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!

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

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28 thoughts on “Birding Is The Pits

  1. You did well with your “one cluttered photo op.” When I get only one shot, the clutter is totally clear the bird is a blurry bit! Enjoyed your lead-in story, and suspected the girlfriend might just be your wife. Funny about the Downy Woodpeckers conversation. She was definitely miffed about something!

  2. Hi Wally. Caught up with you at last. I have trouble working out your movements and you’re more elusive than a lifer at a major twitch.

    For a minute there I thought you’d gone off on another fishing expedition but soon realised that you saw sense and went birding instead.

    Those unassertive male spiders soon take a beating don’t they/ Just as well we are both alpha males huh? And the two Downy’s picture is spot on, I swear I can hear the banter from over here.

    You did well spotting the Sphinx Moth on the barbed wire and if your shrikes are like the ones I see they won’t come back while we are about.

    Not really the pits was it? You’re just kiddin me again.

    • Good Morning, Phil! For an old guy, I do seem to move around a lot! It’s quite simple, really. I’m just too lazy to put together a blog on any sort of schedule as it seems to resemble w-o-r-k. I’ll try to do better – but no promises.

      Migration is beginning to fill up the beaches, marshes, ponds and sod fields and the spotting scope is getting a workout. Now, if only I could sort out all the brown, gray, stripes, bills, postures, feather patterns…..

      Take care, my friend.

  3. Lovely collection of birds! Great spotting of the Yellow-billed cuckoo. And I adore the two woodpeckers on each side of the log. Your bass was 1 lb. larger than mine. It definitely took all my might to reel him in. Now he sits on my wall since my dad insisted on mounting him. Well, that sounded weird…you know what I mean!

    • Good Evening, Gail! Nice work on the bass! As I recall (it WAS a LONG time ago), mine was also mounted – on a plate along with rice, tomato gravy and hush puppies. 🙂

  4. Just catching up, Wally, and came to this great post of yours. That’s a super collection of wildlife you have there, and very nicely captured in your lens too!

    I can see that you’ll be finding plenty of excuses to call in for frequent pit-stops!

    Best wishes to you both – – – Richard

    • We went out there especially early to listen for owls, Richard, but no luck. Good habitat, though, and now that we’re into their breeding season I remain hopeful. Thanks so much for the nice comments!

  5. What a wonderful place to find wildlife! Great captures.

  6. Very interesting description of the “pits” and the use that has been made of the. The description of the “long ago” fishing was great!Great photos of all the birds and “beasties”! Your Shrike seems to have similar habits to our Butcherbirds out here! They will even take smaller birds too.

    • Hi, Mick! Our Loggerhead Shrike is a distant cousin of the Butcherbirds of Australasia and when I was growing up we called it a “Butcherbird”. Hope your new week will be full of good stuff! (Shorebird pictures coming soon!)

  7. Amazing pictures Wally!
    Interesting birds and bugs, the spider and the dragons are fantastic shots!
    That Blue heron is gorgeous, it look even lager than our Grey heron!
    The northern parulina is a must!
    Congratulations and keep birding for our pleasure! 🙂

  8. I hadn’t thought about “the pits” of our childhood for years, and really enjoyed the present-day tour. My favorite photo for sheer beauty is the Golden-Winged Skimmer. The winner (along with your comment) for humor is the Downy Woodpecker pair.

    • Hey, Sister! They still have the huge “walking cranes” digging 24-hours a day. It was nice to discover an oasis of woods, water and birds amongst all that.

      Love you guys! Talk to you soon.

  9. I remember driving past some old abandon phosphate operations in Polk and nearby countiesyears ago and still remember the sadness I felt to see the extent to which they were strip mining. It looked like someone had bombed the area into a flat, barren landscape. I felt the same sadness when I went to photograph in the state of Washington and found mile after mile of mountainsides barren and clearcut of their lumber. How great for us and future generations to learn that the mining companies and the state/federal govt. are working to reclaim those lands. You made my day sharing this news Wally because those were locations I have wanted to avoid for years. My best to you, Gini (and that girlfriend!)

    • There is still plenty to feel sad about when driving through the active mine areas. However, it’s a testament to Nature’s reliance to see how the wildlife adapts and it’s good to be able to experience the silver lining created by reclamation efforts and more conservation-minded regulations.

      Of course, my camera lenses are all rose-colored! – 🙂

      Take care, Rick!

  10. Oh Wally I was so worried at the beginning of this post when you mentioned ‘your girlfriend’ but glad to hear everything is OK with Gina! You had me going there!!! anyhow, it is lovely that you have found another great area to add to the places you go birding and it turns out to be very good with different varieties of birds and wonderful shots of them. Have a wonderful weekend.

    • Sorry to scare you, Margaret! When Gini read that she almost threw a lamp at me! (Just kidding. It was a book.)
      Thank you for visiting with us today and we hope your weekend will be terrific!

  11. Fantastic shot and great post, thank you for sharing ☺

  12. Fantastic photos. I thought we’d bee seeing a photo of the big ‘ol fish. 🙂

  13. lovely bunch o’ birds and reflections. i like all the fence sitters!

  14. Always great!

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