After having just about finished up six months of intensive field work for my Master’s Thesis, a bit of a description of where I actually did my work is in order: not only because it was (and is) an excellent place to conduct research, it too is a great place for the recreational herper, birder, hiker, biker and just about everyone else who likes the outdoors to get out and experience some of the most interesting habitat southern Florida has to offer. This place is none other than Jonathan Dickinson State Park, nestled between Hobe Sound and Jupiter in Palm Beach and Martin Counties.
First off, let me be frank: if you’re a herper who’s looking for a place that will be like Everglades National Park with 20-snake days and such, Jonathan Dickinson (JDSP) will probably be a little bit of a disappointment to you. It’s a great place, but it takes a little sophistication (or diverse interests) to truly appreciate. You might now find too many big Mudsnakes crawling around, or Florida Kingsnakes or anything of that sort but what you will see will be wondrous nonetheless. Primarily I’m speaking of the habitat diversity in JDSP: scrub, flatwoods, sandhills, wetlands, mangrove swamp, cypress swamp, the mighty Loxahatchee River all knit together in a way perhaps unrepeated in all of the world. It is here, in fact, that one can be walking through the scrub with all the cacti, sand and palmetto it entails and end up right in the middle of a mangrove swamp. Or be walking through the flatwoods only to have it give way to ground littered with sundew and beyond it a sphagnum-filled bog. (The first time I had this experience, I nearly thought I’d been transported to a boreal forest!)
But don’t get me wrong: JDSP has an impressive array of species, especially in the Amphibian department. It’s true: despite the fact that it’s relatively dry when compared to the Everglades, one can find a wide variety of frogs and toads. Barking Treefrogs (Hyla gratiosa) and Pinewoods Treefrogs (Hyla femoralis) deafen summer nights in the scrub, only to have their watch be taken over by Gopher Frogs (Rana capito )in the fall and winter. Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus) are not uncommon for some (I went 5 months before I saw one, but the rangers insist they’re the 3rd most common snake after racers and coachwhips). And if you’re really lucky, you might see one of the parks resident Eastern Indigo Snakes (Drymarchon couperi). Birds aren’t absent either: there are a good number of Bald Eagles and Pileated Woodpeckers, and some of the small wetlands in the scrub keep gaggles of Hooded Mergansers.
In JDSP, I recommend a hike along the west side of the railroad tracks and south through the park. That will bring you through some of the most scenic sandhills and eventually along a number of temporary ponds and wetlands: frog breeding hotspots when filled with water, and also a good place for some bird life. Towards the western end of JDSP is a vast expanse of pine flatwoods habitat – homeland of many an Eastern Diamondback – with a great number of sandy paths crisscrossing across the landscape, the Kitching Creek Trail in specific is a lovely one. There’s also ample opportunity to kayak in the Loxahatchee River, and there’s a splendid mix of fresh and salt water fish and other critters afoot between its banks.
One thing that can ruin a park experience, though, is an unfriendly park staff. You wont be having this problem at JDSP: all the staff is extremely helpful and knowledgeable about the area. Most important to my needs: they are very supportive of wildlife research within their borders and were a great deal of help as I conducted mine; believe it or not, this isn’t always the case with natural areas, so I was quite thankful for this. So the next time you need a good day of experiencing the awe of nature to clear your mind, strap on a pair of boots and hit this local gem.