Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Florida Birds Warm a February Day
February 27, 2016
By Steve Grinley
Margo and I spent a week in Florida earlier this month on the premise of visiting family. In reality, we spent much of our time birding. Relatives were north of Orlando, so we took day trips to birding “hot spots” in that area. We were hoping to find a purple (now gray-headed) swamphen, an exotic species that has become widespread in southern Florida since the mid 1990’s. It is now “countable’ on the American Birding Association’s list of North American birds.
Fulvous whistling ducks also breed in the area and that would be a new bird for Margo. It has been almost fifty years since I saw some in Texas, so I wanted to see them again. The other possible life bird for us this trip would be a smooth-billed ani, but that would require an extended trip to Boynton Beach, which we would try to work into the plan later in our visit.
We spent one day on the Wildlife Drive starting at Lunt Road at Lake Apopka. Lake Apopka was targeted for cleanup under the Surface Water Improvement and Management Act of 1987. The north side of the lake includes a marsh flow-way system that filters Lake Apopka’s waters by circulating lake water through restored wetlands. In 1996, the Florida Legislature provided funds to buy additional agricultural lands north of the lake. Restoration of these farmlands to functioning wetlands is expediting cleanup efforts and also provides habitat for over 300 species of birds as well as other wildlife including alligators, turtles, snakes, otters, bobcats and coyotes.
The Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is a one-way, 11-mile drive that weaves through the eastern portion of the wetland property. The drive is open sunrise to sunset on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays, and we arrived on a fairly quiet Friday morning, with few cars along the drive. We were, therefore, able to view birds and other wildlife close-up using the car as a blind.
One of the first birds that we encountered as we entered the drive was a red-shouldered hawk, the common “roadside” hawk of Florida. They are as common as red-tailed hawks in Massachusetts. An Eastern phoebe was flitting about, as were palm and yellow-rumped warblers, and a blue-gray gnatcatcher. These birds were spending their winter there and will return to New England in the next couple of months. Phoebes were one of the more common land birds that we saw all along the drive.
Then the water bird show began. American coots and common gallinules swam in the canals along side the road. Great and snowy egrets, great blue and little blue herons, glossy and white ibis all fed in the wetlands, many very close to the road. Margo got close-up photos of the Snowy Egret and the Little Blue Heron. Cattle Egrets fed on the grassy edges of the road and Margo was able to get some great pictures which can be seen at the link above .
It was fun to see the usually secretive pied-billed grebes so close, and watch them slowly sink below the surface of the water. Margo was able to some close-up photos .
Another secretive bird that we were able to see well was American bitterns. Usually the bitterns are buried in the reeds and camouflage themselves with a frozen pose and their bill pointed straight up into the air. Their brown, striped plumaged makes them nearly impossible to detect among the reeds and cattails. We felt lucky to have seen three of them along the drive.
Much more prevalent were the anhingas, These birds look like our cormorants, but they have long, snake-like necks and long fan-shaped tails. They were often perched on low shrubs, soaking up the sun. We watched others in the water, as they dove for fish and even watched as they tried to swallow fat fish down their skinny necks. You can see their narrow neck in Margo’s photo.
We did see several green heron along the way and we were especially happy to see so many tri-colored herons (once called Louisiana Heron). We don’t see many of those in Massachusetts each year and Margo was able tocapture one.
There was other wildlife that captured our attention. Of course the alligators were scattered throughout the wetland and they came in all sizes. We felt safe enough in our car, though some looked more threatening than others.
Raptors kept our eyes to the sky as well. There seemed to always be a vulture is sight, mostly turkey vultures but a good number of black vultures as well. We saw more red-shouldered hawks and only a couple of red-tailed hawks. Harriers hunted the wetlands in several places and we watched an osprey carrying fish from the lake. We also saw American kestrels perched along the drive.
We found mottled ducks among the mallards, blue-winged teal, ring-necked ducks and hooded mergansers that were swimming around the marsh. But, alas, we found no fulvous whistling ducks and no purple swamphens in the four hours that it took us to make the drive. It was still early when we came to the end of the road, so we decided to do the drive one more time, a bit quicker the second time, stopping in a only few places where whistling ducks or swamphens might more likely be found.
We still had no luck on our second ride through. But we had more days ahead of us and more places to try. We enjoyed the birds we did see this February day – many of which were only summer acquaintances in New England!
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