Baby Gators and Thunderstorms

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog posts recounting my adventures at Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland, Florida.  It’s an absolute favorite spot of mine and, on most visits, I am usually blown away by the fantastic wildlife sightings and encounters I have there (especially during the more active gator season!).  When I first moved to Florida a few years ago, I thought my hiking days were pretty much over – I was used to hiking mountain ridges and dense forests and Florida didn’t really have any of that.  But Circle B Bar Reserve has proved to be one of my favorite hiking places of all time.  On my penultimate trip there (…I recently moved house and no longer live near it! So sad!!) I got to see some baby alligators, got super close to some wildlife, and outran an incredible thunderstorm. Of course, I took pictures 😉

When I arrived at Circle B, I immediately noticed the posted signs indicating that the major trail, Alligator Alley, was closed.  There wasn’t a specific reason given for the closures, but my assumption is that it had to perhaps do with the many alligators and sightings there recently.  With the main trail closed, I decided to just head up the trail that leads to it, which fortunately still offers incredible views and opportunities for wildlife spotting.

The trail I walked up sits in the middle of a large wetland area.  I had my infamous massive-gator-encounter here (see the gator here!) and was hoping to actually see another.  There weren’t any large gators this time, but I did spot a number of baby ones! So cute!

It was gorgeous and sunny as I headed down the trail in hopes of some more wildlife sightings, as evidenced by this lovely photo here (lol):

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Perfect skies, perfect temperature! It was seriously gorgeous.  I continued my way down the trail and even explored part of the Alligator Alley trail until I was met with the closed-off area and warnings not to dare attempt entering it (which I did not).  I did, though, make friends with a brave and fearless squirrel!

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After becoming acquainted with my new squirrel friend, I began making my way back and, for the first time, noticed how extremely dark it had gotten.  The sky was no longer a beautiful and clear blue, but a dark and storm grey.  Thunder sounded in the distance.  I was standing in an open wetland… So I booked it back to my car.

The storm that rolled through was impressive.  The wind gusted so hard, Spanish moss rained down from the trees and large branches fell to the ground.  I had a hard time keeping to the center of the trail as I headed back, the wind was that strong!

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I made it back to my car just before it started down-pouring.  The whole experience was a reminder of just how powerful mother nature can be, and how quickly a really nice day can turn really dangerous in a matter of minutes (weather in Florida is so fascinating this way!).

So, although my hike didn’t include my favorite trail and was cut short by the extreme weather, it was still an eventful and worthwhile adventure! I’ll certainly miss you, Circle B!

sarahheart

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Touring Florida’s Natural Orange & Citrus Center

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I have lived smack in the middle of orange grove central for three years now and I have finally gotten around to really exploring the citrus world.  Citrus is huge in Florida – many of my friends work or have family members who work in the citrus industry.  I’ll be honest, I never knew so many variations of citrus existed before living here!  Sure, I knew there were a few types of oranges and lemons and grapefruits and so on… but never before have I encountered so much variety, including ones I have never heard of before, even when out in the wild simply hiking or walking!

My curiosity in learning more about citrus led me to a visit to the Florida’s Natural Orange visitor center.  Here, one can take a look at the history of citrus in Florida and discover just how large and complex the industry is – there’s a lot more to it than just oranges!

The Florida’s Natural visitor center is located on route 27, southwest of Orlando by about an hour.  They’re closed Memorial Day through the end of September, during the off season, so plan a trip during the “cooler” months! I went around midday during the middle of the week.  Surprisingly, no one else was there! It was very quiet (but very nice that way!).  There are different varieties of citrus growing around the visitor center property, so I browsed through them and was amazed at how many different kinds of oranges there are! Many are non-native, having been brought from other parts of the world, but I was surprised to learn that there was a unique local variety of orange, too.

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Inside the center, there is a large gift shop that makes up the front of the building.  Anything you can think of that could be “orange-ized” pretty much is.  I tried some citrus flavored popcorn (it was really good!!) and sampled some of Florida Natural’s juices.  The rear of the center is devoted to information exhibits about the history of citrus and the formation of Florida’s Natural.

The self-guided, walk-through tour gives visitors the chance to learn about all aspects of the citrus industry – from picking and boxing, to the effects of weather and how the growing seasons work.  Florida’s Natural began as a co-op in 1933.  Growers worked hard to develop methods to best pack and ship their crop and produce their juice, which used to only be canned juice and concentrate (non-concentrate didn’t come around until the 1980’s!).  It amazed me how there was so much work that went into developing and building the wooden crates that oranges are famously seen in nowadays – it was the best way to pack the fruit without damaging it!

