SEBRING – She calls it a hobby, a way to be a steward of the environment and a reason to get outdoors. But most of all, she calls it a therapeutic way of appreciating a unique, central-Florida ecosystem.
Cindy Maxon and her husband, Scott, live in the Sebring Country Estates neighborhood off Schumacher Road, behind Wal-Mart and busy U.S. 27. It’s a typical suburban community, but along with homes built from a year to 30-plus years ago, the area is dotted with wooded lots, parcels of the Lake Wales Ridge, an ancient series of sand islands, a 150-mile low ridge formed over a million years ago during the Pleistocene epoch.
When the Maxons learned of the environmental significance of the home they had built on Peugeot Street in the early 1980s, they began cultivating small “sanctuaries” if native and indigenous plants around their yard -- trees, bushes and shrubs -- which in turn, became homes for a variety of insects and wildlife.
Abutted by a naturally-wooded lot, the home does have a grass lawn and landscaping, but among the St. Augustine grass and cypress mulch, are clumps of native lantana, periwinkles, porter weed, pentas, milkweed and others. And buzzing the foliage is a host of insects, small mammals and birds -- grasshoppers, butterflies, frogs, lizards, gopher tortoises, opossums, raccoons and a variety of birds.
And over the years, Cindy, 57, who moved into the house when it was new in 1987, has spent time using film or digital technology to photograph the native residents of the lot on which she lives.
A volunteer Ridge Ranger, an organization working to restore wildlife habitat on the Lake Wales Ridge and nearby areas in central Florida, Cindy has spent over 25 years taking pictures of critters from areas in the Ridge, such as natural areas of Sun ‘N Lake, Highlands Hammock, the Royce Ranch and Carter Creek. At all the sites, she also participates in scrub jay bird counts, including her own front and backyard -- a Certified National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Habitat, one of about 150,000 certified nationwide.
Friday, as she photographed, Cindy, a native of southwest Pennsylvania who moved to Sebring in 1978, reflected on the other benefit of her ecological and photographic ventures: in 2009 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and has since undergone a mastectomy. Although scans show she’s now in remission, she said the habitat work and photography has helped carry her through the hard times.
“It would get my mind of cancer recovery; I’d get tired frequently,” said Cindy, a former social services employee. “I do this because I love breathing the fresh air and reminds me not to take the small things for granted.”
At the beginning of July, Cindy submitted 10 pictures into the 44th annual NWF National Wildlife Photo Contest, where amateur photographers can enter up to 10 photos for consideration for NWF award and the People’s Choice Award, a separate competition voted on by registered visitors to the National Wildlife Photo Contest website. Among her photos are those of an ibis perched on a tree limb taken on the Kissimmee River in 1998; a six-lined racerunner lizard taken at Carter Creekin 2010; a red-shoulder hawk snapped on an oak tree in her backyard in 2012; and a gulf fritillary butterfly on a lantana flower in her backyard taken in June.
As of Friday, Cindy’s pictures were ranked 37 of nearly 20,000 pictures submitted, said Thuy Senser, design director for National Wildlife Magazine in Reston, Va. He said it was important for residents from around the country to take part and take pictures as a way of showcasing their homes’ environments.
The deadline for the competition is Saturday.
“We don’t have a photographer everywhere. We depend on people in each region to tell us their stories through pictures,” he said. “We think the people on the local level are the most important. They make the difference in environmental protection and where we need to focus.
Sebring Country Estates are a classic example of how building has infiltrated the Ridge scrublands, leaving lots piecemeal throughout. Because there’s a lot disconnectedness between wooded and developed lots, it’s important for homeowners to do what they can to preserve natural habitat on their lots, said Bill Parken, Ridge Rangers coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Lake Placid. He said Cindy’s ecological and photographic involvement help promote environmental involvement with those around her regarding one of the most biodiverse areas in the United States.
“She really appreciates the beauty of the local habitat. She focuses on seizing shots of special things in our environment and that communicates what special about the area around the Ridge,” he said.
The NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat program prompts businesses, schools, churches, parks and other groups to work to make communities wildlife-compatible and accommodating.
For information, see www.nwf.org.