Birding Old Florida

Once a year we pile into Mel’s large SUV at dawn, grab a quick breakfast and coffee at Panera Bread, and head inland looking for birds in “Old Florida”.  Florida was the last of the southern states to be settled and civilized, in its case centripetally, from the east and west coasts first, and then gradually and progressively inland.  It’s in this sparsely populated inland region where one can still get a feel for what Florida once was in the 19th century and earlier.  You can also find the birds that thrive on the dry flat savanna and open spaces.

My birding colleagues

When I first started visiting South Florida in the 1970’s development along the coasts only extended perhaps 5 miles inland, whereas now one has to travel 15 or 20 miles inland to leave the strip malls, gated communities, and golf courses behind.  The coastal development of the 19th and early 20th century was spurred on by the construction of the 275 mile Tamiami Trail, (Tampa to Miami), begun in 1915, and the Florida East Coast Railway (St. Augustine to Miami, and later all the way to Key West), by Henry Flagler in 1885.  Florida’s history is a colorful account of land management and mismanagement, with the legal disputes still occurring today.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna

This history of Florida is skillfully portrayed in the historical novel “A Land Remembered” by Patrick D. Smith.  It describes three generations of a pioneer family and their struggle to survive on a difficult frontier.  You’d think you were reading about the Wild West instead of the Sunshine State.  It’s a tale of cattle drives, crackers, rustlers, range wars, dust storms, hurricanes, vigilante justice, and Native Americans unfairly confined to reservations.  The narrative begins just after the Civil War and ends with the glass and steel skyscrapers of modern Miami Beach.

Osceola Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo osceola

Our birding technique for this trip was four sets of eyes scanning the, roadside ditches, wires, and shrubs at 30 MPH, calling out for Mel to pullover for any interesting bird.  Then silently lower the window for an initial shot and kill the engine to mitigate vibration if the bird was particularly photogenic.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

You were lucky if the sighting was on your side of the SUV.  If not, after a courtesy few minutes you could try to open your door for a shot, hoping the bird would not spook.  They usually did, especially the frustrating American Kestrel which seemed to know the limits of my 400mm lens.

The big sky, flat grasslands, and grazing cattle could easily be Oklahoma or Texas, that is, except for the alligators lurking in each watering hole and the tropical Florida flora.  The roadside ditches and wet sinkholes were good bets to find Kingfishers Egrets, Herons, Cormorants, Spoonbills, and Anhinga, but we were more interested in seeing and photographing Caracara, Sandhill Cranes, Meadowlarks, and maybe even a Snail Kite.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

Almost at the center of the state, but slightly southwest of Lake Okeechobee you’ll find our final destination, the Dinner Island Ranch.  This is a 21,000 acre wildlife management area of uplands and wetlands with scattered palm and oak hammocks festooned with Spanish moss.

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Calusa Indians frequented the region from 800 AD until the 17th century, but we saw nary a soul on the day of our visit.  Make sure you have a full tank of gas, food, and water for your visit, and don’t get stuck in a muddy sinkhole or sandpit as Mel has learned the hard way.  Tow trucks won’t readily respond to this remote location.

Dinner Island Ranch

This was the start of the breeding season for the Eastern Meadowlarks and they were out in great numbers singing for any potential mate.  They were the consensus photogenic bird-of-the-day, seemingly posing for us on every fence post, as if we were a mate option.  The striking yellow bird in the bright sun gave us dozens of great low-ISO shots, some of which you’ll see here.

Eastern Meadowlark

Add to them the pair of Crested Caracaras on the telephone pole, the Cattle Egrets faithfully following the herd, an unusual flyover of a large flock of White Pelicans, and the engaging banter of fellow birders, and you have a satisfying day in Old Florida.

Cattle Egrets, Bubulcus ibis

To top it off, Mel has a great knack for finding the perfect, out-of-the-way human watering hole to end our day.  Next time you’re in Immokalee check out the “Roma In Havana Ristorante” for great Italian and Cuban cuisine.  It was our chance to imbibe, tally our bird list (46 species), and make plans for next year’s visit to Old Florida.