The Florida Integrated Science Center (FISC) facility in northwestern Gainesville, FL, is located on 28 acres of University of Florida research lands away from the bustle of town and campus. Reaching the center requires traveling along Millhopper Road, an Alachua County Scenic Roadway. If you approach the center from the east on Millhopper Road, you can stop at Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park before you arrive; if you approach from the west, you can visit San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, which borders FISC lands on the north and west.
Completed in 1984, FISC Gainesville-West has 20 research ponds, five freshwater wells, and the uncommon and invaluable features of two 4,000-ft2-area wet labs for controlled indoor aquatic experiments. The facility is used for research on estuarine and freshwater fishes, mussels, and other benthic invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, and birds.
Birdwatchers at the center are often rewarded not only with bald eagles but also with other daytime hunters, such as red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, and ospreys. There are resident purple martins and bluebirds. Kestrels, egrets, anhinga, grackles, and blue herons are common sights. Wild turkeys are seen passing through. Depending on the time of year, visitors and employees may see sandhill cranes at the ponds, a welcome sight, heralding the change of season.
On warm sunny days, a walk around the ponds may yield the sight of turtles, including Florida cooters and Florida red-bellied turtles, taking in the sun or plunging below the surface for cover. A look in another pond may allow you to glimpse a young alligator diving to avoid detection, so that it can continue enjoying the free and easy meals to be had in research ponds full of fish. In the summer, black-bellied whistling ducks raise ducklings in the ponds. In the winter, hooded mergansers take a break at the ponds, and on any given day you may see five, or 25, gathering. Other migrating visitors include wood storks, blue-winged teal, and red-winged blackbirds.
Water moccasins and banded water snakes keep to themselves around the ponds. Corn snakes, black racers, yellow rat snakes, five-lined skinks, and green anoles are found on the grounds and are sometimes feasted upon by the birds of prey.
Visiting the center is not only a visual experience but also an auditory one. Green treefrogs, squirrel treefrogs, spring peepers, American bullfrogs, and barred owls can be heard calling.
Deer are less frequent than in years past but can still be seen from time to time in front of the facility munching on anything edible. Some evenings a red fox may be sighted trotting across the property, or rarely, an alligator walking across the parking lot. They are perhaps seeking the other facility residents for dinner: rabbits, opossums, armadillos, and raccoons.
In an effort to be an unobtrusive part of the landscape and provide safe haven for native animals, employees at the center use only native plants to improve existing habitat and to create new habitat for native songbirds and butterflies. Under the direction of resident biologist Shane Ruessler, invasive plant species are being removed and replaced by natives. To date, 20 endangered native-plant species have been added to the landscape. The result is a visually and environmentally friendly place.
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Florida Integrated Science Center, Gainesville, FL