Only a decade ago, thousands of head of cattle ranged over Circle B Bar Ranch's almost 1,300 acres of canal-drained fields. Today, it is impossible to imagine a single cow trudging through the wetlands that took over this primordial swathe of Central Florida. In 2003, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Polk County teamed up to buy the land and flooded the pastures. Marshy soil and standing water now cover the former fields, which give way underfoot.
Located on the edge of the city of Lakeland, Circle B Bar Reserve provides much needed relief from the pressures of residential and commercial development. A quarter of a million people live within a stone's throw of the reserve, which was created to restore the Banana Creek water system and to re-create habitat for some of Florida's threatened wildlife.
Flocks are the new herds at Circle B Bar, which is rapidly becoming a destination for American birders. Roseate Spoonbills, Great Blue Herons, and Ibis wade through the water as osprey and red-shouldered hawks swoop low, looking for food and dry perches. Even the peepers here flock together, standing amid their armaments – tripods, scopes, binoculars, and long-lensed Nikons – along the gravel roads and paths that transect the reserve. They share the latest avian gossip: Someone saw two bald eagles fighting an Osprey and someone else saw a Black Skimmer on Lake Hancock. All along the path, birders name drop genera and species.
Limpkins and Bitterns hunt in the tall swamp grass next to the paths that run parallel to the old canals under live oaks. Wandering down one of these trails, we came across about a dozen baby alligators, all less than a foot long, recharging their batteries in the sun. When we looked around for their mother, we discovered a snake as thick as our arm before spying the hundreds of pounds of reptile slumped on the side of the path like a discarded tractor tire.
We didn't calm down until we were distracted by a little waterhole where Wood Storks, egrets, herons, and Mottled Ducks posed for a group photo. A pair of adult Sandhill Cranes and their two chicks, called colts for their long legs, wandered nearby and paused. One colt sat at our feet and a parent looked us in the eye before wandering back off into the brush.
Birding is best in early morning or late afternoon, when it's cooler and the birds are active and more likely to be feeding. On your way out of the reserve, if you turn east on Winter Lake Road, don't forget to look over the guardrail at the first bridge: Dozens of Black Vultures wait here patiently for the guts fishermen dump in the creek before heading home.
More information: Lakeland lies along Amtrak's famed Silver Meteor line so visitors can take the train North from Miami or south from Jacksonville. The historic Terrace Hotel offers the best lodging in town and a short drive to Circle B Bar Reserve.