Nature & Wildlife

Living with wildlife.

Experiencing nature and wildlife happens naturally everywhere on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. Anhinga and pelicans dive for fish just offshore. Osprey fly gracefully overhead, dolphins play in your boat's wake and manatee surface to say hello as you pass on your kayak. These and so many more brushes with nature are commonplace thanks to our dynamic mangrove estuaries, which rival rainforests as the most productive ecosystem on the planet. Your job is simply to enjoy and help protect it for future generations.

Meet Native Wildlife in the Fort Myers Sanibel Area

"Embark on your own nature safari to enjoy the Fort Myers Sanibel area's abundant array of wildlife."

After one too many Massachusetts winters, I moved to Florida. Besides escaping bitter Northern temperatures, I enjoy the frequent animal sightings that are served up in The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. From West Indian manatees to loggerhead sea turtles to a seemingly infinite variety of birds, this place is home to as many creatures as Eden.

Marvelous Manatees
Manatees are drawn to Fort Myers' 17-acre Manatee Park because its canal contains the warm-water discharge of a nearby power plant. When the water in the Gulf dips below 68 degrees, the manatees swim into the park to warm up.

As I meander down the park's centerpiece boardwalk, I spot them – manatees in water shallow enough to see their entire bodies. At first, I spot one manatee, then a second, third and fourth. The animals flip over under the water, then one rises before me, almond-eyed, full-faced, his expression bovine and curious.

Pelicans, Egrets, Herons and More
Birding in The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel is easy. You can probably start when you arrive at Southwest Florida International Airport, or in the parking lot of your hotel.

If you're interested in birds, you’ll want to travel to Sanibel Island's J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. I choose to explore the refuge by tram, operated by Tarpon Bay Explorers.

Within minutes, my group has spotted roseate spoonbills; brown and white pelicans; great, red and snowy egrets; white ibis; double-breasted cormorants; and osprey. The highlight: seeing a red-shouldered hawk catch and eat a black snake.

There are numerous parks and refuges in which to go bird watching. Among the best:
- National Audubon Society's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary – anhingas, storks, owls, warblers and hawks
- Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve – herons, egrets, woodpeckers and migratory birds
- Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve – anhingas, red-shouldered hawks and wading birds

Loggerhead Sea Turtles
Each year beginning around May, female loggerhead sea turtles instinctively return to the beaches on which they were hatched to lay their eggs. While adults can reach 350 pounds, turtle hatchlings are tiny and fragile.

Observe the nests from a distance, and be sure to follow the lights-out policy in effect on area beaches. Moonlight guides the hatchlings to the water, but artificial lights can confuse them and cause them to wander toward dangerous roads.

Delightful Dolphins
Dolphin sighting is the Holy Grail of animal watching in Florida. I book a dolphin cruise offered by Adventures in Paradise. (Similar jaunts are offered by Captiva Cruises.) We sail toward the setting sun, past an archipelago of mangrove islands.
Soon, we spy a pod – first one dorsal fin, eventually four. The dolphins leap out of the water. First their rubbery backs are visible, then their trademark grins.

Unafraid, they seem to enjoy swimming alongside our boat. I wonder if they appreciate the merry shouts and pointed fingers of our party.

Natural Fun for Kids

"Cool wildlife. Watery touch tank encounters. Exciting sea life cruises."

Nature + fun = healthy kids.
Modern research proves that getting children outdoors hedges against obesity, diabetes, attention-deficit disorder and other growing problems among our youth today. The Fort Myers Sanibel area provides a giant dose of the prescription for keeping kids nature-healthy with its “medicine cabinet” full of green and eco-based activities.

Here are some tried-and-true ways to engage even the most nature-blasé and electronics-plugged-in kids:

Creature Meet-and-Greet
Meet creatures from bugs to gators up close in the exhibits and on the trails at Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium in Fort Myers. The Insectarium is crawling with live bugs. Kids can even dress up like an insect. There are also snake feedings, baby gators and live turtles inside the nature center. Outside, the trails take you to a butterfly house, aviary, touch tank and an area with a bobcat and foxes.

Playing Hooky
If your kids think they don’t like school, they’ve gotta try Sanibel Sea School. Here kids learn about the marine environment and ecology by exploring beaches and estuaries for a hands-on “touch, feel and understand” experience that will put them at the head of their class. For its Nature & Sealife Cruises, Tarpon Bay Explorers on Sanibel Island boats passengers into bird rookeries and finishes with a touch tank encounter.

