Long Water

Droplets of moisture decorated the edges of everything in sight like so many small jewels displayed for all to admire. Stepping from the solid platform of wood firmly attached to dry land into a small boat which felt like it was ready to slip out from underneath your feet always seems like the proverbial “leap of faith” that it won’t. In the early morning fog, we moved slowly across the mirror-smooth surface of the lake straining to see ahead and listening for other boats. Common sense prevailed and we slipped into a cove covered in lily pads and pretended to fish until it was safe to travel. Finally, the sun forced the thick mist to begin its retreat and we sped to our favorite spot and began the ritual of gathering what would be several meals of fresh fish.

Raised in a land surrounded by water, it would be easy to take for granted the luxurious environment we enjoy. We know, however, there are many in the world without sufficient water resources and we pray for solutions.

One of the lakes we really love to visit is within an hour’s drive and not only provides outstanding fishing but is in the middle of a diverse ecological system which produces superb birding opportunities. Lake Kissimmee is in central Florida and covers about 35,000 acres (over 14,000 hectares). It forms part of the northern Everglades watershed and the Kissimmee River flows south from the lake for about 100 miles to Florida’s largest natural lake, Lake Okeechobee. “Kissimmee” is derived from a Native American word meaning “long water” and the name is descriptive as you view the lake on a map.

Along its 100 mile journey south, the floodplain of the river, historically, was about three miles wide and was inundated by annual rains. The runoff from this periodic flooding trickled southward through small tributaries, was filtered by vegetation and eventually replenished the vast Everglades with fresh, clean water. As human settlement spread into the area, this flooding began to devastate farms and ranches and strong hurricanes took many lives, over 2,000 in the early 1900’s in one storm. In 1947, the government authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to “do something” to control the flooding. They began a program of building levees around huge Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River was “channelized”. This once meandering, beautifully wild stream was turned into a dredged 30 foot deep straight-line canal which became deprived of oxygen and life over time. Additionally, the floodplain-dependent ecosystem was destroyed resulting in over 90% of the waterfowl disappearing and a 70% reduction in the nesting of Bald Eagles.

With significant help of concerned scientists and residents, the government realized (too late?) the error of their ways. In 1999 a project began to restore the Kissimmee River to its original flow and completion is targeted for 2019. There is some good news to report. For the portion of the project completed to date, there has been a significant return of waterfowl and the ecosystem does seem to be recovering, albeit slowly. We continue to hope future generations will be able to enjoy the land as it once was.

In addition to all the water, the area south and east of Lake Kissimmee contains one of the largest tracts of grass prairie in the United States. One of our favorite destinations is the vast Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area (which includes the Prairie Lakes Wildlife Management Area). Over 8,000 acres (3200 hectares) of dry prairie, wet prairie, marsh and pine-flatwoods. This area boasts the largest concentration of nesting Bald Eagles in the contiguous United States and is home to several endangered bird species including the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Florida Grasshopper Sparrow and Snail Kite.

Recent trips on Lake Kissimmee and to the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area produced a diverse list of birds, interesting wildlife encounters, tremendous open vistas of grassland, beautiful wildflowers and a couple of days filled with deep breathing of fresh air. We are truly blessed.

 

Here are a few images of why we like it here.

 

Sunrise on Lake Kissimmee.

Sunrise

Sunrise

 

This is the first lock on the Kissimmee River as it exits Lake Kissimmee. If you look on the right side of the photo, you can see the channelized river heading straight south in the distance.

Kissimmee River - Lock

Kissimmee River – Lock

 

The Kissimmee River flows into Lake Kissimmee from Lake Hatchineha to the north. This is looking northward into Lake Hatchineha from the river.

Kissimmee River

Kissimmee River

 

Cypress trees abound in wet conditions throughout Florida. The complex root system of the trees can be seen here as they’re exposed by low water.

Cypress Trees

Cypress Trees

 

An immature Bald Eagle checks us out from a fence post and an adult cruises for a fresh fish breakfast.

Bald Eagle - Immature

Bald Eagle – Immature

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

 

This is one of the many reasons we love this lake.

Grassy Island - Lake Kissimmee

Grassy Island – Lake Kissimmee

 

An endangered Snail Kite hovers over a spot where he hopes to find an Apple Snail.

Snail Kite

Snail Kite

 

Food for wading birds such as this Great Egret is plentiful around the lake.

Great Egret

Great Egret

 

Back on dry land, a road through part of the prairie within the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area indicates the openness of this environment.

