In the early morning light, a great blue heron, two great egrets and white ibis soar above 2,000 acres of wilderness along Indiantown Road in search of breakfast.
The croaking of frogs and high-pitched calls of black-bellied whistling ducks pierce the air before the sun rises over a restored wetland. The smooth, black surface of the water reflects the cypress trees along its banks.
As the sun comes up, the birds leave their roosts, and two young deer scamper across the hiking path.
The Cypress Creek Natural Area accounts for roughly 2,000 acres of more than 31,000 acres of natural areas maintained by Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management to protect native habitats and wildlife. It is less than 3 miles from Interstate 95.
“Always there will be wading birds here,” said Benji Studt, public outreach program supervisor with the department.
Studt waded into the water up to his shins to position his tripod for the perfect sunrise shot Thursday. He leads sunset photography workshops as part of the free Adventure Awaits series in which guides from Environmental Resources Management put on a series of events designed to acclimate people who don’t feel comfortable exploring the natural areas on their own.
Other Adventure Awaits programs include “growing up wild” outdoor events for children, bike rides, guided kayaking trips, trail runs, photography workshops and outdoor yoga.
Twisted Trunk Brewing is hosting the fourth annual Night for the Natural Areas Saturday to benefit the programs connecting locals with the outdoor getaways. The brewery has donated more than $10,000 over the past three years.
Money from the night out also helps pay for a Natural Areas Festival with 10 events over the span of three days, culminating with a Saturday celebration at Winding Waters.
The county bought the natural areas with bonds taxpayers approved in 1991 and 1999. The properties are shielded from development, and the county removes exotic plants that would crowd out natural vegetation, depriving local wildlife of their food sources.
Studt hopes to work with Discover the Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism marketing arm, to highlight the “eco-assets” in the area, specifically the public land surrounding the Loxahatchee River. The Loxahatchee is one of only two rivers in Florida to earn the National Wild and Scenic River designation.
“It’s not just beaches,” Studt said.
Birding is the second-most common reason people come to Palm Beach County after the beaches, he said. It’s one of the birding meccas in the United States.
A few years ago, a least grebe — which is more common in Central America — nested at the Yamato Scrub site. Birders and photographers were there every day, he said.
A green heron spotted in the Cypress Creek site on Thursday raised his crest when he spotted visitors.
“They’re feisty little birds. They’re so cool,” Studt said. “They have such an attitude.”
Studt also pointed out the mental health benefits of getting outdoors, referring to a Stanford University study that found people who spent more time walking in nature had decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with depression compared to people who walked in an urban setting.
For children, playing freely in nature fosters science, communication and leadership skills. The county hosted a “Meet the Critters of the Lagoon” at the Lake Worth Lagoon Thursday morning, another Adventure Awaits event.
Northern Palm Beach County is especially rife with opportunities to get outside, being home to about 25,000 of the 31,000-plus acres of natural areas managed by the county.
Four multi-use trails connect 165,000 acres of public land around the Loxahatchee River, including Grassy Waters Preserve, the Loxahatchee and Hungryland Slough Natural Areas, the J.W. Corbett and DuPuis Wildlife Management Areas, Riverbend Park, the Cypress Creek Natural Area and Jonathan Dickinson State Park.
“What we have here is like a national park, but nobody knows about it,” Studt said.
That’s something the county and the four other agencies who manage the areas are working to change by creating an easily-accessible comprehensive trail map and rebranding the trails from the Northeast Everglades Natural Area to the Jeaga Wildways.
“Having trails that connect all these lands is amazing,” Studt said.
If you go:
What: Night for the Natural Areas
Where: Twisted Trunk Brewing, 2000 PGA Blvd., No. 5506
When: 2 to 8 p.m. Aug. 11
Cost: $25 ticket (cash-only) gets a free beer and food from Seasons 52
More: Release event for the Loxahatchee Lager, brewed to benefit Palm Beach County’s Natural Areas. Raffle for fine art prints from local photographers.
Explore the natural areas: http://discover.pbcgov.org/erm/Pages/Natural-Areas.aspx