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A hawk’s call captured my attention, and I looked up from the trailhead outside the Lake Maggiore Environmental Education Center at south St. Pete’s Boyd Hill Nature Preserve.
I spotted a handsome raptor soaring solo in the blue sky. The bird tipped to one side catching the sunlight on its russet-colored feathers decorating chest, belly and shoulders — hallmark of a red-shouldered hawk. I tucked the trail map into my pocket and followed that hawk.
Tracking my winged guide required a brisk pace on foot. When the hawk began its descent toward a marsh pond, its persistent cries sounded like an invitation for me to experience something magical.
I lost sight of the bird just after it led me to a surprising and perfectly harmonious juxtaposition of art in nature. Black and silver metal sculptures peeked through lush greenery, perched in a tree, and stretched tall from sunlit waters.
The sculptures, ingeniously crafted by St. Petersburg’s beloved metal sculptor Paul Eppling, add art to your hike. The late artist created metal sculptures from discarded auto parts and other found metals. He began repurposing metal scraps to create large and small sculptures long before giving new life to discards was an eco-friendly trend.
Hikers, joggers, naturalists, campers and guests of all ages have responded favorably to the wildlife sculptures nestled into the flora and fauna of this natural habitat. More variations on the theme of self-guided and group art hikes are planned to be part of the park’s future.
“These pieces by metal sculptor Paul Eppling bring another layer to appreciate while hiking the trails in the [Boyd Hill Nature] Preserve,” says Brigid Belko Gorton, president of Friends of Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. The mission of this Board of Directors is to protect, support and promote the Preserve and its programs through volunteer service, financial support, and environmental education and advocacy.
Paul Epping is well known for creating Security Lizard in 1995. Today, the super-sized reptile continues to be admired on top of the Fleet Maintenance Building on 7th Avenue North in St. Petersburg. It is visible heading north on Interstate 275, and its clever design includes a fly being captured on the enormous lizard’s tongue.
The fly is an imagined creature with a real purpose. Its body is a light, illuminating the outside of the garage at night for added security.
Mr. Eppling’s art has been displayed at Pinellas County schools and sold through galleries. Five of his metal sculptures are found along trails, in trees and beside lakes and marshes at the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in the heart of south St. Petersburg.
In the park, two burly sculptures called armadillos are poised for photo ops, one on each side of a lake where hikers stop to admire, rest, create selfies and sketch their own drawings.
The larger armadillo is said to be a male looking across the lake at the smaller female. They each have gracefully curved ears sculpted from farming equipment parts. Both armadillos have circular sprockets for eyes, lending an expression of wonder. Their shiny silver armor was fashioned from tiles carved out of discarded automobile bumpers.
In the marsh, one Anhinga stretched its wings to dry in the sunlight. Another perched on the wing of an iridescent silver heron sculpture that is reaching up from the shallows and framed by slender grasses and reeds.
A fantasy creature is perched in a tree behind the Education Center, and a contemplative Narcissus figure gazes at its own reflection in a pond.
“We offer a lot of programs here for school groups,” says Jason Cowen, executive director of Friends of Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. “Groups and individuals of all ages attend the Natural History Speaker Series. The information is presented by authorities in their fields related to the natural and cultural history of Florida.”
Topics covered recently in the Speaker Series include butterflies, sea turtle nest tracking, bats, carnivorous plants, native trees for your landscape and more.
“Raptor Fest,” says Cowen, “is our most popular event. It features our Birds of Prey Aviary where we currently care for a bald eagle, hawks, owls, a crested caracara and other birds of prey that have been injured and will not survive in the wild.
“This year, Raptor Fest happens on February 3 from 10 am to 4 pm. We always try to keep prices affordable so everyone can take part in nature experiences and learn from environmental programs. Raptor Fest is a well-attended, free event.
“An important goal for us is to continue integrating nature with art in the Preserve,” adds Cowen. “Self-guided art hikes and other events will continue to blend art and nature for guests to enjoy.”
One example is American Stage’s outdoor theater experience in the woods of Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. Through February 18, American Stage presents Tales By Twilight, a unique storytelling experience shared while hiking trails in the park.
When traversing trails in this 245-acre protected habitat, with Lake Maggiore covering 363 acres, I always look for a handsome hawk in the sky and listen for its call. The helpful staff and volunteers at the Preserve also have tips, recommendations and stories to tell.
Something magical can happen anytime, day or night, inside the Preserve — during Tales by Twilight through February 18, at Raptor Fest on February 3, in the spring when wildflowers bloom, during night hikes, campouts and summer programs for students.
Any day can be an “art hike” day as you explore the Preserve’s five distinct ecospheres – the Willow Marsh, Swamp Woodlands Loop, Lake Maggiore Island, Pine Flatwoods and Sand Scrub Trail.
Magic happens everywhere in the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve where the art of nature inspires the nature of art.