Conservation area offers peak of Lake County’s bird watching prowess
|The Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area is located in northeast Lake County, Fla. The St. Johns Water Management District manages the area. Directions to the area are as follows: From U.S. Highway 441, turn east on to County Road 44. Turn left on to Emeralda Avenue. When road comes to a “T”, turn left and follow Emeralda Island Road. Emeralda Marsh features a 4.3-mile driving trail that is unique as it allows birders to be in the middle of a wetland habitat. For more information about park hours, call the St. Johns Water Management District at (386) 329-4404 or log on to www.sjrwmd.org.
The crown jewel of bird watching in Lake County is also one of the most prized conservation areas in all of Central Florida.
Although the 7,089-acre preserve known as the Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area is almost a secret outside of the Sunshine State, local bird watchers and environmentalists rave about its large and diverse wildlife population. After only a decade of rehabilitation, the St. Johns River Water Management District, along with support from the Lake County Board of County Commissioners and Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society, has accomplished an astounding feat of creating a viable conservation area and an ecotourism attraction.
From Bald Eagles to bobcats, wildlife populations at the conservation area are soaring. According to scientists with the St. Johns River Water Management District, the wetlands and adjacent water bodies of Emeralda Marsh support one of the highest alligator production areas in Central Florida.
Ask just about any local birder or wildlife enthusiast where the top spot for viewing is and Emeralda Marsh reigns as a near unanimous choice. One reason the marsh is a favorite is because of its diverse and immense habitats that are favorites of migrating birds.
“The most striking thing about Emeralda is it is just a big, big habitat, and that tends to attract not only big numbers, but occasionally rare birds,” said Dr. Peter May, an avid bird watcher and a professor at Stetson University. “So you get stuff out there that unexpectedly shows up one time and then you don’t see it again.
“For example earlier this year right after the hurricanes, there was a bird the showed up called the Purple Swamphen, which is an introduced species in Florida that is similar to Purple Gallinule, but they are bigger and they are from Australia and Asia. They have been in the Miami area for about 10 years, but they have never been north of Lake Okeechobee before.
While all bird watchers are in search of the unordinary species sighting, some birders flock to Emeralda Marsh to witness the sheer numbers of some of the more common sorts.
“One day at Emeralda” begins local bird watcher Greg Gensheimer. His story is like many other fortunate birders that have been to Emeralda Marsh to see the thousands of Common Moorhens, Egrets and Herons that breed in the area.
For Gensheimer it was the remarkable sight of witnessing hundreds of Blue-Winged Teal taking off.
“It was so loud you could hear the wings,” he said. “You don’t see that everywhere, it was just incredible. It was almost like an Andy Warhol painting, and that’s what makes this place so cool.”