Monday, November 14, 2016

Five Fantastic Nature Parks in Florida

To me, nature in Florida is exotic and amazing. The lush tropical swamps and marshes, the tangled mangroves, the bright aroma of citrus orchards, and of course the year-round cacophony of vivid flowers and verdant foliage.  It's a far cry from the chilly winters in Maryland where I now live, to say nothing of Massachusetts where I grew up!

So I love going birding and/or butterflying in Florida when I have the chance. I used to visit the Sunshine State frequently while growing up, since my maternal grandmother lived in Delray Beach. My husband & I got married in Disney World as well, so the two of us spent lots of time in Florida while planning the wedding, and in the years since.

Over the years we've explored many parks all over the eastern United States in search of butterflies and birds. Some were successes, some not. If, like me, you enjoy exploring nature and wildlife, Florida is a great state for it! Sometimes it's hard to narrow down park recommendations when you're just starting to explore an area and don't already have a local contact. Florida has so many awesome parks, it's hard to choose which ones to visit. So to help with that, here are five of my favorite places (so far) to look for either birds or butterflies in Florida.

1. Orlando Wetlands-- Orange County
This park isn't actually in Orlando or even very close-- it's more than an hour's drive east of Orlando, in a tiny town called Christmas. (That was a bit of a surprise to me the first time, I planned our inital visit when we were also at Disney World and I thought it would be a quick side trip. Not very quick, but definitely worth it! We've been back many times since.)

Juvenile Little Blue Heron at Orlando Wetlands

The network of canals and shallow lagoons holds waterfowl galore, plus of course many alligators. The Environmental Education center also has a small butterfly garden around it with interpretive labels. The park offers buggy rides to get you further out than you might go just walking. Make sure you check the Wildlife Sightings list outside the visitor center before you head onto the trails, too, in case any good species have been spotted that you could target. I always try to make an entry in these kinds of lists when I finish a visit, to make sure other folks know what's there and also to let park staff know how much we appreciate their conservation work.

Sneaky Sandhill Crane beneath the birdfeeder

The most recent trip we made included a close encounter with a Sandhill Crane who had found the bounty of the birdfeeder next to one of the picnic shelters. Clever bird!

2. Boyd Hill Nature Preserve-- Pinellas County
Despite being right in the midst of St Petersburg, this park has a huge diversity of habitat, from dry scrub to wetland to lake's edge. Thus it hosts lots of butterflies and birds. The Nature Center also has an aviary with several raptors such as peregrine, harrier, osprey and Bald Eagle, all of which also occur naturally at the park. I have to admit, though, my favorite part of this park is encountering the adorable Gopher Tortoises lumbering across the paths.  I don't know why they strike me as particularly cute, but they do, they're so grumpy and curmudgeonly. Just look at this individual:

This grouchy Gopher Tortoise wasn't so pleased to encounter us!

3. Fred & Idah Schultz Preserve-- Hillsborough County

This park was down a tiny gravel road, if I remember correctly. Like Boyd Hill, it consists of a mix of sandy scrub and wetlands. There were tons of flowers blooming when we last visited, and butterflies everywhere. This is where I got my first Oak Hairstreak, a real thrill. Other butterfliers in the area visit the park regularly, and sometimes post their lists to the sightings page for NABA (North American Butterfly Association). That's how I first heard of the park, by finding a trip report there that included some of my target species.

My first Oak Hairstreak butterfly. Sorry for the obscured view, I chased this little devil quite a bit before getting a decent look.

4. Loxahatchee NWR-- Palm Beach County
This is definitely a sentimental favorite, as my grandmother used to volunteer here and we frequently visited with her. It's made up of both cypress swamp and a network of sloughs, or canals, and thus has lots of waterfowl, waders, and alligators. I didn't pay attention to butterflies back when I was a kid, but in 2015 V and I went on a grim, cloudy day and still found good butterflies. Sadly, few of the photos from that day were worth anything. Check out their website for more information, though!

5. Wakodahatchee Wetlands-- Palm Beach County
This small park is  run by the Palm Beach County water management folks. It's actually designed to help process and filter wastewater from one of their water reclamation plants.  The main attraction is a 3/4 mile long boardwalk the winds through the wetlands so you can get right up close to birds and other wildlife. It's really cool being able to walk right through the marsh and watery areas. Honestly I have not visited Wakodahatchee since before I got into butterflies. I used to visit frequently with family when we were visiting my grandmother, though, and remember loving the birding opportunities there.

What are your favorite parks in Florida to find birds and butterflies? Share in the comment section, and I'll add them to my "must visit" list for next time!

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