Monday, November 26, 2007

Hidden Osceola County

Osceola is the sixth largest county in Florida with over 1,350 square miles of territory. From north to south it stretches almost 60 miles and is for the most part uninhabited. The extreme northern part of the county is where the bulk of its 245,000 citizens reside, including us. This narrow corridor of densely populated suburbia, roughly paralleling U.S. Hwy. 192, comprises the southern edge of metropolitan Orlando. Osceola is also the 17th fastest growing county in the U.S. by attracting 100,000 new residents since the late 1990's.

Blessedly the rest of the county is still predominantly woods, swamps, lakes, prairies and vast ranches; with much of the agricultural land being devoted to cattle, citrus and turf farms. A lot of it is also preserved by the state of Florida as conservation and wildlife management land that is easy to access and enjoy.

This past Sunday we left the hurly-burly of U.S. 192 behind us and turned south on County Hwy. 523 heading for Yeehaw Junction to enjoy the wide open spaces and beautifully diverse landscapes of southeastern Osceola County that few of our neighbors even know of, much less have ever desired to visit.

Our first stop was at the Sunset Ranch trailhead located in the gorgeous Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. This stunningly beautiful loop trail takes you through enormous open groves of live oak draped with overhanging Spanish moss, dense cypress swamps, open Florida prairie and eventually leads to the shores of Lake Marian. It was easily one the most impressive nature trails I've ever hiked in Florida.
Enchanted forest

Giant cypress

Tall grass prairie

Lake Marian

Hwy. 523 terminates at U.S. 441 in the drowsy half-dead community of Kenansville where we hung a right and proceeded south another 20 miles to Yeehaw Junction where there is an entry ramp on to the Florida Turnpike for the trip back home.

This part of Osceola County still retains its rural charm and has many areas of unspoiled wilderness. This is a very good time of the year to get out and hike, the temperatures are moderate but still warm, the bugs much less of an obstacle to maintaining your sanity and scary reptilian creatures like snakes and gators are more subdued in the cooler weather.

Go forth and explore. It's what the world is for.

Kenansville, FL

Hostess stand in the Desert Inn
Yeehaw Junction, FL

Dining room and bar
Desert Inn

Window up above
Desert Inn

"How I wish I could be dreaming
And wake up to an honest love
I was wrong for I was watching
From the window up above."

------George Jones

Monday, November 19, 2007

The island behind our house

One of my favorite places in all of Florida just happens to be located directly behind our house here in Celebration. It is a slightly elevated patch of open prairie dotted with pine, palmetto and live oak which is completely surrounded on all sides by thickly wooded swamps. The only access to this "island" is by a trail that starts behind our garage.

Trail to the island

In fact this little known nature preserve is where the Disney Corporation relocates animals, especially the endangered gopher tortoise, when they develop new areas of their property that ends up displacing the local fauna. Every once in a while a Disney truck will pull up near our house and a crew of workers will head back into the swamp towards the island to do some sort of conservation work. Lately they've been grooming the prairie with a tractor to enhance the habitat for turtles. Other than these occasional visits from the conservation crew no one else even knows this place exists (besides Connie and I). It is our own private tropical paradise where we can readily see all kinds of wildlife and experience the peace and serenity of an untouched tract of primordial Florida.

The island

An ancient giant live oak

A beautiful tropical spider (Gasteracantha)

The funny thing is we can't get any of our neighborhood friends to join us on a "hike around the island" as we like to call it. They seem deathly afraid of venturing back into the murky depths of the unknown. I think they prefer their version of Florida to be throughly scraped clean of native vegetation, sprayed for bugs and covered in neat squares of uniform green fescue. Welcome to their Magic Kingdom. I certainly prefer mine.

Sunset deep in the swamp

Good-night all.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Catfish Creek State Preserve

This past Sunday we took a delightful hike in Catfish Creek State Preserve which is located in an isolated area of the Lake Wales Ridge ecosystem of central Florida. This unusual landscape of sand hills and desert-like flora reminded me of the high plateaus of Utah and Arizona. It was so quiet and still that I thought for a moment that we were actually in a remote section of the southwestern U.S. rather than in the 4th most populous state in the nation. Amazingly, we were the only people there on this particular afternoon.

Catfish Creek is a wonderful off-the-beaten-path sort of place located in eastern Polk County that preserves beautiful sections of scrub, sandhill, pine flatwoods and shallow ponds that are home to numerous rare plants such as scrub morning glory, scrub plum, pygmy fringe tree, and cutthroat grass. It is also home to several protected animal species including Florida scrub-jays, bald eagles, gopher tortoises, and Florida scrub lizards. During our brief visit we encountered deer, turkey, assorted waterfowl, swallows, an eagle, scrub-jay and a wide variety of insects.

