2021 Year in Review at CREW

River otter at CREW Flint Pen Strand

The CREW trails saw 51,664 people in 2021

Once in a lifetime panther pictures taken by guests at CREW Bird Rookery Swamp

Welcomed back third-graders, for the first time since 2019!

Florida Gulf Coast University students volunteered 2,012 hours

CREW Trust volunteers gave 4,425 hours in service

The NEW Purple Trail opened at CREW Flint Pen Strand

CREW Trust fundraiser began, Annual Trail Sponsors – look for signs at all trailheads

Create a New CREW Tradition This Year

By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust volunteer

Every family has its own holiday traditions. Traditions are sometimes inherited and sometimes created. However you acquire them, your family traditions are always meaningful, and they often lead to treasured family experiences.

When I was young, my father encouraged me and my siblings to enjoy the outdoors. He taught us to ice skate, to play baseball and other sports, and to explore nature. My mother loved to create feasts on special days using favorite family recipes. (She almost incited an insurrection the year she put oysters in the turkey dressing.)

Somehow, we managed to unite these two family traditions, gorging ourselves on mother’s many dishes and then, instead of lounging around and digesting, following up the big meal with a family hike. When my parents retired and moved to Delaware, they bought a small house nestled in a mostly pine wood forest. You could smell and feel the salty air coming from the Atlantic Ocean mingling with the fresh pine scent.

Then our holiday hikes became even more special. The chilly winter temperatures, so close to the Atlantic, encouraged us to walk briskly. It was a time not only to walk off all that food but also to catch up on family news. I can remember spotting various birds, plants and trees, especially gorgeous holly trees that obligingly produced red berries for us at the end of the year and added to the festivity of the occasion. By the time my parents moved to Delaware, all their children were adults and scattered across several states. The holidays at the end of the year provided us with the chance to gather and enjoy mom’s cooking as well as renew our relationships with each other.

These hikes became a sacred family tradition. No excuses – we all participated, except my mother. I guess she was too worn out from days of planning, shopping and cooking.

Now two of my siblings and I live in this area. We have continued the family tradition of hiking on holidays. It reminds me of so many years that we gathered and enjoyed the outdoors together. It’s a tradition that I recommend – and the CREW trails offer your family the perfect chance to establish your own outdoor traditions on the holidays.

Hiking in southwest Florida, in the temperate winter months is a joy. You can create your own family holiday hiking tradition on the CREW trails. We have four unique trail systems, one located in Lee County (CREW Flint Pen Strand) and three in Collier County (CREW Marsh Trails and CREW Cypress Dome, both located on Corkscrew Road, and CREW Bird Rookery Swamp on Immokalee Road).

At CREW Marsh Trails, you can hike to an observation tower that overlooks a 5,000-acre sawgrass marsh, a breathtaking sight, and you can see all the way to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary across the vast marsh. At Cypress Dome, you can enjoy the unique habitat of a cypress dome, wading in cool shallow water to the center of the shadowy forest of tall cypress trees. Flint Pen Strand offers multiple trails through pine forests as well as seasonal lakes on the east side that attract a myriad of wading birds at this time of year. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a bald eagle that resides close to the lakes flying overhead. It’s a magnificent sight.

Bird Rookery Swamp offers yet another kind of experience. There’s a boardwalk that winds through the cypress trees, leading to a wide elevated trail that once accommodated narrow gauge trains to haul the mighty cypress trees out to sawmills. Logging at Bird Rookery Swamp ended in the 1950s, so the cypress trees you see now are second-growth trees that rapidly grew to restore the forest. Hurricane Irma in 2017 uprooted many of the red maples but you’ll see that they have returned in force. At this time of year, the cypress trees are dropping their needles, but the maples are showing off their beautiful red leaves, just in time for the holidays.

All four of the CREW trail systems are open from dawn to dusk. Trails are clearly marked, and a trail map is available at information kiosks at the trailheads. Bring the family dog (not recommended at Bird Rookery Swamp) – on a leash – and be sure to clean up after him or her. There’s no entrance fee, but donations are much appreciated and are put to good use maintaining the trails and supporting educational programs.

COVID-19 has stressed us all this year. The fresh air and vivid greenery all around you on our trails can help your family to de-stress. Please heed recommended practices on the trails, especially socially distancing. But don’t worry – there’s plenty of room for us all to enjoy the outdoors safely.

