Way out West

Cracker Cow

Our final Audubon Bird ID Course class was held in western Martin County. It turned out to be quite an adventure, better than we could have hoped.

We met at the historic Seminole Inn, in Indiantown, about 20 miles west of Stuart.

Seminole Inn

The Seminole Inn is renowned for its fried green tomatoes.

Seminole Inn

We weren’t the only early risers.

Blue Jay, Seminole Inn

This Blue Jay was collecting nest material.

We then drove out to High Horse Ranch to look for birds. We expected to park and walk around. But our hosts (the daughter and son-in-law of the owner) generously provided a tractor-drawn wagon, and accompanied us on a long tour of the ranch.

The cow in the first photo (larger image of the whole cow on my gallery) is a “Cracker cow,” descended from cattle first brought to Florida by the Spaniards in the 16th century. They are smaller than most cows, and very lean. The term “Cracker” has an interesting derivation, and local legend has it that the first crackers were Floridians, and that the term originated from cracking whips. Certainly there were cowboys in Florida before the American West was ranched, but the origin of “cracker” may have nothing to do with whips.

I don’t have many bird photos, but we did see quite a few, as well as animals we city slickers don’t see very often. There are more photos in two albums on my gallery, here and here. Yes, fellow students, photos of the Swallow-Tailed Kites are on one of those links.

Red-Shouldered Hawk, High Horse Ranch

A good look at a Red-Shouldered Hawk from below.

Mockingbird, High Horse Ranch

A Mockingbird shows us its best profile.

Donkey, High Horse Ranch

Yes, I am making a political statement here. This donkey and its pals, another donkey and a Shetland Pony (see the gallery), live out on the ranch. There is no free lunch on a ranch. The ranchers were losing calves to coyotes, and found a more-effective solution than simply shooting the coyotes. Turns out donkeys will attack coyotes and kick them to death. [Political Statement: Democratic congress, are you getting this?] Since the donkeys came to the ranch there have been no further coyote attacks.

Along the way we saw big wild pigs, an Osceola Turkey (considered a subspecies by turkey hunters), three deer, and a whole bunch of cows. I was able to spend some time talking to our hosts, who are not like you might expect ranchers to be. Their interest is in educating the public on sustainable agriculture without polluting the environment, and traditional agricultural and ranching methods. They combine environmental sensitivity and business sense, a rare blend indeed. We all greatly appreciated their generosity and interest.

We went back to the Seminole Inn for a great lunch (I highly recommend the fried sweet potato appetizer) and our classroom session, on Migration and Seasonality. This Mockingbird greeted us on our return.

Mockingbird, Seminole Inn

Okay, nothing unusual about Mockingbirds, but some people like ’em.

After lunch we drove up to Port Mayaca, on the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee. There’s a lock on the St Lucie Canal right at the lake, and the pool behind it was swarming with alligators. The lake is low due to our drought, exposing this sandbar.

Alligators, Lake Okeechobee

That is a large nest of large alligators sunning themselves. Anyone for a dip in the lake?

This Great Blue Heron landed in front of us, and began walking like an Egyptian.

Great Blue Heron, Lake Okeechobee

Great Blue Heron, Lake Okeechobee

After a few steps, it spotted a juvenile Great Blue Heron that was standing in its territory . . .

Great Blue Heron, Lake Okeechobee

. . . and took off after it.

Great Blue Heron, Lake Okeechobee

Herons and Egrets fly with their necks curved back. This chap literally hurled himself into the air.

We watched a Bald Eagle trying to find a fish . . .

Bald Eagle, Lake Okeechobee

. . . and more than a dozen Forster’s Terns circling the pond. These photos are two views of the same one.

Forster's Tern, Lake Okeechobee

Forster's Tern, Lake Okeechobee

What’s interesting about it is that its plumage and beak are in between their non-breeding and breeding colors.

There were birds on the ground, too.

Palm Warbler, Lake Okeechobee

This is a Palm Warbler. It’s the first decent photo I’ve gotten of this zippy little bird.

Savannah Sparrow, Lake Okeechobee

And here’s a Savannah Sparrow, which sat quite still while several people walked past, or crept up to take its picture.

Thanks to Greg Braun, our instructor, Advanced Bird ID was not only informative, but lots of fun. With all the classes I’ve been taking already concluded or finishing soon, what will I do with all that spare time? I’ll go birding of course!

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