My birth place was a small village in southeastern Florida called Miami. Well, it was a small village long, long ago when I was born. Okay, okay, even then it was a huge megalopolis and the premier destination for tourists longing to escape snow, ice and each other. Dad was a carpenter and built homes for the tourists who couldn’t find a good reason to return to the snow and ice. He also was an addict. The addiction gene was passed along to yours truly and I became a fishing junkie through no actual fault of my own.
A quirk in his DNA gave him a preference for freshwater fishing. So, although we lived ten minutes from the finest saltwater fishing on the planet, we would spend a couple of hours on the road to head north to Lake Okeechobee where we would hope to bring home largemouth bass, bluegill, shellcracker or speckled perch (“crappie” to those not from here). He was a very good fisherman and we enjoyed many traditional (that means “full of fat stuff” in modern-speak) Southern fish dinners. Sigh. I can smell the hushpuppies even now…….but I digest……err…..digress.
Okeechobee translates to Big Water in the Seminole Indian language. Lake Okeechobee is, indeed, big. It’s the second largest freshwater lake in the lower 48 states in America and consists of 730 square miles (1891 square kilometers). Water from this huge lake directly impacts the vast Everglades ecosystem.
I readily accepted an invitation to go birding in this area. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen Lake Okeechobee and I was excited to be anywhere near the waters that produced so many wonderful memories for me. Our target area was Glades County on the western side of the big lake. Our ambitious itinerary included: Harney Pond Canal Recreation Area (on Lake Okeechobee), Curry Island, Lake Okeechobee Rim Canal, Alvin L. Ward Senior Park (in Moore Haven), Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area (several trails) and Rainey Slough. I highly recommend any of these spots for excellent birding and just plain enjoyment of nature.
Glades County was founded in 1921, encompasses just under 1,000 square miles and in 2010 had a population of about 13,000. It’s known for tourism, cattle, fishing, sugar cane, produce and citrus industries. There is lots of open space to explore and enjoy here!
By the end of the day, our party of two logged 95 species of birds. I added a life bird, the Purple Swamp Hen, which has gained a foothold in Florida after several of these non-native birds escaped a display several decades ago. Along the edge of the Big Water, we observed endangered Snail Kites as they went about the business of hunting for their main source of food, the Apple Snail. Other highlights for me were the early morning encounter of almost 200 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in a cattle pond, a Clay-colored Sparrow, Indigo and Painted Buntings, nearly 100 Northern Rough-winged Swallows, two American Bittern and finding nine Black-crowned Night Herons (adults and juveniles) in a single location. What a great day!
Most of the day was quite overcast, cool and very windy. Photographs were a bit limited but here are a few that will give you a flavor of our experience.
This is a view of a very small bay on Lake Okeechobee. Even though the lake is huge, it’s average depth is only nine feet (2.7 meters).
A highly cropped image of two Purple Swam Hens. We didn’t find any close enough for good photos but I was quite happy to see them at all!
This is a fairly large alligator which I estimate at about 10 feet.
Frogs are plentiful throughout the area, a fact which is appreciated by this Red-shouldered Hawk.
During the winter, in our local area, we see mainly Tree Swallows. It was nice to run across a large flock of Northern Rough-winged Swallows.
A Greater Yellowlegs poses nicely along a canal leading to Lake Okeechobee.
This Brown Pelican found a comfortable spot on a channel marker where he was protected from the cold wind.
Young White Ibises are brown or mottled until about their second fall when they will attain the pure white plumage of adults.
We played hide-and-seek with this Spotted Sandpiper for awhile and I had to settle for a distant flight shot since he refused to hold still on shore.
A young Limpkin has not yet realized that Apple Snails are usually closer to the water.
Florida’s tropical climate is favorable for some unique plant life such as this epiphyte, or air plant. This class of plant depends on a host (e.g., tree branch) for physical support but is not parasitic and takes its moisture and nutrients from the air.
The bases of Cypress trees often grow into unusual shapes and my sharp-eyed companion spotted this artistic form.
Crested Caracara are somewhat common in this area and love the open spaces.
A creek and vast adjacent wetlands create the perfect environment for water birds such as these Black-crowned Night Herons.
A Green Heron extends its neck to get a better view of its potential supper.
As you explore any wild area, it’s good to keep in mind that we are merely visitors and need to respect the residents. This particular resident commands more respect than most!
(I often mention alligators in my posts but have taken for granted that everyone is familiar with our official Florida State Reptile. I apologize. A few facts. The American Alligator is North America’s largest reptile, growing to over 15 feet (4.6 meters) in length and weighing up to 1,000 pounds (453 kilograms). The species is over 150 million years old and can live an average of 35-50 years in the wild. Numbers of alligators in Florida are estimated between 1.5-2 million. They primarily feed on fish, turtles, snakes, small mammals and slow-moving birders. Petting them is not recommended.)
It was simply wonderful to explore the land of the Big Water and I can’t wait to return! If you find yourself in south Florida, consider investigating all that Glades County has to offer. There are some true gems here just waiting to be discovered!
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
See more birds at: Paying Ready Attention (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)