WILDLIFE TOUR IS FUN AND INFORMATIVE

by Whit Gibbons

February 22, 2015

When my sister Anne Gibbons and her husband, Bill Fitts, were planning a trip to Naples, Fla., she asked what outdoor excursions I would recommend. Here is her account of their visit to the place that topped my list.

"Look closely at the branches. See the little black nodules?" Twenty-plus people lean on the boardwalk's railing and peer into the thicket of trees. "They are mangrove tree crabs."

"There! I see them."

"Me too."

Soon, people who have seen the crabs are pointing them out to those who haven't yet spotted the tiny creatures.

"They live on mangrove trees and eat their leaves. The mangrove tree crab is not an air-breathing species, so it must not dry out. It descends frequently to the waterline, and females lay their eggs in the water."

We are on Sanibel Island touring the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Our guide, Tracy, works for Tarpon Bay Explorers. Situated on the wildlife refuge, Tarpon Bay is a "licensed concessionaire . . . providing low-impact recreational and educational opportunities to the public under contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."

On either side of the boardwalk, red mangrove trees grow in great profusion; the end of the walk looks out over water. More mangrove forests are visible in the distance, and several hundred feet from the boardwalk a lone mangrove shoot sticks out of the water. Instead of producing dormant seeds like most plants do, the mangrove reproduces by means of propagules, germinated seedlings. When a propagule drops from the parent tree into the water, it has enough nutrients to float for up to a year before rooting.

No ecotour can guarantee that animals will be visible. So we are all thrilled when Tracy stops the open-air bus time and again to point out various birds, starting with the roseate spoonbill. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the plumage of these birds was highly prized for ladies' hats and fans. The birds were also harvested for food. By 1942 as few as 30 breeding pair of roseate spoonbills were in Florida. Conservation efforts helped restore populations of these magnificent birds, which are sometimes mistaken for flamingos.

When Tracy stops the bus again, a great egret, also known as a great white heron, is standing less than 20 feet away. Suddenly the long yellow bill stabs downward then quickly reappears grasping a lizard that soon becomes the egret's lunch. Also prized for their plumage, great egrets were nearly extinct at the turn of the 20th century. Their plight helped trigger conservation movements and some of the first legislation to protect wild birds.

Continuing along Wildlife Drive, Tracy points out a snowy egret. It has a slender bill, dark legs, a yellow patch of skin around its eyes, and bright yellow feet. Like many of the other bird species we've seen on Sanibel, the snowy egret, prized for its feathers, was hunted nearly to extinction.

Farther on Tracy points out a flock of white American pelicans. They are similar to brown pelicans in shape but are larger (with a 9-foot wingspan) and have very different habits. Most populations, including those on Sanibel Island, are migratory. The bird feeds in shallow water by scooping up fish in its pouch rather than diving for its prey as the brown pelican does.

Just beyond the flock of white pelicans is a rare reddish egret, the second one we've seen. As we watch, it begins its signature dance: rushing back and forth on the shallow sandbar, stabbing the water with its sharp beak, then flapping its wings. Every now and then it stands still, holding its wings out to create shade, which prey may mistake for sanctuary. It is a comical sight - if you're not a minnow or other small fish.

Heading back to our car after the tour, we decide the Ding Darling nature preserve also tops our list of must-see attractions near Naples.

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