Amazing, beautiful wonders waited for me around every turn. We glided upriver with the ease of sharp skates on ice, paddling just enough to keep our canoe’s forward momentum steady. It only took a few minutes on the river to forget unfinished chores, dinner plans and upcoming jobs. As the thumping road noise from the highway faded away behind us, so did my routine cares and concerns. At first there wasn’t much to see. In the middle, where passage was easy, the river was deep and dark. The brewed tea color water hid any aquatic life that might be lurking beneath our canoe. Wildlife that might have been along the riverbank, was hidden in the murky shallows, or guarded from view behind tightly clustered congregations of cypress knees.
Right in my own back yard, a short drive from my home, is a small minimally appointed park. It’s a secluded treasure brimming with a wealth of exotic wildlife and lush, tropical landscapes. You won’t believe the incredible number of mysterious creatures that thrive just fifteen minutes away from downtown Tampa.
I missed the entire thirty minute drive from home to the park because I was nose deep in my cell phone. I was checking important emails and staying up-to-date with social media. When the truck bounced off the pavement onto the gravel road, I looked up. The dirt road was uninspiring. One side was fringed with spotty patches of thin grass and the other side was fenced with a dense stand of sand pines. There was a lot of green and the angular spikes of random palmettos, but nothing of interest to capture my artistic eye.
When you pull into the Trout Creek parking lot, you’re struck by the starkness of the park. At first glance there’s nothing to do. There’s not a playground, or picturesque view in sight. This park, like many in Florida, requires deeper investigation to see their true and unique beauty.
The facilities aren’t fancy, but the amenities are not why people flock there. Nature lovers visit the park seeking peace, quiet and a glimpse of wildlife in its native habitat. Fitness junkies frequent the park looking for freedom from conformity and demanding screens. They visit to get a workout that includes real navigation, rhythm, timing and cooperation with the elements. Families and senior citizens visit the park for the spiritual lift that comes from fresh air, wide open spaces and the free flowing river.
We slid our canoe into the river at the park’s small boat launch. I stepped into the water alongside the boat and was surprised by the cold water temperature. Floridian’s always expect the water to be warm even in winter. Tiny brown minnows darted along the shore around my bare feet. We sat down in our canoe and began our journey upstream.
To the inexperienced visitor the river appears muddy and lifeless. Once you pocket distractions and really look around, you’re transported to a whole new world. If you scan the open water and study the banks, you’ll find plenty of camouflaged inhabitants.
Once we were on the move, I trained my eyes to look for irregular shapes, like the saw-tooth ridge of an alligator’s back and subtle movement, like the splash of a turtle sliding off a mossy log. The wildlife that call the river home are masters of disguise. Blending in and stealthy maneuvers are key to their survival in this unforgiving wetland. It’s that harsh reality that makes seeing so many different species thriving in their natural habitat such a thrill.
Prehistoric looking alligators are in abundance on this stretch of the Hillsborough River, but that didn’t stop me from gasping every time I saw one. On one visit upstream we stopped counting after spotting 30 gators. I found this to be equally exciting and unnerving. In the back of my mind, I know how easily these agile reptiles blend into the murky water and cluttered riverbank. Meaning that while we were spotting them, there were a lot more than 30 alligators watching us. It’s likely, more than double that number eluded our searching eyes.
When I see an alligator my heart jumps and my mind races to conclusions. If they’re sunning themselves on the bank, I’m glad they’re not in the water and can’t approach our small canoe. The disconcerting part is, I can see just how big they are. I worry about the strength of their powerful legs and thick tail. Even though they appear to be docile and bored, I know in reality they’re fast and on high alert.
When I see an alligator floating in the water, they’re less intimidating at first. You can only see the top of their head and bulging black eyes. Then there’s a gap filled with water followed by the zigzag ridge of their tail behind. Like an iceberg, the bulk of their body is submerged below the dark water line. And so, we guess how big they are based on the size of the head and it’s distance from the tail. I humor myself and guess they’re smaller than they might actually be. While my hubby, Joe is the opposite. He guesses they’re much larger in size which does nothing to improve my comfort level.
The floating alligators present a different kind of angst. They’re not shy. They don’t turn away. They’re not deterred by our presence. In fact, they lock their round black eyes on us in a way that says, I rule here. This is my home. I have the advantage of speed, strength and agility so don’t mess with me.
