Posts Tagged With: florida scrub jay

The Importance Of A Plan

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?

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

 

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).

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay

 

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay

 

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.

River Otter

River Otter

River Otter

River Otter

 

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.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

 

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.

Rattle-box  (Crotalaria spectabilis)

Rattle-box (Crotalaria spectabilis)

 

Common in wet areas, the Virginia Willow blossoms attract many insects, smells wonderful and will eventually grow to 20-30 feet tall.

Virginia Willow  (Itea virginica)

Virginia Willow (Itea virginica)

 

A violet green body helps identify this butterfly as a Long-tailed Skipper.

Long-tailed Skipper  (Urbanus proteus)

Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus)

 

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.

Black Swallowtail  (Papilio polyxenes)

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

 

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.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

 

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.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

 

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

 

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.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

 

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.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

 

 

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!

 

Additional Information

Avon Park Air Force Range

(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.)

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Listen …

“Do you hear that?”

“What?”, Gini asked.

“Exactly!”

This may not be what Simon and Garfunkel had in mind when they composed one of my favorite songs, “The Sound of Silence”, but I was certainly enjoying this particular melody. Standing in the middle of the road with eyes closed, there was no traffic noise, no wailing of emergency vehicle sirens, no incessant barking of a neighbor’s dog, no electric click as the air conditioner activated, no telephone ringing, no television talking head giving me bad news – no sound of “civilization” whatsoever.

Cicadas. The cry of a Red-shouldered Hawk. From my old Roger Tory Peterson “A Field Guide To The Birds”: “…a buzzy trill or rattle that climbs the scale and trips over at the top: zeeeeeeeee-up“, describing the song of a Northern Parula Warbler. The clear, pure sound etched in my dream world of childhood which even now causes my lips to reflexively purse and give a reply: “Bob-WHITE“.

Gini and I seem to have solidified our opinion that this is our newest favorite place. The Avon Park Air Force Range. Not a very appealing moniker. I don’t care what it’s named, this area of south-central Florida consists of 106,000 acres (42, 897 hectares) of wilderness to explore. We have been there three times and seldom encountered any other visitors. We have encountered lush growths of flowers, extensive pine forests, hardwood hammocks, a lake, a river, wetlands, vast grass prairies, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and rare endangered species. (If you plan to visit, check the link below and be sure to call the number listed FIRST for a recorded message on possible range closures. The area is only open to visitors Thursday at noon through Monday.)

Although we have entered the wet season here and have had periods of heavy rain, the couple of weeks prior to our visit were dry and made for dusty driving on the unimproved roads. By the way, be sure to get a map of the area from the very kind folks at the Outdoor Recreation Office (where you must check in anyway), and when the little map symbol indicates “Four-Wheel Drive Recommended”, change that last word to “Or Else”. There are some “challenging” driving opportunities! The recent rains produced a bumper crop of flora for us to enjoy.

We hope you’ll come along for the ride as we show you a very small bit of what this vast area has to offer.

 

This native Florida Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis pratensis) has quite a “rusty” plumage. My understanding is this is due to feeding in iron-rich soils. Normally, the bird is more gray overall.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

 

Brown Anoles are native to Cuba and the Bahamas but were first reported in Florida as early as the late 1880’s. There has been concern they may be causing declines of the native Green Anole.

Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei)

Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei)

 

Male Eastern Pondhawks are powdery blue when mature and adult females are jade green. Immature males of this species begin adult life the same color as females and in about a week begin changing to blue. The process takes two-three weeks and those in transition sport both colors.

Eastern Pondhawk - Male (Erythemis simplicicollis)

Eastern Pondhawk – Male (Erythemis simplicicollis)

 

Eastern Pondhawk - Female (Erythemis simplicicollis)

Eastern Pondhawk – Female (Erythemis simplicicollis)

Eastern Pondhawk - Immature Male (Erythemis simplicicollis)

Eastern Pondhawk – Immature Male (Erythemis simplicicollis)

 

Along the southern boundary of the Air Force Range is beautiful Lake Arbuckle. There is little development around the lake and the fishing is reportedly quite good.

Lake Arbuckle

Lake Arbuckle

 

The Largeflower Primrosewillow is abundant in wet areas.

