Wildflowers

Mining For Birds

“Beans.”

“You want beans for breakfast?”

“Yes.”

The night before a big adventure requires precision planning for maximum efficiency. Cell phones were charging, optics had been cleaned, fresh battery was inserted into the camera, memory cards formatted, wardrobe laid out and now Gini was confirming the arrangements for provisions.

As any school child can tell you, breakfast is THE MOST IMPORTANT MEAL OF THE DAY! I wasn’t going to risk running out of energy mid-morning due to an insufficient morning meal.

“Exactly what kind of beans do you want?”

“The usual.”

I could hear her eyes roll heavenward from the living room. “You’re impossible.”

I guess that means I will be brewing my own coffee in the morning.

 

We were headed south to Hardee County, adjacent to our home county of Polk in west central Florida. It was dark but the weatherman promised “chamber of commerce” weather for the day. That worried me.

Our arrival at Hardee Lakes Park coincided nicely with sunrise. No clouds, pleasant temperature and – wind. Very gusty wind from the south. At dawn. Small birds are going to be a challenge to find today.

This park was mined for phosphate beginning in 1980 and reclamation of the land started by the end of the decade. After restoring the land and allowing the area to remain unused, the phosphate company donated 1200 acres to Hardee County in 2001 for a recreation area. The park opened in 2004 and today visitors can enjoy fishing in four lakes, hiking, biking, horseback riding, camping and picnicking. Oh, and birding! The park is well maintained and the staff is very friendly and helpful.

Park roads are unimproved but the main roads are in good shape. You can drive around three of the four lakes, but be careful as there can be deep ruts and holes hidden by grass and it can be dicey after periods of rain. There are several trails and a boardwalk through a wetland.

We have always had a terrific experience here and today was no exception.

The day began with dozens of warblers at our first stop. Yellow-rumped, Palm, Pine – scooping up insects in the tree tops and moving en masse from oaks to pines and back again. (They were undeterred by the gusty winds.)

American White Pelicans flew overhead moving from their nightly roosts toward lakes to the north where they would spend the day feeding. Bald eagles crashed through the lake’s surface and emerged with fresh fish in their talons. Noisy Killdeer scooted along a gravel road chasing grasshoppers. Eastern Phoebes and Loggerhead Shrikes sallied forth from elevated perches to hawk flying insects. White-tailed Deer grazed in the park and have become somewhat accustomed to humans. Gray and Southern Fox Squirrels foraged under trees and scampered to a high branch as we approached. The morning was punctuated by the eerie call of the Limpkin and trumpeting of Sandhill Cranes.

All of a sudden, it was lunchtime! How did that happen? We just got here!

Gini’s selection of chicken and fruit was perfect. Just like our day.

 

“Butcher Bird” or Loggerhead Shrike uses that curved beak to grab a dragonfly, moth, grasshopper or even a lizard. Often, the prey is impaled on a thorn or barbed wire fence to make it easier to consume.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

A young White-tailed Deer buck knows he is within the park boundary where hunting is not permitted. Otherwise, we likely would never see him in the open.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Pine Warblers can vary from very drab to very bright yellow. Their white wing bars and face patterns help in identification.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Like the Pine, Palm Warblers can also appear quite plain or show a lot of yellow. The constantly pumping tail gives it away even at a distance.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Small, fast and hungry. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers will fly to a low branch to examine you closely then, poof, they’re back in the top of that tree to resume the snack search.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Florida’s state bird, the Northern Mockingbird, is not only wonderful to listen to, but is pretty nice looking, too!

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Bright yellow with dark streaks on its sides and distinctive face pattern describe a Prairie Warbler. This one was focused on a bug in a bush and let me get fairly close.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Female Black-and-White Warblers are paler than the male with a gray instead of black cheek. Both think they belong to the Nuthatch family as they run headfirst down a tree trunk or explore the underside of a branch.

Hardee Lakes Park

Female

Hardee Lakes Park

Male

I had a glimpse of a Limpkin here five years ago and never saw another until today. I was beginning to think they were avoiding me.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Typical of former mining pits, all four lakes at Hardee Lakes Park are quite deep for Florida lakes. Double-crested Cormorants don’t mind diving for their dinner and they thrive here.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Although they can dive deep, the small Pied-billed Grebe would just as soon grab her lunch nearer the surface when possible.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Long legs, double breast bands, orange eyes – the Killdeer runs, stops, runs, stops – until he nabs a bug. Then he does it all over again. Noisily.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Yellow-rumped Warblers have a split personality. There are two sub-species: “Myrtle” Warbler of the eastern U.S. has a white throat, yellow sides and yellow rump. “Audubon’s” Warbler of the west has a yellow throat, yellow sides and yellow rump. Here in Florida we occasionally see “Audubon’s” during migration.

Hardee Lakes Park

“Myrtle” Warbler

Just looking at her makes my arm hurt. Horse Fly (Tabanus atratus). From 0.75-1.25 inches long (1.9-3.18 cm). Avoid!

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Winter means we get to enjoy that dedicated hunter, the Eastern Phoebe. They are plentiful and beautiful and we will be sad when they all head north in the spring.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Bald Eagles are common throughout our area since central Florida has so many lakes. Also, migration adds to the number of these magnificent raptors. Resident birds are busy with courtship and nesting now through January. Today we enjoyed watching adult and immature birds soar and fish.

Hardee Lakes Park

Adult

Hardee Lakes Park

Immature

Also concentrating on courtship, territorial battles and nest building are many water bird species. This Great Blue Heron is circling around to rejoin two other herons. We couldn’t determine if the ongoing kerfuffle was courtship or territory related.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Sandhill Crane siesta includes taking time to preen all those long feathers.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

A Southern Fox Squirrel nibbles a piece of mushroom in the shade of a pine tree by the lake side.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Around the shoreline of the lakes were vast patches of bright Bur-marigold (Bidens laevis). No, I didn’t pack a wide-angle lens. Sigh. It was still a lovely sight.

