Ravine Gardens State Park
Since the days of the federal Works Progress Administration when the park was created, birders and non-birders alike have been captivated by the ravine as well as the formal and natural gardens. To really appreciate the extraordinary topography, hike or bike the ravine on the extensive trails, or drive or bike around the ravine on the 1.8-mile Ravine Loop Road. Look for migratory songbirds like Cerulean and Chestnut-sided Warblers in the deciduous slope forest in season, as well as resident woodpeckers, hawks and owls. The loop road is closed to vehicular traffic one hour before sunset, but remains open for pedestrians, bicycles and wheelchairs.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds feed in the gardens in spring/summer; Cedar Waxwings flock near the amphitheater in April. On occasion, the pond at the bottom of the ravine has ducks and wading birds; be on the lookout for Wilson’s Snipe and American Woodcock as well. The park’s checklist includes Eastern Screech-Owl, Wood Thrush, Blue Grosbeak, Baltimore Oriole and Whip-poor-will. This site gets busy from January to April, when visitors descend on the formal gardens to see the thousands of showy azaleas, Chickasaw plums, dogwoods and camellias in bloom. During these months, the best time to visit is early in the morning and during weekdays.
Directions: From the intersection of US 17/SR 100/Reid St. and Moseley Ave. in Palatka, go south on Moseley Ave. for 0.8 mi. Turn left (east) on Twigg St. and drive 0.2 mi. The park entrance (at Ravine Dr.) is on your right.
Caravelle Ranch Wildlife Management Area
Nestled between the Ocklawaha and St. Johns Rivers is the Caravelle Ranch Wildlife Management Area, replete with hardwood river swamps, pine flatwoods, hardwood hammocks and improved pastures punctuated with small depression ponds. The site checklist boasts 120 plus species, with everything from waterbirds to raptors to warblers. Some birds of interest include Limpkin, Barn Owl, Hairy Woodpecker, Purple Gallinule, Sandhill Crane, Least Bittern, Eastern Bluebird and Eastern Meadowlark. If your visit falls during a hunting season, between September and March, you are free to drive into the area, where you will likely see sparrows (Chipping, Savannah, Swamp, Song and Bachman’s), Wild Turkey and wading birds. Waterfowl (Hooded Merganser, Ring-necked Duck and Snow Goose) may be present on Rodman Reservoir and the Cross Florida Barge Canal in winter (three access roads are available off CR 310, west of SR 19—Deep Creek, Canal and Horseshoe). From March to August, groups of Swallow-tailed Kites can be found along the slough or over pastures. Stop at the check station or walk-in entrance for a map and bird checklist to best plan your tour (also available from the FWC website). If your visit falls outside of hunting season, use the walk-through entrance to the property 1.7 miles south of the check station entrance (2.8 miles south of the barge canal bridge) on the east side of the road. A series of three hiking trail loops (up to 4.5 miles) leads through a hammock where you can watch for songbird migrants in spring and autumn. You may also enter through the walk-in gate at the main entrance. Please click here for hunting calendar dates, regulations and more information.
Directions: Take SR 19 south from Palatka for approx. 10 mi. The main entrance is 1.1 mi. south of the Barge Canal bridge on the left (east) side of the road. If approaching from the south, the main entrance is 12 mi. north of the intersection with CR 314.
Welaka National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium
Built in 1926, this warm water hatchery is used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to raise fish for stocking programs throughout the southeast. The 41 production ponds where they raise young fish have attracted wading birds for years. However, instead of driving off the birds, the hatchery constructed a viewing tower for birders! Some of the species encountered by birders are Bald Eagle, Osprey, egrets and herons of all types, Anhinga, Double-crested Cormorant, White Ibis, Wood Stork, Belted Kingfisher and Hooded Merganser, to name a few. For a different experience, hike the 0.75-mile nature trail just north of the observation tower for migratory woodland species and Wild Turkey. Scan the wires around the parking area for Eastern Bluebird too. An aquarium showcasing the hatchery program is located on the east side of the road, 2.7 miles north of the observation tower. Hatchery personnel also conduct excellent group tours, where visitors can see birds as well as learn about fish and hatchery operations. Call ahead for details and reservations for your group.
Directions: From the intersection of SR 20/S. 9th St. and US 17/SR 100/Reid St. in Palatka, take US 17/SR 100/SR 20/Reid St. south for 11.7 mi. to CR 309 in Satsuma. Turn right (southwest) on CR 309 and follow it south for 6 mi. to the aquarium on the left (east) side of the road. The observation tower and production ponds are 2.7 mi. further south on the left (east) side of the road.
Welaka State Forest
Visitors to the Welaka National Fish Hatchery should also explore the Welaka State Forest’s trails to bird the wetlands, flatwoods, sandhills, bayheads and hardwood hammocks. From the parking area south of headquarters, a paved Forest Education Trail (ADA accessible) provides a good interpretation of the forest’s habitats and wildlife. The boardwalk also extends out into the floodplain forest of the St. John’s River, which attracts migratory songbirds like Indigo Buntings, Black-throated Green Warblers and Black-and-white Warblers in October and again in April. The John’s Landing Trail leads south for more than 4.5 miles worth of hiking. Expect Wild Turkeys, Northern Bobwhites, mixed flocks of migrating warblers and Florida Sandhill Cranes nesting in the ephemeral wetlands. Bald Eagles nest nearby and frequently fly over the property. The Mud Spring Trail is 1.7 miles long, and its entrance is north of the Forest Education Trail. Although its birding characteristics are good, it is heavily traveled; visit on a weekday morning for the best experience. Pick up a bird list and trail map at the entrance kiosk or at the forest office, as there are 8 miles of hiking trails and 7 miles of horse trails available. This is a remote area, so bring water and prepare for heat and insects in summer.
