Posts Tagged With: lake apopka wildlife drive

Waders, ‘Gators and Spectators

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:

55 species

  • 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.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

“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!

Feeding Time

Feeding Time

 

An immature Tricolored Heron still has quite a bit of rufous plumage but instinctively knows a threat when he sees one.

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

 

This Great Blue Heron keeps a wary eye on a large alligator under his perch until it moves away.

American Alligator, Great Blue Heron

American Alligator, Great Blue Heron

American Alligator, Great Blue Heron

American Alligator, Great Blue Heron

 

A Great Egret arrives and asks the Great Blue Heron what’s to be done about all the reptilian riffraff.

Great Egret

Great Egret

Great Blue Heron, Great Egret

Great Blue Heron, Great Egret

 

Time for a reconnaissance flight. The brave Snowy Egret volunteers to count the enemy and see if they’re showing any sign of retreat.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

 

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.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

 

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.)

American Alligator

American Alligator

 

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!

Green Heron

Green Heron

 

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.

Bank Swallow, Barn Swallow

Bank Swallow, Barn Swallow

Bank Swallow

Bank Swallow

 

A little further along the road, we encountered a calling Great Crested Flycatcher. They’re residents here but migrants also fly through the area.

Great Crested Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher

 

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.)

Red-shouldered Hawk - Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk – Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk - Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk – Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk - Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk – Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk - Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk – Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

 

The iridescence of the Glossy Ibis helps it stand out even in a busy background.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis

 

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.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

 

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.

Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina)

Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea Carolina)

 

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!
Additional Information

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

 

See more birds at:   Paying Ready Attention   (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

A New Birding Venue

We recently wrote about a trip earlier this year to the north shore of Lake Apopka. (See previous post: The Potato Eating Place.) At the time, we heard that there would soon be a drive along the northwest shore of the lake opening for public use. The new Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive opened in early May and our initial foray a couple of weeks ago confirms it will rapidly become a very popular destination for birders and anyone wishing to enjoy nature from the comfort of a vehicle. The drive is 11 miles long, one-way only with pull-offs along the way. There is room along the side of the road in most places to allow traffic to pass if needed. Marsh and floodplain restoration has been underway here since the late 1980’s in an attempt to undo the damage done by agricultural pollution over a long period. It is a work in progress. Hopefully, this opportunity to allow more of the public to view this fantastic slice of nature will create a sense of stewardship in a new generation.

The entrance gate opens at sunrise and Gini and I arrived early to enjoy the gradually lightening sky, the inspiring view of parked gravel trucks, the sweet melody of humming diesel generators, the delicate touch of mosquitoes landing on our cheeks — okay, so the prelude to the actual drive wasn’t a nature-lover’s paradise. Once the gate was opened, however, — well, actually, another birder pulled up just as the gate was opening and darted in ahead of us. As the dust cleared from his spinning tires, THEN we started enjoying the wonders of nature. The awe of car-rattling thunder, the amazing brightness of lightning and the refreshing experience of large raindrops clearing the aforementioned dust from the windshield.

Since we’re Florida natives, we knew patience would be rewarded. Sure enough, the morning thunderstorm vanished quickly and our planned two-hour tour evolved into a six-hour total immersion relaxation session. “I TOLD you we should have packed a lunch.” Gini is truly the mistress of subtle understatement and highness of hindsight. From start to finish, we just had FUN! We cannot wait to return.

Spring migration has pretty much dwindled in central Florida, although we had hopes of glimpsing Bobolinks as others had reported. Alas, no joy. We did find over 40 species of resident birds, several of which were fully engaged in raising families. Occupied nests of Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were numerous and Common Gallinule chicks littered the marsh. Black-crowned Night Herons and Green Herons were abundant but shy and most of our views were of birds flying low and away from us. A congenial Yellow-crowned Night Heron posed in a flowering Primrose Willow. These are usually found closer to the coast but I guess this one heard about the new drive and wanted to check it out. A few dozen Barn Swallows were very active at one spot with several young birds perched on utility lines being fed by adults who would swoop in and shove a bug in the waiting mouths. We found a couple of Tree Swallows perched with the Barn Swallows, quite late in the season as most sensible Tree Swallows left for their northern home a few weeks ago. Frogs serenaded us all day long. Grunting Pig Frogs seemed to be everywhere and their snuffling was only occasionally interrupted by the deep hum of the Bullfrog. Dragonflies hovered over weed-covered pools and flung their eggs onto the surface. Opportunistic frogs grabbed the vulnerable bugs and were in turn snatched up by hungry herons. The circle of life was vibrant here.

