I was in a windowless conference room yesterday when began perusing a map of the St. Petersburg area. I noticed a green spot about 10-15 minutes south of the hotel and decided I would check it out in the brief gap between the end of the conference and the TSA peep show. It turned out to be an excellent way to spend a solid hour and a half. (Note: I had to take a projector and laptop for the conference and couldn’t take my camera, so these are all phone photos.)
There is a small nature center, where you pay a nominal admission. Behind the nature center are aviaries where birds of prey who can’t be released into the wild are housed. There are hawks, owls, an eagle, a kestrel, and vultures. I walked the boardwalks on the swamp woodlands trails, listening to the cries of birds and watching anoles skittering across the planks. On the Lake Maggiore trail I saw herons, nesting fish, an alligator, turtles, ducks, and more. It was perfect. You can rent kayaks from the park as well.
I wanted to see a gopher tortoise and headed over to the Sand Scrub trail. The diversity of ecosystems in such a small park is impressive (it is 245 acres). I went quickly from wetlands to pine trees in sandy soil. Despite being April 1st, it was hot in the sun and the park is clever with its water coolers in shaded shelters. I did see a tortoise briefly as he headed into his burrow.
From that trail, I went to the Wax Myrtle Pond, which had two completely unexpected pieces of art flanking the top of the pond. There were turtles and birds and very few people, despite it being a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. I imagine the park is teeming with activity at dawn and dusk.
On my walk back to the nature center, I saw not one, but two gopher tortoises walking along the main trail. Both were gracious enough to let me stop and ogle them.
The park also hosts events, including summer camps for kids, and they have an upcoming Earth Day Zine Workshop. Wildlife and zines – two of my favorite things!
Florida’s state parks are often hidden gems. Such is the case with Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. We were planning a trip some years ago when I saw a swath of green on the map. I had never heard of Paynes Prairie, but it seemed worth a stop. We visited in January of that year and I was delighted to find a savanna filled with migratory birds, alligators, and bountiful wildlife. It was like a tiny, hidden Everglades. The park is 21,000 acres with various habitats, from swamps to forests.
In April of this year, I went to Gainesville for work. Once the meeting was over, I asked the person I had the meeting with if she wanted to go for a hike. We took our work hats off, put our friend hats on, and headed over to the park.
She drove us to Bolen Bluff, a trail in Paynes Prairie, just off 441, about 25 minutes south of Gainesville. We found a wee turtle and golden orb weaver within minutes. We also spotted a northern parula. The forest gave way to prairie. Ahead of us was a family of bison.
People expect exotic wild animals in Florida, like cobras and Mickey Rourke, not bison. They were once native to Florida and were reintroduced to the park in the 1970s as part of the park’s goal of preserving the land as a living museum. The population reached 70 in 2011, but unfortunately, they deemed this excessive and began culling instead of sterilizing or maintaining. There is now a small group of 8-10 bison.
I had to drive to Jacksonville the next day, but I got up early and hiked two additional trails on my own. I first stopped at the visitor center and went to the top of the observation tower. From there I spotted a few wild horses and unspoiled wilderness across the prairie basin.
Then I drove to the La Chua trail. To reach the trailhead you need to go through suburban Gainesville. It isn’t the easiest spot to find and the park provides written directions. The parking lot leads to old barns and out onto a trail that runs out to the Alachua Sink, draining into the prairie. The waterline and waterways are teeming with wildlife, especially birds and reptiles. There are kites, blackbirds, primordial-looking dragonflies, alligators, turtles, herons, egrets and more sliding and flying in and out of the reeds. Unlike in winter, the alligators are active in the spring, often walking across and blocking the trail. Even at 10am on a weekday, there were birders and hikers out. A word of caution, if you don’t recognize animals for what they are and show some common sense, I don’t recommend visiting. There’s no Plexiglas between you and the rightful, rather large, inhabitants of the savanna.
