When taking a couple of steps along the Calusa Shell Mound Trail at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, some folks may not feel like they are stepping back in time.

But they are.

After more than six months and nearly $40,000 worth of renovations and improvements, the Calusa Shell Mound Trail reopened in February with a new, state–of–the–art interpretative exhibit and tri–panel kiosk featuring renderings of the Calusa Indians by local artist David Meo.

“This site was never really excavated or studied before, but it had been protected,” says Toni Westland, supervisory ranger at “Ding” Darling Refuge on Florida’s southwestern Gulf Coast. “If we were to dig deep down into this site, you could tell a lot about the people who lived here.”

Improvements to the Calusa Shell Mound Trail were made possible by contributions to the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, a nonprofit organization that supports the refuge’s mission through charitable donations and refuge nature shop proceeds. A $38,000 partnership with the City of Sanibel, FL, funded the removal of exotic plants from the one–third–mile, boardwalk–covered trail and other sites at the refuge.

According to Westland, renovations at the site started in August 2010. In addition to site clearing and installation of nine information panels — including a mini–biography of Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling — along the trail, robotic scans of the heavily canopied parcel revealed three individual shell mounds. The site varies in height from sea level to nearly nine feet.

“Here in Florida, even a gradual rise in elevation can result in huge changes in the types of vegetation that is grown,” Westland says. “If you look through some of the transects, you can see the topography of the mounds themselves.”

The project prepared the area for the erection of new interpretative signage about the Calusa people, a highly evolved tribe who inhabited southwest Florida for more than 2,000 years before being displaced by European settlers in the late 1700s. For sustenance, the Calusa Indians relied mostly on seafood from Gulf Coast estuaries, rather than farming, and they discarded shells into large mounds. They used the shells for tools, utensils, jewelry and hunting spears. The new signs along the trail are intended to teach visitors about the hammock environment as well as about the tribe.

“The artwork that David [Meo] produced for these panels is a rendering of what the site actually looked like, not just what it might have looked like,” says Westland. “It shows three different perspectives ... It’s an homage to the people who used to live here.”

The trail is a universally accessible, interpretive boardwalk that meanders through a hardwood hammock that has grown on top of ancient Calusa shell mounds. It is an excellent place to see migratory songbirds in spring and fall.

“This is a great spot for birders,” says Westland. “You can see warblers, Carolina wrens, indigo bunting and lots of other species ... even rare ones.”

Case–in–point: While driving out to the site prior to a ribbon–cutting ceremony for the revamped site, Westland—and more than two dozen excited visitors—spotted a mangrove cuckoo in the tree canopy.

“That is one of the top three species birders who come here hope to find,” says Westland, who noted the other rare birds at the refuge are the grey kingbird and the black–whiskered vireo.

Jeff Lysiak is executive editor of Breeze Newspapers/Sanibel, which originally published this article at http://www.captivasanibel.com/ on Feb. 21, 2011.