If you get a chance – GO! It’s wonderful now even as our Florida summer approaches. Once fall arrives, so will thousands of wintering shorebirds and tens of thousands of eager birders. No matter the season, this is going to be a fun place for anyone who enjoys nature.

 

The view just inside the entrance gives an idea of what the area looks like.

Lust Road

Lust Road

 

Common Gallinule families were, well, common. New chicks were numerous and there were a few “teen-agers” as well, probably having hatched several weeks ago.

Common Gallinule - Juvenile

Common Gallinule – Juvenile

Common Gallinule

Common Gallinule

 

A Little Blue Heron loves frogs’ legs, but also enjoys frogs without legs. This large tadpole has already been “tenderized” by the bird and a split-second later was swallowed whole.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron

 

We saw many Black-crowned Night Herons, but this is about the best look we had as most of them flew away from us at a high rate of speed.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

 

This Yellow-crowned Night Heron must like the area as it’s in his/her breeding plumage. Yes, we did have to pay it to perch among yellow flowers.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

 

As we neared the actual lake, anything that resembled a tall perch was occupied by an Osprey with breakfast.

Osprey

Osprey

 

Red-winged Blackbird nests were not hard to spot, even for alligators.

American Alligator, Red-winged Blackbird Nest

American Alligator, Red-winged Blackbird Nest

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

 

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

 

Blooms of all sorts dotted the landscape (“marshscape”?). This Swamp Hibiscus was one of the larger flowers on display.

Swamp Hibiscus (Hibiscus grandiflorus)

Swamp Hibiscus (Hibiscus grandiflorus)

 

Purple Gallinules seem to have two modes: “clown” and “aggressive”. Sometimes the two overlap.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

 

Male Four-spotted Pennants are quite dark and can appear to be black. The females are brown to orangish in appearance.

Four-spotted Pennant - Male  (Brachymesia gravida)

Four-spotted Pennant – Male (Brachymesia gravida)

Four-spotted Pennant - Female  (Brachymesia gravida)

Four-spotted Pennant – Female (Brachymesia gravida)

 

Needham’s Skimmer females (and immature males) can have a very golden look and it’s sometimes difficult to separate them from Golden-winged Skimmers. Mature males are very bright red-orange (both Needham’s and Golden-winged).

Needham's Skimmer - Female  (Libellula needhami(

Needham’s Skimmer – Female (Libellula needhami(

 

I was attempting to photograph an Eastern Pondhawk which had been busy laying eggs when it was eaten by this Pig Frog. Sigh. Good models are so hard to find and keep.

Pig Frog (Rana grylio)

Pig Frog (Rana grylio)

 

Young Barn Swallows were being kept company by Tree Swallows as Mom and Dad flew around catching bugs. The youngsters would squawk and flutter their wings as an adult approached and put a bug in their beak on the fly.

Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow

Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow

 

I’ve seen White Ibises all my life but never noticed that in breeding season they develop an extended gular (throat) pouch. It apparently only lasts a short while.

White ibis

White ibis

 

We counted a half-dozen Black-necked Stilts during the day and judging by the agitated behavior and calls of some they likely have a nest and/or young ones nearby.

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

 

Amongst the cattails, baby Boat-tailed Grackles yell for Mom to hurry up with lunch!

Boat-tailed Grackle

Boat-tailed Grackle

Boat-tailed Grackle

Boat-tailed Grackle

 

 

Speaking of lunch, Gini started screeching at me to find some – immediately! (Now, you know as well as I do that she has never “screeched” in her life! She isn’t capable of it.) Fortunately, one of our favorite spots was not far away. (Do a computer search for Yalaha Bakery. Go there. Be hungry.)

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive. A new place for y’all to visit! And you don’t even have to be a birder! This is a terrific opportunity for all of us and especially for those of us who may not be physically able to hike a trail or jump on a mountain bike. Nature is just there waiting for us!

 

We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

 

Additional Information

Lake Apopka – North Shore

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

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