It all began in 1964 when the little town of Naples became “the town that put up the fight of its life – for its wildlife.”
Several of its 5,000 citizens gathered together to stop the construction of the proposed Rookery Bay Road, slated to run through the area’s pristine Rookery Bay. A 30-foot-long, 1000-signature petition put a halt to the road’s development and signaled the formation of the Collier County Conservancy, a group determined to protect and preserve the bay.
Realizing that the only way to save the area was to have it established as a sanctuary, the group launched a campaign to purchase 2,600 acres already slated for development. Their grassroots campaign was a huge success, and in March 1966 the two-year-old group filed for incorporation with Collier County with the goal of “maintaining a widespread series of nature preserves and wildlife sanctuaries.” Three weeks later, the Rookery Bay Sanctuary was born.
Today, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida is the area’s environmental leader, assisting with the protection of nearly 300,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land in southwest Florida. The group’s educational programs for children are designed to promote the most environmentally aware generation ever, and the wildlife centers continue to rehabilitate injured native birds, mammals and reptiles.
Its nature centers serve as the perfect environment for families to learn about Florida’s “wild side.”
At the Briggs Nature Center located six miles north of Marco Island, you’ll meet residents of the mangrove/estuary ecosystem – a system second only to the rainforest in the diversity and productivity of its species.
Walk through the Butterfly Garden, hike along the half-mile boardwalk or meander through the maze of mangroves during a guided boat tour, canoe trip or wilderness excursion. In the Interpretive Center, large aquariums are filled with Rookery Bay residents.
Birdwatchers flock to the Center, one of southwest Florida’s premier birdwatching “hot spots.” A wide variety of native and migratory birds are often easily spotted at the Center’s large bird feeding station, including eastern towees, scrub jays (on the threatened list), red-bellied woodpeckers, red-winged black birds and brown-headed cowbirds. A rare “snowbird,” the shiny cowbird, returns every September and annually tops the rare bird watch list.
From December through April, three different naturalist guided tours through Rookery Bay are offered aboard The Conservancy’s 30-foot covered pontoon boat, the Sea Queen, including: a morning back bay tour; a midday beachcombing and shelling trip to Key Island; and a sunset/birdwatching tour through the mangrove islands.
Guided canoe trips are also available to the ABC Islands just off Marco Island, home to south Florida’s largest bird “rookery” – a favorite nesting and resting spot for thousands of water birds. At the Naples Nature Center, located at 14th Avenue North in Naples, you can touch a snake, count an alligator’s teeth and visit a special “hospital” for native wild animals. Join a naturalist-guided trail walk or take a boat ride through a mangrove forest.
Hands-on exhibits and special presentations are offered daily. Learn about southwest Florida’s native non-venomous snakes at 1 p.m. during a special presentation about the Center’s live resident reptiles. Every Tuesday and Thursday the snakes are fed during the presentation.
“Turtle Talks” are offered daily at 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. at the museum’s 2,200-gallon patch reef tank, home to a juvenile loggerhead sea turtle. What is an aquifer? Find out at the new Florida: Coast-to-Coast exhibit. Special presentations are offered daily at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. Learn about the many shells found in southwest Florida during the daily noon presentations or about the flora and fauna during the 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. guided walks.
The Naples Nature Center is also home to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, a hospital for injured native wildlife. Visitors can watch recuperating “patients” through the state-of-the-art online wildlife viewing system and see several of the Center’s permanent residents – all too injured to be able to survive again in the wild – including bald eagles, hawks and owls.
The nature centers are open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays (January to March) from 1-5 p.m. Members of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida are admitted free.
The Conservancy also operates an environmental education department, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, a water quality testing lab and the Sea Turtle Monitoring and Protection Project. Funding for the non-profit agency is dependent upon memberships and donations.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is headquartered at 1450 Merrihue Dr., Naples. For more information phone (239) 262-0304 or visit their Web site at http://www.conservancy.org.