Waders, ‘Gators and Spectators

High speed traffic. Billboards. Promises of fantasy, adventure and fun galore. We took the exit ramp just before becoming hopelessly ensnared in the bounty of modern Florida. Admittedly, if you have small children and a large bank account, it’s truly a place you should visit. After that, remember where this exit ramp is located.

Thankfully, it was an hour before sunrise and only a few hundred cars were racing toward the gates of Mouse Nirvana hoping to be first in line for unlimited joy. As we reached the end of the exit road, Gini and I breathed a collective sigh of relief. I looked left. I looked right. No traffic in sight. Soon we were meandering (as much as one can meander in a two ton hunk of metal) along a winding country road, all alone in the dark (one of our favorite places to be all alone …).

The gate for the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive was already open for us and we had the place to ourselves just as the sun appeared over the horizon. The one-way drive is eleven miles of unimproved road through freshwater marsh, lake shoreline, sod fields and mixed woods. It provides a terrific place for migrating birds of all types and many will spend the winter here. There are several places to pull off the road and it’s wide enough in most spots for other vehicles to pass comfortably. I was recently asked to list what we typically see on a trip. Naturally, birds “typically” seen will vary by location but hopefully this will provide an idea of what to expect in early autumn (mid-September) at this location. We were hoping to see more migrants, especially shorebirds, but the normally wet sod fields were bone dry.

The list for this trip:

55 species

  • Black-bellied Whistling-Duck  4     Flew northwest over Lust Road near entry gate.
  • Wood Duck  2
  • Mottled Duck  4
  • Blue-winged Teal  28     Group of 8 in pool on south side of Lust Rd. about 0.2 mile west of entry gate. Flock of 20 flying east parallel to Lust Rd.
  • Pied-billed Grebe  4
  • Wood Stork  3
  • Double-crested Cormorant  4
  • Anhinga  18
  • Least Bittern  4     Three seen, one heard only.
  • Great Blue Heron  16
  • Great Egret  22
  • Snowy Egret  4
  • Little Blue Heron  12
  • Tricolored Heron  2
  • Cattle Egret  36
  • Green Heron  5
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron  4
  • White Ibis  58
  • Glossy Ibis  14
  • Black Vulture  9
  • Turkey Vulture  4
  • Osprey  9
  • Red-shouldered Hawk  3
  • King Rail  1     Heard only. Fairly steady “kek-kek-kek-kek-kek” call.
  • Purple Gallinule  2
  • Common Gallinule  160     Conservative estimate. Many immature birds.
  • Limpkin  2
  • Killdeer  2
  • Common Ground-Dove  2
  • Mourning Dove  6
  • Belted Kingfisher  2
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker  3
  • Downy Woodpecker  1
  • Pileated Woodpecker  1
  • Great Crested Flycatcher  1
  • White-eyed Vireo  3
  • Red-eyed Vireo  2
  • Blue Jay  2
  • Fish Crow  3
  • Bank Swallow  4     Perched on utility wires with Barn Swallows. Smaller than Barn Swallow, dark breast band with line extending down center of breast.
  • Barn Swallow  22
  • Tufted Titmouse  3
  • Carolina Wren  2
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  4
  • Northern Mockingbird  2
  • European Starling  5
  • Black-and-white Warbler  1
  • Common Yellowthroat  4
  • American Redstart  2
  • Northern Parula  3
  • Yellow-throated Warbler  2
  • Prairie Warbler  1
  • Northern Cardinal  4
  • Red-winged Blackbird  26
  • Boat-tailed Grackle  32

It was a good day.

We joined a pair of Ospreys for breakfast just after sunrise. They had very fresh fish, we had egg sandwiches. On the lake shore is an old pump house which was once used to divert water into a canal system for crop irrigation. Adjacent to the pump house is a pool from which the water was further pumped into fields. As we approached this pool, we noticed a lot of activity. First, a large alligator moved across the road right in front of the truck. Then we noticed a good number of herons and egrets lining the shore and soaring above the pool. When we pulled alongside the pool, it got really interesting! We counted 40 alligators within our field of view and more were in a smaller pool near the pump house. The object of all of this attention was a very large number of shad in the pool. The alligators were feasting and the birds were wishing. I kept waiting for Tarzan to swing in on a vine from stage right.

There are a lot of pictures here so I won’t be offended if you don’t look at all of them. Well, not too much.

 

We are continually amazed at what a Great Blue Heron will try to eat. Even though this fish is a very normal part of its diet, the size of the meal makes you wonder if there is any way he’ll be able to swallow it. He always does. He made a quick check to be sure we weren’t a threat.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

“The Pool.” The birds appear to be assessing the risk in trying to grab a meal. At times, the ‘gators almost cleared the water as they chased fish from underneath. Quite a sight!

