A New Birding Venue

We recently wrote about a trip earlier this year to the north shore of Lake Apopka. (See previous post: The Potato Eating Place.) At the time, we heard that there would soon be a drive along the northwest shore of the lake opening for public use. The new Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive opened in early May and our initial foray a couple of weeks ago confirms it will rapidly become a very popular destination for birders and anyone wishing to enjoy nature from the comfort of a vehicle. The drive is 11 miles long, one-way only with pull-offs along the way. There is room along the side of the road in most places to allow traffic to pass if needed. Marsh and floodplain restoration has been underway here since the late 1980’s in an attempt to undo the damage done by agricultural pollution over a long period. It is a work in progress. Hopefully, this opportunity to allow more of the public to view this fantastic slice of nature will create a sense of stewardship in a new generation.

The entrance gate opens at sunrise and Gini and I arrived early to enjoy the gradually lightening sky, the inspiring view of parked gravel trucks, the sweet melody of humming diesel generators, the delicate touch of mosquitoes landing on our cheeks — okay, so the prelude to the actual drive wasn’t a nature-lover’s paradise. Once the gate was opened, however, — well, actually, another birder pulled up just as the gate was opening and darted in ahead of us. As the dust cleared from his spinning tires, THEN we started enjoying the wonders of nature. The awe of car-rattling thunder, the amazing brightness of lightning and the refreshing experience of large raindrops clearing the aforementioned dust from the windshield.

Since we’re Florida natives, we knew patience would be rewarded. Sure enough, the morning thunderstorm vanished quickly and our planned two-hour tour evolved into a six-hour total immersion relaxation session. “I TOLD you we should have packed a lunch.” Gini is truly the mistress of subtle understatement and highness of hindsight. From start to finish, we just had FUN! We cannot wait to return.

Spring migration has pretty much dwindled in central Florida, although we had hopes of glimpsing Bobolinks as others had reported. Alas, no joy. We did find over 40 species of resident birds, several of which were fully engaged in raising families. Occupied nests of Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were numerous and Common Gallinule chicks littered the marsh. Black-crowned Night Herons and Green Herons were abundant but shy and most of our views were of birds flying low and away from us. A congenial Yellow-crowned Night Heron posed in a flowering Primrose Willow. These are usually found closer to the coast but I guess this one heard about the new drive and wanted to check it out. A few dozen Barn Swallows were very active at one spot with several young birds perched on utility lines being fed by adults who would swoop in and shove a bug in the waiting mouths. We found a couple of Tree Swallows perched with the Barn Swallows, quite late in the season as most sensible Tree Swallows left for their northern home a few weeks ago. Frogs serenaded us all day long. Grunting Pig Frogs seemed to be everywhere and their snuffling was only occasionally interrupted by the deep hum of the Bullfrog. Dragonflies hovered over weed-covered pools and flung their eggs onto the surface. Opportunistic frogs grabbed the vulnerable bugs and were in turn snatched up by hungry herons. The circle of life was vibrant here.

If you get a chance – GO! It’s wonderful now even as our Florida summer approaches. Once fall arrives, so will thousands of wintering shorebirds and tens of thousands of eager birders. No matter the season, this is going to be a fun place for anyone who enjoys nature.

 

The view just inside the entrance gives an idea of what the area looks like.

Lust Road

Lust Road

 

Common Gallinule families were, well, common. New chicks were numerous and there were a few “teen-agers” as well, probably having hatched several weeks ago.

Common Gallinule - Juvenile

Common Gallinule – Juvenile

Common Gallinule

Common Gallinule

 

A Little Blue Heron loves frogs’ legs, but also enjoys frogs without legs. This large tadpole has already been “tenderized” by the bird and a split-second later was swallowed whole.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron

 

We saw many Black-crowned Night Herons, but this is about the best look we had as most of them flew away from us at a high rate of speed.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

 

This Yellow-crowned Night Heron must like the area as it’s in his/her breeding plumage. Yes, we did have to pay it to perch among yellow flowers.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

 

As we neared the actual lake, anything that resembled a tall perch was occupied by an Osprey with breakfast.

Osprey

Osprey

 

Red-winged Blackbird nests were not hard to spot, even for alligators.

