On a surprisingly warm and sunny Tuesday afternoon last week, the Sand Paper joined the first ever Fort Myers Beach-based Coastal Class of the Florida Master Naturalist Program as the 21 students were taking a field trip to Mound Key donated by the friendly folks at Good Time Charters.
The class, which is sponsored by the Friends of Matanzas Pass Preserve, is one of three required courses one must take to be designated a Florida Master Naturalist – an environmental awareness program created by the University of Florida. For six Tuesdays, participants have spent time in the classroom at Newton House and on five field trips to showcase our coastal environment. Tuesday’s trip to Mound Key was designed so the instructors – Mick Curtis and Jim Rodwell – could point out estuary environments, shore birds, wading birds, dolphins, assorted fish, amphibians and reptiles as well as the flora of the Florida coastline.
We joined the happy group shortly after lunch at Snook Bight Marina, where we climbed aboard Good Time Charters’ beautifully appointed pontoon boat, expertly piloted by Captain Steve and Captain Ryan. Once underway for the twenty minute trip to Mound Key, local biologist and owner of Good Time Charters, Cristina Denegre, gave our group a lesson on how Estero Bay was the state’s first estuary to be designated as a preserve.
“The water here, which averages 4 feet in depth, is brackish – though it’s a little fresher than normal now thanks to all the unseasonable rain storms we’ve been having,” she said. “Since we are in what’s known as a sub-tropical zone, we have a lot of diversity here – so far, we’ve identified 25 bird rookeries and we have our own resident dolphins.”
Denegre explained that more birds can be seen during the nesting months of April to August and that they generally prefer the smaller and more isolated of the many mangrove islands dotting the bay as those offer better protection against predators like raccoons and snakes.
Shortly after we passed the southern tip of Estero Island, Captain Ryan steered the boat into the nearly-hidden accessway to Mound Key – which is unique amongst other islands in the area in that it was created by the Calusa Indians 2,000 years ago – who formed an extensive structure of mounds – one of which rises more than 30 feet high, water courts and canals whose features still exist today. Nearly perfectly round and accessible only by boat, this incredibly unique historic site is now a state archeological park where one hundred and thirteen of the island’s one hundred and twenty-five acres are managed by the park system.
As we began our trek along the 3/4 mile trail that bisects the island, Curtis and Rodwell got busy showing the class how to properly identify the many different plant species on the island, and offered questions such as ‘how did people survive here if there was no source of fresh water?’. Curtis also explained how innovative and hardy the Calusa were by using the things they found in their natural surroundings – for instance, they used the thick, thorn-coated trunks and limbs of the ‘cat claw’ tree for natural fencing.
“The fruit of this tree is also delicious, if you can get to it before the birds do,” Rodwell said, as Curtis pointed out a species of ‘wild lime’ the Calusas also used. Other flora we saw on our trip included wild cotton, several royal poinciana trees and a unique plant called the ‘kalanchoe’, a type of succulent with unique, drooping flowers.
By the end of the 1 1/2 hour hike, everyone was happy to get back on the boat and enjoy the refreshing breeze on the way back to Snook Bight. They were also excited about what they were going to learn next week.
“This class is amazing – I thought I knew a lot about our local estuary, but I’m learning so much from Mick and Jim,” said Marine Resources Task Force Chair Bill Veach, who was taking the program along with his wife, Randa. His comments were echoed by others we spoke with, who all agreed that the program greatly benefited their understanding of our unique natural resources.
For more information about the Florida Master Naturalist Program, including when and where classes will be offered in the future, visit www.masternaturalist.ifas.ufl.edu.
Keri Hendry Weeg