Main Entrance Admission
$6.00 per vehicle, limit 2-8 people per vehicle
$4.00 Single Occupant Vehicle
$2.00 Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass
LaChua Trail Admission
$4.00 per vehicle
Bolen Bluff Admission
$2.00 per vehicle, limit 8 people
Cape Cod is different things to different people. For me it is animals, ocean, light, and Thai food. I’ve only gone in the off-season, April/May and October, when traffic is bearable and rates are cheap. It is a great time to view local and migratory wildlife.
These are my top three wildlife watching spots:
Beech Forest Trail
The whole Cape Cod National Seashore is amazing, but the Beech Forest Trail is like something out of a goddamned Disney movie. Not far from Provincetown, the trail winds through woods and around a pond. I’ve seen birds, turtles, frogs, squirrels, snakes, and chipmunks while hiking. The birds and small animals are so accustomed to visitors (many bearing birdseed) that they are quite inquisitive. The first time I hiked the trail a chipmunk followed me. It seems like the kind of place a dead guy would have written a poem about. The trail is magical.
Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, managed by Mass Audubon, covers 937 acres and five miles of trails. Last year, I saw some amazing frogs and my very first Baltimore oriole. There are multiple trails and habitats and the wetlands are ideal migratory and nesting grounds. This year, it was a bit colder and we were there earlier in the year. I was a bit grumpy that I didn’t see the frogs or birds I had seen last year. I glimpsed a hummingbird, but that was it.
We were preparing to leave when I heard a gobble. I abandoned my family and went off in search of the noise. I crept through brambles and trees and right behind the visitor’s center I found a family of six turkeys, three posturing males and three smaller females. The males put on quite a show for me. Once they were convinced I was either terrified or not an actual threat they went back to eating. I realized I was near a bunch of bird feeders and while I sat there and watched the turkeys the other forest animals began coming back for food. It is without hyperbole or euphemism, that I was close enough to see a chipmunk’s balls. There were chickadees, towhees, red squirrels, gray squirrels, blue jays, and more darting all around. It was wonderful. They have a great nature center and gift shop too.
Whale Watching in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Tickets for the Dolphin Whale Watch aren’t cheap, but personally, I’d rather spend $47 ($45 if you use your AAA card or order online) on three hours of whale watching than on any concert. You never know what you are going to see and every charter is different. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is a prime feeding area for whales. They often winter and bear calves in the Caribbean, but the warm waters don’t offer the large mammals much to eat. They head north to the Golden Corral of the sea. Boats seat about 150 people and you will find yourself in pods of domestic and international tourists lurching port to starboard and back again watching the whales surface, dive, and maybe flash some tailfin.
The tour starts at the MacMillian Pier in Provincetown and heads around Long Point and along Herring Cove and towards Race Point. Most tours head to where Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic meet, but it all depends on the weather and where the whales are sighted. The naturalist onboard shares information about the whales spotted, their history, why Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is important, and why conservation is a must. They also identify other animals spotted, which can include terns, gulls, seals, dolphins, gannets, and other water birds.
I’ve been out 3-4 times now and have mostly seen finback whales (the greyhounds of the sea) and humpbacks. If the sea is calm, you can see blow spouts all over the horizon. The coolest thing I’ve ever seen what a group of whales working together to gather food by creating bubble nets. It can be cold and wet, but it is totally worth it. They do serve hot drinks, snacks, and even alcohol on the boat.
Many bicyclists thrive on adrenaline-fueled treks across rocky or wooded terrain, or long-distance hauls of a hundred miles or more. Not me. While I do not shun physical exertion or breaking a sweat, I’m a walker, not a runner; my workaday life offers enough white-knuckle adventure for my taste. Come the weekend, I prefer pedaling through nature at a more leisurely pace. Maryland’s Kent Island – just east of the Bay Bridge (Route 50), about an hour’s drive south of Baltimore – provides just that. (En route, Wawa store #569, off Route 50 Exit 29A, makes an ideal pit stop, offering clean restrooms, reasonably priced fuel, food ranging from prepared sandwiches to fresh fruit to every kind of processed junk, and, of course, top-notch coffee.)
