The lakes, expansive prairie and pine flatwoods, and other diverse habitats, create ample opportunities for wildlife viewing. White-tailed deer, gray squirrel, Sherman’s fox squirrel, gopher tortoise, armadillo, raccoon and feral hog are common. Butterflies are abundant, especially in the fall.
The area is a site on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail and is particularly good for birders - many common and rare species are found here. Bald eagles, crested caracaras, sandhill cranes, red-shouldered hawks, wild turkeys, northern bobwhites and eastern meadowlarks are often heard or spotted. The oaks and pines are excellent for songbirds, particularly during migration. Three Lakes is part of the highest concentration of bald eagle nests in the contiguous United States. More than 150 active nesting territories are found around the inland lakes of Osceola and Polk counties.
Photo Credit: David Moynahan
The federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker nests in cavities in pines. An area with active nest cavities is located near Canoe Creek Road; look for pine trees marked with a band of white paint. Watch for the birds at dawn and dusk when they are most active. Keep at least 70-80 feet (the length of a semi-trailer truck) from these trees to avoid disturbing the birds, particularly during the April to July nesting period. Similarly, use binoculars or a spotting scope to observe the Florida grasshopper sparrow. The population of this federally endangered inhabitant of the dry prairie is critically low and any kind of disturbance may affect their nesting and feeding behaviors.
Wildlife Spotlight: Florida Grasshopper Sparrow
Photo credit: Erin Ragheb
The Florida grasshopper sparrow is a shy and elusive small bird (about 5 inches). But if you get a look at one, consider yourself extremely fortunate. It means that you have seen an endangered bird whose population may be less than 200 individuals, and that you are in some of Florida’s finest dry prairie habitat.
The Florida grasshopper sparrow is found in an area north and west of Lake Okeechobee, in Osceola, Polk, Okeechobee and Highlands counties, where most of the state’s remaining dry prairie habitat is concentrated. The best time to see or hear grasshopper sparrows is early morning during the March to July breeding season. The males are singing their insect-like, buzzing song on their territories during this period and are easier to locate. Adult males and females have a buff-colored face with a white eye ring and a yellow-orange patch between the beak and eye. Two dark stripes border a light central stripe at the top of the head. The underside plumage of adults is buff-colored and unmarked, and the back is streaked with black and brown. If you see the bird in profile, note the short tail and thick bill.
The Florida grasshopper sparrow is a non-migratory subspecies of the grasshopper sparrow, which breeds throughout the continental United States and overwinters in Florida. When spring rolls around, the northern visitors depart, leaving the sedentary Florida population more than 300 miles from its closest relatives.
Females lay three to five eggs in nests which are located on the ground and which are well hidden by vegetation. Because grasshopper sparrows nest on the ground, predation exacts a heavy toll on the population. Periodic flooding also affects both nest sites and food sources. But the greatest threat facing this small bird is habitat loss due to conversion of native prairie to improved pasture for cattle production and other agricultural uses. Conservation efforts are concentrating on habitat restoration and cooperative land management with private landowners. The Florida grasshopper sparrow is listed as Endangered by both federal and state wildlife agencies. Currently, the most stable population of the species on public land is found on the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area.