Everyone has a different definition of paradise – a day on the beach, an early morning fishing trip, a dip in the pool. For many, the best days are spent in nature among the 110,000 acres designated as the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Naples, one of only 29 such reserves in the United States.
Managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in partnership with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and Florida International University, the reserve stretches from Keewaydin Island through the western Everglades, encompassing 40 percent of Collier County’s coastline. Everyone from a seashell collector to a charter captain depends on the reserve’s health for recreation and livelihood. Volunteers and even the public help protect this habitat, complementing the work done by reserve scientists, biologists and educators.
Team OCEAN is a dedicated corps of volunteers who are passionate about protecting nesting birds along our beaches. Every day during nesting season – March 1 through August 31 – a crew of volunteers on a state vessel educates visitors at Second Chance, a barrier island one mile southeast of Cape Romano.
A Critical Wildlife Area since 2015, Second Chance is one of the most valuable nesting areas for several endangered species, including the least tern and black skimmer. Bird eggs and vulnerable newly hatched chicks are well camouflaged and can easily become an unwitting target of misplaced feet or paws. Volunteers educate boaters about the importance of giving the birds their space at this critical time of the season. A vast majority of boaters are happy to oblige.
The sacrifices these volunteers make on sweltering summer days are offset by the results of their efforts. There are usually active tern/skimmer colonies as well as plover nests on the island, and these birds work hard to raise chicks.
Team OCEAN’s effort earned it the Audubon Society’s Guy Bradley Award in 2017. But preservation is also for the turtles. Along the beaches in the Rookery Bay Reserve and throughout the county, there are typically around 2,000 nests from May through October. The survival of young turtles depends greatly on people’s ability to protect the eggs. Beachgoers are advised to stay away from cages that are put around the nests to protect them and to keep dogs on a leash while walking near known habitats.
When families leave the beach, they should fill holes and plow down sandcastles to eliminate obstacles for the turtles. People who live at the beach should dim their lights. And boaters should stay off posted critical wildlife areas, such as Second Chance, during the nesting season.
Supporters who want to protect these visitors can adopt a sea turtle nest ($250), hatchling ($20) or egg ($5) from the Friends of Rookery Bay, which pays for a sea turtle intern and program supplies through Rookery Bay Reserve.
Friends of Rookery Bay membership also provides funds to support conservation and research work that protects wildlife, mangroves, and water quality. Phone 239- 530-5972 300 Tower Road Naples 34113
Visit rookerybay.org for details.