Feeding Time

Feeding Time

 

An immature Tricolored Heron still has quite a bit of rufous plumage but instinctively knows a threat when he sees one.

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

 

This Great Blue Heron keeps a wary eye on a large alligator under his perch until it moves away.

American Alligator, Great Blue Heron

American Alligator, Great Blue Heron

American Alligator, Great Blue Heron

American Alligator, Great Blue Heron

 

A Great Egret arrives and asks the Great Blue Heron what’s to be done about all the reptilian riffraff.

Great Egret

Great Egret

Great Blue Heron, Great Egret

Great Blue Heron, Great Egret

 

Time for a reconnaissance flight. The brave Snowy Egret volunteers to count the enemy and see if they’re showing any sign of retreat.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

 

A Black-crowned Night Heron senses a “presence” behind her. She glimpses the large eyes watching her and begins to sneak away. But wait, what’s that? Breakfast! And no ‘gators nearby! A quick plunge and – success! A short flight to the nearest perch. Now, how do I eat this thing? Where is Big Blue? He knows about these things.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

 

Immersed in trying to photograph all the action, I also became aware of a “presence”. This 10-foot fellow was measuring me for a plate. Thank goodness for l-o-n-g lenses! (And a steep bank.)

American Alligator

American Alligator

 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the road ….. A Green Heron was content to wait in the reeds for a frog or a crayfish. Not as much competition. Also, less chance of becoming breakfast yourself!

Green Heron

Green Heron

 

Above the fray, Barn Swallows perched on utility lines and hawked insects. Among them we spotted four Bank Swallows, not rare but a bit unusual this time of year. They are smaller than the Barn Swallow and have a clean underside except for a dark breast band with a line running downward from the center of the band.

Bank Swallow, Barn Swallow

Bank Swallow, Barn Swallow

Bank Swallow

Bank Swallow

 

A little further along the road, we encountered a calling Great Crested Flycatcher. They’re residents here but migrants also fly through the area.

Great Crested Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher

 

An immature Red-shouldered Hawk spotted a potential meal from his perch and launched from the branches without taking his eyes from the target. He used his broad tail as a rudder and soon dropped behind a line of Willow trees, likely to grab brunch. The light “crescents” near the end of the wings are diagnostic for this species and can be helpful in identifying birds soaring quite high. (The last two images are a different bird than the first four.)

Red-shouldered Hawk - Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk – Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk - Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk – Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk - Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk – Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk - Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk – Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

 

The iridescence of the Glossy Ibis helps it stand out even in a busy background.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis

 

Although Pied-billed Grebes breed in this area, the population increases as migrants fly through to Central and South America and many will overwinter here.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

 

Since we started with “dragons” it seems fitting we end with one. A Carolina Saddlebags is silhouetted nicely by the lushness of the marsh in the background.

Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina)

Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea Carolina)

 

We enjoyed a lazy drive in this diverse habitat and were pleasantly surprised at the show put on by the alligators – just for us. There was no entry fee, no lines to wait in and we didn’t have to be “this tall ^” to go on the ride. And it’s all right there when we want to do it again. Which we do.

 

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
Additional Information

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

 

See more birds at:   Paying Ready Attention   (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

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26 thoughts on “Waders, ‘Gators and Spectators

  1. Great set of shots – and many birds I would love to see on your list. Those herons do not seem to be taking on board the ‘never eat anything bigger than your head’ advice!

    Cheers – Stewart M – Melbourne

    PS: my slowness to comment and visit has been caused by a trip to an island in the Pacific!

    • Thanks, Stewart! It’s amazing the things herons will try to eat. Welcome home and we look forward to hearing about your adventure!

  2. Great pictures of Great Blue Heron and Black-crowned Night Heron so big meal… and American Alligator looks cool!. Wonderful Red-shouldered Hawks in flight

  3. You can keep your alligators, but I’m swooning over the rest of your captures! What a day!

  4. Fantastic photos! And what an amazing list of birds you found! Incredible trip. I loved every word and every minute poring over your photos. Wonderful!

  5. Hello Wally, this sounds like my kind of place to visit. Awesome birds and those gators are just amazing. Fantastic post and photos. Enjoy your day!

    • Thanks, Eileen! The road is 11 miles long and one can see almost everything without leaving the vehicle. It’s really nice for those not physically able to walk a trail.

