A day at Myakka River State Park

A group of white pelicans parades by at Myakka River State Park.

A sandhill crane feeds at the Celery Fields. The scene is sedate beauty personified.

A great egret takes a bath at Myakka River State Park.

A grackle calls from a tree at Myakka River State Park. Note the way the play of light creates different colors on its body.

A female boat-tailed grackle in the water at Myakka River State Park.

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Myakka River State Park is one of the state’s oldest and largest parks at 37,000 acres. It has enough to do all day as the park features a tram ride, an airboat ride, a birdwalk, a weir and some picnic tables near Upper Myakka Lake where, on a cloudy March day, my wife, two friends and I watched a multitude of avian life.

As we board the tram ride, an osprey holding a fish in its claws flies over some tall trees. Perched in one of them is a great egret. The tall, stately white bird stands motionless. Along the tram trail we see an osprey in a tree with a fish draped across a branch. Is this the same one we saw earlier?

Adjacent to the parking lot is a grassy area where there are some picnic benches that overlook the lake where airboats go out. There are at least 120 white pelicans, winter visitors to Florida, in the water in a few tightly packed groupings. As we are about to eat lunch one of those massed groups starts to come by, moving with synchronized precision.

These birds are collective hunters, herding fish to shallow water where they feed on them with their enormous orange bills. I’m fascinated as I’ve only read about this behavior before and not witnessed it in numbers of this size. They again come by slowly, but like a parade are soon out of sight. My wife admires how they seem to glide and gracefully turn in another direction. For her they are peaceful. For both of us, they alone make the drive here worthwhile.

As we are about to bite into sandwiches, five black-necked stilts fly in close to shore. These are 14-inch elegant birds with long, pencil-thin red legs and a curved black and white body design. I’ve never gotten as close to these birds as I’d like to, and this seems like the right moment. As I get up, two fly and the others follow.

However there’s a consolation prize. It’s a yellowlegs that’s walking in and around clumps of grass in the water. These sandpipers are so named because of their yellow legs, and this one appears to be a lesser yellowlegs because it doesn’t have a slight upturned curved bill, as do the greater yellowlegs. A friend of mine thinks that they are sedately beautiful birds. I note the brown pattern on its back and the feeling of calm that it brings.

Some boat-tailed grackles are here. The males are large and iridescent black with a long broad tail that resembles an oar. The females are smaller, tawny and lean like greyhounds. When they are in a group there’s something Shakespearean about them.

By now the sun is out and there’s a mystery in the water. There are a number of coots, black duck-like swimmers with white bills and ruby-colored eyes. They are quintessential Florida birds and are sometimes nicknamed “mud hens.” One appears to have a stick in its bill that is trailing in the water. This can’t be nest material or is it? I watch for a while and see one submerge its head and come up with some aquatic vegetation. Partially obscured in a tree near our table to which I’ve returned is a male boat-tailed grackle. It’s calling and stays still while I take a few photos, one showing its clearly open bill. I could stay here all afternoon but we’ve got the airboat ride coming up soon.

As the airboat is preparing to depart, a glossy ibis is feeding nearby. Its long down-curved bill probes the sand below the water for tiny shells. If the day was really sunny the bird’s brick red color and iridescence would show but today it looks uncharacteristically dull.

Out on the boat I’m impressed with the captain’s intimate knowledge of the lake and its wildlife, as I always am. It makes the trip more than just a pleasurable ride. Some white pelicans come flying overhead, their huge wingspans showing black at the tips. On the far shore an alligator slides into the water while others remain on shore snoozing. One has its jaws wide open showing a pink mouth and those teeth. How’d you like to be its dentist?

Out at the birdwalk a bald eagle flies by. In the grass are five sandhill cranes, large gray birds with tiny heads that have red crowns. These stately birds go back in the fossil record 2.5 million years, much longer than most other birds. For me, that puts them on a pedestal. There is also a very large feral pig that we see at some distance.

We go back to the parking lot and out to the weir, a small dam where the lowering sun falls on two birds. A great blue heron stands close to the walkout, its body still while it looks straight ahead, somehow looking so alive in its stillness. The scene resembles an outdoor museum. Nearby a white ibis probes the water with its long, down-curved, Lifebuoy-colored bill making concentric circles in the water. Watching those circles I start to feel mellow. It’s a sedate way to end our full day at Myakka River.

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1 Response for “A day at Myakka River State Park”

  1. Jeff Smith says:

    When my son and I (from eastern Tennessee!) visited Myaka River State Park last year, we kept seeing some sort of creatures sticking out of the water what looked like black skinny necks that had to be at least 10-12 inches long, slightly curved but sticking straight up out of the water, but we could never see any of their bodies, and then it would slide down into the water and we wouldn’t see it again until it popped up somewhere else. Any idea what these were? We thought maybe they were birds diving for food, but like I said we could never see a body — nothing other than the skinny neck-like things that would pop up from the water, stay there poking up for like 30 seconds, then recede back into the water. Were they snakes?

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