The state of Florida is so flat that they have their own word for "hill" -- they call it a "hammock". After we drove down the center of the state, past developments and golf courses (our breakfast restaurant named each dish in golf lingo -- the most popular was Two-Iron, or eggs and bacon) we detoured for a walk through the Highland Hammocks State Park.
We had spent the drive so far in cleared land with occasional pine or palm trees and many lakes, but as soon as we reached the park's entrance we were surrounded by tall cypresses and hardwoods; at eye level we found ferns and cypress knees and many vines and palmettos. The park was created in the 1930s by Highland Hammocks trees the Civilian Conservation Corps, and maintained by the state ever since. A narrow paved loop road takes drivers through the area, from a former pioneer home site -- the home has long since disappeared but orange trees and a kind of meadow remain -- through shadowy twists and turns, where a half dozen or so walking paths break off.
We picked the path labeled most popular. It was a boardwalk through a cypress swamp. We felt alone in the jungle as we walked down the boardwalk; only once did we catch a glimpse of another quiet older couple. The whole area was green and peaceful. We watched a spider create a huge web, and heard some bugs buzz, and watched the pop-pop of other bugs skimming on the water. The thick trunks of the cypress trees spread out just above water level, surrounded by cypress knees - above-ground roots which help stabilize these huge trees in their swampy home. Lily pads or water hyacinths floated on the still, black water, while air-breathing bromeliads grew from the tree bark.
We heard bird calls and spent several minutes watching a woodpecker. We probably spent more time just gazing around, soaking up the colors and the complex combinations of water and plants. We were rewarded by the appearance of a baby alligator, about eighteen inches long, who glided through the water in our direction, until he spied us, froze, then paddled away.
Back in the car, we pulled out the bird book which we hadn't consulted since leaving the midwest, and checked off a red-bellied woodpecker. We turned east toward Okechobee, through cattle ranch land, leaving the golf courses and retiree housing developments behind, for the most part. The cattle were Crested caracara surrounded by egrets, there were great blue herons to be seen and we began looking harder for wildlife.
Soon we were given a reward for our watchfulness: a large golden-brown bird sat on a fence post. It was some kind of raptor, bigger than a hawk, with a pink and white beak and bright yellow legs. We u-turned for a better look and it moved, but only to the next post, because it was intent upon a piece of carrion and not worried about us.
We alternated between snapping pictures and thumbing through Sibley, our bird guide and maneuvering the car for a better look. When it flew there was a stripe of white on the darker feathers of its wings and tails; it soared around and lit on the next post, keeping an eye on its lunch.
There it is! we exclaimed as we found the bird's picture in Sibley. It was a crested caracara, found in a few spots in south Texas, and in a very small area around Lake Okechobee in Florida. The caracara is a separate genus from the hawks. We checked it off and began looking for birds everywhere!
It's a shame that so many people flock to Florida, because, through sheer force of numbers (aided by the ubiquitous real estate developers) they are pushing back the boundaries of back-country swamps and wilderness in one of the country's richest areas of exotic flora and fauna.