Emeralda Marsh in Leesburg

At the end of the week, rain and high winds were expected on the northeastern coast. I was eager to do some birding, so I decided to visit Emeralda Marsh in Leesburg, near the center of the State.

I had been forewarned that there are no restrooms at the park, so I knew I would have to stop beforehand. Fortunately, I found a gas station at the intersection of Goose Prairie Road and County Road 452, on the way in. I was hungry after a nearly three-hour drive, and was excited to find that, in addition to typical gas-station fare, the stop sold fresh fruit at the cash register.

There are three entry points to the park, and all are well marked.

  1. The first parking lot passed was for the Wildlife Drive, which is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from the third weekend in February until the end May.
  2. The second stop was a boat-ramp.
  3. The third stop was for the Bull Hammock Trail, which was my destination.

There was ample parking at the trailhead, well-shaded by ancient oaks.

A large sign told people about the park. When I walked behind the sign, I found a trail map.

Bull Hammock Trailhead, Emeralda Marsh, Leesburg, FL

Starting on the trail, I heard a symphony of birds. However, most were hidden or too far away to see clearly, even with 12 x 42 binoculars.

I was surprised at the width of the grassy trail. Two vehicles could easily pass on either side. As I walked, I quickly realized that there was a reason for this. There was marshland on either side. If a vehicle drove the path, it would be beneficial to have additional space should portions be damaged by flooding.

Bull Hammock Trail, Emeralda Marsh, Leesburg, FL

The expanse also provided a buffer zone while hiking. Having grown up in Florida, I know that where there is water and cover, there are alligators. Walk too close, and you can be ambushed. I’ve seen a dog taken at the edge of a pond, and have been stalked myself several yards from the water.

And as I walked, I noticed several pull-outs. These are places where an alligator has pulled itself out of the water to sun. But the pull-outs weren’t particularly large, so I felt a bit comforted. Until I heard something moving and splashing next to the path.

As I continued, I spotted several birds of prey – an immature and an adult bald eagle, black vultures, turkey vultures, and a lot of kestrels. I also heard the call of a red-shouldered hawk.

Eventually, the trail came to a fork. I took the one on the right and soon found one side of the trail bounded by marsh; the other by a large lake dotted by calling American Coots. There were hundreds of them, extending as far as the eye could see.

American Coot. Image by skeeze from Pixabay.

There was an alligator, but it was only four Coots long (roughly four feet).

I thought I saw some ducks, but they were too far away to identify. I took several photos, hoping to make a positive ID later on the computer.

Lake at Emeralda Marsh

I continued walking, hoping for a better view of the birds. I passed many gator pull-outs, but again they were small. But then I came across one substantially wider. And another half-hidden by an arc of reeds.

I saw a young couple with a mostly-grown black boxer. I’d met them earlier, and the dog’s first instinct was to growl when it saw a strange person. It had pulled on the leash, wanting to advance. Its owners seemed unconcerned. “He’s just scared.”

This time, the dog was off-leash. It growled and its hackles rose. It marched toward me.

I turned sideways. I’ve found that, with many animals, this communicates that you’re friendly and want no confrontation. Then I did the Cesar Millan thing — “No talk, no touch, no eye contact.” The dog smelled me and then ran back to its owners.

This is the second time there’s been a dog incident while hiking. I was birding at the University of Florida when a woman came onto the path walking a large pit-bull mix. I made the mistake of saying hello to the girl, and the dog took this as a challenge. It immediately roared and lunged. The woman attempted to control it, but the animal continued to growl and stare. It tried to push past her to get to me.

I walked on. When there was some distance between us, I looked back. The dog was still staring at me as it marked a tree.

Had this dog broken from its lead, I think I’d have become a statistic.

But back to the present…

I spotted a pair of Glossy Ibis, a new-to-me-species.

And an alligator. This one was six to eight Coots long. I continued watching the birds, but checked my surroundings periodically.

There were small groups of Common Gallinules, and fights were breaking out. When the birds fight, it looks as though they lock feet and then lean backward while screaming and pummeling one another.

And another large gator.

Maybe I should leave.

According to the trail map, this route didn’t loop, and I was now standing isolated at the center of the lake. What would happen, I wondered, if a bear came onto the path? Hopefully, if it saw me, it would turn and lumber off. But what if it didn’t? There was no turning right or left to get out of its way.

I turned and headed back the way I’d come. There was no shade during the four-mile, round-trip jaunt, and I was feeling thirsty and sunburnt.

Feral hog skull, Bull Hammock Trail, Emeralda Marsh, Leesburg FL

As I walked, I came across the skull of a young feral hog.

A Tripadvisor member, FlaHarlock, reports walking “right into a pack of wild hogs. [Our dog] stopped on command and the hogs dispersed into the woods.”

As I drew closer to the parking lot, I discovered owl or hawk pellets. Birds of prey eat their meal, and then regurgitate a wad of hard-to-digest bone and fur scraps. But, as I glanced around, I noticed many pellets.  Did birds return to the same site over and over again to divest themselves? Among the wads of fur, there was also a fresh scat that resembled a pile of black worms. When I got home, I researched this. The scraps and scat were most likely from a fox.

Fox scat, Emeralda Marsh

At home, I enlarged the duck image on the computer monitor. Judging from the saddle on one female, and the white sides on the males, I think they were Ring-necked Ducks.

This will probably be my one and only visit to Bull Hammock Trail. There were a number of potential dangers, and the trail was unusually isolated. Over four miles and three hours, I saw only three people — all in the company of dogs. Ironically, alligators find dogs irresistible, so this is where I’d be least likely to bring my own.

Bull Hammock Trail, Emeralda Marsh, Leesburg, FL

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Published by cafsamsel

Carol Fullerton-Samsel is a nearly-native Floridian who lives with her husband of 25 years and three rescue animals. She has a passion for day-hiking and nature, and also enjoys writing. Be sure to visit the TenPaths YouTube channel, which is still in its infancy.

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