City lights faded and we were enveloped in the utter darkness of a rural netherworld. Cocooned within our metal container, we sped through miles of citrus groves, the air heavy with the almost-too-sweet fragrance of orange blossoms. As the perfume dissipated, we knew outside our windows were nearly endless fields of commercially grown sod, the new crop rapidly replacing citrus which has lately been ravaged by disease and foreign markets. The fog wasn’t the thick sea fog of the coast. Clouds of the mist had settled into the low places around us – ponds and bogs and dips in the road. No sooner had we slowed down for the gray stuff, than we immediately emerged into the crystal clear atmosphere of pre-dawn sky where the brightest stars were grudgingly giving way to the almost imperceptible light of our new day.
Avon Park Air Force Range. Not a very attractive name for our goal of observing Nature, but a destination which is near the top of our list of favorite places to visit. Consisting of over 106,000 acres (42,900 ha), we have discovered most visitors only head for one of the campgrounds or the Kissimmee River which forms the eastern boundary of the range. Hunting season is an exception, when nimrods practice their skill in tracking White-tailed Deer and feral hogs. Accordingly, I checked the hunting schedule to ensure any wildlife we might observe would not be subject to being harvested while we watched.
“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Man Gang aft agley …” (From The Mouse, Robert Burns)
My reading skills apparently are due for a checkup. I missed one little entry on the Florida Wildlife Commission’s hunting calendar. A special wild (feral) hog hunt would be allowed on the last weekend of the month. Want to guess when we visited? For an extra added attraction, several of the roads within the range were closed to the public for military exercises. Also, red flags were flying at all of the live-fire ranges within the complex. It was an interesting morning. We pulled to the side of the road several times to allow military convoys to pass. The staccato of rifle fire from the ranges was occasionally replaced with the dull, earth-shaking boom of large artillery. Our tranquil pine woods where we hoped to find woodpeckers feeding had been infiltrated by dozens of hog hunters each with a pair of dogs scrambling through the palmetto scrub hot on a fresh scent. And us with no blaze orange vests to help separate us from the aforementioned porcine targets.
Despite an initial urge to flee, we persevered. And were generously rewarded. Over 100,000 acres offers a lot of territory to explore and, happily, not all of it was open to hunters or being used by the military. We discovered wildflowers in bloom, butterflies and bees, a pair of hungry River Otters, Florida “Cracker” cattle (descended from herds left by Spanish explorers more than 500 years ago), over 50 species of birds and even — shhhh!, don’t tell those folks mentioned above — wild hogs. Birding highlights included migrants fueling up for continuing their northward journey: 80+ Pine Warblers, 50+ American Robins, 20+ Eastern Bluebirds, over a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers, several hundred Red-winged Blackbirds and over a thousand Tree Swallows. We observed all eight woodpecker species possible in this area at this time of year: Red-headed, Red-bellied, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (migratory), Hairy, Downy, Red-cockaded (endangered), Northern Flicker and Pileated. This alone made the trip very special, indeed! All of this and we even found a quiet spot on the river where we enjoyed a cool breeze, a curious opossum, fish jumping, a singing vireo and – best of all – each others’ company.
Some of this was photographically documented.
The Pine Warblers and Eastern Bluebirds seemed to hang around together in loose flocks all over the range. Safety in numbers perhaps?
The Florida Scrub Jay is endemic to the state and endangered due to massive losses over the years of its unique habitat requirements. We found a half dozen of these colorful, typically loud birds. They remain in extended family groups and mob potential threats (such as birders) and first/second year birds will often raise their parents’ new chicks. All of the birds within the Avon Park Range are closely monitored by biologists and all have various leg-bands for easy identification (the birds, not the biologists).
We found a pair of River Otters hunting and dining by a stream. While they were curious about us, they didn’t miss a beat in catching and enjoying fresh fish for lunch.
As with the Florida Scrub Jay, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is very closely monitored and studied within the range. It is also in trouble due to habitat loss. Important discoveries about how to protect this species’ future have been made by scientists here and we (as well as the birds!) owe them a big thanks for their efforts.
There are over 600 species of Crotalaria world-wide and most contain an alkaloid which can be poisonous to some birds and animals. Native to the old world, where planted in Florida it has thrived. The plant is used in landscapes, it is beneficial in erosion control and was once used as a green manure until the discovery of the poisonous effects on some animals.
Common in wet areas, the Virginia Willow blossoms attract many insects, smells wonderful and will eventually grow to 20-30 feet tall.
A violet green body helps identify this butterfly as a Long-tailed Skipper.
The Black Swallowtail is also available in a yellow variety for your viewing pleasure. The yellow version is more likely to be seen in the southwestern U.S.
A small flycatcher, the Eastern Phoebe will be missed during the summer as it’s a migrant. We have had one stay in our back yard for the past four winters.
This is a small portion of a huge flock of Tree Swallows which swirled up out of one of the area’s vast palmetto scrubs. In another area, hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds found a grassy plain in which to feed.
Blue defined. It’s hard to believe this hue exists in nature but no photo manipulation needed for these beauties! This guy was concerned about a hawk flying overhead.
Even from the rear, an Eastern Meadowlark is simply gorgeous. Subtle browns and outrageous yellow and black. The clear tones of their song soothes souls.
Our trip was planned. Our plans were deficient. Our day was superb. We hope all of your plans work to perfection. If they don’t, persevere and perhaps you, too, will be pleasantly surprised!
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
(NOTE: Entrance to the Avon Park Air Force Range is controlled and a fee is required. Be sure to check their website at the link above for the appropriate phone number to call and check for closures before you go. They are open to the public only Thursday through Monday.)