By Saundra Amrhein
Down the road from a busy intersection in New Port Richey, Fla., you turn off the blacktop and onto a pebbled entrance, and pull into what could have been the setting for Jurassic Park.
Barbed palm trees and tall pines and stately oaks rise up from a river bottom and its backwaters, Spanish moss draping from branches – the foliage forming a canopy over a haven for eagles, owls, manatees and deer.
On a steamy afternoon, kayakers glide by on the brandy-colored Pithlachascotee River – stained by tannins from nearby cypress tree detritus – as visitors on foot look out over the water for signs of porpoises or alligators.
The James E. Grey Preserve in New Port Richey is 80 acres of Florida wilderness and wildlife right in the heart of this city on Florida’s west-central coast less than 40 miles north of Tampa. It’s located on Plathe Road just west of Rowan Road.
Bought by the city in 1997, the preserve was reopened to the public ten years later after a $630,000 makeover that included picnic shelters, restrooms, a parking lot and a boardwalk over the river that leads to a fishing pier. Boaters can launch kayaks here. It is also on the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail.
“You could stand there and see a really cool bird and then see three manatees come right under you,” says Mike Ranck, a board member of the West Pasco Audubon Society.
Ranck is a regular visitor to the park. On this late afternoon, he readies a pair of binoculars strapped around his neck.
The park, he says, is a popular spot all year for bird watchers coming through Pasco County – which typically ranks among the highest in the state for noted bird species. The year before, more than 160 species of birds were tallied in Pasco for the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count.
The region is considered a convergence area, he says – the northern range for certain migrating sub-tropical birds and the southern range for certain northern birds.
In late fall and winter, bird watchers at the park can see robins, red-bellied woodpeckers, eagles, thrashers, screech owls, egrets or herons. Spring migrant birds favor a silk oak tree in the park. Ranck has often seen swallow-tailed kites in the spring and summer.
Ranck stops on the boardwalk and trains his binoculars skyward. The only sounds are the song of cicadas, a crow’s squawking, the rustling of a squirrel through the branches, and the faint, far-off laughter from a picnicking family.
He points out a leatherleaf fern whose fronds feel as tough and thick as boot.
“It looks prehistoric, it’s so big,” he says.
Two black swallowtail butterflies flit by. Ranck lifts his binoculars to gaze at a pine tree with two perfectly circular holes near the top – likely created by nesting woodpeckers – and where a few weeks back he spotted a screech owl. On another tree he focuses his binoculars on the purple lips of wild clamshell orchids. A little farther down the boardwalk, a red cardinal zips between the trees.
The best time to visit, Ranck says as he nears the parking lot, is in the early mornings when the birds and wildlife are most active. Just then, two ruby-throated humming birds dart past in circles above a firebush and then disappear into the trees.
“This is convenient for a lot of people,” he says, “but a lot of people don’t know it’s here.”
If you go…
James Grey Preserve