It has been almost three weeks now since this prescribed burn and as I surveyed these burnt woods in this Lee County preserve I was first impressed with the clear view I had of the scope and bones of the woods. With no brush, vines or understory plants to obscure my view I focused on the berms and mounds that seemed so prominent now. Some pines and cabbage palms had been destroyed and the forest had opened up. The beginning stages of new growth were making an appearance on the saw palmetto but the mounds and subsequent aprons of the gopher tortoise burrows drew me closer. These burrows may be as long as 20-40 ft and up to 6 ft deep, a perfect protection from fire. Gopher tortoises can live commensally with other animals and provide habitat for the indigo snake and gopher frogs. Some 360 species of vertebrates and invertebrates have been documented using these burrows. But as I entered the hardest burned areas and examined the entrances to their homes they appeared to be abandoned with no fresh tracks from the tortoises or other animals. At the northern edge of the burn I did find signs of life as a smaller tortoise about three inches in length backed into his hole as I walked by. Determined to get this picture and sure that he would resurface to soak up the sun, I set up my tripod and waited, even though warblers’ songs beckoned me to come closer to the green edge. As I waited, varieties of butterflies flew by including Orange-barred Sulphurs, Gulf Fritillary, Common Buckeye and the Zebra Longwing, some landing on the charred ashes. With the staccato of grasshoppers’ wings and buzzing flies surrounding me I became distracted enough from my task at hand to notice tracks, showcasing the animals that use this sandy forest floor as a pathway. These tracks included a variety of birds, a few deer, raccoons, bobcats and snakes. Cowboys in ranch land further north have reported that cattle often eat the charcoal after a fire; maybe some of these animals did as well. I felt grateful for the observations that waiting for this shy young tortoise brought me but I decided to move closer to the green edge following the pattern of gopher burrows as I stepped.
Then as I took in the larger view, I spotted the largest gopher tortoise I have ever seen. Seeing what was perhaps the oldest and youngest of this ancient species in this renovated and reinvigorated environment was reassuring to say the least. I can already imagine the bounty of food that will provide for this species now that the sunlight can reach the ground. So, goodbye dense forest and hello to an open canopy with plenty of herbaceous plants to follow!