Sunday, June 05, 2011

In Pursuit of the Elusive Gopher Tortoise

(This post is a follow-up to my previous post dated May 18, 2011.)

Less than a week after learning gopher tortoises existed, I found myself in gopher tortoise territory. If there were enough gopher tortoises to warrant road signs, surely I could see one during our four-day visit to Sanibel Island to attend my cousin's wedding. I vowed to check out a few places where gopher tortoises might be seen in the free time between wedding events and family gatherings.

My husband and son accompanied me to the J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. We didn't see a gopher tortoise, although we saw one's shell in the museum. Raccoons were the big attraction of the day. We watched as they searched for food right outside the museum's front entrance, then at the sound of a siren all three scampered up a nearby tree. You wouldn't believe how fast they climb!

I contacted blogger Corky Boyd for advice after reading his post (with great pictures) about turtle and tortoise sightings in the area.  Corky recommended Cabbage Key, a small island just north of Santibel-Captiva, as the best place to spot gopher tortoises. He also reported seeing a gopher tortoise on the south side of Dunlop Road near City Hall. He added that the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) might have additional suggestions. An SCCF staffer confirmed that gopher tortoises live in their wildlife sanctuary and that gopher tortoises can even be seen in the late afternoon grazing along the Sanibel-Captiva Road bike path.

Getting back to my story, without checking where Dunlop Road was, I just assumed Corky was referring to the Fort Myers City Hall. Jaded New Yorker that I am, I just didn't expect a place as small as Sanibel Island to have it's own City Hall. Wrong! Any map would have revealed that the Sanibel City Hall's address is 800 Dunlop Road. It was very close to where I was staying and might have been a better choice. Anyway, I picked what I thought was the only choice given scheduling constraints: the SCCF preserve.

Entering the building that housed the SCCF office and exhibition space, my son Michael and I looked at some of the turtles in tanks. There were some pretty diamondback terrapins, some cute little slider and cooter hatchlings, a young softshell, and this wonderfully prehistoric-looking Florida snapper.

At the rear of the building was a boardwalk heading towards the wildlife sanctuary. We were told that it led to the gopher tortoise's burrow. We strolled to the end of the boardwalk, turned right onto the trail, and soon saw the opening to the burrow. Very impressive!

I was surprised to see that the burrow's entryway was so big, as gopher tortoises themselves are only 12-16 inches long. They must be excellent diggers because the average burrow is about 30 feet long and 3-20 feet deep. The burrows provide shelter from weather extremes and safety from predators. Gopher tortoises share their burrows with other species such as indigo snakes, gopher frogs, mice, foxes, skunks, opossums, rabbits, quail, armadillos, burrowing owls, snakes, lizards, frogs, toads and other invertebrates. All can coexist peacefully because gopher tortoises are strict vegetarians.

Seeing the burrow was very cool, but I still wanted to see its tortoise occupant. I decided to hike further on the nearby sandy trail into the thick growth of trees and scrubby plants. Michael tried to warn me about the mosquitoes, but I was determined to see a gopher tortoise if at all possible. Off we went. A swarm of mosquitoes immediately descended on us with full intention of stripping the flesh right off our bones. It took only about two minutes for me to realize that this hike was a VERY BAD IDEA. To Michael's great relief, I quickly conceded defeat and we fled the tropical "paradise" for civilization and shelter. A few days later I counted more than 80 bites on my arms, legs, face and neck.

Anyway, thanks to Wikipedia, here is what I was TRYING to see:

(public domain photo by Gary Foster)

If I get down to the Sanibel-Captiva area again, I'll make every effort to get to Cabbage Key... wearing protective clothing from head to toe and doused in insect repellent!

© 2011, Linda Mason Hood
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