It was good to be back. I couldn’t believe it had been eight months since my last visit. Some things in life maintain a “comfort level” which never fades. When living in Germany, I purchased a light jacket with leather panels on the front and loosely knit wool in the back. It was perfect for hiking the steep trails through dark forests of fir where the leather buffered the chilly wind and wool at the back allowed fresh air to circulate. Comfortable. Two pairs of walking shoes in the closet are almost identical in design and appearance yet one is used much more often. They’re just more – comfortable. Most mornings I reach in the cabinet and pull down the same cup which for years has held the juice from freshly roasted and ground coffee beans. It holds the same amount as other cups and even looks similar to many. But there is something about its weight, the way my hand fits through the handle, the Meerschaum quality of the coffee-stained china. Comfortable.
I drove through the entrance gates of the Circle B Bar Reserve on the north shore of Lake Hancock, parked at the first picnic table, slung the camera over my shoulder and hung binoculars around my neck. After walking 50 yards, I stopped and turned 360 degrees. There! That’s the feeling! Spanish moss hanging almost to the ground was parted slightly by the wind’s unseen hand revealing huge hundred-year old oak trees, Northern Cardinals leaped through the underbrush, dragonflies shimmered in the sunlight on tall weeds along the path and ahead the walkway met the bright blue sky which beckoned one to discover something wondrous. An involuntary deep sigh caught me by surprise. I was – comfortable. It was good to be back.
Years ago, upon first discovering the Circle B, I tried to visit often. It’s a former cattle ranch which has been developed into a marsh and has restored the flow of Saddle Creek into Lake Hancock. The result is one of the most spectacular birding venues in Florida. A diverse habitat attracts a huge number of birds throughout the year. The day before my visit, a friend (and one of the state’s best birders) sent an email that he spotted a Ruff on the mud flats which have been exposed due to our recent very dry weather. I don’t usually “chase” rarities, but I’ve never seen a Ruff and Circle B is only 30 minutes away…..
Being the experienced and veteran birder and photographer which I so clearly am, I know that one must arrive to a potential birding spot early in the day in order to take advantage of the “golden hours” for best photographic light and maximum bird activity. Not to mention it is much cooler early in the morning. Armed with this knowledge, I arrived on site promptly at – 3:00 in the afternoon. Not a cloud in the sky so the light was wonderfully harsh. Not a sound to be heard except cicadas buzzing so all the birds were likely sleeping. And the temperature was a balmy 95 F, perfect for hiking out to the marsh without a bit of shade along the way. (There were appointments in the morning, you see, and I was afraid to wait until the next morning as the Ruff would surely leave on its northward journey, and besides I may not be as much of an expert as has been advertised.)
Gini says I am a natural contrarian but adds sweetly: “But you’re MY contrarian!”. She’s so diplomatic.
The good news is, even under less than ideal circumstances, the Circle B is a veritable paradise for nature lovers. I found a couple hundred shorebirds on the mud flats, and there may well have been a Ruff (or a dozen) amongst the crowd of sandpipers, plovers, skimmers and others. Unfortunately, they were about 500 miles away and even when I enlarged the many photographs I attempted, it just appeared to be a mass of mottled brown with nothing in focus at all. Sigh.
So, I wandered around and discovered not ALL of the wildlife was taking a nap. Overhead were Bald Eagles, a Red-shouldered Hawk, vultures, Wood Storks and a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites. Not to mention water birds of all types flying from one spot of water to another. I even found a flock of Bobolinks filling up on grass seed before resuming their migration. It was even comforting to see so many alligators still here, right where I left them so many months ago.
Despite the lousy light, heat, limited activity and no rare bird, I still (although reluctantly) took a few pictures. Just for you.
All decked out in breeding plumage, a Tricolored Heron runs toward a potential meal.
A Snowy Egret already has his meal, well, maybe more like a snack. Another Snowy glides overhead, looking almost like an x-ray against the bright sky.
The Great Blue Heron is a large bird, standing almost four feet tall. This young alligator was not impressed. He swam back and forth in front of the heron and twice made a sudden lunge in its direction. The heron was likewise not impressed and never flinched.
A female Bobolink loads up on seeds. She was part of a flock of about two dozen. They are not residents here and we only see them during migration.
This male Black-necked Stilt was busy feeding and there were reports of an occupied nest in this area. I’ll have to return soon to try and find it. Maybe I can get lucky and discover young ones.
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are normally seen in groups. This one evidently found a spot in the mud he liked as I couldn’t see others anywhere.
A resting Roseate Spoonbill keeps one eye on its surroundings. Good idea. Lots of ‘gators wandering by. Not to mention two-legged critters making clicking noises. A little further down the path and I found another spoonbill soaring overhead.
A Florida Red-bellied Turtle leaves a wide path as it scoots along in the soft mud of the marsh. Another one suns itself on a log. The weeds and algae on their shells hide a really pretty reddish-orange pattern.
I startled an adult Black-crowned Night Heron and he hurried out of sight.
A bit later, an immature night heron hid behind some moss. This is likely a second-year bird as first-year night herons are mottled brown but this one doesn’t have the contrasting black and gray of a full adult (see the one above). Plus its eyes are not quite as red as an adult’s.
A large female Florida Softshell Turtle throws sand and gravel in the air as she tries to dig a nest along the hard-packed side of the trail. She’ll need to find some softer sand or mud before she can deposit her 10-30 eggs.
This is a common pose for the Great Blue Heron and may be used to warm the inside of the wings enough to drive out small biting bugs such as mites.
As the sun began to set, a Nine-banded Armadillo foraged in the dry leaves of the oak woods looking for insects. These fascinating animals remind me of Winnie The Pooh’s friend, Piglet.
No Ruff today. Despite my contrariness, I found some wonderful birds, several interesting animals and had an exhilarating outdoor experience. Back at the car, I turned back for one more look at where I had been. There was that sigh again. I felt – comfortable.
We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!