“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 …
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.
The Northern Parula is a year-round resident in our area and is always a joy to watch.
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.
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.
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.
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 …..
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!
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.
A Golden-winged Skimmer shows off its beautiful colors.
This Turkey Vulture flew by three times very low so I finally snapped a portrait. Who can resist such utter beauty?
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.
Common Gallinules were not abundant here (again, that deep water thing is not their favorite) but this one found a shallow creek to enjoy.
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.
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!