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http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Wild-things-on-Florida-s-nature-trail-3617347.php#photo-3014039

Wild things on Florida’s nature trail

Christine Negroni
Published 05:07 p.m., Thursday, June 7, 2012

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  • Manatees are fed by an observation window at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa, Fla. Photo: Christine Negroni / Connecticut Post Freelance
    Manatees are fed by an observation window at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa, Fla. Photo: Christine Negroni / Connecticut Post Freelance


Mention Florida as a vacation destination and most Connecticut families are likely to think of Mickey Mouse. But the Sunshine state has hundreds of out-of-the-way places where the tourists are sparse and wildlife is abundant. Travel tastes are changing and tourism bureaus on the Gulf of Mexico are actively courting eco-tourists to the Nature Coast, a 200-mile stretch of land from Tampa to the Florida Panhandle.

The No. 1 ambassador for nature tourism in the state has to be the manatee, a prehistoric-looking mammal found in Florida’s ubiquitous waterways. Within minutes of boarding a pontoon boat at Crystal River marina 80 miles north of Tampa, I saw one. Our captain, Jeff Sandman, had provided wet suits and snorkel equipment so we could get into the water and have a look.

He described the target of our interest as an adolescent and indeed it was behaving like one, in that it was fast asleep. After five minutes it slowly rose to the surface grabbed a slobbering gulp of air and returned to the bottom, still snoozing.

Viewing manatees in their natural habitat is excellent preparation for the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, where manatees that have been injured are brought for rehabilitation under the care of park manager Art Yerian. They are fed in front of a glass-walled observation area that allows visitors a dentist-like view of the highly-effective prehensile lips that make this animal such an efficient eater.

The park houses dozens of other animals native to the state and is combination zoo, wildlife refuge and museum. For the rest of my time in Florida, I found myself referring to things I learned there. Jeffrey Cordulack, events manager at the Audubon Center in Greenwich, said this is to be expected.

Visiting a nature center “helps you understand what you are seeing,” he said.

Viewing wild Florida means spending a lot of time on the water. One morning, I rented a kayak on the Weeki Wachee River in Hernando County and paddled downstream. The Weeki Wachee River, like many others in this part of the state, is dotted with underground springs that burble up creating brilliant turquoise colored pools Turtles sun themselves on logs and shore birds fish along the bank. After quietly rounding a bend, I surprised a heron who made a noisy display of pummeling wings as it beat a hasty exit.

Exploring this stretch of waterway is a true back-to-nature experience, but it is worth noting that Florida’s present-day reputation as theme park land got its start at Weeki Watchee Springs.

In 1947, Navy diving instructor Newton Perry devised a system so women could swim underwater using small air hoses. Then, in a feat of engineering, he submerged a window-lined theater into the spring and a roadside attraction was born. Today, the swimmers still dazzle visitors as fish and turtles dart around them.

I was hoping the show would include a redux of something I’d seen while snorkeling — a fish being chased by an anhinga, a long-necked bird that swims underwater at breakneck speed and looks like something from the Roadrunner cartoons. The possibility that something like that could actually happen around women costumed as mermaids makes an afternoon at this unique state park, a legitimate stop on a tour of wild Florida.

Venues to snorkel, fish, paddle or swim pop up everywhere, but there are equal opportunities to find nature on land. “More people come to Florida than any other state for wildlife viewing,” said Anne Glick of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission during a bird-watching walk at the state’s Chinsegut Center in Brooksville. To encourage the hobby among younger visitors, the state offers downloadable spotting guides so kids can check off what they’ve seen and apply for an official bird spotting certificate.

(Page 2 of 2)

Not all the wildlife on Florida’s Nature Coast is indigenous. Twenty miles east of the Withlacoochee State Park, in Dade City, Lex Salisbury and his wife, Elena Sheppa, have opened their private game farm to the public. Visitors are shuttled around in safari-like vehicles coming within spitting distance of non-native species, such as llamas and giraffes.

The day I visited, Ann Greenberg, a retired researcher from New York, was feeding grapes to lemurs. “I like the natural aspect of this,” she said of Giraffe Ranch. “It’s an experience you don’t usually get.”

Visiting a nature center or aquarium before leaving home not only enhances an eco adventure, it can provide useful tips for using gear correctly. Cordulack said many people go to the Audubon Center to learn how to use cameras and binoculars. “Believe me, when an alligator is eating a fish, that is not the time for you to be wondering if you have a rapid speed mode on your camera.”

I knew exactly what he meant when I went for a bike ride along the 47-mile Withlacoochee trail, the state’s longest paved bike path. I was told a three-wheeled recumbent bike would be more comfortable and position my head to look out rather than down as on conventional bikes. What I really appreciated was how it freed my hands to take pictures so I was able to capture the moment when a gopher tortoise — a threatened species — ambled up to my bike and took a long look at me — the strange creature it had encountered on Florida’s nature trail.

