Lakeland Highlands Scrub Preserve
Located in the southern region of Lakeland, the Lakeland Highlands Scrub stands as one of the few remaining undeveloped scrub habitats within the Lakeland Ridge. Similar to the Lake Wales Ridge, this ridge was created through the accumulation of sand during periods of changing sea levels millions of years ago when most of Florida was submerged in water. Today, these ridges exist as sandy islands confined by land, in contrast to their state 25 million years ago when they were surrounded by water.
This property showcases various natural communities, such as xeric hammock, scrubs, and scrubby flatwoods. As you venture into the preserve through the Shady Oak trail, you’ll notice an oak scrub characterized by the presence of highly contorted oak trees, indicating the effects of drought stress. The trail offers a wide, unobstructed path, largely devoid of vegetation because of the ample shade cast by the oak trees. In this environment, you can encounter various amphibians, such as the oak toad and the pinewood treefrog, as well as reptiles, including the yellow rat snake and the tiny ground skink. Decomposing trees offer plentiful habitat for insects and fungi to thrive, with a rapid colonization, especially following periods of rain. Additionally, you can spot Saw Palmettos, American Beautyberry, and Muscadine grapes distributed across the region.
As you reach the end of the Shady Oak trail, you’ll encounter the Lichen Loop trail, an area predominantly characterized by dwarf live oaks, sand live oaks, and Chapman oaks, with the ground adorned by an abundance of mosses and lichens. This environment provides an excellent opportunity to observe some of the common year-round birds, such as the Carolina Wren, White-eyed vireo, Northern mockingbird, and Northern Cardinal. Later in the autumn, you’ll also witness the presence of migratory species like the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black & White warbler, Eastern Phoebe and Gray Catbird.
To the west, a boardwalk extends through an ephemeral wetland, a very important water source for wildlife. These wetlands are vital breeding grounds for both insects and amphibians. Larval stages of damselflies and dragonflies, as well as frog tadpoles, rely on the presence of water free from predators to complete their journey to adulthood. If the hydroperiod, or the duration of water presence, persists for a long time, numerous water plants that had remained dormant in the dry substrate will start growing again. Throughout the year, you’ll come across common plant species like Spatterdock, Carolina Redroot, and water lilies thriving in the marsh, while seasonal plants like the Smooth Beggarticks beautify the marsh during the autumn season.
During the wet season, a variety of reptiles are drawn to the pond. You may come across Florida Red-bellied Turtles, Banded Watersnakes, and even alligators in the marsh when conditions are favorable. Additionally, several mammal species are attracted to the pond, including White-tailed Deer, Common Raccoons, Virginia Opossums, and occasionally, Bobcats. In the vicinity of the wetland, you can find amphibians such as the American Bullfrog, Leopard frog, Cricket Frog, Green treefrog, and the Little grass frog.
The boardwalk marks the beginning of the Tortoise Loop Trail, which leads you through open scrubland dominated by oaks, palmettos, grasses, and goldenrods. The terrain features open sandy patches where various species of flowering plants, many of which are unique to Central Florida Scrub, can be observed. This area is favored by reptiles like the Six-line Racerunner, Eastern Fence Lizard, and the Gopher Tortoise, which is perhaps the most iconic reptile species in the scrub. As a keystone species, the Gopher Tortoise, with its extensive burrow system, provides habitat for nearly 300 other animal species. Snakes like the Eastern Rattlesnake and the Coachwhip seek refuge in the burrows created by the Gopher Tortoise.
The Gopher Tortoise primarily feeds on a variety of plants, including the pads and fruits of the Prickly Pear Cactus. Along the trail, you’ll encounter numerous flowering plants, including the yellow blossoms of the Sandhill St. John’s-Wort, Coastal Plain Honeycombhead, and Slender Goldentop, interspersed with Shortleaf Gayfeathers and Blazing-Stars. These flowers attract various nectar-feeding insects, including several species of bees and butterflies. Predatory insects and arachnids can be observed in many of these flowering plants. Keep an eye out for Green Lynx, Jumping, and Crab Spiders within the yellow blooms. The preserve is home to over 20 species of spiders. Praying mantises can also be found, along with a variety of dragonflies.Similar to most scrub habitats, mammals are typically elusive during daylight hours, as they tend to conduct the majority of their foraging activities during the cooler nighttime hours. However, if you’re patient and observant, you can spot a wide array of other creatures that inhabit the Lakeland Highlands Scrub during the day by paying attention to the smaller details.