Okay, we’ve never actually been in Scotland at all. It has been rumored my family tree may have roots in that fabled land and I truly hope to visit one day. In the meantime, recent strong winds blew us toward the next best thing in our area – Highlands County, Florida. Over 1100 square miles in size, the county was formed in 1921 after the huge De Soto County was split into several smaller parts. It’s the 14th largest of Florida’s 67 counties and located in the south-central portion of the peninsula. Named for its rolling countryside, Highlands County produces a large percentage of Florida’s citrus and cattle. If you care for auto racing, Sebring (the county seat) hosts an annual internationally renowned event. If you care for birding – come with us!
It was one of those mornings when there is an almost overwhelming urge to pull the covers up tighter and hope someone who loves you will jump up and throw another log on the fire or, the more likely modern equivalent, push up that thermostat! Alas, it was not to be. That cruel woman insisted we get up – with it still dark, no less – dress in layers, consume vast quantities of warm beverages and head out into gale force winds and arctic temperatures. The things I do to satisfy her lust for birding…….
The high temperature for the day barely nudged 43 F (6 C) and the wind was pretty constant at 20-25 miles per hour, at times gusting much higher. (I know this doesn’t seem very harsh to many, but this IS Florida, after all!) The good news: the skies were clear and the birds didn’t seem to mind the temperatures or wind at all. We ended the day with almost 60 species of birds observed, including a flock of almost 500 Sandhill Cranes in a single field, shorebirds, game birds and even a Coyote hunting in the middle of the day! I’m sure glad I was able to get Gini out of bed this morning!
Highlands County has lots of back roads through a good variety of habitat that can be fun to bird. Here are a few more well-known spots that can be very productive: Highlands Hammock State Park, Lake Istokpoga Park, Lake Jackson in Sebring, Kissimmee River boat ramp (on a canal) at U.S. Highway 98 east of Lorida (nice picnic spot) and that most popular of birding hotspots – the county landfill.
My hands were too cold to take any decent pictures. (No, I don’t have a good excuse for the rest of the time!) Here are a few images that might at least bear a resemblance to the description. (Use your imagination!)
Our first stop of the day overlooked a pasture with several low spots holding water. Shorebirds love these “potholes” and this Cooper’s Hawk loves shorebirds! He made a few passes without results and moved a little further up the road. The shorebirds settled back in within a few minutes.
A small sample of the water hole visitors include Snowy Egret, Greater Yellowlegs, Boat-tailed Grackle, White Ibis and Glossy Ibis. Just outside this frame are also Least Sandpiper, American Pipit and Long-billed Dowitcher.
Wood Storks were making their way from roost site to feeding site.
A mixed flock of American Pipit and Least Sandpiper were difficult to spot in the grass. Good thing, too, what with Mr. Cooper still lurking about.
Savannah Sparrows began to become abundant as the sun rose a bit higher.
I liked the combination of the green lily pads, the rust-colored wall and the black and white of the Anhinga drying its wings.
When I was growing up in Florida about a hundred years ago, quail were very common. In more recent times, it’s fairly rare to spot them. This covey of Northern Bobwhite exhibits the typical view one has as they scurry for cover.
Spotting a Crested Caracara is not at all unusual in the abundant open lands of Highlands County. These beautiful raptors are good hunters but will readily shove aside a group of vultures to enjoy a meal of carrion.
Speaking of vultures, meet the Buzzard Brothers. This trio of Black Vultures appeared to have been frozen in place. (See, I’m not the only one who thinks it’s cold out here!)
A Sandhill Crane looks for a spot to land in a recently plowed field. We counted 485 cranes in this field. Would love to have been there at dawn – the noise must have been wonderful!
Stopping along a back road to view a small pond produced these American Avocets. It’s a bit unusual for them to overwinter here as they prefer the even warmer climes of Central and South America.
In the same pond as the Avocets above, Mottled Ducks and Blue-winged Teal enjoyed the clear weather. This shows off the considerable size difference between these two species.
As we enjoyed a lunch break, a curious Eastern Bluebird dropped by to see if we had anything interesting to offer.
We rounded a bend to encounter a flock of Wild Turkey. They didn’t seem unduly alarmed but they also didn’t stick around to chat and the lead gobbler ushered them all under a fence into a nearby orange grove.
Heading down one of the areas main highways, we spotted a remnant of a bygone era. A pineapple juice stand. Florida first planted pineapples commercially in the 1860’s and by the early 1890’s the state was the world’s largest exporter of the fruit. In 1908 the crop yield was over one million crates. The industry declined by World War I, primarily due to competition from Cuba and the new Republic of Hawaii as well as several hard freezes. A small amount of pineapple farming is still done in Highlands County. This sign was quite large, as you may be able to tell from the old Osprey nest on top.
When the wind blows extra strong, resist the temptation to avoid it. Try to be like Dorothy and Toto and make the most of wherever it may take you. Although we didn’t quite get blown all the way to Scotland this time, we really found a lot to enjoy during our Highlands adventure!
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
See more birds at: Paying Ready Attention (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)