by Alice Mary Herden
As we get older, the length of how far one can hike and carry a backpack full with several lenses, cameras, essentials, and a tripod tends to get more complicated. I do like to seek out places where I can drive through the forest, but again that has its limits. I see these incredible dirt roads with so much potential for nature photography just begging for me to explore, but I look down at the steering wheel of my Hyundai Accent, sigh… it’s not going to happen.
The Withlacoochee State Forest is rich in natural communities with over 72,000 acres of sandhill habitat, 35,000 acres of mesic flatwoods, including 17,000 acres of basin swamps. That diversity connects Hernando, Pasco, Sumter, and Lake counties to Richloam WMA (Wildlife Management Area).
Richloam has quite a historical past, but its abundance of wildlife and vast habitats is another dream place for nature photographers.
The first time I visited Richloam was a year ago for an article I was working on about the Bass Conservation Center. My curiosity persuaded me to ventured beyond the gate and entered a whole new world of exploration.
The diversity of Richloam’s landscape opened a new scavenger hunt for different species of insects and wildflowers, and to tell you the truth, the bonus was a bridge.
Scuffed up and driven upon thousands of times showed its true grit. It was a stopping point, for me at least, to reflect on nature and its peacefulness.
I was peeking over the thick beams into the Little Withlacoochee River as I awaited to spot any evidence of movement from Florida’s largest reptile, the American Alligator. It wasn’t until the second time I visited the bridge I was graced by not only one but three gators.
Even though these alligators don’t seem very sociable, they do have plenty of company and passing visitors. A pair of Black-crowned Night Herons, Great Blue Herons, Wood Storks, Great Egrets, Florida Watersnakes, quite a few Florida Red-bellied Cooters as well as a flock of Ibis preening high atop in the Cypress canopy.
But underneath and beyond that bridge, there are hundreds of stories nature can tell, and some are not as pleasant. Crested between two tree limbs is a bird. What species of bird is undetermined. The sadness I felt, the hurt, and the thoughts of how long that bird suffered was devastating. I wondered why anyone couldn’t see this bird struggling. There are fishing lines wrapped in branches and trash floating on top of the water. This peaceful solitaire turned into a photographer’s nightmare.
At certain times, you learn to push down all the disappointment, the disbelief, and yes, even the anger as a way to make it past everything you are seeing. I closed my eyes in sadness with my head held down and walked back to the car, but not after taking a last glance of the bird. As my heart sunk even deeper into my chest, my eyes watered up as I whispered, ‘I am so sorry. May you fly free forever.’
I realize each time I cross this bridge, it is an awakening. I know that nature is very forgiving but also unforgiving. The circle of life doesn’t always mean nature’s way of survival, it may even relate to karma and it can reflect at any time and anywhere.
Years of photographing nature, you start learning the variety of habitats but where different plant species grow.
You begin to ask yourself, why does this wildflower grow here but not there? The habitat is the same, or is it? What makes it different? Well, it could be several ecological factors and that I will learn more about in the future.
Just beyond the bridge, there was a field, a beautiful meadow filled with Yellow Milkwort. You can see hundreds of these yellow dressage stems scatter about. I have only seen a few wildflowers displayed like this. Sunflowers or Black-eyed Susans can create a unique patchwork arrangement like this, but never have I seen this with Yellow Milkworts.
It was such a pleasant surprise, and undoubtedly nature was showcasing what it does best.
Wherever you stand, near the edge, or venture out into the middle of the field, it’s a feeling that connects you. A feeling that right now at this moment, it’s your own personal connection with nature.
As I continue driving on these limestone roads, I begin to see many creative and photographic opportunities. Going back to why this plant grows here and not there, widens your explorations to seek different locations and gather new stories. I have yet to touch the surface of exploring Richloam WMA and its thousands of plants and wildlife species, but each time I do visit, nature always has a surprise.
If you do visit Richloam WMA, take the time to stop by the Bass Conservation Center. This is an excellent resource for those that want to learn more about fish and fishing. Don’t forget to bring your fishing pole, there are two locations where you can toss a line in.
There are many roads and trails in Richloam WMA. Photographers, plan your trip ahead of time. Search on Google map for Bass Conservation Center, and you will be able to plan your drive trip along North Grande Road. Another good idea is to have your location map visible on your cell phone, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a printed version as well.
Don’t forget to take a moment to check the hunting dates: https://myfwc.com/recreation/cooperative/richloam/