Lake Apopka was essentially a dead lake in the 1960’s. Damage from pesticides and large-scale fertilizer runoff from muck farms was thought to be irreparable. To visit this area today is enough to make you believe in miracles. If we did not know the lake’s history, we would assume we were enjoying one of Florida’s premier birding locations and prime water recreation destinations.

So much has been done to reclaim Lake Apopka and the surrounding land and the effort has been undertaken by so many from citizens to environmental activists to business/industry leaders and politicians. It’s been a bumpy road at times. The results are so incredibly rewarding!

Cleaning up after decades of abuse has taken decades to reverse course. The work is not finished. Currently, phosphorous levels remain too high throughout the lake and within the marshes. Innovative solutions appear to be working and levels continue to (slowly) improve. The food chain within and around Lake Apopka seems to be healthy and many groups maintain a watchful eye for any disruption.

For those of us who may visit the area infrequently, all appears to be good. Just as we would at any venue we visit for birding, fishing, photography or to just relax, we don’t see the history, the very determined and difficult effort and ongoing plans surrounding the lake’s existence. We just want to see a bird.

The second half of our Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive adventure was every bit as exciting and fun as the first. Nearly 70 species of birds, abundant alligators, turtles, dozens of out-of-state license plates, Florida sunshine – all ours to enjoy!

And we did.

A group of Black-necked Stilts were napping not far from the road. We counted six alligators not far from their resting spot. Sleeping with one eye open is mandatory.

Even if you didn’t see a Belted Kingfisher, you knew they were nearby. Their very distinctive rattling call echoed around us all day.

I’m fascinated with the feet of the American Coot. They look like some sort of inflatable appendages.

That long patterned neck helps a Tricolored Heron blend in with the reeds so the little fish won’t see her until it’s too late.

What’s that saying? “Let sleeping ducks lie.” Or something. A pair of Ring-necked Ducks getting some shut-eye. One is keeping an eye out just in case.

A few flowers were starting to bloom across the marsh. One of the most common is Bulltongue Arrowhead (Sagittaria lancifolia).

This Snowy Egret shows some of the fine feathers (aigrettes) of breeding season.

Some wetland areas have extensive masses of bright yellow at this time of year. We only found a few sparse plants of Burr Marigold (Bidens laevis) on today’s trip.

More nesting activity. Great Blue Herons need some substantial structures.

Our second Peregrine Falcon of the day didn’t cause me to drop any more food but clearly had been enjoying his own breakfast of Common Gallinule.

A fairly common resident of freshwater impoundments, the Florida Red-bellied Cooter (Pseudemys nelson) can reach up to 14 inches (36 cm) in length.

Along the bank of a canal, we counted over 50 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. Gini tells me they were all whispering about us.

When this Anhinga first stabbed the fish, a young alligator nearby caused him to move. A Great Blue Heron flew in threatening to steal the meal. The Anhinga slapped the catfish senseless on a tree branch and managed to swallow it before any more pirates appeared!

Where there are fish, there are eagles. An adult Bald Eagle held still for a portrait and we appreciated it.

Finally, a public service announcement for those who may visit our state and are not familiar with some of the fauna they may encounter. When walking through tall weeds, be careful not to stumble over a young American Alligator. These gentle creatures can be hard to spot at times and we wouldn’t want one of you to accidentally harm one of these tender-skinned reptiles. Enjoy your visit!

Lake Apopka. Resurgent. We hope you enjoy the natural resources in your area and remember to not take them for granted. If you have children or grandchildren, show them the beauty of our planet. Teach them what it means to be a good steward.

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

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!

Ain’t No Sunshine

Header Image: Cold Front Departing

How can we be “The Sunshine State” if the sun is not shining? Winter. What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!

So there we were, standing on the dock of the lake, peering into grayness. At the end of the dock were two Brown Pelicans, peering into grayness. Soon, the fog will lift and they can go fishing and we can go birding. Soon.

Any minute now.

Still waiting.

So there we were, standing on the bank of the canal, peering into grayness. The gray plumage of a Great Blue Heron blended nicely with the reeds shrouded by gray mist.

Very gradually, the day became slightly brighter. The birds became active and so did we. We visited three different spots around Lake Parker, including the city park on the western shore. The lake is only ten minutes from the house and we stop by often to check on the residents.

A cold front arrived last night and sure enough, it was cold this morning! Usually, we don’t get thick fog with this type front. Just lucky today, I guess. The icy air and damp mist made me regret not stopping to get a coffee. Gini, you remember her, said: “I’ll be in the car. Let me know if the fog lifts.” In the car. With the heated seats. And banana bread.

