Category Archives: River Otter

Hiking Disney’s Wilderness Preserve!

The Nature Conservancy's The Disney Wildnerness Preserve

The Nature Conservancy’s The Disney Wilderness Preserve

Welcome to the Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve!

Disney Wilderness Preserve

Disney Wilderness Preserve

The core of The Disney Wilderness Preserve is comprised of what was once an 8,500-acre cattle ranch situated at the head of the Everglades watershed. In the early 1990s, the ranch was slated for extensive development which would have destroyed wetlands found on the site. Walt Disney World in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy purchased the property to offset further development of the Walt Disney World Resort. The purchase is considered to be one of the earliest and largest off-site wetland mitigation projects in the United States.

The Disney Wilderness Preserve

The Disney Wilderness Preserve

An additional 3,000 acres were added in 1995 by the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority to help mitigate ongoing expansion at the airport bringing the Disney Wilderness Preserve to its current size. Today the Disney Wilderness preserve consists of 12,000 acres including an estimated 4,000 acres of enhanced wetlands

Healthy Central Florida Ecosystem

Central Florida Ecosystem

The Disney Wilderness Preserve provides habitat for an estimated 300 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians including:

The Wilderness Trail Virtual Tour

Disney Wilderness Preserve Trail Map

Click Here for the DWP Trail Map

As the winter of 2013-2014 has been especially harsh, it’s time to take a virtual tour somewhere where it is always green: Central Florida’s Disney Wilderness Preserve! Let’s go!

Disney Wilderness Preserve Nature Center

Disney Wilderness Preserve Nature Center

Before we start our walk, let’s head inside the visitor center to check out the displays and sign in (we’ll need to sign out too).

Wilderness Trail Entrance

Wilderness Trail Entrance

Heading northeast, we see a sign for the Wilderness Trail entrance. Let’s not fool ourselves, the paved sidewalk will end soon.

Nature Conservancy Trail Blaze

Nature Conservancy Trail Blaze

The blazes we will be following have the Nature Conservancy logo.

Disney Wildnerness Preserve Pond

Disney Wildnerness Preserve Pond

Walking northeast from the visitor center a scenic pond appears to our right. Let’s pause a moment to see if there is anything poking around.

Wood Stork

Wood Stork

Take a look! There’s a Wood Stork!  Found throughout Florida, the Wood Stork’s preferred habitat includes grasslands and wetlands. The Wood Stork rookery found in the Disney Wilderness Preserve is thought to be the most studied in the world.

Cypress Dome

Cypress Dome

Straight ahead of us is a unique stand of trees known as a Cypress Dome. A Cypress Dome are dominated by Pond Cypress and Tupelo trees among other species.  Pond Cypress trees are often tallest in the center of the Cypress Dome which gives the appearance of a dome when viewed from a distance hence its name. Heading southeast for the next .27 of a mile the Cypress Dome will appear to our right. After walking .27, the trail splits heading straight and to the right. If we turn right, the trail will take us back to the nature center. I don’t think we are ready to quit just yet, we just got started! Let’s continue straight.

Lake Russell This Way

Lake Russell This Way

Continuing straight another estimated .10 of a mile we see a sign directing us  to the Lake Russell Trail. Let’s take it!

Spanish Moss

Spanish Moss

As we walk towards the swamp forest surrounding Lake Russell, something dangling above our heads catches our eyes. It’s Spanish Moss, which is not really a moss at all but rather a flowering plant!

But wait, there’s something else dangling above our heads….

Massive Spider

Massive Golden Silk Spider

A massive Golden Silk Spider! Let’s keep moving!

The estimated .14 of a mile trail takes us through a dense Cypress Wetland Forest which surrounds the lake on all sides (a rare sight in Central Florida!)

Cypress Wetland Forest Surrounding Lake Russell

Cypress Wetland Forest Surrounding Lake Russell

The Cypress has a lifespan of hundreds of years and is found throughout the wetlands of the Disney Wilderness Preserve.

Lake Russell

Lake Russell

What a view! Beautiful Lake Russell is fed by Reedy Creek which is part of the northernmost Headwaters of the Everglades.



Heading back out through the swamp forest we find ourselves in the open savannah of the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem. Once estimated covering around 90 million acres in the southeastern United States, the Longleaf Pine ecosystem is now reduced to around an estimated two million acres, most of which is found on private land. The Longleaf Pine thrives on poor sandy soils.



