“Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.” These are the directions given by Peter Pan to the young at heart, looking for a special place called Neverland. A land filled with wondrous things and where you can stay young forever. Is there such a place? Here in South Florida?
For many living, and vacationing, in the Marco Island area finding Neverland depends on what you’re looking for. Those searching for that lost treasure of wildlife have found it, if you know where to look. Just a few minute drive off the island is a land filled with birds, gators and a few special guest creatures that make the trip worthwhile. It is called the Marsh Trail.
Directions are a bit easier than Peter Pan’s. Follow San Marco Road until it stops at U.S. 41 and turn right. Continue three miles to a parking area on the right. The sign will let you know that you are in the right place. To the right of the parking area is a narrow footbridge. Cross that and continue ¼ mile down the path and you enter a magical place.
On the left are some shallow waters filled with small mangrove islands. On the right is an open marsh with a two-story tower. Both of these habitats are ideal for finding a variety of birdlife and, as mentioned,some other guests. The tower is handicap accessible to the lower level. Others can venture to an upper deck for a more panoramic view.
Early in the morning and just before sunset are better times to be there for bird watching. The rising sun glistens on the marsh creating sunlight and shadows. Great blue herons and several varieties of egrets will display vibrant colors as they step from the shade and into the light. This is a photographer’s dream.
Adjacent to the marsh is a canal where the occasional osprey swoops to the water’s surface and snags a fish. Grebes and moorhens scurry along, also searching for breakfast.
The evening provides a safe haven for rest and many birds will find their spots among the branches for a peaceful night of rest. You can sometimes watch our feathered friends arrive by the hundreds just before sunset.
Turn 180 degrees while in the tower and take a look among the mangroves. In addition to more birds, you might catch a glimpse of a gator sunning itself on a grassy flat.
Florida Naturalist Stephanie Lyons stated, “ I love coming here! You never know what you’re going to see. I feel safe on the trail because there are usually other people around.” She has encountered a few “ special guests” on her encounters. Steph told me, “Not too long ago I was walking with a friend when a black bear emerged from the mangroves. We all stopped, looked at each other for a moment and the bear took off into the trees again. It was very exciting!” There have been several sightings of a crocodile in the vicinity. Steph confirmed, “Yes, I’veseen it twice.”
Personally, I was in the tower several weeks ago watching a few bird species nearby when I spotted about 12 white pelicans flying a short distance further down the trail. My curiosity peaked and I made the five-minute journey down the wide path. I saw two gators along the way and, before I could even see the birds, I could hear them. The ruckus was loud and distinctive. I could see wings flapping among the treetops.
Coming to an open area, the view was spectacular! At least 100 white pelicans were working the waters together to find food. Also in the fray were several dozen wood storks, just as many great egrets and even more snowy egrets, great blue herons, ibis and even a roseate spoonbill. In all, I estimated that 400 birds were in this one spot!
I found my Neverland! I felt as though I could stay forever, not grow up, and enjoy the beauty in front of my eyes! I didn’t need fairy dust, didn’t have to learn to fly. No “Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning” for me.
Are you interested in visiting this magical place? Take San Marco Road and turn right on U.S. 41. Continue three miles until you see the Marsh Trail sign on your right. The experience is always unique. Who knows…maybe you’ll see an alligator that swallowed an alarm clock!
Bob is the owner of Stepping Stone Ecotours, providing guided tours of the Big Cypress Bend and Fakahatchee Strand. He is also a naturalist for a dolphin survey team on Marco Island and author of the pictorial book “ Beyond The Mangrove Trees.” Bob loves his wife very much!