Tuesday, December 13, broke bright and clear, nothing like the thick fog from the previous day. The warm sunshine and light breeze made it a striking day, and the reason why we all live here year-round or visit during the season. It beckons you outside, and to Fort Myers Beach if possible, making it the perfect time to enjoy the free “Barrier Island Ramble” interpretive walk at Bowditch Point Park, the 17-acre natural jewel at the northern tip of Estero Island managed by Lee County Parks & Recreation.
Barry Fulmer, a volunteer who is a seasonal resident and retired lawyer from New Jersey, leads our Ramble. Barry cautions upfront that “I am radically shy;” but if by that he means endlessly interesting and knowledgeable, then he is accurate! Barry explains that volunteers lead the walks, with he taking a turn roughly every two weeks: “While we all employ the same facts, there is no set script, so each is completely different.”
Lee County purchased the park site in 1987. Parks & Recreation broke ground in 1992, with its grand opening in February 1994. It was the last remaining undeveloped land on Estero Island with shoreline on the Gulf and back-bay. It had little utilization other than for dredging spoil piles from Matanzas Pass that make it the highest elevation on Estero Island at 22 feet above sea level. “It has lots of trails for a small park, that go every which way,” Barry explains: “I get lost here all the time, but only for so long because all the trails take you to the water.”
Red & Peeling
Nathanial Bowditch, the park’s namesake, was an early American mathematician who lived from 1773 to 1838. His great contribution is his work on ocean navigation, and his seminal book, “The New American Practical Navigator,” first published in 1802, is still aboard every commissioned United States vessel. The Salam, Massachusetts, native almost certainly never visited Florida, much less Fort Myers Beach, but many points of land that stick out into the water are named after him.
As we begin, Barry near the Bowditch shelter shows us a gumbo limbo tree, with bark that is red and peeling. He told us its nickname is the “tourist tree because so many visitors get red and peeling skin from too much sun!”
Our young compatriot on the walk, the almost-4-year-old Anakin, spots a gopher tortoise! Barry says it is native to the Southeastern United States and the only tortoise originally from North America. It is a “keystone species” that digs burrows that provide shelter for at least 360 other animals; a keystone species has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its numbers.
The gopher tortoise is roughly one foot in diameter, burrows down 3 to 4 feet deep into hillsides, orients its burrow to face the sun, and is strictly vegetarian. Anakin thinks he can outrun it, but Laura Carr, a Parks & Recreation supervisor who walks with us, tells him that “they are surprisingly fast once they get going!”
Boots on The Ground
We encounter the Sabal Palm, Florida’s state tree. Barry adds that people often refer to it as “boots” because of its unusual protruding bark that rolls up and out from the trunk: “The cowboys who worked this land would hang their wet boots from these to dry, or would break them off for shoehorns.”
He leads us to Matanzas Pass, an estuary made from two rivers, the Estero to the southeast and the Caloosahatchee from the north. “Estuaries are where fresh and salt water meet,” he tells us. “They are a feeding ground for birds, fish and wildlife, and crucial to the ecosystem – that is why we have mangroves here.”
Most of the mangroves are the red variety, because they grow closest to water. Black mangroves are in drier areas, with white in the driest locations. “They stabilize the shoreline,” says Barry, “and offer a safe place for small birds and animals.” Sea oats and dunes keep erosion at bay, with space between them for sea turtle nesting, “though we have yet to have any so far,” Laura offers.
Barry pulls out old photographs to show that over 70 years ago there was nothing to protect! “In 1944, where the park is today, 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, until it was all here in 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.”
We spot a black belly plover, with Laura offering that “in nesting season their whole breast turns dark black and they really stand out!” There are raccoon tracks in the mud, with Laura telling Anakin that “we won’t see them because they are sleeping, but the tracks let us know they are here.” He asks if there are any snakes, with Laura saying that “there are black racers but nothing poisonous.”
Barry explains that you can often see dolphins, as well as manatees now that the Gulf is cooling. “That is what is great about Bowditch Point – you never know what you will see, and you always experience something different; that is why it is such a wonderful place.” At that instant, as if on cue, a pod of dolphins springs up from the Gulf!
The “Barrier Island Ramble” is at Bowditch Point Park at 50 Estero Boulevard every Tuesday and Friday, excluding holidays, from 9:30 to 11 a.m., with parking at $2 per hour. Bowditch Point is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. If you cannot Ramble, Lee County Parks & Recreation offers several other outstanding free family nature programs throughout the season.
“Life in the Mangroves” is at Matanzas Pass Preserve at 199 Bay Road on Thursdays through March 30 from 9:30 to 11 a.m., with free but limited parking. This inspirational walk examines the diverse plants and animals in this maritime oak hammock, transitional wetland and mangrove forest ecosystem.
“Exploring Ethnobotany” is at Matanzas Pass Preserve on Wednesdays through April 12 from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Learn the historical importance of Florida native plants as food, shelter, medicine, and clothing, and discover how the Calusa Indians and early settlers used these indigenous plants.
“Life Along the Shore” is at Bunche Beach Preserve at 18201 John Morris Road in Fort Myers, 33908, on Mondays except for holidays through April 24 from 9:30 to 11 a.m., with parking $2 per hour. Explore the shoreline while meandering the San Carlos Bay ecosystem. Learn about native shoreline birds, shells, animals, and plants. Wear shoes that can get wet, and bring water, bug spray, binoculars, and cameras.
“Bird Patrol Tours” allow you to see shorebirds as they rest and feed. Wear shoes that can get wet, and bring water, sunscreen, binoculars, and a camera. For dates and times see www.birdpatrol.org. For complete information on all these events, see the Sand Life Magazine at fortmyersbeach.news or go to www.leeparks.org.
The Town of Fort Myers Beach also offers a free guided Beach Walk each Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. at Newton Beach Park, 4650 Estero Blvd, Fort Myers Beach. Explore the natural treasures on Fort Myers Beach through a guided walk along the shore. Wear sunscreen, appropriate clothing, shoes and hats. Tours are approximately 1 hour – weather permitting.
Experience the unique natural treasure that is Estero Island today!