Wet Prairie Trail – Tarkiln Bayou State Park, Pensacola, FL

The photographer had an element of anxiety in her voice when I told her that we were hiking the Wet Prairie Trail on this late November visit to the Florida Panhandle. She knows that I am a sucker for the term “Prairie” and feared that I did not do my due diligence on the “Wet” part of the name. She is not a swamp tromper.

I reassured her that we were not in the rainy season and that the Panhandle had been relatively dry for the past 2 weeks.

The trailhead was across State Route 293 from the parking area. For a brief time, getting to it was reminiscent of the video game Frogger.

Once on the trail I found myself in the Long Leaf Pine and grassland ecosystem that I thoroughly enjoy. The pines, with their tall straight boles, 12-18 inch needles, and pine cones that are up to 12 inches in length, are like no other keystone tree species to me. The entire ecosystem is dependent on their health, and therefore, environmental groups and government agencies have emphasized reforestation with them, to benefit many other species in the region.

The trail itself was a widely mown grass path. Interestingly, the edge of the trail had been recently plowed in an apparent attempt to narrow the trail and to allow some native plants to populate the margin.

In the understory of the pines were other staples of the ecosystem: Southern Magnolia, Sweet Bay Magnolia, Yaupon Holly, and Palmetto.

Although we were several miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Sand Live Oak, a denizen of barrier islands and the immediate coastal dunes, was in abundance. Its thickened leaves with curved edges, and dense habit, help to prevent desiccation caused by the salt laden breezes experienced on the shoreline.

One of the more colorful trees we saw were the Red Maples, which are seen in wetlands from New England to the Gulf Coast. Here they were in prime leaf color change, one month later than they are in our home region of the Ohio River Valley.

This particular trail is known to be a birding hot spot and we certainly saw birds darting through the canopy, and challenging the photographer to get a good image in low lying November sun. This is an oval loop trail and we did eventually turn and have our backs to the sun. This gave us better light to see a group of yellow birds bouncing amongst pine branches about 30 feet above us. Suddenly we noted that they were harvesting seeds from the pine cones, which can be seen in the third photo below. At the time we thought that they were all the same species but study of the photos appear to show both Yellow-throated Vireos and Pine Warbler hybrids.

Our daughter Ellen was with us on this pre-Thanksgiving outing, and true to form, her younger eyes noted some extremely small frogs in amongst the grasses and forbs that made up the trail. The first was a Southern Chorus Frog, pictured here on the pad of my third finger.

The other was just slightly larger, a Florida Cricket Frog, identifiable by the triangular mark between its eyes. Adults range from 3/4 to 1 and 1/4 inches in length.

And while we did not come across any significant standing water, the fact that this is a wetland was clear when we found large grouping of the carnivorous White Pitcher Plant. As I stepped off the trail to get a closer look, and to see if there were any companion Sundew plants, another carnivorous species, I felt my boots sinking into the sodden turf.

I was particularly impressed with the ingenuity of the small spider who placed his web at the opening of this Pitcher Plant, using the plant’s sweet smelling nectar to attract insects to his web.

When we were hiking the nearby Tarkiln Bayou Trail in April we saw the large mauve flowers of the Pitcher Plant. This time we were able to see the seed heads. I broke one open to reveal the intricately packed capsule, appearing to hold hundreds of seeds.

Later in the hike we did find some carnivorous Dwarf Sundews nestled in amongst the grasses of the trail. Although these were smaller, I did not realize at the time that these were a different species than the Pink Sundews we had seen last April on the Tarkiln Bayou Trail. The Dwarf Sundews generally measure less than an inch and a half in diameter, while the Pink Sundews are 2 to 3 inches wide. The leaves are also shaped slightly differently with the Dwarf having a wedge shaped leaf when you include the stem, while the Pink has a paddle shaped leaf. The first photo is the Dwarf Sundew and the second is a Pink Sundew from last April’s hike.

The “dew” droplets on the leaves are sticky and entrap insects. Enzymes in the dew then digest the insects providing nutrition to the plant.

Though it was late November, the Panhandle still had some wildflowers on display:

Narrowleaf Silkgrass – this plant had many uses in folk medicine including fever control, as a cough and cold medicine, and in childbirth.

Simmonds Aster – which flowers from October through January.

Shortleaf Rosegentian – a common inhabitant of pine wetlands.

Other color on the trail was provided by the seasonal berries.

Gallberry – a member of the Holly family. Its berries are an important food source for birds.

Yaupon Holly – native to the coastal plains from Virginia to Texas, it is a popular landscape plant. Like other hollies, these are dioecious plants (have male and female flowers on separate plants). Only the females have berries, and for that reason nursery propagation is by cuttings from established female plants, ensuring that all those sold will have winter color.

Sarsaparilla Vine – its root was used to make a rootbeer like beverage. Both birds and mammals eat the berries.

The other interesting wildlife that we saw were some “lowly” insects, but when studied up close they are fascinating.

Two Striped Grasshopper – I love the symmetry of his coloration which can very from yellow to green to brown.

Buckeye Butterfly – the eye spots make this one of the most distinctive butterflies.

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly – common across the Southeastern U.S. They generally migrate to the Florida peninsula for the winter.

Globe Wanderer Dragonfly – This is the most globally widespread dragonfly, occurring on all continents except Antartica. It is also the most migratory, with individuals known to have traveled over 3,000 miles.

As we approached the end of the loop and neared the trailhead we spotted this hawk perched in a tree, about 30 feet off the ground.

When suddenly it dove to the floor.

Heavy understory prevented us from being certain what he was after. But a few minutes later I thought I saw him flying low with what appeared to be a snake.

New Plant of the Day – Feather-stem Clubmoss. This wetland plant is a fern allele, meaning that like ferns, it reproduces with spores rather than seeds. And yes, it was as soft as a feather. These spikes were about 12 inches in length.

In summary, the Wet Prairie Trail is a nice walk through a healthy Long Leaf Pine wetland habitat. It is teaming with wildlife but it is important to slow down to find it. For that reason, I think that this is certainly one trail that would benefit from some well placed benches. I would love to revisit in the summer when it is in peak flower. I suspect that the wet soils offer up some plants that we don’t typically associated with prairies.

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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.


Location – 2401 Bauer Rd, Pensacola, FL 32506

Parking – large gravel lot for 20 cars services all three park trails. The Wet Prairie Trail is across the road from the parking lot.

Facilities – modern outhouse at parking lot.

Trail Conditions – 2 mile mowed grass pathway with minimal puddles at this time year.

Benches – none.

Kids – should do well here. There is minimal elevation change.

Dogs – welcomed on a leash.

Suggested Paired Hikes –There is the 1 mile “all person” Tarkiln Bayou Trail and the 6.5 mile Perdido Bay Trail.



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