It was not long ago that Southwest Florida’s wilderness dominated. Sparsely populated even 50 years ago, the region has seen a drastic change over the last few decades as more and more people discover the paradisiac locale. Yet there are still bastions of Florida’s primeval land and seascape within an otherwise tamed Collier County that is easily accessible to residents and visitors. One such mainstay is Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.
The 110,000-acre reserve stretches from Naples to Ten Thousand Islands and offers visitors a versatile getaway from the tourist-filled beaches. With more than 150 different species of birds and animals found in the reserve’s waters and mangrove forests, plus a myriad of islands, it’s almost harder to find what not to do than what to do. Here’s a look at 12 fun activities to do at the reserve.
Courtesy of Rookery Bay
Join a Guided Nature Tour
Grab a paddle, hop in a kayak, and navigate your way through the maze of mangrove forests and backwater bays alongside one of the reserve’s experienced naturalists for a two-hour guided nature tour of Rookery Bay. Wildlife sightings abound, with excellent chances of encounting wading birds, osprey, fish, dolphins, and possibly a manatee. For a more relaxing and serene tour, step into one of the reserve’s boat tours. The cost for a kayak tour is $59 and paddlers must be 12 or older. Boat tours vary each month and cost $89.
Map the Reserve with Geocaching
If you’re more of a free bird who likes to explore without guidance, geocaching could be perfect for you. Geocaching is like treasure hunting, but instead of using an old-timey pirate map, explorers use GPS-enabled devices like smart phones. Once seekers navigate to the cache, usually a container, you log its components onto a geocaching website and place your own items back in the container. The reserve offers multiple caches along its nature trails if you’re more of a land pirate, and more than 20 caches along a more extensive kayak trail for those with their sea legs.
- For more information, visit rookerybay.org.
Become a field operative and search out the reserve’s many wild inhabitants. Saying that the scope of the Rookery Bay’s animal inhabitants is vast is an understatement. The waters are rife with marine life, from dolphins and manatee, to a multitude of fish and crustacean species all calling the watery nursery home. If you’re lucky, you just might be able to catch a glimpse of some of the reserve rare land animals, including bobcats, black bears, and ultra-illusive Florida panther. Not as rare, but no less a treat, otter sightings are often the norm as kayakers quietly glide through the early morning waters. For those who scare easily from the cold-blooded, keep an eye out for the reptile life, with alligators, turtles galore, and more snakes than you can shake a stick at, while the insect life, well … bring a can of bug repellant.
But when it comes to Rookery Bay, birds are where it’s at. As the name suggests, Rookery Bay is an important bird habitat, with migratory birds of a vast variety making pit stops here to nest and feed, while many of Florida’s native birds call the 110,000-acre slice of paradise home. A birder’s dream, reserve guests can spy predatory birds like Bald eagles, osprey, hawks, and owls; beach-nesting birds like least terns, black skimmers, and Wilson plover’s; coastal water birds like herons, egrets, ibis, pelicans, and cormorants; and much more, making this a destination for those looking to add a few notches to their life lists.
Slip your toes in the silky white sands of Key Island’s (also known as Keewaydin) shores for a relaxing afternoon. The isle, which stretches eight miles long, allows for hiking, horseback riding, and camping in designated areas if you’re up for a more active experience. Besides being a recreational strip of paradise, Key Island also serves as a vital sanctuary for Rookery Bay’s wildlife, as least terns and loggerheads sea turtles nest along the beach.
Join the Festivities
Rookery Bay is one of Southwest Florida’s preeminent educational destinations. Its mission to provide stewardship of the vital estuarine habitat through research and education, paired with the vast stretch of land and seascape under its protection, Rookery Bay’s dedicated staff and corps of volunteers have created a hotbed of learning about the region, nature, and the threatened wildlife. As a way to bring in even more potential eco-aware citizens, Rookery Bay hosts a number of festivals and dedicated events to raise awareness about its mission and specific themes. Here’s a look at what’s ahead for 2016.
- January 15-17, Rookery Bay will celebrate its twelfth annual Southwest Florida Nature Festival. The tree-day event includes guided field trips at Rookery Bay, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Big Cypress National Preserve, and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, as well as lectures at the Environmental Learning Center.
- On February 12, Rookery Bay will celebrate Darwin Day with buy one, get one free admission. Coinciding with the evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin birthday, the reserve will offer special programing geared toward the science of evolution.
