If you’ve never heard of the Circle B Bar Reserve, you are not alone. Until this visit I had never heard of Circle B Bar Reserve which is now a part of the REAL Florida. I have been living in Florida for over 30 years now, and my husband is from Kathleen–a little town just outside of Lakeland where this birding paradise came to life. Who would have thought that such a sanctuary for birds would be right here in Destination Tampa Bay? It’s been here for so long, but almost no one knows about it!
Upon entering the Circle B Bar Reserve, the first thing we noticed was the large number of photographers with thousands of dollars’ worth of camera equipment unlike any other trail I had been on in Florida. How did these photographers find out about this magical place? Apparently professional wildlife photographers have this place scouted out for capturing rare birds. The entire trip was reminiscent of a trip I took many years ago to Yosemite National Park. But this time it was the “Yosemite” for birds in their natural habitat found in the 1267 acres of wilderness area!
Named after a cattle ranch that once existed on this property, Circle B Bar Reserve was jointly aquired by the Polk County Environmental Lands Program and the District to protect the floodplain of Lake Hancock and to restore the Banana Creek marsh system. Maintained by Polk County, much of the property had previously been converted to pasture, but in 2005 and 2006, restoration projects were completed to restore much of the original hydrologic function of the lands. Because of the marsh system restoration project, Circle B Bar Reserve is now home to some of the most impressive bird activity in Florida.
The tremendous bird population includes a variety of wading birds, waterfowl, ospreys and bald eagles. Alligators inhabit Lake Hancock and may be observed at a distance from shore or from a pier. Oak hammock, freshwater marsh, hardwood swamp and the lakeshore are among the unique characteristics of this property. We encountered birds catching their prey. Even a wild boar was on the trail sharing the path with visitors.
Circle B Bar Reserve site is located on eastern section of Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. Before you make the trip, you may want to download the list of birds you can expect to see during your visit available on their website. In addition to offering some great hiking and birding observance, the area is also known for the fishing available in Lake Hancock. (Licenses are required for fishing. You can contact FWC for license requirements.)
The hiking at Circle B Bar Reserve was tremendous even though one of the trails was closed due to some recent alligator feeding. The Alligator Alley Trail (2.5-mile roundtrip) is an unpaved trail running from the parking area to Lake Hancock. Despite this closure, many other trails were available to view the birds and wildlife, like the Marsh Rabbit Run which is an unpaved trail that runs through Banana Creek Marsh. Another trail, called Eagle Roost, takes you through an upland with longleaf pines and wiregrass. Birds such as the bobwhites, eastern meadowlarks and American kestrals are commonly seen on this trail.
Another favorite is the Lost Bridge Trail that leads you through an oak canopy to a long boardwalk that gives you the feeling of walking on water through the swamps without the mud! And there is the Treefrog Trail that take visitors through oak hammock–watch for cabbage palms wrapped in trumpet vines, live oak covered with resurrection ferns, Spanish moss and the butterfly orchid. The hammock provides food and shelter to many types of animals and birds.
During your visit check out the Wading Bird Trail that runs along the deepest waters of the marsh system and boasts some of the best wildlife observations. Be on the lookout for great blue heron, great egrets, and a large group and mixture of migratory birds like the American white pelican.
Other things you may see along your trip include some unique insects like the praying mantis and needham’s skipper as well as dozens of butterflies and moths. Look for flowering plants like the fragrant Water Lily or beautiful Prairie Iris. And nearly everywhere you look you’ll find air plants
We sighted great egrets, roseatte spoonbills, white ibis, and anhinga. And with any other swampy area look for alligators and even yellow rattle snakes. The changes of restoration are creating habitat and providing new food sources for thousands of residents and migrating birds and other wildlife including the wild turkey, bobcat, grey fox and otter.
The park offers many amenities including Polk County Nature Discovery Center. It is quite the place for group and family picnics with many modern facilities available. The best time to visit this park would be in the spring when the migratory birds are in full swing.
(more on the Reserve)
In November 2008, construction of the Polk County Nature Discovery Center was completed. Managed by the Polk County Natural Resources Department, the center provides educational opportunities for Polk County public schools and is open to the public. There are exhibits in the center that display environmental and hydrologic functions of Florida’s natural resources. Nature trail, pavilion and information signs are available for public use on the grounds adjacent to the center. The Discovery Center admission is free. And, the center is open Tuesday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Other amenities at Circle B Bar Reserve included are children’s play areas, picnic areas and shelter, other reserved indoor pavilions, and an extensive list of programmed activities some with guided tours including a tram tours. No pets are allowed. There was also provision for disabled individuals to enjoy. Most important, don’t forget your camera and binoculars to appreciate all this bird haven and reserve has to offer.
Circle B Bar Reserve
Open Daily from sunrise to sunset
Nature Center 863-668-4773
Wildlife Alert Hotline 888-404-3922
4399 Winter Lake Road (SR 540)
Lakeland, FL 33803
For more great Destination Tampa Bay area park hikes check this story out. For more images of Circle B Bar Reserve check out the gallery page here. For another great place to visit in Destination Tampa Bay check out the Marshall Hampton Reserve or the John Chestnut
By Heather Miller for Destination Tampa Bay.
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