Winter Preview

I was doing my best to create man-made global warming, and I didn’t feel at all guilty about it. Okay, so it was actually “automobile warming”. As a Floridian who birds mostly in, well, Florida, I don’t get a chance to complain about cold weather too often. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from doing so when the occasion arises.

The occasion arose a couple of weeks ago. We experienced our first actual cold front and naturally just knew it would blow in all sorts of migrants. So, off to Lake Apopka!

We write about this area often because it is just so unique. Thousands of birds, diverse species, native flora and fauna – and if you want, you can enjoy it all from the comfort of your vehicle! For someone with physical limitations, this is a wonderful opportunity. The Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is about 11 miles in length, winds through expansive wetlands and many birds are literally right outside your window!

The thing is, it would have been so simple to keep the heater running and casually motor through the area sipping hot chocolate and leisurely commenting: “Oh, look, ANOTHER Peregrine Falcon.” It seems we are not built that way. For the full experience, one must use all the senses to appreciate what nature has to offer. This is true for any venue.

So, down went the windows and we strained to hear the whinny of a Sora ten miles distant or a Marsh Wren scolding from the Alligator Weed alongside the canal. We were cold. The low temperatures were exacerbated by near gale force winds and bits of mist that soaked your face as soon as you gazed the wrong direction. Plus, we frequently exited the car and explored paths away from the main road. This gave us the illusion we were really “birding” instead of just riding in the car.

(If you are in the market for a vehicle and plan to go birding anywhere it may be cold, three words: “Individual. Seat. Heaters.”)

Estimates for the day included nearly 10,000 American Coot; over 5,000 Common Gallinule; hundreds of Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintail and Ring-necked Duck; a smattering of American Widgeon, Gadwall and Green-winged Teal; a couple of Canvasback and even a rarish Cinnamon Teal. Throw in wading birds, song birds, shore birds, raptors (including the aforementioned uncommon Peregrine – a pair!) – and it didn’t take long to almost not notice how wet and cold we were!

The wildlife drive is on the east side of Lake Apopka. We also visited two small parks on the south side of the lake where we found a few surprises. Links to all three places we traveled are below under “Additional Information“.


A gray face and collar, reddish brown wings, a bit of yellow at the base of its bill – a Swamp Sparrow mostly remained in heavy brush. Probably to keep warm!

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive


The male Painted Bunting looks like it fell onto an artist’s palette and rolled around. They are not extremely common and it is a treat to see that ball of color flitting about gathering seeds. Later in the day at Oakland Nature Preserve, we spotted a female. Not as gaudy as a male, it’s easy to see why many call her a “greenie”.

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Oakland Nature Preserve


Plumages of many shorebirds and waders help them blend perfectly with their surroundings. Of course, once this Greater Yellowlegs shows off his bright legs, it’s tough to remain hidden.

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive


The Peregrine Falcon is a rare sighting for me. They don’t breed in Florida so our only chance to spot one is during migration. We saw a pair almost immediately after entering the wildlife drive, chasing one another at Mach 3. About an hour later, I found one perched by the side of the road. I try to avoid photos of raptors on utility lines, but in this case I made an exception. What magnificent creatures!

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive


I am a Florida native and grew up fishing all across central and south Florida. Everywhere I fished, the Great Blue Heron fished. I have seen them try to eat a lot of things. Today was the first time I watched one eat an alligator.

Four-step process: 1. Make sure the ‘gator is dead. 2. Get the head pointing toward the back of your throat. 3. Try to flatten out the critter as much as possible. 4. Toss your head back and swallow. (Hot sauce optional.)

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive


Let’s face it. Few birds have attitudes similar to a wren. They are fearless. Quick to jump out at any disturbance. Vocal about anything in their territory. The Marsh Wren only visits us in the winter and we are better for it. Did I mention they are adorable?

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive


Speaking of cute. We counted nearly 100 Pied-billed Grebe for the day. That’s a lot of little fluffy butts turned up as they dive for a meal.

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive


Expert waders and stalkers, the Snowy Egret’s “golden slippers” at the ends of her black legs provide a perfect contrast for those white airy feathers.

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive


When you first gaze out across some of the more dense vegetation of the wetlands, you soon become aware the whole surface seems to be moving. Through the binoculars, an amazing variety of life comes into focus. If not for her powder-blue namesake, this Blue-winged Teal is nearly invisible.

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive


Talk about camouflage! The Wilson’s Snipe could sit still and it would be easy to walk right by him. Which I suspect has happened more than I would like to admit. Once they take off in an explosion from under your boot – adrenaline happens!

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive


After lunch, we visited Owens Park on the south side of Lake Apopka. It’s a community park perfect for picnics, fishing from a pier and launching a boat. This uncommon Snail Kite found it a perfect spot to find Apple Snails.

Newton Park


Also at Owens Park, a Bronzed Cowbird foraged with a flock of Boat-tailed Grackles and Brown-headed Cowbirds. The bluish wings and tail along with its red eyes help it to stand out as “something different”.

Newton Park


A bit further south and west we found the Oakland Nature Preserve. A well-maintained boardwalk allows visitors to enjoy stands of hardwood which give way to cypress swamp on the way to the shore of Lake Apopka.

The female Painted Bunting above was with a group of Tufted Titmice, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.


