I’m writing this on Earth Day weekend and this photo says it all. Whether she was here for the zen of the setting, or to soak up some solar energy, or just to be with like minded people… she was here… to find solace in the positive energy of a beautiful place on earth….and I’ve been her, seeking peace in the grace of nature.
This was not our first visit to Turkey Creek Park. Perhaps it was my twelfth, or my sixteenth. I’ve lost track. But it was my first while wearing the Footpaths hat.
We have been vacationing in the Florida Panhandle for the past 20 years. While the white sandy beaches are outstanding, it is the public greenspaces that bring us back; and Turkey Creek Nature Park, despite its relative simplicity, is one of the gems.
Its trailhead is unique. It is a thirty by sixty foot pavilion, hosting 12 picnic tables, which is well utilized by the citizenry. But it does not seem hectic.
The trail is a one mile long boardwalk that connects two small Niceville, Florida parks, traversing a beautiful wetland. It is a wide raised path that starts near where Turkey Creek empties Boggy Bayou.
Turkey Creek is a crystal clear, swift flowing stream that drains a 67 square mile watershed. Its water is a near constant 69 degrees, and flows by at 150,000 gallons per minute.
Within the first fifty yards what strikes you is the beauty of the place. There is no litter and you can appreciate the wetland environment that is the nursery for so much wildlife.
Almost immediately you see fish and countless minnows making their way in the shallow stream. And then you note the turtles. They are everywhere – in the shallows, on the lily pads, and swimming under the surface. And they represent many species.
Perhaps our favorite turtle finding of the day was this guy. Do you see him? His head is just arising from the mossy depths.
But his goal is to sun himself – to soak up some solar energy – like the young lady in the title photo. His shell was the size of a quarter. I believe that this is a baby Loggerhead Musk Turtle, not to be confused with the Loggerhead sea turtle. These inhabit shallow bodies of water and feed on snails and clams.
So lets be clear. This is a boardwalk whose purpose is to interface people with nature, and perhaps it is more successful at that than any trail I have been on. And because it is a wetland, nature abounds….and so do people. That is the beauty of this place.
You are meant to slow down, grab a seat, and enjoy nature’s theater.
But it is the integration of the boardwalk into nature, and the integration of nature into the boardwalk, that strikes you.
While there are a lot of people here, it is not crowded. Perhaps that is because the boardwalk is wide, there are many resting places, and everyone is finding their own peace.
The place is designed for people to interact with nature, not just walk through it. Over the course of the trail there are 7 docks to step down onto, to get closer to the water, and closer to nature.
And the beauty of it is that you are actually encouraged to go all in, with each dock being a swimming opportunity, with planned egress.
To be honest, in my many visits here, I have never swam or waded in the tannin colored waters. But I have been tempted. Tannins are organic compounds that are present in plants, especially some trees, that leach into the water when the plants break down. They provide the tan color to the water but are harmless.
The sixth dock is designed to be a tube launch, to allow folks to go with the flow and meander downstream through this swampy wonderland. Later during this visit we saw a family beginning their tubing adventure on this sandy beach.
And lastly, the wide boardwalk is ideal for socializing, allowing visitors to walk side by side.
And now we will talk nature – or the nature we saw that day. Again, the design invites observation.
One of the stars on this April date was Golden-club, of the Arum family. It appeared to be nearing the end of its flowering season and many fruiting structures were noted. They are common wetland plants along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
These interest me because they are cousins of the Skunk Cabbage plant that I was so excited to see on a cold February day in the Ohio River valley. Each nubbin on the spadix below is actually a flower, and pollination will result in the clustered fruit noted in the third image above.
This dainty appearing flower at the base of a tree on the very edge of the stream is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Zigzag Bladderwort is actually a unique carnivorous plant. Unique in that it captures its prey, worms of the nematode family or microscopic crustaceans, via their stems that are underground or in the water. The stems have traps that suck the prey into a chamber when trip hairs are triggered. The prey is then digested by enzymes in the chamber. It flowers from April through December and will grow in the stream itself or on the bank. They are relatively leafless as photosynthesis is not its thing, rather getting its energy and nutrition from the creatures it entraps. If you look at the flower stems you can see where it gets its name, zigzag. In the links below you can read more about the traps and see video of them actually working.
One of the highlights of my day was seeing this green heron perched on the opposite shore.
For a tree guy, this path was a lot of stimulation. You are raised somewhat off the ground and closer to the canopy. In addition, the boardwalk is up close to the trunks of the trees. An underinclusive list of the trees for this park would include:
Baldcypress – which was just starting its flowering/pollination. They have beautiful “architecture”.
