A Work In Progress

Header Image: American Alligator

In the early 20th century, Florida became a magnet for anyone who wanted to escape the snow of the far north, the bustle of a big city or even the long arm of the law. Warm weather, beaches, sparkling lakes filled with fish, pine forests, no crowds. Why, you could pick an orange right off a tree for breakfast!

The fourth largest lake in the state, Lake Apopka, consisted of over 50,000 acres of clear water teeming with sport fish begging to be reeled in. Around the shoreline were peaceful fishing camps as well as swanky lodges for visitors such as Clark Gable and Al Capone. Agriculture was in the beginning stages of making Florida a major producer of fresh fruits and vegetables for consumers across the United States.

Around the northern shore of big Lake Apopka, a levee was built to separate the lake from about 20,000 acres of low land to which irrigation canals were added. Once the wetlands had been drained, the rich organic muck created from what used to be the lake’s bottom was perfect for a huge variety of crops. Adding modern (at that time) fertilizers and pesticides enhanced production. Owners became rich. All was right in the world.

Then the fish began dying.

In the early 1960’s, it is estimated around three million fish died, most likely due to the effects of aerial spraying of pesticides over the surrounding muck farms. During the following decade, the formerly pristine lake water suffered from continual algae blooms probably caused by fertilizer runoff. These blooms cut off oxygen and resulted in more fish kills. In the winter months of 1998-1999, nearly 700 dead birds were counted around the lake’s north shore. The majority of the deaths were of water birds and autopsies revealed the main cause of death to be consuming contaminated fish.

It was painfully obvious that despite more and harsher regulations that the farms were not going to resolve the environmental issues through self-policing. The state of Florida began purchasing the farms after passing the Lake Apopka Restoration Act. Cleaning and restoring an area of over 50 square miles after years of chemical pollution has been a daunting task. It is now 27 years since that task was begun and there have been significant rewards.

The former muck farms are monitored for pollutant levels and for the past two decades have improved to near-natural conditions. No major fish or bird kills have occurred since the late 1990’s. Much of the area is being administered by water and wildlife management organizations to ensure this huge natural resource is protected for future generations. There is much yet to be done.

In 2015, an 11-mile drive was opened allowing visitors to travel through the restored wetlands of the north shore of Lake Apopka. It is a fantastic experience! The old irrigation canals now provide clean water throughout the marsh. Resident birds breed in significant numbers and each fall tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl, passerines and raptors spend the winter here.

Gini and I recently spent the day poking along the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive. The large rafts of Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaup, Northern Pintail, Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Northern Shovelers and Blue-winged Teal were mostly beyond camera range. We managed to find a few lounging closer to shore who didn’t mind posing for the paparazzi. The area is very attractive for a diverse array of wildlife and there always seem to be surprises awaiting the patient visitor.

After all the words above, I almost forgot to show you some pictures. (Another two-part post, I’m afraid. Blame the camera. It just doesn’t know when to stop clicking.)

One of the more abundant waterfowl species to spend the winter here is the Ring-necked Duck.

Ring-necked Duck – Female
Ring-necked Duck – Male

Wading birds such as the Greater Yellowlegs can find plenty of shallow water for hunting among the reeds.

In the 1950’s, several Gray-headed Swamphens escaped from captivity near Miami. They found south Florida to be to their liking. They have spread to many parts of the state and continue to find it to their liking. In this section of Lake Apopka, there are probably 3-4 breeding pairs.

Nesting material?

Another very abundant migratory visitor is the Blue-winged Teal.

Blue-winged Teal – Female
Blue-winged Teal – Male

A Tricolored Heron warmed up in the early morning sun and took care of preening duties before heading out for breakfast.

This vast wetland is not restricted to water birds! A migratory Palm Warbler has found a really good-looking friend to talk to.

If the number of alligators is an indication of the health of the marsh, this place is REALLY healthy! The owner of all this magnificent dental work belongs to the specimen displayed in the header image. We estimated its length to be around 15 feet (4.5+ meters).

Plenty of Pied-billed Grebes scooting around the canals gave us a few photo opportunities. Gini refers to these adorable divers as a “Fuzzy Butt”. My favorite taxonomist, she is.

With a lilting low flight and an owl-like face, the migratory Northern Harrier thinks this is perfect habitat.

The eyes have it. A Double-crested Cormorant has eyes which look like they should be in a jewelry shop. Thousands of these birds around the lake attest to the current good health of the fish population.

Nesting season! We counted a dozen Great Blue Heron nesting sites during our 11 mile journey. Most were too distant for a photograph, but this one was not far from the road.

With all the visiting as well as resident water birds, a migratory opportunist was not a great surprise but it was a great treat to see! We don’t see many Peregrine Falcons in our area during winter and today we saw TWO! This first one perched long enough for me to toss my boiled egg breakfast onto the car seat as I jumped out and almost threw the camera into the canal in my haste to get a photograph! (The sacrifices I make for all of you!) Yes, Gini was laughing, thank you very much.

