We took off in small groups from the parking area of Lake Dan Nature Preserve in northwestern Hillsborough County near Odessa. A short walk later, as the trail takes a turn, we were rewarded with a view of a tranquil lake filled with birds and other wildlife. The boardwalk over the marshy lake with its diverse habitat is exactly what drew us to choose this park for our monthly adventure.
Our group, OLLI Outdoors, is part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of South Florida (OLLI-USF). Better known as “the OLLI hikers,” we are a community of mostly 50+ learners who share a love of the outdoors and adventure.
After being cooped up indoors for so long, we especially enjoy the opportunity to safely gather outdoors. Lake Dan Nature Preserve is the perfect spot to safely hold a group hike, or just explore on your own. The trails are well-marked and wide, stretching out over open spaces of pine flatwoods. Originally this property was used for citrus production, cattle grazing and as a wellfield for potable water. Horse farms and agricultural uses still border the property, along with some new residential developments.
On this day in mid-February, we found that the boardwalk provided the perfect habitat for bird watching. We spotted birds common to marshes and wet meadows, like the glossy ibis, American coot, common gallinule, blue winged-teal, sandhill cranes, and anhinga. That’s not to mention a couple of alligators lurking around for a meal. Luckily, OLLI hikers were not on the menu!
Although the boardwalk is the highlight of the 1,100-acre preserve, crossing to the other side, the trail provides a tree canopy where small songbirds live. You may not see all of them, but you can certainly hear them. In this area we spotted palm warblers, eastern phoebes, northern cardinals and Carolina wrens.
We continue along the tree-shaded trail until it suddenly opens and offers several options. This is perfect for our hike since we are divided into small groups to accommodate varied interests, pace and distance. One group, led by our master naturalist, set off on the west spur which took them across improved pasture that was once used for cattle grazing. Walking across the field, which will eventually be restored with natural plants, leads to the fishing pier on Lake Dan where we spot more birds. Looking down at the sandy trail, you see tracks of small animals like raccoons, birds and possibly a coyote. The tracks of the sandhill cranes were most easily identified.
The other groups set off to explore the trails further along, taking either the red west loop or the yellow central loop. Each group leader maps the trails in advance – today’s plan is to go between 3.5 and 4.5 miles. These two trails are mostly open, palmetto-filled pine flatwoods surrounding a cypress dome.
These open areas are important for threatened animals like the gopher tortoise that depend on these habitats for food and shelter. The Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department uses prescribed burns to maintain the pine flatwoods, which helps native plants and animals to thrive and puts nutrients back into the soil. The Conservation and Environmental Lands Management Program monitors water quality in Lake Dan. Invasive plants are regularly removed from the preserve to improve habitat quality.
Walking along the trail that day, the sounds of pileated woodpeckers are evident, as well as the graceful flight and call of the red-shouldered hawk. As we take a break to absorb the sights and sounds around us, we reflect on why nature preserves are a favorite location for hiking – their natural beauty and quiet tranquility are restorative.
We are grateful that Lake Dan Nature Preserve was acquired in 2008 using funds from the Florida Communities Trust and the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP. Hillsborough County purchased the preserve to protect these important wetland areas and improve native habitats. Since its acquisition, Hillsborough County has done extensive restorations to the wetlands to protect the natural resources of the preserve, including beautiful Lake Dan. In addition to hiking and birdwatching, the preserve offers equestrian trails for horseback riding.
The preserve is adjacent to Lake Frances Nature Preserve, another property acquired with ELAPP funding. These two preserves provide about 2,700 acres of conservation land. Lake Francis is on the list of future places for the OLLI hikers to explore!
As we come to the end of our hike, we cross back over the boardwalk for one last look. As much as we appreciate our Zoom classes and virtual family get-togethers, getting outdoors as a group provides a way to safely enjoy the fresh air.
Why do we hike together? Common interests – nature, ecology, ecosystems, water management – and the love of learning about the outdoors bring everyone together. Plus, we learn more with a group and it’s more fun than hiking alone. Since last October, the OLLI hikers have collectively walked 384 miles.
Best of all, we get to meet new people and explore new places around Tampa Bay! Look for us on the trails on our monthly hikes.
To learn more about Lake Dan Nature Preserve, visit https://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/en/locations/lake-dan-nature-preserve
Diane originally published this story in Bay Soundings. It is, in fact, one of three, and we’ll share the other two with you in later issues.–Editors
Diane White, MA, earned advanced degrees in information technologies from George Washington University and education from USF. She joined OLLI-USF in 2008 and is the co-leader of the OLLI-USF Outdoors shared interest group, along with Donna McGrew. In addition to taking OLLI courses in literature, art appreciation and architecture, she teaches a variety of technology courses geared to the 50+ learner.