the season they often are the only plants that are blooming and therefore have a tendency to catch the eye. At Myakka Island there are three species that a visitor to the dry prairie might encounter – wand goldenrod, pine goldenrod, and Chapman's or sweet goldenrod. Wand Goldenrod Solidago stricta as its common name implies is a very narrow plant – its short leaves press upward and inward on its stem almost as if they were glued. This plant blooms relatively early for a goldenrod and prefers very wet soil. The other two goldenrods have a more bushy aspect. Pinebarren goldenrod Solidago fistulosa is found in mesic rather than very wet soil – as its name might suggest in central Florida it is found in pine flatwoods and also wetlands and dry prairie. Chapman’s goldenrod Solidago odora var. chapmanii is more xeric and blooms later than the other two – its leaves have a strong licorice smell. The inflorescence has a pyramid shape and tends to lean to one side. Chapman's goldenrod is a fire adapted variety of the sweet goldenrod Solidago odora which in turn is found in many other prairies, savannas and old fields from Texas to New England. (Menges, Eric S. and Richard B. Root. 2004. The Life of a Fire-adapted Florida Goldenrod, Solidago odora var. chapmanii. The American Midland Naturalist 151(1):65-78. Notre Dame, IN). Chapman’s goldenrod is named after the botanist Alvan Wentworth Chapman who published the first comprehensive flora of the south shortly before the civil war.

A couple of sunflower species are occasionally encountered within Myakka Island’s dry prairies. The swamp or narrowleaf sunflower Helianthus angustifolius as its two common names might imply is both flood tolerant and has very narrow leaves in the shape of a lance (‘lanceolate’). This is the primary sunflower of the Florida dry prairie and it blooms fairly late – sometimes even into December. Actually one does not necessarily have to go to a Florida dry prairie to see it – like broomsedge it frequently shows up in a wide variety of disturbed Florida habitats including vacant lots and along the Interstate highway. The other sunflower - slender or southeastern sunflower Helianthus agrestis – is a Florida endemic and prefers wetter soil. Slender sunflower can sometimes be identified with just a quick glance at its composite flower heads - the central disc florets appear as yellow dots against a reddish background.

There are several other plants worth looking for in a visit to the Florida dry prairie that are within the same family of plants – the Asteraceae - as the goldenrods and sunflowers. One of these Asteraceae was once classified as an actual aster – the Pine barren white topped aster Oclemena reticulata formerly Aster reticulatus. This plant looks like a small white daisy and in the Florida dry prairie it is often associated with a grassland that has been recently burned. Among other members of the Asteraceae family at Myakka Island are several species of blazingstars (Liatris). The one most commonly found in the dry prairie is the shortleaf blazingstar Liatris laevigata. Most blazingstars have grasslike leaves – the leaves of the shortleaf blazingstar are not only very narrow but also very short. They are narrower and shorter than most pine needles and hug the stem of the plant. This particular blazingstar also has a relatively sparse inflorescence. Carphephorus – a genus of plants related to and looking much like Liatris – is represented by three species. Deer tongue or vanilla leaf Carphephorus odoratissimus is a fairly common fall blooming fire dependent plant in the Florida dry prairie. A variety called Carphephorus odoratissimus var. subtropicanus is endemic to south central Florida. Carphephorus odoratissimus gets its common name ‘deer tongue’ from the shape of its leaves and there is something going on chemically that is very interesting about these leaves from an evolutionary standpoint. The leaves of one variety of this species – var. odoratissimus - have a heavy concentration of coumarin – while the leaves of the Florida endemic – var. subtropicanus – do not. Coumarin has a vanilla fragrance and has been used in the past as a food and tobacco additive. It is highly toxic to many rodents while in other mammals it can act as an anticoagulant and appetite suppressant. Coumarin presumably offers some defense to plants from damage caused by herbivores. It is fascinating that a variety of this species that is largely isolated to the dry prairies and pine flatwoods of south central Florida contains very little coumarin while another variety that is found throughout the southeastern United States has a heavy concentration. Perhaps grazing has been less of a threat to the survival of plants in the grasslands of south central Florida than elsewhere.