The Longleaf Pine ecosystem is associated with natural fires which occur naturally every two to four years. Naturally occurring fires reduce the amount of litter on the ground which provides breathing room for Longleaf Pine seeds to germinate. Due to the surrounding development, controlled fires are conducted at the Disney Wilderness Preserve as this burned snag demonstrates. The endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, whose primary habitat is found in the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem, was successfully reintroduced in 2007 in the Disney Wilderness Preserve.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

As we walk we know the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker is present but we do not see any today. But look up! A Palm Warbler is watching us from its perch.

Saw Palmetto

Saw Palmetto

Saw Palmetto, found all around us, is a common understory plant of the Disney Wilderness Preserve. This tough plant is one of the first to send up new leaves within a week or two after a forest fire.

Shrub Oak

Shrub Oak

Occasionally as we walk a tall shrub appears. This shrub is Scrub Oak. Without frequent fire, Scrub Oak would form dense thickets preventing the establishment of Longleaf Pine.

Trail through Longleaf Pine Savannah

Trail through Longleaf Pine Savannah

Whew! It’s getting hot. Let’s keep our mind off the heat for a moment and think about a bird found in the Disney Wilderness Preserve which is present but we do not spot during our walk. The bird in reference is the  Florida Scrub-Jay, classified as threatened under the endangered species act and is the only bird endemic to Florida.


Like a mirage in the distant, the pond we passed when we first started out is ahead and the trail has come to an end. I hope you enjoyed our virtual tour of the Disney Wilderness Preserve and that it inspires you to visit it for yourself!

Address & Contact Information

The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve
2700 Scrub Jay Trail
Kissimmee, FL 34759
Phone: (407) 935-0002
Feel free to Comment with Questions, Memories or Suggestions! Thank you and have fun exploring!
For more Information on the Disney Wilderness Preserve Check out the Attached!
Ecology Books!
Highlighting the efforts of nine extraordinary leaders, Nature’s Keepers examines the organization’s culture and management, strategy and decisions, and courageous and ingenious individuals who have dedicated their lives to conservation. Click Here for more information!
Introduces readers to the trees and plants, insects, mammals, reptiles, and other species that live in Florida’s unique wetlands ecosystem, including the Virginia iris, American white waterlily, cypress, treefrogs, warblers, and the Florida black bear. Click Here for more information!

Morris County’s Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center!

Morris County Park Commission Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center (with Common Reed)

Welcome to Morris County’s Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center!

Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center

The Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center (GSOEC) consists of a 44 acre portion of the Great Swamp managed since 1963 by the Morris County Parks Department. The GSOEC hosts guided nature walks, school, scout and public educational programs.

Herp Study in Progress

The GSOEC hosts periodic studies of the flora and fauna to determine the overall health of the Great Swamp.

Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

The estimated 7,768 acre Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge  (GSNWR) abuts the GSOEC to the west. The GSNWR is one of 553 refuges administered by the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Lands comprising a National Wildlife Refuge are managed for the protection of wildlife and its habitat.

History of the Great Swamp

The origin of the Great Swamp begins with the melting and subsequent retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier around 25,000 years ago.  Debris from the glacier blocked the passage of an ancient river creating an enormous lake known as Lake Passaic. Lake Passaic is thought to have been 30 miles long and 10 miles wide.  Over time, an outlet was formed near Little Falls NJ draining the lake via the Passaic River. This drainage is still occurring today. Today the Great Swamp forms a remnant component of the once great Lake Passaic.

GSOEC Forest

In the late 1950’s the area now known as the Great Swamp was identified by the NYNJ Port Authority as an ideal location for a new jetport.  The Great Swamp Conservation Foundation mobilized volunteers to protect the Great Swamp. The result was the establishment of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Great Swamp Conservation Foundation later became the North Jersey Conservation Foundation and then finally known as  New Jersey Conservation Foundation.


GSOEC features four short loop trails. Two of the four trails (Orange & Red) are interpretive and follow 16 markers listed in a self guided trail booklet available at the education center. Click here for a trail map!

The total length of the trails is 1.4 miles.

Virtual Tour:

Ready to take a virtual tour of the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center? Let’s Go!

Stop by the kiosk near the parking lot to pick up a trail map. From the kiosk, head to the education center to view the exhibits on the flora and fauna of the Great Swamp.

Outdoor Education Nature Center with Kiosk

Mammals of The Great Swamp

Endangered in New Jersey

After checking out the exhibits inside, it’s time to start our hike.

Orange Trail Trailhead

Let’s begin our virtual hike by taking the Orange Blazed trail located to the south of the education center. The Orange Trail at .61 Miles is the longest trail present in the GSOEC. It contains Markers 1-10 from the self guided trail.

Marker 1

The first marker, regarding the Red Maple tree, appears shortly after the beginning of the orange trail. Red Maple is the most common tree in the Great Swamp as well as the eastern deciduous forest.