Along the boardwalk, a Brown Thrasher kept a wary golden eye on us.

Oakland Nature Preserve


The iridescence of a Common Grackle adds to the color of Red Maple leaves.

Oakland Nature Preserve


A small Northern Parula dropped by to see what we were up to.

Oakland Nature Preserve


Almost back to the parking lot, a sleepy Barred Owl was roused (but not much) by the clicking shutter of my camera.

Oakland Nature Preserve


Fall migration is essentially finished. Winter is making itself at home in many parts of the country. No matter the season, get out and enjoy a walk (or a drive in a warm car!) to see what nature has to show you.


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


Additional Information

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Newton Park

Oakland Nature Preserve



In many areas, volunteers are helping out with the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. If you have never participated, find a group near you and spend a day counting our feathered friends. At this time in history, accurate recording of their numbers may be more vital than ever before. Thank you!

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

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17 thoughts on “Winter Preview

  1. WOW, the series of the GBH eating the gator is exceptional, right place right time!! A wonderful series of gorgeous photos and awesome sightings. I am envious of the Painted Bunting, I want to see and hopefully photograph one so much! 😊

    • Thank you so much for the really nice comments!
      Just try to locate places with suitable habitat for the bunting and you’ll find one. Many have had success attracting them to back yard feeders. Patience …

  2. Well I never. A Floridian recommending heated seats! Up here in Lancashire we call those folk down in London, Southern Softies (or worse), but I must admit to having a Global Warming Winter Pack fitted to my little Fiat – seats, front screen and rear screen.

    Some great pictures there today to go with those huge counts from your 11 mile drive. The Heron shots are simply wonderful but I did feel a little tinge of sadness for the baby alligator, barely out of the egg, but good that you show that there is a system in all of nature.

    Take care Wally. And keep warm. If you need any Long Johns I can supply.

    • I even argued with the salesman about living in Florida and how I would “never” use heated seats. He deserves my apology.

      Gini finds it soothing for back and hips to periodically turn the heater on even in warm weather.

      Now I have a mission. Must photograph an alligator devouring a Great Blue Heron. It would complete the “circle of life” metaphor nicely.

      As much as I appreciate the offer of what I discovered today’s youth (“millennials”?) call “base layering”, I’ll continue to pretend the cold won’t last that long and hang onto the boxers.

      Gini and I wish you and Sue a very Happy Holiday season!

  3. I was astounded by the Heron eating the ‘gator, Wally. At first, I thought it was a large lizard – had no idea that young ‘gators were transversely striped like that. Thank you for the tonic that is your shot of the Barred Owl.

    We’ve been appreciating the individually heated seats in our two run-abouts for a few weeks now. They’re particularly effective against a back that’s painfully stiffened through standing out in the cold for too long!

    Sorry to be so late in visiting – I’ve been without a PC for a few days, and I’m now busy catching up with all the things I should have done earlier in the week. It felt really strange without a PC – I kept finding myself sitting at my desk and instinctively wiggling the mouse to bring the screen to life!

    My very best wishes to you and Gini. Have a wonderful Christmas – – – Richard

    • Those heated seats are miracles! Gini’s back pain on long trips has disappeared. Even when the weather is warm and the air-conditioning is on, she’ll turn the seat heater on for a few minutes with very good results.

      Any time I get that near to an owl (less than 50 feet), it’s a tonic for me, too!

      Planning for a quiet holiday season. We’ll see how that works …

      Go wiggle your mouse!

      Happy Christmas to you and Lindsay!

  4. Wonderful images all, Wally. But the one of the Bronzed Cowbird really stands out for me.

  5. So many great shots but that heron eating the alligator is the best. Never seen one either.

  6. David Gascoigne

    A fabulous array of birds, Wally, and an equally impressive selection of photographs.The heron eating the alligator seems like a fair turnabout to me. I am not sure about this alleged cold, though. How cold was it? I can see that I had better not take you out looking for Snowy Owls and Snow Buntings! There is a Northern Hawk-Owl nearby right now too. We still bird at minus 20 degrees C. Might even do it a little colder than that for an Ivory or Ross’s Gull.

    • Thank you very much, David!

      Being cold is a relative thing, eh?

      My first experience in “real” cold was camping in upstate New York while attending Syracuse Univ. I must secretly admit to loving every minute of it! The forest after a heavy snow is a very special place!

      And the potential of seeing a Hawk-Owl would short-circuit my normal internal thermostat.

      Have a wonderful week!

  7. Welcome to the weather of the English!
    A truly superb selection of images Wally, the Egret is a lovely composition. The colours of that Bunting are surreal. My favourite is the PB Grebe, saw one over here many years ago.

    • Thank you very much, Brian! We lived for 12 years in Germany and our first landlord gave us the best advice. “Get a good coat and umbrella and don’t let the weather stop you or you’ll never experience Europe!”

      We agree on the grebe. They breed here and watching young birds learn to hunt is fantastic!

      Thank you!

  8. All great…can’t wait to visit Lake Apopka next year!! Lots of variety. While I like all those bird images, being partial to Great Blue Herons, those images of ingesting the little gator are excellent. I knew fish were put down the hatch face first, but had not seen that with gator swallowing too. But, I guess it stands to reason.

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