Directions: From the intersection of SR 20/S. 9th St. and US 17/SR 100/Reid St. in Palatka, take US 17/SR 100/SR 20/Reid St. south for 11.7 mi. to CR 309 in Satsuma. Turn right (southwest) on CR 309 and go 6.6 mi. to the state forest office, which is 0.5 mi. south of Welaka on the left (east) side of the road. The Mud Spring Trail access is on the right (west) side of the road, 130 yards north of the office. Go 1 mi. south from the office to reach the Forest Education Trail and the John’s Landing trailhead, on the right (west) side of the road.
Ocala National Forest
This Salt Springs site in the Ocala National Forest offers a 2-mile loop trail which leads through scrubby flatwoods down to a hardwood forest along the clear, cold, spring run. Enter at the Salt Springs Recreation Area (fee) for quick access to the water, or park and hike the Salt Springs Trail for free at the trailhead located 1.25 miles south of the recreation area and campground. The trail is scrubby, so you’ll get some migrant songbirds in season. At the water’s edge, look for waders and Limpkins. A blue-blazed, 4-mile trail connects the recreation area with the orange-blazed Florida National Scenic Trail, which runs north/south for 66 miles through the Ocala National Forest. You can also paddle the Salt Springs Canoe Trail, which leads from the recreation area to Lake George, the second largest lake in Florida. Anytime you are driving in the national forest, watch for Florida Scrub-Jays perched on the wires when you’re passing their optimum habitat – scrub oak brush about 5 feet tall. Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW) trees are marked with white painted bands; clusters occur throughout the forest. For information on specific RCW sites, call the Forest office at (352) 625-2520. Salt Springs is a popular swimming location and gets quite busy, so birding is best in the mornings and on weekdays. Look for Juniper Hairstreak near the spring. Seasonal hunting occurs at this site; see page 127 for dates, regulations and more information.
Directions: Salt Springs is located on SR 19 approx. 0.6 mi. north of the intersection with CR 314 on the northeast side of the Ocala National Forest. The hiking trailhead is 1.25 mi. south of the Salt Springs Recreation Area, on the east side of SR 19.
Etoniah Creek State Forest
Visitors to the 8,876-acre Etoniah Creek State Forest/Wildlife Management Area have plenty of ground to cover; one could easily spend all day getting acquainted with this site, as there is so much to see. Twelve miles of multi-use trails are at your disposal, and numerous miles of unpaved forest roads are accessible to most vehicles, although some roads are closed outside of hunting season. One of the area’s most diverse Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail locations in terms of habitat, this site has frontage on a 770-acre lake and protects sandhills, pine flatwoods, scrub, hardwoods, freshwater swamp and freshwater wetlands, plus miles of charming, tannic streams and open fields as well. There are three main access points, described here from west to east. On the 4.75-mile Longleaf Pine Trail (part of the Florida Forest Service’s Trailwalker Program), look for Southeastern American Kestrel, Northern Bobwhite, Pine Warbler, Downy Woodpecker and Northern Flicker. Glimpsing the marvelous patch of Etoniah Rosemary, only found in Putnam County, is your reward for reaching the end of the trail (bring water and your camera). George’s Lake Trail off Tinsley Rd. is a short path leading through bottomland hardwoods (listen for Yellow-throated, White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos, Red-shouldered Hawk and Carolina Wren) to a lakeside observation deck where wading birds, Fish Crow, Red-winged Blackbird and Bald Eagle may put in an appearance. Explore scrub and flatwoods communities at the Holloway Day Use Area (access fee charged) where you may spy Red-headed Woodpecker and Eastern Towhee. Visitors can either hike or bike along interior forest roads to listen for Bachman’s Sparrow, Brown-headed Nuthatch and Common Yellowthroat. At the picnic area by the first creek crossing, don’t miss the chance to eavesdrop on Hooded Warbler and Northern Parula along the banks.
The forest is home to mammals such as Sherman’s Fox Squirrel, Florida Mouse, Bobcat, Southeastern Pocket Gopher and Gray Fox, and serves as a vital travel corridor for Florida Black Bear. Pig Frog, Bronze Frog, Southern Toad, Six-lined Racerunner, Gopher Tortoise, Little Brown Skink and Black and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are some of the other wildlife species you may observe. Primitive camping is allowed by permit; listen for the calls of Great Horned Owl and Chuck-wills-widow as you drift off to sleep. Hunting takes place at this site; please Click Here for information on dates, regulations and more. Contact the office for additional information on access via special use permits.
Directions: From US 17 in Palatka, drive northwest on SR 100/Reid St. 12.7 mi. to Holloway Rd. Turn right (north) and proceed 2.5 mi. to the main entrance at Fieldhouse Rd. on the right (east). To reach the other access points, continue north on Holloway Rd. for 1.1 mi. Turn left (west) onto Tinsley Rd. and go 0.6 mi. for the George’s Lake Trail on the right (north side) and 1.9 mi. for the Longleaf Pine Trail on the left (south side). From SR 100 in Florahome, travel north on Coral Farms Rd. for 4.1 mi. to reach Tinsley Rd. or continue east on SR 100 for 2.3 mi. to Holloway Rd.