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.


Florida Plan – Strictly For The Birds

ding darlingWe had a plan….a good plan…..a well thought out plan to take us through southern Florida and some of the best birding ever and all in 30 days (more or less).  Well, I thought it was a good plan and I had done considerable research and had created a nice short eleven page listing of places to see with links and directions and notes and big plans to see every single place on the list. It was to be the best trip ever with birding extraordinaire and all in a place where it was warm and it wasn’t snowing and there were no ice storms or winter weather warnings and, more importantly, no signs that read, “Bridges Freeze Before Roadways”.  HA! There would be no bridge freezing at all – we were just not going to have any of that in the Sunshine State. End of story – just sunshine and birds and maybe some fishing. Because you see, I HAD A PLAN.

merritt 2I know you’re thinking about my last blog (Snowbirds Test Flight) and how the best laid plans get all hosed up in the implementation stage.  Well, you’re wrong. The plan worked marvelously. We spent a glorious thirty-four days (longest vacation ever) doing exactly what we set out to do.

I mentioned my list. It was a bit optimistic but it was a good starting point. It wasn’t our first trip to Florida so we had an idea about the lay of the land (very flat) and the type of birds we’d be seeing (lots of Herons and Egrets and Hawks and Ibises and Pelicans) and a few rare birds that we wanted to see (Kites and Burrowing Owls and Scrub Jays). We knew the Auto Train would drop us in Sanford so we planned to travel first up the road to Deland and visit an uncle who would show us around while trying to convince us mightily that we should pack up and move to Deland. It is always good to find someone who is excited about where they live and who loves to show you the sights around town.

delandOur plan was to go from there straight to the east coast and the Atlantic and, more specifically, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. We’d been once before in summer but we’d heard the best birding is in winter so we were going back. From there we would head down the east coast and bird the areas around the main corridors of Route 1 (yep, the same one that begins and Maine and ends in Key West) and Interstate 95. We would head down to Miami and then work our way across Florida on the Tamiami Trail. Once on the west coast, we’d hit the highs around Fort Myers and then head north. We’d incorporate a visit with friends at Bradenton for the fishing part….at least for my better half. I have found that he will do a tremendous amount of birding day in and day out if he knows there is fishing somewhere in the mix.  Then we’d continue north along the Gulf Coast up past Tampa (with a short visit with my sister thrown in) to Crystal Springs and then over to Ocala to visit an aunt. Finally, we’d bird our way back to Sanford and catch the train back home. I had taken to calling this “the loop” since a look at a map of Florida shows us looping our way through the southern part of the state and ending up in Sanford right back where we started.

MerrittAnd, pretty much, that is exactly what we did. The first part of the plan went very well except for the part about finding that hotel rooms wouldn’t be as easy to find as we’d thought (as I explained in my last blog).  The only real changes to the plan came on the Gulf Coast part of the loop.  My sister’s move to Tampa was delayed and then our aunt called to say that she would be out of town taking care of some unexpected business so we ended up bypassing Tampa and rethinking our plans for Ocala. So, we ended up in the lake district outside Orlando. I know you’re thinking, “Orlando…Disneyworld…kids…..traffic…Yikes!” but Orlando is actually more than Disneyworld and turned out to be good for birding and good for just plain roaming around checking things out in the central part of the state. Besides, what’s wrong with Disney except for all that traffic near the park?

Florida State ParksAll in all, we visited 53 parks and refuges and preserves that I counted specifically…..some parks were little more than community recreational ball fields with minimal birding opportunities so I didn’t really count them.  I had used the Great Florida Birding Trail and eBird to plan many of the sites on my list. Otherwise, we discovered we liked the Florida State Parks which had apparently been voted the best in the United States in the past by some authority or another.  We bought an annual pass and checked out their nifty guide to state parks and started incorporating the parks into our trip.  We also found that there are quite a few county and local parks that have pretty good walking and hiking trails. Since water is pretty much everywhere, even in the dry season, there are apt to be birds everywhere.  I do have to mention that the birds are not all huddled up in one spot just waiting for you though. They are spread out all over the state so you do have to go out looking for them…and they can be darned hard to find sometimes!

sebastianNow, having said that, I have to say that Florida is about the best state that I have visited for birding and hiking if you are older or have arthritis or not in the best of health or physical shape. Many of the refuges and preserves have extensive boardwalks through the wetlands and excellent nature centers. There are regularly scheduled activities for all age groups throughout the year. In the bigger parks, most of the boardwalks are fully accessible and walking trails are paved. I was amazed at how many of the parks included some sort of boardwalk or observation deck that accommodated wheelchairs and walkers. There are, of course, wilder areas with unpaved paths and rustic facilities (those dreaded porta-potties) for those who swear that you can only enjoy wildlife if you are hot and sweaty, plagued by mosquitos, ants, and bees, and you have to hike over rough trails for miles on sore feet. But I like my creature comforts so I was pleasantly surprised at how many good birding sites were also great parks in general that can be very easily enjoyed by all ages no matter what shape you are in.

