Nature Preserved: Heart and History at Boyd Hill
It took a master falconer from Georgia to open my eyes to the natural gem just four miles from my home in the Old Northeast. It was one of those glorious winter days that makes you realize why everyone moves to Florida; a deep freeze had struck much of the nation, while St. Pete enjoyed blue skies and low 70-degree temperatures. Our family decided to go to Raptor Fest at the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, an event we’d heard rave reviews of over the years, but never attended. After strolling past volunteers holding all manner of curious birds, we hurried to a set of grandstands set up for a “free flight” demonstration. A huge crowd had gathered for the show.
A burly older man appeared, the kind you fear might drone on about bird habitats and diets before introducing any actual animals. But Steve Hoddy, who has been working with birds since he was a teenager, soon had everyone in the audience eating out of his hands. His kindly demeanor and quick wit reminded me of a favorite uncle. He introduced a number of stunning birds of prey, and within minutes, one was darting over our heads, soaring into the treetops to roost in a large pine tree.
Steve held the crowd in rapt attention with the natural history of his feathered friends. We met a hawk named Arrow and a condor named Storm. Yet, I was most intrigued by the volume of “party crashers” that flew overhead. Over the course of the presentation, a dozen different birds crisscrossed the sky, and Steve identified them all. A pileated woodpecker, a short-tailed hawk, and, as if on cue, a bald eagle. Steve, a man whose knowledge of, and devotion to, birds of prey has led him all over the world (and onto the stages of David Letterman and Jay Leno), paused while staring up at the short-tailed hawk and said: “And this is why places like Boyd Hill are so important. Where else in St. Petersburg could you see this mix of birds in the wild?”
It was a light-bulb moment for me. Steve was right. I had never fully appreciated what Boyd Hill Nature Preserve means to our city. Sure, I’d hiked the trails a handful of times, and my son loved their summer camps. But I hadn’t really appreciated what setting aside 245 acres of land in the most densely populated county in Florida meant for the health of the non-human population of St. Petersburg. The herons and the possums; the alligators and the owls.
I may have been late to the party, but city leaders recognized the value of this land as early as 1925. Early offers to buy it from private developers failed, but persistent residents continued to advocate for a park in the area, and by 1943 a plan was sketched out to purchase land on the shores of Lake Maggiore for that purpose. (The natural rise and fall of the lake was one of the reasons early real estate developments foundered and that the land was even available: the rich, but smelly, muck that appeared when the lake was low turned off would-be residents.)
By 1947 trails were being laid in the newly acquired park. From its earliest days, the stated goal was for the park to remain as natural as possible, but “natural” meant something different then than it does today. Many non-native plants were introduced by well-meaning employees and volunteers during a time when Florida attractions operated under the notion that exotic plants and flowers could only serve to make parks more appealing to visitors. (Hindsight being 20/20, we now know those efforts led to monocultures where invasive plants choked out native species and altered the ecosystem.)
Early plans at Lake Maggiore Park were carefully overseen by a city parks employee named Boyd Hill, who would rise to the position of parks superintendent just a few years later. He never forgot his first true love though; upon his untimely death in 1957, his desk held plans for the expansion of Lake Maggiore Park. It was renamed in his honor the following year.
Over the next few decades, the park went through various iterations. A small zoo with caged bears, macaws, monkeys, and pythons, which had helped attract early visitors, was deemed hazardous after vandals repeatedly attacked the park, maiming some animals and letting others free of their cages. A Mother Goose-themed attraction called Kiddieland, made up of papier-mache sculptures of Jack and Jill, Peter-Peter Pumpkin-Eater and the like, briefly appeared on the park’s nature trails, but were removed after public outcry. One critic compared it to “putting a playground in a church.” By the 1970s, a desire to keep the park as natural as possible was clear, and future expansions and renovations have stayed true to that ethos.
Today the award-winning park boasts six miles of trails and boardwalks through multiple habitats: hardwood hammocks, sand pine scrub, pine flatwoods, willow marsh, swamp woodlands, and lake shore. Efforts to eradicate the non-native plants introduced in the early years are ongoing, and the return of the birds of prey that soared overhead during Steve’s demonstration are just one harbinger of success. Controlled burns and invasive plant removal mean that the rodents that birds of prey feed on are once again visible to eagle eyes.
