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BOB KORNEGAY: Not all cuckoos are in the mangroves

OUTDOORS: Stories of south Florida indicate it is another world compared to the Panhandle

Bob Kornegay

Bob Kornegay

Early this week I traveled farther south into Florida than I’d ever been before. In fact, it’s the farthest south I’ve ever been, period. For whatever reason, my long-distance road trips normally take me west or north.

Interstate 75 from Lake City down to Fort Myers was the usual ordeal. Interstate driving is excruciating at best and 75 South just might be the worst of the lot, especially since this time I wasn’t exiting in Ocala and heading inland. I never drive an interstate anywhere without thinking of the legendary Charles Kurault’s comment that the U. S. interstate system has made it possible to drive from border to border in any direction and not see a damn thing. No truer words were ever uttered.

But such is life. Time was limited and the interstate is expedient.

I happily left the expressway near Fort Myers and found my way to Cape Coral. There were burrowing owls to see and nearby Sanibel Island held the beautiful Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a well-managed 7000-acre mangrove habitat famous for birds, beauty, and some prime snook fishing. I’d wanted to ramble around on Ding Darling for as long as I could remember.

Naturally, I’d heard all the stories about the “other world” of south Florida. “It ain’t like the Panhandle,” they said. “And it forevermore sure ain’t like southwest Georgia or southeast Alabama.”

They’re right. It ain’t. Not by a long shot.

My nature-loving cohorts decry the region’s exotic, invasive plants and animals. Australian pine trees, Brazilian pepper bushes, and weirdly attractive baobab trees were a definite culture shock. Likewise, it was extremely odd to witness monk parakeets nesting on utility poles and pet-shop lizards darting about the suburban landscapes as if they had been there since the dawn of time.

There are “exotic” varieties of Homo sapiens as well. Most of them were very kind and courteous, despite the tattoos and funky accents. There were, however, exceptions.

I was fascinated by the behavior of one “specimen” who drove behind me as I made a left turn into a shopping center parking lot. She obviously disapproved of my driving and apparent misunderstanding of what must be special south Florida rules of the road. Either that or she had only recently discovered her car has a horn, which she honked loudly and incessantly. I’ve been “given the finger” by countless belligerents in my day but to that point never by a 160-year-old woman with a chronic case of road rage. All I could figure was she must have been hurrying to get to the beauty supply shop before the last bottle of orange hair dye was sold.

A guy on a bicycle who looked amazingly like the old comic actor Wally Cox was just as aggressively vociferous. Meek appearance notwithstanding, he had the vocabulary of a New York cab driver and a long stick with which he challenged my equal right to the road. My one consolation was his nondiscriminatory attitude. He bowed up at everybody unfortunate enough to be operating a vehicle with more than two wheels.

The young man behind the desk at my motel looked very much like the tattooed and bejeweled oddities I once paid a dime to see at county fairs. He was quite put out and inconvenienced by my asking where I might find a good nearby seafood restaurant. I rudely interrupted his television program and the game he was playing on his phone. To top it off, he seemed completely confused by my seafood query and acted as if I’d asked for directions to the nearest Swedish smorgasbord. You’d think “Cape” and “Coral” would have been pretty good clues as to regional culinary geography. The pelicans on the dock just outside the window were good indicators as well.

All in all, though, I had a quite enjoyable trip. The flora and fauna of Ding Darling were wonderful. The birding and fishing were fabulous. My one disappointment was that I didn’t see the mangrove cuckoo I’d so hoped to find.

Wait a second. Not so fast. Maybe I did!

Email outdoors columnist Bob Kornegay at cletus@windstream.net.