Big Cypress

If, in the name of progress, we want to destroy everything beautiful in our world, and contaminate the air we breathe, and the water we drink, then we are in trouble.

~Marjory Stoneman Douglas, in response to critics saying that conservationists were trying to halt progress in Florida by preserving Big Cypress Swamp

Big Cypress National Preserve was once called the Western Everglades, and was originally supposed to be part of the national park, but was removed from protection before the park was created in 1947. An elevation difference of 1 to 2 feet makes Big Cypress a vastly different ecosystem than the river of grass of much of the eastern portion of Everglades National Park. Big Cypress is home to deep water cypress sloughs and strands (linear cypress islands) and is underlain more by peat than the limestone deposits more common in much of the park. The result is more of a “swamp feel” than the open grass prairies we experienced on our first two days in Florida.

pond at Big Cypress Gallery

Pond behind our lodging in Big Cypress (click photos to enlarge)

It wasn’t until I returned home that I found out about the contentious history of the effort to preserve what is now Big Cypress National Preserve, the first national preserve in the United States. After the virgin cypress were essentially logged out throughout much of the region in the 1930’s and 40’s, the area was proposed as part of Everglades National Park. But, when the park was created, the lands encompassing Big Cypress were excluded. More controversy erupted in 1968, when plans were unveiled to create a huge jetport (what would have been the largest airport in the world) in part of Big Cypress. Conservationists joined the fight and the struggle went back and forth until the creation of the 720,000+ acre preserve in 1974.

sAScott leading swamp walk

Our Swamp Walk guide, Scott, pointing out an alligator at the end of our trail

When planning the trip a few months ago, I learned about some unique lodging in an in-holding in Big Cypress – the cabins at the Big Cypress Gallery of famed landscape photographer, Clyde Butcher. I have been aware of Clyde’s images for many years and he really is the Ansel Adams of the swamp. He is also an ardent conservationist, and has done a great deal to bring the beauty and plight of the region to the public’s attention. When I found out he had lodging in Big Cypress, I couldn’t resist booking it. In addition to the wonderful accommodations and surrounding property, he offers guided swamp walks for a fee. Though it is a bit pricey, I am glad we did it. Our guide, Scott, is a wonderful person (as were all the staff we met) and very knowledgeable about the plants and animals of Big Cypress. The swamp walks usually take a couple of hours. You walk with a sturdy hiking stick (they provide those) on a flooded trail behind the lodging that passes through a variety of habitats, including swamp, prairie edge, and dwarf cypress stands. There was both excitement and some slight apprehension when we began the hike, and I particularly liked Scott’s answer to the question, “how deep does it get”? He said this winter has been unusually wet, so the deepest part was 38 inches. Nothing like a precise answer! Of course, he is 6 feet 5 inches tall, so the deep water comes a little farther up on our bodies than it does on his.

Scene along the swamp walk trail

Bromeliads are very abundant in Big Cypress

We walked at a slow pace, taking in all the sights, and sounds, that the swamp had to offer. The grunting calls of pig frogs were particularly evident here as they were elsewhere on our trip. And the diversity of plant life is amazing!

dwarf cypress along swamp walk

An old growth cypress stand looks quite different than our old growth forests

At one point, the trail opened up into a mix of small cypress trees and grasses. Many of these trees are surprisingly old, stunted due to growing on the porous limestone bedrock of this particular part of Big Cypress. We saw relatively few animals until we got right to the end of the trail.

Alligator at Big Cypress 1

Large female alligator greets us at trails’ end

There, in a small pond behind one of the cabins, was a large female alligator (maybe 7 ft+ in length), along with several of her babies and a few 1 and 2 year old gators. She came over to greet us as we stepped out of the swamp onto dry ground, and hissed loudly to let us know we should not disturb her youngsters. Not to worry, we gave them a wide berth.

alligator at Big Cypress close up 1

Big mama watching us as we look back

Gators have a toothy grin when viewed through binoculars or a telephoto lens, enough so that you respect their space…

gator sign

A sign that states the obvious

and shouldn’t need to be reminded with signage:) We did all wonder what it must be like to live next to such large reptiles. I will admit, I scanned the surroundings with my flashlight more than usual when I went outside at night.



Neotropical migrant birds are beginning to appear in South Florida (and should be here in NC soon, if not already). On a short walk at our lodging, I saw Northern Parula Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warblers, and several Ovenbirds.

sunrise kayak trip on Turner River

My kayak buddy at sunrise on the Turner River

Our first full morning in Big Cypress was spent with Shurr Adventures on their sunrise kayak tour on the Turner River Paddle Trail. I had picked this group since they were highly rated online, and I saw they do Yellowstone tours in the summer (how could I go wrong with that combo?). It turned out to be a great choice. The kayaks were very stable, with comfortable seats, and the guide was very personable and knowledgeable. The morning started out foggy, and we saw, and heard, lots of wildlife.

common moorhen

Common moorhen on the river

Green heron

This green heron allowed a close approach while it squawked its guttural call

osprey on Turner River

Osprey near its nest on the river

All sorts of bird life was active that morning, and the kayaks allowed us to get close to several species. When we headed south of the put-in point, we even got a pretty good view of one of my target species, a limpkin (unfortunately it was in thick vegetation , so not the best photo op).

two species of apple snails

Exotic apple snail (left; smaller, native apple snail (right)

Florida is awash in exotic invasive species, both plant and animal. While paddling the Turner River, we were introduced to one of the more recent invaders, the island apple snail. Believed to have been introduced by releases from the exotic pet trade, this, and a few other species of exotic apple snail, are creating real concern for scientists in the Everglades. The native Florida apple snail, Pomacea paludosa, is much smaller than this invader, and is the primary food source for the endangered snail kite. The larger size, fecundity, and voracious appetite of the invader snail, P. insularum, is cause for concern, both in terms of altering the wetlands plant community, and out-competing the native species of snail, with potentially disastrous results for the kite.

apple snail eggs - invasive sp.

Egg masses of the exotic island apple snail are pink; eggs of the native species are larger, and white

During our stay, I found one egg mass of a native apple snail, but we saw many egg masses of the invader, especially in the Big Cypress Swamp area.

mangrove tunnel on Turner River

Kayaking through a mangrove tunnel

When we headed south of the Tamiami Trail in our kayaks, the plant community changed from a cattail fringed swamp forest to an expanse of red mangrove tunnels. Kayaking through the mangroves turned out to be a lot easier than paddling a canoe through them, like we had done at Nine Mile Pond, but you did need to break down the longer kayak paddle to avoid catching it on every prop root. After finishing our morning trip, we returned to Clyde Butcher’s place for some rest and exploration. I drove out to scout our route for our final day in the area (a dirt and paved thoroughfare called the Loop Road), and came across all sorts of birds and a seemingly endless supply of alligators. If you have the time, I recommend the Loop Road as a leisurely pathway to observe some of the scenery and critters of Big Cypress. The entire wild region was a great way to relax before heading back to the hectic pace of Miami for our flight home. Below are some more images of our time in Big Cypress. I look forward to a return visit in the near future.

red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered hawks were seen everywhere we traveled

anhinga on limb

Anhinga along the boardwalk at the Oasis Visitor Center

Florida softshell turtle

Florida soft shell turtle along Tamiami Trail

Pied-billed grebe on Turner River

Pied-billed grebe along the Turner River

alligator black and white head

Gators in black and white…

alligator black and white body

alligator black and white tail


great blue heron

Great blue heron along the Loop Road

When the Geese are Gone

Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing.

~Barry Lopez

What a difference a week makes. Less than seven days had passed between my last two groups, but things have dramatically changed at Pocosin Lakes NWR. The snow geese had arrived later than normal this year, and now have left earlier than usual. Where there had been 40,000+, we saw one. And, it seems, the tundra swans may be departing the refuge a little early as well. There still seem to be a few thousand, but their numbers are way down from what we saw back in late December, and almost none are feeding on refuge lands. The warm weather, and what appears to be less corn and winter wheat on the refuge, may be to blame. Or maybe, as Barry Lopez so eloquently puts it, the land is simply breathing and exhaling the geese northward. But, there are still things to discover and enjoy, if you look closely.

Immature bald eagle

Juvenile bald eagle overhead at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived early the day of my tour, in hopes of finding some interesting things to share later with my group. With the snow geese gone, the eagles are not as numerous as in recent trips. But, a young bald eagle (looks like a first year bird based on the plumage) still gave me a nice fly over shortly after my arrival.

black bear in woods

Large black bear sow

I took a short walk into the forest and was rewarded with a couple of black bears, including one large sow. I took a few photos but quickly left, after requesting that she and her two youngsters hang around for another few hours.

great horned owl nest

Finally, I find the great horned owl nest

I have been hearing the great horned owls calling in a patch of woods on previous trips so I was went looking for any sign of a nest. I have found two other nests on the refuge over the years. One was in a pine in what was probably an old red-tailed hawk nest; the other atop a snag with a platform of poison ivy vines spreading out from the top. I finally spotted a large stick nest in the fork of a lone pine tree. I didn’t see anything at first, but then noticed a feather on the side of the nest blowing in the wind. When I put the spotting scope on it, it looked like an owl feather. I moved around for a different view and saw what looked like ears sticking up above the nest.

great horned owl nest close up

Great horned owl sitting on eggs or young (heavily cropped photo)

The scope revealed it to be the ear tufts of a great horned owl, most likely sitting on her eggs, as this species is probably the earliest breeder in our state. I stayed well away from the nest so as to not disturb her. I can check on the nest on future trips with the spotting scope without getting close. This is a good time to remind readers that almost all of the photos of wildlife in this blog are taken with a large telephoto lens, and are cropped in processing, so the animals are not as close as they sometimes appear.

bear cub in woods 1

Young black bear rushes across trail to cover

When my group arrived, we headed back to check on the bears and the owl nest. It seemed as though the bear had heeded my wishes and was walking toward us as we headed down the path. We stopped and she wandered off, followed by two young, both sporting a distinctive grayish coat. Then, another bear crossed the path, followed by three more bears! Quite a start to our trip.

bears in woods

Black bear sow and young

At least some of these same bears hung around that general area for the next day as well. We saw another group on our hike the next morning. I always try to give the bears plenty of room. We are quiet and try to stand still when we see one, and I like to let the bears take whatever path they want. I have seen people try to cut them off in order to get a closer look or a better picture, but it is best to respect their wildness, and let them be. Enjoy the experience, but keep the bears unstressed and wild.

find the rattlesnake

Excellent camouflage makes these snakes difficult to see on the forest floor

The other thing I wanted to check on was the tree where I had seen the rattlesnake two weeks earlier. I carefully checked the area around the tree as I approached, knelt down and shined a light inside the base – no snake. Not too surprising as it had been a cold night and there was even ice in tire ruts on the road when we walked in. So, with all the bears in the area, I started to walk down the path, looking ahead for any signs of bears through the trees. The next thing I know, I had what can only be described as a too-close-of-an-encounter with that snake, who was luckily quite docile in the chilly air.

Canebrake rattlesnake strecthed out

Rattlesnake stretched out in morning sun

We took a bunch of photos and then left the snake alone. We checked on it the next day, after seeing even more bears, and found it a little more active in the warming weather. It was slowly crawling in roughly the same area where we had seen it the day before.

canebrake rattlesnake

A close look (and a telephoto lens) shows the beauty of this snake

This is a beautiful specimen, and apparently a tough one, as it doesn’t seem to mind being out in some pretty cool weather. Today, it chose to lie in a sunny spot, soaking in the morning warmth.

canebrake rattlesnake head

The rattler was more active than the past couple of sightings, and even flicked its tongue a few times

canebrake rattlesnake tail

Close up of rattle

We took some more pictures and then left it alone. I can’t help but wonder how it will fare if a bear encounters it in this cool weather. I also can’t believe I may now need to look at the ground more carefully as I walk these winter woods, instead of constantly scanning the skies for waterfowl and other birds as I have done for over thirty five years. Strange times indeed.

shed antler

We found two shed deer antlers

My first morning at Pungo I saw a buck white-tailed deer, with only one antler, running through a field. It is that time of year when male deer are dropping their antlers in preparation for starting the new growth later this spring. As it turned out, we found two different shed antlers as we walked. You are most likely to find them shortly after they are dropped and before squirrels, mice, and other animals start chewing them up to get the calcium.

Great blue heron with catfish

Great blue heron with a nice catfish for breakfast

While watching the swans one morning, someone in the group spotted a great blue heron with something in its beak. It turned out to be a large catfish. We watched as the heron repeatedly tried to swallow the large meal. We think it finally gulped down its meal before flying off to hunt again.

tundra swans in morning light

Tundra swan fly over

Tundra swans flew back and forth overhead as the day progressed so we had plenty of good looks and photo opportunities.

nutria feeding in canal

Nutria feeding on duckweed

Trio of young nutria

A trio of young nutria

We split our time between the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR and Mattamuskeet. As the weather warmed over the weekend, we saw a lot of nutria out feeding.

great blue heron silhouette

Great blue heron at sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet

Northern Pintails in marsh

Northern pintails in marsh

great blue heron in tree

Great blue heron resting in a pine

white ibis feeding 1

White ibis feeding in impoundment along Wildlife Drive

Driving along Wildlife Drive, we saw hundreds of ducks and swans, along with a variety of other birds.

vulture comparison

Silhouette of turkey vulture (lower left) compared to black vulture (upper right)

Late Saturday afternoon we enjoyed seeing vultures come into roost in trees near the lodge. At one point I grabbed a photo of a turkey vulture alongside its smaller cousin, a black vulture. The latter looks as though someone had trimmed its tail feathers (relative to a turkey vulture). Black vultures are also smaller and tend to flap their wings more than a turkey vulture.

Great egret landing in top of pine

Great egret landing in tree top

The late hour also brought in several great egrets, white ibis, and some cattle egrets to roost in the trees across the canal from the lodge. This spot has traditionally been a roost for black-crowned night herons, but I have seen none of them in these trees this winter.


Alligator in canal at Gull Rock Game Lands

alligator head

Close up of smiling gator

One of the biggest eye-openers of the trip came on our last afternoon as we explored some new territory down toward Gull Rock Game Lands. In a canal bordering a wetland containing ibis, a grebe, and a double-crested cormorant, we discovered another surprising January reptile – an American alligator. It was about a 6-footer, basking in the sun, and seemingly unconcerned about the three cameras being pointed at it.

And so this month of wildlife wonders has come to a close. A strange month indeed, but an exciting one. One other critter worth mentioning that we saw on the last day of January – an orange and black butterfly near the lodge at Mattamuskeet. It was flying away from me when I spotted it out about 75 feet, but through the binoculars it looked like a monarch, not a viceroy. Either one is a big surprise for a winter day in North Carolina. It seems the land is breathing a bit oddly this season. I wonder what the coming spring will hold?