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:
- 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.
“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!
An immature Tricolored Heron still has quite a bit of rufous plumage but instinctively knows a threat when he sees one.
This Great Blue Heron keeps a wary eye on a large alligator under his perch until it moves away.
A Great Egret arrives and asks the Great Blue Heron what’s to be done about all the reptilian riffraff.
Time for a reconnaissance flight. The brave Snowy Egret volunteers to count the enemy and see if they’re showing any sign of retreat.
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.
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.)
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!
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.
A little further along the road, we encountered a calling Great Crested Flycatcher. They’re residents here but migrants also fly through the area.
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.)
The iridescence of the Glossy Ibis helps it stand out even in a busy background.
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.
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.
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!
See more birds at: Paying Ready Attention (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)