Look up, Ocala!

The city of Ocala’s Wetland Recharge Park has been named by the FWC as a Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail site.

When Hurricane Nicole blew through our area last November, it deposited this female vermilion flycatcher at the Ocala Wetlands Recharge Park. This flycatcher was the first of its kind reported on eBird in Marion County. It was spotted by LuAnne Warren and became a minor celebrity among local birders before it was last seen in February of this year. [Photo by Michael Warren]

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Posted September 13, 2023 | By Susan Smiley-Height, susan@magnoliamediaco.com

Residents and visitors in Ocala, especially those who are birdwatchers and photographers, already know about a very special place—the Ocala Wetland Recharge Park. And now, following an announcement by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), a lot more people are going to find out about this local gem.

The FWC issued a notice on Sept. 12 that it has selected 14 new Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail sites, including the city park in Ocala.

“Sites listed on the official Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail are selected for inclusion based on their unique wildlife viewing opportunities and ecological significance, educational opportunities, access for the public and resilience to recreational use,” the news release noted.

The Ocala Wetland Recharge Park, at 2105 NW 21st St., is a 60-acre refuge with 2.5 miles of paved walking trails, boardwalks, three ponds, wildlife overlooks, hands-on educational exhibits and educational kiosks. It is a manmade wetland created to recharge the underground Upper Floridan aquifer with an average of 3 million gallons of naturally filtered stormwater and treated wastewater every day.

The Ocala Wetland Recharge Park’s page on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail website notes that it is less than 10 minutes from downtown and is a “hotspot for diverse wildlife.” It shares that visitors can find a variety of wetland birds in the ponds and marshes throughout the year, including black-bellied whistling ducks, pie-billed grebes and a variety of herons and egrets. Among the regular visitors are red-headed, red-bellied, pileated and downy woodpeckers. Occasional sightings include birds such as the purple gallinule and more rare glimpses may be seen of uncommon birds like the Virginia rail, sora, LeConte’s sparrow, roseate spoonbill, bobolink and black-necked stilts.

The Ocala Wetlands Recharge Park is a bird haven near downtown Ocala. [Photo by Dave Miller]

The “Gazette” runs a Bird of the Week in each issue, with stunning images by local birder and photographer Michael Warren. He sometimes shares images of birds at the recharge park, such as, two weeks ago, a vermilion flycatcher.

The city of Ocala announced in mid-August that construction of a new open-air pavilion and three overlook covers at the park will continue through mid-December. The pavilion will provide event and education spaces, restrooms and drinking water fountains. The park will remain open to visitors throughout construction, but some trail entrances and educational exhibits near the construction area may be closed. Visitors can find a map of open trails on the Ocala Wetland Recharge Park Facebook page, webpage and information station at the park.

The “Gazette’s” sister publication, “Ocala Style” magazine, carried an extensive article about the park in 2021. It noted that, according to the Florida Office of Economic & Demographic Research, over the next 20 years the statewide demand for water is projected to be 7.5 billion gallons a day as the population increases to a projected 25.2 million people. The City of Ocala consumes on average 12 million gallons of water a day and 6 million of that is used for irrigation, which contributes to water pollution through runoff. As the local population rises, so does the usage and pollution.

Groundwater recharge is where water moves down from the surface and drains through soil to refill the groundwater. Artificial recharge, which is the process used at the wetland park, is where stormwater and reclaimed water is directed into the ground by altering natural conditions to increase infiltration. The water has undergone treatment steps that change the composition, including removing nitrogen and phosphorus. The goal of the process is to help replenish the aquifer below, which feeds the Silver Springs system.

Officials noted then that, “We understand the important role wetlands play in our natural world and that they provide habitats for a wide variety of birds, fish and other wildlife. In fact, the park in Ocala has the potential to become a true birdwatching destination with a variety of ducks, woodpeckers, waterfowl, hawks and many other species of birds on display.”

“The park is an oasis for people and wildlife in the city of Ocala,” said Gabriela Sullivan, Ocala Water Resources Conservation Coordinator. “While visiting, guests can view one of the 172 species of birds that frequent the park. We are excited to be recognized for the biodiversity and educational offerings the park brings to the city, and welcome visitors to experience its beauty in person.”

The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail is a network of more than 500 premier wildlife viewing sites across the state. In addition to Marion, the new trail sites are in Alachua, Indian River, Leon, Manatee, Palm Beach, Polk, St. Johns and Santa Rosa counties.

“Every year, millions of people, residents and visitors alike, participate in wildlife viewing activities, contributing billions of dollars to Florida’s economy, but the ultimate goal of the trail is to encourage conservation of Florida’s native habitats and species,” the FWC stated.

To learn more about the trail, go to floridabirdingtrail.com

 For information about the local park, go to ocalafl.gov/government/city-departments-i-z/water-resources/ocala-wetland-recharge-park

You never know what you’ll see at the Ocala Wetlands Recharge Park. [Photo by Dave Miller}

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