Yesterday I visited Lettuce Lake, a nature reserve park east of Tampa, Florida. The park is situated next to the University of South Florida on the Hillsborough River. The environment is classic backwater swamp habitat. Big cypress trees with characteristic “knees” line the waterways. All other ground in the river basin is soggy if not completely immersed under deep vegetation and methane-freckled water.
I went there specifically for the birds, but there were plenty of people tromping around the boardwalk path that snakes through the woods. My feet were tired from a morning run of five miles, so I wasn’t in for a huge-ass hike anyway. I could have done a quick stint at Lettuce Lake and headed north for a much larger preserve east of Spring Hill on the way home, but something told me to stay put.
The weather was classic Florida. Eighty degrees and calm except for the thermals carrying large flocks of vultures above the woods. They wheeled and spun, crossing each other’s paths as jets heading into Tampa Airport sailed behind.
Most of the bird action was not focused above, but within feet of the walkways. Hung on the moss-covered trees were large flocks of white ibis. Their voices sound digital, clucking and chucking like a video game stuck in repeat. The requisite white egrets were there too, but I can get them at home too.
Instead, I wanted to see real Florida birds, and was not disappointed to hear the calls of Limpkins carrying through the woods. They hunt for large snails to eat in the deep muck, and can’t be seen while wading through the tall “lettuce” of water plants. So I cheated and played a limpkin call on my bird app and like magic, a limpkin head popped up from the green void looking for the source of the call.
I’d see several more before the day was through. Their olive-green plumage flecked with white streaks was perfect coloration in the deep shadows. Then I saw an individual within ten feet of the walkway plunge its head into the water and pull out a large black snail. “There,” I thought ot myself, “Is the source of life itself.”
We all need sustenance in this world. We need food for nutrition, water to hydrate our bodies that are 75% water, and air to breathe. To witness a formerly rare bird take its meal in an environment so unique to Central Florida was a moment to cherish.
I decided to walk even more slowly, and so things turned up that I might otherwise have missed. There was a modest-sized alligator lolling on a dirt hummock. Its dark skin was lumped with spikes and knobs. It looked so quiet it was hard to image such a creature could move quickly. We all like to think we’re faster than other animals in nature, but it isn’t true. Not for the average human being anyway. While visiting this time around, I golfed with my brother-in-law and we recalled the news story in which a father wading in a pond with his child in Central Florida was horrified to see a large gator take his child out from his grasp.
Yes, we’re generally isolated from such terrors in nature. Yet even people in Illinois have ot watch their small dogs lest they be snatched by coyotes.
So it’s a bit of a desperate balance we seek to achieve by setting up parks such as Lettuce Lake. Lifted above the muck and water by the boardwalk, there are not many dangers to encounter. The cool reminder of this safety was a water moccasin coiled on a hummock just below the trail. It had the prototypical diamond-shaped head of a poisonous snake. Those venom sacks take up space in the head. So do the fangs.
As the evening sun sank lower the birds settled into a heavy feeding pattern. I saw a white phase Little Blue Heron and then a giant white Wood stork with its naked, bare head. These birds are still threatened by diminished habitat in Florida. They need plenty of accessible food and the human population down here is hungry for land as well. While elderly come here to retire, the birds only hope of survival is this spit of land sticking down into the Gulf of Mexico.
After the long, slow walk through the woods I was happily tired and thirsty. The wildlife encounters were sweet and vital. The human intrusion was noisy and at points almost insanely unaware of the wonders around them. But that’s the price of having a preserve so close to a big city. Perhaps everyone absorbs some sense of nature just by walking through it. You might not know it, but you also never know.
After all, it’s the local 5K race that motivates so many people to “try it” and embark on what often turns out to be a life-changing experience. We can only hope that happens for this planet before it’s too late for the animals, or for us.
Written in the Tampa airport.