By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
Okeeheelee Nature Center, situated within the 1,700-acre Okeeheelee Park not far from I-95 and Florida’s Turnpike, is beloved by birders as well as those who want to enjoy a quiet walk through unspoiled nature.
“I think of us as a little oasis in the city,” says Heather Moody, manager of the center in West Palm Beach.
Most of the original 1,000-acre parcel, acquired in 1973 for the park, was a shell-rock mine studded with mine pits and gouged earth. But as the park took shape, a 90-acre area along its northern border was discovered to have never been mined or developed.
The county decided to turn that bit of pristine habitat into a nature center, which opened in 1992, says Moody.
The pine flatwood forest filled with slash pines, cabbage palms and saw palmettos is interspersed with ponds. The area is home to lots of wildlife, including native white-tailed deer that are kept in a six-acre compound for their own safety. After all, a native bobcat has been spotted on the property.
Begin your exploration of the area by visiting the butterfly garden that winds around the exhibit building. Here, the candle bush is covered with yellow sulphurs that use it as a host plant.
Coontie is the sole host plant for the caterpillars of atala butterflies, which, once near extinction, are now in abundance. And the multiflora passion flowers attract the bright orange Gulf fritillaries.
From here you are welcome to wander the two-and-a-half miles of interconnected trails that are either paved or covered with sand and pine needles. A map, available at the Nature Center, makes them easy to navigate.
“I always say you might get lost, but you won’t get lost for long if you just keep walking,” says Moody.
Throughout the park, the feeders, ponds and native flora attract small birds, water birds, owls, hawks and raptors. “This is a big birder spot. And I’ve been told that this is the place to see painted buntings,” says Moody.
These colorful birds usually start arriving when the weather begins turning cool. “By November and December, they are rocking and rolling,” she says. “They stay into March or April when they start tapering off, but they always come back.”
Other species you might see are warblers, ovenbirds and a brown thrasher that has been spotted near feeders at the Nature Center.
But perhaps the center’s biggest claim to fame is its gopher tortoise population. The tortoises historically would have been in this habitat but, because of the mining operation, they abandoned it.
In the 1980s, more than 80 of them were relocated to the property from a construction site near The Gardens mall.
Since then, the tortoises have settled into their burrows and grown to a population of about 100.
“It’s pretty much a guarantee that you are going to see one when you come here,” says Moody.
And when forest fires flare up, these same burrows have protected tortoises and other animals that call them home.
As you walk the trails, you’ll notice many of the palm trees have charred trunks. Wildfires are nature’s method of eliminating debris from the forest so the sun can reach the wild coffee, coco plums, muscadine grapes, shiny blueberries, beauty berries, ferns and other plants that grow beneath the canopy.
But in this populated area, natural fires are too dangerous to let burn. So, in order to help prevent wildfires yet maintain the forest, the area is subject to controlled burns. The last one was about four years ago, says Layna Moehl, the center’s full-time naturalist and volunteer coordinator. The next one is slated for 2020.
As you wander through these woods or stand on the edge of the marsh, you can’t help but understand the importance of these native habitats that deserve to be protected and maintained.
If You Go...
Okeeheelee Nature Center is at Okeeheelee Park, 7715 Forest Hill Blvd., West Palm Beach. Follow the signs from the entrance to the Nature Center.
Information: www.pbcparks.com or 233-1400.
Hours: The Nature Center exhibit building is open 1 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday. The trails are open daily, dawn to dusk.
Admission: Okeeheelee Park, Nature Center and trails are free.
Programs: For information about programs presented at the Nature Center including nature walks, raptor and deer walks as well as yoga classes, visit the center on Facebook or at http://discover.pbcgov.org/parks/OkeeheeleeCenter/UpcomingPrograms.aspx
Volunteers: Are always needed. Volunteers do everything from clearing underbrush to planting bushes to feeding the eight white-tailed deer on the property. Contact Nature Center manager Heather Moody, 233-1407 or HMoody@pbcgov.org.
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at email@example.com.