FREEBIE

Driving into St. Pete via Gandy Bridge, one of the first things you'll see to your left are the smokestacks of Progress Energy's Bartow Power Plant. Astoundingly, the plant is nestled right in the heart of the area's most prominent environmental region, which also happens to be one of my very favorite places to enjoy nature: Weedon Island Preserve.Weedon Island Preserve covers 3,164 acres of land and extends along the west side of Tampa Bay. The island was originally inhabited by early Native Americans almost 5,000 years ago, and if you look carefully, you can find elevated sections of ground — some shell middens (leftover trash piles of shellfish debris) and others ancient burial mounds.

The island teems with wildlife; the nine-banded armadillo, Virginia opossum, Southern flying squirrel, river otter and marsh rabbit all make their homes here, and portions of the island have been designated as a manatee refuge. Additionally, 100 different species of birds reside or have been sighted on the island, including such rare finds as the Magnificent Frigatebird, Anhinga, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Mangrove Cuckoo, Monk Parakeet and Gray Kingbird.

Visitors to the preserve can enjoy its natural wonders via numerous recreational activities. If you own a canoe or kayak, there are two separate water trails: the southern canoe trail, a 4-mile loop that meanders through mangrove forests and seagrass flats, in between the islands of the Preserve and along the edge of Tampa Bay; and the northern canoe trail, which moves through the mangrove habitat and Snug Harbor before ending at the beaches along Gandy Boulevard.

If you're more of a hiker, you can tramp along miles of trails that twist and turn through the preserve, or explore the boardwalks that extend out through the tidal flats and mangrove forests, leading to a 45-foot observation tower, which on clear days provides a panoramic view of the Bay, Tampa and St. Petersburg. Paved and unimproved trails extend through pine flatwoods, maritime hammock and scrub, and there are four small picnic areas where you can enjoy a light meal while taking in the scenery. If you like fishing, you can cast a line from the island's pier and hook a Redfish, snook or even a spotted sea trout.

Finally, for the more scholarly types, there's the Weedon Island Cultural and Natural History center, which offers various educational programs, like guided hikes every Saturday (call 727-453-6506 to register), ongoing educational activities with school groups, public workshops and environmental lectures. From 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Jan. 8, you can check out "OWLS — The Silent Hunters," a special presentation that introduces participants to the biology and behaviors of Florida owls. This is a free workshop; however, for those interested in constructing an owl nest box, registration is mandatory (727-453-6500) and there's a $10 fee.

Weedon Island Preserve, 1800 Weedon Drive N.E., St. Petersburg. The cultural center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; the park is open daily from 7 a.m. to dusk. For more information, visit www.weeedonislandcenter.org or call 727-453-6500.

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