Hardee Lakes Park

Hardee Lakes Park

 

As we exited the park, I saw some movement in a large oak tree and discovered a Pileated Woodpecker seemingly with his hair on fire.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

We are blessed to have such places to visit within an easy ride from the house. Our thanks to the forward-thinkers a few decades ago who planned for reclaiming this formerly very ugly mining area and transforming it into a haven for those who love nature.

Whew! What a day! I am SO glad I began the morning with a cup of beans for breakfast. Ground up. Hot water poured over them. Sipped slowly. Ahhhh.

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

 

Additional Information

Map Location

Hardee Lakes Park – Facebook Page

Hardee Lakes Park Brochure

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel, Wildflowers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Forest Adventure

“Should I take a jacket?”

Not a common question in the sub-tropical “Sunshine State”. However, we do experience a few cool days at this time of year where a jacket would definitely make an early morning outing more comfortable.

My sage advice to one who already knows the answers to all things: “Take one along. That will insure you won’t need it.”

Indeed, the day was perfect. Cool but comfortable without the jacket. High clouds but dry all morning. Best of all – no wind.

Every time we return to the Arbuckle Tract of the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest, we seem to encounter something different. With over 13,000 acres, I suppose that’s not too surprising. Birds, mammals, reptiles, flora – no wonder it has become one of our favorite locations!

We were a bit concerned as we neared the entrance road. Two large dump trucks lumbered towards us on their way out of the forest. Later, we encountered a grader smoothing out the fresh dirt to fill in some deep holes. A forest service truck was parked alongside the road and workers were spraying invasive plants, primarily Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia).

Maintenance day.

No worries. The wildlife didn’t seem to mind the sprucing up at all. Neither did we.

Almost immediately after entering the forest tract, we spotted a Florida Scrub-Jay. The day was already a success! This is the only bird species that lives exclusively in Florida. They can be found in scrub pine and oak flatwoods occurring in high and dry areas, such as the ancient ridge running down the center of the peninsula (where we were located) as well as coastal and river sand dunes adjacent to likely scrub areas.

From the state forest link below:

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest derives its name from the narrow ridge that runs north and south through the Florida Peninsula. Many years ago ancient ocean levels rose and covered nearly all of the present-day peninsula. The ridge became an island on which the plants and animals continued to evolve in isolation.”

We enjoyed a quiet breakfast at tranquil Lake Godwin. Returning toward the main road, Gini’s sharp ears picked up the “rubber-ducky” squeaking of a gang of Brown-headed Nuthatches. At the same time, a dozen or so Pine Warblers landed and foraged in the grass of the road ahead, Eastern Bluebirds flitted just above the palmetto fronds going from pine tree to pine tree, Downy Woodpeckers probed the higher branches for bugs and – what’s that? A slight movement gave away a Fox Squirrel hugging a nearby pine tree trunk. He moved quickly to a higher limb as I pointed the camera in his direction.

The morning ended all too soon and we reluctantly headed home. A flurry of activity at the forest entrance caused us to pause for an additional half-hour. The trees were filled with Tufted Titmice, Pine Warblers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Great Crested Flycatcher, Northern Cardinals, Palm Warblers, Blue Jays and the fabulous Florida Scrub-Jay. Like a wave rolling along, the mass of feathered feeders moved on – as did we.

What a nice exclamation point on our very fine forest adventure!

 

An excited Eastern Towhee greeted us as we arrived at the forest entrance road.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

We only see Palm Warblers during migration, although many remain through the winter. This one found a juicy morsel for breakfast and proceeded to pound it mercilessly on the branch until it was suitably tenderized.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

Diminutive Brown-headed Nuthatches are fearless and quick to arrive in defense of their territory when an intruder (that would be me) is detected. The problem is, they tend to remain among the highest possible branches directly overhead. I have a fair collection of nuthatch underside images.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

The  “mammal formerly known as Sherman’s Fox Squirrel” has apparently been re-classified as genetically the same as the Southern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger). No matter what his name is, it’s a magnificent animal!

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

Gini’s artistic eye found a pine tree which was felled by recent wind storms to be appealing in its rich color and diverse texture.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

My bride’s keen observation also spotted a new plant (for us): Pineland Purple (Carphephorus odoratissimus var. subtropicanus), also called False Vanillaleaf.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

The Great Southern White (Ascia monuste) may be lacking in a diversity of color but she is still a stunning beauty.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

He saw me before I saw him. A Great Crested Flycatcher allowed one photo before diving for cover.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

Rusty brown and a golden eye combined with its large size and impressive beak identify the Brown Thrasher. In the same family as the Northern Mockingbird (Mimidae), the Brown Thrasher has been observed to have more than 1,000 songs in its repertoire!

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

The relatively small Common Ground Dove in good light and up close is seen to have a “scaly” appearance. About the size of a Song Sparrow, they rely on their plumage to remain hidden in the grass and I’ve been startled many times as one flushes almost from under my feet.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

Florida Scrub-Jays remain in family groups throughout the year. Last year’s offspring often help raise next year’s brood. Immature birds will stay and help defend the territory for about a year before seeking their own homestead.

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

Lake Wales Ridge SF, Arbuckle Tract

 

Another amazing adventure in this beautiful forest! Hopefully, you have your own woodland or special area to explore and discover new things each time you go.

 

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

 

Additional Information

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel, Wildflowers, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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