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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Lettuce Lake Park tours offer journey through nature

TAMPA — There was a splash in the water at Lettuce Lake Park on Sunday morning.

The source of the splash was not immediately clear. It might have been a bird, fish, alligator or otter, but none of the humans taking a guided tour along the park’s boardwalk got a look.

As ripples expanded across the water’s surface, a pileated woodpecker tapped a staccato rhythm on a tree across the lake.

Moments later, high above the boardwalk at the park off Fletcher Avenue, just west of Interstate 75, came a bird’s call.

“That’s a Carolina wren,” said Park Ranger Diana Kyle, who was leading the small group. “Hear that? It sings, ‘Pretty me! Pretty me! Pretty me!’ ”

Every Saturday and Sunday morning, the park offers a free guided tour at 8:30 a.m.

On Sunday, Kyle led a group of three, but some weekends groups of 50 or more take the roughly 30-minute tour and often stay for a nature education program. Sunday’s program centered on otters, skunks “and all their stinky friends,” Kyle said.

Among Sunday’s group was Mike and Laura Berendt of Dunedin, who had brand-new binoculars and drove nearly an hour to take the tour.

“I was just here for a teacher camp sponsored by The Audubon Society,” said Laura Berendt, a teacher at Palm Harbor Middle School. “I fell in love with the park and wanted to show my husband.”

Mike Berendt, who used to work in the automotive industry and is now a handy man, spent much of the tour scanning the tree lines. While the Berendts brought binoculars, the park also offers them — courtesy of Audobon — for use on tours.

“We love the outdoors, kayaking and bike riding,” Mike Berendt said. “She’s been telling me all about this. We’ll tell other people, for sure.”

The Berendts have been married 28 years, but many of the dozens of people who took the June 21 and June 22 tours were members of a dating website, Kyle said.

“I’ll get people who come here all the way from Melbourne,” she said. “It’s never just locals.”

In her four years of giving tours, Kyle said she has met people from Norway, Germany and Denmark, adding that the park is a destination for nature photographers.

While it is also a popular place for parents and children, Kyle is quick to tell adults that kids should walk behind them.

“This is truly a wild environment,” she said.

While alligators will typically stay in the water, water moccasins — venomous and notoriously aggressive — are sometimes found lounging on the park’s black asphalt trails.

“People should never walk their dogs along the banks of a river or pond,” Kyle said. “Alligators want to eat things the size of a duck. They don’t know the difference, they’re just looking for a meal.”

As for snakes, Kyle said that going by the adage that poisonous ones have a triangular head isn’t always useful. Water moccasins, for example, will have a distinctive beige stripe on the side of their head.

On Sunday’s tour, Kyle pointed out a 900-year-old cypress tree, apple snail eggs (which grow on trees in clusters that look like fat, red caterpillars) lots of poison ivy and even more birds.

From atop the park’s recently rebuilt, three-story observation tower, Kyle and the Berendts spotted a baby osprey nesting high in a tree across the water.

Above the trees, the wings of a great egret shone brightly in the morning sun.

Far below the baby osprey, one Muscovy duck appeared to float leisurely down the Hillsborough River while another one flew north with urgency.

While much of the information Kyle dispensed Sunday morning was specific to Lettuce Lake Park, some tidbits were applicable anywhere.

“People should not feed any wildlife, whether it’s gators, ducks or squirrels,” she said. “You start feeding squirrels and the next thing you know, they’re climbing up your sleeve, trying to eat a peanut out of your ear.

“It’ll freak you out.”

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