Guilty Pleasures in Florida

Last month’s post on our visit to Fairbanks (here) put me in mind of a couple places we visited in Florida last winter that I think of as “guilty pleasures”. You know the kind of place I’m talking about – places you do not necessarily tell your friends you’re going to visit but you go anyway just because it’s fun or quirky and, what can I say, it’s American.

Now, I’m not including the Fairbanks stops in that category….just meant that writing the blog reminded me of the places in Florida.

So, I’m not talking about museums or historical sites or places of cultural significance that are “good” for you. I’m talking about all the other places we humans tend to love so much. Think about it. These are the places that lure you in with a thousand and one roadside signs and billboards tell you that you absolutely must stop and see them when you’re on the road.

On the one hand, if you have traveled at all in the south, you will have had to have seen a few barns painted with “See Rock City” on the side (or roof) and you know you wanted to go. Admit it.


But Rock City is actually a very lovely garden on the top of Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga in Tennessee and you really should go there…and you don’t have to feel the least bit guilty…there are scenic views and geology and flowers and birds and nature and history….nothing chintzy at all (at least when I was there about 30 years ago).


But let’s take it down one level – remember the last time you traveled down Interstate 95 between North Carolina and South Carolina. Yep, you guessed it – South of the Border!

Some years ago, I used to run that route regularly on my way home to Georgia and every time, I’d see those signs…for miles I’d see those signs telling me I just had to stop at South of the Border. They really must put those signs up at least fifty miles in advance of the place because you cannot possibly miss them. If you’ve been on 95, then you’ve passed South of the Border.

sotbAnd the signs were all “Mexico”. You couldn’t be any further away from Mexico (physically or culturally) but you’d have thought you were right there getting ready to cross the Rio Grande in Texas. And it would be a totally kitschy Mexico. Now, every time I’d get taken in by those signs and I’d promise myself that one day I was gonna take that exit and I was going to see what all the hubbub was about there just over the South Carolina line. And, so I did. And, it was just exactly what I’d expected…giant souvenir shops and a couple restaurants all decorated very badly with plastic cacti and lots of sombreros. I bought a bunch of tacky things (made in Japan at that time but probably Malaysia these days) with a southwest motif. I also ate a few bad tacos and just about had a good time. It might have been a little better if there at actually been something real there to see… know a museum or a battlefield or something…but there wasn’t (at that time). But, you can bet that, when I got back home, I told everyone all about my trip down south but somehow never quite mentioned that little foray “South of the Border”. It’s just the way it is with guilty pleasures…you do it, you enjoy it for what it is and forget about what it isn’t.

Now, you know the truth. I’m easy prey (like many others I’m betting) for any of these places – roadside petting zoos, giant balls of twine, fake dinosaurs, huge rocking chairs, big rocks with names painted on them… name it, I’ve probably found myself heading in that direction. At least I did when I was younger and looked for such wonderful quirky things at every bend in the road. Now, I’m older and I am much more sophisticated and I go only to the best places and spend most of my time pondering the mysteries of the universe and gazing thoughtfully at works of art at only the best museums. Right?

Wrong! I’m still a sucker for a little kitsch now and then.

So, last winter, I had a long list of places to visit while we were in Florida sweating out the days until it stopped snowing back home. My list mostly included preserves and refuges and wetlands where the birding would be awesome and I’d, no doubt, see amazing birds and I would learn so much about wildlife and all things natural in Florida. But right smack dab in the middle of my list were a couple of places that just didn’t quite fit into the category of “learning experiences” or “nature excursions”. These were my guilty pleasures of the trip.

The first place involved birds so I can take a little bit of credit. It did involve us “seeing” the birds so I suppose I could call it “bird watching” but I’d never get away with calling it “birding”. And it involved this beautiful pink bird that is native to Florida….well, sorta.

If you want to see flamingos in the wild, you might have to go to South America or Cuba and do a bit of roughing it in Eco-lodges……at least you’d stay in places a tad bit more rustic than Sarasota…which is where we were going to see flamingos. Yes, I know there are some wild flamingos in Florida and I intend to go looking for them the next time I visit the state but, that would have to wait. I had other plans related to flamingos. I mean, seriously, why wait? You cannot just go anywhere and feed the flamingos, can you? Well, yes you can…..if you go to Sarasota Jungle Gardens.

