Felts Audubon Preserve: environmental escape in an urban arena

Twenty minutes past sunrise, the sun blinded drivers going over the Manatee River. Turkey vultures crowded lampposts along U.S. 41, standing guard over the river of cars and concrete heading into Palmetto.

Side road upon side road will take you by residential communities and farmlands; an area so close to the coast transforms into a dense hardwood forest, a sight so common in the middle of the Sunshine State. Shielded from the busy, human world by sky-high pines and oaks is a 27-acre haven for birds.

Felts Audubon Preserve, located at 4600 24th Ave. E. in Palmetto, isn’t immune to the sounds of the occasional passing car. But immersed in the 3.5 miles of trails, preserve visitors are transported into a serene wilderness of Old Florida.

The best time for bird watching in Florida is typically early morning between November and April, when the vibrant painted and indigo buntings and migrating birds like yellow-rumped warblers and yellowthroats call Felts their temporary home.

Although summer is low season for bird watching, the last morning of June brought black-bellied whistlers, wood ducks, red-bellied woodpeckers, cardinals, mockingbirds, boat-tailed grackles and wood storks to Felts. Even squirrels, armadillos, anoles, dragonflies and butterflies came out from the lush greenery.

“Mourning doves and cardinals rule the roost,” said Jim Stephenson of the summertime spectacles at Felts.

Stephenson is the secretary for Manatee County Audubon Society. He moved with his wife to Florida in 2010 and, wanting to meet people and explore Florida, they immediately joined the local Audubon chapter. The 77-year-old said Felts is his favorite spot to see wildlife.

“It’s a really unusual pristine environment in an urban setting,” he said.

Felts used to be a family-run dairy farm owned by Otis and Anita Felts. Before Otis passed away in 2002, he deeded the land to the Manatee County Audubon Society because he wanted to make sure that the land would never be developed.

A dream come true.

After a hefty task of cleaning up the land, which involved removing tires from the pond — Stephenson said Otis had said his competitors dumped the tires there — a bird paradise was born.

Felts has four niches: prairie, pine flatwoods, wetlands and hardwood hammock.

Oak Alley is an afternoon favorite for birds seeking shade from the harsh sun. Spanish moss drapes the collection of towering oak trees like shawls and the sounds of flapping bird wings under the oaks nearly drowns out the electric whine of cicadas.

Red, blue and black dragonflies congregate near the wetland areas, where mottled and wood ducks glide through thick duckweed on the surface of Olive’s Pond.

The pine flatwoods are popular with the red-bellied woodpeckers, which swoop from pine tree to pine tree making their mark with their sharp beaks.

A controlled fire for management purposes seven years ago in the Felts prairie field worried neighboring homeowners, Stephenson said. Now, since the grass has grown too high, the local Audubon is considering mowing portions of the prairie to re-introduce rabbits, possums and ground-nesting birds like sparrows and bluebirds.

Every year, it costs $6,000 to $7,000 to manage Felts. Stephenson said the Manatee County Audubon Society started saving money 18 years ago but didn’t create an endowment fund until 2012, which now has about just under $100,000 of untouched funds.

Stephenson said they’ll start using the money to defray the management costs of Felts when they reach $200,000. For now, operation costs are covered by the local Audubon from donations and grants they receive.

Three years ago, they began to fund a program for third-graders to come out and learn about wildlife, which Stephenson said costs $700 by the busload.

Last year, 1,200 students learned about birds and other wildlife. The cost doesn’t matter to Stephenson, as long as it teaches the younger generations to have an appreciation for wildlife.

Stephenson said one third-grader boasted about how Felts was better than a trip to Busch Gardens: the highest of compliments, coming from an 8-year-old.

Felts Audubon Preserve

When to go: Open every day from dawn until dusk. Peak bird-viewing is early morning from November-April.

Where to go: Park on the street near the walk-in entrance. Audubon members can have access to the gate which opens the parking area.

How to go: Bring water, closed-toed shoes, bug spray, binoculars and cameras.