Saturday, April 25, 2009

River Lakes Conservation Area, Moccasin Island Tract Field Trip

If you’ve followed our previous posts, you’ve driven through the Viera Wetlands and perhaps strolled around Click Ponds - fun, convenient, and nearly instant gratification. The third leg of this adventure will make you work a little harder. Moccasin Island Tract is about 4 miles past Viera Wetlands and Click Ponds. You’ll drive west along a washboard road to reach a parking area, and from there, you will either walk, bicycle, or ride your horse along one of two trails. Your eventual destination is the St. Johns River and Lake Winder.

First, some history. Sometimes we tend to take our rivers and lakes for granted. Fortunately, organizations like the St. Johns River Water Management District take a more proactive approach. The District owns about half a million acres, and 98% of it is open to the public.

The River Lakes Conservation Area is District land. It comprises 36,156 acres in Brevard and Osceola counties and includes 14,000 acres the District bought from The Viera Company several years ago. The Moccasin Island Tract was part of that acquisition. The St. Johns River flows north, and as it makes its way through Brevard County, it forms lakes on its path, including Lake Hell ‘n’ Blazes, Sawgrass Lake, Lake Washington, Lake Poinsett, and our eventual destination, Lake Winder. (As I was researching this post, I got totally enamored of the river, nearly forgetting that my goal was to tell you about Moccasin Island Tract. There are references in the Links section that will take you to more river information.)

The How To Get There section of this post gives detailed instructions on how to get on the 3.5 mile road that will take you to the Moccasin Island Tract parking pasture. Driving down the washboard road, you’re riding alongside Duda Ranch property, and you’ll notice signs that tell you not to stop on the road. Pay attention. If you stop, somebody in a Duda Company truck will probably come along and ask you to keep moving. Also, be advised that offroad vehicles (including motorcycles and all-terrain or track vehicles) are not allowed on the property.

North Trail Gate, South Trail Gate, and Information Kiosk

Two trails lead from the parking lot. The north trail is 2.5 miles long and ends in a picnic shelter overlooking Lake Winder. The south trail is 2.6 miles long and ends in a 2-mile loop trail and a marshy area with a shelter. According to friend Wayne, an avid bicyclist, the trails are hard-packed short grass, basically tracks made by various authorized vehicles. A wide-tire bike is best, but a narrow-tire bike should have no trouble--might take more energy pedaling.

The River Lakes Conservation Area is home to variety of birds and critters, including gopher tortoise, Florida softshell turtles, wood storks, bald eagles, crested caracara, roseate spoonbills, sandhill cranes, white tailed deer, wild hog, and wild turkey. There are rumors of a nest of burrowing owls, but I don’t know anybody that has seen it. When Charlie Corbeil took me on a “recon” trip, we saw this beautiful red rat snake.

As always, many thanks to Wayne Matchett for sharing his biking adventure and photos with us. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Just the Facts
River Lakes Conservation Area
Moccasin Island Tract

"BIG PICTURE" LOCATION: Central Brevard, Mainland, Viera

WHEN TO GO: Seven days a week. The gate opens at 7:00 a.m. and closes at 7:00 p.m. You don’t want to get locked in there. Remember that it is going to be hot, hot, hot on those trails in the summer, so act accordingly.

HOW TO GET THERE: See the map and directions in the Viera Wetlands post (April 4 post). When you see the Road Ends sign, just before the South Central Water Reclamation Facility, make a right turn and then an immediate left turn. This puts you on a limerock road that ends in a parking lot at the River Lakes Conservation Area, Moccasin Island Tract.

WHERE TO PARK: Anywhere in the parking area.

WHAT TO WEAR: As you can tell from the parking pasture photo, this is Florida wild country – wear sturdy shoes, and remember your sunscreen, water, and mosquito repellant. Particularly remember to bring plenty of water – this is no place to get dehydrated.

PHYSICAL CONSTRAINTS: You need to be pretty hale and hardy for this adventure. No portolets, either!

HOW LONG TO STAY: In Wayne’s words: I rode the 2.5-mile north trail, which took about 1 hour out and about 45 min. back. As usual, I poked along taking pictures and checking out the flora and fauna. It was easy going with my wife's off-road bike. I probably got up to 5 mph at times. The point here is not speed. Take your time and smell the cow pies. Speaking of which, at one stop I didn't notice what I was doing and stepped off my bike into a very fresh cow pie.

The south trail is longer – 2.6 miles, then a 2-mile loop through an oak hammock that Wayne says is more interesting and shadier.

