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Wiregrass wilderness: Every day is turkey day

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Published:   |   Updated: July 12, 2013 at 05:00 PM

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WESLEY CHAPEL -

For most of a generation, Wiregrass Ranch hasn't been the isolated place to which James Porter fled when, just after World War II, Plant City got too big and crowded. And every day, it grows slightly less so.

Meadow Pointe, a more-or-less planned community, sprawls across ancient pastureland. A destination mall — bracing for Black Friday — gobbled more. They're shoving dirt around in anticipation of a new community college campus. Most of a hospital rises on the site of the house where J.D. Porter — James' grandson and, at 32, head of the family's operations — grew up.

Raymond James Financial struck a deal to open a campus here. Given a nod from county commissioners, still more land will be given over to a park intended to lure tourists.

None of which means a whit to the several dozen Florida wild turkeys that reside, year-round, on the remaining Wiregrass wilderness, most of 5,000 acres that is little changed since before San Antonio farmers and lumbermen used it as a rutted shortcut on their way to market in Ybor City.

Indeed, Tuesday morning, as they do most autumn mornings, the turkeys of Wiregrass followed their ancient, instinctive routine. Nevermind rush hour or the distant growl of heavy machines coming to life. The unhurried turkeys had ground to scratch, bugs to snatch and bellies to fill.

"They're comfortable here," Porter says. "They know nobody's going to mess with them."

Not this time of year, anyway, making them a rarity within their breed. Turkeys, after all, are much on the minds of Americans preparing to be officially grateful, their thoughts turning almost universally to golden brown Butterballs as the centerpiece of their Thanksgiving feasts.

The worst these few, these fortunate few, had to worry about was the approach of James Don Porter's white Ford king cab pickup and the curious city folk it occasionally disgorged with camera gear and heavy footfalls.

It turns out that undomesticated turkeys — these undomesticated turkeys, anyway — are keenly alert to changes in their environment. Even at a football field's distance, they'd be browsing one moment, necks craning and gazes fixed, assessing the danger, the next.

* * * * *
When the flock resumed, it was along a slightly altered course, like a stream working its way around a boulder. Once in a while they'd scurry, but never for long. And none ever took wing.

Porter explained, "They don't like to fly." They will, when sufficiently spooked, but the process requires a running takeoff and the mad beating of wings. Once airborne, "They just glide back down" to a location of apparent safety.

At this point, it bears noting that Florida wild turkeys — Osceolas, for the famed Seminole chief — are a downsized version of their cousins up east. Mature gobblers rarely top 18 pounds. Florida's tend to be darker and, with feathers of deep green and red, iridescent.

You should see them, Porter says, early in the morning emerging from tall grass still heavy with dew. Hit by the sun, he says admiringly, they practically glow.

He spent a recent afternoon watching a momma bobcat teach her cubs to hunt wood duck. Their classroom was a huge fallen cypress along the edge of a pond, and Porter laughed in spite of himself when one of the youngsters tumbled off the log, landing headlong in the pool. Where else, he asks himself, am I — is anyone — going to see anything like that?

So he works at theWiregrass jigsaw puzzle, fitting, piece by snug piece, the frontier legacy passed down from his grandfather and father into the inexorable human demand for space. Opportunity and responsibility exist side by side, one balancing the other.

Your hospital development order requires wetlands mitigation?Wiregrass has just the location. Your financial services campus plan needs a nearby lake?Wiregrass can accommodate that in a park planned right next door.

All the while, Osceola turkeys, as indomitable as their namesake, keep on keeping on, oblivious to the season, cranberry sauce and the machinations of mankind.

Everybody wins, thank goodness.


tjackson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7068 Facebook: Tom Jackson Tampa Tribune

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