Suburban Oasis in Southeast Winter Haven

Suburban Oasis: Audubon Center in Southeast Winter Haven Offers Nature, Education


A dock spreads out onto Lake Ned off one of the nature trails at the Street Nature Center in Winter Haven. The Street Nature Center is a wildlife preserve surrounding a 1912 vintage house that for decades has been a center for environmental activity in the Lakeland-Winter Haven area.

Pierre DuCharme | THE LEDGER
Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 2:10 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 2:10 a.m.

WINTER HAVEN | Decades before the Nature Discovery Center at Circle B Bar Reserve became the place to hold environmental meetings in Polk County, there was Lake Region Audubon Society's Street Nature Center.

Facts

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The center is located in a converted 1912 vintage house in the middle of a 42-acre wooded lakefront tract on Lake Ned in southeast Winter Haven. It is still the site of conservation meetings, student trips and more.

But it's not as well known in the community as it should be, said Reinier Munguia, Lake Region's president.

"My big struggle is to let people know the Street Nature Center is here," he said, explaining even some residents in the adjacent neighborhood don't know about it.

A Great Florida Birding Trail sign on Cypress Gardens Road points to the center, but doesn't identify it.

However, the center may be getting more recognition.

It was recently mentioned on a list of Polk County sites that might be worth including in a local cultural heritage trail.

There's certainly plenty of heritage here to celebrate.

The property was deeded to Audubon of Florida in 1970 by the late Luella Street, the widow of local banker Norman Street. The house was later moved from a spot nearby to establish the center, which was dedicated May 20, 1973.

It was intended to advance the work of the local Audubon chapter that had been chartered in 1959.

"We picked the area that was farthest from the main road," said Paul Fellers, a longtime Audubon member, referring to Cypress Gardens Road that runs along the opposite shore of the lake.

Fellers, who was president of Lake Region Audubon Society during the 1973 dedication, described the center and the surrounding property in his dedicatory address as "a place for learning about and observing firsthand some of the truly wondrous phenomena occurring in our physical universe."

He said at the time the center was established there was little development in the area and Lameraux Road, the residential street upon which the property fronts, was still a dirt road.

Today, Lameraux Road is paved and suburban lots abut the property on two sides.

The house is called the Howe House in honor of Mabel Howe, who donated the money to have it moved. The building contains a meeting room, a classroom, an exhibit room, a natural history library and a kitchen.

It was renovated a few years ago to expand the meeting room by removing the wall between the house's former dining room and living room.

Munguia said he took advantage of the extra space and installed a movie screen to use for educational programs.

The exhibit room contains stuffed birds, bird eggs, bird nests and other natural history artifacts as well as the remains of a pre-Columbian Timucuan dugout canoe unearthed on Lake Parker in the 1960s.

The Cooper library, named in honor of former resident naturalists Buck and Linda Cooper, contains a variety of field guides, wildlife reference books, books on various conservation issues and vintage Audubon periodicals.

The building has been used for decades for Lake Region Audubon board meetings as well as for the gathering of participants in the annual Christmas bird count.

The grounds also have been the focus of events.

The biggest one is Naturefaire, which was started in 1984. It is intended to expose residents — particularly children — to nature in fun and educational ways.

Fellers said that over the years a number of Boy Scouts have used the property for various merit badge projects.

Munguia said he has been working in recent years to involve more young people in Audubon and in projects at the center.

Traditionally, many local Audubon members had been retirees.

"They (the young people) get their college community service projects and learn about Audubon," Munguia said.

He said one of the future interpretive signs will include information explaining the Audubon Society's roots, information that's unknown to newer generations.

The Audubon Society takes its name from 19th century wildlife artist John James Audubon. It was initially founded in the late 19th century to protect birds and other wildlife from slaughter by unregulated market hunting, which wiped out some once-numerous species such as passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets, and threatened most North American wading birds with extinction.

Today Audubon is also involved in a variety of conservation issues ranging from land and water preservation to climate change.

Munguia said the center attracts a steady number of home-schooled students seeking lessons on various science subjects as well as some students from local public schools.

The young people have been useful in updating some of the interpretive signs along the preserve's trail system and helping to control invasive plants.

Invasive exotic plant species, many of which date to an earlier time in Florida gardening culture, pose one of the biggest management challenges at the center, Munguia said.

Those plants include melaleuca, Brazilian pepper, Australian pine, air potato, bamboo and cogon grass, all of which resist eradication.

Munguia said he is working on a plan to remove the invasive plants and to replant the areas they overtook with native plants to prevent the invasive plants' return.

Many of these plants as well as the numerous native plants that grow in the nature preserve are highlighted by interpretive signs along the center's Norton Agey Nature Trail, which was named to honor one of the local chapter's founders.

Munguia has organized monthly work days — they're held the first Saturday of each month — to battle the exotics, maintain the nature trails and do anything else that may be needed around the property.

The encroaching suburban development around the nature center and around Lake Ned has over the years turned the Audubon property into more of a nature refuge than it was when it was founded.

The center's grounds are home to diverse wildlife.

Some of the bird species nesting there include great horned owl, wood duck and tufted titmouse. Some gopher tortoises also survive here.

In addition, there's a butterfly garden that attracts wildlife as well as demonstrates how native plants can work in home landscapes.

The grounds are open to the public Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For more information, go to http://www.lakeregion.net/ or call 863-259-9497.

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