Birding the Byway
by: Gallus Quigley, Jr.
The Green Mountain Scenic Byway offers visiting birders many great parks and preserves to stop and enjoy some birding.
Oakland Nature Preserve in the Town of Oakland with it’s nearly mile long boardwalk terminating at Lake Apopka and extensive trail through a variety of habitats has over 150 birds documented is a great spot to spend a few hours. In winter it is one of the best local spots for Painted Buntings which regularly come to the feeders near the Nature Center.
As one travels north on the byway a short jog off into Town of Montverde one can go to Truskett Park, do not let its size fool you, the short boardwalk leading out into Lake Apopka under a pavilion is great in winter to scan the lake for gulls, terns, ducks, and raptors, while the trees often yield many passerines including Baltimore Oriole and Yellow-throated Warbler.
Continuing on north to the community of Ferndale one can stop at Ferndale Preserve, located on the western shore of Lake Apopka its topography provides stunning vistas of the lake and downtown Orlando on clear days, not to mention the more than 190 species of birds documented at the preserve. Fall migration can bring in numerous warblers, tanagers, buntings and cuckoos and in winter sparrows abound with up to 12 species possible! The preserve is known to turn up rarities such as Canada Warbler, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Philadelphia Vireo. Check out Lake County Parks & Trails for guided hikes and Bird & Butterfly Surveys which are all free to attend.
Continuing north on CR 455 one comes to the Green Mountain Scenic Overlook & Trailhead with amazing views of the north shore and the western trailhead to the Lake Apopka Loop Trail which traverses 18 miles of the Lake Apopka North Shore ending at Magnolia Park Orange County. Birding here can be spectacular especially in fall when early morning flights of warblers and other nocturnal migrants may number in the hundreds, as the day warms raptors dominate the skies, in late July numerous Swallow-tailed Kites may be seen as they prepare to move south. Check out Lake County Parks & Trails for guided hikes and Bird & Butterfly Surveys which are all free to attend.
After passing through Astatula along County Road 48 there are wet fields at the intersection Ranch Rd and County Road 48 that often hold numerous wading birds and in winter Wilson’s Snipe and American Pipits often occur in large numbers. Turning on to Ranch Rd. watch the fields for birds, a Say’s Phoebe turned up here for 6 straight years!
Once you arrive at the Clay Island Trailhead off Caroline Ave. look for migratory warblers in season and in winter Painted Bunting, Northern Waterthrush, Swamp Sparrow, and rare Lincoln’s Sparrow. The trailhead has held rarities like Wilson’s Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat in winter, hiking the levies watch for wading birds, bitterns and rails, in late July hundreds of Swallow-tailed Kites may occur and listen for singing Orchard Orioles and Blue Grosbeaks. From here one can hike or bike either the Clay Island Loop Trail which has 4 observation towers including one on Lake Apopka or follow the Lake Apopka Loop Trail towards the North Shore Trailhead and Magnolia Park.
Continuing your trek along County Road 48 make the right at the stop sign onto County Road 448A which dead ends at the North Shore Trailhead and McDonald Canal Boat Ramp. This trailhead is the gateway to the Lake Apopka North Shore. The North Shore has had over 367 species of birds observed and is by far one of the best birding hotspots in North America. This location is a rare bird magnet with species like Vermillion Flycatcher, Groove-billed Ani, Brown-crested & Ash-throated Flycatcher, Nashville Warbler, Short-eared Owl and Eurasian Kestrel among the notables. Early mornings in the right season will get you King and Virginia Rails, Least and American Bitterns, Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-duck and maybe even a Snail Kite among the numerous raptors that are often found, especially in winter. Hiking the marshes the open water areas will yield numerous species of ducks and shorebirds at the right time of year and a lucky few may even see Whooping Crane among the sometimes massive numbers of migratory Sandhill Crane. At the McDonald Canal Boat Ramp check the brushy vegetation in winter for White-crowned, Field, Grasshopper, and other sparrows, Painted Buntings and other secretive passerines. Bring your bike and biking the levies of the Lake Apopka Loop Trail or your canoe or kayak and paddle the Apopka-Beauclair Canal from the ADA paddle launch at McDonald Canal This location is also the focal point for the North Shore Birding Festival run by Orange Audubon Society each January.
Returning to the byway and County Road 448A/County Road 48 one can take a slight detour to Lake Jem Park & Boat Ramp which is only 14 acres but a good December morning may yield 50 species before 11:00AM and is very reliable for Barred Owls.
Now continuing into City of Mount Dora, several of the downtown parks including, Palm Island and Gilbert Parks that offer opportunities to scan Lake Dora for ducks, terns, gulls, pelicans, and wading birds depending on season, as well as migratory and resident passerines along the wooded shorelines.
These are but a few of the places to stop and enjoy “Birding Along the Byway” and there are many online resources to find and check out other locations.
Other ideas are a short detour up Sugarloaf Mountain Road to the highest point in peninsular Florida at 312’ or a quick run over to Scrub Jay Lane for Florida Scrub-jay or a scan of the winter Kingbird Roost for the occasional Scissor-tailed Flycatcher might be in order.
Gallus Quigley is a long time Florida birder and has completed 2 local Big Years, leads trips for several local festivals and has been on Birding Adventures with James Currie. He works for Lake County Office of Parks & Trails and runs Archaeopteryx Birding & Nature Tours with his wife Rebecca Smith.