Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Red-shouldered Hawk

Eastern Phoebe
About ten years ago I drove to Lust Road near Zellwood to search for a lifer - a Swainson's Hawk that had been reported in the area.  What followed was a great day of birding that included finding the hawk, visiting a kingbird roost and watching Barn Owls set out for their nightly hunt.  But the terrific day had a dark side as well.  Lust Road had a gate across it blocking all traffic.  And while we searched for the hawk, veteran birders told me stories of what it used to be like before the area had been damaged by chemicals that killed massive numbers of birds and other wildlife.  The most frequent phrase I heard was, "This used to be one of the best birding spots in the state."

Hit the fast forward button about nine and a half years.  I was working with the Alachua Audubon field trip committee planning this year's outings.  I thought of Emeralda Marsh, a place I've visited a few times and really enjoyed.  But I knew that access was limited, so I placed a call to the office of the St. Johns River Water Management District.  I learned that a trip to the marsh within the time frame we wanted was impossible.  As I was about to hang up the woman said, "Have you thought about the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive?"  I knew nothing about it so she said, "You should try it; it's filled with birds."  I decided to take a chance, put it on the schedule, and lead the trip myself.  But I was worried.  When a non-birder says a place is "filled with birds" it could mean anything, right?

The place is filled with birds.

American Bittern
Last Sunday I decided to scout the area since my field trip is just a couple of weeks away.  The Red Van Gang arrived just after 7:00.  At first we had some trouble getting through the gate.  Oh, it was open ... but there were so many birds flying around Lust Road that it took forever to actually reach the gates!  Mourning Doves, Common Ground-Doves, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Grackles were present in huge numbers, and some raptors were sorting through them looking for a good breakfast.  A Red-shouldered Hawk patrolled the road, an American Kestrel perched atop a pole behind a building waiting to attack, a Sharp-shinned Hawk dove into a group of doves, and a Merlin settled into a tree top with a meal in its talons.  And one bird rocketed past us, giving us a quick glimpse of something that made me think "Falcon!"  It was really quite a show.

Later, the three of us compared notes on what we saw of that falcon.  After consulting field guides and range maps, we realized it had to be a Peregrine Falcon.  

The canal along the road was also very active.  Anhingas, Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, and Great Egrets were common.  A Belted Kingfisher noisily announced his presence.  Pied-billed Grebes swam with Common Gallinules, completely ignoring me.  An American Bittern hunted on the far edge, freezing in position and lulling his prey into a false sense of security.

Glossy Ibis
We examined several groups of Glossy Ibises but found no White-faced Ibises among them.  A chittering call behind us turned out to be a Marsh Wren who didn't like our presence.  And we may have been among the largest collection of Eastern Phoebes I've ever seen.

Farther down the road we ran into a a group of birders that included Jim Eager, Susan Daughtrey and Paul Huber.  We found a Black-crowned Night-Heron, a White-eyed Vireo, a couple of Swamp Sparrows, and a Tricolored Heron.  Meanwhile, a Northern Harrier coasted just above the marsh looking for food. 

At the pump house, Jim told me to be on the lookout for a Black Skimmer that had been seen in the area.  Almost on cue, the Skimmer flew over the little pond behind the pump house and headed out over the lake.  Jim also told me about three other birds of interest.  He  said White-crowned Sparrows had been seen in the area as had a Peregrine Falcon.  And he noted that a pond nearby had some Fulvous Whistling-Ducks.  At the time, I didn't realize that the raptor we had seen earlier was probably the Peregrine.  We searched for the sparrows, but I didn't find any.  When we left the pump house, Jim took the more eastern route while I drove along the lake.  Jim relocated the Whistling-Ducks and posted a great photo of them online (below).

The lakeside route proved to be a little less productive than I hoped, but perhaps as more ducks fly in, the area will pick up a bit.  However, there were several Ospreys and Red-shouldered Hawks that didn't mind posing for photos. 

Osprey with Lunch
Back on the main road we found Blue-winged Teal on a roadside pond and a Wilson's Snipe flying overhead.  One stop produced a Gray Catbird and a House Wren in the shrubs and a few Savannah Sparrows in the grass.  One bird might have been a Song Sparrow, but I never got close enough to be sure. 

We ended the day at a Beef O'Brady's in Tangerine.  I was taught that if you can't say anything nice about someone or something, don't say anything at all.  Instead, I'll mention that there is a terrific, multiple award-winning novel for adolescents called Tangerine by Edward Bloor set in a fictionalized version of this town.  It was a compelling read, and I highly recommend it rather than the aforementioned restaurant. 

Overall, we had 48 species for the morning and I added eight to my Orange County life list.  I'm really looking forward to bringing a field trip back here in a few weeks.  When I post something on Facebook to advertise the trip, there's one thing I'm confident in saying.

It is filled with birds.

Jim Eager's photo of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks.  Yes, I'm jealous.

Bald Eagle

A Palm Warbler flashing its white outer tail feathers.

Another look at a Glossy Ibis


Savannah Sparrow

Blue-winged Teal

This Palm Warbler just needed a good stretch!