A Charming Season

“One day I undertook a tour through the country, and the diversity and beauties of nature I met with in this charming season, expelled every gloomy and vexatious thought.”

Daniel Boone (American Woodsman, 1734-1820)

 

“Let’s visit Punta Gorda”, said I. My wonderfully astute spouse agreed immediately. A part of her exists within my soul and she knows my thoughts before I even create them. In this case, she fully realized that what I actually said was “Let’s go get some fresh seafood and sit by that little lake with the scent of pine trees around us while we enjoy life.”

Founded in 1884, Punta Gorda (Spanish for “Fat Point”) juts into Charlotte Harbor where the Peace River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Like many port cities it has had a colorful history. The downtown area was severely damaged by fire in 1905. This resulted in a decree that all future buildings must be of brick or concrete. In 2004, the city was ravaged by Hurricane Charley and many historic landmarks, homes and structures were destroyed. The city has been revitalized and strolling around the cobblestone center of this sparsely populated port town is a relaxing endeavor. Shipping was a major factor in early settlement and in 1886 the Florida Southern Railroad began regular passenger service. My personal favorite, however, is the success of the local fishermen who netted mullet, Spanish mackerel and channel bass (redfish) once a local business developed a method (in 1891) to preserve and process the abundant harvest. How can I NOT like a company called “The Consolidated Ice Manufacturing, Refrigeration and Fish Company”?

Just outside the city limits is the Peace River Seafood and Crab Shack. It’s a small former “Cracker” cabin run by a fellow who has been a Florida crabber most of his life. The seafood is fresh, the menu interesting, the service friendly and they also have a market on site if you want to take home fresh seafood and fix it yourself.

No, we didn’t make the trip just for the food, although it would be worth the two hour drive to do so. Our birding destination (you were wondering if we had abandoned our purpose in life, weren’t you?) was the vast Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area. Consisting of almost 66,000 acres, this is one of the last undeveloped expanses of hydric pine flatwoods in southwest Florida. There is a small lake and ponds which have been stocked for fishermen. Seasonal hunting is allowed so check schedules and accessibility before you visit (see the link in Additional Information below). The pine woods here are interspersed with large areas of wet prairie and the wildflower display in spring and summer is stunning.

Following a wonderful lunch of fresh fish and huge, succulent shrimp, we explored the “unimproved” roads and managed to list 45 species of birds. In the right season and with a bit of luck, it’s very possible to see seven species of woodpecker, including the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, which nests here. We observed four species on today’s trip. Other highlights for us were hearing Northern Bobwhite calling wherever we went, migratory Eastern Wood-Pewee, Eastern Bluebirds, a wetland containing 15 Little Blue Heron, 8 Great Egret, 6 Snowy Egret, 5 Anhinga, 5 Great Blue Heron, 7 Tricolored Heron, 2 Belted Kingfisher and a 10-foot alligator who swam over to say hello. An afternoon thunderstorm provided some interesting clouds over Lake Webb at sunset as we headed home. It was a good day.

BUT WAIT!! THERE’S MORE!!

Sometimes, getting there is half the fun. Some readers may have noticed our birding adventure above began after lunch. Oho, you’re thinking, they slept in today those lazy birders! Au Contraire, mes amis!

We seldom use the “main road” to go anywhere. Today was no different. Along a wonderfully vacant backroad we enjoyed field after field of serenading Eastern Meadowlarks. They just didn’t care that it was Autumn and we were the better for it. In a pasture, it appeared that a pair of Crested Caracara parents were instructing their youngster on proper hunting technique. The adults would perch next to Junior in the field where there appeared to be a recent kill (although they readily eat carrion, also). One of the adults would hop toward the prey, Junior would follow, the parents would fly to a nearby perch, Junior would cry. And cry. And cry. An adult would fly back, hop toward the prey and return to their perch. Junior would cry, and … you get the idea (especially if you’ve been a parent). Junior eventually seemed to eat a bit and then flew to a perch of his own, where I snapped his portrait. It’ll be about two years before he fully develops the handsome appearance of an adult. By the side of this same road we found our “first of the fall season” migratory Eastern Wood-Pewee.

A short detour led us to a local community park (Brownville Park) along the Peace River near Arcadia in DeSoto County. It’s a small park with a couple of nature trails and we had the place to ourselves. We didn’t stay long but still managed to tally two dozen species which included a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, an Ovenbird, three Vireo species and a marauding gang of Wrens, two of which visited Gini while she was in the car – one perched on the rear view mirror and the other hopped onto my pack in the back seat.

