“So, you guys are going to LA?,” asked the woman in the next to last row of seats on the Southwest flight. We were a bit puzzled by this inquiry since our plane had just left Southern California. “No, we’re going to the Florida panhandle,” was our reply.
“No, y’all are going to LA…. Lower Alabama.”
Such was our introduction to hospitality of the south on a recent trip to Mobile, Alabama for the annual National Estuarine Research Reserves meeting. Mike Vasey (manager of the San Francisco Reserve) and I decided to go early and see the Apalachicola Reserve in the Florida panhandle. Reserve Manager Jenna Harper generously allowed us to stay in their dormitory, a double wide trailer within walking distance of downtown Apalachicola. Jenna downplayed the accommodations repeatedly, but for us it was paradise.
We were serenaded in the morning with live music and as it turned out, approximately 300 yards away, the local Farmer’s Market was underway. Fresh coffee, pastries and fresh local fruit greeted us to Florida. Adjacent to the housing unit was a trail of sea shells and a boardwalk that meandered through the coastal forest and terminated with a great view of the marshes of the Apalachicola River. Lots of wildlife to be seen, from the secretive but gaudy cardinals to the Barred Owl, hunting rodents in the forest.
After a short tour of the downtown, we went to the Reserve offices and visitor center on the other side of the highway and a couple of miles south of town.
The Reserves boundaries includes lands managed by a variety of both State and Federal wildlife and coastal management agencies, giving the Reserve a total acreage of 234,715 acres. They have a beautiful visitor center and office complex, all elevated to allow hurricane associated flood waters to flow beneath its floors. There was an exhibit of cut paper art. Innumerable colored pieces of paper were cut and stacked in incredibly intricate designs, depicting the structure of diatoms as seen through a microscope. Several aquariums presented views of creatures from the nearby estuary, including a very active horseshoe crab.
Click below for video:
After getting a tour of the facility from Pauly, wife of the former manager Lee Edmiston, we headed up river in search of the rare Torreya tree. This redwood like tree is only found in a very limited range in the Florida panhandle. The only Torreya trees I saw were in the parking lot, but the forest here was beautiful with magnolias, sycamores, bald cypress, live oak and pine dominating the over story. The Appalachicola River was flowing swiftly to the marshes on the Florida coast.
After a brief stop the next day at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, we headed towards our meeting in Mobile, Alabama. This State Park was gorgeous with a coastal scrub forest trail, butterflies meandering over the landscape and the hope of alligators on the water.
We arrive in Mobile, Alabama for the meeting. At the opening plenary session, a representative from the Mississippi Office of Coastal Management informs us that he has obtained a special, albeit temporary dispensation from the governor’s office and we are free to use the term “climate change.” Those Mississippians got a great sense of humor.
On one day we visited Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Alabama. This 6,000 acre Reserve is located on Weeks Bay extending out to the much larger Mobile Bay. Reserve Manager L.G. Adams provides an excellent tour of the facility.
There is a wonderful boardwalk going into the forest behind the visitor center. This 3/4 mile trail rises above the forest floor and contains signage identifying the many species of trees found in these woods. This boardwalk terminates with a view of Weeks Bay.
Soon, we are on a boat on that Bay, getting a waterside view of the Reserve. Like many of these gulf coast bays, Weeks Bay is relatively shallow. Brown Pelicans are plentiful, as well as Caspian Terns, Laughing Gulls and a Bottlenosed Dolphin swims alongside the boat for a while.
Our tour of Weeks Bay is not over though. We meet Fred Nation at a boardwalk built over a bog with hundreds of carnivorous pitcher plants. Fred is extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the flora of these bogs. He tells us that plant surveys in the bog reveal up to 60 species of plants in a square meter. He dissects a pitcher plant, exposing the insect carcasses, prey to this deadly plant.
After the meetings wrap up Mike and I head to Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in nearby Mississippi. We are met by Ayesha Gray, manager of the Reserve. Her visitor center is fantastic, built by the former manager Dave Ruple.
We join Jessica Ryan (acting manager of the Alaska NERR), and Angela Doroff (Research Coordinator of the Alaska NERR) and Mark Woodrey (Grand Bay NERR Research Coordinator) who takes us out for a boat trip to the edge of Grand Bay. From here, we land on a remote island where we can set up scopes on a variety of birds.
On our way back to the dock, we are joined by a bottle-nosed dolphin. Since this bay is very shallow, the dolphin’s dorsal fin is visible continuously. Our great adventure to the National Estuarine Research Reserves of the northern Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida is soon over and we board airplanes back to the West, full of ideas, hopes and visions of dolphins escorting us back to shore.