Red Maple Leaves

Red Maple’s flowers are red in the spring and the leaves turn a brilliant red in the fall. Though the Sugar Maple may come to mind when it comes to maple syrup, Red Maple can be tapped for syrup as well. Red Maple should be tapped before budding occurs as the buds change the chemical makeup of the syrup.

Marker 2

Continuing on the orange trail, marker #2 comes into view on the right where a large depression may be found.

Large Depression

The large depression is known as a vernal pond. Vernal ponds do not support fish and may be dry or filled with water. Due to the lack of predators (i.e. fish) the vernal pond provides a safe haven for amphibians such as Wood Frogs, Spring Peepers and Blue-Spotted Salamanders among other species to breed and lay eggs.  Continuing past the vernal pond, two fenced areas appear shortly after on the left.

Marker 3 with Deer Enclosure in background

Marker # 3 explains that these sections of the GSOEC were fenced in 2009 to study how plant communities recover from the damage caused by an overpopulation of white tail deer.

Marker 4 EcoTone

Marker #4 describes an Ecotone. An Ecotone is anywhere two habitats meet and create an edge. The Ecotone present here was created by the Power line right of way. The positive aspects of this man-made Ecotone is  the creation of suitable nesting habitat for the local turtle population in addition to providing a valuable hunting ground for birds of prey. On the flipside, the disturbed ground caused by the creation of the power lines have provided ideal habitat for invasive plants  as Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose, Garlic Mustard, Wineberry & Japanese Barberry.

Marker 5 The Pond

Continuing in a southwest direction, the dirt path changes to a boardwalk as the trail traverses the wetland area.

Orange Trail Boardwalk

A short boardwalk appears to the right of the main boardwalk which leads to the Pond which is marker #5.

The Pond

Ponds are usually less than 18 feet deep. Eventually as plant matter and other organic material decays, the pond will begin to become a marsh, progress to a forested wetland and finally upland habitat after many years.

Painted Turtles on the Pond

The Pond at GSOEC is manmade and provides habitat for Eastern Painted Turtles, Snapping Turtles, Wood Ducks, Mallards, Belted Kingfisher and River Otters among others. Flora of the Pond includes Yellow Flowered Spatterdock & Duckweed.

Poison Ivy

Continuing on the trail leads to Marker #6 which describes Poison Ivy which is seen here growing as a hairy vine.  Poison ivy contains a clear liquid known as urushiol which causing a burning itching rash in many people.   In addition to a hairy vine Poison Ivy can be found as a shrub reaching over three feet tall or as a trailing vine on the ground.

Several rhymes exist warning of the dangers of Poison Ivy:

“Leaves of three, let them be”

“Hairy rope, don’t be a dope”

“Hairy vine, no friend of mine”

Common plants often misidentified as Poison Ivy include Virginia Creeper and Box Elder Maple among other species.

Despite the negative publicity this native plant receives, Poison Ivy has tremendous value for wildlife.  Native birds such as Eastern Bluebird, Gray Catbird, Dark Eyed Junco and Northern Flicker eat Poison Ivy’s white berries. Mammals such as White-Tail Deer and Eastern Cottontail consume Poison Ivy’s leaves.

Mountain Laurel

At this point of the hike you may notice abundant Mountain Laurel. Marker # 7 appears here.

Marker 7 The Browse Line

Its purpose is to briefly touch upon “the browse line”. The over abundant white- tail deer have stripped all leaves of vegetation from six feet down. If the current trend continues, there may not be a forest here in the future.

From this area, the trail head of the .23 of a mile Blue trail loop appears.

Blue Trail Trailhead

Let’s take a brief break from the interpretive trail to explore this short trail.

Blue Blaze Swamp Chestnut Oak

The Blue Trail Loop goes through an upland area consisting of mostly Mountain Laurel and Swamp Chestnut Oak.

Dried Vernal Pond Blue Trail

The trail encircles a small vernal pond (the vernal pond, seen here at the end of September 2012 was dry).

Blue Trail trailend

Completing the Blue Trail Loop, head back to the Orange Trail and to Marker # 8 which describes the function of a rotting log in the forest.

Rotting Log

Standing dead trees or snags play an important role in the eastern deciduous forest. Woodpeckers including Pileated, Downy and Red-Bellied among others excavate holes in the dead trees searching for tasty insects. These excavated holes in turn create habitat for birds including Black-Capped Chickadee. Fungus will usually invade the dead wood further softening it. Eventually, the tree will fall to the forest floor where it will continue to decay creating a rich organic soil which will support future species of trees.

