Anyone who visits the CREW trails regularly surely knows about the boardwalk and the “gator hole” at Bird Rookery Swamp, the observation tower at the CREW Marsh and the big field and campsite area at the Cypress Dome Trails. These are obvious, much-loved and sought-after places to go to see wildlife or sit and ponder the wonders of the universe. But, there are some lesser-known spots along or near the CREW trails that offer unique opportunities for wildlife sightings or remarkable moments of natural wonder, and if you take time to stop and observe, you may see CREW in a whole new way.
Read on to find out where these secret spots are and how (and when) to capture a moment of wonder at the CREW trails.
At the CREW Marsh Trails
1. Go left (east) at the seasonal pond deck to walk on the Pine Flatwoods Trail. Continue northeast to a service road that goes east and ends at a ditch. There’s a nice, serene oak hammock here and nesting limpkins! Stand or sit here at dawn or dusk during and you might see a barred owl or a Cooper’s hawk hunting or sitting in wait for an opportunity to snag lunch. Be sure to look for alligators in the ditch as well.
2. Continue south on the Pine Flatwoods trail to the Alternative Marsh Trail. Take the Alt. Marsh Trail to where it begins to curve back southwest. At this curve, look east. There is a sweet oak hammock hidden along this corner of the marsh. I’ve seen panther tracks and scat regularly at this corner.
3. West of the boardwalk that leads to the Popash Slough Trail from the observation tower, instead of veering right toward signs to the Popash Trail, veer left around that little tree island and find a service road that skirts the edge of the marsh. It is often not mowed and filled with amazing wildflowers and buzzing insects in spring. It’s also a favorite nighttime highway for deer, bobcats and panthers as they make their way to the ditch under the boardwalk for water (we know, because we’ve caught them on camera!). Look for tracks. One day I sat here and watched redstarts migrate through, too.
4. On the Oak Hammock Trail, look for a sign pointing to the campsite. Head toward the campsite, continuing southwest for about a mile, and you’ll intersect a service road that connects Gate 3 to the campsite. Walk north (right) on the service road and watch for endangered gopher tortoises (or their cute little hay-bale- like scats). I’ve also seen painted buntings here regularly.
At the Cypress Dome/Caracara Prairie Trails
5. If you’ve never walked the White Loop’s “Wild Coffee Trail” (at the far eastern end of the white loop) segment during the fall, you have missed out on one of the premiere spots at the Cypress Dome Trails. About halfway between the two ends of the Wild Coffee Trail you will walk through a popash slough (affectionately known as “the deep spot”) where fishing spiders hang onto tree trunks waiting to dive on mosquito fish while you get wet up to your waist. Here the water is deep and brown, and the sun pours through the open canopy after the popash leaves have dropped. It’s truly magical. Stand here awhile and just soak it all in.
6. From late February through May the public can access this spot on the service road that runs north and then east of the crossover (a ditch between the Cypress Dome White Loop and the Red Trail at Caracara Prairie), bisecting the White Trail and east of where the Wild Coffee Trail ends. There’s a large stand of pine snags that almost always has roosting Swallow-tailed Kites in the early morning. Sometimes it’s just a couple, but CREW volunteer Dick Brewer has seen up to 22 kites there at the start of nesting activity. There’s a marsh to the northeast of that same spot where Limpkins call, and occasionally there’s a Short-tailed Hawk as well as Red-shouldered Hawks to the northwest. Truly a secret hotspot!
7. On the very northeastern corner of the Yellow Loop, there is a bench that sits near a gate facing CREW’s neighbor, the Bar None Ranch. Sit on this bench and wait quietly, especially during the spring- watch for wild turkeys. They love to feed on acorns and tend to gather in this area where the oak trees are larger.
At Bird Rookery Swamp, for those who venture beyond the lake…or not.
8. On the very northern end of the loop, between marker posts 4 and 5, there is a old wooden trestle bridge, leftover from the logging operations of the early 20th century. Hang out here for awhile and you will certainly see barred owls. Be watchful, though. A big momma alligator and her young hang here a lot with wading birds, otters, and sometimes a snake or two. During the wet season, water converges into this channel and flows swiftly south. In winter it holds water, creating a deep, luscious feeding ground for wildlife.
9. At the southwestern corner of the BRS loop (near marker post #6) stands a beautiful old oak tree. Across the tram is a wide pond-like area of water. This is a favorite hangout for alligators covered in bright green duckweed, basking on the shore. Some hikers have heard a panther scream at this location, too.
10. Although it’s not really a secret “spot”, there is a secret time to see lots of birds — at the parking lot about 15 minutes before sunrise to about 15 minutes after sunrise. All kinds of birds are flying out from their nighttime roosts.
Bonus: A slow drive on Shady Hollow Blvd. before you get to the BRS parking area can score you a host of wildlife sightings – many species of birds including kestrels, snakes crossing the road, whitetail deer browsing, bobcats, nesting red-shouldered hawks and bears moving from one area to the next.
So, the next time you come out to visit CREW, seek out one of these secret spots. Approach it quietly, respectfully. Sit or stand still and observe. Be there. Find your moment of natural wonder.
Note: CREW volunteers Dick Brewer and George Luther contributed to this list.
Written by Deb Hanson, freelance writer in Portland, OR