By Rainbow Starr
PUNTA GORDA, FLORIDA - Part time residents of this area are called snowbirds. They live most of the year further North. They flock to SW Florida to escape the snow between Halloween and Easter.
The same is true for many actual birds in this area. They don't migrate through Florida in the spring and fall. This is actually their final destination. These birds are said to "winter over" until they fly North again in the spring. My recent sightings of several new ducks encouraged me to go bird watching again on Thursday afternoon. This time I ventured further inland. I spent several hours trooping around the trails at the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center. Affectionately referred to as CHEC, it is a non-profit, private wildlife refuge at 10941 Burnt Store Road. It sits in the protected area around Charlotte Harbor that is likely to flood if the waters rise. So, I figured I should explore the place before global warming goes too far.
This was only my second visit to CHEC, and it may well be my last. Not only did I see few birds, for most of my hike, I didn't even HEAR any birds. Except for the rustling of leaves and branches in the wind, everything was completely silent. I felt like I was bird watching after the apocalypse.
I'm not saying there was no wildlife at the CHEC. During the first hour, I jumped out of my skin when a big black racer snake slithered noisily into the dry underbrush. During the second hour, my hiking companion almost stepped on a glass lizard. That legless green reptile looks just like a snake. It gets its name from the ability to snap off its tail to befuddle a predator. As the tail flaps by reflex in the jaws of an attacker, the main body of the glass lizard can slither away. I swear, the lizard actually sacrifices most of its body so the remainder can escape. This seems like a wasteful survival tactic to me. It is only surpassed by the local poisonous tree frogs. Any predator that swallows one of them dies with convulsions about 24 hours later. How does that help the frog? Their natural defense is to leave a bad aftertaste.
As a newly minted graduate of the Florida Master Naturalist Program, my fellow hiker found more to interest her at CHEC than I did. While I futilely scanned overhead for birds, she found mushrooms, moss, grass, coffee plants and exotic flowers one the ground. Many of these things were conveniently labeled by small signs and plaques by the side of the trails. We grew spoiled. When we found a sign about bald eagles, we were disappointed there wasn't one perched right behind it.
Some of the other signs at CHEC were less helpful and more puzzling.
This sign seemed to suggest that the hawk eats the sun to complete the circle of life.
Small white arrows helped us follow the hiking trails at CHEC. At one point, even these simple arrows seemed to lead us astray. The hiker in the photo below was justifiably confused about which sign to believe.
Many plaques and statues in Florida are just monuments to the people who paid for them. They do nothing to educate tourists. They are just covered with the names of the donors and fundraisers. On some of the wooden bridges and boardwalks at CHEC, every single timber is etched with the names and sentiments of contributors.
Our futile hike ended at the CHEC observation blind. We quietly entered the back of the shack and sat at a large window overlooking a bunch of bird baths, bird houses and bird feeders. I felt like the witness of a crime sitting behind a one-way mirror on CSI. Unfortunately, the bird feeders were empty of seed as well as birds. At least we saw some vultures, herons and a bald eagle flying above the treetops. However, those are pretty easy to see anywhere in SW Florida.
Eventually, a solitary palm warbler arrived at the blind (one of the most abundant birds in SW Florida). He perched on a low branch and nervously looked around for about 10 minutes before dropping down to take a sip of water. When I stood to get a better view, the warbler flew away. Suspiciously, I walked around the front of the "observation blind." Sure enough, the birds could see us inside as clear as day. I don't think CHEC understands what "observation blind" really means.
We were leaving CHEC in abject defeat when we came upon a gopher tortoise munching on some grass. He was standing in the middle of some fire ant mounds. So, I have to salute the turtle's resolve even as I question his judgment. We also saw a large gator laying beside a pond near the visitor center.
The sun was literally setting as we walked to the parking lot. Of course, that's when CHEC sprang to life! We finally saw a red-shoulder hawk perched in the distance and a great horned owl, perched low beside the entry road. We even scared off a big, black wild pig that was rummaging around the CHEC administrative buildings. We saw more wildlife in the last five minutes of our hike than in the first three hours.
The forest was beautiful and the weather couldn't have been nicer. However, as a bird watching destination, the CHEC is a great place to see reptiles.