Whether they’re sunning on land or drifting in the water, these magnificent prehistoric decedents demand respect, and I’m happy to oblige. I’ve seen enough TV shows about these large reptiles to know we should be extremely cautious in their company. Their imposing and majestic presence makes seeing these creatures in their natural environment, in such healthy numbers, so thrilling and artistically inspiring.
A few minutes paddle upstream, the river doubled in size. Ancient cypress trees towered over the banks and accentuated the gradual curves of the dark water and the blue sky overhead. Spanish moss hung from the outstretched limbs linking the trees like a silver chain.
At the first sign of movement in the sky, I’d abandon my paddle and reach for my camera. We rounded a bend and I caught a glimpse of something in the distance flying in our direction. I thought the sun was playing tricks on my eyes. As the bird flew toward us, I couldn’t believe it was pink.
A sign back at the park entrance indicated this was a birding site. But I expected the ordinary herons, kingfishers and egrets that inhabit Florida’s waterways. I didn’t anticipate seeing a roseate spoonbill in the wild especially here, so close to major city like Tampa. I thought it was a fluke. Perhaps the bird was a clever escapee from the zoo.
I raised my camera, zoomed in and took a rapid-fire string of pictures using sport mode. I wanted to capture the exhilaration that charged through me in that first moment of surprise and wonder. I managed to take a few shots before the bird glided out of range. It was a magical, unbelievable experience, like something out of a fairy tale. It was the equivalent of seeing a unicorn.
To my delight, it wasn’t an isolated sighting. There were more roseate spoonbills upriver. We spotted groups of three and four pink spoonbills gathered in the trees. Then later, as we floated back to the boat launch, we had the pleasure of casually watching an unhurried group feed in the shallow water along the riverbank.
It was such a treat to watch those birds. In the time we spent idly floating there, I saw beyond the absurdity of their pastel color. I grew to admire the beauty of their unique physical characteristics. Sitting there I gained a greater appreciation for what it takes for them to survive in such a demanding environment. The roseate spoonbills were beautiful and graceful in their own awkward, oddly designed way.
Turtles, also known as river cooter, are another fascinating resident of Florida’s tributaries. I watch for bubbles in the open water in anticipation of a turtle’s head breaking the surface. Once in view, they float without direction for a few minutes. Then, as if called to action by a secret assignment, they submerge and disappear back into the brown water. They leave only a ring of ripples behind as evidence they were ever there.
A quiet patient crew can paddle up on these slippery conspirators sunning themselves on fallen trees. Turtles gather on logs that stretch out of the river along its banks. It’s fun to move in close and see how they balance precariously on their bonny underside with their head, legs and tail stretched out to the limit. They look staged like a display at a museum. I find their poses silly and amusing. I love capturing pictures of them with my camera from all their ridiculous angles. As entertaining as it may be, their rigid posture is actually key to the survival of these cold blooded reptiles. Their outstretched extremities act like solar panels; they absorb heat and energy from the sun.
Vultures give me the creeps. They’re the grim reapers of the animal kingdom, summoned to dispose of bodies after death has collected the souls. Seeing their daunting huddled forms congregating, usually means the passing of an unfortunate creature. Given the chance, I turn away from the flock to avoid seeing the messy details of their cleanup. But here, along a specific stretch of the Hillsborough River, their presence is more fascinating than fearsome. Upriver around a particular corner, turkey vultures gather in mass. They fill the treetops like giant black angles. They soar in grand, synchronized circles overhead. They flap their wings and hop around in a cooperative group along the sandy shoreline. You’d think, like I did the first time I saw them, there must be a huge feast hidden in the woods for so many birds to be together in one place, at one time. Or you might have thought, this unexpected gathering of efficient carnivores must’ve been a random event. We canoed this river for the first time more than 30 years ago, and we’ve glided down its dark, life-giving waters several times since. The turkey vultures have consistently been in that same location in large numbers every time.
Our presence didn’t appear to alter their behavior. We were irrelevant passers-by not worthy of their attention. The massive birds followed their natural habits as if we didn’t exist. They’d drop to the ground one-by-one and then fly away with an unannounced rhythm that kept the mysterious balance of power in harmony.
