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March for Parks offers a wild view

The Withlacoochee State Trail event includes displays of predatory birds, snakes, butterflies and native plants.

[Times photo: Kevin White]
Jamie Gabisch, 10, left, and Michelle Martin, 9, play with Rosa, a guide dog, at March for Parks on the Withlacoochee State Trail on Sunday.

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


RIDGE MANOR -- In a sense, it seems odd that a state forest trying to attract more visitors would invite the public out to see all of the venomous snakes and predatory birds native to the area.

But folks on the Withlacoochee State Trail must have known what they were doing Saturday, when March for Parks 2001 drew scores of visitors on a cool, overcast day.

Of course the trail -- a 46-mile stretch of pavement that follows an abandoned railroad route through Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties -- is a place that offers a glimpse of the wilderness without actually forcing you to get your shoes dirty.

It goes through forest and wetland areas, offering views of everything from turkeys and bobcats to deer, snakes, alligators and -- on rare occasions -- black bears.

But the path followed by walkers, hikers and bicyclists is a 12-foot wide swath of pavement on a corridor that, for decades, kept the trees and foliage clipped back to a distance they still haven't overcome.

All the venomous snakes on display at Saturday's event were in cages. All the predatory birds with their impressive talons -- including a barred owl, a burrowing owl and an American kestrel -- were under the command of handlers. And the only black bear around was present in hide only, the victim of a collision with a car.

They are animals that likely will appear soon at an elementary school assembly near you. Yet participants in Saturday's March for Parks -- which also featured displays on native plants, butterflies and wildlife conservation -- say that the animals served their purpose. They drew people out to learn more about the Withlacoochee State Forest and wildlife native to the area.

Delores and Paul Kiefer of Dade City usually prefer to rough it in more offbeat wilderness areas. But they enjoyed March for Parks just the same. "To see the animals is a big thing," Delores Kiefer said. "Most people see them only from afar."

They were particularly fond of the barred owl being displayed by the people from the La Guardar Inc. Wildlife Center in Webster. The stately bird, with deep brown eyes and a thick coat of feathers, had part of its wing amputated after it struck a power line in flight.

Barred owls, common in many places, are frequently seen over the Withlacoochee State Trail, said La Guardar's Judi Carter.

Linda Vanderveen, a bear enthusiast who brought the black bear skin, was dishing out facts about the habits of Florida's bear population. And she found people visiting the March for Parks to be receptive.

"I thought people out here on the trail would be interested in wild areas and wild life," she said.

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