  6. HI Wally I now know why I never answer your post immediatley and that is becasue I also enjoy reading the commnts and your replies. NOw I am imagining you desperately holding Gini close to you as you two swing from vine to vine and taking the ‘requested’ selfie!! Well this was a fantastic fun post. I love your narration as each you presented the next photograph. That was an enormous number of gators and that close up is fabulous. Now if i ever come over here, since the gators like tourist best, i must remember to stand well behind you! The flight images of the Red shouldered Hawk are wonderful. It is wonderful to be able to get up before dawn and find this fabulous place and to have it basically all to yourselves. Egg sandwiches sounded good. Many thanks for visitng my blog and I am glad you are enjoying my comtinuation of my Malaawian images. I thought I better get them finished as I am going back at the beginning of December to the family and we are also going to Zambia for nearly a week. So I am so grateful for my health to still be able to do these things and I hope you and Ginii are well and I am looking forward to the next instatement and humour from your neck of the woods.

    • Margaret, thank you so very much for the really kind remarks! It’s a special place and we look forward to a return visit soon. Be safe on your upcoming trip. We look forward to your reports from areas of the world we’ve never visited.

      All the Best – Gini and Wally

  7. A fascinating environment and wonderful photos. I especially like the Night Heron and the in-flight Hawk. You seem to be much less worried about all those ‘gators – I would be a lot further away from them!

  8. A great post, Wally, although I must confess I didn’t manage to read to the bottom of the list – lists are not really my thing, but I did notice that the sightings were impressive!

    I love the photos, and particularly enjoyed those in sequences, with all of them being excellent. I’m very envious of the wide range of Herons that you have there. The ‘gator image is outstanding – I think that I’d have turned and run after taking that, possibly into the jaws of its waiting partner, knowing my luck!

    My very best wishhes to you both. I hope you have a rewarding week – – – Richard

    • It was a fun episode, Richard! That was a lot of alligators in one spot, even for this native Floridian! Great place for birding adventures and it’s usually not that busy with humans.

      Take care my friend!

  9. Hello Wally,
    Many thanks for your kind words, truly appreciated.
    Things are very difficult and I try my best to pick up the pieces but I feel so devastated.
    This post is an absolute killer, I believe these pictures are the very best you ever took.
    Sincere congratulations, I envy you all these wonderful spots you have around you and being before dawn on the site is always quite rewarding.
    Hugs to you and Gini, enjoy the new week

    • Thank you so much for the really high praise! I appreciate that.

      We are all only a moment away from personal devastation and all we can do is allow those we love to be there for us. We truly hope you find peace.

  10. my connection stuttered but i was finally able to view your pics. the gator shot is awesome. 🙂 i hope you don’t mind, but i ‘stole’ your egret-coming-in-for-a-landing shot and saved it to my drawing inspiration folder. if i ever have time to draw again, i’d like to try to sketch from it (and i’d give you full photo credit if i ever show the drawing on-line and i’d link back here). i loved the feather definition and subtle shades of white to gray and would love to try to duplicate it in colored pencil. (if you’d rather i not, just let me know).

    always enjoy the photos and glad i could view them.

  11. Hi Wally. I hope you enjoyed your holiday. But please let everyone know, where and why does a Floridian need to holiday?

    Well I found two thirds of fantasy, adventure and fun by being a birder. Sorry, the real world just doesn’t interest many folk. But hey, do we want everyone to take up birding and for our birding spots to be even busier? Definitely NO.

    Your heron and egret pictures are just spot-on. They remind us of how birds have one eye on a prospective meal and the other eye on a possible predator – the photographer, or in the case of Florida something much bigger or nastier that just longs to eat you.

    Over here we are in winter mode except that I haven’t been out for days due to Atlantic rain, grey clouds and windy conditions. Migration is pretty much over until we get cold weather from Europe or Scandinavia in January, February which may push birds to our milder but wetter winters – Snow Buntings, Waxwings or Bramblings maybe. Meanwhile we do have 30,000 geese and several hundred swans etc.

    Until then I‘m just hoping for a few photographs of Wally and his Jane swinging through the Everglades. Don’t let me down.

    • Phil, thanks for the very kind words and insightful thoughts about recruiting new birders! I fear the poor birds have more to fear from photographers than their natural prey. Thanks for the migration information. Hopefully, you’ll find plenty of winter residents to harass…mmmmm…observe until the cold weather pushes more from the continent.

      To answer your question about where a Floridian goes on holiday – why, to another part of Florida, of course! In our case, to the northwest “panhandle” section where we visited family, spent a week aboard a houseboat, enjoyed coastal and deep forest birding and generally had a wonderful time!

      I’m working on getting that swinging picture for you, just as soon as I can figure out how to hold onto my Gini and a vine whilst taking a “selfie”! — 🙂

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