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Wildlife Thrives

Wildlife thrives on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

Bird watching has become one of the most popular American pastimes, and nowhere can it be enjoyed more fully than on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. In fact, such a variety of birdlife thrives here, that it easily can be considered an ornithologist's Mecca.

Southwest Florida boasts more than one million acres of nature sanctuaries, most of which have paths or boardwalks that allow visitors to easily explore and enjoy. These refuges boast unspoiled wetlands where everyone can experience the beauty of the state in its virgin condition and an abundance of wildlife thriving in its native setting.

Prime examples of such areas and activities include: the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the Sanibel-Captiva Nature Conservation Foundation, the Calusa Nature Center, Lovers Key State Park, Matanzas Pass Wilderness Preserve, Mound Key, Cayo Costa State Island Preserve, Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, Manatee Park, Babcock Wilderness Adventures, Gulf Coast Kayak, Ostego Bay Foundation, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Big Cypress Preserve and the Everglades National Park.

The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, named for 1920's Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and pioneer environmentalist Jay Norwood Darling, is a 6,400-acre tract on the northeast side of Sanibel Island.

The refuge features delightful footpaths, winding canoe/kayak trails and a four-mile scenic drive, all of which are lush with seagrape, wax and salt myrtles, red mangrove, cabbage or sabal palms and other native plant varieties. A booklet, available from the refuge's interpretative center, highlights points of interest and observation towers, where naturalists will get their best view of a variety of fauna and flora.

Meandering through a lush mangrove forest is the Commodore Creek Canoe Trail, a 1-1/2 mile waterway named after an early homesteader, and the 3-mile Buck Key Kayak Trail. For the athletically inclined, rent canoes and kayaks from Canoe Adventures, Tarpon Bay Explorers or Captiva Kayak & Wildside Adventures rent canoes and kayaks. A guided tour with a naturalist is essential for maximum appreciation of the refuge.

During a stimulating walk, canoe trip or drive, visitors may see one of many endangered or threatened species, some of which are relatively common here. Shy white pelicans, roseate spoonbills (often mistaken for flamingos), manatees, wood storks, bald eagles, American peregrine falcons, ospreys, herons, American alligators and Atlantic loggerhead turtles have been sited with frequency.

The refuge is open from 7:30 a.m. to sundown, Saturday through Thursday, and closed Fridays. There is a $5 charge to drive through and a $1 fee to bike or walk. Further information can be obtained from the refuge manager at (239) 472-1100.

Located near the Darling refuge is the Sanibel-Captiva Nature Conservation Foundation, which features a nature center, native plant nursery, gift shop and 4-1/2 miles of nature trails. The nature center and trails encompass 260 acres of the almost 2,000 acres of land managed for wildlife on and around Sanibel and Captiva islands. Many of the same species as inhabit the Darling refuge also can be found here. The foundation conducts marine and wildlife research. More information can be obtained by calling the foundation at (239) 472-2329.

The Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife’s (CROW) visitor education center offers a rare opportunity to learn about one of the nation’s leading wildlife rehabilitation hospitals located on Sanibel Island. Designed to inspire and educate with interactive displays, the center teaches how injured, sick and orphaned animals are admitted, diagnosed, treated and released back to the wild. Visitors follow patient cases from admission to release with daily presentations given by the CROW team. CROW veterinarians and staff treat more than 4,000 patients and more than 200 animal species at its facility each year. In addition to caring for animals in need, CROW is a teaching hospital hosting veterinarian students from around the world. For information on CROW, call (239) 472-8443.

The Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium, located on Ortiz Boulevard, southeast of Fort Myers, maintains bird and butterfly aviaries, a short boardwalk through a natural swamp and several exhibits in a central building. The planetarium, opened in 1986, offers day and evening presentations, laser light shows, lectures and special programs. Field trips and guided tours also are available. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 per child. For a list of programs and exhibits, call (239) 275-3435.

One of the area's most charming and distinctive parks is Lovers Key State Park on Black Island, just south of Fort Myers Beach. A delightful tram transports visitors along a rustic boardwalk, crossing picturesque Oyster Bay and a scenario of mangrove isles, to one of the most private public beaches anywhere. Lovers Key is fraught with romantic possibilities and claims a section of unspoiled beach where one can cast at surf line, picnic with raccoons, bird watch and search the shoreline for seashells. Admission, including the tram ride, is $3 for a single occupied vehicle, $5 for up to eight people in one vehicle, and $1 per person for walk-ins and bicyclists.

