Birds, bees and other beasts

Up close and personal with creatures great and small.

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click to enlarge WINGED THINGS: Crescent Lake Park is a good place to spot anhingas and geese (but watch out — the geese can get testy). - Daniel Veintimilla
Daniel Veintimilla
WINGED THINGS: Crescent Lake Park is a good place to spot anhingas and geese (but watch out — the geese can get testy).

Sometimes humans get to be a bit tiresome, and we need to commune with other creatures to maintain our sanity. Besides great animal mainstays like Busch Gardens, Lowry Park Zoo and the Florida Aquarium, parks, preserves, tour guides and more offer opportunities for a free (or at least cheap) dose of local wildlife.

Be a birder. There’s much more to West Central Florida than pesky gulls. A plethora of wild aviaries in Tampa Bay can be enjoyed without paying a penny — or, if anything, modest parking/gate fees at state parks. At Fort DeSoto, Honeymoon Island and Lettuce Lake Park, an all-star cast of swooshing sandpipers, herons, ospreys, wild turkeys, warblers and more enchant visitors every year. The Tampa Bay Estuary Program offers a mini-online guide to birding at tbep.org.

Get to work a little late on a Friday morning and head to The Great Weedon Bird Quest at the Weedon Island Preserve in St. Petersburg, where a monthly guided bird-watching hike invites humans to eavesdrop on an array of shore birds, songbirds and more. On occasion you can spot anhingas — long-necked, blackish divas that spread their wings out wide to dry them, as if posing for a painting of a family crest. The friendly guides provide binoculars, mosquito spray (though they request you bring your own) and the expertise of experienced birders. The Bird Quest takes place from 8 to 10 a.m. on May 10, June 14, July 12 and Aug. 9. Register in advance at weedonislandpreserve.eventbrite.com. It’s recommended for adults only. Meet 10 minutes before start time at the preserve’s education center.

If you’d like to enlist the help of an expert birder on your own excursion, birdingpal.org offers names of local birders who hawk their services. All they ask is that you provide gas money, lunch and/or a small gift as a souvenir of your country, or a pin from a birding club.

You wouldn’t guess it, but a modest neighborhood park is a supreme mecca for birdlife. Spot anhingas, ducks, spoonbills, geese, ibises, ospreys and more in Crescent Lake Park, 1320 Fifth St. N, St. Petersburg. The lake at this Northeast St. Pete hangout for joggers and picknickers has more birds than a Hitchcock film, but they’re much nicer (except for the geese, who can get aggressive and will give chase if you disturb them).

Peacocks loiter among the flora and fauna at Sacred Grounds, a splendid little preserve, cultural and education center in Jungle Prada by Boca Ciega Bay. It’s at 1620 Park St. N, St. Petersburg. Call 727-347-0354 to reserve a tour.

B is for babies. Local theme parks and zoos have plenty of adorable tots to show off. Zoo-borns and juniors at Lowry Park Zoo include Randee, an adorable oragutan, and a young okapi, identifiable by its reddish-brown, velvet-like coat and horizontal zebra-like stripes on its hindquarters and legs. There are also young roseate spoonbills, an elephant and a hippo. And speaking of Busch Gardens … the theme park is the best in the area for seeing birds and beasts of all kinds. The park is still running its resident annual pass special, good for the remainder of the year. Just buy one visit at regular price and every visit until Dec. 21 is free. B is also for “Best Buddies” — Kasi and Mtani, the park’s cheetah and dog duo, and bouncy, as in kangaroos. For information, visit lowryparkzoo.com, buschgardens.com.

See weird sea creatures at MOSI. No you won’t find Sigmund, but we still recommend the international touring exhibit Sea Monsters Revealed, an ideal indoor-beasty activity for a rainy day. The exhibit of rare, extinct and mysterious underwater creatures includes carcasses preserved with a polymer technique known as plastination. Visitors can learn about some of the most massive creatures of the deep, including a 6-foot-wide manta ray, a 15-foot-long mako shark, a giant squid, and a 3,000-pound whale shark. In addition, intriguing smaller creatures can be gawked at, too. Kids can enjoy interactive fun while grown-ups read the interesting historical info. Mood-setting atmospherics and aquatic design virtually take you to where these sea dwellers exist. On display through Labor Day Weekend. Visit mosi.org for more info.

Ride a horse. Amidst the pastoral environs of Northwest Hillsborough County, massive ranches offer a different kind of bonding experience with nature and the majestic caballo. One, In The Breeze Horse Ranch, provides riding lessons on verdant trails next to winding streams. More than 30 horses are available and riders of all skill levels can participate. Services include riding lessons, guided treks and parties for up to 500 people. 7514 Gardner Road, Tampa. 813-264-1919. (Coupon available online.)

Swim with the manatees. Manatee Tour and Dive leads an expedition in search of West Indian manatees in Crystal River, but make sure you go before the summer heats deeper, remote waters. Guided tours allow participants to snorkel or scuba dive with the sea cows, and kayak rentals are available for those who want to venture off on their own. Capt. Jim comes highly recommended, or ask for Capt. Guy. Crystal River, 267 N.W. Third St., Crystal River. 352-795-1333. manateetouranddive.com. (Coupon available online.)

Don’t just get tanked at the Florida Aquarium! Venture on and into the water by registering for guest dive programs, where visitors ages 6 and older can swim with the fishes. The Wild Dolphin Cruise departs daily. Find out more at flaquarium.org.

Last but not least: “B” a beekeeper. The Tampa Bay Beekeepers Association welcomes new members and meets the second Thursday of each month at 7:30 p.m. If you’re a newbie to bees, the “New Bee” group meets at 7 p.m. for Q&A time. Visit tampabaybeekeepers.com for location and other details.

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