Sarasota gardenI had heard all about this place and I had checked it out on the internet and I figured it was a tourist trap if ever there was one. And, it does attract quite a few visitors every year. Now, normally, we do not go to gardens or parks or zoos where animals and birds are caged…just cannot take the thought of all those beautiful creatures that are no longer free to live out their lives in their native habitat. And, no, an artificial habitat is not an animal’s native home no matter how much it is prettified up to be or how big (by zoo standards) it seems to be. A three hundred square foot enclosure is never ever gonna be the Pantanal in Africa…no arguing about it…never gonna happen.

flamingo wideBut, I had heard that this garden had flamingos and that the birds roamed around the garden (relatively freely) and for a small fee, you could buy a bag of food and you could actually feed the flamingos. That’s right, you walk up and hold out your hand and the birds would walk right up and eat out of your hands. And, of course, you could take pictures to your little heart’s content getting extreme close ups of the birds after you fed them. So, even if you got to see a flamingo in the wild, chances are you would not get a great photo without some serious glass (birders lingo for scopes, binoculars, and camera lens….see, I do pretend to be a serious birder sometimes and I use the language when I think I might sound more impressive).

You know I had to go. And so we locked the address into the GPS and we headed into downtown Sarasota and circled the block until we found the place and traffic let up enough that we could make that left-hand turn into the parking lot and then we were there…..just like traveling in the wilds of South America.

Now, I have to admit, I was excited and ready to feed some flamingos. But Jerry was pretty cool. He’s not the type to succumb to guilty pleasures on vacation like I am and he really doesn’t like to see birds caged up but he was going to do it for me because he knew that I was totally stoked at the thought of getting that close to flamingos.

flamingoesSo he wasn’t going to participate when I bought the bags of food….and he wasn’t going to participate as we walked through the gardens (actually pretty nice) noting the macaws in cages and the iguana laying on the attendant’s shoulders….

macawIguana man…..and he wasn’t going to participate as we went looking for the flamingos…..and he wasn’t going to participate when we found the birds and I started feeding the flamingos or, as they surrounded me and queued up for the food…….

flamigoes 2…..and he wasn’t going to participate as I took photos of them sleeping standing up or, as I talked to the birds and tried to pet them (they drew the line at my trying to pat them on the head, etc.)…..and he wasn’t going to participate almost up until I was just about out of food…

flamingo head 2…..then, he shrugged and said, “what the heck”, gave into the urge and said that maybe he might just feed a bird or two….you know, as long as he was there anyway.

FeedingSo, I shared some food from the last bag and we spent some peaceful and happy moments in the warm Florida sunshine surrounded by pink flamingos (and a few white ibises) nibbling at the food from our hands not caring one iota that this was touristy and somewhat tacky and not in the least up to the “standards” for seeing and appreciating birds in the wild. It wasn’t superb or marvelous or educational….it was just plain fun.

Fun… like my second guilty pleasure of the trip. This one would be the last place we visited in Florida and involved orange groves and a swamp buggy.

Like everyone else in the US, I have consumed gallons of orange juice and eaten a many an orange in my time and most of them came from Florida. Since I grew up in Georgia, and, while we could certainly get oranges from California, most of the ones we bought came (and still come) from Florida. When I had visited Florida in the past, we had driven past orange groves and I thought it would be nice to just leave the road and drive off down through the groves, just meander thought the fields and check things out…maybe pick an orange or two and enjoy the good Lord’s bounty in a garden.

orchardBut you cannot just go free wheeling down through someone’s farm without violating some property laws and maybe even getting yourself shot at by some farmer who just might not understand your need to meander and see where the oranges are grown.

swamp buggyNow, on to the swamp buggies. Down near the Everglades, back in the day (who’s day I am not sure but it was way before my time and maybe around the time they started building the Tamiami Trail), a mode of transportation was developed for riding through and working in the Everglades. The vehicle they came up with sort of looks like a jeep with big, big wheels – humungous wheels….you know, tall enough and thick enough for driving through the tall sawgrass and swampwater in the ‘Glades (aren’t you now impressed with that?…just picking up the local slang). So I had seen these behemoths and I wanted to ride one of them. It was right up there on my list with riding on one of those flat john-boats with the big fans on the back that Jerry now tells me are more properly called airboats.

