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A blissful bypass in the heart of Bahia Beach

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image This bald eagle parent comes in for a landing in a huge nest atop a dead pine tree. Photo George Veazey

The newly opened recreation and habitat area adds to the nearly 20 miles of conservation land along Tampa Bay in the South County area.

By Chere Simmons

The gap in the heart of Tampa Bay’s delicate greenway ecosystem has been bridged.

The Bahia Beach Habitat Restoration Area now links several wildlife corridor projects including the Rock Ponds Ecosystem Restoration Area to the south and E.G. Simmons Park to the north. The newly opened recreation and habitat area adds to the nearly 20 miles of conservation land along Tampa Bay in the South County area.

Mitigation of the 148-acre parcel in Ruskin is a continuation of a corridor that hosts hundreds of species of birds, fish, wildlife and plants.

The land was originally purchased in 2001 by Hillsborough County through the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. At that time, it was mostly an untouched, native area slowly being engulfed by invasive Brazilian pepper shrubs and trees and bordered by an abandoned orange grove to the east.

The area was part of a Surface Water Improvement and Management program led by project manager and biologist Michael Dalsis of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud.

“We started the restoration in January 2012,” said Dalsis. “I spent five days in a row from sunrise to sunset documenting the habits of the wildlife so we could reduce any impact [on them] during the restoration.”

Michael Dalsis

Volunteers planted grasses on six different occasions since 2012. Mangroves have taken root on their own, and are beginning to line the west side of the salt marsh.

The property is sandwiched between the backyard of the Mira Lago subdivision and Little Harbor marina, off Shell Point Road West. A large retention pond constructed for the Mira Lago community was incorporated into the overall design of the project. The 65 acres of newly created wetlands include both freshwater and estuarine marshes that provide additional treatment to stormwater runoff from the area.

The retention pond overflows into the freshwater area that is embedded with thousands of filtering plants able to uptake excess nutrients.

A slightly elevated berm divides the freshwater area from the salt marsh. Two low-lying tidal connections allow water to funnel from one area to the next in a natural flow toward the bay.

“The salinity in this area [of salt marsh] is perfect for a fisheries habitat,” said Dalsis. “The fry [or small fish] thrive here, but predator fish can’t survive the low salinity. In return, the water fowl feed on the fish, and the cycle of life continues.”

The salt marsh side contains grasses and mangroves that continue to filter the water and provide food and shelter for its inhabitants.

“Think of them as giant filters,” said Dalsis, “that form a treatment train for the water before it enters Tampa Bay.”

As an example of the difference between the two created bodies of water, Dalsis explained that the freshwater area has zero parts per thousand, or ppt, salinity; across the berm, it measures 5 ppt salinity. Tampa Bay is 20 ppt and the Gulf is 30 ppt.

“This area is invaluable for birding,” Dalsis said. “Since we have been involved here, we’ve documented three sets of bald eagles nesting, as well as great horned owls.”

According to Susanna Martinez Tarokh, public information officer for Swiftmud, 63 different species of birds have been documented on the site. Many are on the federal and state lists of threatened or endangered species.

Open to the public since December, the Bahia Beach project offers passive recreation such as walking and hiking. No motorized vehicles are allowed beyond the parking area. Upon completion, the area will be owned and managed by the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department. It will soon have a paved parking lot and information kiosk.

Funding for the $1.8 million restoration was provided by the Florida Department of Transportation as a mitigation project to offset wetland impacts associated with several road-improvement projects in the area.

Visitors are guaranteed to spot dozens of species of waterfowl and will probably catch a glimpse of a family of bald eagles on the 120-acre area known as, what else, Eagle Tract.

Public entrance to the project is at 2421 Shell Point Road West in Ruskin, just east of the entrance to Little Harbor.

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