Since the citrus industry began, weather has always played a large role in the growing and harvesting of the fruit.  There have been years where frost has virtually wiped out the season’s crop.  I think many people don’t realize how damaging something like this really can be to an entire industry or business; for example, many local, smaller groves in Florida survive by selling their crop to larger citrus businesses, such as Florida’s Natural.  If the local groves suffer crop loss from freezing temperatures or frost, their business is essentially lost for an entire portion of the year (and all the money that went into growing the citrus is wasted).  Similarly, fires can just as easily decimate entire groves.  And, in an extremely hot climate like Florida, groves are vulnerable to wildfire threats.  It was really an eye-opening experience to learn about and consider all this information.

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Florida’s Natural also focuses heavily on energy conservation.  The visitor center, for example, receives its energy from solar panels.  With entire groves exposed to sunlight, its easy to see how citrus and energy can go hand-in-hand.  Even the watering systems for the groves have been worked and reworked to reduce water runoff and waste!

So the next time you reach for that cold glass of orange juice, consider where it all came from!  I am very lucky to be surrounded by these wonderful orange groves on a daily basis and enjoy their (literal) fruits. Next time you find yourself in Florida, particularly in the Orlando (or even Tampa!) area, swing by Florida’s Natural for a look at the history of the citrus industry, a taste of their products, and a sample of the citrus-inspired goodies they have! You’ll be amazed at just simply how many varieties of citrus there are!

Happy travels!

sarahheart

 

 

 

A Wild Gator Encounter!

I decided to go for a hike at one of my favorite places to spot wildlife in Central Florida, Circle B Bar Reserve.  I’ve written a number of blog posts about my animal encounters there and, each time I go, I am never disappointed.  My most recent visit this past weekend was certainly no exception.

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I began by walking down the Heron Hideout trail. This trail is accessible directly from the parking area and leads to the biggest trails on the reserve.  It has very little shade (wear a hat or sunscreen!) and so it gets pretty hot.  The trail is surrounded by marsh on both sides and offers prime viewing for birds, small fish, and gators.  The Heron Hideout trail eventually reaches a crossroads, where you can opt to continue forward onto the Eagle Roost trail, right to the Marsh Rabbit Run trail, or left (most popular) to Alligator Alley, which parallels Lake Hancock.  I decided to continue forward on the Eagle Roost trail.

The Eagle Roost trail has marsh and ponds bordering both sides of it before the trail turns farther up and becomes more open and sandy.  While walking up the trail, I noticed a gator moving nearby in the water.  It was pretty cool to see! I turned around at the bend in the trail and, on my way back, I became absolutely startled.

The gator I had seen swimming in the water suddenly popped its head out of the tall grass to the side of the trail just five feet ahead of me.  He was huge!  I immediately backed up, mentally running through the list of all the safety tips I had learned in the Everglades.  The gator proceeded onto the trail and I was in awe at his size – he stretched the whole way across! It was certainly a sight to see.  His gait was slow and almost crooked.  When he made it to the water on the opposite side of the trail, I waited a minute before quickly passing.  I was still catching my breath!

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Perhaps almost ironically, I turned onto the Alligator Alley trail next.  I didn’t have any more personal gator encounters, but I did see a bunch more! Along the trail were beautiful birds, rabbits, and turtles.  There were some baby alligators sitting in the marsh off to the left side of the trail, and larger gators swimming around in the lake to the right. There was just so much wildlife to see!

Circle B Bar is one of my favorite places for wildlife sightings and this visit definitely tops my list.  That alligator encounter was incredible! I’m glad I went when I did! 🙂

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sarahheart

Bok Tower Gardens

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Bok Tower glimmers in the central Florida sunlight and is visible from every direction for miles and miles. It sits atop Iron Mountain, one of the highest geographical points in Florida peninsula.  The tower was designed and constructed in the 1920’s.  Edward Bok imagined a beautiful landscape for people to enjoy and commissioned famed architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (the Biltmore Estate, the White House, Jefferson Memorial). Today, the grounds surrounding the awe-inspiring tower are home to magnificent gardens with winding paths and walking trails that lend themselves to the enjoyment of the outdoors.  The tower is also a “hot spot” for various birds and wildlife. The area itself, being one of a few that remained above water when Florida was long ago below sea level, hosts a variety of unique plant and animal species.

I went in the late afternoon and was lucky to find very few people.  There is a wonderful cafe at the visitor center that I really enjoy, so I grabbed myself a yummy tropical salad and a grapefruit beer and soaked up some sun before beginning my walk through the gardens.  Much of the grounds have been re-landscaped in the past year. There are new walkways, gardens, open areas, and even a shuttle to take you straight to the tower. I headed down the main path and began my adventure to the tower!

