Well, it finally happened. Recently I was asked “The Question”. I knew it was coming eventually, but one is never truly prepared for such things. It came from an innocent enough source. My barber. “So, what do you do?” I could feel drops of sweat forming on my brow. My eyes darted furtively from side to side. My mind was racing. What does she mean? The words echoed in my head: “What do you DO?”; “WHAT do you do??”; “What DO you do???”.
“Oh, how nice.”
That was that. She didn’t seem to have any nefarious hidden purpose in wanting to know. It’s just that it was the first time since becoming “officially” retired that I said it aloud. I guess up until that moment, in my mind, I hadn’t really thought about my status. Okay, let’s get to the real issue. It’s the first time I admitted to the world and to myself that I am old. There. I said it. Happy? Sigh.
The good news is – I am retired. One of the perks so far has been more birding trips! Sometimes, our best plans don’t quite work the way we would like and a trip may not be filled with bird sightings. This could be due to poor weather, bad timing, unfamiliar areas or just plain bad luck. But Gini and I always manage to enjoy the day and each other and, for us, THAT’S what it’s all about!
The following is a compilation of five specific trips which either didn’t result in a lot of birds seen or didn’t result in a lot photographs taken. Each of the spots we visited is very interesting and at any given time can produce an impressive listing of bird species. Check out the “Additional Resources” section for links to more information on these places and consider stopping in if you’re in that area. Who would have guessed we would find so many birds on a bombing range? These trips seemed to yield a lot of blue. No problem. I’m a fan of da blues.
Avon Park Air Force Range
Think BIG. 106,000 acres (42,896 hectares/6,783 square meters) big. Split between Highlands and Polk counties, this large area is used for military training and includes live bombing practice. Huge portions of it are open to the public but use the phone numbers in the link below to check before you plan to visit. It’s normally open only Thursday through Monday but even that can change with little notice. There is a fee and you must sign in and out. Once you’re in, drive a couple of miles (“unimproved” roads), turn off the engine and just stand outside for a minute. What do you NOT hear? Traffic noise. None. This is solitude. The area is very carefully managed and there have been great wildlife success stories as a result. A couple of noteworthy birding efforts include managing relatively large populations of Florida Scrub Jay and the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. I didn’t get many photos due to mostly inclement weather. Despite the rain and clouds, we listed almost 60 species for the day. Highlights included our county’s earliest observation date for Swallow-tailed Kite returning from migration, a half-dozen Florida Scub Jay, six species of woodpecker which included a Hairy Woodpecker (only my second sighting ever), over 50 Eastern Towhee, also over 50 Eastern Bluebird, over 150 Yellow-rumped Warbler gathering to fuel up for their return to the north and an early spring Northern Bobwhite singing his clear whistled name for all the ladies to hear.
This was our first visit to the Range but we will definitely be back!
Florida Scrub Jay. These birds usually hang around in loose family groups and once you find one there will be more nearby. Multiple bands (rings) suggest how closely biologists monitor this species.
We were encouraged to find a foraging Red-headed Woodpecker and hope to find them nesting later in the year. Their population has declined precipitously over the past few decades.
Just northeast of Lakeland (Polk County), this Fish Management Area consists of previous phosphate mines which have been reclaimed. The area surrounding the lakes has been managed in places for wetlands mitigation and there are several hiking trails. TENEROC is considered a “Gateway” location for the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail system. Several years ago our local Audubon chapter began to manage a small area specifically to attract wintering sparrows. Although close to urban and suburban development, this area contains a LOT of birds and other wildlife (deer, bobcat, coyote, fox, gopher tortoise and plenty of alligators). I only spent about two hours on a recent morning and counted over 40 bird species. A Cooper’s Hawk flew low over my head at the first stop, I found Eastern Towhees singing everywhere, five Black-crowned Night Herons (3 juveniles) were on one lake and a Barred Owl’s booming call punctuated the dawn stillness.
The moon was setting as I began to explore the area at sunrise.
A Carolina Wren blends in with the shrubbery. However, his loud, clear call gives him away every time.
This Eastern Towhee has the red iris of a more northern race and is likely a migrant. Our local species typically has paler, yellowish eyes.
This acronym stands for: Societe Universelle Mining Industrie, Commerce et Agriculture. The company established a turpentine mill and sawmill at this location in 1917. A town sprung up to support the operation and there was a railroad depot, post office, company store, church and about 50 houses. By 1927, most of the pine forest was gone, the mill was moved and the town disappeared into history. Polk County turned the area into a protected area and developed a couple of trails along the old railroad bed. If you go in the summer, wear protective clothing as there is not much shade and bring plenty of water. I didn’t find a lot of birds on the day I went, but I was there at high noon – not exactly prime birding time! I did find soaring Bald Eagles, nervous Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds, a Pileated Woodpecker and an elusive Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The trail is elevated and leads to a nice boardwalk and shaded gazebo overlooking a wetland area with huge Cypress trees.
View of the wetlands at the end of the trail.
The trail is easy to walk, very straight and will be very hot in the summer. Although there are a few trees, most of the trail is in the open. On either side of the trail is scrub palmetto and in places it’s very wet. Plenty of indications alligators cross the trail frequently.
Scrub Palmetto. As far as the eye can see in many places.
Patterson Park, Fort Meade, Florida
Fort Meade has its origins all the way back to 1849 and is the oldest city in Polk County. In the center of town is Patterson Park, about 16 acres of serenity. There is a paved walking path around two lakes, picnic tables, wood deck overlooks and a lot of birds. On the day we visited, we found two different pairs of Ospreys nesting, a couple dozen Double-crested Cormorants fishing, Green Herons, two Forster’s Terns and an agitated Belted Kingfisher who didn’t like me interrupting his fishing concentration.
One Osprey keeps watch while his mate was on the nest. A second adult Osprey dives on a fish to feed his mate occupying a second nest.
A raft of Double-crested Cormorants prepare to hunt for breakfast.
Colt Creek State Park
One of the newer parks in the Florida State Park system has the added advantage of being close to where we live. It’s situated near the vast Green Swamp and has wetlands, lakes, hardwood forest and a bit of open grassland. All this variety attracts a terrific diversity of wildlife. On this particular day, it seemed Eastern Bluebirds were everywhere. The only birds in greater numbers were Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers which were flocking to gobble as many bugs as possible in preparation for their migratory flight northward in the coming weeks. This is a great place to picnic, watch birds and butterflies, hike, fish or just relax.
This female Eastern Bluebird reminds us that birding is an equal opportunity avocation!
“Is it safe?”
A Little Blue Heron glides in for a safe landing. Birds are beautiful but when you consider their ability to fly they just seem downright amazing!
A Great Egret is beginning to transition to its breeding plumage. The long feathers (“aigrettes”) appear to be made from delicate lace.
Pine trees are in bloom. What a wonderful aroma in the woods.
The late afternoon sun highlights the tree tops. It was a good day.
Five different trips. A lot of birds. No bombs fell on our heads. We got to enjoy the blues. Not bad for a guy with nothing to do.
We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!