February 13, 2014

Birding in the Wetlands

Last Sunday we drove up to Apopka to participate in an early morning bird watching field trip that was arranged in conjunction with the Old Florida Outdoor Festival.  I wanted to write about it immediately but we have had a beautiful week -- sunny, breezy, low humidity -- and we felt compelled to enjoy the outdoors while the nice weather lasted.

When I read about the festival online I saw that the birding tours were free with the festival ticket purchase ($15.00 each).  We haven't been birding in years, and rarely with a guide, so this seemed like a neat way to reacquaint ourselves with Florida wildlife.  Also, as former chili cook-off contestants, we wanted to attend the festival's Chili Cook-off.  We bought our tickets and signed up for the 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning birding tour which would get us back in time for contest.
Apopka is north of Orlando so we allowed a couple of hours to drive there.  It was hard getting up at 4:30 a.m.  Beaver drove through the dark as I struggled to stay awake in order to repel deer from the roadway (by way of thinking intensely hard about them staying off the road).  We arrived at our destination, the Apopka Sports Complex, and stood alone amid the remains of the previous days' festival.  Not a soul in sight.  Nothing to indicate that there might be a group gathering for a bus ride to the birds.
Deborah Green

Lorne Malo
Finally it all came together.  Much to our surprise we were the only two people who showed up for this particular field trip (there were two on Saturday and one more later in the day on Sunday).  Our guides were Deborah Green, President of the Orange Audubon Society, and Lorne Malo, Environmental Specialist at Florida Department of Environmental Protection.  Holy cow.  We were in for some high quality birding and I had no clue what the etiquette was.  I felt very nervous and thought, god, just get us through the next two hours, just get us through!

Beaver inspects his camera while waiting for the bus to leave.
While we drove to the site Malo filled us in on where we were going:  The Lake Apopka North Shore Restoration Area is a huge aquatic ecosystem that has suffered from agricultural fertilizers and pesticides since the 1940s, when dikes were built to create farmland from the lake bed. Under the direction of the St. Johns River Water Management District, the area is in the midst of cleanup activities which include marsh and floodplain restoration and the creation of a marsh flow-way system that filters Lake Apopka’s waters by circulating lake water through restored wetlands.

Green up front with binoculars ready.
Malo explained how the water-management district has already started turning the former low-lying farms that helped spoil the lake into new marsh that has attracted a phenomenal variety of birds to Apopka's north shore.  According to the St. Johns River WMD Recreation Guide, a 1998 Christmas bird count (CBC) identified 174 species of birds, the highest species total for an inland count in the 100-year history of the annual CBC. "Bird diversity is extraordinary in this area, and the bird list, which continues to grow, now includes more than 348 species. Other wildlife include alligators, turtles, otters and bobcats".  And coyotes.  We saw one!  He was off in the distance, in the middle of the road ahead.  We saw the coyote tracks and scat everywhere we stopped.  And as for alligators, well, they're there and they are the biggest alligators I've ever seen outside a zoo.

10-footer sunning himself at water's edge.
Once we were inside the locked gates the birdwatching began.  It was just as quiet and peaceful as you would imagine.  Both of our guides began finding birds in the brush and grass, identifying them for us and making sure we saw them too.  Malo had a scope on a tripod which was an amazing tool for identification.  The first time I looked through his lens and saw a close-up view of a Common Yellowthroat I thought, "What a picture this would make"!  Malo trudged from point to point, finding a bird and focusing on it for all of us to view, and I soon came to understand that the joy of birding is in the sighting itself.  Photographing the birds and wildlife is another sport.

Our first early morning stop in the wetlands.
Just inside the gates we stopped and got out of the bus.  It was still misty and cool.  Green and her husband walked off a ways.  I gawked and tried to figure out what our role was in this mission.  Everyone was looking through binoculars except for Beaver who was taking all these lovely photographs.  I heard a lot of bird calls but only saw a few black birds flitting around.

Marshy foliage hides a lot.  You have to be patient.
Our guides taught us to hear the call of the Red-winged Blackbird, which we would see in abundance throughout the entire tour.  "Male Red-winged Blackbirds do everything they can to get noticed, sitting on high perches and belting out their conk-la-ree! song all day long. Females stay lower, skulking through vegetation for food and quietly weaving together their remarkable nests." (from The Cornell Lab or Ornithology)  

I'm Napoleon!  Check these epaulets!

The first bird we saw through Malo's scope was a Common Yellowthroat.  He was busy doing nothing in some bushes.  I wouldn't have seen him without our guides.  Both Green and Malo made an effort to announce what kind of bird they spotted, and where it was.  Mourning Dove, Great Blue Heron, sparrow, Palm Warbler, some sort of duck (they flew off before we could identify them in the dim morning light)... I began to see the pattern of our field trip and relaxed as we got back on the bus for the long drive throughout the preserve.

Foamy Spanish Moss in the Florida wetlands.
We stopped three or four times before heading back to the festival grounds.  Each stop exhibited a different kind of vegetation and therefore, possibly, different wildlife.  For instance, along the road through the marshy area well away from the lake in an area with huge palms, oaks and willows freighted with spanish moss, we spotted Red-bellied Woodpeckers and nesting boxes set out to encourage the growth of the Barn Owl.

Barn Owl nest box in the Lake Apopka North Shore Wetlands.

One of our two tour guides, Lorne Malo, had been on the previous day's field trips.  He said that they had been fortunate enough to spot the female Vermilion Flycatcher, a bird that has taken up nesting in our neck of the marsh despite the fact that it is native in the American southwest and southward into Mexico.  It made me smile because I thought of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  How did the Vermilion Flycatchers get here?  Were they carried by swallows?  I kept my weird sense of humor to myself though. We got out of the bus at the spot where people had seen the Vermilion, and after fifteen minutes of quiet searching, there she was!  Malo said that she could usually be found in one of three clumps of bare willow so he knew where to look.  Upon finding her he trained his scope on her and we all had several nice long looks.  Beaver even got a (slightly blurry) photograph.

Female Vermilion Flycatcher in the Lake Apopka wetlands.

Looks are deceiving.  We spotted the Vermilion Flycatcher here.

Our last stop was the pump house.  I walked across the boardwalk and came upon two interesting men on bicycles.  Each of them had several long feathers stuck in their caps and one of them was looking through binoculars.  I thought at first that they were bird-watching but it turned out that they were Harry Robinson-watching.  Robinson is a celebrity in the birding community, and apparently these men find him notable as well.  They told me that he walks the Lake Apopka trail every morning.

Pump house picnic area, at the end of a four mile trail from Magnolia Park.

In the picture above, the signs says "Do Not Feed The Alligators".  That would have been real cute at the start of our trip but after seeing the 'gators we saw, I'm telling you:  Do NOT get near one of those critters.  Step away from the alligator.  They are HUGE.

Bird List

Lake Apopka North Shore Wetlands

(not in order of their appearance)

Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Phoebe
Red-tail Hawk
Red-Shoulder Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Belted Kingfisher
Vermilion Flycatcher
Common Gallinule
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Common Egret
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
[Either the Wood Ibis or the Wood Stork]
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Harrier (Marsh Hawk)
Glossy Ibis
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Common Merganser
Red-winged Blackbird
Little Blue Heron
American Coot
Common Snipe
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Boat-tailed Grackle

Plant List

Deborah Green taught me that if I had to eat, I could eat:

Wild Cabbage (Brassica) 

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