Originally founded and funded by Lee County naturalists and now maintained under a stewardship agreement, Matanzas Pass Wilderness Preserve on Estero Island (Fort Myers Beach) overlooks Estero Bay. The preserve has 56 acres of unspoiled live oak hammock and 4,000 feet of mangrove shoreline, all of which can be explored from an elevated boardwalk. One of Fort Myers Beach's best known eco-attractions, Matanzas Pass Wilderness Preserve also features a canoe landing and viewing deck on the back bay. The preserve is free to the public and open from sunup to sundown.

Equally beautiful is Mound Key, which is largely constructed from shells deposited there by Calusa Indians several centuries ago. A favorite with professional archaeologists, history buffs and picnickers, Mound Key is accessible only by boat from the southern tip of Estero Island.

Also accessible only by boat, and well worth the trip, is Cayo Costa State Island Preserve, north of Captiva Island in Pine Island Sound. One of the older barrier islands along the coast, Cayo Costa is a veritable paradise of deserted white-sand beaches, sabal palms, Australian pines, dense cabbage palm forests and gumbo limbo hammocks. The only full-time human residents on the island are the assistant park manager and two park rangers, who share this natural environment with sea birds and a few wild pigs. Since the island is fairly remote, its shores are noted for their excellent shelling potential. There are no paved roads, and primitive cabins provide the only rental shelter. For information on the island or cabin rentals, call the park manager at (941) 964-0375.

The true excitement of a real Florida adventure can be obtained through Babcock Wilderness Adventures east of North Fort Myers. Here, visitors can travel in a comfortable swamp buggy on a voyage through the beautiful woods and wildlife-populated waters of the Telegraph Cypress Swamp to come close to panthers, alligators, deer, wild turkey and boars in their natural settings. Tours run daily, November through April, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., May through October, mornings only; call for times. For reservations and information, call (800) 500-5583 or (941) 637-0551.

Located in the River District of downtown Fort Myers, visitors surround themselves with thousands of butterflies at the eco-attraction, The Butterfly Estates. The 3,614-square-foot glazed glass Butterfly Conservatory includes a botanical garden and butterfly habitat with lush tropical nectar plants, waterfalls and butterflies. The Southwest Florida educational facility provides the appropriate programs and research projects to help protect and preserve Florida’s native butterfly species.

Visitors have the opportunity to observe endangered Florida manatees in their non-captive habitat from three observation areas at Manatee Park during season. Naturalists onsite present programs about manatees, butterflies and native plants. Year-round recreation includes picnicking, fishing and kayak rentals.

Interact with a variety of fauna and flora, mammals and reptiles in their natural habitat as you visit a 2,000-acre wetland ecosystem. Stroll at your leisure along the mile-long boardwalk through the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, a natural "drainage-way" that collects rainfall runoff from a 57-square-mile watershed area, cleans the water as it flows southwest, and delivers fresh water to the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve. Located on Penzance Crossing and Six Mile Cypress Parkway, the preserve has a parking fee of 75 cents-per hour, with a maximum of $3 for the day. Daily hours for October through March are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., April through September, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. For information and times of free walking tours, call (239) 432-2004.

Expand your outdoor activities and tour southwest Florida's subtropical and unspoiled waters in the Pine Island Sound and Matlacha Pass with Gulf Coast Kayak. Explore plant and animal habitats as you paddle through "Florida's rainforest" mangrove system.

Nature tours leave daily from 9 a.m. to noon year-round for $40 per person. Trips to Matlacha, North Captiva Island, and Cayo Costa Island State Park with overnight and weekend options also are available. Moonlight on Matlacha, sunset birding and manatee watches offer something for everyone. For reservations and information, call (239) 283-1125.

Learn how our global environment is interconnected by visiting a marine research and educational facility. The Ostego Bay Foundation offers a touch tank and aquarium exhibits. The Marine Science Center is open September through May, Wednesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturdays with varying hours. Field trips and group tours are available on weekdays by appointment. Ostego Bay is located under the Mantanzas Pass Sky Bridge just north of Fort Myers Beach. For information and summer Saturday hours, call (239) 765-8101.

Internationally recognized Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary southeast of Bonita Springs is a watershed and cypress forest owned and operated by the National Audubon Society. See varieties of wading and migratory birds and other wildlife on 2 miles of nature trails through the largest virgin bald cypress forest in the United States. Daily hours are 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Oct. 1 through April 10 and 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. April 11 through Sept. 30. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for full-time college students, $4 for school children ages 6 through 18, free for children younger than 6, and $5 for National Audubon Society members. For more information, call (239) 348-9151.

Somewhat further afield, the Everglades National Park and Big Cypress Swamp, home of the National Audubon Society, are a convenient day-trip from anywhere in the vicinity.

For more information about The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, visit our Web site, www.fortmyers-sanibel.com