CLEARWATER — U.S. 19 at the Drew Street exit can seem like the epitome of gridlock and urban sprawl. Yet less than a mile away, there’s a patch of land where the opposite is true.
Moccasin Lake Nature Park, once a borrow pit site for U.S. 19, is situated on 50 acres of city land at 2750 Park Trail Lane just east of the highway. The lake and surrounding land became a preserve in 1982, one with six ecosystems, a muster of peacocks and a butterfly garden.
It’s also home to a new birds of prey rehabilitation center and two bald eagles, an addition the park is celebrating Saturday with its Eagle Day festival.
“There’s so much cool stuff here,” said Anna Gurney, a spokeswoman for the city. “You could just walk forever. It really is an incredible paradise; best-kept secret, you know?”
Clearwater is more than 98 percent developed, making it the most built-out city in Florida’s most densely developed county.
“That’s why I think it’s so important for people to know, to be able to just come and relax and be with nature, and it’s smack dab in the middle of the city,” Gurney said.
Most people probably don’t know about these acres of green space with gardens, a walking trail and generous shade. The park’s only advertisements are a couple of easy-to-miss brown signs on McMullen-Booth Road and Drew Street, which is probably why people who do venture inside are surprised to see so much green, not to mention some of the park’s residents.
“They’re very surprised to see the bald eagles,” said Palm Harbor resident Kim Begay, who volunteers for the birds of prey program. “They want to know what happened to the birds and why they have to live here.”
Two bald eagles, an adult male named Wish and a juvenile female named Penelope, live in the facility. So does a 27-year-old vulture named Elvis, a pair of red-tailed hawks, a red-shouldered hawk and a fish crow.
The bald eagles have injuries that preclude them from returning to the wild.
Walker said contrary to what most people might think, Pinellas has its share of bald eagles; 36 nests were counted recently, up from six two decades ago. But with all the development, they have had to improvise in terms of where to nest.
“What we are seeing is a great loss in longleaf pines, and we’re seeing a lot of conflict between species, particularly bald eagles and great horned owls, so approximately a third, and approaching half, of our population of bald eagles live in cellphone towers,” bird handler and keeper Barb Walker said. “They can get hung up on equipment, so that is one thing. But overall they do pretty well.”
Wish was one of the cell-tower dwellers.
“He had a brood patch on him when he came in, so he was part of a pair that was incubating,” Walker said. He was found after he collided with a power line, which caused necrosis at the tip of one of his wings.
Penelope was found near Tarpon Road. A couple had seen her while on a walk, but it was too late at night for anyone to rescue her. The next morning, the couple’s dog found her.
Gurney said Saturday’s event will serve as an introduction to the birds. Since the park recently eliminated its admission fee, she said she expects a good crowd.
“I mean, let’s face it — bald eagles are our national bird,” she said.
The family-friendly event runs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and includes music, arts and crafts, and education programs. A tree climb using harnesses and pulleys will be offered, and a drum circle around a campfire will end the evening.