Everyone knows Fort Myers Beach for its miles of sugar-white sand beaches, but our barrier island is home to one of the last Maritime Oak Hammocks left in Southwest Florida. To explore this natural treasure, Lee County Parks & Recreation offers two free nature walks, including “Life in The Mangroves” each Thursday through March 28 from 9:30 to 11 a.m.
Leading the program is another Fort Myers Beach natural treasures, Jim Rodwell, who is a Florida Master Naturalist and long-time FMB environmental expert! “We will take the boardwalk trail,” he explained to the roughly dozen people on our cool and overcast morning. “Even though I will step off the trail from time-to-time, you must remain on it throughout the entire walk, because if you break your leg, I will have to do an awful lot of paperwork! Remember, what happens in the Preserve stays in the Preserve, so let’s have some fun!”
Jim pointed out that Maritime Oak Hammocks are very rare in this area “because barrier islands have low sea levels and developers build on the highest spots and Oak Hammocks are the highlands, so they go first. Matanzas Pass Preserve is 60 acres and we are fortunate to have it. Most water in the Preserve is brackish, but not as salty as the Gulf of Mexico. There is, however, a slight layer of freshwater that is an inch or two thick, where most of the plants get their water. The soil basically is all sand and quite gooey, so whenever you pick up a handful, you are holding over two billion bacteria that become an organic material the plants absorb through photosynthesis.”
We see oaks, cabbage palms, White Indigo bushes, and Goldenrod “that are upland plants,” Jim explained. “They have a remarkable fragrance that comes in whiffs, especially during the Summer, though their flowers will never win any show awards. The Oaks are not as tall as they should be because the thick canopy blocks the sunlight. The branches, however, are amazingly strong; this group could all sit on one and it would not break.” He highlighted heavy Preserve damage remaining from Hurricane Irma from September 2017, including a dead red mangrove and its floor full of leaves that inhibit new growth.
As we walk past a Sabal palm, Jim noted that “it is Florida’s state tree. The old Florida cowboys would cut them down and make a stew; if you ever get to taste it, do so then brag about it, because you will never want to try it a second time! There are only 17 palms native to Florida; all the others are just ornaments.”
There are 7 different air plant species in Matanzas Pass Preserve, Jim related, as he pointed out one growing on an Oak. “They do not have a root system of their own, so they hang on for dear life. The Oak gets nothing out of this marriage; the air plants receive all the benefits and the tree nothing.” We encountered strangler figs that wrap around ficus and palm trees, “with each variety of fig having its own variety of wasp that they identify by fragrance.” Jim stated that Matanzas Pass Preserve offers a unique conservation problem: “All the palm trees here grow too well, leading to a very narrow ecosystem, as the best environments have great ecodiversity.”
Land of The Mangroves
Roughly two-thirds through the walk, we spot mangrove trees. “We are at the ecozone boundary,” said Jim, “meaning we are now changing habitats. What grows right back there does not grow here and vice versa, except for buttonwood trees. We are now in the land of the mangroves. We need mangroves in Florida to survive, as they stabilize the shoreline and are critical to our environment, especially during hurricanes, and are a feeding ground for birds, fish and wildlife, so they are crucial to the ecosystem.”
There are just 32 mangrove varieties on the planet “and we have three of them in the Preserve – red, black, and white. The white ones produce a form of nectar that is a food source for predator insects that eat other predator insects and not the tree – if you have a better story, tell it to me! Their roots act as a filtration system, throwing out the sodium and carrying up only freshwater. Mangroves are unique in that really nothing else can grow quite as well in a salty swampy environment than they, and they do so plentifully. Mangroves can be male or female, although each has opposite sex organs they turn off, with little seeds shaped like baseballs.”
Near the end of our walk, we reach the Estero Bay overlook pavilion. “The water here is very shallow,” Jim told the group. “Many fish larva end up near this platform, as there are not many predators.” As we returned to the parking lot, Jim told everyone that the Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon encountered the Calusa Indians near our region, and received the wound from which he would die 11 days later in Cuba. While Matanzas Pass Preserve is endlessly interesting, so is Jim, with his folksy style, fascination for detail, and wonderfully droll humor! He is truly a man who “walks softly, with a stick!”
Other FMB Nature Walks
In addition to Thursday’s ”Life in the Mangroves” walk, Matanzas Pass Preserve also hosts “Exploring Ethnobotany” each Wednesday from 9:30 to 11 a.m. through April 24, where you learn about the plants used by the Calusa Indians for food and shelter. You do not need reservations for either Preserve walk and parking is free but limited. Bring cameras, water, and shoes that can get dirty or wet. While “Life in The Mangroves” lasts 90 minutes, you will only walk roughly one half-mile, and dress appropriately, as mornings can still be cool.
In addition to these, Lee County Parks & Recreation host the Bowditch Point Park nature programs at the very northern tip of Fort Myers Beach, at 50 Estero Boulevard. The free nature walks are every other Tuesday through March 26 from 9:30 to 11 a.m., with the final two on March 12 & 26; and Fridays through April 26 from 9 to 10:30 a.m. No reservations necessary and parking $2-per-hour. It offers as well the free San Carlos Bay – Bunche Beach Preserve Nature Walk each Wednesday through April 24 at 18201 John Morris Road, across from Fort Myers Beach, from 9 to 10:30 a.m. No reservations necessary, parking $2-per-hour. For details call 239-432-2154 or see www.leeparks.org.
Lovers Key State Park at 8700 Estero Boulevard hosts nature walks and programs free with park admission on select days year-round at 10 a.m. For programs and reservations, call 239-463-4588 or see www.floridastateparks.org/loverskey. The free “Guided Beach Walk” at Newton Park at 4650 Estero Boulevard is every Tuesday year-round at 9 a.m. No reservations necessary; for details call 239-765-0865 or see www.moundhouse.org. Discover a different side of Fort Myers Beach on these nature walks and programs!
By Gary Mooney
- Florida Master Naturalist and guide, Jim Rodwell, points out the differences between Red, White, & Black Mangroves. Photo by Gary Mooney
- Find the Matanzas Pass Preserve at the end of Bay Rd, near the Historic Cottage. Photo by Sarah List.
- Matanzas Pass Preserve offers a boardwalk trail. Photo by Sarah List.