Jackson Lake Chasm Opens Florida Birding Hotspot

Lake Jackson

Spotted the raptors before seeing the Jackson Lake sinkhole. Ospreys and red-headed vultures circled in tight circles above a small pool of water, surrounded by the sloping sides of what had been the bottom of the lake. I walked to the edge, shielding my eyes from the bright summer sun to observe a wood stork probing the mud for prey, and nearly a dozen other vultures sitting on the dirt. exposed, perhaps digesting bellies full of fish that hadn’t survived when a hole opened in the limestone plateau and drained the lake.

Now the sinkhole and surrounding lake depression have become a hotspot for birding.

Turkey and black vultures forage in the mud of Lake Jackson. Photo by Erika Zambello

Lake Jackson spans approximately 4,000 acres just north of Tallahassee. Although its deepest reaches extend down to 25 feet, most of the lake is shallow, blanketed in a blanket of bright green water lilies. During prolonged dry periods, the aquifer beneath the limestone recedes and the loss of equalizing pressure eventually leads to the opening of a sinkhole that carves deep valleys in the lake bottom as water rushes to s ‘escape.

Florida in general is flat, flat, flat, so the jagged chasm ravines stunned me, like we’d suddenly been transported to western mining country. Streams of the lake’s remaining water continued to flow into the chasm, clear and warm. Yellow caution tape warned visitors not to get too close to the edge, although many went under or through it to get a better view of the crevasse below.

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Tallahassee’s Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park, Hotspot Near You No. 293, is located just east of Lake Jackson

Came back a few days later and the little pool was gone. Fish skeletons littered the drying mud, and where I had mostly seen raptors, I now saw wading birds. White ibis, great egret, snowy egret, little blue heron, tricolored heron, and even roseate spoonbill were foraging for fish and other food between and under the remains of water lilies or in pockets of water that remained. In the distance, an airboat cut its way through the vegetation, scattering dozens more egrets, herons and ibises. For my part, I felt grateful to the avian clean-up team; I expected the whole area to stink of dead fish, but all I could smell was the earthy smell of the bottom of the lake drying up.

Yellow warning tape surrounds the drained valleys and gorges of Lake Jackson. Photo by Erika Zambello

Of course, when the lake is full you can see waders and other species, but right now there are a lot more waders in the area than normal.

Jackson Lake drains so regularly that its original name – Okeeheepkee – means “disappearing waters”. Nearby lakes also drain periodically, including Lake Iamonia, Lake Lafayette, and Lake Miccosukee. Jackson Lake drained in 1999 and 2006 (with long low periods in between), as well as in 2012 and now 2021. As the region dries up due to climate change, drainage events could become more frequent.

Each sinkhole event unlocks an assortment for birds and other scavengers. The resulting drying is good for the overall health of the ecosystem, as the sudden onslaught of air accelerates bottom decomposition, preventing it from becoming too muddy and accumulating too much partially decomposed vegetation. Fish need a hard bottom for their spawning depressions, and birds in turn need a healthy fish population.

Eventually, the rain will recharge the aquifer and once the sinkhole is plugged, the lake will refill. Strong storms are expected to speed up the process, probably this summer. Until then, birdwatchers, geology enthusiasts, locals and interested visitors will continue to flock to the site.

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See eBird listing for Millers Landing from Lake Jackson