Isolated and empty road to the park.

Interior backcountry of the preserve

A very busy sand wasp (see the sand flying out behind the abdomen).


Fall wildflowers

The Lake Wales Ridge ecosystem is a rapidly vanishing Florida landscape that is home to many unique species of flora and fauna. This relatively untouched state park showcases one of the more remote and sublime landscapes you're liable to find on the entire Florida peninsula.

If you don't end up getting terribly lost trying to find the place you'll probably have the whole park to yourself once you arrive. Have fun kids! Send us a postcard.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Highlands Hammock State Park

This 9,000 acre park in Highlands County opened to the public in 1931 and is one of the earliest examples of grass-roots public support for environmental preservation. Local citizens, concerned about plans to turn the hammock into farmland, acquired the property and pledged to protect it. When Florida’s state park system was established in 1935, Highlands Hammock became one of the four original state parks in the newly established system.

Swamp along the Richard Lieber Trail

The park preserves a scenic virgin hardwood forest, a large cypress swamp, pine flatwoods, sand pine scrub, bayheads and marsh. There are nine trails that penetrate this thickly wooded preserve, with many having boardwalks that take hikers over the marshier sections affording vistas into the mysterious and fascinating swamps below.

Gigantic golden silk spider

Fern Garden Trail

There is also a campground, restaurant, museum and ranger guided tram tours. Highlands Hammock is located four miles west of Sebring on County Road 634. For such a small park it is dense with natural beauty and a wide array of contrasting biomes. It is well worth the detour off of U.S. 27 if you ever happen to be in this neck of the woods.

Delicate white fungi on the forest floor

An adult eastern lubber grasshopper (Romalea microptera)

Deep in the jungle wilderness

Giant oak trunk

Catwalk on the Hickory Trail

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Myakka River State Park

This past Sunday we visited Myakka River State Park, one of Florida's oldest and largest (58 square miles). It is located in central Sarasota County, just seven miles east of I-75, and preserves a diverse set of distinctive natural landscapes. In addition to the Myakka River floodplain there are swamps, dense forests of hardwoods and palm, several large lakes and extensive tracts of dry prairie land. This is one of the most interesting natural areas in Florida and judging by the number of visitors very popular too.

Myakka River

Trail along the river floodplain

Floodplain palm forest

The forest canopy as seen from a 74 foot observation tower.

The park is also teeming with wildlife and on our fairly short visit we encountered: wild boar, deer, a pygmy rattlesnake, red shouldered hawks, flocks of black vultures, alligators and all kinds of interesting insects.

Wild boar

Red shouldered hawk

Upper Myakka Lake

Black vulture convention by the lake

In addition to hiking, camping and fishing there are trails for horseback riding and as well as interpretive presentations and guided hikes. You can also hop aboard one of the world's two largest airboats, the Myakka Maiden or the Gator Gal for a scenic cruise on Upper Myakka Lake or take a Tram Safari into the backcountry. There is enough room here to take extended backpacking trips into the interior but I would strongly suggest doing this in the winter when the bugs and heat are less intense. All in all a great place to enjoy the essence of natural Florida.

Where the prairie meets the forest

Some very interesting ant hill architecture

Steer clear of the velvet ant (Dasymutilla magnifica).

Black vultures in a tree waiting for death to bring them lunch.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Eastern Pondhawk

This morning I saw a beautiful female Eastern Pondhawk lifting off from our driveway rather unsteadily due to an overly large piece of prey that it was grasping in its mouth parts. A few seconds later this graceful insect gingerly alighted on the backyard banana tree, where it began to more earnestly chew and digest its hapless victim. Camera in hand I recorded the gripping mealtime drama for you my gentle readers in cyberspace.

It appears that it was scarfing down a male member of its own species.

Just another typical day in the bug eat bug world of the Florida jungle.

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)

Click on the image for a much more detailed view.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Birds of my neighborhood

The weather has been breezy and a bit cooler the past few days so I've been taking longer walks after dinner with my camera to see what kinds of animals I could capture in the viewfinder for you my dear readers out there in cyberspace.

Here in the swamps and lakes of central Florida the bird life is what has struck this newcomer the most. It looks and feels like I live in an exotic jungle paradise. Well maybe I do.

Wood stork

Florida wild turkey or also known as the Osceola

Woods that surround the ponds

This gator was watching me take pictures.

White ibis

Another day is done in the Florida outback.