PAISLEY – When park rangers like Gallus Quigley tell area residents they have an opportunity to “go wild” on Friday, it’s not quite in the same way as hitting the nightclubs in downtown Orlando late in the evening.
But he does hope that the experience of participating in Friday’s wildlife hike is even better.
“We’re going to go out and I will be leading this hike, and you’ll almost certainly see sandhill cranes and wild turkey, and possibly river otter and pine warblers,” said Quigley, the trails specialist for Ellis Acres Reserve.
“And then we have a walk through the pasture area, and we’ve actually run across black bear,” he said, adding that for local residents and visitors alike who love Florida’s great outdoors, this is the hike they’ve been waiting for.
“It’s more along the lines of what Florida is, not what we perceive it to be,” he said. “We’re going to the old Florida.”
Park Rangers with Lake County’s Parks & Trails Division are inviting nature enthusiasts to explore Ellis Acres Reserve, which is located at 25302 County Road 42 in Paisley, during a guided wildlife hike on Friday from 8-11 a.m.
The hike will consist of walking less than two miles along unpaved and sometimes uneven trails before reaching the shoreline of Lake Akron. Anyone who comes along is encouraged to bring water, snacks, sunscreen, insect repellent, a hat and hiking shoes. Reservations are not required.
“We do these events a lot, and almost every weekend we have something,” Quigley said. “This park has done a dozen of these events already. We always have something going on at one of the parks across the county.”
November is the perfect time of year for an outdoor hike, he added, because the sweltering summer heat and humidity are now a distant memory.
“We do get more people this time of year, both because the weather is nicer, and the snowbirds are back,” he said. “A lot of them come down here this time of year, and they’re outdoors up north, and then they’re immediately out on our hikes. We see a lot of them between now and usually until about April, and then things start to slow down as everyone goes back up north or into the air conditioning.”
While the hike offers Lake County park officials an opportunity to show off a part of the state that has been preserved from rapid development and reflects a Florida of a much different era, it also allows rangers to educate residents about ongoing restoration activities at parks like Ellis, where there’s a continuing program to restore the area to its natural habitat.
Ellis Acres Reserve totals 415 acres, and the southern 96 acres are home to longleaf pine wooded pasture and forested wetlands. The remaining 323 acres have pasture and wetlands.
The property encompasses nearly the entire western shoreline of Lake Akron. Plenty of different species of wildlife have been observed at the preserve, including the Florida black bear, Florida sandhill crane, white-tailed deer, Sherman’s fox squirrel, and wild turkey.
The preserve had its grand opening in 2011.
Quigley said Ellis Acres will gradually be restored to native sandhill, wetlands, and pine flatwoods communities, with the goal of increasing protected areas for wildlife.
“Ellis Acres was purchased under the Public Land Management Acquisition Act,” he said. “Lake County agreed to purchase green space here and agreed to maintain the natural biodiversity of the area. Now we’re attempting to go in and restore the natural habitat here. Our long-term goal – and we’re talking decades – is to put it back to the way it was at the point when Columbus first arrived.”
Since Christopher Columbus first discovered America in 1492, that sounds like an exceedingly ambitious goal, but Quigley said when it comes to land restoration, having ambitions that lofty is a good thing.
“That is the perfect goal,” he said. “Will we ever get it that far? Probably not. We’re never going to be able to get it 100 percent back, but we can take it back to something close to that over time. By removing invasive plants, reseeding the native ground covers and things like that, this can be done over time and naturally restore the property to what it was.”
The wildlife hikes, he added, can demonstrate to area residents the important role that preservation plays in maintaining the region’s quality of life.
“The area is still very rural, but if you look at the way the county is building out, you have to preserve green space where ever you can,” Quigley said. “Florida has a lot of development, but sprawl tends to be the development trend here because land is inexpensive and we have plenty of it.”
The Ellis Acre property is in an area identified as a “very high” priority of the statewide Ecological Greenways Network. It’s also adjacent to both the Ocala National Forest and Seminole State Forest.
Ellis Acres Reserve is open daily from dawn to dusk. Visitors can bring a camera, binoculars
and field guides for observation of wildlife. Swimming, hunting and fishing are all prohibited on the property.
The Lake County Public Lands Management program was established in September 2005. In 2004, Lake County voters approved a public-lands referendum that raised property taxes to protect open space and acquire recreation areas. Since then, more than 2,000 acres have been acquired through the Public Lands Management Program.
For more information on the preserve or the wildlife hike, call the Lake County Parks & Trails Division at 352-253-4950, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.lakecountyfl.gov/parks.
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