Fort Myers Beach is synonymous with entertainment, from bars and restaurants to beaches and shops and tourism venues. With all this development, along with current construction, it is easy to forget our island is a natural treasure. Fortunately, Lee County Parks & Recreation reminds vacationers, seasonal visitors and residents alike about the unique habitat and wondrous environs of the barrier islands with a series of free guided programs led by talented and passionate volunteers.
Life in the Mangroves
“Life in the Mangroves” is at Matanzas Pass Preserve every Thursday through March 31 from 9:30 to 11 a.m. This inspirational walk through one of Florida’s original aquatic preserves examines the diverse plant and animal communities in this maritime oak hammock, transitional wetland, and mangrove forest ecosystem. It is at 199 Bay Road, with limited parking, right down the road from the Fort Myers Beach Public Library.
Jim Rodwell, a Florida master naturalist, was our guide. One look at Rodwell answered the theoretical question of what would happen to Indiana Jones if he retired to Southwest Florida and became a naturalist! Jim, endlessly fascinating, combined incredible knowledge with a droll sense-of-humor that made the 90-minutes fly by. Possibly due to our historically wet January, 28 people turned out, roughly triple the normal number.
Barrier islands are creatures of the sea, dominated by salt and sand; the only fresh water filters down from rain. Jim calls the preserve “a true mangrove, with really distinctive things, in a distinctive habitat.” Mangroves adapt to survive in tidal salt water, providing habitat for birds, with leaves crucial to the food chain. Red, white and black mangroves thrive in the salt basin.
Before beginning, Jim cautioned the group to remain on the trail and boardwalk for our safety as well as to protect the site, and to resist taking or touching any natural souvenirs because “what happens in the preserve stays in the preserve!” This admonishment came with a historical and serious side: “This is where the Calusa Indians came to shop – everything they needed was here – but there are poisonous plants too, so keep your hands to yourself.”
Stopping periodically on the half-mile stroll, Jim pointed out Buttonwood trees and goldenrod, cabbage palm and oak trees, and various flora and fauna. He noted that Matanzas Pass Preserve trees are not as tall as those elsewhere because the salty environment stunts their growth: “Oaks here are about 40 feet-feet-high, while fresh water ones reach up to 85 feet.”
The early February weather was ideal – what we think of when we describe Fort Myers Beach as Paradise – in the low 70s with bright sunshine filtering through the thick canopy. Refreshing sea breeze was a constant throughout the morning, causing many walkers to comment that “it is so cool in here!” It is easy to forget a massive island construction project is on-going just a short distance away, as the preserve envelops the group so completely it seemed like we were in old and unsettled Southwest Florida rather than a park surrounded by civilization. Despite the tropical foliage, mosquitos were rare, a fortunate occurrence with the recent concerns over the potential of the Zika virus, though locals caution it is buggier in the summer. Birds serenaded us with song as several couples walked hand-in-hand.
Jim showed us Spanish moss, and said historically this was habitat to large tracts of mahogany and pine trees, but most were lost to clearing and construction when settlers moved to the island. Today, mahogany is making a comeback, but the few pines now on Estero are hand-planted near the beach. He showcased daisies, offering that their leaves and stems store fresh water gathered by low-laying roots that quickly and efficiently grab and hold on to the rain. Here and there were large trees snapped in half by the recent January tornado-level storms and wind.
“Life in the Mangroves” is the best kind of program – an entertaining guide in a scenic locale on a gorgeous day, amidst the sights, sounds and smell of nature. It was fun and compelling – the ideal way to learn something new – yet you never felt like there would be a quiz at the end. Wear outdoor shoes, dress in appropriate clothes should mosquitos strike, and a walking stick is a good idea due to the uneven terrain and occasional tree roots. Of the nearly 30 attendees, a handful were locals, a half-dozen seasonals, and the vast majority vacationers. Roughly three-quarters were on their initial Matanzas Pass Preserve visit. Some may return, others will not, but all are better for their time in the preserve with its own Indiana Jones!
The “Sundown Sing-along” later that day at Bowditch Point Park at the northern tip of Fort Myers Beach was completely different from the morning event. We sat in folding chairs on the park pavilion deck as opposed to walking in a mangrove preserve. We sang rather than quietly listening to our intrepid tour guide. We focused on pure fun and enjoyment over learning about and experiencing our natural wonders.
Troubadour Mike Leising sang and strummed on his acoustic guitar some of the greatest hits from the late 1950s through mid-1970s. Fellow volunteer Sally Donaldson helped with vocals, and Davey Dutle rounded out the combo sitting on the cajon drum, a box-shaped plywood instrument he plays by slapping the front face with his hands and fingers. Whether true or not, Davey said the playing position and style were the origins of the phrase, “playing with your cojones,” a comparison that actually makes perfect sense! There was a rotating fourth person in the group, as Sally traded off a tambourine from one audience member to the next.
Prior to leading the crowd of 20 people in the opening song of “Love Potion #9” from The Searchers, the affable Mike gently encouraged everyone to join him, as he immodestly said he “doesn’t claim to be any good, I just like to sing!” Sally handed out lyric sheets and participation was near unanimous.
Easy listening classics flowed, from “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers in 1958 through “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett from 1977. Before or after each number, Mike related a vignette about it or the artist, giving the familiar songs a personal appeal. “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters, “She Loves You” from The Beatles, “Hit the Road Jack,” made famous by Ray Charles, and Del Shannon’s “Runaway” were highlights. While the tunes are timeless and we know them by heart, there is something about seeing an osprey fly overhead that makes you experience them in a whole new way.
With 15 minutes until sunset at 6:12 p.m., Mike & Friends concluded with “Travelin’ Man” by Ricky Nelson. Following a final round of applause, we headed down the short trail, in small groups or individually, to the beach. Sadly this was the day’s only disappointment and no fault of Lee County Parks & Recreation – a rain front was rapidly approaching, making for a sunset encased in clouds, but one we savored all the same.
“Sunset Sing-along” is every Friday free-of-charge through March 25 on the Bowditch Point Park pavilion at 5 p.m. Bring along an instrument and play along; if you want to practice in advance, pick up the sheet music from Mike one week and be ready to rock the next!
In addition to these events, Lee County Parks & Recreation offers free-of-charge “Life Along the Shoreline” on Mondays at Bunche Beach Preserve from 9:30 to 11 a.m.; “Barrier Island Ramble” at Bowditch Point on Tuesdays and Fridays from 9:30 to 11 a.m.; and “Exploring Ethnobotany” at Matanzas Pass Preserve Wednesdays through March 30 from 9:30 to 11 a.m.; Bunche Beach Preserve is at 18201 John Morris Road. For more information on Lee County Parks and Recreation, call 239-533-7275 or visit www.LeeParks.org, and see Fort Myers Beach programs in The Island Sand Paper and Sand Life. Lee County Parks & Recreation: The Natural Place to Learn and Play!