by Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost Travel Journalist firstname.lastname@example.org [Steinhatchee, FL.–] Looking down through my dive mask at the patchy grass bottom about four feet deep in the Gulf …
Audubon and Lake O: More than Birds
One of the world’s oldest non-profit wildlife conservation organizations, Audubon has been protecting Lake Okeechobee and tens of thousands of acres of adjacent wetlands, prairies and hammocks since 1936.
The Big O itself is the liquid heart of south-central Florida– providing drinking water for millions of humans; irrigation for crops; and homes for numerous species of sport and food fish and wading and migratory birds. But the “dry” prairie that surrounds the lake is just as important, and Audubon has been a key player in establishing sanctuaries protecting it from being drained and over-farmed for most of the past century.
The vast grasslands that extend south from the Kissimmee River to the lake–quick to catch fire in the dry season and to flood in wet periods– are biologically rich and make prime habitat for some unique birds — the crested Caracara; sandhill crane; burrowing owl; white-tailed kite; and the endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow. Otters and alligators dwell in nearby marshes, along with wading birds such as herons, ibises and spoonbills.
One of the best places to experience this unique ecosystem of dry and wet prairie; marshes; and palm and oak hammock is Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park — a 54,000-acre gem located about 25 miles northwest of Lake Okeechobee that Audubon was instrumental in establishing.
Managed by the Florida Park Service, it’s one of the state’s largest preserves and you could spend weeks exploring it. About 100 miles of dirt roads for hiking, biking and horseback riding allow extraordinary opportunities to view wild animals without disturbing them.
On a brief hike through a hardwood hammock adjacent to the park office, I spied a flock of wild turkey and a half-dozen deer. On the open prairie, I didn’t observe any Caracaras– sort of a cross between a raptor and a vulture– but I saw fly-bys of numerous kestrels and hawks. Colorful wildflowers dotted the landscape and subtly-hued sedges rushed along in the brisk wind. I don’t know my butterflies, but several different varieties flitted all around. I found a five-foot gator lurking next to some culvert pipes in a slough, and a great egret squawked at me as I passed.
Visitors can camp here year-round and spend hours stargazing far from the light pollution of big cities. From now through March, the rangers lead swamp buggy tours into some of the park’s remotest reaches. Reservations are required; call 863-462-5360.
Meanwhile, Audubon continues its long-standing work protecting wildlife and wild places here and throughout Florida– entering a partnership with the state to establish “critical wildlife areas” and meeting with federal and state agencies, local governments and conservation groups to ensure clean water flowing into and out of Lake Okeechobee at the right times and right amounts. It’s not just for the birds.