Compared to other native grasslands within the United States the Florida dry prairie is relatively rich in orchids and there are botanical affinities here both with the Great Plains and surprisingly Africa. The African association comes from the terrestrial orchid Pteroglossaspis ecristata which in Florida grows in upland fire dependent habitats such as scrub, dry prairie and pine savanna. It has several common names – giant orchid, wild coco, spiked medusa. Its strongest botanical affinities are with the primarily African genus Eulophia - Pteroglossaspis ecristata is very similar to another Florida native orchid Eulophia alta which is widely distributed in Africa and the American tropics. Despite its common name of Giant Orchid this plant can be fairly inconspicuous – the plant overall looks somewhat like a juvenile palm while its flowers often appear as closed dull green pods at the top of a tall narrow stem.

An orchid that can be found in the Florida dry prairie as well as the Great Plains is Spiranthes vernalis. This plant has a common name of spring ladiestresses – as the name implies it blooms in the spring. Ladiestresses are terrestrial orchids found throughout the United States that have vertical rows of small usually white flowers growing around an erect spiraling stem. Another species of ladiestresses - Spiranthes praecox green vein ladiestresses – also blooms in the spring but prefers somewhat wetter soil than spring ladiestresses. The two can be quickly distinguished by their flowers – green veins in the lips of green vein ladiestresses and numerous trichomes (fine hairlike growths) in spring ladiestresses. To further confuse the matter the late fall blooming longlip ladiestresses Spiranthes longilabris on rare occasions in Florida blooms in the spring – it is distinguished from the two previously mentioned ladiestresses by have a glabrous (‘hairless’) inflorescence.

The Florida dry prairie has a couple of spring blooming species of grasspink orchids. Pale grasspink Calopogon pallidus and manyflower grasspink Calopogon multiflorus are among the most beautiful plants to be found in a Florida dry prairie rivaled perhaps only by the pine lily. The grasspinks have a single grasslike leaf growing from their base. The flowers are each about two inches across and on the manyflower grasspink as the name might suggest many are in bloom simultaneously. Grasspink flowers have untwisted ovaries which for an orchid is unusual – these flowers have a large modified petal above rather than below the reproductive parts of the flower. The top petal (labellum) is hairy and ends in an inverted triangle – hence the generic name of Calopogon or ‘beautiful beard.’ Pale grasspink has pink to white flowers while manyflower grasspink has flowers that are darker – purple or magenta – and strongly fragrant. Manyflower grasspink is the rarest plant of the Florida dry prairie and is also a component of some longleaf pine savannas of the southeastern United States where it appears most often shortly after winter burns.

Before moving on from the plants to the animals at Myakka Island I should mention that the visitor center at Myakka State Park has a small collection of pressed plants that one may view. Some of the pressed specimens have useful notes with respect to habitat and typical bloom times.

In discussing the animals of the Florida dry prairie it is probably best to start with the snakes since few alligators venture into the grasslands except perhaps during the mating season. With respect to encountering poisonous snakes the way this often works is if you keep a sharp eye on the lookout for them you will likely never see them – fail to keep a sharp eye and you are sure to step on one. The black snake that is frequently encountered during the day in the Florida dry prairie and pine flatwoods is not a water moccasin but a southern black racer Coluber constrictor priapus. This quick and quick tempered creature cuts its way through the grass and up and down any other vegetation devouring almost any small animal in its path. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake Crotalus adamanteus is out there too coiled underneath a palmetto waiting for a passing rabbit or rat but is more rare and much less seen. The eastern diamondback is the largest rattlesnake of all with enough venom in one bite to kill two or three adult humans. However based on sheer numbers the southern black racer would appear to be a more successful predator than the eastern diamondback – apparently speed and audacity are a more effective overall strategy than poison and patience.

The Florida dry prairie like many other grasslands has an animal that may be regarded as a keystone species – a species the presence of which has a stabilizing effect upon many other plants and animals in that ecosystem. In the Florida dry prairie this keystone species is not a rodent or large ungulate but surprisingly a reptile. The unassuming gopher tortoise Gopherus polyphemus is the keystone species of the Florida dry prairie and several other sandy upland habitats in the southeast United States. It achieves this distinction not by being a tender morsel in the food chain as mature gopher tortoises suffer little predation. Rather the first part of its common name – gopher – hints at why this reptile is a keystone species. Like a gopher this tortoise is an effective burrower of soil serving the needs of many other animals in a frequently fire ravaged landscape.

