110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
By Susan Young
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WATER. Watch the sunset reflected in the dark mirror of the St. Johns. Listen to the sandhill cranes call as they fly across the water. Feel the weight of a bass as you release it back into its river home. Volusia’s conservation and recreation areas are all linked to the St. Johns. From sprawling Lake George in northwest Volusia to DeBary's Gemini Springs, their boating, birding and trails are all based around the lakes, river and springs. Even “high and dry” Lyonia Preserve in Deltona is an important recharge area for the watershed. These “jewels” are valuable to us for recreation and contemplation, but they are also priceless for protecting our water supply and our wildlife habitats. I hope you’ll join me in visiting one of these special sites soon.
There are precious few places left in the world where wild birds will come land on you, looking to start a conversation. Just like an oxpecker, a scrub jay will light on your head or binoculars, looking for ticks and flies. They'll perch on your water bottle and swipe water from it, too!
Florida scrub jays are fascinating, highly intelligent social creatures. They look more like blue mockingbirds (no crest), and they "talk" with gronking and clicking noises (no "jay-ing"). Unfortunately, due to dwindling habitat, they're also rare. Birders and researchers from around the world study them.
The most "urban" place to visit with scrub jays (and get in a nice hike, too) is Lyonia Preserve. Would you believe it's located right behind the Deltona Regional Library, within the city of Deltona? (You can also see a few scrub jays, and wild turkeys, too, at nearby Blue Spring, Lake Monroe Conservation Area, and Gemini Springs.)
The Lyonia scrub preserve hosts many plant and animal species endemic (unique to) scrub habitat. Nearly two dozen plants and 10 animal species within the habitat are protected by the State of Florida. Plans for Lyonia Preserve include an Environmental Learning Center.
Special events: Earth Day
Lake George Conservation Area
This site is home to one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states!
Lake George is the second-largest lake in Florida. Its palm and cypress-lined shores are home to bass and alligators. This conservation area is near Pierson, and boasts 8,500 acres, mostly in pine. Nearly 5 miles of horseback trails, a 1-mile interpretive trail, a fishing pier, and a picnic shelter are current amenities. There's a small boat put-in too.
The site allows hunting during normal seasons.
Note: Lake George State Forest, including the Bluffton Recreation Area (near Astor), is managed by the Florida Department of Forestry.
Hickory Bluff Preserve
Perched on a bluff over the St. Johns River, this 150-acre site also hosts an eagle's nest. Otters, alligators, manatees, ospreys, barred owls and pileated woodpeckers all live along the river. Two trails loop through a variety of habitats, including oak hammocks and cypress domes. Along these trails, you might find bobcat tracks or green-fly orchids.
Fishing from the bank might yield bass, bream, shad, catfish, or even a pickerel. This relatively new site near Osteen has a picnic shelter and parking corral. Plans for its development may include a kayak put-in.
These three conservation areas are managed by Volusia County Land Management. County Naturalist Bonnie Cary creates marvelous tours and educational opportunities on these sites. Check at www.volusia.org, or call the county at (386) 740-5261 for schedules.
One of Volusia's best waterside birding sites, this county park is tucked between Enterprise and DeBary.
Gemini has bicycling, walking trails, canoe rentals and a fishing dock. It also features a shady, fenced dog park. Recently, a multiple-use paved trail was added from the edge of Gemini Springs Park to the St. Johns River. Park in the Dirksen Drive lot or at the Lake Monroe end of the park to access the trail.
This trail is the beginning of a West Volusia spring-to-spring trail that will run from Gemini Springs in DeBary to DeLeon Springs State Park on the north. For more park information, see the county's Leisure Services section at www.volusia.org, or call (386) 668-3810.
Special events: Riverfest
DeLeon Springs State Park
Brian Polk, park manager at DeLeon Springs, says, "Take an eco/history boat trip with the Fountain of Youth Tours: a 45-minute trip to Spring Garden Lake, and an hour-and-a-half trip to Lake Woodruff. Look for alligators, bald eagles, otters, and many species of wading birds. Birding is excellent. Bring your binoculars and bird book." (And bring your relatives and friends.)
"After your tour," Polk adds, "take a dip in the 72-degree spring and enjoy pancakes, lunch and ice cream at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant." (They serve until 4 p.m., and sell Florida books and gifts.)
Kayaks, canoes, tubes, and pedal-boats can be rented at this park, too. Rare carnivorous plants are found on the hiking trail.
Special events: Civil War re-enactments
Blue Spring State Park
Famous as a place to watch manatees in the wintertime, Blue Spring on the west side of Orange City is also a good place to get on the water. It's the home of St. Johns River Tours. Owner and captain Ron Woxberg says, "We feel a special kinship with this meandering waterway, its cypress-covered shoreline, great stands of oak hammocks and myriad birds and wildlife."
Also offered are kayak tours. So hop aboard, and enjoy the St. Johns; there's something new around every bend.
Blue Spring State Park also offers canoe rentals, concessions and a gift shop, a hiking trail and rental cabins.
Special events: The Manatee Festival
Hontoon Island State Park
Take the free ferryboat to this island park, and watch for ospreys, anhingas ("turkey birds"), limpkins and other wading birds. The shady hiking trail has a "bear tree" where they've sharpened their claws.
"Hontoon is rarely as crowded as Blue Spring, and is a great place to enjoy a quiet afternoon fishing, hiking, or simply enjoying nature," says Park Manager Robert Rundle.
For more information on these and other marvelous state parks, visit http://www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/.
Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge
Famous for its "snowbirds," a pair of extremely rare whooping cranes, the National Wildlife Refuge near DeLeon Springs also hosts hundreds of swallow-tailed kites in the summer. The miles of impoundments are managed to benefit waterfowl, including fulvous whistling ducks, wood ducks, teals and mergansers.
Visitors can hike, bike, and visit the lookout tower to watch for rare species. Boaters can access from DeLeon Springs State Park or Highland Park Fish Camp. (However, camping is not allowed in the refuge.)
Stop by headquarters for a map and to visit the gift shop. Visit online at http://www.fws.gov, or call (386) 985-0926.
Special events: Tours led by members of the Audubon Society or the Friends of the Refuge
Informational Web sites
Florida native Susan Young is an award-winning freelance outdoors writer, photographer and illustrator. Susan's professional affiliations include the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association, the Florida Outdoor Writers Association, and the League of American Pen Women. Her specialties include fishing, kayaking, hiking, birding, eco-tourism, environmental education and native plants.
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