Traveling on my own is, in spite of the fact that I fly on my own a lot, not something I’ve done much of. I’ve always had friends or family with me (which is, of course, what travel is for – to spend time exploring the world with your loved ones). As I write this it is 6am and I’m sitting in my brother’s conservatory in Orlando, watching the world get light and preparing for a solo birding trip to Ocala National Forest.
I decided that this time (unlike every other time I visit) I would strike out on my own for a few days – still using Gaz’s place as a base, but to take the opportunity to explore and go birding/herping at my own pace, on my own time. Whilst my family are always ready to indulge my urges to get out into the wilderness, and will visit nature reserves with me happily, I always feel a certain degree of guilt associated with dragging people along to wild places when they’d rather be in the air conditioning, at Disney, or at a park where fewer things want to eat you.
Particularly as it is early summer, and in June here it regularly gets upwards of 95 degrees F in the day with relentless sun and humidity, it’s simply not fair to ask my poor family (now all with young children in tow) to spend hours in the sun watching me catch lizards or stalk birds. So I decided to strike out on my own.
I hired a car and have braved the Florida roads by myself, navigating my way from ‘Preserve’ to ‘Preserve’. I was a bit intimidated at first, but now I’m not sure why. Spending my time unapologetically so that I can (as Gaz puts it) “pull the car over for every butterfly you see” has been bliss. No guilt. No apologies. The hardest part was deciding where to go…
So I had spent 3 days in the northern tip of the Everglades, at Jonathan Dickinson State Park with my oldest brother, his wife and my nephew. I confess I nearly killed them walking in the slash pine scrub, as they aren’t used to the heat, but I do think that I might have had a ‘moment’ with my brother as he watched a juvenile red-shouldered hawk at close range through binoculars for the first time. I had to decide where I would go from there, with my only constraint being that I needed to be in Orlando by tea time for taco night.
My original plan was to visit my favourite Florida reserve – the Audobon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (over here nature reserves are called ‘sanctuaries’ or ‘preserves’ which always makes me think of Jam, but hey-ho…), which I was desperate to see again as I’ve not visited in 6 years. However, a 3 hour drive west was looking like a bad idea as it would be another 4 hours up to Orlando, so I did a bit of last-minute googling and decided to head north to Disney’s Wilderness Preserve.
Hold your horses. It’s not a theme park. Disney Wilderness Preserve is a surprisingly pristine expanse of saw palmetto scrub, open water and extremely well-kept trails through an incredible habitat at the head of the Everglades watershed. It boasts an impressive species list including spectacular birds such as Crested Caracara. The main problem was finding the place, as you come off the Turnpike south of Orlando and drive through suburban areas in order to get there. Putting my faith in the sat-nav, I persevered, to be rewarded some 20 minutes later with one of the familiar Great Florida Birding Trail signs. I knew I was on the right track. A couple more turns down increasingly narrow roads, and the grand entrance to the reserve appears on your left. A further 1.5 mile drive leads you to a pretty but low-key visitor’s centre with toilets, water fountains and leaflets. The immediate grounds are very well-kept and manicured, and it is not until you walk out behind the centre that you are greeted with this expanse of water and reeds (complete, if you look closely, with a family of sandhill cranes!):
As with many reserves, Disney Wilderness has a number of trails, depending on the length of your desired walk. A walk out to the lake and back is 1.5m; the walk around the ‘red trail’ is 2.5m; the long walk around the whole reserve is 6m. I managed to do most of the red trail, but due to seasonal high waters, lots of the trail was inaccessible. I was a bit worried about water moccasins and alligators as a gator had been seen on the path that morning, so once the water got deep enough that I couldn’t see the bottom of the pools (Just over calf-deep), I stopped wading and turned back.
In spite of my slightly truncated expedition, I did manage to explore about 2/3 of the red trail and walk to the lake. I was rewarded with close encounters with Osceola Turkey, Sandhill Crane, Downy Woodpecker, Swallow-tailed Kite, Florida Scrub Jay, Red Saddlebags Dragonfly, innumerable grasshoppers and butterflies, and I got VERY close to a Wild Boar who was evidently frolicking in the pool-side scrub next to me. I will definitely be back here at Christmas exploring the longer trail which will hopefully be accessible!
So, today I’m off to Ocala on another solo expedition in search of amphibians and stick insects – I’ll post an update tomorrow with my full bird list for the trip.