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A wetland grows in Orlando

April 15, 2011
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Birders love sewage treatment facilities because birds love sewage treatment facilities.  It’s no coincidence that what is generously and euphemistically referred to in the city planning field  as “wastewater treatment” is so attractive to birds.  For starters, “water” is generally a good start.  Wet habitats offer more diversity than dry ones and second, the breakdown of crap, and let’s face it that’s what we’re dealing with here, offers lots of opportunities for microbe growth of the sort that provides the foundation of any functional marsh.  Whether it’s human waste or decomposing plants, mix it with water and time and you’ve got something special.  For birds at least.

Florida has taken this one step further. Instead of a concrete lined grid of drying pools, many counties in Florida have taken advantage of their native wetlands’ proven water filtration proficiency and created artificial facilities that reclaim water in a mostly natural manner.  So after the initial chemical treatment, the water is pumped into massive vegetative ponds where it will cycle  over multiple months to years until finally flowing naturally back into the aquifer clean as a whistle.  These artificial ponds offer other advantages as well.  To birds obviously, but to local communities looking to make a few bucks off the people who will come to look at or shoot them.  How often do you have a poop processor that can legitimately be referred to as an eco-tourism destination?   Nowhere but Florida, where they literally turn shit into money. I’m talking about their forward thinking wastewater policies, of course, but honestly, if there’s a better metaphor for the whole Disney “experience” I haven’t heard it.

Anyway, studiously avoiding the Mouse and his minions, I took in one such amazing wetland/sewage plant at Orlando Wetland Park, located in eastern Orange County about halfway between Orlando and the coast.  It’s sort of amazing that the city of Orlando pipes its raw sewage so far away from the city center but given the sprawl in the city it’s easy to imagine that they felt sticking it out near the little town of Christmas would be easier than trying to convince anyone nearby to tolerate it.  It’s for the better for the birder, I imagine, to be out away from civilization, but as Florida is already crawling with birds the the difference is merely one of degree.  In any case, from the moment I walked out on the dykes I knew I was in for something great.

Blue-winged Teal were really the only waterfowl left by mid-March, but rumor has it that winter is prime time for both numbers and diversity of waterfowl here.  Too bad it’s closed for the hunters half the year.

I found Tricolored Herons to be the most difficult of the waders to photograph.  Go figure. They wouldn’t let me get as close as the other species, but I was pretty happy with this bird in the perfect morning light.

While walking the levees listening for rails I came across a pair of River Otters who seemed both surprised that I had stumbled upon their patch of wetland and frustrated that I wouldn’t leave.

And as for the rails, I had three species.  Both King and Clapper were vocalizing in the morning, frustratingly resisting any effort to tape them out.   This was especially bothersome with the King Rail, which was the only real shot for a lifer I had on the entire trip.  As such, it goes to the provisional list with the other birds I’ve only heard but never seen.

But I did get to actually see those little marsh ghosts, however, and I saw two Sora (one well), working the edges of the marshier impoundments.  Their whinny was a constant background noise and it was nice to be able to put some glass to them instead of just getting skunked over and over which would characterize nearly every other experience I’ve had with rails.

It’s not Florida without Alligators.  I found one largish individual surrounded by foot long hatchlings.  Truth told, I was surprised I didn’t see more here.

Best birds of the day were the Bitterns.  I had a Least fly over some cattails and duck into a dense stand never to be seen again, and I flushed an American that did much the same, but slower.  I was content with that, seeing Bitterns is a treat no matter how poor the view, but a hunting American Bittern on my way out provided a seriously cool way to close out the morning.

But I wasn’t done.  I had a car for several more hours and I was going to make the most of it.  I didn’t have a strict schedule, but I had a feeling heading east was an idea with some Merritt.

More to come.

3 Comments
  1. April 15, 2011 7:23 pm

    I love the Orlando Wetlands! I was there last month and got a brief look at two large river otters crossing a path just by the main entrance. We also got some good looks at a Purple Gallinule and several Limpkins–I hope you got to see some of those. I actually prefer the Orlando Wetlands to the better-known Viera Wetlands down the road. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Nate permalink*
    April 18, 2011 1:27 pm

    @Felicia- I saw several Limpkins but sadly no Purple Gallinules. That was the one Florida bird I didn’t get to see that I would have liked a look at.

    And having been to both Viera and Orlando Wetlands, I absolutely concur with your assessment. If it hadn’t been for the nice run of rarities that Viera had I think Orlando would be better known. That and the fact that Orlando is closed during the winter for hunters.

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