Birding Is The Pits

“This water is too deep. My bait is still falling.” My girlfriend’s brother just grunted and said: “Just let it fall. Somethin’ will eat it.” No sooner said than done. My little five-dollar reel was designed for pan fish no larger than my hand. What was on the end of my line clearly was the size of a nuclear submarine. Only with more power. Almost all the line on the plastic reel was gone when, miraculously, I began to regain some of the thin monofilament. After what seemed like several days, a fat six-pound largemouth bass lay on the grass next to me. I marveled at the beautiful dark green mingling with the glistening black and rubbed my fingers across the sandpaper-like mouth of the fish. Several smaller specimens were caught before it was time to go.

Most natural lakes in Florida average from four to eight feet deep and are shaped like a shallow bowl. The spot we fished that day was over 50 feet deep, even near the shoreline. But there was nothing natural about its formation. This was the site of a former phosphate mining operation. The useful mineral had long since been extracted and the mining company planted trees and shrubs around the impoundment, stocked it with fish and allowed nature to do its thing for the next ten years. We lovingly refer to these picturesque locales as the “pits”.

Florida is rich in phosphate deposits, a nutrient which is vital to all living things. The mineral is mostly made into fertilizer and Florida supplies over 60% of North America’s agricultural usage of the stuff. In 2013, Florida’s phosphate exports totaled over $2.2 billion. The companies involved in this mining business have strived, to varying degrees of success over the years, to be better stewards of the environment and have made extensive efforts to reclaim exhausted phosphate pits. Some of these areas have become magnets for wildlife, especially birds, and the fishing can be quite good as well.

(The opening paragraph took place a few hundred years ago when I was but a lad. The “girlfriend” mentioned has been my wife for over 46 years.)

Gini and I recently visited one of these reclaimed areas in south Polk County near the community of Bowling Green. Known as the Mosaic Fish Management Area, several former mining pits were reclaimed from 1979 to 1992 at which time they were opened to the public. Currently, to visit these pits, whether for fishing or other purposes, one must check with a security guard as they control the number of visitors to ease the impact on the environment and to lessen fishing pressure. (Mosaic is one of the largest phosphate companies in the state.)

Some of these spots have “unimproved” roads around the water’s edge for the adventurous while some allow only a glimpse or two of the water (a boat would be needed for actual exploration). We stopped in at four of the six lakes currently open. Without trying very hard we tallied over 40 species and spent a very enjoyable morning among old pine and oak trees (happy to see the mining left a few intact). Since the water is so deep, even at the shoreline, at these impoundments, we didn’t find very many wading birds. Highlights included an island with almost 200 roosting Double-crested Cormorants, three Yellow-billed Cuckoos, numerous woodpeckers, several Bald Eagles and American Kestrels, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a wonderful diversity of insects. The island mentioned above was strewn with old nests and will bear inspection during breeding season as I suspect it’s used by herons, egrets, ibises and cormorants.

We look forward to including this area on our list of “routine visits”.

 

“Cormorant Island”. As I scanned this spot with the scope, I also found Great Blue Herons, White Ibises, Black-crowned Night Herons and a Snowy Egret nestled in the trees. It’s well guarded, too, as I counted over a dozen alligators patrolling the waters around the island. Well, okay, maybe they were actually lunch patrons …

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

 

Return visitors for the fall and winter include Palm Warblers. One was curious about what I was up to and followed me around for several minutes always finding a perch directly overhead. The second one hawked insects from a fence as he exhibited the constant “tail pumping” characteristic of the species.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

 

The Northern Parula is a year-round resident in our area and is always a joy to watch.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

 

If you find one Blue-gray Gnatcatcher there will likely be several in the same area. These non-stop little vacuum cleaners don’t miss many spots in their endless search for juicy bugs.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

 

The road to a couple of the lakes bordered a large pasture. The fence in this area was a popular perch for dragonflies. Here is a female Roseate Skimmer and an immature male transitioning to his adult color.

Roseate Skimmer - Female

Roseate Skimmer – Female

Roseate Skimmer - Immature

Roseate Skimmer – Immature Male

 

That same fence was used by a Loggerhead Shrike to store his groceries for a future meal. Here, a large Sphinx moth species was impaled on a barb.

Sphinx Moth Impaled On Barb

Sphinx Moth Impaled On Barb

 

Near one of the boat ramps, Gini spotted a huge web spread between two tall pine trees. A large female Golden Silk Spider dwarfs the diminutive male just above her. It is not uncommon for the little males to become a meal at some point in the relationship …..

