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Glorious Day at the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Last Saturday was the textbook definition of a glorious day on the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive (LAWD).  I met my friend Michael and we spent the morning looking for birds.  Apparently, all the birds heard that the drive has re-opened, and they all flocked out to greet the returning photographers.  It was an incredible morning. From all the little birds at the Lust Gate entrance, to the close encounter with the Vermilion Flycatcher at the Crazy U, to the rare ducks along Welland…it took me about six hours to make it all the way through the drive, and I left with a card full of images and a huge smile on my face!

Lust Gate

The Lust Gate is one of the easiest places to miss great birds at the LAWD. When you first drive through, it doesn’t look like much.  Trees on either side.  A canal with maybe a wading bird or two.  But if you stop and spend a few minutes — or a few hours — standing and watching, the variety of little birds is great.  We started the morning looking for the Ash-throated Flycatcher, who frequents the trees on the north side of the gate.  Ashy didn’t show up right away, but this Cooper’s Hawk perched on the fence and showed off his backlit feathers…

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Next we headed to the field by the water treatment ponds to look for sparrows.  Michael was on a quest for his lifer Vesper Sparrow.  At first we stood talking, watching for the signs of little birds flitting from bush to bush.  Then it got really active, and we found not just the Vesper Sparrow, but a bunch of fun other birds who popped up to say good morning.

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Painted Bunting Greenie

Painted Bunting “Greenie”

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

House Wren

House Wren

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

It was fun to see the Prairie Warbler.  Although the Prairie Warbler winters in Florida, I don’t get to photograph them very often.  But my favorites overall were definitely the Painted Buntings.  The sun glistened on the greenie’s feathers making them shine almost blue.  Then as the icing on the cake, a male bunting flew in and posed for a few seconds.

Painted Bunting (Male)

Painted Bunting (Male)

As we were driving off, we spotted the Ash-throated Flycatcher flying along the opposite side of the canal.  He flew was in fly-catching mode, flitting from perch to perch as he searched for his breakfast bugs.  After chasing him back past the entrance gate, we finally got a few photos.

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher

The Crazy U

Our next big stop was the Crazy U (the strange jut in Lust Road where it intersects with Conrad Road).  This is where the female Vermilion Flycatcher has been spotted regularly since the LAWD was re-opened.  I’d seen the Vermilion on my previous two visits, but she always stayed really far away from the trail.  At that distance, she’s a white speck with a red tummy.  So on this visit, I was determined to wait her out and get better close-ups.  It took a while. At  first, the little birds put on a show for us in the nearby vegetation…

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Then a Merlin flew in and posed on the power line behind us.

Merlin

Merlin

It was a cold morning to begin with, and the breeze kicked up as stood and watched for the Vermilion.  Other birders came and went.  My feet started to get numb from the cold.  But we stayed and waited.  Then finally, Michael spotted her just in front of us!

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

Such a pretty bird. She doesn’t have the bright red “wow” factor of her male counterpart, but she’s very striking with her red tummy.  She came so close that I had trouble focusing on her! We watched her flit from branch to branch for a minute or two, then she headed back to her far-off spot.  Michael and I had the biggest grins on our faces.  Who cared about numb feet?  We got to see the Vermilion!

The Rest of the Drive

It was already pretty late in the morning when we said goodbye to the Vermilion Flycatcher.  I didn’t linger much on the rest of the drive.  But there’s always something great to see.  Like this Bald Eagle, who was dive-bombing an Osprey who happened to have a fish.  Why should an eagle catch a fish himself when he can steal it from an Osprey?

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

As I approached the pump house, a huge flock of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks suddenly took flight.  I don’t know what spooked them (perhaps a peregrine? or another eagle?). I’ve never seem them in such numbers.  There must have been at least two hundred birds in the air at once.  They flew restlessly over the marsh while I tried to find a spot to pull over and park.  Then I got to watch small groups of ducks fly overhead for a few minutes.

Fulvous Whistling-Ducks

Fulvous Whistling-Ducks

I found a Horned Grebe at the intersection of Welland Road and Roach Road.  It was the first time I’d seen a Horned Grebe at Lake Apopka before.  The bird was far out but you can’t miss that bright red eye.  Maybe this bird will stick around and let us watch the molt into breeding colors.  Their breeding colors are really neat.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

Finally on my way out I spotted this Bald Eagle on a telephone pole.  Not the best perch but still a magnificent bird.  What a fun end to a fantastic morning!

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

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Sunrise at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

It’s been a long time since I’ve visited Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.  I’ve gotten so spoiled having the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive in my own backyard that I’ve spent less time driving across the state.  But when I saw photos of beautiful Roseate Spoonbills in breeding plumage at MINWR, I knew it was time for a visit.  This was the only sunny morning of my Christmas vacation.  Boy was the sunrise light glorious!

