The Potato Eating Place

Windows. Holes in a building which invite air and light to come inside. Functional. They have the additional benefit of allowing us to gaze outside our buildings once in awhile. Some progressive architects and engineers realized that with conditioned air and artificial light, windows were obsolete as practical devices. So we have office buildings, factories, schools and dwellings with no hint of natural light intruding within or any chance of breathing fresh air and certainly no worry of an accidental breeze falling on one’s cheek. Peering out at the blue sky or catching sight of a tree – now, you wouldn’t want to be distracted would you?

Gini and I have been quite fortunate to have lived in several different locales over the past few decades. In each area we discovered unbelievable beauty and found some truly ugly sights as well. One of our most delightful discoveries was in a small village in Germany. Our search for a place to live took us to a cobblestone street lined with a hodgepodge of quaint cottages, whitewash-covered block buildings and combination storefront/dwellings. Each shared a common feature. Window boxes overflowing with a profusion of flowers. On the other side of the double-paned glass, sills were packed with all manner of containers stuffed with greenery. Ferns, ivies, begonias, orchids, cacti. All of this flora was typically framed in lacy looking curtains neatly pulled back as if each window was vying for some sort of prize. This street was not unique. More than once, we were gently informed the windows of a home reflected the character, or even the soul, of the inhabitants. Needless to say, we spent a fortune on pots and fertilizer during our stay!

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to visit a birding spot near the town of Apopka, Florida. In the center of the state, agriculture has long been a major source of economic activity here. It has alternately been dubbed the “Fern City” and “Indoor Foliage Capital of the World”. Growing conditions here in the sub-tropical climate are quite conducive to producing plants which thrive within buildings.

The town is adjacent to Lake Apopka, Florida’s third largest lake. Evidence indicates humans existed along the lake’s shore as long ago as 15 B.C. Since then, various Indian tribes have lived in the area, including the Seminole in the 1700-1800’s. The name “Apopka” likely comes from the Creek/Seminole words “Aha” (potato) and “Papka” (eating place). In the mid-1800’s, European settlers moved into the area with land grants from the government in exchange for developing the land. Many crops thrived and the area did well economically. Too well. Agricultural business developers saw the potential and over the next 100 years abused the land and in the 1970’s once-vibrant Lake Apopka was declared the country’s most polluted lake. Efforts to reclaim the lake have been successful. Today it is well on the way toward returning to one of the most beautiful and wildlife rich environments in the state.

The entire northwest shore of Lake Apopka has been turned into a system of hiking trails and years of sound management practices have resulted in this being a premier birding spot. Our trip today was motivated by recent sightings of two Groove-billed Ani, a little unusual for this location and it would be a life bird for me. Well, the Ani apparently had an appointment elsewhere, but as often happens, Nature offers outstanding consolation prizes for those who participate. We saw 55 species during a two mile walk and the special highlights include:  Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, White-crowned Sparrows, four Painted Buntings, what may be a migrant Western Red-tailed Hawk (immature) and a very uncommon (for this time and place) Nashville Warbler. On the way home, we stopped in at Lake Minneola in nearby Clermont and found several dozen Lesser Scaup, about a dozen Bufflehead and an assortment of terns and gulls to round out a spectacular day.

From lush agricultural paradise to pollution nightmare to reclamation success story – The Potato Eating Place is worth a visit any time!

The star of the show today was the diminutive but beautiful Nashville Warbler. (He’s supposed to be in Central America right now.)

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

 

A couple of migratory White-crowned Sparrows played hide-and-seek before finally consenting to give us a decent view.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

 

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

 

We heard the clear whistle of Eastern Towhees all day but only got a clear shot of this pretty female.

Eastern Towhee - Female

Eastern Towhee – Female

 

Eastern Towhee - Female

Eastern Towhee – Female

 

Male Painted Buntings are hard to miss. They look like they fell onto an artist’s palette and rolled around. The females are overall greenish in color and blend in with just about everything.

Painted Bunting - Male

Painted Bunting – Male

Painted Bunting - Male

Painted Bunting – Male

 

This Red-tailed Hawk was quite different than what we normally encounter in central Florida and resembles images of young western species. No reddish color to the tail (typical of immature birds), heavily marked underparts, dark throat. A gorgeous raptor no matter where it came from!

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

 

A female Bufflehead was busily diving and I could only get one shot of her briefly resting on the surface. I’ve been trying for some time to get a decent shot of the handsome male. I’m still waiting – the males remained in the middle of the lake.

Bufflehead - Female

Bufflehead – Female

 

Lesser Scaup are Florida’s most numerous winter ducks. When the sun strikes their head the colors range from brown to green to purple.

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup

 

Forster’s Tern is sleek and fast. During breeding season their heads will be completely black.

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern

 

A Ring-billed Gull rests before continuing the hunt for lunch. These are second in numbers only to the Laughing Gull in our area.

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

 

Our natural world is filled with wonderful things to experience. As a species, we continue to abuse our environment and once in awhile we succeed in reversing the process. Whether it’s a window box of flowers, a reclaimed wetland, a national park or just a “potato eating place” – find something beautiful in your life for which to be thankful.

 

We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

Additional Information:

Northwest Lake Apopka Restoration Area

Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail – Lake Apopka, Clay Island

Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail – Lake Apopka, North Shore

 

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The Trap

“Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.” ~Aldous Huxley

 

I turned the pillow over again. Have I been in bed for an hour? Two? Is the room becoming a bit brighter? If I go through the woods first, I might find some migrant warblers. But it will be too dark under the canopy for good photographs. The trail by the windmill was where I saw that bobcat last year, but lately one has been reported by the lake shore. The open marsh is where the early action will probably be best. It seems it always takes me forever to get there, though, because there’s so much to see along the way. A Sora is a good possibility on that path, as well as an American Bittern. Not to mention Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks with babies. The Barred Owl should be along the canal and nests are being built in that area by eagles and herons. It’s cool enough maybe the mosquitoes won’t be horrible. I turned the pillow over one more time.

