Central Florida Road Trip
by Kevin Barry

Here are a few destinations that can be visited on a weekend or short vacation in central Florida. All are lightly photographed yet very worthwhile. At these locations, you will not be elbow to elbow with other photographers or have to contend with power-walkers mowing you down or talking about their recent gallbladder operation! However, you might need to work a little harder for your images. Don’t expect wildlife to stand calmly 5 feet away from you begging to have their picture taken, as at wetland locations where the fauna are habituated to people.

The variety of subjects to photograph at these places is vast, so bring every lens you own. For landscapes, you can use everything from ultra-wide angle to telephoto. Macro lenses are useful for close-ups of the numerous wildflowers, plants, butterflies, and other insects. The small, wary birds you are likely to encounter will require your largest telephoto.

Blue Spring State Park

Numerous West Indian Manatees (Trichechus manatus) gather in Blue Spring, the largest spring on the St. Johns River during the winter months, mid-November through March. They do this because the natural spring remains a constant 72 degrees. During the warmer months, the manatees disperse to the river. Because swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, and boating with the manatees is prohibited from November 15 through March 1, photography should be done from the viewing platforms along the spring run.

Researcher with Manatees

I was photographing the manatees with my wide-angle lens one chilly winter morning, when suddenly this researcher drifts into view. He was counting the population in the spring, and on this day, there were 47 of them. I don’t know how often he does this, but I’m glad he was working that day. In this case, the human element really makes the shot. Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time.

Besides manatees, other photo opportunities include eastern screech owls, downy woodpeckers, tufted titmice, and Carolina wren. Breeding birds include great-crested flycatchers, red-eyed vireos, and northern parulas. While on the river, look overhead and you may see osprey and bald eagle year-round and, in summer, swallow-tailed kites.

A four-mile nature trail passes through sand pine scrub, pine flatwoods, and oak hammocks. The trail also passes around freshwater marsh and cypress swamp.

Louis Thursby House

Those interested in beautiful historic buildings can train their lenses on the Louis Thursby House, built in 1872 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s located a short distance from Blue Spring Run.

Camping is available in the park. Food and lodging are available in nearby Orange City.

Blue Spring State Park is located about 30 miles north of Orlando. To reach it, take exit 114 off Interstate 4 and follow the signs. Go south on 17/92 to Orange City, about 2.5 miles. Make a right onto West French Avenue. The park is open from 8 AM to sunset.

Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek State Park (formerly Catfish Creek Preserve)

Few people seem to visit this park. In fact, during my trips, I have rarely seen another person. Located in eastern Polk County, Catfish Creek preserves sections of Florida scrub, sandhill, pine flatwoods, and shallow ponds. Animals include Florida scrub jays, bald eagles, gopher tortoises, and Florida scrub lizards. Many rare plants occur here such as scrub morning glory, scrub plum, pygmy fringe tree, and cutthroat grass.

Catfish Creek offers six miles of hiking trails along with eight miles of equestrian trails through and around scrub, sandhill, flatwoods, and ponds.

Catfish Creek Sandhills

Magenta colors light the sky at dawn as the moon sets over the sandhills of Catfish Creek State Park.

Gopher Tortoise Shell

While hiking one afternoon I came upon this upside down shell of a gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), a threatened specie. Tortoises sometimes do battle and can flip their rivals over, leaving them unable to right themselves and having to endure a slow death. Tortoises dig a burrow in sandy soil with their front feet. The burrows can be up to 40 ft. long. Gopher tortoises are a “keystone species” because so many species of animals depend upon their burrow for survival. These include snakes, frogs, mice, burrowing owls, lizards, and many insects. Plants eaten by the tortoise include grasses, prickly pear cactus, and gopher apple.

Florida Garden Spider

A Florida garden spider (Argiope sp.) lies in wait at Catfish Creek Preserve.

Florida is home to four species of garden orb-weaver, more than any other state. They all spin their webs with white silken banners called stabilimentum. There are four theories as to just how the stabilimentum benefits the spider. First, it may help to strengthen or stabilize the web. Second, by making the web more visible, birds would be less likely to fly into it and thus destroy it. Third, the banners reflect ultraviolet light and may attract prey to the web. Lastly, the spider might use the stabilimentum as camouflage to escape detection from its intended prey. Biologists feel the last theory may be the most likely reason these spiders build something which makes their web more, not less, visible to prey.

Gopher apple (Licania michauxii), also called ground oak, is a low-growing plant that is commonly found in dry pinelands, scrub, and other areas with sandy soils. Gopher tortoises and other species of wildlife eat the fruit.

