Seeing The Forest For The Trees (And The Lake, And The Marsh, And The Prairie)

The very name “Lake Wales Ridge State Forest” appears to be a double oxymoron. One does not usually think of Florida as containing “ridges” or “forests”. The more typical mental image of those not familiar with our “Sunshine State” is of beaches, warm winters and all things Disney. These images may be accurate, but there is so much more to experience. For an idea of how much forest land is managed by the state, check out the link under “Additional Information”.

Here is a description of the area known as the Lake Wales Ridge:

“The most important remaining patches lie along the Lake Wales Ridge, a chain of paleoislands running for a hundred miles down the center of Florida, in most places less than ten miles wide. It is relict seashore, tossed up more than a million years ago when ocean levels were higher and the rest of the peninsula was submerged. That ancient emergence is precisely what makes the Lake Wales Ridge so precious; it has remained unsubmerged, its ecosystems essentially undisturbed since the Miocene.”

John Jerome, Author “Scrub, Beautiful Scrub” in Heart of the Land

We recently had a chance to revisit one of the four tracts of the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest, the Prairie Tract. (See our prior post on this area: Wet, Wild, Wonderful!)  Once again, we were privileged to have as our guide, Mr. Dave Butcher of the Florida Forest Service. We really appreciated his expert knowledge of the area, willingness to take us through any terrain in our search for breeding birds and outstanding patience in putting up with us all day long.

This is a truly diverse area, ecologically. We explored citrus groves, pastures, grass prairie, hardwood hammocks, stands of pine trees, low-water/marshy areas and the shoreline of one of the state’s largest natural lakes, the beautiful Lake Kissimmee. Evidence of breeding birds was just about everywhere. The day began with the calls of Chuck-Will’s-Widows and “peent” calls of Common Nighthawks as they dove headlong toward the ground in their courtship dive, punctuated by the loud rush of air through their feathers as they put on the brakes. The things one must do to impress a mate!

Dense fog shrouded our surroundings as the trumpeting of Sandhill Cranes announced the dawn. White-tail Deer materialized in the mist and just as quickly bounded away at our approach. Wild turkey, heads low to the ground, slinked into the palmetto scrub, confident we never saw them. White-eyed Vireos, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Meadowlarks – all were competing for some sort of “loudest singer” prize. As we approached a corral in a large pasture, two young Crested Caracara shuffled nervously on their post perches. It’s possible they had not yet seen a human in their relatively short life so far. As we progressed through the pasture, we counted five adult Burrowing Owls, some showing off their hunting prowess as they hovered Kestrel-like before diving onto an unsuspecting grasshopper or lizard. Two big surprises of the day: an Upland Sandpiper who should have migrated north a month ago and a Ring-necked Pheasant, likely a left-over or escapee from a hunting club. The highlight of our day, however, was the discovery of an endangered Florida Scrub Jay nest with young being fed by an adult. What a tremendous thing it is to see new life thriving in a species not that far away from total extinction.

A few random photographs might offer a tantalizing flavor of our day.

A large number of Greater Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis tabida) spend the winter in Florida and points south.  There is a sub-species, the Florida Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis pratensis), which is a non-migratory resident.  Once you hear the resounding trumpet call of either species you won’t soon forget it.  (Hear the call:  http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/133093.)

 

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

 

The Eastern Lubber Grasshopper is a large, colorful insect which can grow up to about three inches (8 cm) in length.  Adults are bright yellow and orange.  The black immature Lubbers seen here were climbing en masse to the top of a fence post near the end of the day, likely to escape predators during the night.

Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera)

Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera)

 

The song of the Brown Thrasher can easily be mistaken for a Northern Mockingbird.  Both are members of the family Mimidae and are quite adept at copying the songs of other birds.  The Brown Thrasher will typically repeat a phrase only two or three times and move on to something else.  The Northern Mockingbird may repeat the same song many times (sometimes it seems like all night during the summer!).  In this case, the helpful bird hopped on a post to make certain we knew who the neighborhood belonged to.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher

 

With so much diversity, predators abound.  We saw tracks of Bobcat and Coyote and there are Black Bears and the rare Florida Panther here as well.  Raptors, such as this Red-shouldered Hawk thrive in this lush environment.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

 

The White-tail Deer is abundant in the area but not often seen as they are very wary (as most wild animals need to be!).  They are also curious.  Sometimes, a small sound, such as a camera shutter click, will cause them to stop and look toward the source of the noise.  So although the first picture may not be useable, you might have a second chance at that beautiful face.