Prairie - Three Lakes WMA

Prairie – Three Lakes WMA

 

We think about a time when people traversed this area on foot or horseback. Hard to imagine.

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes WMA

 

A few scattered palm trees don’t offer much shade and those trees in the distance are a very long walk!

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes WMA

 

Grassy plains such as this used to cover a huge area of central and south Florida.

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes WMA

 

False Dragonhead provides a little color along the way.

False Dragonhead  (Physostegia purpurea)

False Dragonhead (Physostegia purpurea)

 

Splashes of yellow Black-eyed Susan dot the prairie.

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes WMA

 

This is a spot which is normally filled with water. You can see the white sand “slide” that this alligator has used often to lay in wait for food. He apparently didn’t get the memo about the low water.

Dry Watering Hole

Dry Watering Hole

 

Pitted Stripeseed usually spreads along the ground but occasionally stands tall to display its beautiful blooms.

Pitted Stripeseed  (Piriqueta cistoides subsp. caroliniana)

Pitted Stripeseed (Piriqueta cistoides subsp. caroliniana)

 

We were privileged to watch the courtship flight of the Common Nighthawk. The male will fly high, hover for a moment, then fold his wings for a steep dive. Just before he crashes, he opens his wings and flies back up to do it again. The wind rushing through the suddenly open wings makes a distinct “hum”. Hopefully, this will impress the female and they will soon produce little Nighthawks.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

 

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

 

This open land is inviting for Swallow-tailed Kites as they soar above the grasses hunting for insects.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite

 

A female Needham’s Skimmer is quite lovely, but the mature males are a bright reddish-orange and usually grab the limelight.

Needham's Skimmer - Female  (Libellula needhami)

Needham’s Skimmer – Female (Libellula needhami)

 

No, this is not ZZ Top preparing for a performance. It’s a species of Robber Fly with a wasp/bee thing he snagged for lunch.

Robber Fly  (Asilidae)

Robber Fly (Asilidae)

 

An Eastern Black Racer grudgingly moves off the path for us. Gini wanted to play with it but I persuaded her to not molest the wildlife. (She’s bad about that.)

Eastern Black Racer

Eastern Black Racer

 

As the prairie merged into pine-flatwoods, we heard the sweet song of Bachman’s Sparrow and very soon an accommodating male serenaded us and posed for a few candid pics. It was by far the best look we’ve had of one of these beauties. Not too long ago, they were known as Pine Tree Sparrows, which is quite descriptive of their habitat.

Bachman's Sparrow

Bachman’s Sparrow

 

Another tree-dweller, the Red-headed Woodpecker, probed for bugs on a utility pole. Too bad they’re not more brightly colored …..

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

 

The Long Water refreshes – and we take advantage and are thankful. If you have a chance, go and marvel at what Nature has to offer.

 

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

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Riding In Cars With Birders

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, a Bullock’s Oriole landed in a mesquite tree and my lovely, but excitable, bride grabbed me by the arm (which at the time was engaged in steering a fast-moving vehicle) and shouted all in one breath: “STOPDIDYOUSEETHATTURNAROUNDGOBACKITWASALLORANGEANDBLACKITWASGORGEOUS!!!!”.

The coming of age of a birder is a beautiful thing.

In that far away land of west Texas, there were few “birding venues”. It was so long ago, in fact, we didn’t even know we WERE birders, as the quaint reference to those engaged in the hobby was still simply “bird watcher”. (I still cling to that term as “birder” has come to infer a more competition-oriented personality and I’ve never been much of a score-keeper.) Since the nearest state park was a half-day’s drive, we were very content to simply drive the back roads and marvel at how vibrant and diverse the seemingly barren landscape could be. It was our first experience in a near-desert environment and we loved every minute of our several years there. That pattern has persisted over the eons.

“Why are there likenesses of Sandhill Cranes on all the street light poles?”, Gini asked. Being extremely cognizant of such matters concerning engineering and urban planning, I advised her in my usual condescending, scholarly manner: “I dunno”.

We were driving through the town of Wauchula, Florida a couple of months ago doing our “drive around looking for birds” thing. Wauchula is the seat of Hardee County, adjacent to our home in Polk County. Hardee County is smallish in size, consisting of 638 square miles (1650 sq. km). Of this area, only 0.6 sq. mi. is water – a bit unusual for central Florida. The county was named for Cary Hardee who was governor of Florida from 1921 to 1925. Settlement of the area began in 1849 when an Indian Trading Post was opened on a bend in Paynes Creek. Eventually, the city of Wauchula was established and the area became a center for cattle ranching. The name “Wauchula” is from a Mikasuki Indian word meaning “call of the Sandhill Crane”. AHA! Mystery of the light poles solved.

