It didn’t take long for me to be wowed by the nature of Southwest Florida. Just outside my hotel balcony at South Seas Island Resort on Captiva, I could watch dolphins and manatees swim between the bay and the marina, while osprey, egrets, pelicans, cormorants and gulls all flew past my room.
But there was a lot more to explore beyond the resort (and the Island Hopper Songwriter Fest), and that began with a ferry north to Cabbage Key via Captiva Cruises. As we made our way past Northern Captiva, more than a dozen Magnificent Frigatebirds circled above the bay. These aptly named pelagic birds have wingspans over seven feet and are known as the pirates of the sky because of their habit of stealing fish from smaller birds.
We had a little less than two hours to eat lunch on Cabbage Key and explore the 3,500-foot-long dune formed during the Ice Age. Home to the Calusa Indians for more than a millennia before the arrival of the Spanish, the key became a fishing camp worked by both Cuban fisherman and local Indians, who would prepare the fish to be shipped back to Havana. The isle’s restaurant sits atop a high shell midden built by the Calusa and its signature dish is rumored to have inspired Jimmy Buffet’s song, “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
The cheeseburger was indeed delicious, and the key is a paradise of sorts, with no cars and short walking trails, where you can see several of the resident Gopher Tortoises, who can live more than 60 years and spend most of their time in large, excavated burrows, which also provide habitat for a vast number of species, including the Eastern Indigo Snake, which only live within the tortoise burrows.
Back on Captiva, I walked the gorgeous, white-sand beaches, finding shells and photographing a dozen shorebird species, from White Ibis and Black-bellied Plovers hunting in the surf to Black Skimmers and Royal Terns resting in the sand in large, noisy flocks.
But the real birders’ paradise was one island south on Sanibel—the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Named for the Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist who helped found the National Wildlife Federation and launch the Federal Duck Stamp program, the 5,200-acre park encompasses one of the largest mangrove refuges in the country.
A leisurely drive around the four-mile loop—with frequent stops—netted us 31 species of birds. We just missed a pair of reclusive Mangrove Cuckoos that others had just seen, but we enjoyed the show put on by a small flock of Roseate Spoonbills, a few lone Reddish Egrets and a handful of migratory warblers. We also saw two different local orchids growing from nooks in the trees.
The highlight of the trip was a kayak excursion around—and through—Buck Key. The two-mile long preserve sits just east of Adventure Sea Kayak on Captiva, where we launched with a guide and crossed the Roosevelt Channel. After entering a beautiful hidden lagoon, we paddled to an even-more beautiful, even-more hidden “tunnel” trail, an excavated canal topped with a mangrove canopy just wide enough to kayak single file. Crabs scurried and snails crawled among the mangrove roots and woodpeckers flew among the trees overhead, as we enjoyed the tranquility of the novel journey. When we exited the other side of the key, a pair of Double-crested Cormorants—Carol and Carl, according to our guide—landed right next to our boats, using the shade of the kayaks to fish underneath.
They weren’t the only surprisingly friendly and forward creatures. A Bonnethead Shark swam beside us briefly, and then a pair of curious manatees approached. I sat still in my kayak, while one popped her head up so close to me I could have patted it. She then proceeded to do a barrel roll right under my boat, seemingly using it for a scratch and gently nudging me backwards a couple of yards. It was an incredible encounter with a gentle giant that I’ll never forget.
Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder, president and editor-in-chief. You can follow him on Twitter @joshjackson and @BirdsAtl.