farmer johnsSo, in my research and planning, I had found a place on the internet (Farmer John’s Showcase of Citrus) that offered swamp buggy rides through citrus groves. See, I could kill two birds with one stone or, at least, see two birds in one bush or something like that. Of course, you know the place was right outside Orlando and catered to all those folks who just couldn’t spend another day with Disney and were looking for something different to do. Farmer John’s was the place. You gotta know that I knew this place was not going to be a visit to a working organic farm where you could pick your own oranges (although you can if the season is right and the oranges are ripe) and work the earth and end your vacation feeling that you had given a few hours labor that somehow contributed to the gross national product and the economy of Florida. Nope, it was gonna be and, in fact, is another tourist trap…..and it was right there at the top of my list.

you pickWell, the “tour” turned out to be just as expected. The swamp buggy turned out to be more like an old school bus on gigantic wheels…which was just as cool as a jeep in its own way. The farm was a real working cattle farm with citrus groves and we did, indeed, get to ride out through the orchards and see hundreds of trees, some of which still had fruit from the last season waiting to be harvested, and some of which were blooming and smelled wonderful.

future orchardAnd to make it educational, the ride came with a tour guide who entertained us with a history of the family-owned farm and what color oranges really are in their native land (green) and a few bad jokes like, “Orange you glad we didn’t get stuck in the swamp and have to walk through the water back past that big ole hungry alligator?”

wetlandsYes, there was a nice wide creek/swampy area right in the middle of the property complete with its own resident alligator that we rode through slowly swaying from side to side as the tires cut through the mud and got stuck (momentarily) in holes here and there along the way.

But it wasn’t my birthday and I didn’t get to drive the buggy through the fields like the one lady did because it was, in fact, her birthday. But you had better believe that next time anyone asks me on a tour if it is my birthday, I’m gonna say, “Yes, why yes it is”, loudly and strongly just in case it might mean I get to drive a tractor or swamp buggy.

But this time I didn’t so next time I’ll know….if you go to a tourist trap and you want the full experience, you should volunteer. Now, you might end up on stage doing something totally embarrassing but, then again, you might just get to drive a really cool swamp buggy. Okay, let me change my plan on that – if I’m outside in or on a cool vehicle like a tractor, I’ll volunteer; if I’m inside and there’s a stage, then I’ll just keep my hands down and my mouth shut……but I’ll keep my memories about my all those guilty pleasures.


Chasing a Bird – Florida Scrub Jays

egretWe were on the hunt as soon as we arrived in Florida. Yes, we had other things to do – friends and relatives to visit – but I was determined that somehow or another while we were down there, I was going to get an opportunity to see and photograph a Florida Scrub Jay. Of course, it wasn’t our first trip to Florida and it certainly wasn’t the first time I had been determined to see a Scrub Jay. Just because they are considered by some to be a rare find and just because there has been a whole lot of development in the areas where Scrub Jays like to live making them increasingly hard to find and just because I had tried several times before DID NOT mean I wasn’t going to see a Scrub Jay on this trip. I was determined and that was that.

I had briefly spotted a lone Scrub Jay on the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) way back in May 2007 but I just didn’t feel that I had gotten a good long look at the bird and I certainly did not get a photograph….not even a blurry one. Since we were starting our “month of birding in Florida” at Merritt, I was optimistic that I would get to see one…at least one…and would get that prized photograph and I didn’t care if it was blurry or not….the point was to spot that bird. But, high hopes or not, as the days went by without spotting a Scrub Jay, I was beginning to give up on this bird.


It’s not like we didn’t see birds at Merritt. We saw plenty of birds there…in fact, more birds than anywhere else we visited. And we saw lots of “big” birds at Merritt. One of my daughters who sometimes likes to go birding with us (you know, just hanging out with the old folks meandering around looking at the birds and flowers) once told us that she only liked “BIG” birds. As she went on more birding outings with us and as she saw more and more really nice birds, the definition of “big” expanded. At first, it was all Great Blue Herons – her favorite big bird. And, of course, Great Egrets and Bald Eagles – all plenty big as birds go. But then, I asked her about hummingbirds – nothing big about a hummingbird…although they do look plenty big and fierce when they get territorial and puff up their chests and spread their tail feathers out wide to bully other hummingbirds who might be interested in getting to the sugar water feeders too. Daughter T allowed that maybe “big” could also mean birds that have big attitudes….like the tiny little hummingbird. From that point on, it was all over – absolutely any bird she liked was a “Big” bird.