As I wandered through the paths, I stopped by the “Window By The Pond” – a cabin structure that features a large window overlooking a pond where you can sit and observe wildlife and marine life.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see when I went, but it was very evident that the pond area had been redone to look even nicer than before.  If there’s one thing that’s true about Bok Tower Gardens, it’s how beautiful it all is! From there I made my way to the Pinewood Estate, a stunningly gorgeous property that is open to self-guided tours.  Though I didn’t do the tour on this particular day, I did it previously over the holidays when the estate was decorated and it was truly picture-perfect.  It’s a Mediterranean-style building and is surrounded by a beautiful sloping lawn, citrus trees, gardens, and a pond.  It’s one of my favorite spots at Bok Tower and is a perfect place to bring a picnic lunch!

After the estate, I headed toward the tower itself. The tower raises up 205 feet into the air, perched atop one of the highest points in Florida to begin with. There are eight levels within the neo-Gothic tower with just as much to see both inside and out (though the inside is only opened on rare occasions for exclusive members).  The tower features colorful tiles, a brass door, hand-wrought gates, a “moat,” and a sun dial depicting the zodiac.  Large koi fish live in the water surrounding the tower.  I hung around for a bit watching them and feeding them (fish food is available on sight) and just really enjoyed the views.  There is also a fantastic view overlooking the “flatlands” of Florida from the tower.  There were a couple people having photos taken here – it’s so picturesque!  The tower houses a carillon, a large structure of at least 23 bells.  Live performances are given throughout the day in certain parts of the year, or else visitors can listen to the recordings that play periodically from the tower.

On the way out, I meandered through some more of the gardens and even spotted a notable palm tree – one that was planted by President Calvin Coolidge in 1929.  The property really is full of little historic gems like this one.  I really just love exploring the grounds and finding little new things each time – it’s part of the fun!

Bok Tower is certainly one of central Florida’s most notable landmarks, but is often overlooked as people tend to visit the theme parks and larger attractions.  If it’s quiet and beauty you’re after, though, Bok Tower is what you want! Spend the day, relax, and enjoy the incredible views 🙂

 

sarahheart

Exploring Florida Orange Groves

I’ve lived in Florida for a few years now and I drive by orange groves every day.  When I first moved here, it was a really neat thing to see – rows and rows of orange trees! In the springtime (right now, actually!), the orange blossom flowers bloom and fill the air with an incredible floral scent.  I love driving down the road in the afternoon with the windows down and enjoying the wonderful smell!  When I go hiking, I normally have to drive through some of the orange groves to get to the trails.  I realized, though, that while I tend to drive through the groves quite a lot, I’ve never actually been in them.  How can I live in Florida for so long and never find myself in an orange grove enjoying the fruit and flowers? Surely, I needed to remedy this.

I decided to set out in the afternoon to the groves that I drive through on my way to my usual hiking trails. Now, technically, entering an orange grove is trespassing.  And, this time of year, when the oranges are ripe, there tend to be workers out in the groves.  I was worried about finding a place to safely “hide” my car as I went into the grove and managing to go unseen.  So, I ended up actually parking at a trailhead and then walked to the grove down the road.

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Some of the rows of oranges had been picked, so they were bare but still had the blossom flowers on them.  I decided I would explore both the “bare” trees and the fruiting ones to get the “full experience.”

As I entered the flowering, fruitless grove, I immediately noticed an odd low humming sound.  As I looked at the trees, I saw that there were bees/insects enjoying the flowers.  I guess that with so many trees, the number of insects was so big that it created quite a noticeable sound! They weren’t bothered by me at all, though, so I was able to enjoy the flowers, too 🙂

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I spent some time just wandering the rows of trees and admiring their beauty.  Orange trees are quite impressive when they are that big! The ground was very sandy and had some grass growing, too.  Old oranges lay scattered about on the ground and they would “explode” if I accidentally stepped on them (which took me off-guard the first time! haha).  It was an enjoyable stroll and I stopped to set up my camera a couple times for some photos.  When in an orange grove!

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I had to drive to another section of the grove to see the part that still had actual oranges on the trees. This was a bit trickier as the only place to put my car was on the side of the road next to the orange trees (more chance of being “caught” but it was the only way, lol). I didn’t wander around these trees as much since I wanted to stay closer to my car in case someone pulled up, but I did get to enjoy walking through some of the trees and seeing all the oranges growing.  It was pretty cool!

This time of year in Florida is always “magical” in a sense because of the flowering and fruiting orange groves.  Their scent is wonderful (and can be smelled for miles, sometimes!) and the oranges are ripe and juicy! (Sometimes you can see them on the side of the road when they fall off the transport trucks.)  I’m glad I finally took advantage of visiting and exploring the groves a bit!

sarahheart