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Long Water

Droplets of moisture decorated the edges of everything in sight like so many small jewels displayed for all to admire. Stepping from the solid platform of wood firmly attached to dry land into a small boat which felt like it was ready to slip out from underneath your feet always seems like the proverbial “leap of faith” that it won’t. In the early morning fog, we moved slowly across the mirror-smooth surface of the lake straining to see ahead and listening for other boats. Common sense prevailed and we slipped into a cove covered in lily pads and pretended to fish until it was safe to travel. Finally, the sun forced the thick mist to begin its retreat and we sped to our favorite spot and began the ritual of gathering what would be several meals of fresh fish.

Raised in a land surrounded by water, it would be easy to take for granted the luxurious environment we enjoy. We know, however, there are many in the world without sufficient water resources and we pray for solutions.

One of the lakes we really love to visit is within an hour’s drive and not only provides outstanding fishing but is in the middle of a diverse ecological system which produces superb birding opportunities. Lake Kissimmee is in central Florida and covers about 35,000 acres (over 14,000 hectares). It forms part of the northern Everglades watershed and the Kissimmee River flows south from the lake for about 100 miles to Florida’s largest natural lake, Lake Okeechobee. “Kissimmee” is derived from a Native American word meaning “long water” and the name is descriptive as you view the lake on a map.

Along its 100 mile journey south, the floodplain of the river, historically, was about three miles wide and was inundated by annual rains. The runoff from this periodic flooding trickled southward through small tributaries, was filtered by vegetation and eventually replenished the vast Everglades with fresh, clean water. As human settlement spread into the area, this flooding began to devastate farms and ranches and strong hurricanes took many lives, over 2,000 in the early 1900’s in one storm. In 1947, the government authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to “do something” to control the flooding. They began a program of building levees around huge Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River was “channelized”. This once meandering, beautifully wild stream was turned into a dredged 30 foot deep straight-line canal which became deprived of oxygen and life over time. Additionally, the floodplain-dependent ecosystem was destroyed resulting in over 90% of the waterfowl disappearing and a 70% reduction in the nesting of Bald Eagles.

With significant help of concerned scientists and residents, the government realized (too late?) the error of their ways. In 1999 a project began to restore the Kissimmee River to its original flow and completion is targeted for 2019. There is some good news to report. For the portion of the project completed to date, there has been a significant return of waterfowl and the ecosystem does seem to be recovering, albeit slowly. We continue to hope future generations will be able to enjoy the land as it once was.

In addition to all the water, the area south and east of Lake Kissimmee contains one of the largest tracts of grass prairie in the United States. One of our favorite destinations is the vast Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area (which includes the Prairie Lakes Wildlife Management Area). Over 8,000 acres (3200 hectares) of dry prairie, wet prairie, marsh and pine-flatwoods. This area boasts the largest concentration of nesting Bald Eagles in the contiguous United States and is home to several endangered bird species including the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Florida Grasshopper Sparrow and Snail Kite.

Recent trips on Lake Kissimmee and to the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area produced a diverse list of birds, interesting wildlife encounters, tremendous open vistas of grassland, beautiful wildflowers and a couple of days filled with deep breathing of fresh air. We are truly blessed.

 

Here are a few images of why we like it here.

 

Sunrise on Lake Kissimmee.

Sunrise

Sunrise

 

This is the first lock on the Kissimmee River as it exits Lake Kissimmee. If you look on the right side of the photo, you can see the channelized river heading straight south in the distance.

Kissimmee River - Lock

Kissimmee River – Lock

 

The Kissimmee River flows into Lake Kissimmee from Lake Hatchineha to the north. This is looking northward into Lake Hatchineha from the river.

Kissimmee River

Kissimmee River

 

Cypress trees abound in wet conditions throughout Florida. The complex root system of the trees can be seen here as they’re exposed by low water.

Cypress Trees

Cypress Trees

 

An immature Bald Eagle checks us out from a fence post and an adult cruises for a fresh fish breakfast.

Bald Eagle - Immature

Bald Eagle – Immature

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

 

This is one of the many reasons we love this lake.

Grassy Island - Lake Kissimmee

Grassy Island – Lake Kissimmee

 

An endangered Snail Kite hovers over a spot where he hopes to find an Apple Snail.

Snail Kite

Snail Kite

 

Food for wading birds such as this Great Egret is plentiful around the lake.

