How did Frank Jefferson Pepper, born on a ranch in Cherry Creek, Nevada in 1880, to parents who knew Jesse James and Wyatt Earp, end up on a ranch in South Florida? And how did we end up birding this remaining piece of disappearing “Old Florida” in March 2015? After high school Frank made the right decision and entered the growing country’s railroad business, first in Chicago and later working for tycoon Henry Flagler as a surveyor with the Florida East Coast Extension Railroad. Eventually, after several false starts and resets in business, Frank assumed a partnership position in another Florida railroad and acquired significant real estate holdings, including the Royal Palm Club and Gulfstream Racetrack in Miami. He also acquired the Pepper Ranch, near Immokalee on the northern shore of Lake Trafford in 1926, as collateral on an unpaid debt and developed it as a family fishing and hunting camp and working cattle ranch. The more I read about late 19th early 20th century Florida history, the more I’m struck with the similarities between it and the westward development of our country a half century earlier. The pioneer and entrepreneurial spirit, the large ranches with round-ups, cattle drives and range disputes, the growth of the railroads, the land speculation, the big sky and flat land, the taming of the wilderness, and the friction with the displaced Native Americans, all have a similar ring. You still get a hint of this history as you cruise the dirt roads on the 2500 acre ranch today, acquired by Collier County in 2009. The solitude and beauty of this land is breath-taking. In a day of birding we saw just one other birder and several ranch hands–quite a change from the other birding hotspots in Southwest Florida.
My two birding partners and I seem to bring a compatible mix of skills, knowledge, and absurd puns to these adventures into the central parts of the state, making them memorable. The driver and instigator is a long-time resident of Florida with local knowledge, always looking for the next adventure and remote location to explore. The other is a long-time friend and photography guru, but also our safety officer, reminding us about the large gator, poisonous snake, panther, and wild boar that may be lurking behind the next palm tree. I’ve been birding the longest of the three, but am relatively new to wildlife photography, and more than happy to tag along for the birds, scenery, and fun. On this particular day all of us were breaking in new equipment.
This was not a big day in the sense of seeing a large number of species, but rather a day to see who could get the most unusual shot of the more common birds. In that spirit I had our driver stop the car to let me out and get a close unencumbered shot of the cattle egret near that small, funny-looking dark cow. A few seconds later I was scrambling back into the car when the safety officer noticed the definitive anatomy on my cow; it was a wild boar. It was also a good day for Red-shouldered Hawks in flight, mating Crested Caracara, singing Eastern Meadowlarks, a Sandhill Crane family, and soaring Swallow-tailed Kites. Did you know that the Kites eat their prey in flight, rather than returning to a perch or landing before eating, like most raptors?
At the end of the long day, and perhaps 250 cattle egrets later, 3 hungry, tired, happy birders pulled into the local MacDonald’s drive thru, but low and behold, we got stuck behind another cattle egret, clearly off the ranch and struggling with his menu choice. It was unanimous– this was the shot of the day!