In these COVID times there are few things you can do that feel safe. Watching the birds has become one of our go to activities. We've never been all that interested in bird watching, because where we come from most of the are small, brown, and hard to see. But the quantity and variety of birds here in Florida is amazing. This time of year the ones that live here full time are supplemented by the ones like us passing through and trying to stay warm, resulting in a variety and quantity that never ceases to amaze.
We'd never been on the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, because it is a distance from where we are camped, but it was well worth the trip. Central Florida abounds with wetlands managed by the St. Johns River Water Management District and the way they are managed provides for an ideal habitat for both the birds and other creatures who live on or in the water. Before World War II the land we drove on today was underwater flood plain, but during the war farmers drained 20,000 acres of wetlands and the resulting agricultural run-off contributed to the lake's eventual decline. Lake Apopka, the state's 4th largest, was once a world-class bass fishery, but impacts on the lake over many decades led to it being named Florida's most polluted lake. Pesticides, fertilizers, and treated wastewater discharges flowed in and the nutrients, primarily phosphorus, and caused chronic algal bloom turning the lake's water pea green. The soupy mess did not allow enough light to reach the plants that lived in the bottom of the lake and after the plants disappeared, so did the bass and dozens of bass camps closed their doors.
Today a large pump house originally used by farmers to drain the land and make it possible to farm, is pumping water back in and also adding alum to the water which chemically binds to the phosphorus and prevents algal growth. Another cleansing technique is to remove one million pounds of gizzard shad fish annually. These fish thrive in heavily polluted lakes and removing their bodies reduces the chemical nutrients in the lake. Initially the water management folks introduced plants that also help to filter the water, but as the water quality has improved, native species and the animals that live among them return in ever greater numbers. All in all it is a success story, but few people can make a living based on people like us driving around in their cars taking photographs, and currently the area is economically depressed, even before COVID.
On drives like today's it can be frustrating when the birds are so far away or so immersed in vegetation that you can hardly see them, but today there were so many birds so close by and so unafraid of us, it was a Garden of Eden experience. And of course, there was no missing the gators, who climbed up the berms to relax in the warm sunshine. Much of the drive was on dikes that had originally been built by the farmers. The narrow road meant that we often could not pass one another, and with a 10mph speed limit the 11-mile drive took us three hours, because there were so many reasons to stop. No masks required.