Shell Factory Fascination
Pan for fossils and cool rocks, feed nectar to lorikeets, explore hands-on exhibits in the eco-lab, and visit, pet and feed animals at the Shell Factory and Nature Park in North Fort Myers – part wildlife experience, part amusement park.

Beach Scavenger Hunt
Challenge kids to turn up conch shells, egg cases, crab holes, sea stars, turtle grass, clams and more on the miles of white sand spread throughout The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. Programs offered by Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and Adventures in Paradise help them identify their beach and inshore findings.

I Spy Wildlife
Start with a visit to the new eco-friendly, interactive visitors center at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers before heading out on the boardwalk trails to see how many birds and other creatures they can spot. Need help identifying? Volunteers lead 90-minute guided walks daily and often bring along a spotting scope for zeroing in on bald eagles and gators. Also in Fort Myers, Manatee Park’s “Eye on Nature” self-guided activity is a hit with families – kids receive a magnifying glass upon completion.

Geo-Caching Cool
Older kids like the gadgetry and techie feel of geo-caching, where hikers follow GPS points to find small planted treasures and replace them with others. There’s booty to be found throughout the county, including some of the barrier islands. Lee County Parks & Recreation facilities also feature many caches waiting to be found – a permit is required to place a cache in a Lee County park (click here for requirements). J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge has an “earth-cache” program – national public lands do not allow introducing non-natural treasures, so it uses other clues and rewards. You can download it and other established geo-caches throughout the region at www.geocaching.com.

Birdwatching Tips

"More than 300 bird species live on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel."

The “when” is easy: Although you’ll find many species in the area year ‘round, visits from snowbirds – whether human or avian – increase during the fall and winter.

The “where” became even simpler when the South Florida section of the Great Florida Birding Trail opened a couple of years ago. Across the state, 489 sites were selected for their excellent bird-watching opportunities. And of the 116 South Florida sites, 16 are in Lee County.

The gateway to the trail is located at Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The sites include Bowditch Point Regional Park, Caloosahatchee Regional Park, Cayo Costa State Park, J.N. “Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Estero Bay Preserve State Park (Scrub entrance), Hickey’s Creek Mitigation Park, Lakes Regional Park, Lighthouse Park Beach, Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area, Lovers Key State Park and Matanzas Pass Preserve.

There’s no need to make a special outing to begin your bird-watching adventures. Start by just looking around. Ospreys and eagles frequently build their large nests on top of telephone poles and in trees. And if you look to the sides of the road, you might see roseate spoonbills, wood storks, sandhill cranes and burrowing owls.
Once your interest is piqued, you’ll want to set aside a morning or a day to wander through one of the area’s many parks and preserves.

If you’re looking to spot resident bird species, take a walk along Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve’s 1.2-mile boardwalk, where you can spy wild turkeys, tricolored herons and woodpeckers.

Caloosahatchee Regional Park’s 1.5-mile riverfront lures reddish egrets and great blue herons. At the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, birders can add purple gallinules and red-shouldered hawks to their lifetime lists.

Lovers Key State Park attracts American white pelicans, black-bellied plovers, rose-breasted grosbeaks and other colorful birds. Head to Lakes Regional Park for opportunities to see anhingas and cormorants.

CREW Land and Water Trust, named an “Important Bird Area," is home to limpkins, wild turkeys and more. At Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve, rent a kayak to see an ibis nest or hike to the observation pier for more avian encounters.

When it comes to seeking out migratory species, J.N. “Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a hotspot. About 240 bird species have been identified at the refuge, which serves as a stopover for numerous species, including warblers, tanagers and buntings.

Another prime viewing spot during fall migration is the Sanibel Lighthouse, at the eastern tip of the island. Traditionally a resting place for warblers, including the yellow-orange prothonotary, the lighthouse area is also a great place to see peregrine falcons.

At the south end of Fort Myers Beach, you’re likely to spot American oystercatchers and avocets in winter. And striking swallowtail kites swoop inland, east of U.S. 41, from late spring through early fall.

However you choose to enjoy the birds of Fort Myers and Sanibel, whether by serendipity or by the book, you’ll be amazed by the astounding variety of sights, flights and songs.

Best Bets for Nature & the Outdoors

"Several rivers and the Gulf of Mexico converge to create coastal estuarine environments. See dolphins, manatees, gators and all sorts of birds. "

Parks

Hickey’s Creek Mitigation Park An uplands ecosystem colors the flora and fauna in Fort Myers' Hickey’s Creek, one of Lee County’s largest regional parks. Gopher tortoises share habitat here with the threatened Florida scrub jay.