Black Point Sunrise

Black Point Sunrise

My first bird of the morning was a male American Wigeon.  This is considered to be a “good” duck to photograph in Central Florida, not because it’s particularly rare, but because it’s not often close enough for a good photograph.  The sun wasn’t totally up yet when I spotted this wigeon dabbling in the shallow waters.

American Wigeon

American Wigeon

There were plenty of birds along Black Point, but most of them were either far away or in the afternoon side of the light.  I finally spotted some Spoonies as a group of them took flight.  I’m not sure what spooked them, but it startled a good flock of 20-30 of them.  The bad thing about a wildlife drive is that all the good action seems to happen while your hands are on the steering wheel.  By the time you can pull over, responsibly stop (yes, putting the car in park is a good idea!), and get the camera out, often the action is over.  In this case, the giant flock had settled, but stragglers flew overhead for another minute or so.  The light was still golden and it glistened beautifully on the pale pink of this juvenile bird:

Roseate Spoonbill in Flight

Roseate Spoonbill in Flight

Large flocks of American White Pelicans were feeding in the distance.  The wind was coming at the wrong direction for photography, causing most of the birds to fly away from me to land.  But a few birds decided to cooperate and gave me nice fly-bys.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

I walked up and down, watching for the spoonies, who had landed behind some clumps of mangroves.  When birds go down, they have to come up again…it just takes patience to wait.  While I waited, I saw this Tricolored Heron working his way up and down the mangroves, searching for breakfast.  He was starting to get into his breeding plumage.  His feathers were quite pretty in the early morning light.

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

I spotted a couple of Hooded Mergansers on nearby water.  The male startled and took flight, giving me some flight shot focusing practice.

Hooded Merganser in Flight

Hooded Merganser in Flight

Finally my patience paid off, and a couple of juvenile spoonies took flight and actually landed in a nearby pond.  They stood preening, and it took a few minutes to get one to pose for a portrait.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

I finally moved on, and I found a flock of Northern Pintails fairly close to the road.  These birds are usually best to photograph in the afternoon, when the light shines directly on them.  I did the best I could, basically shooting with harsh side light.  You can see why they are called pintails.  Look at the male’s pointy long tail.  The female is less distinctive but pretty in her own way.  It took a few minutes before they posed together, both looking at the camera. Most of the time they spent with their heads underwater and their tails in the air, dabbling for their breakfasts.

Northern Pintail Ducks (Male on Left, Female on Right)

Northern Pintail Ducks (Male on Left, Female on Right)

My last subject of the day wasn’t a bird.  As I was nearing the end of the drive, I noticed a bobcat crossing the trail.  Again, by the time I safely stopped the car and pulled out the camera, the cat had noticed me and was moving off.  I got a few frames on him before he disappeared.  It’s not every day that you see a bobcat!  Talk about incentive to return… :)

Bobcat

Bobcat

Golden Light but no Goldeneye

The Common Goldeneye duck is a rare winter visitor to Central Florida.  One has visited Sanford several winters in a row.  Her favorite pond is just a few minutes from Rich’s favorite Indian food restaurant, so it’s easy to twist his arm into accompanying me to visit the bird.  Our last trip coincided with a beautiful afternoon and gorgeous golden light.  The only problem?  No goldeneye!  Still, I spent a fun thirty minutes photographing the other ducks on the pond.

Hooded Mergansers (Female on Left, Juvenile Male on Right)

Hooded Mergansers (Female on Left, Juvenile Male on Right)

These Hooded Mergansers sparkled in the evening light.  The one on the left is a female Hoodie, and the one on the right is a juvenile male.  A single adult male hoodie was fishing at the very back of the pond during my entire visit.  He wasn’t very photogenic.  But the juvenile male gave me a nice wing-flap…

Hooded Merganser Wing-Flap

Hooded Merganser Wing-Flap

I was loving the afternoon light.  The sun sparkled on the birds’ feathers, and the pond glowed golden.  Even the common little Pied-billed Grebes who floated in front of me were beautiful.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

My favorite subjects of the afternoon were the Lesser Scaups.  Two males and a female worked their way back and forth across the pond.  I love how the males’ black feathers look green in the sun:

Lesser Scaups

Lesser Scaups

The female scaup swam right at me.  Her brown feathers were so pretty in the golden light.  My tummy rumbled and we headed off for dinner.  Since we didn’t get the goldeneye, Rich agrees we’ll have to go back! ;-)

Lesser Scaup (Female)

Lesser Scaup (Female)

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