Other species of tortoises throughout the world dig into the soil. Their burrows are usually not much more than a body length. The gopher tortoise digs especially long and deep burrows, it usually digs many burrows within its home range and these burrows are relatively large. Of the three other species within the genus Gopherus only the Bolson tortoise Gopherus flavomarginatus of Mexico digs such deep burrows and it is also the most closely related to the gopher tortoise genetically (Lamb, T. and C. Lydeard. 1994. A molecular phylogeny of the gopher tortoises, with comments on familial relationships within the Testudinidae. Molecular Phylogenics and Evolution 3:283-291). Several other animals in central Florida dig burrows – armadillos Dasypus novemcinctus and pocket gophers Geomys pinetis in particular – but none do so to the size, depth and sheer volume of the gopher tortoise.

Anatomically the gopher tortoise has large flipper like front legs shaped similar to those of a sea tortoise and rear legs like those of an elephant. The front legs serve three functions – walking, digging and protecting the tortoise’s head when retracted into its shell. The lower potion of the front legs are broad with large claws and rough scales, the joint is narrow and highly flexible while the upper leg is thick and muscular. When the tortoise moves forward the front legs bend at a vertical right angle parallel to the tortoise’s head while the claws serves as a set of toes. When digging and at rest the front legs bend horizontal to the ground. The tortoise can also pull its head entirely into its shell and retract its front limbs such that only the lower scaly portions are exposed. The rear legs are thick and powerful helping to propel the tortoise into the sandy soil as it digs. They are also used by female tortoises to bury eggs.

The front limbs of the gopher tortoise may be a marvel of evolution and biomechanical engineering but this arrangement has a serious shortcoming – the gopher tortoise is an animal that is destined to always have a relatively small head. When those large front limbs are fully retracted into the shell there is not much room for anything else. Besides the obvious implication of a miniscule brain this also presents another problem – the gopher tortoise is primarily an herbivore and there is not much space in its head for a mouth and set of teeth that are efficient at chewing plants. In fact there are no teeth at all – just a beak and a hardened rim along the edge of the mouth – sufficient for cutting plant matter but not chewing it. Much of the more coarse plant material goes through the tortoise’s digestive tract relatively intact – thus the gopher tortoise as an inefficient herbivore is an unintentional disperser of small hard seeds. The short stature, low metabolism and limited chewing capacity of the gopher tortoise leave it in an ecological niche – an herbivore that specializes in plants that more highly evolved mammals might pass up. A gopher tortoise can readily thrive on the short scraggly wiregrass that would scarcely feed a cow and its small head and tough beak allow it to eat the pads of prickly pear cactus.

The burrow of a gopher tortoise typically has a half moon shape. Both the underground tunnel itself and the excavated material – called an ‘apron’ - at the entrance harbor a large group of animals that at some stage in their lives make the gopher tortoise’s home their home. During a fire or hurricane the gopher tortoise may become a temporary associate of almost any other creature that can fit inside a gopher tortoise burrow. Such circumstances of course are unusual. There is also a group of animals that can be described as having an ongoing commensal association with the gopher tortoise - an ecological association which is beneficial to themselves and benign to the gopher tortoise. Within this group of commensals there is a subset of animals that are also obligates – species that are almost exclusively associated with the gopher tortoise.

Perhaps the one occupant of a gopher tortoise burrow that may not be entirely a welcomed guest is the eastern indigo snake Drymarchon corais couperi. The deep dark blue eastern indigo is neither venomous nor a constrictor. It simply is a large muscular snake - the longest in North America. An adult eastern indigo is at the top of the food chain in this environment and is quite capable of consuming juvenile gopher tortoises. The eastern indigo also preys on the eastern diamondback which makes use of the same tortoise burrows. The eastern indigo is not necessarily an obligate of the gopher tortoise – they can sometimes find refuge underneath logs and stumps – but a large gopher tortoise burrow meets its requirements quite nicely. This snake does not hibernate and like the southern black racer may be seen on warm winter days hunting for prey.

