Rookery Bay is a big place. Actually, the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve stretches far beyond its namesake body of water, surrounding Marco Island and extending north to Gordon Pass in Naples and south far into the Ten Thousand Islands, and covering 110,000 acres of mostly pristine mangroves, estuaries and uplands.
But the region’s natural ecosystems go beyond the Rookery Bay NERR, and interconnect to form a dynamic, organic whole. So when Rookery Bay held their 10th annual Nature Festival last weekend, they went outside their own boundaries and gave local residents, snowbirds and tourists the opportunity to explore the myriad habitats and ecosystems surrounding us.
With 40 different field trip options, participants could canoe the Turner River by moonlight, ride bicycles through the Big Cypress National Preserve, or birdwatch at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island. The Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center, or ELC, did host a series of lectures on Saturday, getting serious and academic on topics from the least tern to native landscaping, but most who took part in the festival, including some chilled individuals on the coldest evenings and mornings of the new year, did so out in the wild.
Whichever trip they took, participants were able to depend on knowledgeable guides for their activity, thanks largely to the cadre of dedicated volunteers who lead trips and perform a variety of services for the Rookery Bay reserve and other nature-based government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Along with Rookery Bay, our area has significant facilities of some dedicated, heavy-hitting wildlife groups, including Florida state parks and preserves, the Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the National Park Service’s Everglades National Park.
For the Nature Festival, Rookery Bay partnered with many of those to allow festival-goers to experience new aspects of the world around us in Southwest Florida. Some of the trips, like an exploration of the backcountry of Corkscrew or paddling in the Ten Thousand Islands, took participants far afield. But others made the point that the natural world is where we live, that we enter a native Florida ecosystem every time we step outside our door.
The streets, parking lots and highrises of Southwest Florida all stand on land that, 100 years ago, was part of the natural domain, which helps explain why pelicans get tangled up in fishing lines, herons hunt next to bank branches and black bears show up for a snack at residents’ garbage bins. One scheduled field trip was designed to highlight the birdwatching opportunities at Eagle Lakes Park, a Collier County facility surrounded by homes and golf course developments.
Volunteer Rookery Bay guide Steve Mutart, a Philadelphia native, retired attorney and lifelong birder, brought his avian knowledge and his spotting scope to share with his group Sunday morning. In this case, the birds showed up but the group, teenagers from West Palm Beach, did not, so he bestowed his expertise on the only bipedal, non-feathered creature who did, a reporter.
In a few short minutes, Mutart identified and pointed out birds including the belted kingfisher, red-shouldered hawk, redwinged blackbird, two species of crow, a flock of white ibis and ospreys sitting their nest.
“Birds are not just out in the wilderness,” said Mutart. He loves birds, because they are “comical and majestic, beautiful and their songs lift your heart.” Watching them, he said, gives him a sense of freedom.
Another group, a shelling expedition on Marco Island’s South Beach, took place Sunday morning in the shadow of highrise condominiums housing hundreds of humans. Guides Paulette Carabelli and Marge Tunnell helped a group of nearly 20 see what they might have been missing when walking the beach. The two also belong to the Marco Island Shell Club, preparing for its annual show in March.
Instead of looking up to see birds, Carabelli and Tunnell kept their eyes on the sand underfoot, and brought up specimen after specimen for the group to inspect. One actually was a bird, an anhinga that lay dead on the beach for unknown reasons. But mostly, they displayed shells, the large pen shells that other animals including crab and octopi hide inside, or lay their eggs in, the Florida fighting conch with the animal that came out of its shell ready for a rumble, thorny and brittle sea stars (two different species), and heart cockles that sailors would make into keepsakes for their ladyloves.
Tunnell held up a live stone crab and a dead blue crab side by side for inspection. New Zealand native and former Mote Marine Lab staffer Fay Brett proved adept at spotting unusual finds, and brought several to the leaders’ attention.
Carabelli told the shellers, each carrying a bag for their treasures, there are two key things to remember about shells. One, it’s pronounced “conk,” not “conch,” and two, most importantly — never take live shells, but return them to their natural habitat, the Gulf.
To discover more about our “big backyard” throughout the year, visit Rookery Bay’s Environmental Learning Center, located at 300 Tower Road, just off Collier Boulevard shortly before U.S. 41. For more information, call 239-530-5940 or go online to www.rookerybay.org.