American Alligator, Red-winged Blackbird Nest

American Alligator, Red-winged Blackbird Nest

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

 

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

 

Blooms of all sorts dotted the landscape (“marshscape”?). This Swamp Hibiscus was one of the larger flowers on display.

Swamp Hibiscus (Hibiscus grandiflorus)

Swamp Hibiscus (Hibiscus grandiflorus)

 

Purple Gallinules seem to have two modes: “clown” and “aggressive”. Sometimes the two overlap.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

 

Male Four-spotted Pennants are quite dark and can appear to be black. The females are brown to orangish in appearance.

Four-spotted Pennant - Male  (Brachymesia gravida)

Four-spotted Pennant – Male (Brachymesia gravida)

Four-spotted Pennant - Female  (Brachymesia gravida)

Four-spotted Pennant – Female (Brachymesia gravida)

 

Needham’s Skimmer females (and immature males) can have a very golden look and it’s sometimes difficult to separate them from Golden-winged Skimmers. Mature males are very bright red-orange (both Needham’s and Golden-winged).

Needham's Skimmer - Female  (Libellula needhami(

Needham’s Skimmer – Female (Libellula needhami(

 

I was attempting to photograph an Eastern Pondhawk which had been busy laying eggs when it was eaten by this Pig Frog. Sigh. Good models are so hard to find and keep.

Pig Frog (Rana grylio)

Pig Frog (Rana grylio)

 

Young Barn Swallows were being kept company by Tree Swallows as Mom and Dad flew around catching bugs. The youngsters would squawk and flutter their wings as an adult approached and put a bug in their beak on the fly.

Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow

Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow

 

I’ve seen White Ibises all my life but never noticed that in breeding season they develop an extended gular (throat) pouch. It apparently only lasts a short while.

White ibis

White ibis

 

We counted a half-dozen Black-necked Stilts during the day and judging by the agitated behavior and calls of some they likely have a nest and/or young ones nearby.

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

 

Amongst the cattails, baby Boat-tailed Grackles yell for Mom to hurry up with lunch!

Boat-tailed Grackle

Boat-tailed Grackle

Boat-tailed Grackle

Boat-tailed Grackle

 

 

Speaking of lunch, Gini started screeching at me to find some – immediately! (Now, you know as well as I do that she has never “screeched” in her life! She isn’t capable of it.) Fortunately, one of our favorite spots was not far away. (Do a computer search for Yalaha Bakery. Go there. Be hungry.)

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive. A new place for y’all to visit! And you don’t even have to be a birder! This is a terrific opportunity for all of us and especially for those of us who may not be physically able to hike a trail or jump on a mountain bike. Nature is just there waiting for us!

 

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

 

 

Additional Information

Lake Apopka – North Shore

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The Plan

Several weeks ago the Spring migration was winding down and we wanted to see if we could locate shorebirds on the return flight from South America to their northern breeding grounds. It’s not that I’m anti-social (do NOT ask Gini her opinion), but I gravitate toward areas which might be less visited by humans. Even if the potential for species diversity is not as great, if it’s just the two of us it seems, well, more intimate and “special”. I’m selfish that way.

Pine Island came to mind. There are at least four different communities in Florida bearing the name “Pine Island”. This one is in Hernando County at the end of a really nice country road which snakes through the vast flat salt marsh on the Gulf Coast. On past trips, the last stretch of road has produced Clapper Rails, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, Bald Eagles, rainbows and is a wonderful prelude to the actual beach area. The beach is small but across the channel is a mudflat which attracts all sorts of birds. The view from the beach is the open Gulf of Mexico and with a scope at this time of year could yield mergansers and loons.

I checked the weather forecast and recent birding reports. Sandwiches were packed, a breakfast of granola and fresh orange slices got us off to a great start and we set out into the pre-dawn darkness. One little thing I forgot to check, tidal charts. That “wonderful prelude” road was filled with water and no speck of mud was in sight. No worries. To the beach! That’s odd. We’ve never seen anyone at the entrance station before. It’s usually put your money in the slot and get a ticket. “Good Morning, folks! How many dogs do you have?” Uhhh, none. “Oh, that’s okay. Enjoy your day.” Dogs?? Yes, today was “Bark Island” day, a twice-monthly affair when dog owners could bring their pets to the beach, unleash them and sit back and watch the fun! I made a valiant effort to set up the scope and scan the water for signs of floating feathered fowl. Nothing. A Laughing Gull landed nearby hoping for a chunk of bread. Three dozen yapping balls of fur convinced him to take flight to the Yucatan. Sigh. Time for Plan B.

