Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Birding the "Real" Florida

After the spectacular thunderstorm (that lasted at least six hours) early Monday morning I was out in the field early working on my 2010 state list and more importantly county bird lists for several Florida Counties. I also visited four Florida State Parks to get their passport stamps. I visited all of Florida's State Parks in 2009 and want to do it again this year. There are about 140 units of the State Park system. Visiting them all is a great way to learn the geography and history of the state.

I started out in Hardee County at Paynes Creek Historic State Park near Bowling Green Florida. Here I added seven species to my county list. Far and away the best one was a male Mourning Warbler first heard and then seen in thick vegetation near the restrooms at the end of the park road. This was only the third Mourning Warbler I've seen in Florida and not one that I was expecting to find this year.

From Paynes Creek I traveled north and then east across Polk County on Highway 98 between Fort Meade and Frostproof. Somewhere along here I found a group of 8 Buff-breasted Sandpipers, freshly arrived from the Pampas of Argentina or Paraguay, foraging on a sod field.

Leaving the Sandpipers I continued east to Lake Kissimmee State Park in easternmost Polk County. The pine forest of the park was dripping with migrant and resident songbirds. Although there was nothing exciting here I really enjoyed listening to the male Summer Tanagers scream and swear at each other in their own hoarse voice. Their distinctive call note that sounds like "pick-it-up" is one of the common sounds in a Florida pine forest in summer.

Next it was on to the Kissimmee River and Osceola County. Every time I pass over the Highway 60 bridge I cuss out the US Army Corps of Engineers for taking a perfectly beautiful river and turning it into a ruler-straight tube. Thankfully with the Everglades Restoration effort begun under Democratic President Bill Clinton the inequities of the past are being slowly turned around. Still it rankles the hell out of me to see a wetland like the Kissimmee River viewed as a nuisance. Recent indications are that a group of landowners along and adjacent to the river want the US Fish and Wildlife Service to set aside (using easements) a huge chunk of uplands and wetlands in this area and have them managed as a National Wildlife Refuge. I'm most definitely in favor of that!

I made my now-standard ceremonial stop in Yeehaw Junction where Highway 60 crosses the Florida Turnpike. I love Yeehaw Junction because of its name and because its most prominent feature is the "Desert Hotel" set in the subtropical climate of south Florida where it is surrounded by wetlands and 2,000 miles from the nearest desert! Its Florida. What can you say.

My next stop was the incomparable Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park out in the middle of absolutely nowhere in Okeechobee County.

The best part of spending time on the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve is the feeling I get that I'm back "home" in North Dakota or Nebraska while I'm there. There is the feeling of openness here that comes only on the Great Plains. This digital image shot across an expanse of native grassland on the Preserve is an example.

Not long after driving onto the Preserve I heard singing the first of several endangered Florida subspecies of the Grasshopper Sparrow. Research we did 30 years ago along the Platte River in Nebraska revealed that the subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrow nesting there was the most abundant breeding bird in central Nebraska. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for its Florida subspecies cousin.

My second treat here was seeing a Cottonmouth(Water Moccasin) sliding across the road in front of me headed from one wetland to another.

Cottonmouth's have a generally pugnacious outlook on life and aren't a species you really want to spend too much time getting to know well. They are well known for being aggressive and stories abound of them pursuing people but I believe these instances have been when someone has upset the snake and then who could blame them. I think they have a rather negative outlook because they are fed up with developers draining wetlands inside their range. You'd be pretty disagreeable if people were tearing down your home and putting up condos. I really can't blame the snake. In my fantasy world I have this vision of owning an attack Cottonmouth. It would rank right up there with my childhood dream of owning a Watch Wolverine, and it would be akin to my old Rottweiler Rauxi whom I once trained to bare her teeth and growl when I said the word "Republican." I wonder if a Cottonmouth could be similarly trained?

The last treat on Kissimmee Prairie, actually along the entrance road to it, was seeing my first ever in Florida Golden Eagle! This was a first winter bird that I was able to approach to within 30 yards or so. It was foraging on a road-killed feral pig and sharing its meal with an assortment of Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, and a Crested Caracara. I was able to see the feathers extending down its tarsi almost to the toes, a for-certain way to differentiate this species from the similarly appearing juvenile plumage of the Bald Eagle. It was the 430th species for my Florida state list.

My final stop of the afternoon (now early evening) was incomparable Highlands Hammock State Park near Sebring, Florida. The almost ethereal forests of this park remind me so much of being in elfin cloud forest in Costa Rica.

When I walk around in Highlands Hammock State Park I am treated to a real feeling for how the real Florida was back in the days of William Bartram and even DeSoto himself. This is the way Florida is supposed to be. Wild, untamed, humid and untrammeled. The forest here is one that I think Aldo Leopold would have enjoyed.

I found no exciting birds at Highlands Hammock but I was able to add eight species to my Highlands County list bringing that total to 97 species. With the goal of getting 101 species in each of Florida's 67 counties I'll have to spend more time in Highlands County - a task that will be most enjoyable.

The Florida State Parks System markets itself as "the Real Florida" and on Monday I was able to enjoy a lot of "real" Florida. There were no freeways (although Highway 27 can feel like one at times) and no condos befouling the landscape. There was only patches of open wild countryside that still looks the way it did ages ago. It was a day filled with the "real" Florida, a Florida that I worry wont be here in the not too distant future. I will continue to enjoy it when I can until either I am gone or it is.

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