WHAT TO DO: Hike, bicycle, or horseback ride through one or both of the trails. At the end of the north trail, there is a picnic shelter overlooking Lake Winder. At the end of the south trail, there is a picnic shelter overlooking the St. Johns river.

BRING MONEY? No, this is FREE!

WHERE TO EAT AFTERWARDS: See the Viera Wetlands post for recommendations, or drive down Wickham Road to the Pineda Causeway. There is a little restaurant called Grecian Garden in the strip shopping center on the corner of Wickham and Pineda Causeway (lots of construction there – be careful) that has good food and great rice pudding.

HOW TO HELP: As always, don’t speed, don’t annoy the cows or the wildlife, and don’t litter. Pay attention to signs that say don’t enter. Don’t stop on the 3.5 mile road driving in, and don’t be late getting out.

NOTE: This area is surrounded by Wildlife Management Areas, so use caution during hunting season. Indeed, you’ll see a sign to that effect at the entrance to the north trail.

St. Johns River Water Management District
St. Johns River History
River Lakes Conservation Area Recreation Guide
River Lakes Conservation Area Management Plan

A LITTLE EXTRA: Thanks to Wayne's photos, there is a Moccasin Island Tract slideshow in the right-hand column of this blog

Near the observation tower on the north trail, a 2.5 mile agricultural dike built in the 1950s is being leveled. This will eventually result in reflooding of about 2,900 acres of marsh, much to the delight of fishermen (it will also serve as a water treatment area). This effort just started, so we’ll keep you updated with progress.

July 2011 update: A reader contacted me to see if dogs were permitted at Moccasin Island Tract. I checked with Charlie Corbeil, and he said dogs on a leash are allowed. Be a little careful - according to a recent story in Florida Today, a fellow picked up a palm frond and was bitten by the pigmy rattler hiding underneath. And of course, take plenty of water for your canine friend as well as for yourself.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Seen at Viera Wetlands and Click Ponds

The Viera Wetland roads were closed for a few days so that County workers could smooth out the potholes, but the weather has been lovely and people have walked the dike roads instead of driving them. Friend Wayne snapped this photo on a recent visit. I like what appears to be a man and a bird having a conversation, although Wayne tells me that's just my over-active imagination kicking in.
Our recent posts have been pretty wordy, so I thought you might enjoy these photos of some of the residents at the Wetlands and nearby Click Ponds.

This is a young Crested Caracara - one of a family in residence this year at the Wetlands. Wayne thought perhaps the parents and sibling had deserted this little fellow, but after a few days of investigation, he located the other family members. The Caracara is the national bird of Mexico, and I've always thought that little black hat and beady-eyed stare had a definite Latin look! Caracaras are frequently seen walking and running on the ground. Or like this one, waiting for somebody to pick him up after basketball practice! (Doesn't he look just like a teenager waiting for Mom? I assume he knows how to roll his eyes and sigh.) Be sure to click to enlarge the photos - they really show this little guy's personality.

You'll frequently see the adult Anhingas drying their wings in the sun - these birds do not come equipped with the standard oil gland that birds use to waterproof their feathers. Anhingas swim mostly below water, sticking just that long neck and head out (earning them the nickname of snake bird), and thus lose a lot of body heat. Cornell ornithologists maintain that the Anhinga basks in the sun primarily to regulate its body temperature, not just to dry its feathers. The male Anhinga is black with beautiful silver patches on its wings. The female has a brown head and neck and no bling (go figure). The above photo shows the Anhinga's sharp, pointed beak that allows it to spear fish.

It's easy to confuse the Cormorant and the Anhinga. They are about the same size - approximately two feet long, with a wingspan of about four feet. The Pelican, Cormorant, and Anhinga are related, and all have four webbed toes (instead of three like other waterbirds). The Cormorant (shown above) has dark brown or black feathers, a hooked bill, and an orange throat pouch. You can see the hooked bill in this photo - that bill feature dictates how it obtains its food. It dives for fish from the water's surface, flips the fish in the air, and swallows it head-first.
(Here's a trick to remember which is which - the Cormorant's bill has a hook, like a C. The Anhinga bill is straight, like the side of an A.)
This is just a small sample of what you might see during your field trip to Viera Wetlands and Click Ponds, so grab your cameras and head on out there!
As always, our thanks to Wayne Matchett for sharing his photos and his expertise. (Be sure to click on the photos to enlarge.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Joyous Easter

May the joy and promise of Spring and Easter be yours.
(Photo by Jim Angy)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Dan Click Ponds Field Trip (Near Viera Wetlands)

Click Ponds, Viera Wetlands (previous post), and River Lakes Conservation Area Moccasin Island Tract (next post) are near each other. You can visit all three in one "recon" trip if you wish.