Great Egret

Great Egret

 

Back on dry land, a road through part of the prairie within the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area indicates the openness of this environment.

Prairie - Three Lakes WMA

Prairie – Three Lakes WMA

 

We think about a time when people traversed this area on foot or horseback. Hard to imagine.

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes WMA

 

A few scattered palm trees don’t offer much shade and those trees in the distance are a very long walk!

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes WMA

 

Grassy plains such as this used to cover a huge area of central and south Florida.

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes WMA

 

False Dragonhead provides a little color along the way.

False Dragonhead  (Physostegia purpurea)

False Dragonhead (Physostegia purpurea)

 

Splashes of yellow Black-eyed Susan dot the prairie.

Three Lakes WMA

Three Lakes WMA

 

This is a spot which is normally filled with water. You can see the white sand “slide” that this alligator has used often to lay in wait for food. He apparently didn’t get the memo about the low water.

Dry Watering Hole

Dry Watering Hole

 

Pitted Stripeseed usually spreads along the ground but occasionally stands tall to display its beautiful blooms.

Pitted Stripeseed  (Piriqueta cistoides subsp. caroliniana)

Pitted Stripeseed (Piriqueta cistoides subsp. caroliniana)

 

We were privileged to watch the courtship flight of the Common Nighthawk. The male will fly high, hover for a moment, then fold his wings for a steep dive. Just before he crashes, he opens his wings and flies back up to do it again. The wind rushing through the suddenly open wings makes a distinct “hum”. Hopefully, this will impress the female and they will soon produce little Nighthawks.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

 

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

 

This open land is inviting for Swallow-tailed Kites as they soar above the grasses hunting for insects.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite

 

A female Needham’s Skimmer is quite lovely, but the mature males are a bright reddish-orange and usually grab the limelight.

Needham's Skimmer - Female  (Libellula needhami)

Needham’s Skimmer – Female (Libellula needhami)

 

No, this is not ZZ Top preparing for a performance. It’s a species of Robber Fly with a wasp/bee thing he snagged for lunch.

Robber Fly  (Asilidae)

Robber Fly (Asilidae)

 

An Eastern Black Racer grudgingly moves off the path for us. Gini wanted to play with it but I persuaded her to not molest the wildlife. (She’s bad about that.)

Eastern Black Racer

Eastern Black Racer

 

As the prairie merged into pine-flatwoods, we heard the sweet song of Bachman’s Sparrow and very soon an accommodating male serenaded us and posed for a few candid pics. It was by far the best look we’ve had of one of these beauties. Not too long ago, they were known as Pine Tree Sparrows, which is quite descriptive of their habitat.

Bachman's Sparrow

Bachman’s Sparrow

 

Another tree-dweller, the Red-headed Woodpecker, probed for bugs on a utility pole. Too bad they’re not more brightly colored …..

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

 

The Long Water refreshes – and we take advantage and are thankful. If you have a chance, go and marvel at what Nature has to offer.

 

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

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Wildflowers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Big Water = Big Attraction

My birth place was a small village in southeastern Florida called Miami.  Well, it was a small village long, long ago when I was born.  Okay, okay, even then it was a huge megalopolis and the premier destination for tourists longing to escape snow, ice and each other.  Dad was a carpenter and built homes for the tourists who couldn’t find a good reason to return to the snow and ice.  He also was an addict.  The addiction gene was passed along to yours truly and I became a fishing junkie through no actual fault of my own.

A quirk in his DNA gave him a preference for freshwater fishing.  So, although we lived ten minutes from the finest saltwater fishing on the planet, we would spend a couple of hours on the road to head north to Lake Okeechobee where we would hope to bring home largemouth bass, bluegill, shellcracker or speckled perch (“crappie” to those not from here).  He was a very good fisherman and we enjoyed many traditional (that means “full of fat stuff” in modern-speak) Southern fish dinners.  Sigh.  I can smell the hushpuppies even now…….but I digest……err…..digress.

Okeechobee translates to Big Water in the Seminole Indian language.  Lake Okeechobee is, indeed, big.  It’s the second largest freshwater lake in the lower 48 states in America and consists of 730 square miles (1891 square kilometers).  Water from this huge lake directly impacts the vast Everglades ecosystem.