The history of Lake Apopka is a sad statement on how short-sighted we humans can be when it comes to protecting the environment. On the other hand, human intervention and very hard work has turned Lake Apopka from a lost cause to a cause for celebration. Stay tuned for a few more reasons to be happy!

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

31 Comments on “A Work In Progress

  1. That’s a great success story, still ongoing, Wally! I’ve read over the years how various parts of Florida have suffered by short-sighted or uninformed actions as well as developing environmental science discovering the errors of our ways. And judging by your pictures it’s been a huge success.
    A slightly different story involves our Quabbin Reservoir. It’s taken a few decades but we once again have a resident Bald Eagle population after all the DDT carnage.
    Fabulous birds, Mr. J!


  2. What a feel good story and some lovely pictures to accompany. Never seen a Gray-headed Swamphens.. definitely intrigued! Your Pied-billed Grebe is adorable! I can related on almost losing your camera, mos of my near misses are clipping something with my feet when I forget and start moving with the camera to the eye.. I suspect the bird audience get quite a laugh when we goof up ha – we do appreciate you going that extra mile for us ha. Thanks for taking us along for the drive.


  3. Your tale of the lake’s decline and recovery has strong echoes of Galveston Bay. I well remember the days of the little rhyme: “the air is always greener in downtown Pasadener.” There still are a few “don’t eat the fish” signs in the upper reaches of the bay complex, up the ship channel into the area of the petrochemical complex, but there are far fewer. Unfortunately, the widening of the ship channel has brought environmental degradation in terms of sea grass loss and erosion, but at least the water and air are cleaner, and people are far more aware of the issues.

    When it comes to your photos, there are several things that caught my eye, including that gorgeous turquoise eye of the cormorant. I laughed at your Palm Warbler. I’ve seen Cardinals fussing at themselves in car mirrors, but never another species. I have a photo that’s almost exactly the same as that of your Yellowlegs, except the bird in mine doesn’t have yellow legs. The feathers and beak look the same, but what’s interesting is that the mud and the vegetation are almost identical. As it happens, I took my photo at the edge of a fishing lake at the Brazoria refuge. I’ll have to explore further, and see what I might have found.

    Here’s a bonus story for you. I was on my hands and knees at the side of a road near the refuge, photographing Indian paintbrush. When a vehicle stopped, I looked up and saw a man grinning at me. He said, “What have you found?” I said, “Paintbrush!” He reached down, and pulled up his camera, with a lens I swear had to be longer than my arm. He grinned even more broadly and said, “If I tried to get a photo of that flower, I’d have to be in the next county. I’ll have to leave that one to you.” When long-lens sorts arrive with a sense of humor, what’s not to like?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s unfortunate we need success stories which remind us of how good we can be at cleaning up after we discovered how bad we can be at messing up.

      Our exploration can be so entertaining! We just walked in from a superb morning in the foggy swamp. It seems there is an urgency for Spring to arrive. Flowers blooming, dragonflies hovering in the fields, wading birds in breeding plumage and the two of us breathlessly saying “Look at that!” – sometimes in unison.

      Good times getting better.

      Love your paintbrush story. Good to know a sense of humor is not quite extinct – yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. An excellent exposé of the exploitation and dire consequences of “development,” and the success of reversing at least some of the damage done to the natural environment. This is repeated so many times in Florida, but not always with redeeming mitigation. The “Wounded Wetlands” birding patch in my south Florida neighborhood which I left behind when I moved to Connecticut is now being disrupted by a four-lane parkway and “development.” This was the only remaining area of undeveloped and unpaved open space in the entire western half of the City of Miramar. So sad. When will we ever learn?


    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Ken. Especially since you lived with this issue so close by.

      Overall, we as humans will never learn the true value of anything as long there is money and power involved. Until it’s gone.

      I firmly believe our hope is with our children. Parents must ensure the planet is in good hands. This can only be accomplished by example.


  5. That Swamp Hen looks a whole lot like our Purple Gallinule. Glad they’ve found your habitat appealing and have had the good manners not to displace other species with rampant reproduction. Love your Peregrine photo, I can just visualize your excitement!


    • The Purple Gallinule and Gray Headed Swamp Hen are in the same family. The Swamp Hen is significantly larger and has a bit different coloration. Scientists are not yet ready to say the Swamp Hen is not a threat to other species. Time will tell, but they have been very successful at expanding their breeding area. Whether or not they will have a negative impact on native birds remains to be seen.

      Yep. Peregrine Falcon = Adrenaline Rush.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I looked up Lake Apopka and found it’s adjacent to Orlando. Good to hear about the progress that’s been made cleaning up the area.

