SPRINGTIME IN EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
Author: Lois Gray
Photos: Kay Gilmour
LEAPING LIZARDS & BUSY BIRDS March 1 - 10, 2017
Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION ...................................................................................3 KEY WEST..............................................................................................3 F ORT J EFFERSON IN D RY T ORTUGAS N ATIONAL P ARK ........................4 K EY L IME I NN ........................................................................................7 I SLAMORADA E CO T OUR .......................................................................8 B IG P INE K EY – K EY D EER ....................................................................9 EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK ..................................................10 F LAMINGO E NTRANCE AND E RNEST C OE V ISITOR C ENTER ...............10 M ICCOSUKEE R ESORT & C ASINO ........................................................13 P HOTOGRAPHER C LYDE B UTCHER ’ S G ALLERY ..................................15 T HE G ULF C OAST E NTRANCE ..............................................................16 FLORIDA’S WEST COAST FROM EVERGLADES CITY TO NAPLES .................................................................................................16 T HE F AKAHATCHEE S TRAND P RESERVE S TATE P ARK .......................17 T HE A UDUBON C ORKSCREW S WAMP ..................................................19 S ANIBEL I SLAND & J AY “D ING D ARLING N AT W ILDLIFE R EFUGE ....21 T AMPA .................................................................................................22 CONCLUSION......................................................................................23
INTRODUCTION March in South Florida with no A/C? Well, it came close to happening to us on our exploration of the Everglades and Southwest Florida with friends from Arizona, Micki and Dan. Though they are used to high temps, high humidity is a different story altogether. Anyway, the National Park Service had advised me that March is definitely the best time for seeing birds in the Everglades and the best time for avoiding mosquitoes. Both statements turned out to be true. However, we did not plan for a break-in of our SUV which relieved us of our GPS, our radio, and CD player, only 3 days into the trip! However, luckily the thieves did not remove the controls for our A/C, thanks be to the traveling gods! KEY WEST We picked up the Arizonans at 8:30 p.m. at the Key West Airport. Kay & I had driven down from Jacksonville to meet the flight. Not much visiting since we had made reservations for an early morning float plane flight to the Dry Tortugas. Since it was too dark for sightseeing, we went straight to the Key Lime Inn.
FORT JEFFERSON IN DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK The Otter Float Plane was awaiting us and about 8 other adventurers and we took off on time. The flight lasted 40 minutes and was spectacular. We flew at 500 ft. so the limpid green and blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico were beautiful. The calm seas afforded us clear views of green turtles, sharks, manta rays, and two submerged wrecks. The fort itself is one of the largest ever built—its interior parade ground alone covers 13 acres. A 19 th century creation, 30 years were consumed in its construction and it was never completed (1846-1875) or fully armed. The original purpose was to protect one of this most strategic deep water harbors in the US. Ships used that harbor for moorage on their constant patrolling of the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Straits. Ft. Jefferson was never actually fired upon. During the Civil War the Union used the fort to support its blockades again Southern shipping. It was also used as a prison for Union deserters and its most famous inmate, Dr. Samuel Mudd, who made the egregious mistake of setting John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg, suffered during his escape after assassinating Abraham Lincoln.
The fort’s last claim to fame was associated with the USS Maine. That ill-fated ship sailed from the harbor towards its rendezvous with history in the Cuban harbor at Havana. Remember the Maine!?
Bird watchers and photographer travel to this least most visited National Park to observe the Magnificent Frigate Birds, the nesting Royal Terns and the Brown Noddy colony there. Green turtles also nest there in season in those protected waters. It is the turtles that give the islands in the park their name (Tortuga means turtle in Spanish) and there is no fresh water on the island. Visitor and campers must bring their own water and whatever food they require as well as tents and other camping supplies. The Park is manned by NPS Rangers. Our visit was not especially hot but the humidity was quite high. No mosquitos though.
