Wild About Florida: Central Florida
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Central Florida has the ocean and gulf beaches much like other parts of Florida but in many other ways it is distinct and unique. The Florida scrub jay, a bird many Floridians believe should be our state bird, is found nowhere in the world except central Florida. Central Florida is bisected by one of the most unique rivers in the in the state and perhaps even the world. First off, The St Johns is the longest river in Florida and the one of the few in the country to flow North. The total distance the river drops from its source in marshes southwest of Melbourne to its mouth in the Atlantic near Jacksonville is less than 30 feet, or about one inch per mile, making it one of the 'laziest', slowest moving rivers in the world. Also due to the fact that it is born in the salty estuary marshes of Indian River County, passes through salt springs and then receives an infusion of salt at the mouth, create a more brackish river. It's the only river in the county that is home to salt water sting rays. Then there are the whooping cranes. There are only three whooping crane colonies in the United States. Central Florida's Polk, Osceola and Lake county is the home of the only non-migratory flock of whooping cranes. Citrus County is host to the ultralight-led migratory flock that winters in Chassohowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near Crystal River. And then there is… but why not just read the rest of the book to discover all the things that are uniquely central Florida.
Pinellas County has so much going for it. For starters, great beaches, lots of wildlife and uninhabited little islands called keys. If you are looking for a campground base, you can camp in luxury at Fort Desoto, the largest of the Pinellas County parks, located on the southern tip of the county. It accommodates any thing from the largest motor home to a little tent. Named for the historical fort built there in 1898 to protect Tampa Bay from invasion during the Spanish-American War, the fort earns it a spot on the National Historic Registry but it is the camping, along with swimming, boating, kayaking and bird watching that is the big draw. The 238 sites, many directly on the water, are wonderful. When we camped here, flocks of gulls descended begging for scraps of bread. Years ago we would even harvest oysters to roast on our grill. The seagulls are still there but you need to confine your shell gathering to empty ones now due to possible bacterial contamination.
Not only sea gulls but manatee, dolphin and any number of water birds can be spotted in the park. It’s included on the Great Florida Birding Trail (GFBT) because of the multitude and variety of birds found here. In fact, Pineles County is a hot spot on the GFBT. H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D., director of the county’s Environmental Lands Division, believes the reason for the varied and large bird population is that three natural environmental/climatic zones – subtropical, temperate, and the “Caribbean biogeographical hot spot” – overlap the area. This makes it possible to observe bird and other wildlife species common to all three zones.
One good way to view this diversity is from the water. At Fort DeSoto, you can bring your own kayak or canoe or rent one from Frank and Coby at the Topwater Kayak Outpost located in the park.
For ease in getting around this large park, there is a 12-foot-wide asphalt recreation trail connecting the campground with the North and East Beach Swim Centers and the old fort.
Their large boat ramp is designed to get even bigger boats into the water easily. The park boasts two modern fishing piers: one stretches into Tampa Bay, the other into the Gulf of Mexico.
The north end of Mullet Key, the arrowhead shaped island where the park’s camping is located, is the best spot for swimming. Surf is easy and the water is shallow here. Fort Desoto’s beaches were voted “top beach” by Trip Advisor in 2008 and number one by Dr Beach in 2005. There is even a dog playground here.
Another option here is to choose a nature friendly resort and stay closer to the central part of the county. Best Western Yacht Harbor Inn offers a lot of nature with plush accommodations.
If you really want to get away to another time as well as a peaceful place, you can take a ferry to Egmont Key State Park. The ferry will stop to let you view dolphins or manatees and you will undoubtedly spot lots of pelicans and cormorants as well as the ever-present gulls. This island is undeveloped except for the remains of an old military installation. The island’s military career began during the Third Seminole War when it served as a prison for captured Seminoles. It was occupied by the Union during the War Between the States. An old lighthouse stands sentry since it was built in 1858. Fort Dade, which was built on the island and remained active until 1923, and remnants of the little military town that surrounded it still remind you of man’s presence on the key. The old guardhouse serves as a museum to learn more of the key’s history. Today, the little island is a refuge for birds of all kinds, sea turtles, box turtles, gopher tortoises and other wildlife.
Back on the mainland, you can visit a botanical treasure, Saint Petersburg’s Sunken Gardens. Originally carved out of a large sinkhole and shallow lake by plumber George Turner in 1924, this is one of Florida’s oldest attractions and certainly one of the most colorful. It’s now owned and operated by the state. Thousands of rare, native and exotic plants plus a beautiful butterfly garden make this an oasis of tranquility within the bustling city of Saint Pete. You will also find flamingos and other exotic birds blended with the plants but the floral display demands center stage. Bougainvillea, Cuban royal palms, Brazilian spider flowers, caladiums, white birds of paradise, glorybower, croton garden, orchids and many others is a stone with a legend. Growing Stone, a fossilized limestone rock that, sports this sign: "Legend has it that 'he who sits upon the ancient stone shall be granted tranquility, inner harmony and the talent to make things grow.'"
Another garden that competes for pride of place in the botanical section is Florida Botanical Gardens. By contrast this garden is relatively new: It opened in December 2000. What it lacks in age it makes up in diversity and beauty. It too has a tropical section composed of a Walkway Garden, Courtyard Garden and Tropical Fruit Garden, but it also has many other gardens; Patio Garden, Herb Garden, Demonstration Garden, Seasonal Plantings Display Area, Palm Garden, Bromeliad Garden, Succulent Garden, Native Plant Garden, Butterfly Garden, formal Wedding Garden and a Natural Area.
For wildlife viewing, the natural area is a wonderful place to observe bald eagles, gopher tortoises, Sherman Fox squirrels, raccoons, ospreys, alligators, egrets, screech owls, roseate spoonbills, wood ducks, red bellied woodpeckers and even coyotes. Most of the land in this section is being preserved or let return to a natural Florida eco-system. It provides habitat for over 150 types of bird, mammals, and reptiles. Because of the sensitive nature of this area, there is a “no pets” rule.