A short drive either West or East on US 41 are two lovely preserve areas, each unique and with a chance to observe wildlife “in the wild.” And, they’re fairly close to Marco Island if you need a dose of the beautiful paradise we live in, away from the noise of traffic and the need for protective masks.
The first one, Donna Fiala Eagle Lakes Community Park, was named after our long-serving and well-loved County Commissioner, Donna Fiala, who sadly, is serving her last term before retirement; big shoes to fill.
You’ve no doubt driven by this park on your way to Naples and noted the aquatic complex, community and fitness center and possibly noticed the softball and soccer fields, playgrounds, picnic area, clean restrooms and tennis and basketball courts farther back from the road. However, if you haven’t actually driven into the parking lot, you would have no idea how expansive the park is.
There are about two miles of paved roadway that can be walked or enjoyed on bicycles around lovely lakes and a wide variety of native Florida vegetation. We rode bikes, which enabled us to see more of the park and pedal faster past the areas of pine woods that weren’t as picturesque.
There were lots of walkers maintaining safe distances, getting their exercise in the peace and quiet, far from the noise of the athletic fields, which were mostly empty except for a few soccer players. People on the path must revere the quiet as they even talk in subdued voices, thank goodness. No sense disturbing the peace.
Another benefit to this park is that it’s known for its varied bird population, which is best viewed early in the morning or close to sunset. There must be alligators and other critters there, but they weren’t visible during this particular visit; however, the birds made up for it including a cute little black-necked stilt.
One of the amazing birds that we saw was the Roseate Spoonbill. Its appearance is, well, interesting; the partially bald head, pink feathers, red-eye and a large spoon-shaped bill was a committee decision, perhaps? We watched them for a long time as they searched for food. Spoonbills are tactile feeders and sift their beaks through the water, back and forth, searching for snails, killifish, minnows, shrimp, crayfish, beetles, mollusks and bits of plants. The Spoonbill’s stunning pink color holds you captivated. They’re social birds and roost comfortably with lots of other types of birds.
Observing the Great Egret is a lesson in patience. They stalk their prey ever so SLOWLY and suddenly grab a fish with their stunningly yellow beaks like a bolt of lightning. There’s a constant parade of birds, feeding, flying in and out as the shadows lengthen in the setting sun.
To get to the second nature preserve from Marco Island, head over the Goodland Bridge to US 41 and turn right. Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge Marsh Trail is about two miles past the turn into Collier Seminole State Park and it seems to come up quickly so be ready! There’s a decent-sized parking lot and informative signage to peruse before you start walking or biking—both are permitted. Again, we chose bikes because we could quickly pass the areas that weren’t as picturesque, at least to us.
The trail begins after a short bridge from the parking lot and although not paved, is flat and well-traveled so it presents few challenges. There are gaps in the trees that border the path where the views are either expansive or closed off; so again, you can move on to a view that suits your aesthetic needs. About a quarter-mile down the path is an observation tower that provides a three-story view of the surrounding areas. We kept our distance from the rest of the visitors, and they did the same. The new normal is becoming ingrained in our psyches. Who knows how long it will have to stay there?
As we biked around 7 PM, there were flocks of birds flying overhead that came to roost in one particular area. We made a beeline to that area to get a better view of the variety and numbers of birds that were coming in for the night. The types of birds were many, although it was difficult to see them through the foliage that separated the path from the rookery. Even while trying to sneak up through the bushes to get closer for better photographs, the birds were alerted and became nervous and some flew away. Watch out for poison ivy if you brave the bushes near the rookery. I handled the ivy by the woody stems and placed them behind other obstacles so as not to be contaminated.
The number of ibises dwarfed the other varieties of birds, although there were others in this particular location. The ibis is unique because it probes its bill into holes and crevices in lawns and mudbanks looking for insects, worms and crabs. The ibis is white when mature and has a matching pinkish bill and legs. The bill curves downward. They are commonly seen in small groups patrolling the neighborhood lawns and helping rid us of pesky critters that can ruin the greenery so lovingly cultivated.
There are alligators habituating the waters down the Marsh Trail, but we didn’t see any when we were there. Usually, they are out sunning during the day, but it was late, and they had probably retreated into the water. They couldn’t be seen from the observation tower either. That’s okay with me, I would have been tempted to “get the perfect photograph” by getting closer than safety would dictate!
Two days of exercise, clean air, sunny skies followed by sunsets, new vistas, stunning wildlife and a feeling of peace in trying times. Ah…