Living Sanibel: Take a morning stroll though the pines at Lemon Bay Park
The people of Sarasota County exhibited some real foresight in 1986 when they purchased the first 48 acres of Lemon Bay Park as part of a $20 million county bond referendum. The county later added to the acreage when it acquired the assets of the Anita and Jacob France Foundation, whose environmental research area can still be found on the north end of the park. Several parcels have been added since then, bringing the park to its current size of 208 acres.
With more than a mile of bay frontage on the Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve, Lemon Bay Park is sitting on some valuable real estate. Vacant residential lots sell for more than $1 million per 100 feet of bay frontage, making the park worth more than $55 million in waterfront property alone. Add the value of the remaining acreage to the equation and Lemon Bay Park in today’s real estate market is easily worth $100 million.
Because the park stretches along Lemon Bay, it offers a rare window into what much of the bayou and bayfront Florida once looked like. The half-mile bayside trail, which has a number of small boardwalk sections and bayfront overlooks, wraps around red and black mangrove forests. While hiking the trail, look for mangrove, fiddler and horseshoe crabs. Polarized sunglasses will help you see finger mullet, immature thread herring, and glass minnows in the water. Don’t be surprised if you scare a redfish or snook out from under the mangroves at high tide, as they often come in to feed on the mangrove crabs and minnows that thrive in the tangled red mangrove root system.
While the park’s south trail focuses on mangroves, the two-mile north trail system is decidedly more upland in nature. It wanders through pine and scrubby flatwoods and abuts a freshwater swamp near the very northern tip. Look for an entirely different kind of wildlife here, including bald eagles. A viewing scope along the Eagle Trail allows you to spot an active eagles’ nest in the towering slash pines near the edge of Lemon Bay.
The Environmental Center provides a handy checklist of 123 species of birds that frequent the park, including some difficult finds such as the American oystercatcher, Caspian tern, black-crowned night heron, and elusive Florida scrub jay, a welcome addition to any birder’s life list.
Mammals found at the park include bobcats, river otters, marsh rabbits, and gray fox. Reptiles include gopher tortoises, brown and green anoles, and a dozen different snake species. A butterfly garden directly north of the Environmental Center features more than two dozen varieties of butterflies, skippers, and moths. If you look closely, you might even discover a chrysalis hidden in the foliage.
The Environmental Center has an ample supply of trail maps and bird, mammal, and insect guides, as well as several informative displays. It offers a number of nature-based educational programs throughout the year. There is a lovely rose garden, amphitheater, canoe/kayak launch, picnic pavilion, and a large veranda behind the center for taking in a sunset over Lemon Bay. A meeting room is available for organizations to rent. Portions of the trail and the center itself are ADA accessible.
Lemon Bay Park is a welcome respite from what would likely have been yet another subdivision in Southwest Florida. Although relatively small, it serves as a sanctuary for any number of birds, mammals, and other living things that struggle to find a place to call their own. So, take advantage with a morning stroll though the pines or an evening walk along the shoreline of Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve, and revel in the knowledge that sometimes we can get it right.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.