My eyes strained to make out shapes which should be familiar but no images were forming. I knew there was a line of trees to my right along a fence and there was water to the left. A splash, perhaps a frog moving from his hiding spot on the bank, confirmed I was correct about the water. I could barely discern the spot onto which I stepped. Lightning punctuated the inky blackness far to the south. We might have rain today but it likely wouldn’t form until the afternoon. The other-worldly calls of Limpkins began sounding from around the marsh. (Limpkin Call) Almost imperceptibly the sky shifted from nothingness to dark blue and blobs which I knew to be trees gradually materialized in the distance. As the curtain of the morning was slowly drawn back, large formations of Ibises and Egrets moved across the edge of the horizon from their roosts as they dispersed to feeding areas. Water birds were becoming active nearby and myriad Herons, Egrets and Ibises flapped just above the tops of the vegetation and settled into spots likely to hold abundant prey. Mosquitoes buzzed incessantly around my eyes, ears and mouth. A sliver of orange fire in the east punctured what remained of the night and our day was truly in progress.
It’s September in central Florida. Still very hot. Still very humid. Thunderstorms are scheduled every day by mid-afternoon and seldom disappoint. It has been a wetter than normal summer. We hope for cold fronts to form in Canada to energize migration. Soon. In the meantime, Nature teases us with a Yellow Warbler overhead, a chip from a Northern Waterthrush in the understory, a fleeting glimpse of a Blue-winged Teal quartet zipping across the sky. The season is changing. Even in our sub-tropical environment we can feel a difference in the air. We look forward to the surprise of discovery experienced twice each year which serves as a booster shot of excitement and insures we remain forever hooked to our sweet addiction.
As we progress through this life, we encounter “key” people. Those individuals who by position or force of personality cause things to happen and can be relied upon to “get things done”. When I was a manager, I was constantly on the lookout for this type of person because I knew they would be instrumental in the success of any venture. In birding, I have discovered it’s still important to identify and have access to “key” people. In this case, that would be the person with the key to the gate you’re trying to get beyond! I have found such a person. Shh! Don’t tell him the real reason I like his company.
Once the “key” person accomplished his vital role, we once again entered the Lake Hancock Outfall Wetlands on the southeast side of Lakeland in Polk County, Florida. It may be another year before this area is open to the public. In the meantime, that feller with the key in his pocket has been gracious enough to schedule several tours for anyone interested in experiencing some the best birding in central Florida. Drop me an email if you’re interested and I’ll get some information to you.
Our day ended before noon and we had tallied just under 70 species. Highlights for me included a Short-tailed Hawk, a Willet (common along our beaches but rare at this inland area), Gull-billed Terns and over 30 Black-necked Stilts. Add to all of that patches of blooming flowers, colorful butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, Bobcat tracks, alligators and two of the state’s most accomplished birders who see and hear subjects long before I’m aware of them – and it was a very good day indeed.
Sunrise. Now I could actually see how many mosquitoes were in the cloud surrounding me.
Here’s a view of a small portion of the wetlands area. There are three “cells” of water which have been constructed in the wetlands which covers about 1,000 acres. A pump station on the south shore of Lake Hancock will pump lake water into one of these cells where specially planted vegetation will act as natural filters to clean the water. The clean water will be pumped into another of the cells for further filtration before being released into nearby Saddle Creek which feeds the Peace River and eventually the improved water will flow into the Gulf of Mexico at Charlotte Harbor. A small effort in the grand scheme of water management, but multiplied many times around our state it can make a difference.
A Dorantes Longtail dries out its wings after a heavy dew.
From the top of a small tree a Northern Parula sings as if Spring was here instead of Fall.
A curious Tufted Titmouse didn’t take long to start his alarm call to let the world know where we were. “Intruder Alert!”
It’s hard to miss the Scarlet Skimmer. There were dozens of these gaudy dragons around the marsh.
The Gull-billed Tern makes you do a double-take. Nice slim body and wings of a tern, then you see that thick bill and it just looks odd. The first image is a bird already in winter plumage and the second individual still retains the black cap from the breeding season.
American White Pelicans enjoy the fishing at Lake Hancock year ’round and their numbers can swell during migration to several thousand.
A group of Black-necked Stilts and Lesser Yellowlegs enjoy foraging and preening in a shallow section of water.
Male and female Needham’s Skimmers are quite different in appearance. The male’s coloration can range from orange to almost red. Immature males are similar to the female until they become adults.
A Cattle Egret may not be the most beautiful of birds but doesn’t look half bad with his hair combed.
Great Blue Herons are masterful fishermen and all the other birds are keenly aware of his prowess. A White Ibis hopes for a morsel.
The smallest butterfly in North America is the Southern Skipperling, one of the grass skippers. We’re fortunate that with Florida’s climate they remain here all year long.
If you hunger for a birding trip, check your seasoning and enjoy cooking up a great day outside! Don’t forget to locate a “key” person to assist you in overcoming the occasional locked gate life may place in your path.
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.)