Living Sanibel: Harns Marsh
Harns Marsh, a storm-water retention facility located at the headwaters of the Orange River in Lehigh Acres, is an unlikely destination for naturalists and birders. It is not included in the South Florida Birding Trail, though no one has informed the countless birds that frequent this large freshwater marsh of that omission. It offers no amenities, no interpretive center, not even any signs directing visitors to the marsh. Now under the jurisdiction of the East County Water Control District, Harns Marsh is slated to become a Lee County regional park, which will bring restrooms, picnic tables, and other amenities to this undiscovered treasure.
The site is roughly one square mile (578 acres). In 2007, some 182 acres along the north marsh were dredged and cleared of invasive plants, which improved water quality and wildlife viewing. Hiking and bicycling, but no motorized vehicles, are allowed on the four-mile sandy impoundment road encircling the marsh.
Scores of birds, snakes, snails, and small mammals are found here. Two species of particular interest are the snail kite (aka the Everglades kite) and the limpkin. Birders who might spend years trying to catch a glimpse of either of these species can cut their search short with a single visit to Harns Marsh. These hard-to-find birds are attracted by the tens of thousands of snails that live in the marsh, including both the native apple snail and the invasive island apple snail. The island apple snail (Pomacea insularum) is from South America and has, through accidental releases, invaded many of Florida’s freshwater marshes. These enormous snails, many as large as a small apple, litter the edge of the marsh. Snail kites and limpkins are adapting to dining on these foreigners, which have also become an important source of food for turtles, great blue herons, alligators, and other animals.
Other sightings at Harns Marsh, especially during the winter months, might include redwing blackbirds, cowbirds, various migratory duck species, and sparrows. Sightings of sandhill cranes are common along the western edge of the marsh. Visiting the marsh is best just after dawn and before sunset. Be sure to bring bug spray and a hat, since areas of shade are in short supply. Harns Marsh is an undiscovered treasure in Lee County that hopefully, once made into a park, will get the recognition it deserves.
Author’s note: On leap day, February 29th, of this year I had an opportunity to revisit Harns Marsh during the winter months, when most of the migratory waterfowl are feeding amongst the ponds and bulrushes. The bird count did not meet my expectations; it far, far exceeded them! Together, Molly (my wife) and I counted more than 1,000 birds. Those numbers included three eagles, four snail kites, three limpkins, hundreds upon hundreds of ducks, cranes, coots and wading birds. Harns Marsh is a true, Lee County wildlife treasure that, on a good day, compares well with J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge when it comes to our feathered friends.