For nearly two years, COVID 19 has blocked many activities including our plans for global ecological expeditions, most notably a bucket-list trip to Borneo. After months of preparation to pick the right eco-travel company and my extensive reading on the history, culture, terrain, and wildlife of this island owned by three different nations, our trip was canceled in 2020 and 2021.
Most worrisome is that I realize that as I age, I am running out of time to fulfill my dreams of exploration of the natural world. A 2020 back operation has slowed me a bit. Borneo’s primary tropical forest and critical bogs are being converted to palm oil plantations leaving little room for orangutans, proboscis monkeys, clouded leopards, pygmy elephants, and the incredible bird life including many endemic species like the Bornean bristlehead.
I have been trying to catch up on such explorations since I wasn’t able to do to as many as I would have liked when younger. So, during the Covid-19 shutdown, we turned to searching our neighborhood and the Annapolis Neck Peninsula for wildlife. We also made trips to Delaware Bay east of Dover for the horseshoe crab and shorebird phenomenon and to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge for waterfowl and eagles. We visited local parks and hiked in the Glendening Nature Preserve in south county.
Family visits were blended with nature exploration. In December, we returned from a Thanksgiving trip to Naples, Florida, where our youngest daughter lives with our three grandkids and our son-in-law. All meals were outside adding to the enjoyment of the Florda weather. The time spent with family was uplifting after so much time apart.
We used many days to explore the parks and beaches of southwest Florida. Our 5-year old great nephew loves turtles so all 11 of us went to the Naples Preserve, a 9-acre tract in the middle of the city purchased for $9 million to preserve a splotch of old Florida. The scrub community of well-drained sand ridges and pine flatwoods once covered 50% of Florida. The dry sandy areas support an abundance of threatened gopher tortoises.
We made a game of finding them, some peeking out of their burrows and others feeding on their favorite vegetation. We found 13 of these foot-long critters, each discoverer loudly announcing their find. These tortoises burrow cavities in the sandy soil that can reach 33 feet and over time, have hosted more than 300 other animals. This makes the gopher tortoise a keystone species. It is one of five North American tortoise species, the only one found east of the Mississippi. These fascinating creatures are descendants from a species existing 60 million years ago. They inhabit the southeastern U.S. from Louisiana to South Carolina, with Florida being the stronghold.
Every Naples visit includes a day-long eco-adventure with our three grandkids and two of their friends, all between 11 and 13 years old. We hike and search for alligators, birds especially my favorite, the the Roseate spoonbill, and for other wildlife. I am prepare a picnic lunch and plenty of snacks for the seven of us. We dine in a park sometimes with alligators nearby and Red-shouldered hawks overhead.
Sanibel Island was our day-long destination, where we sighted my spoonbill and many other birds including white pelicans and ospreys. We started at Bunche Beach, visited “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and ended up with the kids frolicking on Bowman Beach.
My wife and I also took our regular all-day trip down the Tamiami Trail, starting at Marsh Trail, 10,000 Islands National Park, where thousands of waterbirds roost. The observation tower there is a birding must at daybreak or sunset. It was chilly, but the sunrise was spectacular and augmented by a rainbow to the west. We were mesmerized watching the waterbirds alight and begin feeding. An endangered wood stork flew by us at eye level, and there were many herons, egrets, brown pelicans, lue-winged teal, moorhens, coots, pied-billed grebes, and an alligator.
Next up, the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, a short hike with good birding, some gators including a 12-foot specimen, and beautiful old cypress trees and many ferns. Lunch alfresco was at H. P. Williams Park with gators and birds, including a very friendly and hungry palm warbler at our table joining the intelligent but pesky American crows. We spoke with two U.S. Geological Survey researchers tracking a transponder placed on a baby Burmese python as part of a study. An alligator ate the python and the researchers had the signal from the gator’s belly and were hoping to recover it.
We excitedly spotted Roseate spoonbills in a tree while driving to Shark Valley, Everglades National Park. We stopped and admired two spoonbills in adjoining trees with wood storks below them – a special treat.
Carol suggested my good luck was brought on by a Peninsula Cooter turtle I rescued from certain death on high-speed Rt. 41. Daring to go out on the road, I picked it up (it was nearly three feet long) and moved it safely to a wetland area. It showed its gratitude by relieving itself on my left leg as I was carrying it, and it was a gusher. A defense reaction, I assumed. It was worth getting my pants wet in exchange for bringing good fortune with spoonbill and stork sightings.
Then onto the Oasis Visitor Center at the Big Cypress Preserve for gators – 13 big ones close up – and anhingas, cormorants, and herons. A nearby pond had 2,000 swarming tree swallows grabbing insects in flight. I had never seen such a sight
The final destination of Shark Valley was disappointing for wildlife due to high water. We only saw a few gators lazing in the sun next to the trail, a few waterbirds, and a northern harrier hunting.
On another day, we discovered Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve with a scenic trail of 1.4 miles, northeast of the Ft. Myers airport. We found a big momma gator with young. At Harns Marsh, we encountered a pair of snail-eating limpkins, or courlans, birds related to cranes that in the U.S. are found only in Florida. These birds surprisingly chased off a much larger osprey from their nest area. I hiked to find six elegant sandhill cranes feeding, but paid the price as I was caught in a furious rainstorm and remained soaked for the long drive back. We realized that each time we visit, less of wild Florida remains as 900 new residents there a day foster even more development.
During this family Thanksgiving stay in Florida, we saw 62 avian species and 21 alligators. We returned rejuvenated and enriched by our time with family and wildlife. So, get out and enjoy nature wherever you go. The more you look, the more you see as nature presents The Greatest Show on Earth.