Important Bird Areas

Lake Apopka Restoration Area

Florida

*Waterbird species populations not accepted as high enough to meet A4i criteria, based on 28Feb03 review.

In east-central Lake County and west-central Orange County, comprising the entire northern shoreline of Lake Apopka, north to DudaJones Road, and south to include all of Clay Island on the lake's northwestern shore.

Former marshland diked off from Lake Apopka, the third-largest lake in Florida, and converted to vegetable farms in the early to mid1900s. Most of the soils are rich muck, derived from drained peat. Public acquisition of the farms began in 1988 to begin clean-up of Lake ApopkaFlorida's most polluted lakeafter decades of abuse by the agricultural industry. Most acquisitions were completed in 19992000, when 13,000 acres (5261 hectares) of farmland were purchased for more than $100 million. Former agricultural fields have lain fallow and unflooded since February 1999. West of ApopkaBeauclair Canal, an additional 6000 acres (2428 hectares) are being converted to a Marsh Flow-Way to filter phosphorus and suspended sediments from Lake Apopka. Original natural habitats are limited largely to remnant patches along the boundaries of the property. The Restoration Area currently is off-limits to the public, but the area attracted large numbers of birders in the pastand presumably will again in the future. The site previously was known informally as the Zellwood muck farms.

Ornithological Summary

An exceptional diversity of species occur onsite, as shallowly flooded fields attracted large numbers of migratory shorebirds, wintering waterfowl and shorebirds, and resident wading birds. Fragments of remaining forests support numerous Neotropical migrant species. One or two groups of Florida Scrub-Jays occur along the western boundary of the Restoration Area. Part of the site had been one of the most popular birding spots in Florida from the early 1960s until late 1998, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service closed to the area to public access while conducting a criminal investigation. Extensive, twice-weekly surveys by Harry Robinson have been conducted since August 1998 and have greatly improved our knowledge of the bird diversity onsite. Through 27 May 2002, Robinson has completed 381 surveys of the Restoration Area, and personally has observed 306 species (297 natives and 9 exotics) in the easternmost 8000 acres (3200 hectares). Among these have been several record Florida high counts, the first state record of Rough-legged Hawk, and the state's first breeding record of Dickcissels +(Pranty et al. 2002).

Conservation Issues

*altered hydrology (deep-flooding of the fields), *pesticide residues in the soil, exotic plants

Pesticide residues present in the soils apparently caused a die-off of large fish-eating birds (500 onsite and perhaps a similar number offsite), mostly American White Pelicans, beginning in November 1998 +(USFWS 1999a, +Pranty and Basili 1999). All fields were drained by February 1999 and have remained unflooded. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting an investigation of the die-off. It is anticipated that the pesticide residues eventually will be removed or will dissipate, and the area can again be managed for wading birds, waterfowl, shorebirds, and numerous other species. ? Extensive soil sampling was conducted in summer 1999 to determine the extent and severity of the pesticide residues present. Management plans to flood portions of the area for shorebirds and other species have been put on hold until results of the sampling are known. ? A Marsh Flow-Way is being constructed in the westernmost 5000 acres (2023 hectares) to filter phosphorus and suspended sediments from Lake Apopka. It is expected to be operational in 2003. ? The initial management plan, to reconnect the fields to Lake Apopka by breaching selected dikes and levees, would have flooded the fields with more than 4 feet (1.2 m) of water. This would have eliminated all bird foraging and roosting habitats onsite. The revised management plan, prepared by the Florida Audubon Society +(Pranty and Basili 1998) and embraced in concept by the St. Johns River Water Management District and Natural Resource Conservation Service, includes managing at least 2000 acres (809 hectares) as shallowly flooded fields to support migratory shorebirds, wintering waterfowl and other species, and resident wading birds. The restoration effort is expected to continue for 25?50 years. ? A small pasture in the extreme western portion of the Area is being restored to longleaf pines.

Hunting, dogs, airboats, and other sour

Ownership

St. Johns River Water Management District; the Natural Resources Conservation Service holds a 30-year easement over part of the area.

Habitat

*freshwater marsh, *oldfields (former agricultural fields), pine flatwoods, temperate hammock, xeric oak scrub, sod farm, fields, bayhead, lacustrine

Land Use

*conservation, *marsh filtering system, recreation, sod farm