As a consequence of staying safe at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the silver linings for me and for my wife is enjoying the wildlife in our backyard more than we usually do. I do not consider myself as a serious birdwatcher (my wife is) but I can certainly say it’s been relaxing to watch a pair of cardinals raise their two babies, along with the Redwing Blackbird and Tufted Titmouse’s little ones. We regularly see Redtailed Hawks as well as Osprey and Cormorants hunting for fish and prey. We have three bird feeders along with suet for the songbirds We also have two ground feeders filled with cracked corn for our resident ducks that live around our lake, which include Wood Ducks, Mallards, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Mottled Ducks. We have also had the rare pleasure of observing Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks and Sandhill Cranes along with gators, otters and three types of turtles! All told, my wife has identified 42 different birds in our little ‘aviary’ out back.
The only other place close by for us to see all of this is The Celery Fields. It may seem to be a strange name for the county-owned preserve and home of the Sarasota Audubon Society’s Nature Center, so here’s a little history of yet another wonderful place to be outdoors in my hometown.
The Celery Fields got it name because of the area’s long history as an agricultural center where winter vegetables and, of course celery, were grown for consumption locally and for shipment nationwide. Area roads, with names such as “Packinghouse” and “Albritton Avenue” attest to the neighborhood’s long-standing agricultural heritage. The Celery Fields in east Sarasota just off Fruitville Road, has been important agriculturally and ecologically for more than 100 years, with the family of landowner Mrs. Bertha Palmer farming vegetables, predominantly celery, in the rich muckland from about 1920 on.
Construction of the Celery Fields began in 1923 and the main canals were finished by 1926. An experimental farm of 2,000 acres was set up and although different vegetables were tried, by 1927, it was decided to grow predominantly celery. Roads were built across the area and ditches served 10-acre tracts and artesian wells served two 10-acre tracts. The fields became part of a massive flood control project the county participated in to help quickly move storm water from the Phillipi Creek basin after severe flooding damaged scores of homes in the area in the aftermath of several heavy rain events in the early 1990s. The spoil hill was formed by the dredging of the farms, which were sold off as private units, continued to produce celery.
With the added water diverted to the fields came more fish and with more fish, more wading birds, especially avian hunters like Osprey’s and Kingfishers. With input from local naturalists and other members of the local chapter of the Audubon Society, shore vegetation like elderberry, saltbush and cord grass was planted. In 1995, Sarasota County acquired much of the land and the 360-plus-acre site now serves for flood mitigation and lucky for us, as a home to wildlife, walking and biking trails, birders and The Sarasota Audubon Nature Center.
We hope The Celery Fields can remain pristine forever for all the nature lovers out there such as ourselves. Liz and I feel grateful to not only have it close by, but to have our very own little nature preserve right in our own backyard. The important thing is to take the time to enjoy it. Stay safe, be well and remember to revel in all the beautiful things around you!