She would have loved Merritt – plenty of birds there – big and small – everything from Herons to Egrets to Ibises to Roseate Spoonbills right down to American Avocets, Tree Swallows, and Woodpeckers. But no Scrub Jays.

As we traveled throughout the state, we had even gotten so lucky as to see a pair of Sandhill Cranes with babies – two beautiful long-legged colts scrabbling along behind their parents picking bugs out of the grass. But no Scrub Jays.

sandhill babies

We checked everywhere. We were nearing the end of our time – a whole month and plenty of birds but we just couldn’t find those Scrub Jays. We met other birders at different preserves and parks who told us all about where they saw Scrub Jays but we just didn’t have any luck. We ran into a couple at Rookery Bay down near Naples who had been coming to Florida in the winter for many years. They told us that Scrub Jays used to be very prevalent right there on Shell Island Road and that birders would flock (yes, pun intended…I couldn’t resist) to the area to see and feed the Scrub Jays. Yep, the birds would come out to the side of the road to be fed every evening. But the refuge managers and rangers, being wiser, stopped the practice thinking that the Jays would become way too comfortable with people. When the people stopped feeding the Jays, the jays stopped coming out to be fed and few had been seen in the area since. Nice story but it didn’t help my quest any knowing I was maybe ten years too late to see those darned birds.

So, on Sunday before we were scheduled to leave Florida (exactly three days left), we headed out from the condo where we were staying and decided to go looking for a state park I had read about but wanted to see mostly because it had a pretty cool name – Catfish Creek State Park. I love locations that have names that give you an idea of what you might see when you get there.  I do have to say though that my luck in these places is not so good. Ask me one day about Flamingo Point in the Everglades. But I keep trying and Catfish Creek sounded pretty inviting. In retrospect, they probably could have named the place something like Alligator Cypress Swamp and Scrubby Sand Trails considering what we found there…but I think maybe there is already a place called Alligator Cypress Swamp in Florida.


Truth be told, the creek was a bit easier to find than the state park. We drove south on Route 27 through a quaint but totally deserted town, down through a great many orchards and farmer’s fields with lakes (or maybe ponds) here and there. We finally came to Fire Tower Road, which according to the maps, appeared to end at the state park. But we did not find a state park at the end of the road. The road ended at a gate with a big overhead sign proclaiming this place to be the FFA Training Center. This did not really stop us because we thought maybe the state park and the training center might be the same place or at least one within the other, or maybe the sign was just a mistake albeit a huge one. (Well, if you are going to make a sign that says the wrong thing for a state park, you might as well make a big one.) There was a huge lake, Lake Pierce, at the park and that was a second good reason to proceed right on through the gate…along with quite a few other cars all of a sudden.

ffaWe were a bit mystified about all those other cars that had suddenly shown up on what had been pretty much a deserted road just minutes before we got there. One minute there is no one in sight and then next minute we’re in a traffic jam of sorts right there in the middle of nowhere. So to get out of the parade and to find a nice quiet spot to have lunch, we turned down a side road leading to a boat ramp down by the lake. Wouldn’t you know it, several of the cars turned in to this dead end one lane road right behind us..…and the road was a little too narrow to allow everyone to turn around easily to go back to the main road. We managed to park off to the side enough to let everyone else turn around and get back on their way and we also managed to find a quiet spot to eat lunch all the while wondering what the heck was going on and where had all the cars come from.

Turns out the FFA Training Center was not the state park and has nothing to do with the state park which is an unimproved preserve that had only a small parking lot that we had passed on our way to the end of the road. And it turns out the Training Center has a beautiful lakeside pavilion, a lodge, cabins, camping grounds, and a large training center (of course) that is rented out for weddings and other special occasions. And the day we decided to visit, the facility was rented out for a wedding which explained where all the cars were going but does not explain why they followed us down the lane to the boat ramp. I can only guess that the wedding guests didn’t know their way and just followed us right off in the wrong direction.

After we had lunch and took a look at the boat ramp and floating pier scaring a small alligator we didn’t know was there as we stepped onto that pier, we went up to the lodge and got some information about the state park that we missed and about Catfish Creek which, it turns out, runs right through the training facility and into the lake. So, we were at least getting to see Catfish Creek which include Cypress Trees and a couple nice-sized alligators which explains why I thought maybe the name of the place should be something to do with alligators and cypress trees.


So we missed the state park on the way in but got to explore another park while managing to stay away from the aforementioned wedding festivities. And we spotted a Common Ground Dove and several Little Blue Herons and, on the way out of the facility, a Bald Eagle’s nest. There were no adult Bald Eagles to be seen but there was a small head poking up from the nest so we parked on the side of the road and contented ourselves with checking out the eaglet hoping that an adult would eventually show up. But it didn’t. We moved on down the road stopping here and there to take photos of wild flowers – Lupine I believe – and looking for the state park we’d missed on the way in.


We were counting our blessings and thinking about all the wonderful birds and other creatures we had seen while in Florida and I had pretty much given up on my hopes (and steadfast determination) of seeing a Scrub Jay. It was getting late in the day but we decided to stop in at the state park for a minute anyway – maybe walk down on of the trails a piece – before heading back to Orlando for the night. In the meantime, we were creeping along in the car looking for the park and birding the hedges by the sides of the road.

I spotted a Northern Mockingbird perched on a power line and thought, “another mockingbird” following us all over the state. Of course, it’s not the same mockingbird…they are quite common in Florida and we’ve seen them everywhere….but for the past few years, we’ve imagined that it is the very same mockingbird following us around all over the country. You know there has to be a story behind this.

could it be

Some years ago, on a trip to North Carolina, my husband had decided to chop down a bunch of Pokeweeds that were growing at the edge of the field by the house. The pokeweed was heavy with purple berries and the Blue Jays and Mockingbirds and every other bird around had been having a great time eating those berries. There was one Mockingbird who had laid claim to the berry bushes and had stationed himself high up on the top of an old poplar tree snag where he could keep an eye on those berries and head off any other birds presumptuous enough to think they could get some berries too. He, the bird, was not at all happy when he, the husband, came out with a swing blade and started whaling away at all that pokeweed. The mockingbird proceeded to scold and fuss at the crazy human for a good thirty minutes or so until he, the husband, stopped cutting down the berries. That weekend, every time we walked out of the house, the bird was there to berate us for even considering cutting down those berry bushes. Since that time, we’ve been careful to leave the berry bushes alone and I am reminded that the Mockingbird network has put out a “be on the lookout (BOLO)” for the dastardly low good for nothing scoundrel who was cutting down the berry bushes. So, it was only natural, when I saw the Mockingbird, I mentally noted mockingbird and turned to my husband and told him the “boys” were following us again and he’d best keep a low profile.

But the Mockingbird looked odd sitting up there on the wire. He was in bad light against the sun and a long ways away so I thought maybe it was another bird – maybe a Loggerhead Shrike. We had mistaken a Shrike for a Mockingbird before so I figured we should slow down and check this bird out a little closer.

Lo & behold, there was a Florida Scrub Jay in all his beauty and splendor!


We stopped the car  and I jumped out to try to get a better look and a decent photograph. The lighting was terrible but the bird was cooperating and didn’t fly away. Even better, he called out to an unseen mate who answered. Then, just like that, there were birds all around us. We must have happened upon a small feeding flock that included Red Bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, Titmice, and not one, not two, but six – SIX – beautiful Florida Scrub Jays. We watched and took pictures for maybe forty-five minutes. I was smack dab happy about finding these birds. I thought it might be nice at one point to maybe have a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker show up and join the group – always another rare bird to find, right? But I decided not to push my luck at this point. The Scrub Jays were good enough for me and I wasn’t gonna do any complaining about any other birds we missed along the way.


So, we never quite made it to the state park – not really. We found the parking area which made a convenient place to park off the main road. We watched the birds until they moved on to another place to feed. As we drove away, I spotted a lone sentry high at the tip top of a cypress tree by the side of the road. It wasn’t a Scrub Jay though.

mbirdNope, this time it was indeed a Northern Mockingbird….and yes, he was giving me the old stink eye as if to say, “Yes, it is me and I know you’re the one who chops down berry bushes and you can best believe I am keeping my eyes on you.  Now move on down the road and don’t even bother to look back.”

And so we did.

If you’d like to know more about Florida Scrub Jays, look here.