Lake Apopka is one of the largest lakes in Florida. It was once surrounded by farms where the crops grew very well in the rich muck along the lake’s flood plain. While the farms were active, the farmers dumped untold quantities of pesticides and fertilizer on their crops. These chemicals eventually made there way into Lake Apopka and effectively killed the lake. At one time Lake Apopka was so polluted that it wasn’t safe to swim in or eat anything from the lake. That caused the fish to die off and eventually the birds that made their homes around the lake suffered as well.
Over the last 20+ years the state has been buying up the farms and converting them back into natural flood plain. They scraped off the topsoil from the farms and hauled it away to reduce the amount of poisons that continued to leach into the lake. Over the years the lake has begun to return to good health, although it does have a bit farther to go. As a result of this effort, Lake Apopka now has an ecosystem that is beginning to thrive. Fish are able to live and breathe in the lake again and the birds and other predators are beginning to come back. Lake Apopka was once one of the premier birding and bass fishing locations in Central Florida, and in a few more years, it may very well return to that status.
With the wildlife population returning, there are some opportunities for birders and photographers to find and photograph birds that we don’t normally see. Such was the case late last year when a pair of Groove-billed Anis were located in the Lake Apopka North Shore Recreation Area. Anis are not normally found in Florida, although we do get a handful sighted around the state during the winter. So with some excitement to find and photograph this rare visitor, Donna, Jess and I struck out for the 2.5 mile hike to find the elusive Anis.
The day started out cloudy, foggy and dreary and the prospects of any good photos was pretty low. But we started out on the hike hoping the fog would lift and we would not only find the Anis but get some decent photographs. We might have found the Anis sooner if the usually accurate Google Donna hadn’t insisted that we make a right turn at the fork in the road. For the record, yours truly knew where the Anis had been seen previously, but deferred to Google Donna’s own internal GPS. After we got back on track, we came across a birder who had been standing in the same spot for the 10 minutes it took us to move down the trail towards him. When we approached he told us he had seen an Ani and was waiting for it to pop back out of the brush. 10 minutes later the Ani fulfilled our mission and gave us some great looks. Click the images to view larger.
Success!! We spent the next 90 minutes taking images of this one bird in every possible composition that we could come up with. Unfortunately they were all dulled by the clouds and filled with sticks from the brush that he preferred to perch in, so I won’t bore you with more of the same images. Still we had fun watching him as he watched us. We even heard him calling, and though 2 Anis had been reported in the area, we only saw the one. By the end of the next week, he was gone and hasn’t been sighted yet. Good timing on our part. [UPDATE: The Ani was found again just yesterday.]
After about 90 minutes with the Ani I looked up the road and spotted a bobcat walking along the road. Every time I go out to Lake Apopka North Shore Recreation Area I see a bobcat. It’s not that they are all that numerous, but I just happen upon them at the right time. The bobcat was a good 500 yards or more away from us, so I pointed him out to Donna and Jess and we began to walk quickly to get a closer opportunity for photos. He must have heard us coming as he stopped, turned around and sat down and watched us. How great it would be if he would wait while we closed the distance on him so that we could get some decent images. But that was not to be. At about 250 yards he bounded into the brush. Bad bobcat!!
We walked slowly and quietly up to where he disappeared and kept going. There was no chance he was coming back out again. Or was there? When we got about 300 yards beyond where he disappeared, I turned around and he was back out again, walking away from us … again! Bad bobcat! This time he was walking directly towards a pair of birders that had not seen him yet. When they finally spotted him and stopped, I stopped and took my only image of the bobcat. It’s a horrible image as I over exposed the image (sure…NOW the sun comes out!) and was too far away to gain proper focus. I had to really crop the image for this photo, but it’s the only one I have. After 1 click he was back in the brush again, never to be seen again.
It was a long walk back to the cars after missing the bobcat. In fact, it seem to take 3 times as long getting back to the cars than it did to find the Ani, even with Google Donna leading us astray.
I’m looking forward to when the trails around Lake Apopka are opened for vehicle traffic and you will be able to see more of the thousands of acres than you can on foot. Lake Apopka is coming back and the recreation areas surrounding it will one day be a major destination for birding and wildlife enthusiasts.