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer

 

Most birders in Florida don’t head into the field with “Ring-necked Pheasant” on their list of expected birds.  This female is likely a survivor of a hunt club or escapee from a game bird farm.  In any event, she’s beautiful.  (The shadow line at the bottom of the photo is the roofline of the truck.  She was literally right outside the door of the vehicle.)

Ring-necked Pheasant (Female)

Ring-necked Pheasant (Female)

 

Northern Bobwhite were singing everywhere!  That’s good news as their population has been in general decline over the past couple of decades.  This pair will hopefully breed successfully.

Northern Bobwhite

Northern Bobwhite

 

We were fortunate to spot several Burrowing Owls during the day.  They pretty much ignored our presence but were very keen on looking in all directions, including upwards, as they scanned for potential predators.

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl

 

Two immature Crested Caracara perch over a watering trough as they keep an eye out for a meal.  When they mature, their facial skin will become redder, the face/neck feathers more white and their legs more yellow.  Mom and Dad were perched about 50 yards away keeping watch.

Crested Caracara (Immature)

Crested Caracara (Immature)

 

Dragonflies are beginning to become very abundant.  I think this is a Common Baskettail but would certainly appreciate a definitive identification.

Common Baskettail (Epitheca cynosura) - ??

Common Baskettail (Epitheca cynosura) – ??

 

I happen to think one of our native flowers is just about as attractive a plant as any I’ve seen.  Pickerelweed may not be a pretty name, but – well, just look.

Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)

Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)

Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)

Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)

 

Speaking of nice looking natives, this one isn’t too shabby, either.

American White Waterlily (Nymphaea odorata)

American White Waterlily (Nymphaea odorata)

 

A Limpkin flew into a marshy spot with a freshly caught Apple Snail.  As soon as he landed, a baby Limpkin ran out for his portion of escargot.  Another chick was running in from another direction, out of camera range.

Limpkin

Limpkin

Limpkin (Adult and Chick)

Limpkin (Adult and Chick)

 

Well, it was time for two tired birders to head home.  As we did so, we spotted two tired birds doing the same thing.  These Wild Turkeys trudged up a hill in a newly plowed field reaching the crest just at sunset.  A wonderful way to end a great day.

Wild Turkeys At Dusk

Wild Turkeys At Dusk

 

 

If you’re looking for new places in Florida to explore, our State Forests offer vast amounts of hiking trails, lakes, streams, primitive campsites, wildlife and, yes, even actual trees!

 

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

Additional Information:

Florida State Forests

 

See more birds at:   Paying Ready Attention   (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

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28 thoughts on “Seeing The Forest For The Trees (And The Lake, And The Marsh, And The Prairie)

  1. Wally, just dropping back by to ask if you had seen the documentary: “Birders: The Central Park Effect.” It was so enjoyable and I thought you might enjoy it, too!

  2. Hello Wally,
    You sure make the place look like pure heaven! LOL!
    Very interesting pictures I’d like to have time to comment one by one, but naturally what catches most my attention is the dragonfly!
    It does look like a Pondhawk but I am not clued up enough about the american species… Too bad!
    I really appreciated the discovery of this preserve!
    Enjoy your day!

  3. Hi Wally. Yet another beautifully written and expertly illustrated post from you here! Such a wonderful selection of wildlfe. Those young Grasshoppers are amazing! You won’t be surprised to hear that the Burrowing Owls were special for me, but I think my favourite image is the one of the Red-shouldered Hawk – very atmospheric!