KEY LIME INN Though this was a fine Inn in Key West, we did experience one funny thing here. The Inn has 37 rooms of varying sizes as well as the big advantage of being centrally located near downtown Key West within 2-3 blocks of most important tourist attractions—like Mallory Square, the Ernest Hemingway House, the Audubon Museum, and Mary Star of the Sea Church. The gardens are tropical and attractive and there is a pool as well. Anyway, Kay and I had checked in earlier in the day and then gone out to pick up some necessary items for our Everglades visit. When we returned to the room, we found it crawling with tiny little insects—they were all over the bed, the chairs, in the shower and even in the toilet bowl! They were not mosquitos, gnats or termites nor did they bite at all. They were just annoying in the extreme. We rushed to the reception desk and requested a different room immediately. The staff were very accommodating and moved us immediately from the tiny room we had booked into a much larger cottage with no extra charge. It had several more amenities too—2 queen beds, refrigerator, desk and chair, private patio with table and chairs—best of all, no creepy crawly critters. So we got a free 2-night upgrade. We left the Key Lime Inn quite satisfied and not upset because we are Floridians and know about these kinds of problems.
Early the next morning found us leaving Key West and heading for the mainland and our next adventures.
ISLAMORADA ECO TOUR We had booked a 3-hour boat tour around Islamorada’s inlets, canals, and both the Florida Bay and the Atlantic sides of the Key. Our boat driver and guide was a young woman marine biologist with her own comfy small boat which could get into all the backwaters. By now our weather had turned around a bit and we were buffeted with considerable winds which were not rough but did prevent our seeing many birds. Nonetheless, we had a very good experience because we did see a couple of rookeries with wood storks and egrets nesting in the mangroves. But most interesting to Micki and Dan were the iguanas. Iguanas are not native to the Keys or Florida in general. But they have been brought in by all our South & Central American immigrants and they truly thrive here where it is rarely cold enough to harm them. They come in many delightful colors ranging from vivid greens with darker markings to orange predominately. Their crests run from the tops of their heads all the way down their tails and they are very beguiling.
BIG PINE KEY – KEY DEER Our next stop was Big Pine Key where we searched for the tiny Key Deer, a greatly endangered subspecies of the White-Tail or Virginia deer. These deer have never lived on the mainland of Florida and are considered to have reached the Keys when oceans levels shrank and allowed the formation of land bridges between the islets. In coloration, the Key Deer are very similar to Virginia Deer but they are much smaller. Adult male Key Deer stand 30 inches & weigh between 55 & 75 lbs. Like their larger cousins, the Virginia Deer, males produce antlers in season while the females do not. Key Deer females stand 26 inches and weigh between 44 & 64 pounds. In contrast, male Virginia deer weight an average of 150 lbs. and stand 3.3 ft. tall. Their females weigh about 100 lbs. and stand 2.6 feet. The delicate little Key Deer are the smallest deer species in North America. They are now protected in a National Key Deer Preserve which spans 400,000 acres over several of the Keys. But there are many threats to their existence including habitat loss due to a huge human influx into the Keys, collisions with cars, and now an invasion of screw-worms, introduced into the Keys about 10 years ago. It is such a sickening problem that I am not going to describe it—look it up if you are interested. Despite all that, we saw many of the little creatures—males with antlers, females with fawns, and adolescents. We were happy that we saw none that looked sickly or weakened. Some were in residents’ front yards peacefully browsing whatever vegetation struck their fancy; others we spotted on short hikes into the back country of their preserve. Good pictures were gotten by all the photographers.
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK We stayed one night in Homestead, Florida, at a Courtyard Marriott Hotel, which was the site of our car break-in. The Hotel was comfortable and the staff very helpful when they learned of the theft. The Homestead Policeman was also very quick on site and extremely cooperative. FLAMINGO ENTRANCE AND ERNEST COE VISITOR CENTER The Visitor Center is very informative and comfortable, but we only stayed long enough to pick up maps and trail suggestions. One very important and funny warning we received concerned the tarps we saw piled in big containers at the entrance to the Coe Center. We asked what they were used for and the ranger smiled and said “to keep black vultures from ripping and chewing windshield wiper blades and other rubber parts of a car’s exterior. They can really wreak havoc in just a few minutes.” We half laughed thinking it was a joke, but she was serious. She added, “You can borrow one, particularly if you are going to stop at the Royal Palm Visitor Center. They are particularly active there right now! Just please bring it back when you leave the park.” We had not planned to stop at Royal Palm, so we decided not to take a tarp. Then we headed straight to the Flamingo Entrance to the Park. Much has changed since Hurricane Andrew devastated the are in 1992. The Café and Visitor Center have been replaced, there is a marina for private boaters and for renters. Several other buildings have sprung up too—public restrooms, a camp grocery store, gas station and improved boardwalk style trails.