Lunch time. (See all the stuff above.)

Yep, I took a few photographs.

 

“Junior”. Typical youngster – feathers out of place, dirty face, constantly whining. It won’t be long before he’ll be a fine example of a grown-up Crested Caracara.

Crested Caracara - Immature

Crested Caracara – Immature

 

Our first Eastern Wood-Pewee of the fall season. The light underside, olive upper side, wing bars and orangish lower mandible help identify the species.

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Eastern Wood-Pewee

 

A view of the Peace River from Brownville Park. This has been a wet year and the water level is higher than normal.

Peace River

Peace River

 

At Brownville Park, a Walnut Sphinx moth posed on the screen of the restroom door. Happily, I was not arrested while obtaining a photo.

Walnut Sphinx  (Amorpha juglandis)

Walnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis)

 

The ubiquitous Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

 

A Red-eyed Vireo paused to look at me then continued snatching bugs from branches.

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo

 

I was surprised to be buzzed by a pugnacious Ruby-throated Hummingbird. She perched on a limb and preened for a minute. I didn’t think they ever landed!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Female

Ruby-throated Hummingbird – Female

 

One of a half-dozen Northern Parula warblers we found in Brownville Park. I love their subtle color combinations.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

 

Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area offers a vast area of pine flatwoods and grass prairie which hosts abundant and diverse wildlife.

Tuckers Grade

Tucker’s Grade

Tuckers Grade

Tucker’s Grade

Tucker's Grade

Tucker’s Grade

Webb Lake

Webb Lake

 

While we ate lunch alongside Webb Lake, this Green Anole scurried around catching insects. Here he’s resting on the trunk of a Scrub Palmetto which has recently been burned and is just beginning to show new growth.  (Green Anoles can change their appearance somewhat to match their surroundings, thus, the brown color of this one.)

Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis)

Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis)

 

Molting is revolting. Just ask this Eastern Towhee, who can’t wait to get his new feathers.

Eastern Towhee (Molting)

Eastern Towhee (Molting)

 

Looking like a disgruntled old man (hey, I resemble that remark!), a Green Heron uses his lookout perch to search for a careless frog.

Green Heron

Green Heron

 

This fine reptile specimen was totally hidden in the grass. Well, as much as a ten-foot scaly remnant of the dinosaur age can hide. When I exited the truck to get some tourist photos, he slid into the water and swam in a very straight line toward the photographer, who wasted no time in re-entering the truck and starting the engine.

American Alligator

American Alligator

 

A Snowy Egret all decked out in his finest bright yellow footwear.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

 

The Sandhill Crane is elegant and this one has the rusty plumage indicative of a mineral rich diet.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

 

Belted Kingfishers don’t hesitate to voice their displeasure when a stumbling human encroaches on their hunting territory.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

 

 

All in all, a long, wonderful day. Returning home, I discovered that, “every gloomy and vexatious thought” had, indeed, been expelled. This is, truly, a charming season.

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

Additional Information

Babcock-Webb WMA

Brownville Park

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Birding Is The Pits

“This water is too deep. My bait is still falling.” My girlfriend’s brother just grunted and said: “Just let it fall. Somethin’ will eat it.” No sooner said than done. My little five-dollar reel was designed for pan fish no larger than my hand. What was on the end of my line clearly was the size of a nuclear submarine. Only with more power. Almost all the line on the plastic reel was gone when, miraculously, I began to regain some of the thin monofilament. After what seemed like several days, a fat six-pound largemouth bass lay on the grass next to me. I marveled at the beautiful dark green mingling with the glistening black and rubbed my fingers across the sandpaper-like mouth of the fish. Several smaller specimens were caught before it was time to go.

Most natural lakes in Florida average from four to eight feet deep and are shaped like a shallow bowl. The spot we fished that day was over 50 feet deep, even near the shoreline. But there was nothing natural about its formation. This was the site of a former phosphate mining operation. The useful mineral had long since been extracted and the mining company planted trees and shrubs around the impoundment, stocked it with fish and allowed nature to do its thing for the next ten years. We lovingly refer to these picturesque locales as the “pits”.

Florida is rich in phosphate deposits, a nutrient which is vital to all living things. The mineral is mostly made into fertilizer and Florida supplies over 60% of North America’s agricultural usage of the stuff. In 2013, Florida’s phosphate exports totaled over $2.2 billion. The companies involved in this mining business have strived, to varying degrees of success over the years, to be better stewards of the environment and have made extensive efforts to reclaim exhausted phosphate pits. Some of these areas have become magnets for wildlife, especially birds, and the fishing can be quite good as well.

