Leffis Key: The way the Island used to be
After spending what seems like a year poring over the 2003 editions of The Islander, I admit to being somewhat focused on history this week. Below is the first "Sandscript" column, written for the edition dated July 15, 1998.
Has it really been five-and-a-half years already?
A stark place, monochromatic at first glance. It was a place you had to wade out into. Had to train your ears to uncover the faint sounds, sharpen your eyes enough to tell one vague gray from another. That was one of the problems. People were so glutted on the garish, the loud gimmicks of Disney World, the neon extremes of the new Florida, they didn't appreciate grays and browns anymore. The nuances of dull greens. The result was, a lot of people were willing to part with what they took to be nothing but a colorless mosquito breeding ground. Willing to let the machines gobble away at it, mile by mile, drain it, pave it, let the cardboard housing developments sprawl farther and farther.
"Mean High Tide," by James W. Hall
Subtleties of green and gray and brown, slight distinctions in shape and form of leaves and a gentle silence of Florida of years past are the offerings of Leffis Key in Bradenton Beach.
When you go, don't expect to be overcome with the "neon extremes of the new Florida," as Hall writes. Instead, practice the art of careful observation.
Leffis Key is one of the larger efforts scientists and policy makers have achieved in this part of the state as a bastion re-creating an environmental habitat that has been battered through development for homes in years past. Leffis Key -- old timers remember it as Coffee Key - was once a mangrove isle separated from Coquina Beach by a shallow channel, a vital nursery ground for fish and birds and shellfish that once probably served as a bayside retreat for marine life from part of the ebb and flow of Longboat Pass.
Over time, the little key became a man-made landfill. Dredge material, called spoil, from the creation of the Intracoastal Waterway in the late 1950s, was dumped on the island and filled the channel between the Island and the key. The added spoil in part raised the elevation of the land, allowing exotic plants like Australian pines and Brazilian peppers to flourish and choking out native mangroves and buttonwoods. About 15 acres of mangroves were eventually destroyed due to human intervention.
That's when the folks from the Sarasota Bay National Estuary Program stepped into the picture. In 1990, work began on adding tidal pools around the 30-acre key. The spoil from the creation of the lagoons was used to build a 40-foot mound in the middle of the little island. Native plants such as red cedar, Florida privet, sea grape, golden creeper and green buttonwood were planted, as well as hundreds of small red mangroves.
Boardwalks and trails were added, too, to allow people to stroll through the natural park and get a glimpse of what much of Anna Maria Island looked like at the turn of the century. The first phase of the project ended in 1994.
A boardwalk across a dredged channel lies at the entrance of Leffis Key. It's not unusual to see schools of small snook nosing into the current as the tide comes in, hanging motionless in the still water. Tiny fiddler crabs with brightly painted shells scamper in the sand and burrow in the shore along the water.
The trail angles to the right, where a deck sprouts into Anna Maria Sound. Signs indicate a rock formation just casting distance from the boardwalk, and wade fishers compete with pelicans in the flats for trout and redfish.
The trail continues around the large mound, skirting the lagoons that are lined with marsh grass and thriving red mangroves. It's through a canopy of mangroves that the path leads to another deck on the bayfront, this time with a vista of a large school of small mullet swirling through the shoal grass and oyster beds.
In this fringe of red and black mangrove there are small black crabs scuttling through the prop roots and pneumatophores, those four-inch-high, pencil-looking roots that allow black mangroves to purge their systems of excess salt as well as helping the trees "breathe." Egrets wade through the shallow water looking for a fingerling fish snack.
The trail continues along the mangrove fringe, then jogs through a saltern, or salt marsh. Salterns are rapidly disappearing in the area, partly due to pollution and rising water that tend to choke out the plants that live there. It's a shame - the ground is alive with more fiddler crabs waving their one huge claw at intruders.
Another waterfront deck offers a panoramic view of Cortez at the end of the path, which then doubles back through another saltern and across another boardwalk over the lagoonal system.
The trail to the top of the mound in the center of Leffis Key leads through a score of red cedars. From the hilltop, the waterfront of Cortez is plainly visible. Some of the houses on Jewfish Key peep through the pines to the southeast. Coquina Beach and the Gulf are visible to the west.
Leffis Key is a growing, dynamic area. The lagoonal system has grown northward to the small boat ramp, with more plantings, more boardwalks, more area to explore.
The expansion featured something a little different, too. Some of the clean spoil was used to fill a deep hole northeast of Leffis Key in Anna Maria Sound, a hole that extends down too far for seagrasses to grow. Shoal and turtle grasses have since recolonized the area, providing a home for more marine life.
More than $400,000 has been spent to re-create Leffis Key as the environmentally important area it is today.
Volunteers planted more than 50,000 native plants in the area to date, with many of the plants donated by several nurseries in the area. Much more will evolve before the project is completed.
The number of birds, fish, crabs, insects and other marine life that now call the key home must appreciate the effort.
Leffis Key drew national attention among birders in Spring 1999 when a western stripe-headed tanager, the first ever confirmed on the west coast of Florida, was spotted there. It is a West Indies native whose nearest home to Florida is the Bahamas. About 20 sightings have been verified in Florida, all around Miami and the Florida Keys.
David Smith of Bradenton thought it may have gotten caught in a flock of migrating warblers. John Ginaven of Longboat Key, though, thought it more likely the bird had gotten into the Everglades, where one was believed spotted last month, and was driven westward by huge fires there. Both men are bird-watching veterans of the Audubon Society.
Richard Ware of Holmes Beach said the bird was seen first at 11 a.m. April 10 by two vacationing women on their way out of town. They took one last walk on Leffis Key, saw the rare visitor and from the airport phoned Arnold Rawson of Sarasota, bird recorder for Audubon. Word went out via an Internet hotline.
From then on the bird was a star.
One man flew in from Vail, Colo., the next day. Two came from Seattle, another from San Francisco, another drove all night from Jacksonville. Others rushed to the Island from Ohio, Sacramento, Kansas City, Baltimore, Michigan and points outward.
The bird left, perhaps back to the Bahamas, in early May, and has not returned - although birders are still watching and waiting.