Golden Silk Spider (Nephila clavipes)

Golden Silk Spider (Nephila clavipes)

 

Another guest returning for the fall and winter is the Eastern Phoebe. These attractive flycatchers really enjoy all the diverse insect life in our area. And we really enjoy the fact they eat so much of it!

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

 

While I was chasing a White-eyed Vireo in a hedgerow, a large Yellow-billed Cuckoo surprised me by landing in a nearby tree. He remained long enough for one cluttered photo op and disappeared immediately. We were surprised to find two more in totally different locations.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

 

A Golden-winged Skimmer shows off its beautiful colors.

Golden-winged Skimmer - (Libellula auripennis)

Golden-winged Skimmer – (Libellula auripennis)

 

This Turkey Vulture flew by three times very low so I finally snapped a portrait. Who can resist such utter beauty?

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

 

A pair of Downy Woodpeckers were discussing whether this would be a good spot to set up housekeeping. Judging by the raised crest of the female, I suspect they will be looking for a better neighborhood.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

 

Common Gallinules were not abundant here (again, that deep water thing is not their favorite) but this one found a shallow creek to enjoy.

Common Gallinule

Common Gallinule

 

Near where the above-mentioned creek flowed out of the lake, a Great Blue Heron announced his presence. Well, more likely he announced how annoyed he was I popped out of the tree line and interrupted his hunt for frogs.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

 

We had another terrific day exploring a different area. It brought back good memories of growing up not too far from here. When anyone asks how was the birding, I can honestly say: “It was the pits”.

 

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

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Small Victories

My new waterproof boots were very comfortable and combined with the thick soft socks it seemed I was gliding instead of walking. After a few hours of hiking through tall wet grass, when I removed the footwear, the socks were dry and so were my feet. The bottom portion of my pant legs were another story. They stored enough water to supply a small village reservoir. The morning was spent exploring a newly developing wetlands. The area was mostly pastureland over the past 50 years, ringed with hardwood and a few pine trees and is located near the confluence of two creeks. Historically, these two creeks overflowed during periods of prolonged rain and flooded the fields. This fact has been a blessing in disguise as those wanting to turn the land into a “lovely gated golf course community” were put off by the cost of controlling the flooding. The county accepted a proposal from an environmental engineering firm to construct water control facilities and develop the area into a park with an emphasis on wetlands preservation. Eventually the park will host ball fields and picnic areas, but will also retain a significant wetlands area to attract wildlife.

I was fortunate to be able to explore the area recently and even though it doesn’t cover a large area and construction of the water holding “cells” has only been recently completed, it was obvious birds are attracted to the habitat. We found almost 50 species of birds including Pied-billed Grebes (with juveniles), Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Least Bitterns, Black-crowned Night Herons, Purple Gallinules and Limpkins. Early fall migrants were present as were several raptors.

Eventually, this may be called Walker Road Park and it’s located in northwest Polk County near Itchepackesassa Creek. It may open to the public within the next two years. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see more and more birds discover a welcoming environment where they won’t need a gate security code for access.

 

A few photos of the area show recently planted vegetation in the “cells” which will filter water from the creeks, clean it and return it to the creeks. The cells were excavated to provide some areas of deeper water to attract diving ducks and areas of shallow water for wading birds.

View

View

View

View

 

A Mottled Duck likes the shallow end of the pool but didn’t care for us poking around his resort and flew to a quieter spot.

Mottled Duck

Mottled Duck

 

An American Kestrel really likes all the insects attracted to the area.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

 

Belted Kingfishers migrate through this area and some stay all winter. This pair is catching up on gossip following their flight from the north.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

 

Green Herons are year-round residents and this one was stalking a frog. Or a lizard. Or something tasty.

Green Heron

Green Heron

 

Birds aren’t the only ones liking the new area. A Roseate Skimmer thinks the newly created shorelines are just fine for hunting. Not to be left out, a Four-spotted Pennant kept chasing the Roseate Skimmer from the best perches.

Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis discolor)

Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis discolor)

Four-spotted Pennant - Male  (Brachymesia gravida)

Four-spotted Pennant – Male (Brachymesia gravida)

 

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks will likely find this area suitable for breeding. This species continues to expand its range each year it seems.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

 

Pied-billed Grebes like the place enough to raise a family here. We found at least two sets of young Grebes, some young enough to still have their cute brown-striped head pattern.

 

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe (Juvenile)

Pied-billed Grebe (Juvenile)

 

Not only was it a good morning of all-around birding, it was gratifying to see a piece of land developed specifically to improve its attraction for wildlife. And all without getting my feet wet.

 

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

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