History of Flint Pen Strand: Part Three

Restoration of the Wetlands

By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust Volunteer

Dwarf Cypress trees on the Yellow Trail North

So how do you restore a wetland? First, you study the proposed land to see if it is still functioning as a wetland. If it’s not, you remove structures (houses, roads, bridges, berms) built on the land that interfere with the natural flow of water. You also must remove a lot of debris like fences, toilets, tires, appliances, and boats just to name a few. The South Florida Water Management District, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the CREW Trust have put thousands of hours into cleaning up CREW Flint Pen Strand (FPS).

photo taken during SFWMD work in 2000

To prepare and carry out an effective restoration, you need to know the history of the land. Are there any irreversible changes in the wetlands? You must figure out how to go around them or work with them to achieve your goal of a functioning wetland. You should also consider the causes of the degradation of a wetland and address those. There is no use restoring the wetland if it’s going to revert to its malfunctioning state.

Evidence of homestead sites still remain

You also must think ahead. Are there any plans by local, state, or federal government or private landowners that would affect your wetland? Not only do you have to study the wetland itself to figure out how to repair it, but you also must consider the surrounding area and what impact the restoration may have on neighboring property.

Pine forests intermix with wetlands throughout Flint Pen Strand

Then decide what your objectives are for the newly restored wetland. At FPS, the goals were to restore some of the original pathways for flowing water; restore the ecosystem because native trees and plants naturally help slow the water, giving it more time to soak into the aquifer; provide natural flood protection; and identify and protect habitat that is crucial for the wildlife that live there. Florida panthers and have been spotted at FPS and because they need thousands of acres to roam, I’m sure they appreciate the forests and saw palmetto habitats that support their primary food source, white-tailed deer, at FPS.

White-tailed deer roaming the marshes of south Flint Pen Strand

Finally, you monitor the success of your restoration project and maintain for the long term.

Restoring a wetland is a complex process and the SFWMD continues to work hard at FPS. Part of the process at FPS has been the removal of non-native and invasive species. If you hike the red trail and come across a forest of spooky-looking trees, many of them lying on the ground, you’ll see the results of killing hundreds of invasive melaleuca trees. With their papery white bark, the dead melaleucas look like a forest of ghosts. In addition, CREW volunteers have assisted with the removal of invasive plants such as caesar weed and earleaf acacia (a never-ending job). Consistent stewardship can only succeed with collaboration and community support. The ongoing long-term success of the CREW project is a result of many hands-on deck, especially from people like you. The support you give through membership and donations secures the future of this project and others for generations to come.

CREW Trust and FGCU Service Learning partnership in action

History of Flint Pen Strand: Part Two

Restoration of the Wetlands

By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust volunteer

Hydrologic restoration within the CREW Project in April 2000

Have you ever considered what your life would be like if you didn’t have easy access to water or if you had too much around you?

Restoration of the wetlands of the CREW Flint Pen Strand (FPS) has addressed both issues. Efforts to develop FPS lands for residences since the 1950s reduced the ability of FPS wetlands to function. If water has no place to linger, which is what you need to recharge the aquifer where your drinking water comes from, it must go somewhere. 

Without a functioning wetland, water will traverse the FPS lands without stopping and seek lower levels, ending up in the yards and homes of the lower-lying areas of Bonita Springs. Many residents recall a particularly bad year, 1995, when Tropical Storm Jerry flooded east Bonita Springs in August. Just when residents were beginning to return to their homes in October, Hurricane Opal inundated the same area and did more damage. Flooding continues to hamper east Bonita Springs residents even today with the most recent being Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) took on the responsibility of restoring about 5,400 acres of the wetlands of FPS. In some flood-prone areas, a variety of structural changes designed to improve the flow of water and thus reduce flooding have been tried, including ditches, canals, and channels. SFWMD decided that removing roads and culverts as well as treating invasive vegetation would be most effective and less costly to restore the wetlands and let the wetlands do what they do so well – collect water, filter it and let it soak into the aquifer. 

The FPS hydrologic restoration project is a slow and labor-intensive effort. The project is ongoing but we are seeing results today thanks to the continued efforts of the SFWMD. Sheet flow (inland water that flows toward lower coastal areas) that once crossed FPS land is now invited to stick around and help recharge the watershed that the 60,000-acre CREW Project exists to protect.  

The hydrologic restoration at FPS helps to assure that you’ll have access to water. It also helps to protect the residents of Bonita Springs from flooding. So, the next time you hike one of the FPS trails, take a moment to consider all that the CREW lands do when it comes to water and the flood protection that it provides.

Flint Pen Strand 2019

At Home with the Florida Duck

Volunteer Perspective Series

Written by Nan Mattingly

How Florida mottled ducklings helped this CREW Trust volunteer survive quarantine.

