Lying about 45 minutes or so equidistant from Tampa and Orlando airports, not far from well-known, man-made attractions such as Disney World, is the “other” Central Florida of Polk County–a place of pretty little towns, rolling hills, myriad lakes, orange groves, astonishing public gardens and mysterious natural habitats that are little known to the casual visitor. And that’s where we’re going on the next few posts of this blog.
Our comfortable hotel, the Holiday Inn Winter Haven, is the jumping-off point for our adventures. Although I’d be a liar if I didn’t tell you there’s the usual share of what our “Gardens and Groves” tour leader Georgia Turner dubbed “Generica” here–that endless permutation of suburban strip mall/big box store/motel-and-fast-food-joint that seems to be found most anywhere you land–it’s well worth looking beyond that to discover what’s special, such as the Circle B Bar Reserve located between Bartow, Lakeland and Winter Haven.
A long allee of live oaks, beautifully festooned with Spanish moss, line the road to the newly opened Polk’s Nature Discovery centre at the edge of the reserve, where we learn more about the area and pick up our two volunteer tour guides, Ray and Herman. Then off we go into the wild.
It’s hard to believe that prior to 2000, the Circle B Bar’s 1267 acres of marsh, cypress swamp and oak hammock were mostly a working cattle ranch. Since that time, wildlife and nature have been allowed to take over and it’s now a haven for some 172 species of birds and numerous plants, many of them unique to this part of the state. Neither the lake nor the land have been stocked in any way, and Herman and Ray explained that wildlife and plants came back on their own after just five years.
A breeze ruffles my hair and the spring sun feels warm on my back. I am in heaven. The silence is broken only by the cries of birds and the rush of their wings. Wild turkeys, bald eagles, palm warblers, moor hens, pie-billed grebes, coots and especially the famous rare white pelicans (seen at the top of the page) are just some of the species to be found around Hancock Lake.
Next: Hollis Garden