|Oasis for birds: STA 5 is one of the best birding spots in all of South Florida.
Mark Kiser and Selena Kiser
Birder's World - http://www.birdersworld.com/brd/
At 9 a.m. our tour bus is rumbling down a dusty dirt road in the Everglades
Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee. A gorgeous day in May is already
unfolding, but typical for this time of year in South Florida, it's also hot and
muggy. The 10 of us, a mix of absolute beginners and veteran birders, are late
meeting the rest of our group after an unsuccessful detour for Barn Owls took
longer than expected.
Our trip leaders are already at the site, rapidly adding birds to the day's
checklist. On the bus with us is Steve Buczynski, a guide and president of the
Hendry-Glades Audubon chapter, who's getting us fired up about what we're
about to see.
Within a few minutes, we've rendezvoused with the rest of the group, and our
birding caravan of three cars and the bus is assembled. Margaret England,
secretary of Hendry-Glades Audubon and coordinator of all the guided tours
here, gives us a brief introduction, and we're on our way.
In short order, we've spied Caspian Tern, Common Yellow-throat, Least
Bittern, and Black-crowned Night-Heron, plus Florida Mottled Duck
(increasingly under threat from hybridization with domestic Mallards), Ring-
necked Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Mallard, and Wood Duck.
Later we spot a dozen Fulvous Whistling-Ducks and a lone Black-bellied. Not a
bad day for waterfowl, considering most of the 22 species of ducks and geese
recorded here migrated north months ago.
Vince Lucas, one of our tour leaders, a past president of the Caloosa Bird Club
and a co-compiler of the site's checklist, says that in winter, a thousand of
either species of whistling-duck is possible, as are thousands of other ducks
and 30,000 American Coots. Wetland species are the site's forte, but there's
so much more to see.
Legendary birding spots abound in southern Florida, but the relatively new
South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) property we're exploring is
fast becoming another of the region's star attractions. What makes it even
more notable is that it was built to protect another treasure, the Everglades.
You could say that Stormwater Treatment Area 5 saves two birds (thousands,
actually) with one stone.
If you haven't heard of Stormwater Treatment Area 5 yet, we're not surprised.
Informally known as STA 5, the 7,680-acre site is about 20 miles south of
Clewiston in rural eastern Hendry County. The site is fairly remote but a
relatively easy drive from Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach.
Sugarcane is king in Hendry County, but tourism officials and conservationists
are hoping more birders will visit and bring additional revenue. Several
outstanding birding locations are here but not many birders.
STA 5 was constructed 10 years ago on former agricultural fields, but birders
have had access only since fall 2004. It's not the most glamorous of names,
and as scenery goes, it's not the prettiest. But, oh, what a marvelous oasis
for birds! For the 2008 Great Backyard Bird Count, Clewiston and STA 5 had
the highest number of birds tallied in Florida (143,748), placing them in the top
10 localities overall in the United States and Canada. One of STA 5's daily
counts exceeded 43,000 birds.
Just what is a stormwater treatment area? STAs are specially constructed
wetlands on the northern edge of the Everglades Protection Area in Hendry
and Palm Beach Counties. Florida's Everglades Forever Act mandated six STAs
to keep excess nutrients such as phosphorous out of the Everglades
ecosystem by treating agricultural and urban runoff.
Too much phosphorous has caused numerous problems for the famous River of
Grass farther south. A prime example is the invasion by cattails that choke off
open sloughs and provide lower-quality wildlife habitat than sawgrass, the
dominant plant of the Everglades. Ironically, integral parts of STA vegetation
are aquatic plants chosen for their phosphorous-absorbing qualities--such as
naiad and cattail.
Just add water
Within two years of the construction of STA 5's wetlands, large numbers of
birds began flocking to the site. "Although it wasn't the primary purpose of our
project," says Bijaya "BJ" Kattel, senior recreation planner with SFWMD, "a
fringe benefit was the excellent habitat that was created as part of our
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began managing the site
for SFWMD as a Public Small Game Hunting Area, and "waterfowl hunters soon
claimed this was the best place in the country for ducks," says Kattel. "Now,
birders are telling me this is one of the best birding spots in all of South
The secret has slowly been getting out due in large part to Internet birding
listservs, and visitation by birders is on the increase.
What makes STA 5 so special? It's certainly not the amenities, as two porta-
johns at the entrance are all that is there. The artificial wetlands are simply a
major magnet for birds. The site consists primarily of four shallow-water cells,
each one mile wide, two miles long, and six inches to two feet deep. The cells
provide expansive stretches of open water interspersed with mudflats and
aquatic vegetation. Eighteen miles of levee roads surround the cells, providing
exceptional viewing opportunities. Except for the levees, water-control
structures, power lines, and the wide-open sky, it's just you and the wildlife.
The species found here are on many birders' must-see lists: Limpkin, Roseate
Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Bald Eagle, Snail Kite, Purple Gallinule, Black-necked
Stilt, and Sandhill Crane. In four years, volunteers have added 167 species to
STA 5's checklist, and the number is still climbing.
Birders have already logged 23 species of shorebirds, 17 species of raptors,
and 15 species of wading birds. Snail Kites were first seen here in 2006 and
were regulars in 2007. They were not as common in 2008 until later in the
year, when several showed up. Rarities have included Ruff, Cinnamon Teal,
Eurasian Wigeon, and in February 2008, an American (formerly Greater)
Flamingo. In addition, a lone Great White Heron (the white morph of the Great
Blue Heron) has taken up residence, delighting visitors for many months now.
