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Southwest Florida abounds with natural places to partake of relaxing recreational activities such as bird watching, kayaking and stargazing.

But many of these places are quite a drive from the developed parts of the region where people live, and the places have names far less recognizable than Everglades National Park.

Also, the highly unusual geology of the area coupled with the unfamiliar subtropical species of flora and fauna can potentially cause Northerners new to the area to pause before they venture out into the wilds of the countryside, even if they are lifelong nature lovers.

Where can people go to learn about all that Southwest Florida’s natural environment has to offer without committing to hours of driving only to discover they have gone to the wrong place — or the right place at the wrong time of year — to partake of their favorite recreational activity?

Two nature preserves located amidst subdivisions and shopping malls hold the key for outdoors lovers seeking solid information about nature in Southwest Florida.

The Naples Preserve, located next to Coastland Center Mall on U.S. Highway 41 in Naples, and Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park, situated just south of Bonita Beach, run weekly one-hour nature talks during season that feature knowledgeable speakers from far-flung pockets of natural Southwest Florida, such as the Big Cypress National Preserve.

Naples Preserve Tuesdays

“We have quite a range of topics, but they all have to do with plants and animals,” said Mary Echols, Naples Preserve volunteer ambassador and chair of the Friends of The Naples Preserve. “We are not doing a specific theme other than the joy of living in Southwest Florida where nature always awaits us finding it.

“We offer them to the public for free in order that they might learn more about the environment they live in and live in harmony with the natural environment of Southwest Florida,” she said.

The Naples Preserve series takes place on Tuesday mornings and includes topics that expand beyond plants and animals to examine local ecosystems, matters of conservation and preservation, and the human and natural history of the area. The lectures, as well as admission to the city-owned preserve, are free.

“No matter what the topic, they’re always interesting, informative and fun,” said regular lecture attendee David Squires, “so I always make sure I’m here on Tuesday mornings. I’ll try to take a walk on the boardwalk while I’m here on Tuesdays, and there’s always something to see here — you never know what — both inside and outside.

“I also go to Barefoot Beach on Saturdays,” he added. “Their lectures are a lot of fun because they’re in an outdoor chickee hut, so that’s another worthwhile project.”

Barefoot Beach Saturdays

The Saturday nature talks at Barefoot Beach Preserve start at 10 a.m., immediately following the 9 a.m. guided nature walks where naturalists explain the importance of natural barrier island ecosystems. The walks and talks are free, but the county park does charge an entrance fee for cars that lack Collier County beach-parking permits.

“We have a wealth of speakers to choose from, and we try to get a bit of variety — some environmental, some animals, some birds and flowers, we have the one on wild edibles — so we have all kinds of stuff,” said Marilynn Greeley, lecture series coordinator for the Friends of Barefoot Beach. “There are five people on the lecture committee, and everyone has a different interest — from birding to global warming — so since they lean toward speakers about topics they are interested in, it gives you a good mix of topics to choose from.

“We always get a couple of speakers from Big Cypress Preserve,” she added, “and they’re always excellent.”

Outreach opportunity

The free nature talk series at the two preserves often prove as valuable to the speakers as to the attendees.

Lisa Andrews, the outreach and education coordinator for Big Cypress National Preserve, said the speaking opportunities provide excellent publicity for the National Park Service property located in eastern Collier County.

“I think about all of these people moving to Naples who don’t know what’s here,” Andrews said. “We’ve got all of these natural areas, all of these public lands, and all these wonderful trips and programs available, and people aren’t getting the message.

“So it’s wonderful when we have these partner agencies that invite us into town to present programs,” she said. “Being able to come into the community really helps us get our name and the word out.

“They see us in town when we give a program, and they say, ‘Wow, this big beautiful place is out there? I want to learn more,’” she said. “Then maybe they will come out and join us on a trip or just take the drive to see the alligators. Our programs spark an interest in the community and encourage people to come out here.”