Another seasonal occupant of gopher tortoise burrows is a frog that looks like a toad. The gopher frog Rana capito has spots like a leopard frog but otherwise has the buff coloration and warty skin of most toads. The ephemeral ponds of the Florida dry prairie provide ideal habitat for gopher frogs to breed in as permanent bodies of water often harbor predatory fish. Gopher frogs are fairly long lived for an amphibian and typically spend spring in breeding ponds, the dry part of the summer in burrows and then return to the ponds in the fall. One study of gopher frogs strongly suggests that they return to the same burrow each year (Franz, Richard. 1986. The Florida Gopher Frog and the Florida Pine Snake as Burrow Associates of the Gopher Tortoise in Northern Florida. Pp. 16-20 in D.R. Jackson and R.J. Bryant (eds.). The Gopher Tortoise and its Community. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Meeting of the Gopher Tortoise Council, Florida State Museum, Gainesville). The gopher tortoise is the keystone species of the Florida dry prairie but not necessarily an indicator species – that is, a plant or animal that can partially define a condition or habitat. Among Florida habitats the gopher tortoise and its associates are found in dry prairie, pine flatwoods and upland scrub. The dry prairie perhaps provides more food while a pine flatwoods more cover which a young tortoise in particular might find more hospitable. Better indicator species of Florida dry prairie are two species of birds - the crested or northern caracara and the Florida grasshopper sparrow - that within Florida are found primarily within this habitat. A third avian species, the burrowing owl, like the gopher tortoise can be abundant here but also found elsewhere.

The Florida grasshopper sparrow Ammodramus savannarum floridanus is found exclusively in Florida dry prairie but not at Myakka Island. The habitat at Myakka Island would seem to be very favorable to this bird’s requirements, however the Florida dry prairie at Myakka Island was allowed to degrade to a much greater extent than that in east central Florida which was owned primarily by the military or large cattle ranches. Myakka State Park has a management plan goal to ‘continue to research the suitability’ of introducing the Florida grasshopper sparrow. Since the Florida grasshopper sparrow is an indicator species of Florida dry prairie lets take a look at it in more detail as well as grasshopper sparrows in general.

The Florida grasshopper sparrow is a subspecies of a grassland bird that is found throughout much of the United State and into southern Canada, indeed the species as a whole may very well be the most widely distributed animal of North American grasslands. Grasshopper sparrows are difficult to differentiate from a multitude of other little brown birds, and as they spend much of their lives hidden within grass the matter becomes even more difficult. To illustrate exactly how difficult one need look no further than the example of John James Audubon who in his Birds of America described the grasshopper sparrow as primarily a bird of freshly ploughed fields and sandy treeless areas along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and was puzzled by its seeming absence in the interior of the continent. Since Audubon’s time this species has had but one scientific name Ammodramus savannarum but its common name has changed from yellow-winged bunting to grasshopper sparrow and several subspecies identified. When looking for a grasshopper sparrow it helps to keep one guiding principle in mind – among little brown birds the grasshopper sparrow is just about the smallest and most drab of them all with probably the least impressive song. If a little brown bird has any markings on its chest or sings a melodious song or even chirps it likely is not an adult grasshopper sparrow. Grasshopper sparrows are plain breasted and buzz. Their older name, yellow-winged bunting, provides another aid in identification. The bend of their wings sometimes has a faint patch of yellow, and these wings are as Audubon so aptly described in a ‘constant tremor.’ Grasshopper sparrows also have fairly flat heads with a central white streak. Now to thoroughly confuse the matter: juvenile grasshopper sparrows look like adult Henslow’s sparrows and vice versa, or in the immortal words of Roger Tory Peterson ‘Something surely went amiss here.’ (Peterson, Roger Tory. 1934. A Field Guide to the Birds. Cambridge: Riverside Press. p144). If you have not already made the acquaintance of the grasshopper sparrow, it has been my pleasure to introduce you to a little bird that has made fools of many famous birdwatchers.

Grasshopper sparrows usually breed in small colonies but feed or migrate individually. They forage on the ground in open areas for seeds in the winter and insects in the summer, and tend to be most active early in the morning. Most grasshopper sparrows are migratory and breed in the north. A grasshopper sparrow nest is typically concealed in a hollow at the base of a clump of grass, partially closed at the top and to quote from Audubon once again is ‘as simple as its owner is gentle.’ If one attempt to nest is unsuccessful they often make a second attempt later in the breeding season – it is not clear however that grasshopper sparrows successfully nest twice each year as a general rule. Florida grasshopper sparrows are somewhat different in this respect – they often breed in the spring, survive the fires and floods of summer and then breed again. Florida grasshopper sparrows are clearly associated with Florida dry prairie that has been burned in the summer perhaps because there is a subsequent burst of plant and insect life.

