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Two events to show off Brooker Creek Preserve's natural beauty

Fall is a busy time for Brooker Creek Preserve. Permanent residents such as gopher tortoises, wild turkeys and deer find themselves sharing space with migratory visitors, including sand hill cranes and hooded warblers.

For the next two weeks, the preserve will have even more visitors — humans. The Paint and Photo Brooker Creek Preserve, a plein aire competition sponsored by the Tarpon Springs Art Association and the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve, will be this weekend. Plein aire is French for "open air," and painters and photographers will hike much of the preserve of oak hammocks, pine flatwoods and forested wetlands, seeking to capture the perfect moment.

For art lovers unable to attend, organizers plan to keep the finished paintings and photographs on display for the Brooker Creek Wildflower Festival on Oct. 18. Now in its fifth year, the festival will include workshops on landscaping and wildflower pollination, as well as a walk-through butterfly tent.

The back-to-back events will cost the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve thousands of dollars and many volunteer hours, although the Tarpon Springs Art Association is responsible for 50 percent of the cost of the plein aire competition, according to Barbara Hoffman, chairman of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve. "This is not about making money. It's a great way to get people to see what's out here.''

For several years, the art association has held the competition throughout the city of Tarpon Springs. Members realized in 2013 that they needed more room, so they chose Brooker Creek, with its arty, glass-walled education center.

Susan McCubbin, a watercolorist who participated in last year's event, believes comparing the two sites is like comparing apples and oranges.

"I loved last year's, but I'm looking forward to this, too,'' she said. "With all the rain, it should be spectacular.''

Lara Miller, a Pinellas County Extension natural resources agent based at Brooker Creek, agrees: "The creek is the highest I've ever seen it,'' she said. "The creek is absolutely beautiful. It's flowing, which it doesn't do that often.''

The Wildflower Festival is held in the fall because most of the dozens of species of wildflowers in the preserve bloom then, Miller said.

Some highlights are the hardy, yellow coreopsis, the purple blazing star and the red Catesby's, or pine, lily, an endangered flower that has become an emblem of Brooker Creek.

"During the festival, participants will do a scavenger hunt game, looking for flowers,'' Miller said. "In the past, if they found a pine lily, they would receive a special gold star because you don't come across one very often and right now is the small window to see it blooming.''

Contact Piper Castillo at pcastillo@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4163. Follow @Florida_PBJC.

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