PHOTOS: ‘Who’ wants to know? – Rookery Bay Nature Fest includes lecture on Marco’s burrowing owls

Rookery Bay has Marco Island surrounded.

The wetlands, estuaries and uplands managed by the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve encompass all the land connecting Marco to the mainland, and even the island itself, outside the city limits, is the subject of a Rookery Bay-sponsored mangrove restoration project.

Rookery Bay’s stewardship extends to the waters around Marco, and their Environmental Learning Center (ELC) is right down the road off Collier Blvd. So when Rookery Bay hosts their annual nature festival, for Marco Island, it’s basically a backyard party.

This past weekend, Rookery Bay did just that. The Southwest Florida Nature Festival, put on last weekend by the Rookery Bay staff and FORB, the Friends of Rookery Bay, offered residents and visitors the chance to see at least a small fraction of the incredible natural diversity with which we are surrounded (there’s that word again).

The folks at Rookery Bay take seriously their mission to educate the public about our natural habitat, as well as protect it and conduct research to further our understanding of the natural world and how we affect it. Activities during the nature festival ranged far afield, from swamp buggy rides through the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to kayaking in Rookery Bay itself, along with hiking, biking, and birdwatching.

“What we want to do is expose people to the beauty of the special place we live in,” said Rookery Bay Environmental Manager Randy McCormick, who originated the festival eight years ago. “If we can make them say, ‘we want to preserve this,’ then we’ve done our job.”

Along with the field trips, a series of lectures and films gave a little more background to nature, with the venue being the auditorium at the ELC. For those with limited knowledge of Southwest Florida’s habitat, or with guests who would like to learn more about it, there is no better place to start than Rookery Bay’s Environmental Learning Center.

Rookery Bay brings in top names in environmental protection, from shark expert Stan Waterman to Saturday’s featured presenter, Emmy-nominated cinematographer Michael Male, who has worked with PBS, the BBC, and National Geographic’s Explorer. Some of the experts come from closer to home, and make the point that nature really is in our backyard.

A case in point, and of particular interest to Marco Island residents, was a lecture Saturday on burrowing owls, presented by City of Marco Island Environmental Specialist Nancy Richie. She showed a map of the island, highlighting the location of 96 burrows where the diminutive predators nest.

“Okay, here’s our manmade island,” she said, putting up on the screen an image of Marco, with all its dredged finger canals.

Not all of the burrows on Marco Island will be inhabited, she said.

“Until breeding season, it’s just an estimate,” but she estimated that the island has 50 to 60 breeding pairs, along with about 12 single owls. Richie pointed out the burrowing owls are not snowbirds, but year-round residents of Marco. Emphasizing the extent of their range, she showed a picture of a wine bottle, from a winery in the Sonoran desert in Mexico, that uses the burrowing owl for label art – but said she had been unable to obtain any of the actual wine, due to international shipping restrictions.

Burrowing owls are small for owls, just nine inches tall, with a 20–24 inch wingspan, she said.

“I’ve held them – it’s like holding nothing,” Richie said of the burrowing owl. “I tell schoolchildren they’re the size of a water bottle, because they all can relate to that, but they only weigh 6–9 ounces.”

Elsewhere in the ELC, children got to take the wheel of a mocked-up fishing boat, peer into the touch tank, and marvel at the blown up model of a batfish, which Rookery Bay has taken as their mascot.

The Rookery Bay ELC is located at 300 Tower Road, just off Collier Blvd. shortly before US 41. For more information, call (239) 417-6310.

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