That phrase can elicit very different responses depending on one’s perspective. To a young adult or teen, it might mean a concert accompanied by “non-parental-approved” behavior. For a child, maybe an amusement park comes to mind. My son, with two very young children, would likely break out in a cold sweat. Once again, as birders, we fall into that “different” category, and begin poring over maps (and satellite images) and checking out those small lines with no names wondering if it’s a dirt road or on private property.
In our quest to explore natural areas around central Florida, we normally plan to visit a specific area, such as a State Park or Wildlife Management Area. Yesterday, we struck out with only a vague destination in mind. I recalled a “country road” from several years ago that crossed a creek and there was always a good variety of birds there. We used that as our starting point for a day of discovery.
Zolfo Springs is a small community in Hardee County just south of where the Peace River crosses U.S. Highway 17. A few miles south of here is Sweetwater Road, the “country road” mentioned above. As we turned east from the main highway, patches of fog still hung near the ground but the sun was rising fast and driving toward it was challenging (especially while glancing about for birds). A few miles down the road we came to a small obstacle in the form of road construction. The portion of the road I had hoped to visit was closed and we had to detour completely around it. Sigh.
As often happens with detours, happy surprises awaited. Our first cooperative bird of the morning was a cheerful Eastern Meadowlark. I pulled the truck to the side of the road (usually a sign for birds to immediately take flight) and the colorful bird looked right at us and opened his beak wide to start our day with his song. A little further along and we came upon a Turkey Vulture, performing his morning clean up duties from the previous night’s recklessness. He vigorously defended his find, driving away several other vultures who approached too closely. A Crested Caracara flew into a nearby tree and was soon joined by a second. I think they didn’t approach the armadillo carcass due to our presence so we moved on.
The easternmost target I had in mind was the Hickory Hammock trail system on U.S. 98/State Road 66 a few miles east of Lorida. There is an equestrian camp here and well marked hiking trails (two different entry points). We did no hiking today, but did stop at a very nice boat ramp and picnic area at the Istokpoga Canal, which connects to the Kissimmee River. We watched a Red-shouldered Hawk hunting in a marshy area, American Crows chasing a Crested Caracara, saw a new life bird and checked out a condominium built for bats.
Backtracking west, we explored Cowhouse Road, which is a dead-end road going through cattle and horse pastures edged with pine and hardwoods and is very close to Lake Istokpoga. A side road leads to a boat ramp on the lake’s eastern shore and we saw several Osprey nests, hawks, meadowlarks and Sandhill Cranes. It was along Cowhouse Road we found additional Crested Caracaras, including one who appeared to enjoy posing.
Our last stop before lunch was at Lake Istokpoga Park on the north side of the lake. There is a nice boardwalk from the boat basin toward the main lake. Also, there is a path through a mature oak/cypress hammock. The area has very nice picnic and restroom facilities.
For our lunch break, we found a place to park under a huge, ancient oak tree in Highlands Hammock State Park, in Sebring. The surrounding hammocks absorbed all sounds of civilization and we could have easily taken a nap here. Instead, I explored a boardwalk and found woodpeckers, warblers, alligators, cardinals, towhees and blue jays. Near the camping area, a nice group of park rangers pointed out a Bald Eagle nest in a tall pine and you could tell there were chicks in the nest.
It was time to head home but we found a few places which we look forward to exploring further.
We hope you like some of the things we saw as much as we did!
This meadowlark was an enthusiastic songster! His right side was lit up by the rising sun, a photo challenge but it sure highlighted his beauty.
A Turkey Vulture at breakfast. We’re thankful for these guys or else we would have to be out there cleaning these things up.
A Red-shouldered Hawk surveys a marshy area for his morning meal.
The Hickory Hammock boat ramp area sports a modern condo for the local bat population.
I’ve included a record shot here of my first observation of a Short-tailed Hawk. They also live in Central and South America, but the small Florida population is currently estimated at less than 500 birds. In Florida, there are “light” and “dark” phases of this hawk (about the size of a crow). This is the light phase. (I apologize for the poor image, the bird was soaring at a very high altitude directly above me. My cheap optics and unsteady hands helped produce a fuzzy picture.)
An Osprey enjoying bass for breakfast. He was initially concerned by our presence but quickly returned to eating. His mate was behind us on the nest atop a utility pole and chattered the whole time. Probably something about bringing the groceries into the house.
This Red-shouldered Hawk was being bombarded by an American Kestrel – until I stopped the truck. The Kestrel disappeared. If you look closely, you can see the hawk saying: “Thank you!”.
A pair of Sandhill Cranes trumpeting to the sky as a warning. There was a single crane near them which I presume was a rival male. There was eventually a fight and the interloper was driven away. Unfortunately, I got no useable pictures of the fracas.
The Crested Caracara, a member of the Falcon family, is sometimes called the Mexican Eagle. I think this was an immature bird, based on the “dingy” color of the neck feathers, which on a mature bird would be much whiter. These birds eat insects, small mammals, birds, fish and carrion. They can often be seen in the company of vultures (soaring as well as on the ground).
I think this pretty yellow flower is a member of the Evening Primrose family (Ludwigia species, “Seedbox”) but would certainly welcome a positive identification.
The colors of a Yellow-rumped Warbler are beginning to brighten up as spring approaches.
Robins are becoming more plentiful as they begin their flights northward.
This male Red-bellied Woodpecker shows off his red nape and black-and-white back.
Flame vine (Pyrostegia venusta) is beautiful but can strangle a large tree if not kept in check.
Lantana is great for butterflies whether at home or in the wild!
A helpful Eastern Phoebe shows us the way.
Trees growing in a hammock area have to be able to survive in soil which is almost constantly wet. The canopies here allow some filtered light through which produces an understory of small trees, palmetto and ferns.
A dark creek moves almost imperceptibly through the bog.
A familiar denizen of the swamp.
The only souvenirs we brought home from our road trip were a few photographs and priceless memories of a day together in our natural paradise. For us, that’s enough.
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
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