Sunday, October 24, 2010

Destination: Honeymoon Island Florida

Honeymoon Island State Park, Florida (Photo by David W. Peterson)

You need not be a newlywed to enjoy the natural features offered at Honeymoon Island State Park in Florida.  The island got its name in the 1940’s when it was promoted as a vacation spot for lovers, not to mention diminutive actors, as the Lollipop Guild from The Wizard of Oz were some of the original guests.  There’s still a beautiful sand beach full of bikini-clad tourists and locals, a restaurant, and a bar, but that’s just the southern end of the island.  I’d call the rest of it, if it were up to me, Osprey Island.
Osprey on Honeymoon Island
Osprey nest on the aptly-named Osprey Trail

Honeymoon has to be one of the best destinations in North America for osprey (Pandion haliaetus) watching.  The northern part of the island is absolutely littered with osprey nests.  If you walk the osprey trail, you’re bound to see a dozen or more of the birds, perhaps even catching a glimpse of one returning from the Gulf of Mexico with a meal.  Nearing the northern tip, you’ll run into the nest of another famous piscivorous bird, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).  A pair of eagles built the nest in 2008, and have returned every year since.  The public is kept about a hundred meters (330 ft.) away from the nest, but it’s great viewing with binoculars or a scope.  If that’s still not enough birds of prey for you, there’s an easily viewed Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) nest along the same trail.  Osprey, bald eagles, and great horned owls are some of the most widely distributed birds of prey on the continent, but it’s still quite a treat to see all three nesting on a short trail on a tiny island.

Great Horned Owl near nest at dusk. (Photo by David W. Peterson)

 On the ground you may hear, then see, a nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) rummaging through the brush.  Another great find would be a gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus).  Honeymoon Island is vital habitat for this keystone species.  (A keystone species is one that has an effect on its ecosystem that is disproportionate to its biomass.)  Gopher tortoises dig burrows that are used for various purposes by as many as 400 other species.  Habitat loss has been devastating to the tortoise populations throughout the southeast, but the development craze in Florida has been particularly hurtful.  Until recently, developers were not even required to relocate tortoises that were nesting in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They were just bulldozed under.  Luckily things are changing (slowly) in Florida, and at Honeymoon Island you can see the gopher tortoise in pristine habitat.

Gopher tortoise on Honeymoon Island (Photo by David W. Peterson)
 Honeymoon Island boasts some of the last remaining virgin slash pine forest in southern Florida.  Slash pine (Pinus elliottii)is a conifer that lives hard and dies young, rarely making it past 200 years.  Slash pine plantations are numerous in the south, and when managed well these can be healthy, diverse ecosystems.  Nothing compares, however, to a truly natural system like what you get on Honeymoon Island.

Needless to say, the shores of Honeymoon have the usual assortment of seabirds, waders, and shorebirds.  If you’re in Tampa, make some time to visit Honeymoon Island.  Caladesi Island is also worth a look, but that’s another story!  

A Willet (Catroptrophorus semipalmatus) walks through a tidal lagoon on Honeymoon Island.

Royal Terns (Sterna maxima) on the lookout

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