Don't forget to
check out our WebCams area for some really nice
cams. Two of our favorites: The "Hollywood
Sign" Cam and the Grand Canyon Cam.
Back Bay Adventures ~ Emerson Point By Karen Fraley
(Emerson Point, Florida)
On the southern shores of Tampa Bay, at the mouth of
the beautiful Manatee River, lies an island that is a magical mix of
modern and ancient. Emerson Point Park has a long and rich history of
human habitation dating back thousands of years. Today it is owned by
the State of Florida and expertly maintained by the Manatee County
Conservation Lands Management team.
This 195-acre park has been a favorite with fishermen
throughout the millennia because protected waters, sea grasses, and
thriving estuaries border its 15 miles of shoreline. To the east is a
narrow channel separating the park from mainland Palmetto. To the south
is the mouth of the Manatee River, called the Oyster River by Indians
who marveled at its abundant stocks. To the west, off in the distance,
is Egmont Key and to the north lies Terra Ceia Bay, listed as an
Outstanding Florida Waterway.
Emerson Point is also a favorite with hikers and
walkers because its miles of trails offer boundless possibilities --
small loops, longer treks and hidden treasures. The Terra Ceia Trail
sprouts watery overlooks: boardwalks that bend off the trail and lead to
the shallows on the shoreline. Another leads to an observation tower
that offers a breathtaking vista of Tampa Bay from over 60 feet up.
One of my favorite hikes is the Restoration Trail,
which offers an ever-changing landscape as crews pluck out invasive
exotic plants to make room for wildlife-friendly native species.
Less than a year ago, the left side of the trail was
dominated by Australian Pine. This noxious exotic is considered a pest
plant because it spreads quickly and nothing grows under the trees.
There is minimal value to wildlife, and the areas they inhabit become an
ecological wasteland. But all that has changed: The trees have been
removed and we are watching the return of American beautyberry, wild
coffee and cedar that will draw wildlife back. A few dead Australian
Pines left as “standing snags” are essential to woodpeckers and
potential homes for nuthatches, screech owls and bluebirds.
This is a great butterfly park because of the
profusion of flowering plants. Bidens, lantana, ironweed, sida, wild
lime, partridge pea, firebush – some call them weeds, but “one person’s
weed is another person’s wildflower.” These flowers attract buckeyes,
pearleyes, frittilaries, sulphurs of all kinds, swallowtails and my
personal favorite, the zebra longwing butterfly, sometimes tagged as
Florida’s “Official Insect.” An orange grove planted by early settlers
in the 1870s attracts giant swallowtails which prefer citrus as a larval
I walk this trail several times a week during the
school year, sharing the native plant stories with students. They learn
about native vs. exotic plants, and participate first-hand in removing a
particularly insidious weed, the Air Potato Vine. Prizes are awarded
daily to the team with the heaviest haul, and the largest and smallest
air potato. Since the program started in the winter of 2001, we’ve
worked with over 2000 students to remove 3,100 pounds of air potato vine
(Dioscora bulbifera) and 1,500 pounds of ceasar weed (Urena lobata).
As the trail curves heading west, we come to a large
pond teeming with bird life. Woodstorks, great blue heron, American
egret, little blue herons and ducks of all sorts, including a pair of
wood ducks, flock to the pond. I ask the students to identify those pink
birds with the funny-shaped bill. In unison, they reply: “Flamingoes!” I
explain that the pink birds are actually Roseate spoonbills, and that we
are very fortunate to see such a large group of them.
My eye catches an unusual sight. It looks like a palm
growing out of another tree. This is the strangler fig, which begins its
life as an epiphyte, growing on the palm tree. As the fig grows its
roots reach the ground and begin their stranglehold on the palm.
Eventually it will entangle the entire palm and kill it. Survival of the
Another side trail takes us through a 1000-year-old
Indian village. We try to imagine what life was like then: “The heavy
growth of trees you now see would not have covered everything: The shell
mounds would have gleamed white in the sun, topped and surrounded by
thatched houses. Smoke from cooking fires drifted skyward as people
worked at their daily tasks and children played. Canoes of hunting
parties landed along the shore to unload the day’s catch while the air
filled with an irregular rhythm of conch shell hammers tapping open
A hush falls over the students as we walk among shell
middens that have been here over 1000 years, remnants of a culture that
lived and died on this shoreline.
A giant gumbo-limbo has fallen in the woods, but lying
on its side we get a feel for the immensity of the tree. The name itself
is magical: gumbo-limbo. The tree is easily identified by its large,
twisting limbs and reddish peeling bark. While no one knows why, we
always see the gumbo-limbo at midden sites. Is it because this tropical
tree prefers the calcium soils caused by the shell remains? Or is it
because the resin of the gumbo-limbo is a form of copal, burned as
incense offering to the gods?
Our haunting walk through the woods ends abruptly at a
clearing. To our right is the Manatee River and to our left is the
largest known temple mound on Tampa Bay. We look up and imagine the
chief and shaman leading a ceremony for the villagers below. For reasons
unknown, the ritual buildings on top of the temple mound would be
regularly burned down. The people would cover the mound with another
layer of earth and shell and erect new buildings. In this way, the
temple mound grew over the years in size and elevation. The native
people started building this mound around 800AD and abandoned it about
A recent rain has turned the resurrection fern a lush
and verdant green, carpeting the branches of the giant live oaks that
protect this ancient temple. We are reminded that, as visitors here, we
are guardians of both the past and future. We try to identify with the
spiritual importance and natural order that the passage of time has
given to this special place.
Naturalist Karen Fraley is the owner of Around the
Bend Nature Tours (www.aroundbend.com)
in Bradenton. Teachers who wish to schedule a free field trip, funded by
grants from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, Pinellas County Environmental
Foundation and the Florida Native Plant Society, may call Karen at
941-794-8773. Groups welcome also!
Getting there: Take I-275 across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Stay right
for US 19, then take Business 41 into Palmetto. Turn right on 10th St.
W. (2nd traffic light) and continue on to Snead Island. Follow signs to
Emerson Point Park (right on Tarpon Ave., left on 17th St. W.) From
I-75, take Ellenton Exit #43 and proceed west to Snead Island. Open
daily from 8 a.m. to sunset, Emerson Point offers hiking trails and a
canoe trail to Terra Ceia Bay. For additional information, contact the
Manatee County Conservation Lands Dept. at 941-776-2295.