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Fort Matanzas National Monument

Posted on Friday, August 7, 2015 at 1:37 pm

Fort Matanzas National Monument
An Audubon Florida Special Place
By Teddy Shuler

25 KintnerLyoniaPreservefirstdayhike_LNS-edit.docxIt started with the salt ‘n’ pepper birds. You’ve seen those squadrons of tiny dark shapes zinging across the shoreline at breakneck speeds, only to bank into crystalline white brilliance in the sun. I remember wondering how they knew when to turn and where to abruptly stop without bumping into each other.

All those decades ago, when my daddy farmed potatoes unrelated to couches, we kids had lots of time to observe and wonder. Thanks to an old Golden Guide, those little birds became sandpipers, plovers, dunlins, and turnstones. Their landing strip of washed-up marsh grass became the wrack line where they foraged for tiny crabs, marine worms, insects, and soft seeds.

We kids watched in fascination from our forts in the old live oaks, red cedars, and magnolias. And an enduring love for coastal ecology was born.

Fort Matanzas National Monument is a truly special place to me. It embodies all those elements of a natural coastal environment altered only by acts of nature. Undeveloped coastline is not easy to find nowadays because, like the birds, we people flock to the shore. Balancing the crush of our recreational uses against best management practices for the National Monument has never been easy, but it is crucial now as they prepare their new management plan.

Even back in our history, people and their resources were found along inlets. Thus Fort Matanzas is situated a short distance up the Matanzas River from the Atlantic Ocean on Rattlesnake Island. The old coquina-rock walls of the fortress can be easily seen from the park’s visitor center located on scenic Highway A1A about 20 minutes south of St. Augustine in St. Johns County.

Thousands of visitors take the free interpretive ferry trip across the river to the visit the fort each year. Dolphins, bald eagles, ospreys, brown pelicans, and a variety of wading birds can be spotted from the boat. Binoculars and a field guide could come in handy.

Fort Matanzas has always been an important bird area, even back in 1927 when Calvin Coolidge turned over all lands around the historic monument to the Department of Agriculture as a bird refuge. Today it’s officially listed as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Audubon. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt transferred control to the National Park Service to form today’s Fort Matanzas National Monument. That designation effectively protects both the historic and the environmental assets within the 300-acre park for future generations.

My favorite walk is one that recalls childhood memories. Wander down the boardwalk from the west parking area, along the river, under the Matanzas Inlet Bridge, and along the shore to the front beach boardwalk. This route is only a little over a mile, but is always filled with discoveries for careful observers. Many species you see on this walk are listed as either endangered, threatened, or of special concern. Hundreds of migrating and wintering birds like black skimmers, piping plovers, and red knots can be seen foraging and resting. Sometimes rarities like a glaucous gull or even a snow bunting show up.

In summer you might see a grazing gopher tortoise being bombarded by nesting least terns who don’t want to share. Precocious Wilson’s plover chicks run rampant while nervous twip-twipping parents stand watch. A new sea turtle nest may have been dug in the damp orange and white sand. Shells, sharks’ teeth, sponges, and colorful seaglass often wash up in a storm. You might even see St. Johns Audubon bird stewards out there monitoring and counting birds for the Florida Shorebird Database or for e-bird.

The east boardwalk takes you back to the parking area across the dune ecosystem filled with well-adapted native plants. If you’ve really honed your observation skills, this would be the best place to look for either an indigo or a coachwhip snake. The coachwhip is aptly named for its black head fading into a leather brown body. Fuzzy beige-colored Anastasia Island beach mice live here where they help propagate sea oats by stashing seeds underground, but you’d need bionic vision to spot these little masters of camouflage.

This is only a glimpse of what a visit to Fort Matanzas National Historic Monument is like. We each pursue our own interests there, from fishing, to walking our leashed dogs, to taking photos of nesting great horned owls, to teaching our grandkids how to observe and explore.

But me? Sometimes I just go down to relax and soak up the feeling of home and to ponder the salt ‘n’ pepper birds. How do they know when to turn?
This column is one in a series from AUDUBON FLORIDA. Teddy Shuler is a retired environmental educator and an avid birder. For more information about Fort Matanzas National Monument go to www.nps.gov/foma or call (904)-471-0116. For more information about AUDUBON FLORIDA and its “Special Places” program visit www.FloridasSpecialPlaces.org. All rights reserved by Florida Audubon Society, Inc