Not too far from Marco Island is a magical place where birds go to feed, relax and rest for the night. Every journey there holds a new surprise for those looking to see our area birds and, oh yes, throw in a gator or two. I’ve never seen such a variety of bird species in one specific area anywhere in Florida.
Getting there is easy and quick from Marco Island. Simply drive San Marco Road until it ends at U.S. 41. Turn right and continue three miles until you see a paved parking area on your right. You’ve found it… paradise lost.
If you like birds, this is the place to be this time of year. Over the past month the types of avian friends found here range from little blue herons to roseate spoonbills and the migratory white pelicans. If you’re lucky enough to be there on the right day, the numbers can be astounding.
Florida has two seasons: wet and dry. As the winter months lack rainfall the marsh prairies in this area begin to dry. The water is now shallow enough for the short-legged ibis, little blues, tri-colored herons and other birds to search for food. Joining them will be the longer legged great egrets, great blue herons and wood storks. A variety of ecosystems provide a virtual buffet here.
Once you’ve parked, cross the short wooden bridge and turn right. Just a few minutes down the path is a two-story observation tower. Here you can look out over the vast prairie and gaze upon open lands dotted with small mangrove islands and observe the pine and oak trees in the distance.
You never know what type of birds you will see, or the number, but there is always something to be found here. In addition to the above-mentioned species, keep an eye out for coots, grebes and gallinules as well. Ducks have migrated south for the winter and several varieties will be seen here too.
Once you’ve enjoyed your viewing from the tower, don’t assume the experience is over. Do an about-face and check the shallow waters across the path. In addition to more birds, keep a sharp lookout for gators. The biggest prize that can be found, in addition to the gators, is a crocodile that has been seen here on several occasions. There are only a few thousand crocs spread across South Florida so getting a glimpse of this one is very special.
Again, this is not the end of your journey. Continue down the path, away from the parking lot, and a few short minutes later there will be an opening past the mangrove and gumbo-limbo trees. Now you can look out for the big gator! On my last three trips to this specific site a huge male measuring about 12 to 14 feet long has been seen here. Surely, he has to be the dominator of the area.
Trip’s not over yet. Walk another 10 minutes further down and let your ears guide you. If you hear a lot of commotion slow your pace and approach slowly and think to yourself, “Jackpot!” On several journeys to this location I have come across hundreds of birds feeding in the shallows. On December 2nd, there were more than 100 white pelicans, a dozen roseate spoonbills, several dozen great egrets, little blue herons, wood storks and ibis all in this one location!
On yet another visit to that same location with fellow Naturalist Steph Lyons, we counted at least four-dozen white pelicans flying over the area, and again, a variety of egrets and herons on December 13th. Oh yes, that same big gator was in his usual spot on the way to this site.
So, if you want to see Florida wildlife in its natural habitat, this is a place to consider. Dawn and dusk seem to be the best times for sightings. The path is easy and clear, simple to navigate, so this is a great experience for all ages.
What’s best is that it is not too far from home.
As always, when viewing any type of wildlife, be mindful that we are visiting their home and be respectful and cautious of them at all times. So have fun, enjoy nature in all of its glory! Lastly, keep an eye on the sky as well. You might see a bald eagle or two flying overhead!
Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin survey vessel Dolphin Explorer, departing from Rose Marina. He is the author of two books and a member of the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism. Bob loves his wife very much.