    Here’s what Merriam-Webster says about fulvous:

    Fulvous has never been a common word. You are most likely to encounter it in texts from the 19th century—unless, that is, you care about ducks. In that case, you might know about a kind of whistling-duck called the fulvous tree duck, which is a brownish duck with long legs and a long neck and an unusual world distribution. It lives in isolated populations in North America, South America, India, and Africa—remarkably without geographic variation. But back to fulvous: it shares a meaning with its direct ancestor, the Latin word fulvus, and fulvus itself is believed to possibly share an ancestor with flavus, Latin for “yellow.”


    • Fortunately, the lake is far enough from mouse world that we cannot hear the squeals of delight from ecstatic visitors. Just ducks, bitterns and frogs.

      Naturally, I failed to get a decent photograph of a Fulvous Whistling-Duck this trip. It will be on my “to-do” list. If I can ever locate the alleged list.


  7. I agree Wally. Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is very attractive and I too seem to be surprised every time I go. The first time was in the summer of 2015 – it must have been shortly after it opened. I’m really grateful for the changes and the progress there since the 1960s. Hopefully it will continue.

    Great photos, I’m glad you didn’t forget to show them to us!


    • It really is a terrific place to spend a few hours, Ed. We have been known to spend the morning on the drive, enjoy a local lunch and go around the drive again in the afternoon! It’s amazing how much difference a few hours can make.

      Not a bad area to practice with the camera, either! And I need all the practice I can get!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes Wally. Thank you for your question. All is well in Lancashire apart from the recent drowning tragedy in St Michael’s village a few miles from here. You may have read about it, even in FL . It’s a place that daughter Joanne travels through on her way to work, and a lovely unspoilt village with little to disturb the peace until now with an invasion of TV crews, amateur detectives and social media trolls.

    We have been busy decorating our lounge, painting doors and changing a few items to look more trendy. All of this while the weather has continued to blight birding and ringing. Me kicking my heels although Thursday is looking better, until Wednesday evening’s forecast.

    It’s good to read about the success in reinstating Apopka, a good news item that is so rare these days. I imagine that if Clark Gable and Al Capone were around now they would seek out yourself and Gini to provide them with some accurate bird news, coffee and buns.

    The teeth on that alligator do look a little blunt. Perhaps worn down by eating too many bony tourists? We can but hope.

    Well done in snapping the rarity Peregrine, it’s a great picture. Please ask Mr Bedridden to get back home, he’s in danger of starting WW3 and we don’t have a bunker. Unlike all of the politicians.


    • Firstly, thanks for letting us know you are alright. A fortnight without a missive from “Another Bird Blog” had us wringing our collective hands. (Okay, so we were just holding hands as usual but that doesn’t sound very dramatic.)

      What a horrible tragedy for the family in St. Michael’s. Hopefully, the village will return to its peaceful self sooner rather than later.

      I absolutely love decorating and painting around the villa! As long as it is someone else doing the work on their own villa.

      Our own weather is deceptively spring-like. Mother Nature is likely preparing a nasty cold front surprise before Easter.

      We would, of course, be happy to host celebrities at any time. Why, just the other day, our extremely famous celebrity Daughter permitted us to display our latest bird images during a rare home visit. She was mightily impressed.

      Naturally, we would also be amenable to sharing our extremely accurate local bird news as well as fresh buns. However, visitors should note our strict BYODC policy. (“Bring Your Own Darned Coffee”)

      Our plan is to have Mr. Bedridden remain in a foreign country as long as possible. Those operating the government will begin wars at a time of their choosing. No need for bunkers. Find the nearest school and hide under a desk. We once were assured that was our best chance for survival.

      The current weather and the indomitable Gini are vying for which is most beautiful. She wins that contest every time as her appearance and spirit are the most reliable things in my life. The weather – not so much.

      Wishing us all clear skies and good birding!


  9. I’m so glad that the story of this lake had a happy ending, but I share your frustration and sadness about all the messes we humans have created and, what is worse, continue to create, despite knowing better. Thank you for sharing your wonderful photos. The alligator made me shiver, though. 15 feet! Yikes!


  10. You saw some great things over there. I need to take that road trip soon since I’m having foot problems and could drive through that. It takes a lot of patients though to get through it when there’s a lot of traffic.


    • It was a good day.

      Very sorry to hear about the foot issue. We hope it improves soon.

      Go early and try not to get behind me ’cause I’m “one of those” who dawdles and stops suddenly – you know, “birder syndrome”!


  11. A heartwarming story, Wally, and a wonderful collection of images for our delectation.

    We humans have a lot to answer for, but it seems that nations (with some notable exceptions) are beginning to see the light. Will it be too late, or enough, I wonder?

    Lindsay continues to make progress. We actually managed to get out for an evening meal on Friday – the first time since late November!

    My very best wishes to you and Gini – – – Richard


  12. A sad tale that is repeated the world over, from a tiny stream to vast areas such as your lake. Thank goodness there are people now who can take on restoring these habitats (I was heavily involved in the 90’s on a river restoration project).


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