The Deer Prairie Creek Preserve is one of many wonderful natural areas owned by Sarasota County and SWFWMD ( .http://www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/recreation/areas/myakka-deerprairie.html ). It is huge (> 10,000 acres) and offers extensive pine flatwoods and aquatic habitats along the Myakka River and the creek. There is a dam across the creek, dating from the ranching era, which impounds a small but picturesque lake. Unfortunately the dam prevents natural movement of estuarine fish up the creek and the deeper than natural lake becomes stratified and thus can be very low in oxygen. The results of this were clearly obvious when I visited Feb. 8 with a group from Venice Area Audubon Society guided by Susy d’Hont. There were numerous fish rising to the surface of the lake and I interpreted this to mean they were gulping for air, and most likely the exotic walking catfish. A wood stork captured a walking catfish and attempted unsuccessfully to eat it since they are quite spiny. A great blue heron grabbed the fish and was also unable to swallow it. There were a variety of wading birds around the lake, perhaps feeding on less prickly native fish that were stunned/killed by the low oxygen levels. An adult black crowned night heron was perched in an over-hanging live oak.
We saw a pair of red shouldered hawks mating and a well camouflaged southern toad was hopping around, perhaps in anticipation of breeding to come during spring rains. A few pine warblers were singing but we did not hear the beautiful song of the Bachman’s sparrow, which breeds here and will most likely be singing by late February.
The surrounding pine flatwoods was beginning to show some signs of spring. Areas with damp soil had blooming Walter’s viburnum, a fairly early date for flowering. Milkworts such as this yellow bachelor’s buttons were in full bloom along the trails.
So if you are in the mood for a backwoods experience close to N Port and Venice, try a hike/bike at Deer Prairie Creek and observe some of nature’s many beauties.