Today, Hardee County is lightly populated (about 27,000 in 2012) and has an agricultural-based economy. Annual citrus production has about a half-billion dollar market value, the county ranks 9th in the United States for beef cattle and phosphate mining plays a major role in employment and fertilizer production. In 2004, Hurricane Charlie swept across the county from the Gulf of Mexico with winds of 149 mph (240 kph) and almost every building in the county suffered some sort of damage with many being completely destroyed. Most renovation has been completed and the resilient population continues to enjoy their rural lifestyle.

Although the scarcity of open shallow water limits the presence of many water birds, the county is full of a wonderful variety of other birds. Most of the cattle ranches have small ponds which the cattle keep churned into mud holes which attracts shore birds. Burrowing Owls nest in the pastures, Crested Caracara roam the open spaces, fall and winter crops attract migrants, timberland is full of vireos, warblers and woodpeckers and, of course, Sandhill Cranes abound all year and large populations of the big birds spend the winter here. We like driving around in Hardee County!

Our most recent visit included over 45 different species (yes, I know, it’s sorta score-keeping) and we were treated to some really nice wildflower displays.

 

The Great Crested Flycatcher is a cavity nester and can be very aggressive about chasing woodpeckers from suitable nesting sites. For some reason, many of their nests have been found lined with shed snake skins.

Great Crested Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher

 

Killdeer love the fact that cattle keep the mud stirred up which makes insect and worm hunting a little easier.

Killdeer

Killdeer

 

Florida has an abundant Gray Squirrel population but Fox Squirrels – not so much. We have three species of Fox Squirrel. One is found mostly in the northwestern panhandle, another in the Everglades. Sherman’s Fox Squirrel, although found throughout the state, is a “species of special concern”, primarily due to loss of habitat.

Sherman's Fox Squirrel

Sherman’s Fox Squirrel

 

A Red-bellied Woodpecker is hunting for a house. I think he found one he likes.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

 

Leavenworth’s Tickseed is nearly endemic to Florida (a few grow in southern Georgia) and belongs to the Coreopsis family.

Leavenworth's Tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii)

Leavenworth’s Tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii)

 

It looks like grass which has been touched with white paint – Star Rush.

Star Rush (Rhynchospora latifolia)

Star Rush (Rhynchospora latifolia)

 

This Lesser Yellowlegs looks like the main course in a pot of broccoli soup. The thick Duckweed hides all sorts of food items wading birds love.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

 

Such a beautiful bloom seems like it should have a more attractive name, but no matter what it’s called, Pickerelweed is lovely.

Pickerel Weed (Pontedaeria cordata)

Pickerel Weed (Pontedaeria cordata)

 

You just never know what you’ll find riding around the countryside. For instance, a hot-air balloon cruising over an orange grove!

Balloon

Balloon

 

Okay, time out for a test shot. New camera and new lens. The moon, 600mm hand-held. Now, if I could just find a bird —-

Moon

Moon

 

A field of Black-eyed Susan brightened the landscape.

Black-eyed Susan  (Rudbeckia hirta)

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

 

Black-eyed Susan  (Rudbeckia hirta)

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

 

Vivid purple and yellow of the Pale Meadowbeauty are hard to ignore.

Pale Meadowbeauty  (Rhexia mariana)

Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana)

 

Such an unfriendly plant with its spikes and thorns! Such a striking flower! Nuttall’s Thistle can be purple, pink, white or pale yellow.

Nuttall's Thistle  (Cirsium nuttallii)

Nuttall’s Thistle (Cirsium nuttallii)

 

Although I don’t know how this wonderful bloom got its name, I’m very happy it grows along the roadside in Hardee County! The Carolina Desert-chicory.

Carolina Desert-chicory  (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus)

Carolina Desert-chicory (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus)

 

A gang of five Swallow-tailed Kites put on an aerial display as they swooped low over a pasture and snatched flying insects which they ate in flight. A couple of Red-winged Blackbirds tried to chase them from “their” territory, but were largely ignored by the sleek kites.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite

 

Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite

Red-winged Blackbird, Swallow-tailed Kite

Red-winged Blackbird, Swallow-tailed Kite

 

This Wild Turkey was pretty sure I wouldn’t spot him as he tried to slink through the underbrush. He was wrong.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

 

No specific birding destination can sometimes provide surprisingly good birding! Grab your favorite birder. Get in a car. Drive around. Now.

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

 

See more birds from around the world at Paying ReadyAttention for

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