At the Circle B Bar Reserve, about an hour from Orlando, visitors can get remarkably close views of alligators, eagles, owls, roseate spoonbills and other wildlife. - Chris Zuppa and Willie J. Allen Jr. for VISIT FLORIDA

    See Wildlife Up Close at the Circle B  Bar Reserve

    Curtis Krueger

     

    LAKELAND -- When someone posted images of a monstrous alligator at a Central Florida nature preserve awhile ago, the footage quickly went viral.

    But to people who know the Circle B Bar Reserve, only about an hour from Orlando’s theme parks, the sight was not so unusual. Visitors to the “Circle B” are used to getting remarkably close views of alligators, eagles, owls, roseate spoonbills and other wildlife.

    “You’re going to see nature very, very close up in their natural habitat, and not in a zoo,” said Jeff Spence, director of the Polk County Parks and Natural Resources Division. “You sometimes will be surprised by a bobcat or a gator walking across the trail.”

    Birders and photographers love Circle B because it’s home to more than 200 bird species, including egrets, osprey, pelicans, snail kites, sandhill cranes and more. It’s not uncommon to see osprey and egrets swooping down over Lake Hancock, plucking fish out of the water.  It’s also easy to get to, about an hour southwest of Orlando.

    The history of the Circle B Bar Reserve helps explain why it’s such a good place to see native Florida wildlife. For years, it was a working cattle ranch. But in 2000 the 1,267-acre property was jointly purchased by Polk County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, to return it to a wilderness state.

    Trails from the old ranch still cut across the preserve, giving visitors easy access to the marshy, lakefront and upland environments.

    “And so you’re right in the midst of a swamp or a marsh system and there’s lots of birds in it. The birds seem to know that people are not going to get off the trail, and so you can get amazingly close,” Spence said.

    You can’t predict exactly what you’ll see on a given day. But in my half a dozen visits, I’ve never failed to get remarkable views of wildlife -- and sometimes pictures to match.

    On my first visit with my friend, Paul, a few years ago, we were thrilled to see eagles flying into a distant tree-top nest. I managed a few shots with my telephoto lens. On our next visit, we got an even bigger thrill -- an eagle beating its wings and flying right off the tree branches above us.

    On other trips, I’ve seen owls perched in high branches draped with Spanish moss, elegant sandhill cranes tending to their eggs and, one time, 10 baby alligators writhing near their mother.

    My friends Paul and Dave and I were disappointed one time because we hadn’t seen many wading birds or other wildlife. Then, in a heart-stopping moment, a bobcat calmly walked up the trail and passed by us. Amazingly, all three of us had our cameras out and we all got pictures.

    That’s the kind of thing that happens at Circle B.

    There is no entrance fee at the Circle B Bar Reserve. Start your visit at the Nature Discovery Center, where you can pick up a map and talk to staff and volunteers about wildlife they’ve spotted recently.

    Early mornings are good for viewing birds and beating the heat. For a nice 1.5-mile loop, try the Alligator Alley trail to see gators and wading birds in Lake Hancock, and return via Heron Hideaway through the marsh. You also can try longer 2-mile and 3-mile loops, on bicycles if you wish. Winter, spring and fall are the most popular seasons.

    And what if you happen to see a huge alligator lumbering across the trail?

    Stop, be safe and use common sense, Spence said. Never feed or disturb a gator. “You give it wide berth. You may have to turn around go back the way you came.”

    But chances are good you’ll see wildlife that way, too.

    When you go…
    Circle B Bar Reserve
    4399 Winter Lake Rd., Lakeland
    Admission: Free

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