Before the governor of Florida imposed a safer-at-home order, I had been experiencing flu symptoms and decided to self-quarantine. So I’ve been pretty isolated since early March.

Fortunately my house is situated on the edge of a fairly large lake, so I’ve long been in the habit of watching activity on the lake. Herons of all types come here to work the banks for small fish; anhingas dive for fish, which are plentiful, and then alight on the banks to dry out their feathers; occasionally I see an osprey snatch up a fish and run; and from time to time I watch long-time resident Wally Gator make his stately way up and down the lake. And of course we have the requisite Muscovy duck population, begging at doors for bread and showing off their unique brand of ugliness. 

Right about the time I decided to voluntarily quarantine and cope with what felt like murderous viral symptoms, a miracle occurred: a pair of Florida mottled ducks emerged on my lake with a brood of ten tiny ducklings, just little balls of downy feathers. Though their nest wasn’t very near my house, the whole group took to hanging around my neighbor’s house and mine. Before they showed up, I had only a casual interest in ducks (and a decided dislike for Muscovys). Virus fatigue and a lack of other distractions, I guess, allowed me to become fascinated with the mottled family. Now, about two months after their debut, the ducklings are still a mob of ten and the parents are nowhere to be seen. How they evaded predators is a mystery. Over time I’ve had the privilege of watching them grow, develop their voices, and learn to fly. At the end of May, they’re still there, and behaving like adolescents – chasing each other around, pecking each other on the head and occasionally making test flights across the lake.

Once the little ducklings had attracted my feeble attention, I developed the habit of looking out at the lake first thing every morning to check on them. They tended to arrive in my backyard around 6:30 a.m. Until a few weeks ago, they made tiny little peeping noises, which were charming, but unfortunately they are now developing that distinctive duck voice. On Memorial Day I was awakened early by a chorus of quacking before they did a very patriotic flyover of my lanai.   

Anticipating the sad day that my ducklings depart for bigger things, I checked the FWC website to learn when I can expect to become an empty-nester. It was mostly good news. First, I learned that we in south Florida have the pleasure of hosting these ducks year-round; they tend to live south of Tampa and are non-migratory. They are a member of what is called “the mallard complex” which includes about 20 species of ducks, all alike in body shape but distinguished by their feather characteristics and colors. FWC noted that the Florida mottled duck is also known as the “Florida duck” or the “Florida mallard” because they are found only in Florida.  

Some people might find a mottled duck’s grey and brown coloring a little boring compared to the mallard, which I now consider to be the designer version of mottled ducks. The mallard has that showy display of teal bordered with white on their wings. Mottled ducks, male and female, have a more subtle version of that coloring on the wings with almost no white showing.  

There’s little difference in coloring between male and female mottled ducks, so you have to look at the bills to distinguish them. The male has an olive green-to-yellow bill while the female has an orange-to-brown bill. 

Watching the ducklings peck in the grass and dip their bills into the water, I tried to figure out what they were eating. FWC supplied the answer: about 40 percent of their diet comprises insects, snails, mollusks, crayfish and small fish. For the other 60 percent, they eat grass seeds, stems and roots, the seeds of other marsh plants, and bayberries.

I knew that my particular ducklings were special not only for their  survival skills and playful personalities, but according to FWC, a female produces only one brood a year and typically lays eight to ten eggs. The mother of my ducklings must have produced a pretty big clutch of eggs, and she must have protected them well. For the first two months or so, the parents hovered over the ducklings and shepherded them around the lake, giving them a good start in life.

It’s not all good news for the Florida mottled duck, however. Go to the FWC website and read about the challenges to the long-term survival of our unique south Florida duck. Loss of wetland habitat, of course, is a big threat. And what FWC calls “feral mallards” have been mating with mottled ducks and producing hybrid offspring. 

Having relied on my mottled ducklings to keep me distracted and happy during a tedious quarantine, I’m sorry to contemplate the threats to this special south Florida dabbling duck. We’re still looking for a cure for Covid-19. Watching ducks grow up won’t cure anyone, but it’s a great distraction. Today I’m as healthy as those ten beautiful mottled ducks, and I thank them. 

Sprucing Up the CREW Trails

Before the trail closure on April 4th, CREW Trust staff, volunteers, and Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) students were out in full force finishing up some big projects during the final cool months. 

Several projects include the Wild Coffee Trail/White Trail revitalization at the CREW Cypress Dome Trails, the installation of new green and yellow post trail markers at the CREW Cypress Dome Trails, widening the Popash Trail at the CREW Marsh Trails, and an Adopt-A-Road cleanup along Corkscrew Rd. 