Among the preserve activities that the Big Cypress speakers try to publicize when appearing in town are ranger-led boardwalk tours, swamp walks, canoe trips, hikes, bike rides, campfire talks, birding walks and astronomy programs. Big Cypress offers all of these on-site programs free of charge, although some do require reservations.

“There’s so much going on in Southwest Florida — nobody can be bored,” said lecture attendee Squires. “So get in here, get educated, do whatever you can and enjoy.”

Connect with this writer: @LauraTichySmith (Twitter)

Naples Preserve nature talks

When: 10 a.m. Tuesdays

Where: The Naples Preserve, 1690 Tamiami Trail North, Naples

Driving tip: Located on US 41 south of Coastland Center Mall.

Cost: Free

Info: 261-4290; facebook.com/friendsofthenaplespreserve

Jan. 12: The Collier Mosquito Control District and You, Partners in Public Health - Adrian Salinas, Collier Mosquito Control District

Jan. 19: Adaptation or Extinction? - Jack Berninger, biologist and science teacher

Jan. 26: Predators of the Sky - Michelle Rebilas, Conservancy of Southwest Florida

Feb. 2: If Trees Could Talk, Oh Wait, They Do! - Brenda Thomas, FGCU Professor

Feb. 9: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the River of Grass - Marya Repko, Everglades historian

Feb. 16: Endangerment of the Florida Scrub and Conserving the Naples Preserve - Clark Ryals, Florida Forestry Service

Feb. 23: Secrets of the Swamp - Annie Kilby, Big Cypress National Preserve

March 1: The Diversity of Life at the Smith Preserve - Susan Snyder, Conservancy of Southwest Florida

March 8: Lake Wales Ridge - Rich Kuntz, Florida master naturalist and nature photographer

March 15: NASA’s Search for ET- Jack Berninger, biologist and science teacher

March 22: Climate Change in the Big Cypress - Luke Gommermann, Big Cypress National Preserve

March 29: Amphibians and Reptiles - Lou Diperna, Conservancy of Southwest Florida

April 5: To be announced

April 12: Turtles of Southwest Florida - Lou Diperna, Conservancy of Southwest Florida

Barefoot Beach Preserve nature lectures

When: 10 a.m. Saturdays

Where: Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park, 503 Barefoot Beach Blvd., Bonita Springs

Driving tip: Access to the park is through a gated community south of Bonita Beach Park. Follow signs for the turn from Bonita Beach Road just east of Bonita Beach Park, take the bypass around the community’s gate and drive for one and a half miles to reach the preserve. Park in the first parking area for the outdoor learning center.

Cost: Free with Collier County beach parking permit or $8 per car without permit

Info: 591-8596; friendsofbarefootbeach.org

Jan. 16: Burrowing Owls - Cindy Bear, wildlife biologist

Jan. 23: Florida Weather - Michael Mogil, How the Weatherworks consulting firm

Jan. 30: Weeds and Seeds, A History of Dining in Southern Florida - Rachael Kangas, Florida Public Archaeology Network

Feb. 6: Local Action, Global Impact - Adam DiNuovo, National Audubon Society

Feb. 13: Sharks: Sorting Through Myths, Legends and Facts - Joy Hazel, Lee County Extension

Sea Grant Program

Feb. 20: Manatees in the Mangroves – Caitlyn Edwards, Big Cypress National Preserve

Feb. 27: Wiggins Pass Dredging - Jack Pryor, soil scientist

March 5: Estuaries - Jack Berninger, biologist and science teacher

March 12: Jurassic Preserve - Amy Washuta, Big Cypress National Preserve

March 19: Conservation and History of Southwest Florida - Nick Penniman, environmental author

March 26: Live Animals of Everglades Wonder Gardens - John Brady, nature photographer

April 2: Panther in Peril, Development in Rural Lands and Impacts to Imperiled Wildlife - Amber Crooks, Conservancy of Southwest Florida

April 9: Fossils of Florida - Gary Schmelz, PhD., fossil expert

April 16: Bears! - Lisa Ostberg, Defenders of Wildlife

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