Largeflower Primrosewillow (Ludwigia grandiflora)

Largeflower Primrosewillow (Ludwigia grandiflora)

 

Patches of Yellow Milkwort brightened up several areas of the forest and roadside. Also known by locals as Batchelor’s Buttons, this beauty is endemic to Florida.

Yellow Milkwort (Polygala rugelii)

Yellow Milkwort (Polygala rugelii)

 

Bugs beware! The attractive Hooded Pitcher Plant is the final resting place for many insects as they become trapped in the plant and are digested.

Hooded Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia minor)

Hooded Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia minor)

 

The Cloudless Sulphur does a pretty good imitation of a leaf as it collects nectar from a Buttonbush bloom.

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)

 

Small white flowers extend above the fairly large pointed leaves of a Grassy Arrowhead plant found in very wet places.

Grassy Arrowhead (Sagittaria graminea)

Grassy Arrowhead (Sagittaria graminea)

 

Even more color variety is provided by the Largeflower Rosegentian. We came across large sections covered in these delicate pink blooms.

Largeflower Rosegentian (Sabatia grandiflora)

Largeflower Rosegentian (Sabatia grandiflora)

 

Over 500 years ago, Spanish explorers left cattle they had brought from Europe in several areas of Florida. These hardy animals became wild, flourished and were eventually raised by Florida’s cowboys, called “Crackers” due to the cracking sound made by their long whips used to herd the cattle. This unique species is known as “Cracker” or “Florida” Cattle.

Cracker Cattle

Cracker Cattle

 

Cracker Cattle

Cracker Cattle

 

A Great Crested Flycatcher was not happy with our presence since he and the Missus were building a nest nearby.

Great Crested Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher

 

The Florida Scrub Jay has been endangered for several years due to habitat loss throughout its former range. Scientists have kept close watch over the jay families calling the Air Force Range their home and these birds have been doing quite well. (All the Scrub Jays here have been banded (ringed) and are routinely examined for health status.)

Florida Scrub-jay

Florida Scrub-jay

Florida Scrub-jay

Florida Scrub-jay

 

A Pale Meadowbeauty doesn’t seem all that pale as the bright purple and yellow was obvious from a great distance.

Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana)

Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana)

 

Black-eyed Susans seemed to be alongside almost every road in some places. Which was just fine with us!

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

 

This petite damselfly is a Variable Dancer (Argia fumipennis) and has several different geographically specific variations. Our Florida version has an all black abdomen (except for the tip) and is also called a “Black Dancer”.

Variable Dancer (Argia fumipennis)

Variable Dancer (Argia fumipennis)

Variable Dancer (Argia fumipennis)

Variable Dancer (Argia fumipennis)

 

The leaflets of the Sensitive Brier will actually fold up toward each other when disturbed to expose the stem’s briers. The flower is kinda pretty, too!

Sensitive Brier (Mimosa quadrivalvis var. angustata)

Sensitive Brier (Mimosa quadrivalvis var. angustata)

 

In the late spring and early summer, the plains of central and south Florida exude a perfume no chemist can duplicate. The blooming Saw Palmetto produces a subtly sweet fragrance that, thankfully, can only be experienced if you are outside in the fresh air.

Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)

Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)

Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)

Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)

 

Diminutive Brown-headed Nuthatches breed in this area. You know they’re around when the tops of pine trees sound like a convention of “rubber duckies” as that’s what their squeaky calls sound like. These are pugnacious little birds and will challenge anything intruding on their territory.

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Brown-headed Nuthatch

 

In addition to a variety of birds, the pine scrub habitat is attractive to all manner of animal life, including white-tailed deer, wild (feral) hogs, both Eastern Gray and endangered Sherman’s Fox Squirrels, bobcat, bear, fox and occasional birders.

Pine Scrub

Pine Scrub

 

Fittingly, as we were leaving the area for the day, a pair of Northern Bobwhite crossed the road in front of us, hopefully on their way to produce more of this handsome species.

Northern Bobwhite

Northern Bobwhite

 

As we pulled onto the main highway, it was good to be heading home to rest in our familiar, “civilized” surroundings. We shall be returning soon, though, to once again experience a very special place where we know we can listen to our own “Sound of Silence”.

 

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

 

Additional Resources

Avon Park Air Force Range

 

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

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel, Wildflowers, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

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