Christine Negroni writes about travel at www.gohowknowhow.com.

If you go

Florida’s Nature Coast begins an hour’s drive north of Tampa International Airport and a two-hour drive west from Orlando International.

 

Places to stay:

A number of moderately priced hotel chains, like Holiday Inn Express and Days Inn can be found but high end resorts are few.

Saddlebrook Resort in Pasco County offers large suites with kitchens and living areas, golf, tennis, a spa and activities for children. www.saddlebrook.com/

Plantation on Crystal River in Citrus County has spa facilities and a marina with kayak and pontoon boat rentals. Manatee-viewing trips can be chartered here. www.plantationinn.com/

Many of the state parks have camping facilities. http://www.floridastateparks.org/staythenight/camping.cfm

Wild Florida places of interest

Wildlife Education at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park 352 628-5343 www.homosassasprings.org

Bird and butterfly watching and archery at the Chinsegut Conservation Center 352 754-6722 www.myfwc.com/chinsegut

Performing mermaids, swimming and kayaking at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park www.weekiwachee.com 352 592-5656

Wildlife viewing and animal feeding at Giraffe Ranch http://girafferanch.com 813-482-3400

Bike riding on the Withlacoochee Trail http://www.railstotrailsonline.com/

Read more: http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Wild-things-on-Florida-s-nature-trail-3617347.php#ixzz1x9PoBhGg

 

Read more: http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Wild-things-on-Florida-s-nature-trail-3617347.php#ixzz1x9Opr0h1

http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Wild-things-on-Florida-s-nature-trail-3617347.php#photo-3014038

A gopher tortoise approaches a guest riding on the Withlacoochee Trail in Fla. At 46 miles in length, the Withlacoochee State Trail is presently the longest paved rail trail in Florida. The trail corridor runs through small towns, ranches, and natural areas as it makes its way south from Citrus Springs to Trilby. Photo: Christine Negroni / Connecticut Post Freelance

(Page 2 of 2)

Not all the wildlife on Florida’s Nature Coast is indigenous. Twenty miles east of the Withlacoochee State Park, in Dade City, Lex Salisbury and his wife, Elena Sheppa, have opened their private game farm to the public. Visitors are shuttled around in safari-like vehicles coming within spitting distance of non-native species, such as llamas and giraffes.

The day I visited, Ann Greenberg, a retired researcher from New York, was feeding grapes to lemurs. “I like the natural aspect of this,” she said of Giraffe Ranch. “It’s an experience you don’t usually get.”

Visiting a nature center or aquarium before leaving home not only enhances an eco adventure, it can provide useful tips for using gear correctly. Cordulack said many people go to the Audubon Center to learn how to use cameras and binoculars. “Believe me, when an alligator is eating a fish, that is not the time for you to be wondering if you have a rapid speed mode on your camera.”

I knew exactly what he meant when I went for a bike ride along the 47-mile Withlacoochee trail, the state’s longest paved bike path. I was told a three-wheeled recumbent bike would be more comfortable and position my head to look out rather than down as on conventional bikes. What I really appreciated was how it freed my hands to take pictures so I was able to capture the moment when a gopher tortoise — a threatened species — ambled up to my bike and took a long look at me — the strange creature it had encountered on Florida’s nature trail.

Christine Negroni writes about travel at www.gohowknowhow.com.

If you go

Florida’s Nature Coast begins an hour’s drive north of Tampa International Airport and a two-hour drive west from Orlando International.

Places to stay:

A number of moderately priced hotel chains, like Holiday Inn Express and Days Inn can be found but high end resorts are few.

Saddlebrook Resort in Pasco County offers large suites with kitchens and living areas, golf, tennis, a spa and activities for children. www.saddlebrook.com/

Plantation on Crystal River in Citrus County has spa facilities and a marina with kayak and pontoon boat rentals. Manatee-viewing trips can be chartered here. www.plantationinn.com/

Many of the state parks have camping facilities. http://www.floridastateparks.org/staythenight/camping.cfm

Wild Florida places of interest

Wildlife Education at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park 352 628-5343 www.homosassasprings.org

Bird and butterfly watching and archery at the Chinsegut Conservation Center 352 754-6722 www.myfwc.com/chinsegut

Performing mermaids, swimming and kayaking at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park www.weekiwachee.com 352 592-5656

Wildlife viewing and animal feeding at Giraffe Ranch http://girafferanch.com 813-482-3400

Bike riding on the Withlacoochee Trail http://www.railstotrailsonline.com/

Read more: http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Wild-things-on-Florida-s-nature-trail-3617347.php#ixzz1x9PoBhGg

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