In fact, the Great White Heron obliged our tour group by standing next to a
Great Egret, providing a perfect comparison for study. The vehicles stopped,
and out came a dozen scopes, quickly set up along the levee. We all had
excellent views, as Steve pointed out the differences between the two
handsome white waders. Our next stops produced a flock of 160 Black
Skimmers at rest on the mudflats and 35 Stilt Sandpipers feasting before their
long journey back north to the arctic. Near the conclusion of our visit, we
came across more than 100 feeding Roseate Spoonbills, always a crowd
pleaser and a fitting end to a marvelous tour.
The heat is on
South Florida's warm climate makes winter birding particularly enjoyable. With
the influx of waterfowl and shorebirds, the winter months really showcase the
species diversity and sheer numbers of birds that STA 5 has to offer. If you
can manage only one visit, October through March is the best time to go.
Some of our favorite winter visitors are Northern Pintail, Northern Harrier,
Marsh Wren, American Avocet, and Tree Swallow. On a tour in March, we were
greeted by hundreds of acrobatic Tree Swallows patrolling the adjacent fields,
gulping insects. A pair of Peregrine Falcons stared down at us from atop a
power pole, while a Snail Kite cruised for apple snails just around the corner.
Spring and fall have their fair share of migratory treats, including many
shorebirds and songbirds. On our May tour, we encountered a late flock of 50
Bobolinks and enjoyed dazzling, up-close looks at several males.
If you don't mind heat and humidity, late spring and summer (April through
September) can be quite fruitful. The antics of Purple Gallinule, Black-necked
Stilt, and Least Bittern, all of which breed here, are sure to please. Overhead,
you might spot a Swallow-tailed Kite circling or Cliff Swallow rocketing by, or if
you're really lucky, a King Rail will dart out of the grass to its next hiding place.
The gangly Limpkin, with its blood-curdling call, is a perennial favorite anytime
of year; seven of them were on hand to entertain us this past trip.
Also part of the STA 5 experience is Blumberg Road, an 11-mile-long paved
and dirt road that cuts through agricultural fields to the entrance gate. (STA
5's checklist area includes the road.) Audubon's Crested Caracara (the
subspecies found in Florida) and Barn Owl are often present, and Western
Kingbird and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher can be found in winter. On our May visit,
we heard Northern Bobwhite and Eastern Meadowlark calling from adjoining
fields in the morning, and on the return trip, four Common Nighthawks perched
on utility wires.
The overall diversity at STA 5 is amazing. You just never quite know what
might turn up. Greater White-fronted Goose, Black-throated Blue Warbler,
Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Cave Swallow, Swainson's Hawk, Painted Bunting, and
Bonaparte's Gull have all been spotted. Vince, Margaret, and other birders
encountered a flock of 750 to 1,000 American White Pelicans in June 2008,
more than are usually seen here in winter. On many trips, participants see
more than 200 Roseate Spoonbills, resplendent in their pink finery. Eleven
warbler species have already been recorded--not bad for a site with very few
Part of STA 5's charm is that birds are so abundant. In winter, expect
thousands of ducks, geese, and coots, and 120 species in day is possible.
Bring a spotting scope because the birds aren't always close to the roads--
those water cells are quite large!
On caravan tours, however, scopes are usually abundant and available for
sharing if you don't have your own. Watching birds from the levees in a group
tour with knowledgeable guides is about the easiest kind of birding there is.
The leaders simply stop the vehicles wherever a good opportunity presents
itself, which often. It's eye-candy birding at its finest. If you are looking to
introduce someone to birding, STA 5 is an ideal place to do it.
Of course, with something this good, there must be a catch. STA 5 is
accessible at present only on the Saturday guided tours led by Hendry-Glades
Audubon in partnership with the Clewiston Inn. In the past, 10 to 15 tours
were offered per year. For 2009, 18 tours have already been scheduled to
meet the rising demand. The April 4 tour coincides with the Big Okeechobee
Birding Festival (April 3-5) in Clewiston. On May 9, International Migratory Bird
Day, Margaret England is leading a North American Migration Count and urges
volunteers to come out. Summer tours (one per month) are also offered.
Tour sizes have ranged from four to nearly 100 people, and trips generally last
from 8:30 to noon, although some run longer. Carpooling is encouraged, and
levee roads are suitable for walking, bicycles, and any type of car. Waterfowl
hunting is limited to 10 days in winter (November through January), and hunts
do not take place when birding tours are scheduled.
Due to the heightened interest in the site, SFWMD plans to open the property
to the birding public, possibly as early as 2010. At that point, visitors will have
foot and bicycle access Friday through Monday, from dawn until dusk.
Whether auto caravan tours will be permitted has yet to be decided. Don't
expect much more in the way of amenities, however; basic facilities will
include an information kiosk, a parking lot by the entrance gate, and a dry
vault toilet. Fear not, though, what STA 5 lacks in comforts, it more than
makes up for with great birding! This is one Florida hotspot you won't want to
Photos by Adithya Sambamurthy/news-press.com
A purple swamphen walks along the shore of the Stormwater Treatment
Area 5, south of Clewiston, which has attracted an unusual number
IF YOU GO
• What: Guided birding tours.
• When: 8:30 a.m., Saturday and April 8 and 22.
• Where: Stormwater Treatment Area 5, south of Clewiston.
• Contact: Margaret England, 863-674-0695 (home), 863-517-0202
(cell), or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
TOUR INFO & TIPS
• The tour lasts as much as three hours, and participants
will walk two miles.
• There is no shade, and this is South Florida, so bring
water, sunscreen and appropriate clothing.
• Binoculars and telescopes are not provided.