If a walk in the woods without the jingle of bells sounds like a peaceful retreat, try a guided hike at the 8,700-acre Brooker Creek Preserve in the East Lake area.
A hike this time of the year offers sights and sounds unseen and unheard during the summer. Many of those differences, like the existence of the preserve itself, revolve around water.
"Water levels are receding because we're entering our dry season," said James Stevenson, Pinellas County Extension specialist and Brooker Creek Preserve naturalist. "That means fish are being concentrated into smaller pools. As such, we have a greater concentration of all the fishers — birds that fish, the alligators that fish, even the otters."
Merganser ducks migrate from the North in winter and can be found at Brooker too.
The preserve is home to a wide variety of cranes, egrets and storks as well as gophers, rabbits, tortoises and deer. Hardwoods, cypress trees and pines dot the area, along with palmettos and wildflowers.
"The guided hike primarily covers a 0.7-mile education center loop, which takes visitors through a variety of different ecosystems and habitats," Stevenson said.
And though you won't find Rudolph in the preserve, the chance you will see deer is high.
"Deer are in their rut, meaning it's their breeding season," Stevenson said. "The males are sporting racks of antlers and are being less secretive than they are the rest of the year. We've seen them many mornings when we drive into the preserve. And we have had many visitors this month who reported seeing deer and have sent in photographs of our resident populations."
Since the weather is cooler than in the dead heat of summer, reptile lovers will see more turtles, snakes and alligators sunning themselves.
If native plants and flowers are of more interest than animals, winter months in the preserve offer a real treat.
"In the absence of some of the leaves on our semi-deciduous trees, you can get a look at epiphytes that are found few other places outside the preserve," Stevenson said. "We have a lot of air plants and very colorful lichen."
Those lichen, which create a good photo opportunity, are a mixture of organisms that paint the bark of trees pink, gray, green and white.
Stevenson, who recently taught a class on the exploration of orchids and air plants, said there are plants easily seen this time of year that are absent or hidden in summer.
There will be plenty to see and talk about on the guided hike, which starts at 9 a.m. on Saturdays. Why so early? Because morning offers hikers a few distinct advantages.
Wildlife is more active in the morning, rustling through the woods and outside the thicket searching for food. Plus, morning light can create stunning photographs. Also, hiking with a trained guide rather than trekking along with a pamphlet gives hikers the chance to ask questions.
Be sure to wear comfortable close-toed shoes on the hike. About a third of the path is a boardwalk; the rest is unpaved forest floor, sandy and uneven. Bring water too, and a snack if needed for the hike, which can last two hours.
The hike is not in a lecture format, so participants often learn from each other in the groups, which range from seven to 10 people. Children ages 6 and older can join in the guided tours. Since last December, 614 people have enjoyed a hike in the woods and walked away a bit more knowledgeable about nature.
"We're a cooperative between Pinellas County government and the University of Florida providing research-based information to the citizens for free," Stevenson said. "The intent of our guided hikes is to showcase the wonderful natural area we have that is the preserve. The loss of habitat would mean the loss of these kinds of wonderful plants, animals and places. This place is special and unique in Pinellas County."