The Hidden Jewel
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE FLORIDA WILDLIFE MAGAZINE
ACCOMPANIED BY THE FOLLOWING PHOTOS
It was mid March, 2007, when I first discovered what I now lovingly refer to as the “ hidden jewel of the Withlacoochee Forest”.
I am a retired, 20 year veteran, Crime Scene Investigator. My husband of 4 years, in his infinite wisdom, thought that after all those years of pumping adrenalin, I might possibly have a difficult time adjusting to retirement. And so he gave me a gift that opened up a new world for me. A good camera. Suddenly I was taking photos of living things and beautiful landscapes.
We live in Dunnellon, Florida, some fifty miles northeast of Spring Hill, where my husband’s children reside. So we’ve made that trip up and down U.S. 41 hundreds of times. But this day, I decided to investigate that little paved lane that the Forest Service sign indicated was McKethan Park.
The sign on the gate said it would be closed promptly at 8 pm. It was now 7:15 in the evening and almost dark, but I paid my two dollars and began the slow, approximately one and a half mile drive around a beautiful small lake. The entire drive is one-way, and paved, with areas to pull over and enjoy the views. The outer perimeter of the drive is a forest, full of wonderful surprises, with walking trails for the adventurer. On the west side of the lake is the recreation area. A covered pavilion awaits you with picnic tables, bar-b-cue stands, rest rooms and a play area with swings for the little ones.
All of this would have been enough to bring me back again, but it was Mother Nature who snagged me with my first live view of the Sand Hill Crane. We had pulled off the drive into one of the parking areas, under some old, moss draped oaks, when all at once, seemingly from out of nowhere, came two large birds. They strolled leisurely towards the lake. They were stately, colorful, and not in the least concerned with us. That was it, I was hooked!
I have returned to the park countless times since the first glimpse of my “jewel”. Often enough to see those Cranes leading their brood of two little red-headed chicks; an array of birds, like the Cranes, white Egrets, Great Blue Herons, noble Wood Storks, white Ibis, and the most beautiful and coveted Roseate Spoonbill. I’ve watched a doe lead her little spotted baby around the drive. I’ve seen a Turkey hen with her five, frisky little ones trailing along behind. I’ve seen large Hawks swoop down to the lake for dinner, or just sit high in a tree and screech a warning to the other inhabitants that the persistent lady with a camera is back!
I’ve also watched as the lake slowly disappears from drought. The array of birds changes with the levels of the water. It wasn’t until June that I first spotted the beautiful Roseate Spoonbill. This bird prefers the marshy areas that she can wade in to feed. She swings that flat bill to and fro in the water. But as the water level became enticing to the Spoonbill, it became a burden to the Wood Stork. This bird is large, and as the water levels lower, the Wood Stork has to use his wings to lift his body and large feet from the mud as he moves through, searching for food. By late June the drought has worsened to the point that all the large birds have moved to more hospitable waters.
Did did I mention the alligators? When I first found the park, I did not notice a single gator. But as the water levels lower during the summer drought I begin to notice first a small one, and then a 5 to 6 footer began to peer out of the murky pond.
And let us not forget the people I meet while enjoying the pond. Once, I was approached by a couple from Canada, who spoke primarily French. It was a little tricky trying to explain to them that the Wood Stork was NOT a Pelican. But I had some photos with me from a previous visit, so I sent them away with a photo of the solemn Wood Stork to compare to their bird books back home. And then, the family from Texas who were impressed with the turkey family. But most importantly, the wonderful folks from the Forest Service. Like Ms. Holly Washburn, Park Ranger, who is always smiling and happy to talk about the park and the animals found there. Or Mary Pick, the resident Volunteer Camp Host, who is a fount of information on the habits of the animals.
As I sit here, in the shade of a gnarled old oak, it is early July, and the pond is desperate for rain. It has diminished to a frightening size. But this is Florida. I know the rain will come eventually and the lake will rejuvenate itself. And in the spring of 2008 I can watch a new family of friends emerge.
I am fortunate to be retired. I can go to the park whenever I feel the “call of the wild”. But I would urge everyone, young and old, parent or grandparent, to try and make the effort to visit either this “jewel”, or one close to your home. There is such peace and serenity to be found there.