Female Burrowing Owl
Debbie Jordan

Back from the Field: Debbie Jordan Recounts Her “Florida Wilds” Experience

Back from the Field: Debbie Jordan Recounts Her “Florida Wilds” Experience

Feb 4, 2022|Holbrook in the FieldWhere we travel| by Holbrook Travel

We caught up with Debbie Jordan, Specialty Travel Consultant, just back from a week in southwest Florida accompanying a group on “Florida Wilds: From Gulf to Glades.” The 8-day program offered travelers a view into organizations serving as stewards of wildlife rehabilitation and marine research, and included many up-close wildlife encounters.

Debbie meeting Rufus the Screech Owl at the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary

Q: Holbrook is known more for international travel. How is it that the Florida Wilds trip fits the company’s mission?

Debbie: It really fits Holbrook's mission of conservation through ecotourism. Our founder, Giovanna Holbrook, was an ecotourism pioneer and for nearly 50 years we have been making a difference in Latin America and beyond. Florida has so many unique and important ecosystems and our state has lost so much to human development, making it that much more important to preserve and restore what is left. I’m thrilled we are able to offer this program focusing on conservation and education.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

American Alligator in Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Q: Can you describe the flow of the 8-day itinerary and geographic highlights?

Debbie: We visit some of the major national parks and wildlife refuges in southern Florida including Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Everglades National Park, Ding Darling NWR on Captiva, and Cayo Costa State Park. There are behind-the-scenes visits to learn about conservation projects and wildlife rescue/rehab/protection efforts throughout the trip. The program starts in Tampa, staying on St. Petersburg Beach, then we travel south to Sanibel and Captiva. Heading east, we cross the state via the Everglades, and out of Miami.

Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin travelers at Everglades National Park

Q: What group or organization sponsored this Florida Wilds departure?

Debbie: Our wonderful group was associated with the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, a private sector support foundation for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. I’ve been planning international trips with them for the last 20 years, and in addition to having generous donors, NRF has raised a lot of money through their travel program and local field trips. The participants are nature lovers, birders and people really interested in supporting conservation. They wanted to see Florida’s nature and also learn about the different ways that people are working to save it.

Lychee tree roots with carved fishes, one of the thousands of unique art pieces and statuary at Patch of Heaven Sanctuary

Sanderling with millions of shells at Cayo Costa

Behind the scenes at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa

Q: What were some of the highlights for the group?

Debbie: People really enjoyed the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, having a behind-the-scenes tour there and at their Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach. Hosted by Debbi Stone, Senior VP of Engagement and Learning, it was enlightening and encouraging to hear about their collaborative research and education projects. At Captiva, we went on a fantastic afternoon boat trip in the Pine Island Sound Aquatic Reserve where we went ashore at Cayo Costa State Park. Thanks to recent winter storms, there were millions of gorgeous shells on the beach! We also saw spinner sharks, hundreds of manatees, a thousand vultures heading to roost, 300 White Pelicans together, Roseate Spoonbills, dolphins, alligators, crocodiles, shorebirds, loggerhead sea turtles and more. The icing on the cake was an unforgettable private tour and farewell dinner at the non-profit Patch of Heaven Sanctuary, near Miami.

Roseate Spoonbill at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Ding Darling Wildlife Drive

Q: Is there one particular excursion you’d like to elaborate on?

Debbie: Well, having lived in Florida since I was a teenager and being around water most of my life, I have never seen spinner sharks, as we witnessed at the Tampa Electric Company site. Their crazy feeding behavior of spinning their bodies like a torpedo and then breaking the surface while still spinning was jaw dropping. Plus there were hundreds of manatees there, one of my favorite marine animals.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at Anhinga Trail, Everglades

Florida Bay boat tour

Q: What about the Everglades? What made the Everglades special? What did you do there?

Debbie: As most people know, the Everglades is a very unique ecosystem and one we’re attempting to restore. We learned about the successes and the obstacles to overcome. We visited the Anhinga Trail for an easy walk and up-close views of alligators, Purple Gallinules, and a lovely Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in perfect morning light. A boat trip at Flamingo took us out into Florida Bay. Lots of migrant birds down here, including White Pelicans. The Great White Heron was a lifer for me!

Female Burrowing Owl

Male and female Burrowing Owl

Q: Could you tell me about the Burrowing Owl experience?

Debbie: In Cape Coral, we met Beverly Saltonstall from the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, who gave us a great talk about the Burrowing Owl life cycle and community protection efforts. These birds have established burrows on vacant lots in area neighborhoods and sometimes in front yards. This very-close-to-us pair was right at the Chamber of Commerce. An interesting behavior is how they collect “ornaments” for their nests, displaying scraps of fabric, t-shirts, and other colorful items for their mates. We were lucky to see the female emerge, disgorge a pellet and disappear back into the burrow.

Boat trip along Captiva

Dolphin dorsal fins

Q: This trip reunited you with a former Holbrook colleague, marine biologist Stefanie Plein. How was Stefanie connected to this trip?

Debbie: Stefanie and her husband, Steve, started a charter boat business to take people out on ecotours around Sanibel and Captiva. Through their non-profit New Wave Marine Foundation, they're surveying dolphins with photography identification of their dorsal fins and other markings. I think they have catalogued over 50 dolphins now. It was great to connect with Stefanie again, and fun to catch up and see “her world.” I’ll be back!

Eco-Pond, Everglades

Purple Gallinule at Anhinga Trail, Everglades

Q: How would you rank Southwest Florida, with the Everglades, on a must-see list for natural history enthusiasts?

Debbie: I absolutely would put these areas high on the list. While there's a lot of development on either side of the Florida peninsula down there, in between it’s remarkably pristine. Once you start looking, you see that it is full of wildlife, with interesting plants and orchids. Great for birding and photography.