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.

anhinga trail

The Anhinga Trail can be crowded, but still has great wildlife (click photos to enlarge)

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.

double-crested cormorant head

Double-crested cormorant along the trail

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.

double-crested cormorant feathers

Feather pattern on the cormorant

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.

great egret head

Great egret hunting next to trail

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.

anhinga with wings spread

An anhinga, with wings spread, along the boardwalk

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.

halloween pennant

Halloween pennant

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.

blue tilapia

Blue tilapia

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.

strangler fig

Strangler fig

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.

morning canoe trip

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.

nine mile pond 2

Mangroves and marshes along the paddle trail

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.

nine mile pond alligator

Another alligator gives us the eye

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.

birds at Flamingo

Can you find and identify the three bird species in this tree?

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.

boardwalk at Pa-hay-okee

Vast saw grass prairie at Pa-Hay-Okee boardwalk

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.

little blue heron head

Little blue heron up close

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).

Purple gallinule

Purple gallinule

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.

baby alligator

The first of many baby alligators we saw

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.