Gopher Apple

Food and lodging are available in nearby Haines City. No camping is available in the park.

Catfish Creek is located about 10 miles east of Dundee. From US 27, turn east on County Rd 542, through Dundee (turning left at stoplight). In about 1 mile, take a right on to Hatchineha Rd. Go about eight miles to Firetower Road on the right. The parking lot is about 3 miles on the left. The park is open 8 AM until sundown.

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

This park preserves the largest contiguous expanse of Florida dry prairie, an extremely rare habitat that once stretched from Lake Okeechobee to Orlando. Much has been lost to cattle ranches and citrus groves. With its Florida dry prairie habitat, the park offers some special opportunities for photography. Uncommon bird species such as the burrowing owl, crested caracara, sandhill crane, wood stork, and white-tailed kite occur here. This park is one of the best places to build your file of sparrow images. No, not the kind hopping around on the asphalt at your local 7-11, but some of our native sparrows, such as Bachman’s, Henslow’s, Le Conte’s, vesper, swamp, and savannah. Also occurring in good numbers is the endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow, a species most often observed from late March through mid-July.

Kissimmee Prairie has a large butterfly population. To date, the total stands at 86 species, making it one of the top spots in Florida for the budding Lepidopterist or macro photographer. The prairie contains a diverse collection of species including swallowtails, sulphurs, hairstreaks, brushfoots, and milkweed butterflies. The park is well known for its many species of skippers that include palmetto, Aaron’s, Berry’s, and Horace’s duskywing.

This was taken on a dead calm morning with a little fog thrown in for good measure, conditions a landscape photographer lives for:

Kissimmee Prairie Fog

I liked the image in color, but also felt it would look good in black and white:

Kissimmee Prairie Fog Black & White

Here is the same scene again, this time on a summer afternoon with some great cloud formations. Whenever I find a good landscape, I often return and shoot it at different times of day and year, with varying weather conditions. I’m often standing within a few feet of where I shot on a previous trip. Photographing the same scene repeatedly may not sound as exciting as continually searching for new subjects, but it can result in some fantastic images. Once you’ve found a worthy subject, making small changes such as refining the composition or shooting in more beautiful light can turn a good shot into a great one.

Kissimmee Prairie

Kilpatrick Hammock Campground offers an excellent camping experience in an oak hammock. A bathhouse with laundry facilities is available. Should you camp in the park, you will have the opportunity to try some long exposure night photography. The park is among the best places in the region for stargazing because it is one of the most removed areas from light pollution, yet still very accessible.

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is located 25 miles north of the town of Okeechobee. The preserve is located 5 miles north of the western terminus of County Road 724. US Highway 441 and County Road 700A intersect County Road 724. The town of Okeechobee has food and lodging. The park is open from 8 AM to sundown.

Lake Wales Ridge State Forest

This forest is best suited for landscape and macro photography. Bird photography is not easy here, as most of the bird species are small and wary, so you will need your biggest telephoto for them.

As the name implies, this forest is located along the Lake Wales Ridge, which runs north and south through the central Florida Peninsula. The ridge is an ancient strip of land that was left exposed when much of Florida was covered by prehistoric seas. As a result, plant species evolved resulting in the ridge having the highest concentration of rare and endangered plants in the continental United States. The forest contains 24 plants and 19 animals listed as threatened or endangered. These include the Florida scrub jay, red-cockaded woodpecker, sand skink, pygmy fringe tree, Carter’s mustard and scrub-blazing star.

Other bird species include short-tailed hawk, American kestrel, eastern bluebird, pine warbler, summer tanager, brown-headed nuthatch, and Bachman’s sparrow. Natural communities in the forest include Florida scrub, pine flatwood, sandhill, seepage slope, and bottomland forest.

Many lakes are accessible from the forest. Lake Godwin is located in the forest, Lake Arbuckle and Lake Weohyakapka (Walk-in-the-Water) adjoin the forest, and Lake Reedy is located nearby. Reedy Creek is very photogenic, although not always easy to access.

Imperial Moth

One of the largest species of silkmoths in Florida, the imperial moth (Eacles imperialis) is in the same family as the silk moth (Bombyx mori), which is bred commercially for its silk. The imperial moth uses trees such as basswood, oaks, pines, maples, and walnut for its caterpillar host plant and the caterpillar occurs in several color forms, or “phases.” I rarely come across any of our large showy species of moths, so this was a special find.