The Florida dry prairie and pine flatwoods grade together gently with respect to their plants and animals – Florida grasshopper sparrows are the exception that proves the rule. Florida grasshopper sparrows are found only in Florida dry prairie and if even a few pine trees are present they are absent. This may be because pine trees offer convenient perches for avian predators, particularly raptors whose numbers in central Florida can increase considerably in the winter. The loggerhead shrike Lanius ludovicianus is also a known and highly efficient predator of Florida grasshopper sparrows, capable of giving chase through thick grass. Florida has a small resident and much larger migrant population of loggerhead shrikes. Shrikes scan for prey from perches and also need thorny vegetation or barbed wire fences nearby to impale their victims. They are less likely to be found in large treeless grasslands. (Pranty, Bill. 2000. Three Sources of Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Mortality. Florida Field Naturalist 28(1):27-29).

Another rare bird of the Florida dry prairie actually prefers open grasslands with a few trees. The crested or northern caracara Caracara cheriway is a member of the falcon family that feeds like a vulture and has also been called an eagle. John James Audubon while on an outing from St Augustine in 1831 caught a glimpse of a caracara among a group of vultures devouring a horse carcass. He described the caracara’s flight as akin to that of a graceful buzzard, and lamented how quickly the brighter portions of the plumage, yellow skin and red cere of a shot specimen faded. Audubon referred to the caracara as the Brazilian eagle and it is sometimes called the Mexican eagle as well. As an aside, the bird on the Mexican coat-of-arms that is depicted sitting on a cactus and holding a rattlesnake is not such a Mexican eagle but officially a golden eagle. The northern caracara with its red and yellow coloration closely matches the eagle and protector of the sun cuauhtli depicted on many Aztec artifacts, but the eagle in some codices written shortly after the conquest looks less like a caracara than a golden eagle. The latter corresponds more closely to the Hapsburg eagle of the Spanish kings and is perhaps a more heroic looking bird. (Gonzalez-Block, Miguel A. 2004. EL IZTACCUHTLI Y EL ÁGUILA MEXICANA ¿CUAUHTI O ÁGUILA REAL? Arqueología Mexicana XII: 70, pp. 60–65). In any case the northern caracara, a bird with a Brazilian name that may also be the inspiration for the symbol of Mexico, can often be seen from the Florida Turnpike which many Brazilian and Mexican tourists take on their way from Miami to Disney World.

The Florida population of the caracara is isolated from other members of its genus. For over a hundred years it was regarded as a subspecies – Audubon’s caracara Polyborus cheriway audubonii - of a bird widely distributed in desert and open savanna habitat from Patagonia in South America up through the southern third of North America. In 1999 a study that examined caracara specimens from throughout the Americas determined that this bird should be taxonomically split into northern and southern species with an overlapping range along the Amazon. Some of the reasoning behind this was that northern and southern caracara are visually distinct and that where their ranges overlap there is no gradation among specimens with all birds clearly belonging to one or the other group. Northern caracaras tend to be darker along with some differences in barring. The relatively smallest birds of both of these caracara species are from the Amazon. The largest of the southern species are to be found in Patagonia while the largest of the northern are the isolated group in Florida. The latter are no longer considered a valid subspecies. (Dove, Carla J. & Banks, Richard C. 1999. A Taxonomic Study of Crested Caracaras (Falconidae). Wilson Bulletin 111(3): 330-339).

The population of the northern caracara in Florida is usually cited as several hundred. They breed in the winter which perhaps explains why their range does not extend farther north. Northern caracara nests are fairly large affairs built of sticks and often constructed in cabbage palms. They are occasionally seen within the vicinity of Myakka State Park but do not breed here, and are now more rare than in the mid-20th century (Sprunt, A., Jr. 1954. Audubon’s caracara. Florida Naturalist 27:99-101, 119).

Likewise, the Florida burrowing owl Athene cunicularia floridana may still be spotted occasionally at Myakka Island but is much less common than it was prior to the fire suppression policies at the state park in the mid-20th century. Burrowing owls in the western United States are often associated with prairie dog towns and short grass prairie. The non-migrating Florida subspecies can be found in Florida dry prairie that has been heavily grazed such as at Kissimmee Prairie or Three Lakes WMA. Surprisingly Florida burrowing owls are thriving on some relatively bare land at Florida Atlantic University where they are the official team mascot, and at Cape Coral where the boom-and-bust real estate cycle has often left large housing tracts stripped of most vegetation but indefinitely awaiting construction of any actual buildings.