Marker 9 Phragmites Marsh

Proceed  east  to Marker # 9 The Phragmites Marsh. Phragmites (aka Giant Reed) is a giant species of grass which can grow from 10-20 feet.  Phragmites thrives in disturbed areas. Phragmites found in the Great Swamp are native to the eastern deciduous forest. Phragmites are considered invasive because of its aggressive growth and tendency to overwhelm all other vegetation.

Marker 10

Outdoor Study Area

From here the trail leaves the boardwalk and heads south to marker # 10 which passes an outdoor study area and leads to a Wigwam replica.


The Lenape Native Americans (the original people) created Wigwams as shelter from saplings, tree bark and Cattail Mats among others. This replica would have been big enough for two people. Marker #10 is the last marker for the orange trail.

Orange Trail Trailend

After heading back from the Wigwam, turn right on the Orange Trail and follow the trail a brief distance to its terminus.

Prayer of the Woods

The “Prayer of the Woods” sign is found right before the start of the Red Trail. After reading the Prayer and taking in its message, turn right to start hiking the .39 mile Red Trail to continue the interpretive trail.

Red Trail Trailhead

The first marker on the Red Trail is #11 which identifies trees found in the Eastern Deciduous Forest.

Marker 11 Deciduous Forest

Trees found in the Eastern Deciduous Forest include the below among others:


Black Oak

Pin Oak



The term “deciduous” indicates that the trees comprising this type of forest lose their leaves each fall and grow new leaves in the spring.

Marker 12 Transmission Lines and Marsh

Continuing on the red trail leads Marker #12 “Transmission Lines and Marsh”.

Red Trail Power Cut

Here, vegetation is periodically removed or trimmed back so as to not interfere with the power lines. This wet marsh provides habitat to Wood Ducks, Mallards, Muskrats and Red-Wing Blackbirds among others.

Red Trail to Education Center

From here turn left at the sign leading to the education center to go to Marker # 13.

Marker 13 Stream

The Red Trail approaches Marker #13 as it crosses a stream.

Red Trail Stream Crossing

Sediments and rocks on the stream bottom provides habitat for a variety of Crayfish and Macro-invertebrates. Marco-invertebrates lack backbones and can be seen without the aid of a microscope.  Certain macro-invertebrates such as Caddisflies are pollutant intolerant. Presence of pollutant intolerant macro-invertebrates are one way to indicate the health of a stream. Macro- invertebrates eat many different things depending on the species-there are predators, scavengers, and herbivores among them. In turn, macro-invertebrates are a source of food for various turtles, fish and frogs.

Marker #14 The Wet Meadow

Continuing on the red trail leads to Marker #14 which discusses“The Wet Meadow”. The Wet Meadow is a man-made habitat created by a power-line cut and is home to field mice, star-nosed moles and various hawks & owls among others.

Marker #15 American Beech

Marker #15 leads to an American Beech Tree. The smooth gray bark of the American Beech Tree usually invites individuals to carve their names and other messages into the trunks. Carving in a tree trunk is similar to a cut on your finger. However, unlike your injured finger, a tree cannot put a band-aid on its wound. The carved bark is an open door for disease.


Beechdrops, seen here in this picture, lack both leaves and chlorophyll and is a parasitic plant of the American Beech Tree.

#16 The Swamp

Marker #16 The Swamp

The final marker on the red trail briefly discusses the importance of the Great Swamp. The land comprising the Great Swamp is a mix of meadows, upland woods, marsh and brush covered swamps. Only 40% of the Great Swamp is wet either part of the year or all year long whereas 60% of the Great Swamp  consists of upland forest & meadows.

Red Trail End

You are now at the end of the Red Trail.

Green Trail Blaze

At the end of the red trail head north to catch the beginning of the short .20 of a mile Green Trail near the parking area. The Green trail traverses in a short loop in an upland portion of the GSOEC.

Mushrooms Green Trail

Check out these mushrooms found growing in September 2012!

Asian Long Horn Beetle Detector

In the parking area near the end of the Green Trail you may notice a black box hanging from a tree. The Black boxes are used to detect for the presence of the Asian Long-Horn Beetle, an invasive species from Asia.

Wildlife Blind

After the Green Trail is complete, it’s time to visit the Observation Blind located off the parking lot which views the Pond looking west.

Turtles on the Pond from Wildlife Blind

This concludes our virtual hike! I hope you enjoyed it and it inspired you to take a trip to see the GSOEC for yourself!

Click here for directions!

Feel free to comment below with any bird sightings, interesting plants, memories or suggestions! Thank you and have fun exploring!

Check out the latest bird sightings at Morris County’s Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center Here!