Unlike some of the state’s more congested bike trails, Kent Island’s Cross Island Trail, an east-west route running between Stevensville and Kent Narrows, is never crowded. The paved six-mile asphalt trail is open to skating, walking, running, and biking. Its consistently flat terrain makes it ideal for families with young children, older users looking to avoid high-traffic areas, and anyone simply out to enjoy the scent of salt air and the island’s towering pines.
We favor setting out from Terrapin Nature Park, at the Trail’s western terminus, as the Chesapeake Exploration Center, at the eastern end, makes for an excellent mid-ride break (more on that later). A playground near Kent Island High School, about a mile out, is a welcome pit stop for small children. Farther along, the Trail wends its way through alternating patches of forest and wetlands. Use caution at the handful of highway crossings; while many drivers will stop to allow trail-users to pass, some do not.
Upon reaching Kent Narrows, grab your water and snacks and climb the spiral stairs of the three-story outdoor observation platform at the aforementioned Exploration Center for a marvelous view of the Narrows, the Chester River, and their attendant varieties of marine traffic. Downstairs, visit the indoor interpretive center, offering all manner of island life and history ranging from the ice age to recent work by local artisans (not to mention very clean restrooms). The friendly staff will be happy to chat and answer any questions.
Of approximately equal length, the nearby South Island Trail, running from Matapeake Park to Romancoke Pier, provides a north-south alternative to the Cross Island Trail. However, but for the fishing pier at its southern end, this trail features little else of interest, especially for children.
While there is no charge for using either trail, it should be noted that, in 2014, Queen Anne’s County instituted paid permit parking for public spots like Matapeake Beach and Terrapin Nature Park. Seasonal ($35) and daily ($5) permits are available, however, they must be purchased from certain local businesses, which may or may not be open during park hours. While I have no problem paying a fee, especially if it benefits trail maintenance and patrols, having onsite purchase points would be infinitely more convenient and practical.
Situated in the unassuming office park just across the street from the entrance to Terrapin Nature Park is Blackwater Distilling, makers of the fabulously smooth Sloop Betty vodka. Maryland’s first fully-licensed distillery in more than 40 years, Blackwater offers free tours and tastings Friday through Sunday. Staples like Sloop Betty Honey utilize local, organic ingredients, while the distillery also produces various seasonal infusions throughout the year.
No bathtub hooch, Sloop Betty has won three Gold Medals, including the Gold Medal and “Best in Show” distinction at the New York World Wine & Spirit Competition, while The Tasting Panel magazine awarded the vodka a 94-point rating in its July 2011 issue. So take a bottle home, and keep your drinking money local!
WAWA STORE #569 321 Buschs Frontage Road, Annapolis, MD 21401 Hours: Open 24 hours Phone: (410) 757-2328
CHESAPEAKE EXPLORATION CENTER 425 Piney Narrows Road, Chester, MD 21619 Hours: Open year-round 7 days/week (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Easter); Monday – Friday 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., weekends 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Phone: (410) 604-2100 Admission: Free Web: http://www.baygateways.net/general.cfm?id=74
I was blown away by the lushness of southern Louisiana. There were birds everywhere and the animal encounters were frequent and amazing. My favorite spots were along the Bayou Teche early in the morning – Muscovy ducks, nutria, turtles, spiders, and birds singing high in the tree canopy. For bird watching, Bird City at Jungle Gardens on Avery Island and the small island just outside of Rip Van Winkle Gardens in Jefferson Island were unmatched. There were hundreds (thousands?) of nesting snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills, ibis, herons, and egrets, plus gators, water snakes, and turtles. Within Rip Van Winkle Gardens we saw a mother raccoon and a mother peahen with her young. Out on Lake Martin we saw all ages of alligators, cormorants, herons, a whistling duck, anhingas, wood ducks, turtles, and swarms of dragonflies and damselflies. For me, Louisiana was wild and magical.