On our Tuesday Fun Days, we try and find places and things to do that are within an hours drive from Cedar Key. This weeks destination would be the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park that is right off Route 19 in the town of Homosassa. From Cedar Key, this is a little more than an hours drive, but only a few minutes more, so not that big of a deal for us.
The park opens at 9am and is open till 5pm, but due to training our new bartender Jay, back at the Tiki Bar this evening, we needed to be back in Cedar Key by 3pm. I’d have much rather taken the entire day to tour the park at our leisure, and take in the various programs they offer, but that’ll have to be saved for the next visit.
Scott and Karen picked us up at 8:30am and we were on our way South looking forward to another fun day. In Inglis, we stopped for breakfast at the Hickory Island Restaurant. We all filled up on tasty Southern style cooking and had a really nice waitress that offered great service. This will have to be our breakfast stop when heading South from now on.
With full bellies, we breezed through Crystal River and found the Homosassa State Park which is right off of HWY 19. The parking lot is huge, has an area for big RV’s and along the southern most section of the lot, you can park below the trees this time of year and have the vehicle nice and shaded.
Cindy let me know that she was here to enjoy herself today, and didn’t want to carry a camera the entire time. I had no idea what to expect with this park and how close we’d be able to get to the wildlife, but if we’re both lugging cameras, then I usually carry two, one with a super-wide angle and one with a medium telephoto. I usually have Cindy carry another body with a longer telephoto lens so we have the entire gamut of focal lengths covered. This left me pondering what to do?
I ended up grabbing both full-frame bodies with one super-wide angle lens and one medium telephoto zoom lens. I would later regret this and should have grabbed the Canon 7D body with the Sigma 50-500mm lens simply for the longer reach the 500mm lens would have offered. I had decided to leave this in the van thinking the place wouldn’t have good light, but later found out that the morning cloud cover would burn off and the entire park is outdoors, except for the small reptile room. The longer focal length of that Sigma lens would have helped me get better shots, but I’ll know this for future reference as this will be a place I’ll return to again and again.
Another good item to know is if you’re a AAA member, you get a 20% discount for up to 6 people. Luckily Scott and Karen keep their AAA membership up to date so we got the discount. Cindy and I have let our membership lapse since we’ve been living in Cedar Key. We both rarely leave the island and didn’t see the need it keeping it current since I could probably push the truck the length of the island, or just walk anywhere I’d need to go if it was to break down.
Once we were paid up and inside the entrance, we hopped on a water taxi that brings you down a narrow canal to where the actual state park is located. The story goes that this park was once a privately owned exotic animal park back in the day. With new regulations and permits being enacted about private ownership of exotics, the owner offered to give the park to the state as long as it would remain a park and open to the public.
The ferry boats they use are big pontoons that hold about 25 people. They’re run off of 6hp Ray Electric motor that run perfectly quiet and surprisingly fast for how big the boat is and how many people were aboard. That is my dream to have a big pontoon run off of an electric motor that is charged via a bank of solar panels. That would be the ultimate birding boat or just recreational boat that would be pollution free!
While motoring over to the main park, we floated right past a Barred Owl that was only a few feet from the boat and just quietly watched us as we passed. It was great to see it so close and in its natural setting. Cindy and I try our hardest to photograph animals in their natural and wild settings, but sometimes its fun to visit places like this just for the experience. Another thing we’ve found is many open air parks like that have lots of birds that come and go as they please, so even though we’re in a park, we’re still photographing wild animals.
The cool thing about the Homosassa Wildlife Park is they’re also a Rehabilitation Center for animals that are injured, or for animals that have been injured too seriously to ever return back into the wild. They have multiple birds that have lost wings, or have broken wings that cant or wont heal properly. This allows them to live out their life in comfort and not just be put to sleep. Sort of like a Nursing Home for Wildlife.
The four of us spent a few hours just wandering around on the wide boardwalk that circles the park. There is lots of shade, plenty of benches if you want to sit and take a break and even a concession serving drinks and snacks in case you forgot to bring any. This is a very nice State Park with top notch services, plenty of volunteers keeping it maintained and reminded me of Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville which is a privately owned and run park that is probably one of the cleanest, best run parks we’ve visited while in Florida.
Probably my favorite feature of the park was the Underwater Observatory they’ve built that is directly above the Homosassa Spring. This observatory allows you to walk out above the spring and look down into the crystal clear waters where hundreds of hundreds of fish school in the warm, fresh water. You can then walk down into the floating bubble and look through the thick glass and get a better angle of the fish. I could probably spend hours just standing here looking through the glass. It made me want to be swimming in the spring with my underwater housing!
Being as we had to be home to open the Tiki Bar, we couldn’t spend the entire day here, but like I said, this will probably be a park we’ll return to again and again. I’d love to come back when nesting season is in full swing. It’s just starting right now, so in a month or so, this should be a great area to visit and get some nice shots of the egrets, blue herons and various birds that nest above the alligator swamps.