Our CREW trails consistently undergo huge improvements thanks to our dedicated volunteers and students that know how to complete a project from start to finish. 

Currently, trails are closed to the public and CREW Trust volunteers, but this does not mean that the volunteers have lost their enthusiasm. They have found many creative ways to help throughout the Florida #stayathome order!

Earth Day April 22, 2020

For the 50th anniversary of Earth Day remember the phrase: “think globally, act locally” with these Citizen Science projects you can start today in your own backyard!

Nature’s Notebook

Discover and document changes in nature near you. Nature’s Notebook is an off-the-shelf program appropriate for scientists and non-scientists alike, engaging observers across the nation to collect phenology observations on both plants and animals.

Globe at Night Globe at Night is an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure & submit their night sky brightness observations. It’s easy to get involved – all you need is a computer or smartphone & follow these 5 Simple Steps!

Collect Weather Data CoCoRaHS (pronounced KO-ko-rozz) is a grassroots volunteer network of backyard weather observers of all ages and backgrounds working together to measure and map precipitation (rain, hail and snow) in their local communities.

BioBlitz A BioBlitz is an event that focuses on finding and identifying as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time. At a BioBlitz, scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to get a snapshot of an area’s biodiversity.

Story of a CREW Partnership: Lighthouse of Collier

Sometimes it takes a new perspective to appreciate the beauty of a place. Recently, one of our partners, Lighthouse of Collier, Center for Blindness and Vision Loss visited CREW as part of our Nature’s Peace program. They made the adventurous trip to the Bird Rookery Swamp trail for a specialty guided walk for their 20 guests, all of whom have visual impairments. Patiently they unloaded from their bus, white canes in hand, taking in the powerful smell of cypress trees and fresh rainfall. 

The weather was perfect for a walk and our hike leader, Doug Machesney and other CREW Trust volunteers were ready with special sensorial things to do, like listening to the blustery wind blowing through the bald cypress trees and passing around sweet smelling exotic flowers. The shedding cypress needles reminded these astute observers of the seasonal changes taking place. Florida’s subtle fall giving walkers the sensation of autumn leaf piles as they crunched their way along the edges of the boardwalk.   

Everyone enjoyed when Doug pointed out the traces of a bear on the handrail. They each took their time running their fingers over the claw marks engraved deep into the boardwalk handrail. Each person helping the next by slowly guiding hands to the indentations. 

Furthering the challenges of some, several of the participants did not speak English. Fortunately, a leader emerged from the group and self-appointed herself as the translator. She listened attentively to Doug’s stories and quietly translated for her friends. At the close of the hike, while everyone loaded back on the bus, she told me, “I’m forever grateful to the people at Lighthouse of Collier. They’ve changed my life, so I try to do everything I can to help others like me.” 

We are also grateful to Lighthouse of Collier for partnering with us years ago so their clients get the opportunity to enjoy all that nature has to offer them at CREW. We’re also very grateful to YOU for making this Nature’s Peace program and all of our other programs possible.

Forest Bathing in CREW’s Bird Rookery Swamp

Forest bathing is widely practiced for health reasons. The concept is simple:  to surround yourself in nature for the purpose of absorbing the healing properties of the forest. Adherents claim that it can lower blood pressure, slow the heart rate and reduce the levels of harmful hormones such as cortisol. Overall it has a calming effect.

But does it really work or is it the product of someone’s imagination? Research shows that the effects of forest bathing are real and demonstrable. A Russian scientist began to study forest bathing in the 1920’s, working on the theory that the “aromas of the forest” strengthen our immune systems. Subsequent study has shown that trees emit an organic, antimicrobial volatile compound that our bodies absorb and which reduces inflammation and helps us fight off germs.

So how to practice forest bathing? First, find a peaceful wooded area where you can linger for 20 minutes daily. When you enter that quiet forest, walk slowly and stop often, listening and observing. This is not a time for your daily jog – vigorous exercise defeats the purpose. Instead immerse your senses in the sights and sounds of nature while you’re absorbing that healthy aroma of the forest. The nearby presence of water enhances the effect.

Of interest to those of us who live in southwest Florida, modern research has determined that the trees which give us the greatest benefits in forest bathing are all varieties of cypress trees. CREW’s Bird Rookery Swamp Trail is an ideal place to practice forest bathing. Surrounded by cypress trees and plenty of water, you leave feeling refreshed.     

By a CREW Trust Volunteer

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