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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Dragonflies are beginning to become very abundant. I think this is a Common Baskettail but would certainly appreciate a definitive identification.
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.
Speaking of nice looking natives, this one isn’t too shabby, either.
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.
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.
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!
See more birds at: Paying Ready Attention (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)