Posts Tagged With: greater yellowlegs

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

 

P.S.

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

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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