Photo essay: Call of the wild

Florida offers abundance of natural areas to explore

The allure of wide-open spaces draws me to Hendry County. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Saturday dawned cool and breezy. I filled water bottles and packed a lunch of tidbits I had squirreled away in the freezer.

Interstate 75 northbound was crowded; the road south was wide open.

As always, the pines along the edges of the highway were beautiful to behold, with bundles of dark green needles and bark in earth tones of red and brown. The trees appear to grow shorter as one goes south.

When State Road 80 came up, I exited and went east.

This is October at Spirit of the Wild. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

“East” was once the great unknown. Years ago, when I moved to Southwest Florida, I alternated between the beaches and the parks. I watched sunsets, part of the age-old ritual.

Then curiosity catapulted me into a wider world. I bought DeLorme’s map book of Florida. Taking mostly back roads, I drove north, south and east. I explored public lands and subdivisions and walked roadsides and vacant lots.

Springs in north-central Florida took up a lot of my attention one year. State forests have always been of interest. I came to love Polk and Highland counties on the Ridge with their smatterings of scrub, Florida’s desert.

And as the coast grew more and more crowded, the allure of wide-open spaces drew me to Lee, Glades, Collier and Hendry counties in the south.

Remembering that State Road 29 would take me to Hendry County, I took a back road. No luck. I hailed a passing RV for directions and was advised to “Keep on Route 80 towards Belle Glade; take a right on Helms Road, which will bring you to 29.” Soon I was passing agricultural areas and giving silent thanks to the farmers and migrant workers who keep our food supply constant.

Keri Road came up on the left. A little ways down, I took a left into Spirit of the Wild, a wildlife management area dedicated to the Florida panther,

People I meet on a trail are always asking me, “What did you see?” They are hoping for an animal, a large animal. I tell them, “Pines, wildflowers, insects, ‘herps,’ birds and other creatures, many of them small.” A lot of Florida is Lilliputian.

Alligator flag is a mainstay of swamps and wetlands. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

I never expect to see the Florida panther, an endangered animal brought back from the brink of extinction in 1995 with the introduction of eight Texas cougars. There are now more than 100 Florida panthers, widely scattered and generally confined to extreme south Florida. I have seen them at dusk in the Fakahatchee, but they appear so briefly, I do not even have time to reach for my camera.

Slash pines and sabal palms dot the landscape. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Recently, a long tan branch along a trail in Carlton Reserve attracted my attention. What tree could that be from? As I moved in to take a look, it coalesced into a large animal and disappeared — poof — like the Chinese dragon Michael Sullivan wrote about in The Arts of China. For the Chinese landscape painter, the dragon was an “all-pervading force which momentarily reveals itself only to vanish again and leave us wondering if we had actually seen it at all.”

Wild coffee is a shrub in the understory that can be grown in home gardens in Florida. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Spirit of the Wild was enchanting, as always. Historically, this was flatwoods and wetlands with sloughs connected to the Caloosahatchee River and what is now the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. Years ago, more than half the area was logged out, cleared for cattle and ditched for flood control by settlers. Fire, all-important to Florida’s natural habitats, was excluded. Now, land managers are slowly restoring these disturbed areas.

October is the end of the rainy season, but the road was mainly dry, though a few deep puddles gave me pause. On foot, I followed a great egret down the road.

No alligators today. During the rainy season, they spread out over a wide area. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

This is a birder’s paradise. When I drove in, three broad-winged hawks, birds I had never seen before, lifted off into the pines. No din of traffic; just bird song. The red-winged blackbird and the meadowlark set the ambiance for the scene. Ducks, gallinules and other species of water birds discoursed on the water. As I passed by, a little green heron lifted off from reeds at the edge of the road. A great blue heron squawked by overhead. Warblers — both locals and migrants — took over trees along the edge of the road.

Fire helps the pine flatwoods thrive. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Once, when I visited in winter, clouds of tree swallows enveloped the place. (Check out Spirit of the Wild’s bird list on myfwc.com).

No din of traffic here; just bird song from meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Masses of sunflowers lifted my spirits, but there were plenty of exotic invasive plants, which move in when land is disturbed. Lots of alligator flag in the water, but no alligators in sight. Still, I would not dream of striking out on my own through these wetlands. Picturing a massive python having me for lunch, my friend Laurel is always cautioning me, “They wouldn’t even find you.”

Caracaras can be found in this birder’s paradise. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

After lunch in the shade of a pine, I headed toward home. Then, reluctant to break the spell, I stopped into Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area near Punta Gorda. The pine flatwoods were as beautiful as ever.

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