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John Chesnut Park, where the deer and their offspring play

EAST LAKE

On a recent morning in John Chesnut Park, a group of deer munched on twigs and leaves by the side of the road, seemingly indifferent to several passersby. The velvety creatures perked up their ears momentarily, then continued eating.

In the nearby dog park area, men and women chatted as their pets romped around in the dirt. The deer meandering through the adjoining woods didn't elicit even a bark from the dogs.

"We see deer every day," said John Plichta of Clearwater, whose dog Grisley, a large, brown, friendly mixed-breed, played with his fellow dogs. "The dogs aren't bothered at all."

Roberta Waterworth, who comes to the park from Holiday several days a week with her two dogs, agreed.

"They look at the deer out of curiosity," she said of her pets, "but they don't even bark."

The 20 or so deer residing in Chesnut Park appear well-integrated into a landscape including dogs, people and a multitude of bird species. The approximately 255-acre park nestled along Lake Tarpon in East Lake includes miles of trails, a boat ramp and boardwalks along the lake. Visitors also will find a lookout tower, a butterfly garden, two dog parks and the wide-eyed local deer, often accompanied by a few offspring.

"This is the only park in the county that has a resident deer population," said Dr. Craig Huegel, an adjunct professor of biology at St. Petersburg College and board member of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve, an 8,000-acre wildlife preserve in northeastern Pinellas County. "They have no natural predators and there is no hunting, so they are not particularly frightened of people."

Huegel said the groups of deer scattered throughout North Pinellas do not live in isolation. They are all connected by Brooker Creek.

"The deer move along a corridor of wetlands and woodlands surrounding Brooker Creek," he said. "The creek flows northeast to southwest and eventually becomes more of a stream as it flows into Lake Tarpon."

Huegel said deer tend to find one home range. Those that settled in Chesnut Park will probably remain there. "They have enough to feed on, and the housing enclaves surrounding the park are already fully developed," he said.

Automobiles on the adjoining Eastlake Business Road are the primary enemy of the Chesnut Park deer. A blinking "Deer Crossing" sign was recently installed near the park.

Mating season is a risky time, said Plichta, who brings his dog to the park at least five times a week. "The male deer are out trying to round up females, and some of them get hit by cars."

Kathy Swain, operations manager for North Pinellas parks, said she sees the deer as a positive dimension of Chesnut Park.

"People typically go to parks to enjoy nature," she said, "and they especially enjoy seeing something like deer, which they usually don't find in their back yards."

Even Pinellas County budget cuts, which have left vast swaths of unmowed land, may work in favor of the deer.

"We're interested in sustainability," Swain said of the park acreage. "With less interference from lawn mowers, we leave less of a carbon footprint and bring back more of the natural species."

This type of landscape, she said, provides a comfortable environment for the deer as well.

Last month, Claire Geheb of Oldsmar gathered the first group of volunteers, about 25 people, who will act as a cleanup committee for this park. The group is loosely run with people doing various jobs, including picking up branches, using blowers to remove leaves and other natural debris from the walkways, and reaching into the water with pronged rods to lift out floating litter.

Seeing the deer as they work is an added benefit for the volunteers, Geheb said.

"Everyone enjoys their presence and their comfort level with people."

.If you go

John Chesnut Park

Location: 2200 East Lake Road in Palm Harbor

Hours: 7 a.m. until dusk seven days a week.

Info: For volunteer information, contact North Pinellas volunteer coordinator Jonathan Skinner at (727) 549-6137.

John Chesnut Park, where the deer and their offspring play 03/08/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 8, 2012 7:58pm]
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