Posts Tagged With: pied-billed grebe

Mining For Birds

“Beans.”

“You want beans for breakfast?”

“Yes.”

The night before a big adventure requires precision planning for maximum efficiency. Cell phones were charging, optics had been cleaned, fresh battery was inserted into the camera, memory cards formatted, wardrobe laid out and now Gini was confirming the arrangements for provisions.

As any school child can tell you, breakfast is THE MOST IMPORTANT MEAL OF THE DAY! I wasn’t going to risk running out of energy mid-morning due to an insufficient morning meal.

“Exactly what kind of beans do you want?”

“The usual.”

I could hear her eyes roll heavenward from the living room. “You’re impossible.”

I guess that means I will be brewing my own coffee in the morning.

 

We were headed south to Hardee County, adjacent to our home county of Polk in west central Florida. It was dark but the weatherman promised “chamber of commerce” weather for the day. That worried me.

Our arrival at Hardee Lakes Park coincided nicely with sunrise. No clouds, pleasant temperature and – wind. Very gusty wind from the south. At dawn. Small birds are going to be a challenge to find today.

This park was mined for phosphate beginning in 1980 and reclamation of the land started by the end of the decade. After restoring the land and allowing the area to remain unused, the phosphate company donated 1200 acres to Hardee County in 2001 for a recreation area. The park opened in 2004 and today visitors can enjoy fishing in four lakes, hiking, biking, horseback riding, camping and picnicking. Oh, and birding! The park is well maintained and the staff is very friendly and helpful.

Park roads are unimproved but the main roads are in good shape. You can drive around three of the four lakes, but be careful as there can be deep ruts and holes hidden by grass and it can be dicey after periods of rain. There are several trails and a boardwalk through a wetland.

We have always had a terrific experience here and today was no exception.

The day began with dozens of warblers at our first stop. Yellow-rumped, Palm, Pine – scooping up insects in the tree tops and moving en masse from oaks to pines and back again. (They were undeterred by the gusty winds.)

American White Pelicans flew overhead moving from their nightly roosts toward lakes to the north where they would spend the day feeding. Bald eagles crashed through the lake’s surface and emerged with fresh fish in their talons. Noisy Killdeer scooted along a gravel road chasing grasshoppers. Eastern Phoebes and Loggerhead Shrikes sallied forth from elevated perches to hawk flying insects. White-tailed Deer grazed in the park and have become somewhat accustomed to humans. Gray and Southern Fox Squirrels foraged under trees and scampered to a high branch as we approached. The morning was punctuated by the eerie call of the Limpkin and trumpeting of Sandhill Cranes.

All of a sudden, it was lunchtime! How did that happen? We just got here!

Gini’s selection of chicken and fruit was perfect. Just like our day.

 

“Butcher Bird” or Loggerhead Shrike uses that curved beak to grab a dragonfly, moth, grasshopper or even a lizard. Often, the prey is impaled on a thorn or barbed wire fence to make it easier to consume.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

A young White-tailed Deer buck knows he is within the park boundary where hunting is not permitted. Otherwise, we likely would never see him in the open.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Pine Warblers can vary from very drab to very bright yellow. Their white wing bars and face patterns help in identification.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Like the Pine, Palm Warblers can also appear quite plain or show a lot of yellow. The constantly pumping tail gives it away even at a distance.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Small, fast and hungry. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers will fly to a low branch to examine you closely then, poof, they’re back in the top of that tree to resume the snack search.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Florida’s state bird, the Northern Mockingbird, is not only wonderful to listen to, but is pretty nice looking, too!

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Bright yellow with dark streaks on its sides and distinctive face pattern describe a Prairie Warbler. This one was focused on a bug in a bush and let me get fairly close.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Female Black-and-White Warblers are paler than the male with a gray instead of black cheek. Both think they belong to the Nuthatch family as they run headfirst down a tree trunk or explore the underside of a branch.

Hardee Lakes Park

Female

Hardee Lakes Park

Male

I had a glimpse of a Limpkin here five years ago and never saw another until today. I was beginning to think they were avoiding me.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Typical of former mining pits, all four lakes at Hardee Lakes Park are quite deep for Florida lakes. Double-crested Cormorants don’t mind diving for their dinner and they thrive here.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Although they can dive deep, the small Pied-billed Grebe would just as soon grab her lunch nearer the surface when possible.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Long legs, double breast bands, orange eyes – the Killdeer runs, stops, runs, stops – until he nabs a bug. Then he does it all over again. Noisily.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Yellow-rumped Warblers have a split personality. There are two sub-species: “Myrtle” Warbler of the eastern U.S. has a white throat, yellow sides and yellow rump. “Audubon’s” Warbler of the west has a yellow throat, yellow sides and yellow rump. Here in Florida we occasionally see “Audubon’s” during migration.

Hardee Lakes Park

“Myrtle” Warbler

Just looking at her makes my arm hurt. Horse Fly (Tabanus atratus). From 0.75-1.25 inches long (1.9-3.18 cm). Avoid!

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Winter means we get to enjoy that dedicated hunter, the Eastern Phoebe. They are plentiful and beautiful and we will be sad when they all head north in the spring.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Bald Eagles are common throughout our area since central Florida has so many lakes. Also, migration adds to the number of these magnificent raptors. Resident birds are busy with courtship and nesting now through January. Today we enjoyed watching adult and immature birds soar and fish.

Hardee Lakes Park

Adult

Hardee Lakes Park

Immature

Also concentrating on courtship, territorial battles and nest building are many water bird species. This Great Blue Heron is circling around to rejoin two other herons. We couldn’t determine if the ongoing kerfuffle was courtship or territory related.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Sandhill Crane siesta includes taking time to preen all those long feathers.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

A Southern Fox Squirrel nibbles a piece of mushroom in the shade of a pine tree by the lake side.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

Around the shoreline of the lakes were vast patches of bright Bur-marigold (Bidens laevis). No, I didn’t pack a wide-angle lens. Sigh. It was still a lovely sight.

Hardee Lakes Park

Hardee Lakes Park

 

As we exited the park, I saw some movement in a large oak tree and discovered a Pileated Woodpecker seemingly with his hair on fire.

Hardee Lakes Park

 

We are blessed to have such places to visit within an easy ride from the house. Our thanks to the forward-thinkers a few decades ago who planned for reclaiming this formerly very ugly mining area and transforming it into a haven for those who love nature.

Whew! What a day! I am SO glad I began the morning with a cup of beans for breakfast. Ground up. Hot water poured over them. Sipped slowly. Ahhhh.

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

 

Additional Information

Map Location

Hardee Lakes Park – Facebook Page

Hardee Lakes Park Brochure

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel, Wildflowers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

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

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: