There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known.
~Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of The Everglades: River of Grass, 1947
Sitting by the fire yesterday afternoon, I can hardly believe I spent last week in the Florida heat and humidity, in one of the most extensive wild places I have ever been – Everglades National Park. Years ago, I drove across the state on I-75 (aka Alligator Alley) going from Miami to Tampa Bay, but I had never been in the park. So, it didn’t take much convincing when a group of friends asked if I wanted to join them on a trip. After flying into Miami (and getting a bit lost trying to get out of the city), it is a relatively quick drive through extensive farm fields, of every imaginable type of crop, to the sudden transition to the park.
Our first must-see stop was the famed Anhinga Trail, on the east side of the park. It is not far from the entrance and is said to be one of the best places to see some of the park’s iconic wildlife up close and personal. And even though it was crowded with visitors (and, I am happy to report, several school groups), it did not disappoint.
After spotting an alligator near the trail head, we walked by a double-crested cormorant, standing right next to the paved trail, and panting in the 80+ degree heat. I shot several close-up photos before moving on. I must admit, I always love seeing their emerald green eyes.
This bird was so close to the trail, and seemingly so unafraid, that it also allowed me to appreciate the delicate feather pattern on its back.
A few feet further along, a very tame great egret was hunting in a culvert that passed under the paved trail and spearing small fish. This time of year is the start of their breeding season and these elegant birds undergo a dramatic color change on their face – the lores (the skin between the eye and bill) turns from the usual yellow to a chartreuse green, and the bill changes from yellow to blackish-orange. They also develop long nuptial plumes, called aigrettes. These elegant feathers almost led to the extinction of egrets by plume-hunting in the early 20th century, when the feathers were used to adorn ladies’ hats. Luckily, conservation efforts helped stop the demand and the birds have recovered over much of their range.
Walking out on one of the boardwalk sections, we spied numerous green herons, some more alligators, and the trail’s namesake, an anhinga. Anhingas are oddly beautiful birds that go by other names such as water turkey (their tail does resemble that of a wild turkey) and snake bird (for their habit of swimming with just their neck and head above water). This wing spreading behavior is to allow them to dry their feathers after swimming for their favorite prey, fish. Anhingas and cormorants are primitive birds that lack the oil glands to waterproof their feathers that other water-loving birds possess. During the breeding season, the skin around their eyes turns a bright blue.
Probably the most common flier we saw was not a bird, but a species of dragonfly, the Halloween pennant. It is easily recognized by its distinctive wing colors – orange with dark splotches and bands. It is often seen perched atop vegetation, swaying in the wind.
The clear water allowed us to see many species of fish along the canals and pools throughout the park. At the Anhinga Trail, one of the most common was baffling at first. It turned out to be an introduced exotic, the blue tilapia, native to Africa and the Middle East. These fish were everywhere in the canals and their large excavated nests were clearly visible in the dark water. South Florida is, unfortunately, a haven for all sorts of exotic plant and animal species. A few native fish species are also very abundant and easily observed including largemouth bass, various species of sunfish, and Florida gar.
While many of the birds and other wildlife are species that I found familiar, many of the plant species in this portion of the park are more tropical in origin, but were vaguely familiar from my museum trips to Belize years ago. One we saw throughout our travels is the bizarre strangler fig, Ficus aurea. The life cycle starts when a bird or other animal eats the fig fruit and deposits the sticky seed on the trunk of another tree. The fig often begins as an epiphyte, but soon sends roots twining down the trunk of its host to reach the soil. It then grows to the top of the host, sends down aerial roots, and leafs out in the crown of the tree, shading out the leaves of the host plant. The fig continues to develop its crown and root system, often completely enveloping, and eventually killing, the host tree.
On our second morning, I had arranged a ranger-led canoe trip at Nine Mile Pond. We had 6 canoes, plus the ranger, on a 4 hour paddle through mangrove tunnels and marshes.
We started with a fantastic sunrise and enjoyed numerous alligator sightings, a gentle breeze that helped with the rising heat, and blue skies punctuated by white puffy clouds.
The highlight for me was some serious alligator bellowing at one of our stopping points. It is the start of the gator breeding season and the big bulls bellow to attract a mate. It is one of the most impressive wild sounds in the southeast, reminding me of a roar of a lion or a bison bull.
The road through this section of the park ends at Flamingo, a small enclave along Florida Bay with a marina, visitor center, and cafe. We spent time here on both of our first two days, enjoying the breeze and the abundant bird life. Osprey nests dotted the trees, mangrove islands, and man-made towers. At one point there were three great bird species in a tree near the parking lot – an osprey in its nest, a red-shouldered hawk, and a pileated woodpecker. Out in the Bay, we spotted American white pelicans, white ibis, brown pelicans, black skimmers, and numerous gulls, terns, and shorebirds. And, on a stroll to the marina (without my camera, unfortunately), we had great views of a huge American crocodile (this is the best place in the park to see this rare reptile) and four manatees. Needless to say, Flamingo is well worth the drive.
When I started planning the trip, I bought a copy of Exploring Everglades National Park and the Surrounding Area (A Falcon Guide), and it proved a valuable asset in choosing which of the many trails and boardwalks to visit in our brief stay. One of the highly recommended stops is the Pa-Hay-Okee Trail. The name is derived from a Seminole word meaning “much grass in water”, a reference to the vast saw grass prairies that make up much of this region. There is an elevated section to the boardwalk which gives an incredible view of the “river of grass” that is the lifeblood of the Everglades.
Another must-see stop is Shark Valley. We arrived mid-morning and drove right in (there can be considerable wait times to get in on busy days – but you can drop your riders off and park along the main road outside the entrance and walk back in). There is a small visitor center, restrooms, a few picnic tables and a 15-mile paved trail (accessible by walking, bicycling, or taking a concession-operated tram tour) through the saw grass prairie. Along the trail is a canal that retains water even in the dry season, concentrating wildlife such as alligators and wading birds, for easy viewing. Even though this winter has been an unusually wet one, which has caused much of the wildlife to remain dispersed throughout the vast wetlands, there were still plenty of things to see as we walked a short distance along this easy path. A little blue heron hunted patiently within a few feet of the walkway, periodically snapping up tiny fish and gulping them down. Several species of warblers and other songbirds were seen and heard in the thickets along the canal (especially the ubiquitous white-eyed vireo).
And we finally caught a glimpse of one of the “specialty birds” of this trail, a purple gallinule. These brightly-colored members of the rail family feed on a variety of plant material and invertebrates. Their enormous feet are useful for clinging to shrubbery and walking on floating vegetation such as lily pads.
Alligators were all along the canal, and we even had several baby alligators sunning themselves on lily pads. One walked across the pavement, as people stopped and wondered where the usually protective mother gator might be hiding and watching her brood. After a brief stay at Shark Valley, we headed out of the park and to our next destination, Big Cypress National Preserve. I feel like I only scratched the surface of the Everglades experience. It is the third largest national park in the continental United States at 1.5 million acres and is one that lies just outside the major metropolitan areas of Miami and South Florida, and the huge agricultural lands that provide food for countless Americans. Even though the park represents a large portion of land, the ecosystem is highly altered from its original condition. Roads and drainage canals have greatly reduced the flow of water from lands north to Lake Okeechobee, and agricultural chemicals are impacting the water quality. But, the Everglades still present a wild side of Florida that people need to experience. A visit to this park helps you understand why we must all continue to work together to protect out public lands and the incredible diversity of life that call them home.
Another super post….both narrative and text. Thanks.
John and I are spending tomorrow afternoon with you and other OLLI folks. We’re looking forward to it. Linda
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Thanks, and great, it will be good to see you both again.
Really timely post, Mike. You may have seen the Sunday Morning report yesterday (3/20) on the Everglades (well worth looking up). That had me thinking that we need to go back and visit more than just Alligator Alley — you have profoundly confirmed that desire. I’m hugely attracted to Florida, but have always been hugely appalled by its gross overdevelopment. Still marvelous, but maybe I should hurry to see the Everglades. (“Call some place paradise — kiss it good-bye” — The Eagles)
I did not see that, bit will look it up online. Thanks.
Mike, Very interesting story on the Everglades. That was my recreational area from 1965 to 2000 when I lived in Palm Beach County. Although I was closer to the East entrance (Shark Valley) I preferred the western way in – either by road or kayak from the 10,000 islands. They have made great strides in protecting the panther population: Day 16: Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge 31 January 2012 We came to Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge under an I-75 underpass designed to facilitate the movement of wildlife and water. We began at Picayune Strand State Forest and hiked north to the highway, beyond which is the Panther Refuge. We’d spent the previous afternoon meeting with Florida Department of Forestry officials discussing a large-scale water restoration project underway at that property. The wildlife underpasses were integrated into Alligator Alley during its conversion to I-75 in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By the end of construction there were 36 wildlife underpasses, 8 feet tall, 70 feet wide and 100 feet long. Ten foot chain link fences bracket the road, funneling wildlife toward the passages. It was a massive project with a $77 million price tag. The investment appears to be paying off. In 1990, biologists estimated that there were roughly 30 panthers left in the wild. Vehicle traffic on Alligator Alley threatened to reduce panther numbers even further. Since the underpass construction panther roadkill numbers on the Alley have dropped dramatically. In the same span of time, through focused habitat conservation efforts by the state of Florida and federal government (including the creation of the 26,400 acre refuge in 1989), population estimates have increased. There is also good evidence that the introduction of Texas cougars in the mid-1990s provided an influx of genes that benefited panther demographics. Today the panther estimate ranges between 100 and 160 cats. Additional underpasses are now located on SR 29, a north-south road on the refuge’s eastern boundary. Engineers have worked with biologists to design smaller, less costly underpass structures that can be integrated on smaller 2-lane roads, which annually claim the majority of panther roadkill. Many factors have contributed to the improvement in the panther population. The reduction of panther roadkills may also have to do with increased awareness by motorists and better signage and speed limit enforcement. Just this year the FDOT began placing Roadside Animal Detection Systems, solar powered signs that use flashing LED lights to alert drivers when large animals approach roads. Nevertheless, roads are still responsible for killing panthers. Forty-three cats have been killed on Florida roads since 2009, not including the two cats that have already died in 2012. This challenge notwithstanding, the construction of Alligator Alley underpasses is a successful mitigation effort, allowing the flow of wildlife between large conservation properties across an interstate highway. The construction of a four lane, heavy traffic highways slicing through panther and other species habitat would have had devastating effects on the ecological integrity of adjacent conservation lands, but the numerous and well designed underpasses greatly enhanced species connectivity under the expanded highway. Although panthers were the primary focus for designing the underpasses, many other species have been documented using them including Florida black bear, bobcats, alligators, turkey, and deer. The underpasses also facilitate the flow of water southward to the Picayune and Fakahatchee strands. Continuity with adjoining properties seems to be a theme in this landscape. Multiple agencies must continue to work together to meet these challenges. For me, the I-75 underpasses are a symbol of the conservation biology movement in the early days. Using what data there were available back in the late 1980s on the panther, scientists and policy makers helped engineer an effective solution. It was not an easy or inexpensive process, but appears to have worked well. I remember one of the first lectures I heard my late graduate school advisor and committed conservation scientist Dr. Dave Maehr give. In it he showed a slide of one of the underpasses and talked about the difficulty of getting the structures paid for, a process he was involved in as the leader of the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission’s (which is now the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or FFWCC) panther research team. Dave matriculated at the University of Florida under Dr. Larry Harris, one of the central figures in the field of conservation biology in the 1980s and 1990s, when it became recognized as a scholarly discipline. Both Dave and Dr. Harris were shrewd negotiators, and both were capable of compromising in order to achieve meaningful conservation goals. Dr. Harris oversaw the work of many other students who went on to become influential figures in Florida and across the globe, the most prominent of which is Dr. Reed Noss, who in the late 1980s was the first to propose network of connected conservation land in Florida, and has since written many articles and chapters on wildlife corridors and designing conservation land networks to conserve biodiversity. In the last twenty years, other students of Dr. Harris including Dr. Tom Hoctor and Dr. Dan Smith have worked on projects like the Florida Ecological Greenways Network and the prioritization of roadways for future wildlife underpasses to continue the work towards protecting a statewide network of functionally connected public and private conservation lands, aided by a future comprehensive system of wildlife crossing structures across Florida’s large network of highways. Another of Dr. Harris’ former students was waiting to meet us at the underpass. Darrell Land of FFWCC eventually replaced Dave Maehr as the panther recovery team leader after Dave left the agency to pursue a Ph.D. in conservation biology, and has been in the position now for nearly 20 years. As we approached the underpass in the bright morning we saw Darrell walking toward us, along with Kevin Godsea, the refuge manager for USFWS, and Laurie MacDonald of Defenders of Wildlife. Together the group represented many years of experience in panther biology and policy decisions. As if to remind us of the need to maintain our effort and our focus despite the challenge and high cost of protecting the species and its landscape, a perfectly preserved pair of panther tracks, one male, one female, were waiting in the dried out mud of the underpass.
The Florida Everglades is the only place in the world where Alligators and crocodiles co-exist. In the 1960’s Florida was down to 20 crocs. With the Turkey Point nuclear plant – its cooling canals were perfect for croc nests. Bears have adapted pretty well to the Naples – Golden Gate area but unfortunately many were killed in this years hunting season Tad Einloth
Thanks so much for the story and pictures of the Everglades. That is where I grew up and frequented for fishing, camping and kayaking as much as possible from 1965 to 2000 (mainly in the winter months – no mosquitoes and no-seeums).
Thanks, Tad. Interesting place, indeed.
excellent tour of the Anhinga trail, with some great photos.
It is so fabulous to have “my” very own naturalist posting fantastic pictures with informative text. Thank you for this. We loved our Everglades trip two years ago. Now I want to go back!