Our latest nominee for Florida’s Special Places comes from Audubon supporter Harry Robinson who nominates one of Florida’s important and imperiled areas, Lake Apopka in Central Florida. The Orlando Sentinel published an article last week about the future of Lake Apopka and Audubon’s own Charles Lee has recently reported on a Lake County Commission vote that denied a permit for a nearby sewer sludge treatment facility, making this week’s nominee of extra importance. Thank you, Mr. Robinson for your submission – we hope to see more good news come from beautiful Lake Apopka in the very near future! Enjoy:
Lake Apopka is one of the most important ornithological sites in Florida, covering over 20,000 acres. I have been surveying half of that area since August 15, 1998. The bird list for Lake Apopka is at 348 and closing in, at least I hope so to the other important regions around the state.
In 1998 some 5,000 acres had been left flooded by the farmers when they sold their land to St. John’s River Water Management District. This quickly became a mecca for birds and birders including some from Europe who changed their itineraries from Miami to Orlando. Then fish eating birds started to die, the fields were drained and the area was closed. From April 1999 I again had access and have assisted the District in monitoring bird use and I found that there were lots of birds but the species had changed.
Initially weeds took over all the fields followed by plants such as Elderberry and Saltbush. The woodland edge birds started moving out into the fields with species such as the Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting leading the way. More and more Yellow-breasted Chats started to nest out in the fields. Orchard Orioles were nesting in the scattered trees. In the early fall large numbers of Swallow-tailed Kites gathered to feed over the fields. Least and Ash-throated Flycatchers started to become regular migrants and winter visitors. The number of sparrows fell as the taller plants took over but that is the way it goes, each change in the vegetation brought its own set of birds.
In preparation for the pesticide remediation the District started a regime of roller-chopping and then mowing these overgrown fields. This again brought a new set of birds. The Northern Harrier found the shorter vegetation to their liking and perhaps the biggest winter roost in the country formed in the eastern fields. Red-tailed Hawks and Bald Eagles arrived in ever larger numbers. In the summer Cattle Egrets took over. Originally they nested at the south of the lake, and then a few pairs moved north to be by the fields, then the whole colony moved north, why fly perhaps five miles when you could have your food supply nearly at your feet.
Nature of course had its say with the hurricanes of 2004. These storms dumped so much water on the fields that the District could not get into much of the area for a long time with its heavy equipment. So the plants grew again. I say “grew” but that is an understatement. These were old muck farms so a perennial plant such as Pigweed which is said to grow to a height of 12 feet grows here to 18 feet. There can be forests of just these plants.
In 2008 the District started to re-flood the area. Initially a 1.5 square mile area was shallow flooded. Again the bird population changed with water birds taking center stage again. It was not long before the Anhinga’s were nesting in large numbers and feeding frenzies of Snowy and Great Egrets could be seen at first light, later they dispersed over the area. In the winter there were huge numbers of coot and ducks.
It is I suspect normal to include photographs but they will only show what the habitat was at that moment in time, it will not look the same now. This is why I have given you a potted history. What I see today I will in all probability not see in six months as the vegetation will have changed so much. Therefore I cannot describe to you what you will see when the area is opened again to the public. The District is determined to open the area to the public when the flooding is complete. All I can say is that it will be a great area for birds and wildlife; there are lots of River Otters, Bobcats and Coyotes.
All I can say about the future is that I have no idea what the area will look like but it will have a host of interesting birds for you to see. There will be many rarities and many of the high counts will be exceeded in the future. When the area is opened to the public just go out and enjoy what is and will be one of the most interesting birding sites in Florida.