Just around the corner was Bayport Park, a nice county facility with new modern boat ramps, fishing pier and picnic area. A small wooded area sometimes held good numbers of migrating warblers. Not this day. I saw a pair of Horned Grebes about a thousand miles out in the bay who sensed I was looking at them and submerged never to be seen again. Sigh. Thank goodness for Plan C!

Down the road was a lovely hardwood swamp with an old logging road through it and several hiking trails to explore. The Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area is home to black bears, bobcats, turkeys (!), owls and possibly some of those resting warblers. Alas, it was not to be. Once more, I had failed to check a little detail. Today was the first day of the Spring Turkey hunting season. Boom! Blam! We heard the fun long before we came face to face with orange vest-clad hunters fanning out from the trailhead in all directions. Okay, full disclosure. I didn’t really have a Plan D. Quick thinking, however, salvaged our day.

Not all that far north was the town of Crystal River and a road which ran parallel to the actual Crystal River to the Gulf of Mexico. At the end of the trail is Fort Island Gulf Beach. Another very small beach directly on the Gulf. Listen. Hear that? No barking! No booming or blamming! A few hardy souls (obviously not from Florida) were wading into the chilly water pretending it was as wonderful as a warm bath. Right.

On the beach, in addition to shivering tourists, we found several dozen napping Black Skimmers, a few hundred Laughing Gulls, a young Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gulls, Royal Terns, a Least Tern and a not very common Bonaparte’s Gull.

We enjoyed our sandwiches under a bright blue sky with a salty breeze making us comfortable in Florida’s ample sunshine. An Eastern Bluebird yanked a fat grub from the ground, took it to a utility wire above us and enjoyed his lunch, too.

Photographs with size comparisons coming up. There will be a test so study hard!

 

The Royal Tern is the second largest tern in North America with only the Caspian being larger. The Royal has an orange-yellow bill while the Caspian’s is red. Except for a short period during breeding, the Royal’s forehead is white and the Caspian’s is either black or “smudgy”. (During our visit, we noted several Royal Terns with bands/rings.)

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

 

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

 

This is only the second Bonaparte’s Gull I’ve seen. It’s one of the smallest gulls in the country and has a distinctive graceful flight. It often swims on the water’s surface like a duck.

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

 

Least Terns are the smallest terns in North America and breed along Florida’s coast. They usually nest near beaches but will also use the flat roofs of buildings. This can present problems because some buildings use tar to hold gravel in place. The tar can become very hot and burn the birds’ feet or become stuck in their feathers.

Least Tern

Least Tern

 

One of our largest gulls is the Herring Gull. It takes four years for a juvenile Herring Gull to reach adult plumage. In their first year they are mostly mottled brown and gradually change to more and more gray and white. As adults they will sport light gray backs, black wingtips, white heads and underparts. This appears to be a first-year bird.

Herring Gull - Immature

Herring Gull – Immature

 

Herring Gull - Immature, Laughing Gull

Herring Gull – Immature, Laughing Gull

 

The lineup. From left to right: Royal Terns, Herring Gull, Least Tern, Bonaparte’s Gull (in front), Laughing Gull and Ring-billed Gull. I tried to get them all to face the camera but I think they spotted someone down the beach with a sandwich.

Gulls and Terns

Gulls and Terns

 

As the sun was almost directly overhead, many of the birds thought it was a fine time for a nap. A Laughing Gull and Black Skimmer snooze on the sand.

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull

 

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

 

One bird who was not asleep was this Eastern Bluebird. He saw us break out our sandwiches and jumped into the grass, pulled up a juicy grub, beat it on the ground to tenderize it and took it above our heads and gulped it down. Yum!

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

 

 

I recently blathered on about planning (The Importance of a Plan). This is where I admonish: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Even back-up plans can go awry. In my case, I’m very blessed to have a partner who genuinely enjoys just exploring our world, with or without a plan. And, for me, THAT’S all I ever need!

 

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

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