I readily accepted an invitation to go birding in this area.  It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen Lake Okeechobee and I was excited to be anywhere near the waters that produced so many wonderful memories for me.  Our target area was Glades County on the western side of the big lake.  Our ambitious itinerary included:  Harney Pond Canal Recreation Area (on Lake Okeechobee), Curry Island, Lake Okeechobee Rim Canal, Alvin L. Ward Senior Park (in Moore Haven), Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area (several trails) and Rainey Slough.  I highly recommend any of these spots for excellent birding and just plain enjoyment of nature.

Glades County was founded in 1921, encompasses just under 1,000 square miles and in 2010 had a population of about 13,000.  It’s known for tourism, cattle, fishing, sugar cane, produce and citrus industries.  There is lots of open space to explore and enjoy here!

By the end of the day, our party of two logged 95 species of birds.  I added a life bird, the Purple Swamp Hen, which has gained a foothold in Florida after several of these non-native birds escaped a display several decades ago.  Along the edge of the Big Water, we observed endangered Snail Kites as they went about the business of hunting for their main source of food, the Apple Snail.  Other highlights for me were the early morning encounter of almost 200 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in a cattle pond, a Clay-colored Sparrow, Indigo and Painted Buntings, nearly 100 Northern Rough-winged Swallows, two American Bittern and finding nine Black-crowned Night Herons (adults and juveniles) in a single location.  What a great day!

Most of the day was quite overcast, cool and very windy.  Photographs were a bit limited but here are a few that will give you a flavor of our experience.

 

This is a view of a very small bay on Lake Okeechobee.  Even though the lake is huge, it’s average depth is only nine feet (2.7 meters).

Lake Okeechobee

Lake Okeechobee

 

A highly cropped image of two Purple Swam Hens.  We didn’t find any close enough for good photos but I was quite happy to see them at all!

Purple Swamp Hen

Purple Swamp Hen

 

This is a fairly large alligator which I estimate at about 10 feet.

American Alligator

American Alligator

 

Frogs are plentiful throughout the area, a fact which is appreciated by this Red-shouldered Hawk.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

 

During the winter, in our local area, we see mainly Tree Swallows.  It was nice to run across a large flock of Northern Rough-winged Swallows.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

 

A Greater Yellowlegs poses nicely along a canal leading to Lake Okeechobee.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

 

This Brown Pelican found a comfortable spot on a channel marker where he was protected from the cold wind.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

 

Young White Ibises are brown or mottled until about their second fall when they will attain the pure white plumage of adults.

White Ibis (Immature)

White Ibis (Immature)

 

We played hide-and-seek with this Spotted Sandpiper for awhile and I had to settle for a distant flight shot since he refused to hold still on shore.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

 

A young Limpkin has not yet realized that Apple Snails are usually closer to the water.

Limpkin

Limpkin

 

Florida’s tropical climate is favorable for some unique plant life such as this epiphyte, or air plant.  This class of plant depends on a host (e.g., tree branch) for physical support but is not parasitic and takes its moisture and nutrients from the air.

Epiphyte

Epiphyte

 

The bases of Cypress trees often grow into unusual shapes and my sharp-eyed companion spotted this artistic form.

Cypress Tree

Cypress Tree

 

Crested Caracara are somewhat common in this area and love the open spaces.

Crested Caracara

Crested Caracara

 

A creek and vast adjacent wetlands create the perfect environment for water birds such as these Black-crowned Night Herons.

Black-crowned Night Heron (Immature)

Black-crowned Night Heron (Immature)

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

 

A Green Heron extends its neck to get a better view of its potential supper.

Green Heron

Green Heron

 

As you explore any wild area, it’s good to keep in mind that we are merely visitors and need to respect the residents.  This particular resident commands more respect than most! 

American Alligator

American Alligator

(I often mention alligators in my posts but have taken for granted that everyone is familiar with our official Florida State Reptile.  I apologize.  A few facts.  The American Alligator is North America’s largest reptile, growing to over 15 feet (4.6 meters) in length and weighing up to 1,000 pounds (453 kilograms).  The species is over 150 million years old and can live an average of 35-50 years in the wild.  Numbers of alligators in Florida are estimated between 1.5-2 million.  They primarily feed on fish, turtles, snakes, small mammals and slow-moving birders.  Petting them is not recommended.)

 

It was simply wonderful to explore the land of the Big Water and I can’t wait to return!  If you find yourself in south Florida, consider investigating all that Glades County has to offer.  There are some true gems here just waiting to be discovered!

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.)

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 48 Comments

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