Eventually, we found a few birds. The cold front moved off to the east and around mid-morning the sun still had not made an appearance. I want my money back. “Sunshine State”. Right.

Yes, we are totally spoiled! It takes a day like this to remind us how good we have it the other 364 days a year. When the sun shines. In the Sunshine State.

If you squint and use your imagination, there are actual bird images somewhere around here.

Brown Pelicans on the dock. Honest.

A Green Heron doesn’t care about the fog. Wading around the weeds will work just fine for breakfast.

Clinging to a cattail in the mist, a Yellow-rumped Warbler has his fog lights on.

Another hunter who doesn’t need flight clearance for a meal, a Purple Gallinule uses its over-sized feet to step from one lily pad to the next.

Apparently, swallows have some pretty advanced technology on board as they seemed to have no problem at all zipping above the lake snapping up bugs. The photographer, on the other hand, had a huge problem trying to get a picture worth more than one or two (unprintable) words.

Atop a cypress tree, an Anhinga has not yet realized that spreading her wings to dry during a misty morning is an exercise in futility.

The smart bird of the morning. A Black-crowned Night Heron woke up to cold wet fog and simply buried his head deeper into his warm feathers.

Limpkins can find snails and other tidbits to munch on foggy days just as well as they can on sunny days.

At last! The air began to clear and a tree filled with delayed flights began to flap to life. White Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Anhinga, Cattle Egret, Boat-tailed Grackle – all relieved as they each received permission from the local air traffic controller to take off.

The back end of the cold front shuffled over the lake to the east bringing its damp cold gift to thousands of Disney World visitors. Aww.

Despite no sunshine and few birds, we had a wonderful morning. It wasn’t really all that cold and the fog was not nearly as dense as I have described. No, really, it wasn’t.

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

Header Image: Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Apparently, we did not exhaust ourselves enough during the Lakeland Christmas Bird Count so we volunteered to participate in the Green Swamp count. Twenty people. Over 500,000 acres of swamp. Challenging! Gini and I were assigned to the East Tract of the Green Swamp Wildlife Management Area which consisted of a mere 51,000 acres.

The vast majority of this area is inaccessible. The Christmas census is designed to present a “snapshot” of bird populations in a particular area on a specific day. We hope our little snapshot contributes a bit.

The day was, logistically, a repeat of our day in Lakeland. We found a few spots a couple of hours before sunrise to listen for birds which thrive in darkness. Luck was with us again as we heard Barred Owls, Eastern Screech Owls and Eastern Whip-poor-wills. As the light level slowly increased, we realized something was missing. Where was the sky?

The fog hung around in varying degrees for a couple of hours and I think it hindered some bird activity. Clear blue skies signaled “time to eat”! For the birds, too.

Even though we were in and around swampy habitat, we found very few water birds. There are virtually no areas of open water and much of the standing water is too shallow to support fish. We did, however, come across a large number of other birds!

A couple of highlights include nearly 20 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, over a dozen Brown-headed Nuthatches, several Carolina Chickadees and a pair of Wilson’s Snipe. The Snipe were special as it was the first time Gini spotted this species before I did. Nice job!

Back roads through swamp and pastures, logging roads within the wildlife management area, old iron bridges built in the 1930’s, clear weather and another 12+ hours with my favorite person by my side.

Life is good.

Swamp sentinel. A Red-shouldered Hawk waits in the mist for her breakfast to make a move.

Fog is no hindrance for a pugnacious House Wren. We only get to enjoy them during migration.

A Pine Warbler contributes some color to the gray morning. We counted nearly 100 of these by day’s end.

Over a hundred Palm Warblers flitted onto the leaves of our report before the sun went down.

Carolina Chickadees appear sporadically throughout the Green Swamp. Some are resident birds and are joined each winter by small flocks of northern migrants.

One of these things is not like the others … “

This trip was on January 2, 2023 and American Robins were just beginning to show up in large numbers in the region. We eventually saw 36 of the big colorful thrushes.

She spotted something different. “Never mind. Wait! It IS a bird! It’s a Snipe!” Two Wilson’s Snipe in the grass by an irrigation canal for an adjacent pasture. Their cryptic plumage makes finding them pretty tough. I guess that’s the idea!

Another very abundant species at this time of year is the Yellow-rumped Warbler. At day’s end, over 90 had been counted.

One of our favorites, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, put in a good showing with 18 counted. At one point, a trio entertained us as they fed, fought and flitted almost within arm’s reach. (Yes, she tried to get one to perch on her finger. No joy.)

Rubber ducky. That’s the description some field guides provide for the call of the Brown-headed Nuthatch. They are not wrong. Gini-with-the-sonar-ears heard them long before I saw one. These birds are among the earliest nesting passerines in Florida with nest-building usually completed by mid-February.

