“Do you hear that?”
“What?”, Gini asked.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Largeflower Primrosewillow is abundant in wet areas.
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.
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.
The Cloudless Sulphur does a pretty good imitation of a leaf as it collects nectar from a Buttonbush bloom.
Small white flowers extend above the fairly large pointed leaves of a Grassy Arrowhead plant found in very wet places.
Even more color variety is provided by the Largeflower Rosegentian. We came across large sections covered in these delicate pink blooms.
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.
A Great Crested Flycatcher was not happy with our presence since he and the Missus were building a nest nearby.
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.)
A Pale Meadowbeauty doesn’t seem all that pale as the bright purple and yellow was obvious from a great distance.
Black-eyed Susans seemed to be alongside almost every road in some places. Which was just fine with us!
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”.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
See more birds at: Paying Ready Attention (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)