Every ecosystem has its unique apex predators, its exotic beauties, its theatrical posers and its shadowy dwellers. However, this river is home to so many more animals than the ones we saw on our afternoon visit. Deer, otters, turkeys, wild boar, squirrels, all kinds of insects and snakes live in the surrounding woods. At the same time, a surprising number of fish species and other water born creatures live in the river itself. Plus, there’s a stunningly beautiful variety of tropical plants that support and protect the healthy ecology.
The real attraction of this local treasure is the more you look the more you see. It never gets boring. With each visit I’ve experienced a growing and increasingly intimate connection with the river, the land and the wildlife. I’m thankful to have access to this rare, undeveloped slice of heaven, where I can enjoy the natural beauty and wonder of nature.
It’s a real thrill to share my incredible journey of discovery with you through my pictures. I hope you enjoyed seeing this wildlife up close, with new and different perspectives that reveal their true splendor.
Do you have a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered in your area?
Check out your local parks to see what you can find. Maybe you’ll see a unicorn too. They do exist.
About my images.
My first rosette spoonbill sighting on the Hillsborough River reminded me how much I loved taking high-quality pictures of nature and wildlife when I was younger. That single event inspired me to take up photography again. I took over 800 pictures on the trip described here. It wasn’t enough. It never is. But I do feel I captured some really good, rare and unique compositions of several fascinating animals and tropical plant life.
My camera is a Nikon D3500. I use a telephoto, 70-300mm lens to get close pictures of subjects that are far away. For fast moving subjects like birds, I use sport-mode to capture their fluid moves in sequence. Some of the really vibrant images, like the ones of the river cooter and the lily pads, are taken with an effect that accentuates natural color making it more vivid. All of my spoonbill images are raw, without any touch up or effect. The bubblegum pink color you see is all their own.
I mention this because I’m having so much fun that I can’t contain myself. You can take equally as exciting pictures too. It’s not necessary to have a fancy camera. All you need is an adventurous spirit and a curious eye. Just get out there, shoot and have fun!
Trout Creek Park, Hillsborough County, Florida
For information visit here:
Fun facts about alligators courtesy of this website.
An estimated 5 million American alligators are spread out across the southeastern United States. Roughly 1.25 million alligators live in the state of Florida. There are more than 1,000 American crocodiles, not including hatchlings, in Florida.
More fun facts about alligators courtesy of this website.
The most recent evidence indicates that crocodilians (which includes alligators) and dinosaurs evolved from a common ancestor that existed subsequent to the common ancestor that they share with other reptiles. So, even though alligators are classified as reptiles along with lizards, snakes, and turtles, they are actually more closely related to birds, whose direct ancestors were dinosaurs!
Alligators are opportunistic feeders. Their diets include prey species that are abundant and easily accessible. Juvenile alligators eat primarily insects, amphibians, small fish, and other invertebrates. Adult alligators eat fish, snakes, turtles, small mammals, and birds.
Fun facts about the roseate spoonbill courtesy of this website.
Like the American flamingo, the roseate spoonbill’s pink color is diet-derived, consisting of the carotenoid pigment canthaxanthin. The colors can range from pale pink to bright magenta, depending on age, whether breeding or not, and location. Unlike herons, spoonbills fly with their necks outstretched. They alternate groups of stiff, shallow wingbeats with glides.
Roseate spoonbills feed in shallow fresh or coastal waters by swinging its bill from side to side as it steadily walks through the water, often in groups. The spoon-shaped bill allows it to sift easily through mud. It feeds on crustaceans, aquatic insects, frogs, newts and very small fish ignored by larger waders.
Fun facts about the river cooter (silly turtles) courtesy of this website. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_cooter
The river cooter basks on logs or sun-warmed rocks and is frequently found in the company of other aquatic basking turtles (sliders and painteds) sometimes piled up on top of each other.
The species P. concinna is highly omnivorous and will eat anything, plant or animal, dead or alive. Diet seems to be determined by available food items. While some writers feel that this species of turtle will not eat meat, predatory behavior has been observed. Although it can’t swallow out of water, it will leave the water to retrieve a tasty bug or worm, returning to the water to swallow.
If you’re dying to know fun facts about turkey vultures visit here.
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