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve also now boasts a dizzying number of programs. There are daily Nature Tram Tours and regularly scheduled tours called “Fantastic Alligators” and the “Fantastic World of Birds of Prey.” There are live Animal Encounters every weekend, and family night-hikes once a month. The Preserve hosts weekly Youth Programs like “mini-rangers” and “youth rangers” where children learn the various duties of a park ranger, while enjoying hands-on activities on a range of outdoor skills. Wellness programs like forest bathing, nature journaling, trail runs, and baby hikes sooth the body and the soul. You can sleep under the stars at the new Terry Tomalin primitive campground, and travel back in time (and learn how to be more self-sufficient) at the Pinellas Pioneer Settlement, which offers fun yet informative talks on topics like DIY Natural Cleaners, Bird Nesting boxes and Bee Hotels, Foraging Florida, and Starting a Spring Garden. Parents of little ones can enjoy a kid-free evening while their child learns about the natural world at a Parent’s Night Out. There are seasonal hikes like Funky Fungi, Heads up for Hawks, and Wild Wetlands, and monthly lectures by experts on natural and cultural history. Program prices vary but are often in the ballpark of $3-$5, which seems like the price you would have paid when the park first opened in 1947.
Any visit to Boyd Hill should include a stop at the exhibit “The Ripple Effect: Understanding Nature’s Connections” at the Lake Maggiore Environmental Education Center, a hike on one of the many miles of trails, and a visit to the Birds of Prey rehab center to say hello to Pugsley the turkey vulture and Mystic the barred owl. Prices to enter the park are $3 for adults, $1.50 for children 3-16, and free for younger children.
Raptor Fest, where my family and I watched birds of prey in flight, is Boyd Hill’s most visible public program. I spoke with Taylor Graham Thornton, Nature Preserve Supervisor II at Boyd Hill; she reported that they had record-breaking crowds this year, with an estimated 4,000 people in attendance. The event is a partnership between the City of St. Pete and Friends of Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, who provide support, food, and care for the raptors at Boyd Hill.
Taylor noted that there are other amenities at Boyd Hill with which the public may be less familiar. “A lot of people don’t know that we have campsites and cabins at the Terry Tomalin campground. People are surprised by that. There are 12 campsites with access to water and grill at every campsite, and our six cabins have water, grills, and, of course, electricity. There are bathrooms with showers, and that building is currently being renovated so that it will be very nice and updated in a couple of months.” She also noted the popularity of their newest building, Hammock Hall, which features two rooms connected by a breezeway that are available for rent for parties, weddings, baby showers, and the like.
School children visit Boyd Hill Nature Preserve every single day. Taylor spoke about the extensive relationship the preserve has with Pinellas County Schools. “A Pinellas County Schools employee has an office here at Boyd Hill and every weekday, Monday through Friday, a fourth-grade class from Pinellas County has a field trip here.” Boyd Hill rangers also conduct an additional two or three field trips a week for private schools, home school groups, and others.
Since its inception, Boyd Hill has been a beloved city park – a place for solitude and reflection, or the childlike wonder of a night hike or live animal demonstration. Perhaps more important than the rejuvenation it can offer us humans, however, is the sanctuary from encroaching development and sprawl it gives the glorious birds, reptiles, and other wild creatures who call Boyd Hill home.
There’s always something new at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve and the Pinellas Pioneer Settlement. Find updates and much more at stpeteparksrec.org/boydhillpreserve.
What’s in a Name?
Lake Maggiore was renamed from the more provincial Salt Lake that early white settlers referenced. Stories on the origin of the name differ. That it was named after a beautiful lake on the border of Switzerland and Italy is clear, but exactly who bestowed the moniker seems to be a matter of some debate. It was likely one of two early surveyors employed by real estate developers determined to paint St. Petersburg as a lush destination with exotic influences. Little did they know that early residents would mangle the romantic Italian pronunciation, turning the soft “g” of Lake Ma-JORE-e, to the hard “g” of Lake Ma-GORE-e.
Boyd Hill was a person, not a land formation! Visitors to Boyd Hill Nature Preserve would be forgiven for expecting to come upon a large hill while hiking the trails and boardwalks of the park. We may have wondered who the “Boyd” was that this hill was named after, but I’ll wager that few of us thought his last name was Hill. Turns out, there aren’t any geographic hills in Boyd Hill nature park, just one dedicated environmental advocate who left his mark (and his moniker) on a city forever.