    Best wishes from sunny England (makes a change!) – – – – Richard

    • Hi, Richard! I really appreciate your very kind remarks. It was quite interesting watching the Burrowing Owls hunt – hovering like a Kestrel instead of swooping down in flight like a “normal” owl. I’ll soon post an image of the adult lubber grasshopper. Quite a beast!

      All the best — Wally

  4. Hi Wally. I should have known you would be in yet another new birding spot. I would be rather spoilt for choice in Florida so perhaps best to stick around here?

    I must say those grasshoppers look rather tasty,a meal in itself almost. I’m wondering if they are safe from night predators up there on that post but i suppose it works for them or they wouldn’t do it.

    I like the shot of the Red-snouldered Hawk where the reddish shoulder is clearly visible.

    You’re dead right about the click of the camera too as I find it often works that way with birds too.

    The turkeys – just brilliant, especially the way you liken it to birders trudging home with bins, scope and camera gear after a heavy day.

    • Thanks for your typically generous comments, Phil! Interestingly, this species of grasshopper produces a toxin that makes them unappetizing for most predators (thus their colorful warning exteriors). As a boy, I often tried using them as fish bait but never had any luck and resorted to using their much smaller green and brown cousins, which the fish inhaled readily. I finally found a hawk perched on something other than a utility or fence pole! As many times as I click my camera I should be surrounded by flocks of birds!

      Hope you had a great weekend and I hope to soon get back into the blogging “rhythm”, if there is such a thing. 🙂

  5. An amazing area … so grateful that you shared it Your photos make it seem as if we’re right there with you, from beginning to end.

    I have to ask about the lubbers … we have them in the spring where we live in Ft M (when we stay later in the spring than we did this year)… popular wisdom there says they are invasive and that they eat plants. Is that wrong?

    • Thank you, Sallie! Hope you’re having a good summer “up north(west)”. The Eastern Lubber Grasshopper can be destructive if a large number of them come across something they like. Ordinarily, they can be easily controlled in the home garden by simply picking them off a plant by hand. They are particularly fond of Amaryllis.

  6. Came here from Wild bird Wednesday and glad I did you have some amazing photos of birds but those Grass Hoppers are something else fab 🙂

    • Ashley, thank you very much for dropping by! I’ll try to post some images of the adult Lubbers soon. It’s a pretty impressive bug!

  7. florice

    I was really surprised to hear you say that the Florida Scrub Jay was endangered. When I grew up in Florida, (over 50 years ago), they were prolific. Loved the two old tired turkeys! Know how they felt.

    • Yeah, Sister, I sorta related to those turkeys myself! Don’t confuse the Scrub Jay with the Blue Jay. The Blue Jay population is in great shape! Their larger, paler cousins, however, are in trouble. Talk to you soon! Love you!

  8. Wally, this is such a beautiful and unique area. I hope it can stay this way forever. The variety of wildlife is so awesome. I think I’d died and gone to heaven if I saw this much in one day or even one weekend. Thank you for sharing Florida’s natural beauty with us. I particularly enjoyed the red-shouldered hawk and the owl shots. Wow.

  9. All your images are beautiful. Funny you mention the call of the Sandhill Cranes. I’m from South Florida, but I live in Australia now. When I was last there for a visit, I went camping with some friends one weekend. It was their mating season. Needless to say, nobody got any sleep that night.

    • It only takes a couple of rambunctious Cranes to ruin a good night’s sleep! But what a cool jam session! Thank you for your visit and nice remarks! Hope you’re doing well down under!

  10. Awesome collection of birds and beautiful scenery.. The grasshopper shot is cool. A great place for birding.. Have a happy day!

  11. It sounds like a wonderfully diverse area – and your photos show such a variety of birds and wildlife. It’s certainly not the image of Florida that one commonly sees.

    • How true, Mick! Rather like a tourist conjuring up visions of Australia being a land of all kangaroos, red desert, a big coral reef and shrimp on the ‘Barbie. It is SOOO much more! Thanks so much for your insight into your natural world!

  12. Your words and photos make me feel as if I was there! Great post.

  13. Delightful!

  14. what a neat area! i love the caracara twins perched on their fencing! so neat!

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