It was a terrific day. We were tired, but we did what we loved from before dawn to dusk. Tomorrow we can rest.

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

Header Image: Burmarigold or Smooth Beggartick (Bidens laevis)

Standing by the side of the road in the dark. Hands cupping our ears. Straining for the sounds of the night. “Whip, whip, whip, whip!” The loud call accompanied the sound of flapping wings passing us as an Eastern Whip-poor-will flew along with mouth open wide to inhale insects hovering above the sandy stretch of road. Ten minutes later, the surprisingly soft trill of an Eastern Screech Owl added to our rush of adrenaline.

Gini and I were a “team of birders” assigned to cover specific areas for the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. The count tradition began near the turn of the 20th century when an early officer of the newly formed Audubon Society, Frank Chapman, thought it would be a good idea to have bird watchers around the country count birds in their area instead of having contests to see who could shoot the most during the Christmas holiday. The fledgling effort took wings over the years and today tens of thousands of citizen scientists contribute to a data base which helps assess the health of bird populations and helps guide conservation action.

Our day began about two hours before sunrise and ended just before sunset. We covered three geographically separate areas within a circle that had the city of Lakeland, Florida at its center. Six other teams covered different locations in order to provide a snapshot of birds present in the area on that day. The two of us identified 52 species and counted just over 900 individual birds. Whew! Our fingers and toes were tired! We birded by car, foot and all-terrain-vehicle. It was a good day.

If you have a chance to participate in one of these counts, contact the local Audubon chapter to volunteer. It’s fun, your efforts contribute to important research data and it’s a good opportunity to learn more about birds. Expertise in birding is not required! Christmas counts are normally held between December 14 thru January 5 each year.

Here are images of the 900 birds we saw.

Yes. I am kidding. Only 100 or so.

The Eastern Towhee breeds in Florida but this individual is likely a migrant since it has dark eyes. The Florida variant has pale eyes.

A young Red-shouldered Hawk looks very intent on finding breakfast.

The morning was quite cool and a bit of sunshine on a white road offered a perfect spot for this beautiful Red Cornsnake (Pantherophis guttatus) to warm up. These are also known as Red Ratsnakes and are very welcome around the farm or ranch as this namesake implies their particular talent.

Sandhill Cranes trumpeted their arrival and landed in a small field to begin their day of collecting insects.

They’re big, they’re noisy and they can make a mess. The Boat-tailed Grackle is also beautiful, especially when the morning sun shows the striking iridescent plumage of the male.

The winter months signal breeding time for many of our water birds. A Great Blue Heron has begun to build a nest of sticks on the shore of a lake. We’ll check on its progress in the coming weeks.

Brown Pelicans are normally associated with the coast but our location an hour inland has several local populations who remain here all year. This trio was just rousing from their nightly roosting spot.

Many Eastern Phoebes find central Florida to their liking and remain all winter as thousands of their relatives continue on to South and Central America. We appreciate their beauty, their calls and most importantly, their insatiable appetite for bugs!

A bit of rain a few days prior to our count day provided just enough wet areas to attract this pair of Wilson’s Snipe. The rain softens the ground sufficiently for worms and other subterranean life forms to become vulnerable to the long probing beaks of the Snipe.

Not one to miss out on an easy meal, a Killdeer followed the Snipe around hoping for leftovers.

One of the most prolific blooms we enjoy during the winter season is the incredible yellow of the Burmarigold (Bidens laevis). It tends to grow in masses around the edges of ponds and lakes. The Latin name provides a hint to the other name applied to this plant, “Smooth Beggartick”, first cousin to Spanish Needles (B. alba). But someone saw those bright flowers and thought it reminded them of Marigolds. Who am I to argue?

This female American Kestrel refused to turn around so it seemed like a good opportunity to admire her colorful back and tail plumage.

A local rancher graciously allows us to survey his pasture each year. It consists of about 200 acres and has a small lake fed by a creek in the middle of it all. Some of the residents were quite curious about us.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is by far the most abundant breeding woodpecker in Florida.

Near the lake in the pasture a female Belted Kingfisher is hoping for a late afternoon dinner.

Migratory Palm Warblers seem to be everywhere at this time of year. They are one of our most numerous visiting songbirds during winter.

Although the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher breeds in our area, many others migrate in for the winter and the little bug vacuum cleaners seem to inhabit every tree in the county.

Just as we were about to head back to the barn and end our long day, a flock of nearly 50 American Robins flew into a group of Chinaberry Trees (Melia azedarach) lining the lake. It was a pretty dramatic climax to a really great day of birding!

We came. We saw (and heard). We counted. And we will do it all again in a few days. Stay tuned …..

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