Visitors to Walton County are often interested in what to do here besides go to the beach.
The Volunteer Beach Ambassadors of Walton County, along with Friends of South Walton Turtle Watch, hosted an educational session with field biologist Jeff Talbert recently to talk about South Walton's three state treasures: Topsail Hill Preserve, Grayton Beach, and Deer Lake State parks, where a variety of flora and fauna can be found.
Talbert is a field biologist at Florida Atlantic Botanical Gardens on assignment to do plantings at Deer Lake State Park.
The state parks have a lot of similarity, said Talbert.
Grayton Park was acquired by the state in 1968, and the state acquired the northern parcel in the 1980s. The park has 2,000 acres, 30 cabins and 50 campsites. There are also 8 miles of trails through the dunes, a nature trail, hiking trail and 46 miles of trails in the state forest.
Coastal dune lakes
The area is also home to 15 named rare coastal dune lakes that can only be found three other places in the world. They are Fuller, Morris, Campbell, Stallworth, Allen, Oyster, Draper, Big Redfish, Little Redfish, Alligator, Western, Eastern, Deer, Camp Creek and Lake Powell. Campbell, Morris and Fuller were included in acquisitions at Topsail in 1992.
Deer Lake was acquired in 1996 and is in starter park status. On entry visitors pay via an honor box and take a 1,600-foot boardwalk out to a mile of gloriously white beach.
Talbert said there are improvements coming to Deer that will include a 30-foot parking lot, along with primitive camping, and vast improvements will be made to its wetlands.
"Dune Lakes makes our area unique and they are protected watersheds," said Talbert.
The brackish salinity varies by lake and accounts for the lakes' tea color.
The lakes open to the Gulf regularly, except for Campbell, which rarely opens, said Talbert, and the outfalls shape the nearby dunes as the water goes out to sea.
No Name Lake is a small lake that is not included in the Coastal Dune Lakes and no one has ever seen it open.
Florida's state parks do not allow dogs on their properties in order to protect the wildlife that calls them home.
Out of South Walton's 26 miles of beach, 6 miles are preserved as part of the state parks.
The Gulf coast is also home to many unique flowering plants, such as the blue lupine that blooms for only two weeks in spring.
Woody goldenrod blooms in the dunes in the fall and is loved by Monarch butterflies. They are mixed with cruises golden aster in the fall and lie on the ground. Godfrey's golden aster is similar and grows along the ground.
The honeycomb plant that emerges in October is important for bees before going underground for rest of year.
Large leafed joint weed also emerges in October and turns pink as it ages.
Chinese wisteria smells great and can be found along the edge of lakes.
The Panhandle meadow beauty is endemic and also found on the edge of lakes.
The Choctawhatchee beach mouse that lives in the dunes of our beaches.
"We have trapped mice at Topsail to augment the population at Grayton," said Talbert. "The feral cat population is bad for them. They are also hunted by owls, raccoon and fox. We track them all the time at all three parks and set traps at night. They are incredibly cute."
You will see blue heron, reddish egret on Western Lake, green herons, tri-colored heron and snowy egrets with yellow feet.
The great blue heron likes snakes, said Talbert.
Nesting shore birds nest in a colony.
"Stay away from nesting areas. This is why you don't want dogs on the beach," he said.
Topsail did not have any snowy plovers for a long time. They nest right on beach and are exposed. They are solitary nesters and they use the outfalls to hatch and raise chicks.
"These are going extinct with only 300 pair in the state. They are affected by dogs as they can't fly," said Talbert.
There are also black-bellied plover, ruddy turnstones with bright orange legs, and the Black-necked stilt.
"The parks support the most diverse ecosystem on the planet," said Talbert.
There are pine flatwoods, saw palmetto and you might see a cat face carved in the trees at Grayton, a remnant of the old turpentine days.
The forest is maintained by regular prescribed burns.
"All plants need sun," said Talbert, "and we don't use herbicides, so, that's why we need prescribed burns."
The trumpet pitcher plants vary in a colony.
"A pitcher is a leaf and the plant excretes a sweet substance that traps bug and they can't get out," said Talbert. "They flower in March and April and they do cross pollination. They are really beautiful."
There are also snakes.
The coachwhip snake is beautiful, said Talbert.
He has seen diamondbacks at all three parks.
Water moccasins like to sun, and the older ones are darker.
The lake area is also a haven for alligators.
Topsail and Deer Lake both have bald eagles, great horned owls, red tailed hawks, fox squirrel topsail and gopher tortoise.
Topsail is also home to white-tailed deer and Florida black bear.
"They have cubs based on the availability of food," he said. "The more available food there is, the more cubs they will have."
Deer can occasionally be seen on the beach at Topsail.
In addition to dogs, no alcohol or glass are allowed in Florida's state parks.