Thus it is that of the three birds that are often associated with Florida dry prairie in the cattle country of central Florida only two are found at Myakka Island. These two – the northern caracara and burrowing owl – were once common at Myakka Island but are now comparatively rare despite large areas of what would seem to be good habitat. The Florida grasshopper sparrow requires treeless habitat with some open areas to feed in and taller grasses for cover, the northern caracara needs dry prairie with some trees nearby to nest in while the burrowing owl prefers dry prairie with shorter grass and holes in it such as a gopher tortoise might dig. All of this grassland habitat is now here but few of these grassland birds.

The pleasures of the Florida dry prairie may be sampled from several trails on the east side of Myakka State Park as well as from a much longer trail that connects the St Martins Gate trailhead east of the state park with the Crowley Reserve about ten miles to the south. The most direct access to the dry prairie within the state park is from the Powerline Road which is two miles north of the park entrance. From here walk or ride a bicycle east about two miles to reach a trail intersection. The Pine Level Road going south to State Road 72 passes through a patchwork of dry prairie that is burned or chopped at different times of the year and at different intervals. To the north the road goes through about a half mile of dry prairie until it reaches an area of pine flatwoods known as Bee Island that is noted for its gopher tortoises and pine lilies. Continuing east on Powerline Road from the Pine Level Road intersection in about a mile and a half a trail breaks off to the northeast corner of the park that is worthwhile taking for those seeking a glimpse of grasspinks.

The eleven and a half mile long Myakka Island Wilderness Trail – officially dedicated in late 2005 - connects St Martins Gate in the Myakka Prairie with the Carlton Reserve. The trail is multiple use and is slowly being discovered by trail bike users. Access to the backcountry of the Crowley Reserve requires a free backcountry permit from the Sarasota County Parks and Recreation Department while users of the trail in Myakka Prairie must register with the state park. Camping and restrooms are not available on the trail nor are pets permitted. The latter rule is easy enough to ignore since you are not likely to encounter any other people on the trail, but there is a very good reason to take heed. Besides the fairly low risk presented by poisonous snakes and alligators there are numerous aggressive feral pigs particularly in the middle section of the trail that would make short work of most family pets. Finally, another consideration in preparing for this trail is the simple fact that the entire area is often flooded and there is no where to sit down. Plan to eat, drink and rest in the hot sun standing up here.

Despite these inconveniences the Myakka Island Wilderness Trail is well worth taking. The dilemma in hiking it is that the plant life is probably the richest in early fall when the trail is likely to still be flooded from summer rains. The dry prairie is probably in the best shape along the northern third of the trail – this is where you are most likely to catch a glimpse of the elusive Bachman’s sparrow or even the northern caracara. Binoculars are essential when attempting to identify these birds, be careful not to step on that diamondback while doing so. Farther south along the trail Point 22 has a nice prairie right before the transition to pine flatwoods. Once you reach the Carlton Reserve wet prairie and pines become more common and there is often an impressive assemblage of wading birds which reaches a peak in the drier winter months.

This concludes this description of the Florida dry prairie of Myakka Island, and as tedious as this overview might seem I have actually left out a number of interesting plants and animals. The Florida dry prairie here shares much with grasslands found elsewhere on the continent but differs in three very important respects. First, prior to the introduction of cattle and pigs in the 1500s the grasslands here faced little grazing pressure or disturbance from large mammals. Second, many North American grasslands have some kind of burrowing rodent, that ecological role in the Florida dry prairie is played by the gopher tortoise that compared to most rodents reproduces slowly and has much less effect on surrounding vegetation. Finally, the Florida dry prairie has a distinct annual cycle of dry winters followed by late springs with lightning induced fires and then heavy rains and flooding. The plants and animals of the Florida dry prairie are adapted to this cycle and in some cases to the point that they have taxonomically been split off as new species based on these adaptations. Understanding this cycle is a key to understanding the Florida dry prairie, a bit of Florida beyond the beach that is seldom visited but much appreciated by those who do.