(The opening paragraph took place a few hundred years ago when I was but a lad. The “girlfriend” mentioned has been my wife for over 46 years.)

Gini and I recently visited one of these reclaimed areas in south Polk County near the community of Bowling Green. Known as the Mosaic Fish Management Area, several former mining pits were reclaimed from 1979 to 1992 at which time they were opened to the public. Currently, to visit these pits, whether for fishing or other purposes, one must check with a security guard as they control the number of visitors to ease the impact on the environment and to lessen fishing pressure. (Mosaic is one of the largest phosphate companies in the state.)

Some of these spots have “unimproved” roads around the water’s edge for the adventurous while some allow only a glimpse or two of the water (a boat would be needed for actual exploration). We stopped in at four of the six lakes currently open. Without trying very hard we tallied over 40 species and spent a very enjoyable morning among old pine and oak trees (happy to see the mining left a few intact). Since the water is so deep, even at the shoreline, at these impoundments, we didn’t find very many wading birds. Highlights included an island with almost 200 roosting Double-crested Cormorants, three Yellow-billed Cuckoos, numerous woodpeckers, several Bald Eagles and American Kestrels, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a wonderful diversity of insects. The island mentioned above was strewn with old nests and will bear inspection during breeding season as I suspect it’s used by herons, egrets, ibises and cormorants.

We look forward to including this area on our list of “routine visits”.

 

“Cormorant Island”. As I scanned this spot with the scope, I also found Great Blue Herons, White Ibises, Black-crowned Night Herons and a Snowy Egret nestled in the trees. It’s well guarded, too, as I counted over a dozen alligators patrolling the waters around the island. Well, okay, maybe they were actually lunch patrons …

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

 

Return visitors for the fall and winter include Palm Warblers. One was curious about what I was up to and followed me around for several minutes always finding a perch directly overhead. The second one hawked insects from a fence as he exhibited the constant “tail pumping” characteristic of the species.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

 

The Northern Parula is a year-round resident in our area and is always a joy to watch.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

 

If you find one Blue-gray Gnatcatcher there will likely be several in the same area. These non-stop little vacuum cleaners don’t miss many spots in their endless search for juicy bugs.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

 

The road to a couple of the lakes bordered a large pasture. The fence in this area was a popular perch for dragonflies. Here is a female Roseate Skimmer and an immature male transitioning to his adult color.

Roseate Skimmer - Female

Roseate Skimmer – Female

Roseate Skimmer - Immature

Roseate Skimmer – Immature Male

 

That same fence was used by a Loggerhead Shrike to store his groceries for a future meal. Here, a large Sphinx moth species was impaled on a barb.

Sphinx Moth Impaled On Barb

Sphinx Moth Impaled On Barb

 

Near one of the boat ramps, Gini spotted a huge web spread between two tall pine trees. A large female Golden Silk Spider dwarfs the diminutive male just above her. It is not uncommon for the little males to become a meal at some point in the relationship …..

Golden Silk Spider (Nephila clavipes)

Golden Silk Spider (Nephila clavipes)

 

Another guest returning for the fall and winter is the Eastern Phoebe. These attractive flycatchers really enjoy all the diverse insect life in our area. And we really enjoy the fact they eat so much of it!

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

 

While I was chasing a White-eyed Vireo in a hedgerow, a large Yellow-billed Cuckoo surprised me by landing in a nearby tree. He remained long enough for one cluttered photo op and disappeared immediately. We were surprised to find two more in totally different locations.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

 

A Golden-winged Skimmer shows off its beautiful colors.

Golden-winged Skimmer - (Libellula auripennis)

Golden-winged Skimmer – (Libellula auripennis)

 

This Turkey Vulture flew by three times very low so I finally snapped a portrait. Who can resist such utter beauty?

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

 

A pair of Downy Woodpeckers were discussing whether this would be a good spot to set up housekeeping. Judging by the raised crest of the female, I suspect they will be looking for a better neighborhood.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

 

Common Gallinules were not abundant here (again, that deep water thing is not their favorite) but this one found a shallow creek to enjoy.

Common Gallinule

Common Gallinule

 

Near where the above-mentioned creek flowed out of the lake, a Great Blue Heron announced his presence. Well, more likely he announced how annoyed he was I popped out of the tree line and interrupted his hunt for frogs.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

 

We had another terrific day exploring a different area. It brought back good memories of growing up not too far from here. When anyone asks how was the birding, I can honestly say: “It was the pits”.

 

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

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