“Road Trip!”

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.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

 

 

A Turkey Vulture at breakfast.  We’re thankful for these guys or else we would have to be out there cleaning these things up.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

 

 

A Red-shouldered Hawk surveys a marshy area for his morning meal.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

 

 

The Hickory Hammock boat ramp area sports a modern condo for the local bat population.

Bat House

Bat House

 

 

 

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.)

Short-tailed Hawk

Short-tailed Hawk

 

 

 

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.

Osprey

Osprey

 

 

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!”.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

 

 

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.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

 

 

 

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).

Crested Caracara

Crested Caracara

 

 

I think this pretty yellow flower is a member of the Evening Primrose family (Ludwigia species, “Seedbox”) but would certainly welcome a positive identification.

Ludwigia sp. (Seedbox?)

Ludwigia sp. (Seedbox?)

 

 

The colors of a Yellow-rumped Warbler are beginning to brighten up as spring approaches.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

 

 

Robins are becoming more plentiful as they begin their flights northward.

American Robin

American Robin

 

 

This male Red-bellied Woodpecker shows off his red nape and black-and-white back.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

 

 

Flame vine (Pyrostegia venusta) is beautiful but can strangle a large tree if not kept in check.

Flame Vine

Flame Vine

 

 

Lantana is great for butterflies whether at home or in the wild!

Lantana

Lantana

 

 

A helpful Eastern Phoebe shows us the way.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

 

 

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.

Hammock

Hammock

 

 

A dark creek moves almost imperceptibly through the bog.

Dark-water Creek

Dark-water Creek

 

 

A familiar denizen of the swamp.

American Alligator

American Alligator

 

 

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!

Additional Resources:

Hickory Hammock Wildlife Management Area

Lake Istokpoga Park (Great Florida Birding Trail Entry)

Highlands Hammock State Park

 

See more birds from around the world at Paying ReadyAttention for

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel, Wildflowers, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 34 Comments

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34 thoughts on ““Road Trip!”

  1. Wally, thank you so much for your wonderful posts and photography. We are new to the snowbird scene, staying the winter in Naples. I am also a new photographer. Your blog has been a wonderful inspiration and source of information.

    • What a wonderful thing to say! Thank you! We enjoy being out in Florida’s natural places and truly enjoy sharing our experiences. It’s so gratifying to know you like what we have to offer!

  2. What a super road trip Wally! Love the images and the story behind them. I’m getting itchy for a road trip too.

  3. Very nice photos, Wally – all of them. I shouldn’t have read your “road trip” post though – it got my juices (and frustrations) going. For me, road trip means hooking up the trailer and going out into the boonies for a few days with my camera gear and it’s just been too darn cold and snowy for that. Maybe sometime fairly soon… Great post!

    • Oops, I should have posted it as “A Trip With No Destination” or some such! Soon you’ll be seeing green all over the place and can hook up that trailer! Thanks for the visit and nice comments. Appreciate it.

  4. Wonderfully captured closeups of flora and fauna!
    Crisp and detailed shots – a joy to see.
    Another wonderful post Wally!

  5. What a wonderful day! And those kind of souvenirs are the only two kinds worth having! I’m bookmarking this post…I’ll never get such good pictures, but I hope we get half as many good memories when we go ;>)!

  6. Where to begin Wally? You just took me on another tour of another new place in Florida where all the birds come to greet you. The two hawks – outstanding, the Short-tailed looks quite small and compact and I’m wondering if it’s a small Buteo? I’ll look it up. I hope you didn’t try and steal that Osprey’s fish – but I don’t think he was going to allow that. A superb caracara shot, the eye and bill focus is absolutely spot on. Love the phoebe shot too – as if you’d go any way but thre best birding route.

    • Thank you for too many compliments! You’re correct about the Short-tailed Hawk. It’s Buteo brachyurus. I suspect I’ve seen them before but never with enough detail to confirm an identification. I learned early to catch my own fish as wildlife does not comprehend “sharing”!

      Have a wonderful weekend, Phil!

  7. I like the sound of the road trip and you certainly got a good variety of birds. The only one familiar to me would be the Osprey – there are quite a few around the waterways here. That orange flowered vine looks very similar to one that I made the mistake of planting beside a fence. It grew well and I was told how beautiful it looked – but oh the trouble I had rescuing my fence!

    • Here in our area of Florida, Osprey are very abundant and currently almost all of them are on nests with chicks. Yeah, that vine will take over everything!

  8. So many beautiful shots–the meadowlark, hawks, osprey. The osprey has a comical expression. All of these are great!

  9. Another amazing journey with awesome photos. Congrats on the life bird Wally. You are writing the book of ‘The birders guide to Florida’s backroads’. with photos.
    The info you gather and write about can not be found anywhere. Just a thought!

  10. Your photos are awesome!

  11. Your photos are beautiful. I love the singing Meadowlark!

    • I really appreciate your kind comments, Pat. It was wonderful to enjoy that Meadowlark singing to us as the sun was rising and with fog still hanging just above the ground.

  12. LOVE your road trips…. Most definitely up my alley!! And your re-telling of them is just beautiful; what wonderful creatures you encountered. Such amazing shots!!!

  13. Another great adventure! Congrats on seeing the Short-tailed Hawk! That would have been a lifer for me too! That is a beautiful close up of the Red-shouldered hawk!

  14. Great set of pictures. Do meadowlarks do anything except on posts and sing!!

    Cheers and thanks for linking to WBW

    Stewart M – Melbourne

    • Stewart, I can send you the other 400 photos of meadowlark tail feathers and blurry little yellow balls if you like! 🙂
      Hope your weekend will be great!

      Regards – Wally

  15. A great road trip and wonderful bird sightings. Your photos are beautiful. I am looking forward to your next outing. Have a great weekend!

  16. Wow! I love all these pics! I can’t pick a favorite.
    I love road trips, too.

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