- On April 22, it’s all about Earth Day. Opening the reserve to earth warriors with buy one, get one admission, Rookery Bay is giving guests a chance to explore the watery expanse with a pal.
- On May 13, Rookery Bay will celebrate one of nature’s most spectacular phenomena, bird migration, with International Migratory Day. As home to nearly 150 bird species, Rookery Bay’s unique habitat makes it a vital stop on many bird’s migratory patterns. The reserve will join the more than 600 sites (from Canada to Argentina) that observe Bird Day with special activities to raise awareness about visiting birds, imparting the knowledge needed to safely share the beaches with our feathered neighbors. Admission will be buy one/get one free.
Lunch & Learn
For those interested in more than just immersing oneself in nature, Rookery Bay’s Lunch and Learn Lecture Series looks to go beyond the trail for a detailed educational discussion about environmental topics unique to the expansive reserve. Held on the first Tuesday of the month through April, guests will enjoy lunch from Carrabba’s while an expert leads a lecture about the unique ecosystem, the wildlife and flora within, and how preservation actions are currently underway.
Lunch & Learn runs from 12-1 p.m. and costs $15 per person ($10 for members), and reservations are strongly recommended; call 239-530-5940 to RSVP.
Here’s a look at what’s to come in 2016’s Lunch & Learn series:
- January 5: “Fire, It’s Good” with Greg Curry
- February 2: “A Snapshot in Time: Trends in Coastal Habitats” with Kevin Cunniff
- March 1: “Changes in Estuarine Fish Nurseries” with Patrick O’Donnell
- April 5: “Deepwater Horizon: Five Years Later” with Gary Lytton
Immerse Yourself in Art
From February 4 through April 1, the Friends of Rookery Bay and the United Arts Council of Collier County will present the tenth “Annual Juried Photography Exhibition.” Open to Florida photographers, the works displayed represent the national estuarine research reserve’s mission, which is the preservation of this vital marine ecosystem, with photographs of the reserve’s unique flora and fauna. With a statewide call to artists, all submissions will go through a jury process, spearheaded by photographer John Brady, ensuring that each photograph chosen fits with Rookery Bay’s mission. Awards for the top three submissions will be chosen by Brady at the exhibition’s opening reception, with $1,600 in prize money up fro grabs.
- An opening reception will be held on February 4 from 5:30-7 p.m. Admission costs $3 per person (free for participating artists and guest), and will include wine and light hors d’oeuvres.
- Admission to the gallery is free with park admission.
Wildflower Impressions by Laurie Meehan-Elmer
In 2016, local artist Marjorie Pesek will give guests a chance to explore the artistic side of nature with monthly workshops. Dunned Collage on Canvas, the workshop utilizes Pesek’s technique of “Layered Imagery,” allowing burgeoning artists to create a unique work of art using clippings from magazines and other media. Open to adults of all creative levels, each workshop targets a specific animal that calls Rookery Bay home, with Pesek supplying each artist with a sketch of the animal subject on a 9” x 12” canvas.
Workshops run from 12:30-3:30 p.m. Admission costs $55 per person and includes all supplies needed to create your own work of art. For more information, call 239-530-5940.
2016’s animal subjects include:
- January 23: Owl
- February 6: Sea Turtle
- March 5: Panther
- April 16: Manatee
Hike It: “Trails Through Time”
Who needs a treadmill when you have trails? The reserve’s “Trails Through Time” is a series of four trails that offers visitors an enriching opportunity to learn about Rookery Bay’s history and absorb some of the bay’s captivating landscape. Each trail is only about a quarter mile long so you won’t have to strain yourself. The trails are located near the end of Shell Island Road, about five miles from the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center.
If you’re looking for a place to paddleboard, canoe or kayak, the Isles of Capri Paddlecraft Park has got you covered. As Collier County’s lone public access facility designed solely for launching paddle crafts, this park features a ramp to depart from and provides access to McIlvane Bay – a more peaceful section of the reserve. The park is located a few miles south of the learning center off of Collier Road.
There’s only one way to fully experience Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve: camping. Pitch a tent, gather around an open fire and gaze at the stars while soaking in the sounds of the wildlife at one of the nearly 10 designated camping locations within the reserve. If you do choose to go camping, make sure you follow the reserve’s campfire, hygiene, and safety guidelines – as illustrated here.
Tag along for one of Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center’s Coastal Connections Daily Program to learn about local wildlife and the surrounding environment. The 45-minute programs, which occur daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., are included with admission. Topics vary day-to-day but can include manatees, snakes, birds, and shells.<