Free Nature Walks

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Barrier Island Ramble

The weather was warm and sunny on a recent Friday morning, with the temperature in the low 70s and a delightful sea breeze, as our group of 12 people, including two children, attended the Barrier Island Ramble guided nature walk at Bowditch Point Park from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Volunteer Pat Feinstein led our program that began at the pavilion. “Seven acres at Bowditch Point park feature man-made developments like the pavilion and restrooms,” said Pat, “with the remaining ten in its natural state. Bowditch Point Park is, of course, part of Fort Myers Beach that is a 7-mile-long barrier island that historically protects the mainland in hurricanes.”

Bowditch Point Park is a 17-acre natural gem managed by Lee County Parks & Recreation at 50 Estero Boulevard, the northern tip of Fort Myers Beach. Lee County purchased the site in 1987, with the park’s grand opening in February 1994. It was the last remaining undeveloped large tract on Estero Island with shoreline on the Gulf and Back Bay. The park is home to dredging spoil piles from Matanzas Pass that make it the highest elevation on Fort Myers Beach at 22 feet above sea level. As the Ramble starts, we scale one of the more prominent spoil piles, with Pat exhorting, “This is our mountain climb; you cannot do this on any other part of the island!”

Nathanial Bowditch, the park’s namesake, was an early American mathematician who lived from 1773 to 1838, Pat explained. “His great contribution is his work on ocean navigation, and his acclaimed book, ‘The New American Practical Navigator,’ first published in 1802, that is still aboard every commissioned United States vessel. He was from Salam, Massachusetts, almost certainly never visited Florida, much less Fort Myers Beach, but points of land that stick out into the water often carry his name.”

We encounter a gumbo limbo tree, “that has a light, sturdy wood,” Pat explained, “that carpenters used to make old-time carousel horses. The nickname of the gumbo limbo is the ‘Tourist Tree’ because its bark resembles peeling skin, like tourists often get when they take in too much sun their first few days of vacation!” She pointed out an Osprey nest and as we continued on the walk, they seemed to be all over the park.

The group looked for gopher tortoises that are native to the Southeastern United States, the only tortoise originally from North America, and are prevalent at the park. “They are a ‘keystone species,’” offered Pat, “that digs burrows with a wide tunnel system that provides shelter for at least 360 other animals, as keystone species have a disproportionately large effect on their environment relative to its numbers. They are roughly one foot in diameter, burrow 3 to 4 feet into hillsides, orients its burrow to face the sun, and are strictly vegetarian. Notice that they dig the burrow entry wide enough so they can turn around to leave, as they cannot back up.” Roughly a third of the way through the Ramble, we finally encounter our first and only gopher tortoise and it is huge – “the biggest I have yet to see,” exclaimed Pat!

Boots, Mangroves, & Shifting Sands

Railroad Vines proliferate in Bowditch Point Park. Photos by Gary Mooney.

We come across a Sabal Palm, with Pat relating that it is Florida’s state tree. “People often refer to it as ‘boots’ because of its unusual protruding bark that rolls up and out from the trunk. Cowboys would hang their wet boots from these to dry or broke them off for shoehorns.” We notice sea grapes “that are full of berries,” she said, “that are excellent for jellies and jams.”

Pat led us to Matanzas Pass, explaining, “Estuaries are where fresh and salt water meet. They are a feeding ground for birds, fish and wildlife, and crucial to the ecosystem – that is why we have mangroves here. Red mangroves grow closest to water, black mangroves in drier areas, with whites in the driest locations. They stabilize the shoreline and are critical to our environment, especially during hurricanes. Mangroves help to collect sediment that captures sand that allow the beach to expand, offer a safe place for small birds and animals, and the growth of sea oats and dunes to prevent erosion.”

She displayed several old photographs to show that over 70 years ago, there was no Bowditch Point Park to protect! “In 1944, where we are standing today, this was water! By 1953 the sand moved north to form a small part of it. By 1958, more sand filled in most of the park site, until it was all here by 1970. That is the marvelous thing about a barrier island – it is dynamic and alive. If humans would not interfere, today Estero Island would grow out into the channel.”

Other natural sights included in the walk are the maritime hammock environment, sea oats and their deep root system that helps to keep the beach intact, Railroad vines, Morning glories, the butterfly garden, Nickerbeans, an array of birds and small animals, and of course the beach.  The Barrier Island Ramble is offered every Friday through April 24. We walk roughly three quarters of a mile at a comfortable pace, with frequent stops to examine what we find.

Other FMB Nature Walks

On Tuesdays through March 31, attend “Exploring the Five Natural Communities of Bowditch Point Park.” This is a new program, from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Tour the interesting BPP landscapes on the walk that affords visitors the unique opportunity to experience its five natural plant communities: beach dune, coastal strand, coastal grassland, mangrove swamp, and the restored natural aspect; meet at the pavilion and arrive early, as the small parking lot fills fast.

Lee County Parks & Recreation also offers two nature walks at the San Carlos Bay – Bunche Beach Preserve at 18201 John Morris Road, across from Fort Myers Beach. “Life Along The Shoreline” is Wednesdays through April 22, from 9 to 10:30 a.m. A new program is “Everything Changes” on Thursdays through March 26 from 9 to 10 a.m. All Lee County nature walks are free, with no reservations necessary, and parking $2-an-hour. Wear comfortable clothing and shoes that can get wet; bring bug spray, water, camera and binoculars. For details, call 239-533-7275 or see www.LeeParks.org.

Lovers Key State Park hosts a schedule of nature walks, programs, kayak and bicycle tours free with park admission year-round at 10 a.m. Bring bug spray, sunblock, water, sunglasses, camera, and hat. Lovers Key is open every day from 8 a.m. to sundown, with $8-per-car admission for 2 to 8 people, $4 for single occupant vehicles or motorcycles, and $2 pedestrians and bicyclists at 8700 Estero Boulevard; for information and reservations, call 239-463-4588 or see www.floridastateparks.org/loverskey.

The Mound House presents the “Guided Beach Walk” at Newton Beach Park at 4650 Estero Boulevard Tuesdays year-round and most Thursdays through April 30 at 9 a.m. While the hour-long walk is free and does not require reservations, parking is $3-per-hour. Volunteers identify things found on the beach, meaning no two walks are the same. Meet at the thatched hut and wear sunscreen, shoes to get wet, sunglasses and hat; for details call 239-765-0865 or see www.moundhouse.org.