Manatee Park West Indian manatees, also known as sea cows and even mistaken for mermaids in days of yore, congregate at Manatee Park in Fort Myers from December to March. The rest of the year, they find a haven in the canals at Lovers Key State Park.

Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve & Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve. Well, you’d think each of these ecological wonders would tire you out, but the boardwalks perched over these watersheds are each just over a mile long. Both are havens for native and visiting birds.

Lakes Regional Park. A tiny train takes young and old alike through a wild portion of this Fort Myers park that’s fun for the whole family. The impressive array of amenities includes fishing, boardwalks, nature trails and a kids’ water playground – a perfect way to cool off on a hot day.

Lovers Key State Park. Hike the nature trail, rent a bike, paddle a tidal lagoon, lounge on the beach, surfcast with a view of Big Carlos Pass – even get married in a gazebo perched above the twinkling waters of the Gulf of Mexico at this gem.

Tours

Guided Kayak Tour at J.N. “Ding"" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Must-experience: Paddling Sanibel Island'sTarpon Bay on the stern-side of a witty and learned Tarpon Bay Explorers naturalist through canoe trails traveled hundreds of years ago by Calusa Indians. Be on the lookout for local wildlife and learn the fascinating workings of a mangrove forest.

Turtle Time! May 1 through October 31 marks the nesting season of the loggerhead sea turtle. In very rare instances, visitors can attend a turtle release with Turtle Time and watch the hatchlings make their way to their watery home.

Babcock Wilderness Adventures. Take a bona fide swamp tour through pine flatwoods, freshwater marsh, a prairie – complete with Cracker cattle – and a cypress swamp.

Nature Centers

Everglades Wonder Gardens. Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs is home to two female mountain lions and two female Florida panthers, brought here for rehabilitation. There are thought to be fewer than 60 Florida panthers in the wild.

Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium. Aviaries, raccoons, gray foxes, a bobcat and animal feedings with educational commentary make nature come alive at this Fort Myers nature attraction. The center’s planetarium exhibits the nature of the heavens and is the only one between Bradenton and Miami."

Family Wildlife Photography Tours

"With alligators sunning, dolphins frolicking and roseate spoonbills preening, what child wouldn't want to capture photos to share with friends? "

A teacher friend once told me to set no more than two rules at a time for children, so here they are for this excursion:

1. Look in every corner of your viewfinder before pressing the shutter. (Beginners tend to look only at what's in the center of a frame.) This is a first lesson in photo composition.
2. Follow our wildlife-watching rules. Photograph your animal subject as is. No fair spooking critters with noise, running or thrown objects, which can distress them.
Start your novice shutterbug out with a point-and-shoot digital camera. Beginners can see immediate results, and you can delete unwanted shots instead of wasting money printing them.
For the best results, begin your photo tour where animals are contained.

F-Stop 1: Calusa Nature Center
Along the trails at Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium in Fort Myers, they can shoot a bobcat and albino raccoon in their cages. Once they get quick with the shutter finger, take them to the butterfly house. With a flash, they can capture the snakes, scorpion and baby alligators inside the nature center.

F-Stop 2: Everglades Wonder Gardens
Now it's time to graduate to action shots, and the animal shows at Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs furnishes just the opportunity. Start with the panthers in their cages and alligators in their ponds. Try action shots of an alligator feeding frenzy (heed signs warning against placing children on ledges) and sliding otter show.

F-Stop 3: Babcock Wilderness Adventures
Older children have more patience for shooting animals in their natural habitats, and Lee County provides endless locations. Again, start easy. At Babcock Wilderness Adventures in North Fort Myers, kids can warm up at the snake display, then hop aboard the swamp buggy tour to shoot Cracker cattle, sandhill cranes, white-tailed deer and alligators in the wild.

F-Stop 4: “Ding"" Darling Wildlife Refuge
For shots of birds, head to J.N. “Ding"" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. Go at low tide, when roseate spoonbills, herons, egrets and white pelicans (in winter) gather to feed. For aerial views, climb the observation tower. In late mornings, alligators lumber out onto the banks to sun themselves – make sure to keep your distance for safety's sake.

F-Stop 5: Manatee Park
Those quick enough on the draw can graduate to our showy marine animals. Head to Manatee Park in Fort Myers in winter or spring to capture the gentle sea cows as they surface for air.  Or take the family on a dolphin excursion and see who can capture the graceful acrobats as they leap and frolic in the boat’s wake.

Taking pictures together as a family enhances our many wildlife attractions and tours by involving kids in an interactive experience. They tend to learn more about the creatures they're shooting and remember them long after they’ve returned home."

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