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!
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”.
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.
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!
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.)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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”.
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.
The iridescence of a Common Grackle adds to the color of Red Maple leaves.
A small Northern Parula dropped by to see what we were up to.
Almost back to the parking lot, a sleepy Barred Owl was roused (but not much) by the clicking shutter of my camera.
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!
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!