Cutthroat Seep Habitat

Morning light illuminates rare cutthroat seep habitat in Central Florida’s Lake Wale Ridge State Forest. Trees and shrubs associated with this community include slash pine, saw palmetto, dwarf huckleberry, wax myrtle, fetterbush, gallberry, and St. John’s wort. Besides cutthroat, other grasses include chalky bluestem, toothache grass, pineland threeawn, as well as sedges and rushes.

Cutthroat Seep Sign

A sign in Lake Wales Ridge State Forest informs visitors of the cutthroat seep ecosystem.

Blazing Star

Several species of blazing star (Liatris sp.) exist in the forest. This specie inhabits sandhills and scrub, and blooms from August to October.

The forest is located in southeastern Polk County. The Walk-in-the-Water tract is located two miles east of the town of Frostproof on C.R. 630. The Arbuckle Tract is located five miles south of town on Lake Arbuckle Road. Nearby Avon Park has food and lodging.

I recall that on the day I took this photo, as I was framing a scrub jay in my viewfinder, another one flew from behind me and landed on my head!

Florida Scrub Jay

The Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) is the only bird specie endemic to Florida and lives in Florida scrub, an extremely dry habitat that occurs primarily in central Florida. Typical plant species found there are sand pine, sand live oak, myrtle oak, Chapman’s oak, scrub oak, and other hardy plants.

Scrub jays eat a wide variety of things including acorns, seeds, insects, tree frogs, turtles, snakes, lizards, spiders, and young mice. One interesting behavior is that they cache thousands of acorns a year, burying them in the sand. The cached acorns that are not retrieved germinate, making the Florida scrub jay one of the top dispersers of oak trees.

Despite being listed as a federally threatened specie since 1987, the scrub jay is still on the decline. Losses of habitat and fire suppression that makes habitats unsuitable are the main reasons for the reduction in numbers.

Scrub jays are very curious birds, and can be enticed by offering peanuts or other food. Remember, it is against the law to feed or harass wildlife, and doing so may result in a fine.

Lake Wales

The Florida Trail is a federally designated National Scenic Trail that stretches for more than 1,400 miles across Florida, from Big Cypress National Preserve in the south to Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola. A section runs through Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. Founded in 1966 by Miamian Jim Kern, the Florida Trail Association now has 5,100 members. For more information, go to www.florida-trail.org.

Tiger Creek Preserve

This preserve, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, encompasses over 4,800 acres and is home to numerous rare plants and animals. These include gopher tortoise, Florida scrub lizard, Florida scrub jay, sand skink, Florida mouse, indigo snake, gopher frog, scrub plum, pygmy fringe tree, Carter’s mustard, and large-flowered bonamia (scrub morning glory).

Plant communities include hardwood swamp, hammocks, oak scrub, pine flatwoods, sandhill, and longleaf pine/wiregrass.

Tiger Creek

Early morning light filters through the trees to reach Tiger Creek, a beautiful blackwater stream protected by The Nature Conservancy.

The sun rises through a thicket of sand live oaks (Quercus geminata), a type of oak that grows smaller than live oak and is generally found on drier, sandier sites such as sand pine scrub. Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) flowers glow in the early morning light.

Partridge Pea Tiger Creek Oaks

A pignut hickory (Carya glabra) sapling grows in the dense woods bordering Tiger Creek. The nuts of the pignut hickory are important in the diets of squirrels, raccoons, foxes, rabbits, birds, smaller rodents, and whitetail deer.

Pignut Hickory

Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) blooms in the sandhills.

Prickly Pear Cactus

Tiger Creek Preserve is located in southeastern Polk County just east of US 27 near the town of Frostproof. The town of Avon Park has food and lodging.

The preserve is open to the public during daylight hours.

Recommended Books (These books are available at www.amazon.com and in many local bookstores).
Ecosystems of Florida by Ronald Myers and John Ewel (www.upf.com)
Exploring Wild Central Florida: A Guide to Finding the Natural Areas and Wildlife of the Central Peninsula by Susan D. Jewell (www.pineapplepress.com)
Florida's Fabulous Natural Places (Florida's Fabulous Nature Series) by Tim Ohr, photographs by Pete Carmichael
Florida's Fabulous Trail Guide (Recreation Series) by Tim Ohr, photographs by Pete Carmichael (World Publications)
Florida Wildlife Viewing Guide, Susan Cerulean and Ann Morrow (Falcon Press)
National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida (www.randomhouse.com)
Florida Atlas & Gazetteer (www.delorme.com) A Must Have!

Home | Discuss

Related Articles


Recommended Books