Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida

Recently I took my family on a surprise trip to Florida.  The kids knew nothing of the trip until they got home from school on Friday and a couple of hours later we were on the road.  I had made arrangements to stay in Orlando (Country Inn & Suites at Calypso Cay I can highly recommend for families in Orlando).  We arrived Saturday evening and with it being Presidents day, we decided to avoid the theme parks until Tuesday.  That left the first two days in Florida free for birding, with only minimal resistance by my older daughter.

I had read off 10,000 Birds about the Great Florida Birding Trail, using that site we were able to search by the species we most wanted to see, Burrowing Owl, Crested Caracara, White-tailed Kite, Florida Scrub Jay and Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. Plugging that into the site, yielded a few locations, one of which caught my eye because it could be extensively driven, which is important, since my youngest is disabled.

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is located about 2 hours south of Orlando or just north of Lake Okeechobee.  It is one of the largest remaining tracts of prairie left in Florida, which at one time covered much of the peninsula.

After one of the most boring drives you’ll ever make on the Florida Turnpike, we got off at our exit and followed some of the most amazingly straight roads I’ve ever seen.  As we continued south, huge plumes of smoke could be seen at several areas around us, but thankfully our GPS called for us to turn right, just before we headed into brush fire.  As soon as we turned off the main drag, Danika quickly spotted a Crested Caracara flying around.

We pulled over and soon found another, this time carrying a large twig to a clump of palms in a nearby field.  Soon a third Caracara joined the action and the birds chased each other around.  As we watched the birds, we became somewhat alarmed as it started to lightly rain ash over us, but as we drove further away from the main road the ash cleared up.  Also present were many Turkey and Black Vultures (what do vultures eat in Florida to have so freaking many of them?), American Kestral was perched on almost every other telephone pole and a Northern Harrier wove and dove over the grass.

Driving along, we got more good looks at Crested Caracara and were amazed by how straight the road was, how flat the land was and how much of it was for sale.  We finally spotted something different in a Palm Tree, which turned out to be a Red-Shouldered Hawk of the Florida sub-species.

Red-Shouldered Hawk - Okeechobee County, Florida

After driving straight as an arrow for 15 miles, we suddenly make a complete  90 degree turn to the right and continued our way past gridded developments that never happened.  It was sort of spooky the way the roads were laid out, but not paved or finished, with very few houses.
We finally arrived at the park, where we greeted by this happy sign:

Who said birding isn't a dangerous sport?

As we drove down the dirt road, our eyes were peeled for anything.  Along the main road, to the south is a cattle ranch and to the north is the Prairie.  Danika was quite taken with the cows.

I would suggest the Chicken dish tonight

Loggerhead Shrikes were common along the fence line and Northern Harriers were in the fields across the road.  A few Palm Warblers bounced around some of the marshy areas, but it was noon time and the birding was slow.  One bird that was very common however was Eastern Meadowlark which was constantly singing everywhere we looked.

I sing in the face of danger!

We drove all the way to the end (about 1.5 miles) which ends in a state-run campsite.  From there you could explore on foot or horseback hundreds of acres of trails through the preserve.  With a disabled child, that wasn’t in the cards for us, but we did get a chance to refresh a bit before heading back out, and the birding started to pick up.
As we headed out the main road, the first thing we spotted was an American Alligator.

What is a trip to Florida without at least one Gator picture?

As we watched the Gator, a gorgeous Red-shouldered Hawk flew in and landed close to us.

Florida at its best!

We drove slowly out the main road, 2 more Crested Caracaras flew by, but no signs of Scrub Jay.  As we went past the cow pastures one last time, we looked closely at every little bump in the field, when Danika finally spotted a couple of bumps… who moved their heads!  Sure enough there were 2 Burrowing Owls!  We got out of the car and set the scope up so our oldest daughter could see them.  Photographing them was tough, as there was a lot of dust and smoke in the air and we were looking right into the sun, but here it is.

This photo will not win any awards.

After satisfyingly long looks at the Owls, we headed back to Orlando, we were had dinner and the kids enjoyed the pool.  Not a bad vacation day, with 2 life birds!
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