Major renovations, improvements made at Calusa Shell Mound Trail
Taking a couple of steps along the Calusa Shell Mound Trail, located near mile marker 4 along Wildlife Drive at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, some folks may not feel like they are stepping back in time.
But in reality, they are.
After more than six months and nearly $40,000 worth of renovations and improvements on the old Calusa Shell Mound Trail, the trail reopened last week with a new, state-of-the-art interpretative exhibit and tri-panel kiosk featuring renderings of the Calusa Indians by local artist David Meo.
“This site was never really excavated or studied before, but it had been protected,” said Toni Westland, Supervisory Ranger at the “Ding” Darling NWR. “If we were to dig deep down into this site, you could tell a lot about the people who lived here.”
Improvements to the Calusa Shell Mound Trail were made possible by charitable contributions to the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society (DDWS). A $38,000 partnership with the City of Sanibel effected the removal of exotic plants from the one-third mile boardwalk-covered trail and other sites within the refuge.
According to Westland, renovations at the site started in August 2010. In addition to site clearing and installation of nine information panels — including a mini biography of Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling himself — along the trail, robotic scans of the heavily canopied parcel revealed three individual shell mounds. The site varies in height from sea level to nearly nine feet.
“Here in Florida, even a gradual rise in elevation can result in huge changes in the types of vegetation that is grown,” she added. “If you look through some of the transects, you can see the topography of the mounds themselves.”
This project prepared the area for the opening of new interpretative signage on the Calusa people that once inhabited this area. The new signage is intended to teach visitors about the ancient Native Americans, as well as the unique hammock environment while reading the interpretive panels.
“The artwork that David (Leo) produced for these panels is a rendering of what the site actually looked like, not just what it might have looked like,” said Westland. “It shows three different perspectives… it’s an homage to the people who used to live here.”
At last Thursday’s official opening of the revamped site, Dr. Bill Marquardt of the Randell Research Center on Pine Island delivered a lecture on the history of the Calusa on Sanibel and throughout the Southwest Florida region. The ceremony was attended by refuge manager Paul Tritaik, DDWS president Birgie Vertesch, islanders Bill and Ann Wollschlager, project designer Shell Redfern, Calusa advisors Dr. Robin Brown and Dr. Karen Walker as well as other refuge staff and City of Sanibel representatives.
The Shell Mound Trail is a universally accessible, interpretive boardwalk that originates near the end of Wildlife Drive. The trail meanders through a hardwood hammock that has grown on top of ancient Calusa shell mounds. This is also an excellent place to spot warblers and other migratory songbirds during the spring and fall migrations.
“This is a great spot for birders,” added Westland, who noted the presence of a screech owl near the fork at the beginning of the boardwalk. “You can see warblers, Carolina wrens, indigo bunting and lots of other species… even rare ones.”
Case-in-point: While driving out to the site prior to Thursday’s ribbon-cutting, Westland — and more than two dozen excited visitors — spotted a mangrove cuckoo in the tree canopy adjacent the refuge’s crossdike.
“That is one of the top three species birders who come here hope to find,” said Westland, who noted the other “rare” birds at the refuge were the grey kingbird and the black-whiskered vireo.
As a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, DDWS works to support J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge’s mission of conservation, wildlife and habitat protection, research, and public education through charitable donations and Refuge Nature Shop proceeds.
Wildlife Drive is open from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. during February and from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. during March. For additional information, visit www.fws.gov/dingdarling/ or call 472-1100.