Abandoned orange grove now flourishing wetland in Ruskin
RUSKIN - Traffic at the Bahia Beach restoration site near the shoreline of Tampa Bay is picking up. Chattering black-necked stilts dance along the shoreline of the newly created estuarine wetland here, as a small flock of lesser scaup – ducks visiting for the season – splash and bob within eye shot in the manmade freshwater marsh. This previously abandoned orange grove, once left to succumb to invasive Brazilian pepper trees and cogon grass, is transforming into a thriving freshwater and saltwater marsh system that will cleanse runoff from a nearby subdivision before it reaches Tampa Bay. In the process, it has become home to a wide variety of wading birds, blue crabs, red drum and snook. A bald eagle pair has successfully nested here for two years now. Along the shoreline, the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Surface Water Improvement and Management, or SWIM team has planted native grasses and the newly contoured soil is beginning to pop to life.Native plants with names like star cups, pluchea, marsh fleabane and duck potato are taking root. Over on the salty side, nature has recruited white mangroves. And in the water, sea grass is starting to grow. This 148-acre expanse of land just south of E.G. Simmons Park, was purchased by Hillsborough County in 2001 through its Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP. Funds from the Florida Department of Transportation paid for the transformation to mitigate wetland damage elsewhere, due to road construction. “This was all drained for agriculture,” said SWIM Project Manager Mike Dalsis. “Historically, it was pine flatwoods.” But because of the loss of so much shoreline marsh over the decades, the decision was made to create a water habitat here. “The loss of coastal freshwater habitat, especially, has been extensive,” he said. The restored area has become part of a wildlife corridor between the Cockroach Bay preserve to the south and E.G. Simmons to the north. The last phase, now piled high with dirt, will be cleared over the next few months as the dirt is hauled off to be used for road beds and the last wetland will be created, Dalsis said. Construction should be completed by December. Once it is finished, the land will be open to the public for foot traffic. “Six to eight months ago, it looked like we were grading a golf course,” Dalsis said. “Now, in the morning, it’s crazy with wildlife,” he said, walking between the purslane, with its delicate lavender flowers, and hairy cow pea, a lovely spreading native plant with yellow flowers. With the recent rains, the water plants and those along the shore are taking off even faster than he expected. Some 50 white pelicans, wintering from the Midwest, whistling ducks, endangered wood storks, roseate spoonbills and other shorebirds have been frequent visitors. Just next door, where the county’s environmental land acquisition program owns another 80 acres, exotic plant removal is about to begin. Forest Turbiville, division manager for the county’s conservation services and regional parks, said the Brazilian peppers and cogon grass will be removed. Then the area will be retreated to ensure that seeds don’t spread into the Bahia Beach preserve. “We wanted to get all of the exotics out of there so they won’t re-invade the restoration site,” he said. Once that is done, trappers will come in to remove destructive feral hogs that have been known to un-do a lot of restoration work as they root along the shoreline. “We hope to get started on that in May,” Turbiville said. “At some point we will also do some upland restoration,” when funds become available. The $1.7 million water management district project will be the flagship for mitigation projects in the county, due to its size, scope and location, since it will be an addition to the county’s wildlife corridor, Dalsis said.