A long time ago, in a land far, far away, a Bullock’s Oriole landed in a mesquite tree and my lovely, but excitable, bride grabbed me by the arm (which at the time was engaged in steering a fast-moving vehicle) and shouted all in one breath: “STOPDIDYOUSEETHATTURNAROUNDGOBACKITWASALLORANGEANDBLACKITWASGORGEOUS!!!!”.
The coming of age of a birder is a beautiful thing.
In that far away land of west Texas, there were few “birding venues”. It was so long ago, in fact, we didn’t even know we WERE birders, as the quaint reference to those engaged in the hobby was still simply “bird watcher”. (I still cling to that term as “birder” has come to infer a more competition-oriented personality and I’ve never been much of a score-keeper.) Since the nearest state park was a half-day’s drive, we were very content to simply drive the back roads and marvel at how vibrant and diverse the seemingly barren landscape could be. It was our first experience in a near-desert environment and we loved every minute of our several years there. That pattern has persisted over the eons.
“Why are there likenesses of Sandhill Cranes on all the street light poles?”, Gini asked. Being extremely cognizant of such matters concerning engineering and urban planning, I advised her in my usual condescending, scholarly manner: “I dunno”.
We were driving through the town of Wauchula, Florida a couple of months ago doing our “drive around looking for birds” thing. Wauchula is the seat of Hardee County, adjacent to our home in Polk County. Hardee County is smallish in size, consisting of 638 square miles (1650 sq. km). Of this area, only 0.6 sq. mi. is water – a bit unusual for central Florida. The county was named for Cary Hardee who was governor of Florida from 1921 to 1925. Settlement of the area began in 1849 when an Indian Trading Post was opened on a bend in Paynes Creek. Eventually, the city of Wauchula was established and the area became a center for cattle ranching. The name “Wauchula” is from a Mikasuki Indian word meaning “call of the Sandhill Crane”. AHA! Mystery of the light poles solved.
Today, Hardee County is lightly populated (about 27,000 in 2012) and has an agricultural-based economy. Annual citrus production has about a half-billion dollar market value, the county ranks 9th in the United States for beef cattle and phosphate mining plays a major role in employment and fertilizer production. In 2004, Hurricane Charlie swept across the county from the Gulf of Mexico with winds of 149 mph (240 kph) and almost every building in the county suffered some sort of damage with many being completely destroyed. Most renovation has been completed and the resilient population continues to enjoy their rural lifestyle.
Although the scarcity of open shallow water limits the presence of many water birds, the county is full of a wonderful variety of other birds. Most of the cattle ranches have small ponds which the cattle keep churned into mud holes which attracts shore birds. Burrowing Owls nest in the pastures, Crested Caracara roam the open spaces, fall and winter crops attract migrants, timberland is full of vireos, warblers and woodpeckers and, of course, Sandhill Cranes abound all year and large populations of the big birds spend the winter here. We like driving around in Hardee County!
Our most recent visit included over 45 different species (yes, I know, it’s sorta score-keeping) and we were treated to some really nice wildflower displays.
The Great Crested Flycatcher is a cavity nester and can be very aggressive about chasing woodpeckers from suitable nesting sites. For some reason, many of their nests have been found lined with shed snake skins.
Killdeer love the fact that cattle keep the mud stirred up which makes insect and worm hunting a little easier.
Florida has an abundant Gray Squirrel population but Fox Squirrels – not so much. We have three species of Fox Squirrel. One is found mostly in the northwestern panhandle, another in the Everglades. Sherman’s Fox Squirrel, although found throughout the state, is a “species of special concern”, primarily due to loss of habitat.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker is hunting for a house. I think he found one he likes.
Leavenworth’s Tickseed is nearly endemic to Florida (a few grow in southern Georgia) and belongs to the Coreopsis family.
It looks like grass which has been touched with white paint – Star Rush.
This Lesser Yellowlegs looks like the main course in a pot of broccoli soup. The thick Duckweed hides all sorts of food items wading birds love.
Such a beautiful bloom seems like it should have a more attractive name, but no matter what it’s called, Pickerelweed is lovely.
You just never know what you’ll find riding around the countryside. For instance, a hot-air balloon cruising over an orange grove!
Okay, time out for a test shot. New camera and new lens. The moon, 600mm hand-held. Now, if I could just find a bird —-
A field of Black-eyed Susan brightened the landscape.
Vivid purple and yellow of the Pale Meadowbeauty are hard to ignore.
Such an unfriendly plant with its spikes and thorns! Such a striking flower! Nuttall’s Thistle can be purple, pink, white or pale yellow.
Although I don’t know how this wonderful bloom got its name, I’m very happy it grows along the roadside in Hardee County! The Carolina Desert-chicory.
A gang of five Swallow-tailed Kites put on an aerial display as they swooped low over a pasture and snatched flying insects which they ate in flight. A couple of Red-winged Blackbirds tried to chase them from “their” territory, but were largely ignored by the sleek kites.
This Wild Turkey was pretty sure I wouldn’t spot him as he tried to slink through the underbrush. He was wrong.
No specific birding destination can sometimes provide surprisingly good birding! Grab your favorite birder. Get in a car. Drive around. Now.
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
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