On the surface, everything seems still. The wind barely emits a rattle out of the bushes, and no sign of life stirs on the surface of the water. Even the traditional prairie house hidden amongst the foliage appears deserted, with no activity to be discerned from its curtained windows.
But if you look a little closer, the marshes are teeming with life.
An osprey sits overhead, surveying the area in the shade of the tree. If you stare closely at the water, schools of fish dart in different directions while dozens of sand crabs scurry across the bank. Narrow deviations from the dirt track reveal hidden mangrove beaches, with crystal waters and panoramic views of the city’s main bay. The area is swarming with life, as long as you know where to look.
Once a region of disturbed farmland and tropical plant nurseries, the 487-acre Robinson’s Preserve in Manatee County, Florida, has been transformed back to its natural habitat of mangrove beaches, salt marshes and coastal wetlands through a collective effort by the Florida Natural Resources Department in conjunction with several state and local agencies. Today kayakers, runners and walkers are encouraged to wander around the area’s expansive trails and waterways in the hopes that community involvement will encourage further regeneration of the region. So far, the wetland has seen a speedy initial recovery to its former self.
Walking over an arched wooden bridge, I waved to a couple of kayakers as they glided underneath. The path zigzagged towards the observation tower, a series of five stories that resembled a complex, wooden scaffolding design. From the top, walkers are rewarded with encompassing views of the park and the nearby Tampa Bay, where holidaymakers relax on yachts. Any noise made by them though was impossible to discern, as the only sounds that could be heard from the top came from the wind breezing through the trees, and the occasional blop! as a mullet fish jumped into the air. Peering towards the far edges of the trails, a series of trees lined the bay, reached only through crossing a series of rustic wooden bridges over the swampland.
All of the plants and animals that were reintroduced to Robinson’s Preserve were native to the state, and while Florida might not be as well known for its swamp critters as much as its dolphins and manatees, a short time spent wandering the trails of Robinson proves it has an abundance of interesting animals worth discovering. Yellow Sulfurs And Monarch butterflies fluttered delicately around the dense patches of orange and pink wildflowers that are positioned lowly on the ground, and a quick detour off the trail takes you to the hidden mangrove beaches, where miniscule schools of mullet and redfish dart to the mangrove roots for protection at the first sign of life. Following the trails of salt marshes inwards, the schools of fish grew in size and suddenly egrets and sandbills stood frozen on the sand bank, with only their beady yellow eyes the sign of movement from them.
The trail around the Robinson Preserve is approximately eight miles in distance, but there are many deviations, side roads and short cuts to ensure trails are not bottlenecked and can be comfortably enjoyed by walkers, cyclists, and roller-bladers alike without interrupting the animals’ natural habitat. More importantly however, these deviations provide an excellent opportunity to explore little pockets of the preserve that would otherwise be unnoticeable on the main trail. As I meandered my way to a pocket of green shrubs, I noticed ripe red berries hanging from the thin branches, bulging from the weight of their juice. I stared hard at them for several minutes, racking my brain for some long-forgotten tip or survival knowledge that would help me identify them. Turning to my fellow hikers, I asked them if they knew these berries.
“Nope,” one answered, “but that raccoon next to you might be able to help.”
Twisting my head to my right, I drew a quick intake of breath and scuttled back as a young raccoon slouched inches from where my face had been, happily gobbling down the red berries. For what seemed like ages I held my breath and stood stock still, afraid any movement would scare him off. After eating his fill, the young raccoon waddled off into the foliage, with bits of berries still hanging from his nose and whiskers. As I watched the white tuft of his tail disappear into the tangled shrubs, I spun around, eager to find the next trail to explore.
For more information, check out this page here: http://www.floridahikes.com/robinson-preserve or the official page here: http://www.mymanatee.org/home/government/departments/natural-resources/resource-management/robinson-preserve.html.