LARGO — Shutterbugs and waterfowl commingle at the 31-acre Largo Central Park Nature Preserve.
On any given day, professional and amateur photographers are taking pictures of wildlife in the lake, such as a large alligator relaxing amid aquatic plants underneath a boardwalk.
They're also focusing on limpkins, great blue heron and other birds that can be seen on a railing and in marsh lands that encircle a small lake at the preserve.
More than 130 species of birds, reptiles and other animals feed or live within the park, such as otters, red fox, wild turkey, marsh rabbits, bats and osprey.
Caleb and Dianne Kurtz of Clearwater have been coming to the park at 150 Highland Ave. for years.
"Almost every week," Caleb said.
Caleb enjoys taking pictures of wildlife, and they also visit other parks in the area.
Patty Menz, a nature photographer, moved to the Clearwater area two years ago and tries to visit different parks often.
"It's beautiful here. I love the deck around it," she said. "And there are all sorts of things to see."
On that day, she and her friends had their eyes on turtles and waterfowl in the water below the deck.
"It's a very popular spot for photographers," said Largo Recreation, Parks and Arts Director Joan Byrne. "Almost every time I go out there is somebody is there with a camera, taking pictures of birds. It's very popular with birders, for sure."
At one point an Audubon Society representative was categorizing all the different bird species in the preserve, she said.
Asked what she thought was special about the park, Byrne noted that though it lies in the most densely populated county in Florida, the preserve is removed from the hustle and bustle of the urban setting.
"You can actually just go and commune with nature. It's quiet. I have staff members who will go down there to eat their lunch," she said.
The park, reflecting a national trend, has seen usage increase during the pandemic.
"Attendance at the Nature Preserve has really skyrocketed," Byrne said.
It's hard to pinpoint the preserve's attendance because there is no gate where admission fees are collected.
City officials have done some estimates through the use of car counters, but they don't know how many people are in cars and how many people walk into park.
Based on city officials' best estimates in 2020, the preserve's attendance was running from about 8,000 to 10,000 people per month.
"By the time we got to August, we were up to 24,000 people a month," Byrne said.
Lush vegetation thrives in a hardwood swamp accessible to visitors. Amenities include boardwalks, an observation tower, a 3/4-mile asphalt walk, bike and skate trail, interpretative signage and a YMC butterfly garden.
A 5-mile kayak/canoe route begins at the park and ends at Park Boulevard.
Fishing is not allowed at the park and neither are dogs.
As far as spotting otters, Lady Luck apparently has a say in the matter.
Byrne said she has seen otters a long time ago, and visitors have reported seeing them. Quite a show.
"I remember the first time I saw them (otters), there was a group of them," Byrne said. "They're fun. They were like little kids frolicking in the water."
The nature preserve, which opened in 2003, is part of 180 acres that the city owns in the area, including Largo Central Park, Byrne said. The city applied for a number of grants to help fund the amenities.
There are no plans to put active recreation improvements in the park. City officials' needs assessments have indicated that people cherish green space.
"Right now, people need it. It's good for their mental health," Byrne said. "It's a great place to just relax and kind of clear your head. I think that's its biggest value."