After Charlie Corbeil and I finished our drive through the Viera Wetlands, we took a side trip to Dan "Click" Ponds (usually just called Click Ponds). These ponds are very near the entrance to the Water Reclamation Facility we told you about in the Viera Wetlands field trip report, and you'll want to include a visit to them in your trip to the Wetlands. (There are no entrance signs, but I've included detailed directions and photos in the Just the Facts section of this post.)
Like the Viera Wetlands, the Click Ponds are a part of the South Central Regional Wastewater System, and likewise serve as home to lots of birds and critters. According to Charlie, they are particularly enticing to birds when the water level is drawn down. As with the Wetlands, you can drive along the berms and take photos from your car, or you can hike or bicycle.
Mostly, I was curious about the name and the history. Jim Angy told me Dan Click was a long-time local birder, so through the wonders of the Internet and the Audubon Society on-line newsletter, I found an email address for Dan and sent him an inquiry. I received a delightful, detailed response that he said I could share with you. In Dan' words: The South Central Regional wastewater system extends from west Cocoa south to Post Road. It was established in the late 1980’s and its centerpiece, the regional treatment plant, was dedicated in August 1990. At that time, the principal means of disposal of the treated effluent was irrigation of the nearby Duda sod fields. The sod watering schedule, dependent on planting cycles and weather, differed greatly from the rate of flow through the plant; this made daily and seasonal effluent storage necessary. That was the original purpose of the ponds.

As the Viera area has grown, the use of reclaimed water for irrigation within the community has replaced the original agricultural application. The function of the ponds remains storage, but the destination of the water is now lawns and landscaping, usually after passing back through the plant or the wetlands. The wetlands system was not part of the original construction; it was added about ten years later when the plant capacity was expanded.

Soon after the ponds were filled – becoming the only open water for miles around – they began to attract lots of birds, particularly migrants and wintering waterfowl. I was the project manager for the South Central regional system, working in the Brevard office of a large engineering firm. Also, as you have noted, I am an active birder. I and others prevailed on the County to allow public access to the pond site. We were successful and the site became very popular, first with the local birding community and gradually with others around the state.
With charming, self-deprecating humor, Dan says that several years ago, his birding friends starting referring to the ponds as Click Ponds, and the name stuck. After he left private engineering work, he worked for Brevard County in Parks and Recreation and then in the Utility Services Department until retiring in 2008. Dan says that sometime around Christmas of 2007, The South Central plant staff, realizing the association between me and the birders’ name for their ponds, took it upon themselves to install the sign along the entrance drive. Little did they know that for years, I have threatened bodily harm to anyone doing so!
For you birders, walkers, hikers, and bikers, Click Ponds are a "hidden jewel." For me, learning about them was an introduction to another Conservation Hero!

Just the Facts
Click Ponds

"BIG PICTURE" LOCATION: Central Brevard, Mainland, Viera
WHEN TO GO: Sunrise to sunset, seven days a week

HOW TO GET THERE: See the map and directions in the Viera Wetlands post. When you see the Road Ends sign, turn right onto the dirt road alongside the power lines. After about 50 feet, turn left onto the dirt Four Mile Road. Go another 50 feet, take the first right, and go through the gate. "Click" on the photos to enlarge (pun intended - sorry). And you thought I was kidding when I said "hidden jewel!"
WHERE TO PARK: There is no parking lot, but you can pull over on the berm.
WHAT TO WEAR: As with the Wetlands, you can take photos from the comfort of your car, but if you wish to experience nature more intimately, wear comfortable shoes and remember your sunscreen, water, and mosquito repellant.
PHYSICAL CONSTRAINTS: Since you can remain in your automobile and take pictures out the car window, there are no real physical constraints. There are no benches for sitting and no portolets.
HOW LONG TO STAY: It only takes about ten minutes to drive around the ponds, but you'll miss a lot if you don't linger and commune with nature a little.
WHAT TO DO: You can drive, walk, or bicycle. Of course, bring your camera.
TAKE MONEY? No, this is FREE!
WHERE TO EAT AFTERWARDS: See the Viera Wetlands post for recommendations.
HOW TO HELP: Don't speed, don't hog the berm road, don't annoy the wildlife, and don't litter.
A LITTLE EXTRA: Dan spoke of the nearby Duda sod field. The Duda Ranch in Brevard County is the parent property for the town of Viera.