Its classic knees could be seen on the swamp floor.
The characteristic buttressed bases lined the shore of the stream.
Sweetbay Magnolia – a somewhat common landscape tree, even into the midwest. In these environs the trees tower to 40 feet. They were not flowering yet.
Atlantic White-cedar – this evergreen is one of my favorite arboreal sightings when I am on the gulf coast, and the best specimens here were on the opposite bank of the stream. The scientific name, Chamaecyparis thyoides, places it with the cypress family. A valued tree for settlers, it was used for flooring and shingles.
In addition we saw Live Oak, Tupelo, and Red Maple.
But some of the more interesting botany was occurring below the level of the boardwalk, on the swamp floor. We were especially intrigued by these ferns:
Royal Fern – is a very large fern common in swamps and wetlands. It frequently measures 3 feet high and wide.
Eastern Marsh Fern – Like the Royal Fern, it is found along streams and in marshes. The elegant simplicity is attractive. It is much smaller than the Royal Fern.
As I noted previously, I have been here many times but during past visits I had failed to identify the carnivorous Pitcher Plant. On this date we saw it in several locations. At this time the maroon flower is much more noticeable than the vegetative carnivorous part of the plant.
And for the last botany note of the day, Spanish Moss – one of my favorite images of the south. Here the populations were not large and mostly limited to the trunks of trees.
Wetlands are teaming with wildlife and Turkey Creek is no different. It was just a matter of slowing down and watching.
Some would argue that lizards in Florida are only slightly less abundant than sand, but for this Midwesterner, they are always a fun sighting. This one we saw jumping from tree to tree in the shaded understory.
This fellow however was not so shy, startling the photographer as it bounded onto the railing of the boardwalk.
The details are fascinating when seen with magnification. Notice his ear opening.
Others that would fly into our view included a broad assortment of damselflies. Damselflies, like dragonflies, are predatory, feeding on other insects. When at rest damselflies hold their wings above their body while dragonflies hold them out away from the body. Damselflies are also smaller. They, like Dragonflies, can have dramatic coloration.
Eastern Forktail –
Seepage Dancer –
We did not realize it at the time but this Fragile Forktail damselfly, photographed from above as he sat on a leaf just above the water, had actually captured a small cricket.
Another insect that caught our attention was the water skates. Here they were twice the size of those that we see at home. Note the air bubbles that are trapped by hairs on its feet that allow for its ability to “skate” across the water’s surface. They are one of the good guys as their primary food source are mosquito larvae.
A couple of other turtles that we saw included:
Cooters – identified by their dark shells with light markings.
Barbour’s Map Turtle – occurs in a small range of northern Florida, southeastern Alabama, and southwestern Georgia.
You are aware of the birds from their near constant banter, but they generally do not make themselves available for the photographer. One that did was this Prothonotary Warbler, which nests in cavities above water in streams and swamps.
One of the nice features of the boardwalk trail are the signs that were added to provide information on the inhabitants, both flora and fauna, of the ecosystem. These were part of an Eagle Scout project and were well done.
Lastly, another “Seek and Find” –
Did you see it? Perhaps this will help.
This appears to be a Plain-bellied Water Snake, although we did not get a full bodied photo. We watched him for 5 minutes, walked on, returned, and watched him for another 5 minutes and he had not moved.
In summary, the boardwalk trail at Turkey Creek Park is unique. It immerses the visitor into a significant wetland environment that most of us would be unwilling or unable to partake in without the benefit of the boardwalk. It is clearly embraced by the community and is well utilized, but does not feel crowded or over worn. Interestingly, the wildlife seems to accept it and feels unthreatened, such that they carry on with life, for the benefit of the viewer. Best of all, it is a perhaps the most rewarding “all persons” trail that I have ever been on. The city of Niceville, Florida should be applauded for the quality of this facility.
And by the way, Happy Belated Earth Day to everyone who celebrates it.
Footpathsblog.com posts are released every Sunday morning and some bonus content is added periodically. Please click on a social media icon above to follow for future posts and to make sure that you catch all our reflections on, and adventures with, the great outdoors.
Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Location – 340 John Sims Parkway West, Niceville, FL 32578
Parking – large paved lot for approximately 30 cars
Facilities – restrooms at parking lot
Trail Conditions – wide boardwalk, 1 mile in length (2 miles round trip)
Benches – many built into the boardwalk
Picnic Tables – many at the large pavilion at the trailhead.
Kids – great for kids of all ages and strollers work well here.
Dogs – Prohibited