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.
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
The Kissimmee River flows into Lake Kissimmee from Lake Hatchineha to the north. This is looking northward into Lake Hatchineha from the 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.
An immature Bald Eagle checks us out from a fence post and an adult cruises for a fresh fish breakfast.
Bald Eagle – Immature
This is one of the many reasons we love this lake.
Grassy Island – Lake Kissimmee
An endangered Snail Kite hovers over a spot where he hopes to find an Apple Snail.
Food for wading birds such as this Great Egret is plentiful around the lake.
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
We think about a time when people traversed this area on foot or horseback. Hard to imagine.
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
Grassy plains such as this used to cover a huge area of central and south Florida.
Three Lakes WMA
False Dragonhead provides a little color along the way.
False Dragonhead (Physostegia purpurea)
Splashes of yellow Black-eyed Susan dot the prairie.
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
Pitted Stripeseed usually spreads along the ground but occasionally stands tall to display its beautiful blooms.
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.
This open land is inviting for Swallow-tailed Kites as they soar above the grasses hunting for insects.
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)
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)
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
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.
Another tree-dweller, the Red-headed Woodpecker, probed for bugs on a utility pole. Too bad they’re not more brightly colored …..
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!