blue heronI was also impressed by the Florida water management practices and how many wetlands are water treatment facilities that are set up with boardwalks and walking paths or that allow you to drive through the impounds.  It seems birds like water and really like water that smells quite yukky because we saw lots of birds in the impoundments at water treatment facilities and we got great opportunities to bird while breathing very carefully through our mouths and not directly through our noses. Notwithstanding the smell, I do wish more states would consider driving and walking trails through treatment facilities or, I suppose, landfills too. But, then again, maybe it is only birders who would visit such places.

But I digress (how unusual is that?). Back to the plan and the birds, I recorded 112 species on eBird with 15 lifebirds on more than 70 checklists.  Of these 15 lifebirds, there were 5 that we had seen before so technically weren’t lifebirds for us….they just hadn’t ever been recorded by us on eBird before. To add 10 new lifebirds on any trip was big and we were quite pleased with these results.  As noted, there were plenty Egrets, Herons, and Pelicans but, as we meandered, we seemed to be birding more inland sites away from the shoreline so we really didn’t record very many shorebirds. There were gulls a plenty everywhere we went but they were mostly Laughing Gulls so we didn’t really see many rarities in terms of gulls or shorebirds.  I did hear a non-birder refer to a Swallow-Tailed Kite as a Frigate bird but it really wasn’t and we were not really anywhere near where we might actually see Frigate birds (too far inland) although it would have been nice…but it wasn’t… so no bingo there…..although I found myself wondering if he went home and told everyone about the Magnificent Frigate Bird he spotted in the northern part of the Everglades. I know I would be.

Blue Springs SPThe most birds at any one site were spotted at Merritt National Wildlife Refuge. The least birds we saw at any one site had to be at Seminole Collier State Park (but that was just a drive through so who can say how many birds we might have tallied had we gotten out and walked the trails?) The most crowded place (in terms of people not birds) we birded was at Green Cay Nature Center & Wetlands – who knew so many just plain tourists would want to walk the boardwalk through the wetlands? I have to admit that Green Cay was also one of the nicest birding venues we visited so I can totally understand all those people taking a weekend stroll through the preserve.

On the other hand, the most crowded place we went to and almost birded was Wakodahatchee Wetlands. We went twice and could not even get into the place. The first time, we couldn’t even turn into the parking lot from the main road. The second time we made it into the parking lot but there was a line queued up getting to the boardwalk.  A LINE!! Can you imagine waiting to get onto a boardwalk to go birding? Just unbelievable! We didn’t stay. We put Wakodahatchee on the list for next time with a note to go at odd hours on weekdays.

ibisThe least crowded place we visited was the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. No, we didn’t see any panthers and we didn’t see many birds. There were wildflowers and it was very peaceful and quiet but very empty, or at least to me, it appeared that way. We were the only visitors when we arrived so headed out on a looping trail. We were about a quarter mile into the refuge when we stopped at an observation platform to check out some wildflowers when a young couple walked up behind us and just about scared the socks right off of me.  They went on ahead of us but then turned back after a bit so, for the most part, we were left alone on the trail. We never saw another person during the remainder of our two hour walk until we arrived back at the parking lot where we found a young couple with car trouble waiting for roadside assistance and another photographer/birder who quickly disappeared down a trail. We checked to make sure the young couple was okay and then headed out on our way.


I suppose one might wonder where we saw the “best birds”. It’s an impossible question to answer for me, or, perhaps, for any birder. A friend once asked me what my favorite bird was. I thought about this for several minutes ticking through a mental list of scores of birds we’ve seen over the past few years and the only answer I could come up with was, that my favorite bird is the one I’m looking at right now…at any given moment.  Every bird is beautiful – yes, even the vulture – and fascinating in its own way.  Every memory of birds we’ve seen is just as nice as the others. I suppose some stand out but then, once I think of another, that one gets my attention and is great too.  I just cannot pick one that I like more than the others.  I’ve tried. I just cannot pick a favorite bird.

I will certainly tell you more about the places we visited in blogs to come. Suffice to say, our plan worked, we had great birding and we would do it again in a heartbeat. Besides, I’ve updated my list and there are still plenty of places to go in Florida….and there’s Wakodahatchee to get back to at some point.  As long as birds have wings, we’ll probably be out there, binoculars in hand trying to find them.

cattle egret