St. Petersburg — The Canterbury School ninth-graders leaned on the railings of the observation deck, calling their teachers' attention to an exciting new sighting at Sawgrass Lake Park.
Twenty-four hours earlier, they'd visited Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville, a hard act to follow.
"It was a pretty spectacular day, seeing eagles and whooping cranes and bison, but we warned the kids that we probably couldn't top that today," said English teacher Joyce Brown. "But we walked in and we've hardly gotten anywhere. There's so much to see."
"There are seven species (of birds) right here," interjected Sean Murphy, a science teacher who waved to the canal off the observation deck.
In fact, say parks officials, many more birds, snakes, bees, butterflies and other wildlife are making their home in Sawgrass Lake Park, the 400-acre expanse that boasts one of the largest maple swamps on Florida's gulf coast.
Parks employees have no scientific evidence to base it on, but attribute the burgeoning wildlife population to the department's 3-year-old "no mow" program that is allowing certain areas of the park to return to their natural state.
"Anecdotally, we've witnessed not only an increase in the bird activities, but also pollinating insects, bees and butterflies," said Lyle Fowler, operations manager with the Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources Department.
"It has the beneficial side effect of helping us with our budgets," he said of the decision to let some areas remain unmowed. "We endeavored to undertake the issue for the resource-restoration value, but we do think it does offer some economic savings as well."
In an e-mail, he added, "Since 2007 our budget has been reduced by over $7 million, or 32 percent, and our staff has been reduced by 46 percent, leaving 143 total employees."
Also, in October, the Environmental Lands Division was eliminated and a new consolidated department, Parks and Conservation Resources, took on the responsibility of the county's preserves and land management areas.
Addressing the no-mowing zones on its website, the county said the measure saves money not only in staff time and equipment, but also cuts down on energy, fertilizers and insect killers. Eventually, the website states, native plants will replace grasses and give "critters a place to hide and eat."
The program, introduced at all county parks about three years ago, has been proceeding gradually, said Fowler, who is responsible for parks south of Ulmerton. At Sawgrass, tucked into a quiet neighborhood at 7400 25th St. N, workers have stopped mowing along the lake bank and the top of most mounds.
"Generally speaking, we have looked to areas of the parks that are lesser used. Areas around the picnic shelters and play areas, we continue to mow, albeit at a lesser frequency," Fowler said. "Areas that are more remote, we are allowing to recover to a more natural state. At Walsingham Park (in Largo), we used to mow those open fields. We are letting those recover."
He speculated that some of the additional bird sightings at Sawgrass — already a destination for birders from across the country — also could be due to the lower level of Sawgrass Lake, which is being cleaned up by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Lower water levels, Fowler said, might be exposing areas along the lake bank for birds to forage.
Friday morning, regulars and visitors basked in the idyllic setting. A mother pushed a stroller, an elderly couple walked their dog and exercise buffs moved purposefully along the boardwalk flanked by trees draped in Spanish moss.
Only a few minutes into the park, the Canterbury teachers had been able to point out a snowy egret, a great white egret, a roseate spoonbill, a wood stork, a gallinule, an anhinga, a great blue heron and a white ibis.
Student Adam Berner spotted an osprey.
"There are so many birds to see that are really cool," the 14-year-old said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.