The drive to Circle B Bar Reserve is less than 30 minutes. Long enough to finish a cup of coffee. Stumbling out of the truck in the almost-darkness of pre-dawn, even MY poor hearing is assaulted by the shrieks of Limpkins announcing the new day. (Limpkin Call) As I stood on the asphalt of the parking lot, a Barred Owl added a bit of tenor to the soprano of the Limpkins. The clear whistle of a Northern Cardinal reminded the world it’s Spring! Shuffling along the path to the marsh I marveled at the beauty of an almost full moon, still bright even as the sun approached the horizon behind me. Sandhill Cranes trumpeted in the distance. Ouch! Mosquitoes. Not horrible, but awake. And hungry. I am easily impressed by Nature and this place is pretty special. Birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, flora – it’s all here in abundance.

Three hours later I came through the front door and after the mushy stuff (that’s guy talk for “romantic greeting involving hugging and kissing”), Gini asked: “So how was the birding?” A pause. “The dragonflies are really showing up now with the warmer weather.” Uh-oh. “Not many birds today?” She doesn’t miss much. “It was good. There seemed to be a lot of activity but I could only come up with 48 species.”

I know. I feel so ashamed.

It’s difficult to visit the Circle B and not have tallied over 50 species, even if you’re only having a picnic. With one eye closed. But that’s not why I felt guilty. I recently chatted with a birder visiting Florida from one of our far northwestern states. His highest single day list was 21 species. Most trips result in single digits. Of course, he was thrilled to be enjoying our birding paradise, but you knew he simply loved birding. As do we all. I have no problem at all being similarly thrilled with each trip, no matter how many birds I “list”. If I should fall into the trap of becoming complacent and bemoaning that I saw “only” 48 species within a couple of hours – I’ll recall that young birder who becomes ecstatic with a dozen!

Highlights of the morning’s stroll about the marsh include: a young Black-crowned Night Heron, a Bald Eagle guarding a nest, a curious Swamp Sparrow who followed me along the trail, a sun-lit Purple Galllinule, the Double-crested Cormorant with the turquoise eyes and a hungry armadillo oblivious to my presence.

 

The Circle B Bar Reserve is on the north shore of Lake Hancock which in some winters hosts up to 4,000 American White Pelicans. This pair was checking out some of the open water areas within the marsh.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

 

Blue-winged Teal don’t mind including a Common Gallinule in their breakfast club. They do have a little different feeding style than the Gallinule.

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal, Common Gallinule

Blue-winged Teal, Common Gallinule

 

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

 

When it’s time to eat, the Tricolored and Little Blue Herons are all serious business.

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron

 

This Swamp Sparrow couldn’t figure out what I was and kept flitting in and out of low shrubs along the path almost right beside me. He finally got bored and flew back to where I first saw him.

Swamp Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

 

I keep trying to find a better word than “handsome” to describe the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, but no luck so far.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

 

When viewed in this sitting position, one might never suspect how long the Green Heron’s neck can stretch!

Green Heron

Green Heron

 

The morning sun really enhanced the vibrant colors of the Purple Gallinule. He may have been checking himself out in the reflection.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

 

An immature Black-crowned Night Heron was busy stalking a frog and I could only get a partial view of her. She’ll soon become the more familiar black and gray color of an adult.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

 

With a prehistoric look, settlers used to call the Wood Stork “Old Flinthead” due to the gray, stone-like appearance of his head.

Wood Stork

Wood Stork

 

(Obligatory alligator image required by state tourism board.) Yes, this American Alligator is sound asleep so you can pet him with no worries. Pay no attention to the smile on his face.

American Alligator

American Alligator

 

At least two pairs of Bald Eagles are nesting within the reserve. This adult was vigorously driving away any bird flying too close to his nest. A pretty good sign there are eggs or young birds in the nest.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

 

I waited patiently for this Blue-headed Vireo to turn around for a pleasant portrait. Never happened. Sigh. Well, we need to be able to identify birds from the rear, too, don’t we?

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

 

The Double-crested Cormorant may not be the first bird one thinks of as “beautiful”, but those turquoise eyes are stunning! This one was perched in a red maple tree and gave me one chance for a quick shot.

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

 

A couple of migrants put in an appearance just before I returned to the parking lot. The Black-and-White Warbler usually feeds like a nuthatch, running down a tree trunk or walking along the underside of a branch. A Pine Warbler can vary from a dull yellow-green to bright yellow and can be distinguished by its face pattern, broken eye-ring, wing bars and white belly and undertail coverts.

Black and White Warbler

Black and White Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

 

Florida’s Nine-banded Armadillo has very poor eyesight but an extremely keen sense of smell. They’re often seen standing on their hind legs sniffing the air. Their powerful claws can dig a substantial hole in short order. This one heard the camera shutter click, gave me a quick glance and returned to his search for brunch. Ho-hum. Paparazzi.

Nine-banded Armadillo

Nine-banded Armadillo

 

It was a great day in a wonderful location. I am truly thankful for having been able to identify 48 species of birds within a couple of hours. Please don’t fall into the trap of taking whatever you have for granted!

 

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

 

Additional Information

Circle B Bar Reserve

See more birds at:   Paying Ready Attention   (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)

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