By Deborah Green, Past President, Orange Audubon Society
Sometimes birds just need a lucky break, and Audubon Florida works with local Audubon chapters to save Florida's special places and protect our birds. For years around Lake Apopka, farmers and others sent nutrient-rich water into the lake, polluting what was once a world-class bass fishing destination. Hoping to reverse that trend, the St. Johns River Water Management District bought this land and began a restoration project that would benefit birds and wildlife as well as the local economy. The 20,000-acre former agricultural area is now a mecca for birds and, of course, birders.
Black-necked Stilts and many other wetland species breed at Lake Apopka North Shore. Ponds host thousands of Ring-necked Ducks, other overwintering waterfowl, and year-round Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. A pair of Groove-billed Anis, Southwestern birds, has been seen for three years near the Clay Island overlook.
In the fall, high Arctic shorebirds on their way to South America stopover in an area called the sod fields. After Hurricane Matthew, Buff-breasted and Stilt Sandpipers stayed a few days and Pectoral Sandpipers hung around a little longer before flying south. Northern Harriers and other raptors, alligators, otters, and bobcats also call the area home. As of March 2017, 369 unique species were recorded, more than any other inland site in the U.S.
In 2012, Orange Audubon Society helped launch the Lake Apopka Wildlife Festival and Birdapalooza, a free festival introducing the community to the wonders of the Lake Apopka North Shore. Responding to constant requests for access, the District opened the popular Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive in 2015. This 11-mile drive allows viewing and photography from the comfort of a car. The District also opened an 18-mile hiking/biking trail along the lake’s shore, in cooperation with Orange and Lake Counties. Although only open Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and federal holidays, the Drive has been used by more than 130,000 visitors since opening two years ago and brought a substantial boost to the local economy.
With the help of two collaborative grants from Audubon Florida, Orange Audubon Society, working with Orange County, has installed interpretive kiosks along both the drive and the trail. Starting in 2017, Orange Audubon Society added a four-day Birding Festival to Birdapalooza (January 18-21, 2018) with guided access into areas where driving is normally prohibited. Lake Apopka truly is a conservation success story, and the birds and birders here demonstrate that restoration and recreation can go hand-in-hand.
To learn more about Birdapalooza and birding at Lake Apopka, visit birdapalooza.com.