by Kyle Sweet, Florida Master Naturalist
Sanibel is full of wild neighbors! I’ve got a couple mid-West neighbors that could definitely be considered wild, but what I’m really talking about are our wild “wildlife” neighbors. Nearly 70 percent of Sanibel lands are in preserve, which supports abundant wildlife all throughout the island. The refuge reports identifying 35 species of mammals, over 200 species of birds and plenty of reptiles such as alligators, turtles, tortoises, snakes and lizards. The vast majority of which are native, however as time goes by more and more non-native invasive species of fauna enter the landscape. To name a couple, the coyote and the iguana are considered non-native and are both popular “wild” neighbors.
Even with spending hours a day for over 20 years outside, seeing those wild neighbors is often a novelty. The busiest time for wildlife all around the island is no doubt during those dark, starry nights on Sanibel. I’m not out looking at night and I surely don’t recommend it, but seeing the activity in the form of tracks (tootprints) the next morning has been something that I’ve enjoyed for years.
Tracking animals was done by our distant ancestors for survival as they hunted for food. Tracking is still very valuable for many cultures around the world, including our own for hunting, finding escaped animals and wildlife monitoring for both native and non-native invasive species. Tracking, by definition, includes looking at many different elements in the landscape including footprints, trails, beds, feeding signs, scat, scrapes, fur, chews, feathers and kill sites. Together, these all tell us something about our wild neighbors, helping us to understand and be more aware of them. I’ve viewed nearly all of these elements of tracking, but the footprints alone is what we work with the most.
Golf course sand bunkers provide an excellent substrate for tracks. The relatively firm, irrigated sand does an excellent job of showing us all that pass through during those dark nights as well as throughout the day. In addition to the sand bunkers, soft aggregate paths that have replaced over mile of concrete paths on the course also provide a great substrate for footprints. Both provide for clear, recognizable tracks that distinguish animal species by using a combination of size, shape and distinct features of the feet.
Not too many of us have a golf course to inspect each morning, but fortunately there are several dirt roads on Sanibel that weave between and around preserved lands that can easily be walked. In addition to these tracking suitable roads, the beach offers a great substrate for tracking as well as walk paths that meander through many of the SCCF preserves on the island. Trail edges, road edges and visible shorelines in the refuge are also a great place to see tracks of the many wild neighbors we share on the island.
My Sweet Shots include just a handful of tracks from sand bunkers on the course. Coyotes, alligators, turtles, tortoises, wading birds, snakes and bobcats top the list of what we typically see each morning. We were in for quite surprise back in 2012 when the young Black Bear showed up on the course and really surprised us with those tracks!! I truly enjoy finding new tracks and have reached out to the refuge from time to time for questionable ones. Online sources are excellent for reference as well.
So, if you want to have a little fun adventure, get out there early before walkers hit the trails, beach chairs clog up the beach and cars drive along those dirt roads and see what might have been travelling through the night before. Make sure to photograph and instead of viewing from a distance as I often recommend, quite the opposite is the case here. Get up close and investigate and look for the details that are important when tracking. There’s a whole wild world out there to explore and fortunate for you, Sanibel offers everything you need to do a little tracking and enjoy those “wild “neighbors.