Winter bike commute through the Red Hills reveals woodland creatures
July 21st, 2015 by Red Hills
published in Tallahassee Democrat, 2/14/15
Turkey hens, a sluggish rat snake, several young deer and a startled, small-brained opossum are a few of my trail partners on a daybreak bike commute from home to work.
The waking songbirds dart around the tall trees in my peripheral vision and I intermittently lean my head into their songs arguing with myself over the correct species identification. Blaming the whir of wind and clack of the gear change, I fail to discern the little birds’ calls. “Hmm, I’ll have to look that up when I get to work,” I think repeatedly. Fortunately, at Tall Timbers, my work destination, there are ample patient, skilled biologists to help with my lifelong wildlife learning process. Turns out I’m slow on cold morning rides and small bird identification.
We, the wildlife and I, are all on our way to work at sunrise on this chilly Tuesday, moving across an unpaved stretch of wooded Proctor Road in northeastern Leon County. It is approaching 50 degrees and I am truly pitiful for being cold. “Suck it up cupcake,” I self-chide. I’ll be overheated and shedding layers of gear by the time I hit Thomasville Road in a few more miles. It is snowing several states north of me and I grin realizing that I have more in common with an ectothermic snake with a three-chambered heart than the furry, four legged mammals that I spotted. I am cold and slow. Slow is good, I remind myself; I’ll see more stuff.
When I drive to and from work, I don’t hear birds or see the mysterious movement of critters in the woods surrounding me. From the car, I miss the sun’s natural cycle of rise and set altering the hues of a forest floor accompanied by the melodic rustling of hundred year old tree limbs. Reminding myself of nature’s picturesque poetry, I momentarily forget that my ears feel like they might crack off in the persistent wind. That’s when the gray fox darts from the puddle into the tall grass. Slow is good.
I pedal for another few miles musing about the rat snake and the odds of seeing one in near dark conditions. Perhaps, he was the prey not the predator this morning and forced to be on the move after an unexpected encounter. Maybe the snake had been without food for many weeks and this necessitated an early morning hunt for frogs and lizards. The snake and I will be happier soon as sunlight broadens through the morning sky and warms the ground. My mind continues to wander with the rise of a red hill before me. I shift gears and realize the sun is fully up. I click off the headlamp.
While my destination is a climate-controlled office, the animals that I intersect paths with reside in their place of work. For them, today’s priority “to-do list” includes foraging and surviving another day in the wilderness. I envy the nomadic simplicity of their daily tasks. Eat, rest, move and live to see another day. The rural landscape of the area works in their favor since the natural habitat abounds.
The wildlife awakes long before I check tire pressure and strap on a bike helmet in my garage. In fact, the opossum and fox are likely headed for long morning naps since they are primarily nocturnal, hunting while humans snooze. Being crepuscular, white-tailed deer forage at dawn and dusk and hunker down during daylight hours. Eat and sleep. All species, nocturnal and diurnal alike, require food and rest.
Sometimes people ask me why I bike commute. There are obvious, numerous physical and mental health benefits of showing up at work after pedaling a few monster hills (by flat Florida standards). Cycling home to the dinner table is my favorite way to conclude any work day. Bike transportation saves real money on fuel and reduces greenhouse gases. These are all worthy reasons.
By taking the unhurried ride through the glorious Red Hills, I also simply get to slow down and take it all in —our splendid natural world. Fast is overrated. Slow is good.
Georgia Ackerman works at Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy. She twice spotted Florida black bears while bike commuting through Wakulla County.