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    A deer on the road at Fort Clinch State Park. Photo by Pat Foster-Turley/For the News-Leader

A drive through Fort Clinch State Park

It is not often that you have just the right timing to see the best local shows of nature. Bucko and I drive through Fort Clinch State Park nearly every day and most of the time we only get rare glimpses of wildlife, if any at all.

Sure, there are always the live oak trees that canopy over the main road and are draped with grey Spanish moss. And we always notice the condition of the resurrection ferns on the branches. Is it all brown and shriveled up, meaning no rain here for a while, or is it all soft and spread out and green? Yep, it rained recently in this spot on the island even if not where our home is, only a few miles south.

We always look for our favorite, unusual sites – sort of touchstones for us: the cactus plant up high on an oak limb; the twisted pine tree; the “elephant tree” as we call it, because of the texture of its bark; the spot where the “twin pines” used to be before a hurricane demolished them. After all these years, we have many old familiars that we see every day with fondness.

And we always look for turtles, snakes, or whatever else might be on the road, usually finding nothing, but once in a while we see a pond turtle or a snake making a road crossing. Sometimes there are deer passing by – does, bucks, fawns, the whole works. But really not so often. These drives are mostly a chance for us to talk about our day, our tomorrows, and our past. It’s our favorite time together, these drives through nature.

One recent drive pulled it all together. It was sunny after a spell of rain and the creatures were out and about. Right away we saw a doe on the road, just standing there. Soon we saw why. A young, fully spotted fawn eventually came out of the woods and joined her, and then they crossed the road together. A beautiful sight, the doe and fawn.

A little further down the road, another of the Fort Clinch nature shows was happening live. In the sandy area marked off by posts, heading toward the beach, the gopher tortoises were on the prowl. This area contains a handful of gopher tortoise burrows, deep holes marked by a dome-shaped (tortoise-shaped) entrance. The casual passerby would never even notice the burrows unless they were told about them. We know about the burrows, and always look for tortoises when we pass this area. Most often when we pass this area, the tortoises are hidden, either deep in their burrows or rummaging in the vegetation out of sight somewhere. Not today, though. Two different tortoises were out and about, enjoying the sunshine after the rain and munching on vines growing across the sand. Another great sighting, just a few minutes after the deer.

This day the summer wild flowers were at their peak too. Orange and yellow gaillardia were blooming in the sand at the beach side of the park. White and pale-purplish wood sage flowers were dressing up the side of the road near the woods. Up high in the trees, trumpet vines stood out amidst the Spanish moss.

At the end of our drive around the park we noticed butterflies on the purple ironweed flowers. These tall, native plants are said to be a butterfly magnet. I even bought some and planted them in my yard for this reason, before discovering that, when not blooming, they look like giant unruly, rangy weeds that block out everything else in front of them. Sadly, I eventually removed them. Right plant, wrong location. But in Fort Clinch State Park, it’s the right place. They are now visible along the main road near the lighthouse overlook parking lot. They are everywhere in Nassau County now, in full bloom; tall as they are, true to their reputation, they are attracting butterflies. So at the end of our ride through the park, we stopped to admire the butterflies and the ironweed.

On this day, in only a 20-minute drive through Fort Clinch State Park we admired deer and gopher tortoises, wild flowers and butterflies. And once again, we thought how blessed we are to call this place home.

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