We opted for the Anhinga Trail and were richly rewarded. Though the trail is only 0.8 miles roundtrip, there is much to see so a walk all around the loop took us about two hours! We saw anhinga galore, some nesting, some spreading their beautiful wings to dry, others diving and fishing among the lily-pad covering the waters. Of course, there were also the ubiquitous Snowy Egrets and Common Egrets, as well as Great Blue Herons carrying on with obtaining their meals. Saw no nests for those birds however. There were soft-shelled turtle and
alligators everywhere along the way, hauled up on the banks for sunning or floating along in the dark water.
We actually watched one alarmingly unwary Great Blue Heron being stalked by a sizeable gator, but perhaps he was more alert to danger than we thought, because every time the gator seemed to lurk much too close, the bird would move off. At last, he finally tired of the cat and mouse game and flew away—allowing us to catch our breath.
The bird we all enjoyed watching the most however was the colorful male Purple Gallinule. He is light enough to walk easily on the saucer- sized lily pads and clever enough not to get his feet wet while fishing. He would stalk from pad to pad with great dignity and if the pads were too far apart, he would reach out with his beak and pull one close
enough to step onto. He did this action multiple times so we were convinced it was not an accident but a skill he possessed. He was successful at catching small fish who swam too close to the pad he occupied at any one time. When we finally completed our Anhinga Trail walk, we went over to the Marina because we had been told we might see manatee there. Well, we certainly did—about 4 of them actually. They loomed up from the depths and thrust their big “walrusy” faces out of the water to gaze at us as curiously as we were looking at them. Near the Marina, we saw the biggest American Crocodile I have ever seen. This larger than an alligator reptile lives only in Florida and can thrive in both salt and fresh water. The Everglades is the only place to see them together since the alligators can stand some brackish water too. The Grandfather croc was inert but definitely alive and we were relieved that he was spending his time dozing. On our way back to Homestead, we stopped at looked Eco Lake and Mrazen Lake but did not see anything there except the dreaded mosquitos whose presence cut out walks around them quite short! MICCOSUKEE RESORT & CASINO This facility is about 42 miles west of Miami along the old Tamiami Trail, but we approached it from the south. It was the only place to stay while exploring the Oasis Visitor Center and the Big Cypress Preserve (adjacent and really part of the Everglades ecosystem). So we had booked rooms here for two nights. The Miccosukee are a distinct tribe from the Seminoles and are not nearly as prosperous as the Seminoles who own all the Hard Rock facilities in the world! This place is rather tatty and in need of renovation. Its casino is depressing, sadder than the Hard Rocks actually. All the folks sitting with glazed eyes staring at
slot machines and drinking and smoking more than they should. But we spent no time in the casino, preferring to be out and about in the natural world. We did two all-day drives on gravel roads out of the Oasis Visitor Center: one was called the Scenic Trail and was at least 20 miles long ending in a short loop that took us back to the Scenic Trail and the other was called the Burdon Road Trail. Both were very short on mammals—we saw only one doe of the Virginia White Tail species and several healthy looking gray squirrels. But we did see many birds, even some song birds which we had not seen in the Keys. Some we could identify and others not. Among the best sightings were s Swallow-Tail Kite and several Red-Shouldered Hawks of varying ages. The road was pretty straight and we did see many scenes that are typical of the Everglades—low grasses, palmettos, and palms. We also drove through many burned areas which we were never sure whether they represented controlled burns or lightning strike-caused fires. We took a couple of short hikes into the bush, but none was very productive of anything except mosquitos. It seemed odd that the mosquitos were here since everything seemed so very dry—all the bushes appeared to be drooping, the grasses were brown and sere. Our very last stop on this road before returning the Miccosukee Resort was the very best. On both sides of the road were small watery areas and we saw so many different birds that we were in awe. The sun was beginning its descent into night and the lighting was beautiful. Sunset too was quite colorful. We saw Wood Storks, Great Blue Herons, Common Egrets, Tri-colored Herons, Little Blue Herons, Cattle Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Turkey & Black Vultures, a Green Heron, Black-crowned Night Herons, and Anhinga—all in this one spot. Everyone agreed that this was the highlight of the day.
As we drove east towards the Resort, we became aware of an enormous black cloud which was clearly smoke and wondered where the fire was. The closer we drove, the bigger and taller the cloud climbed. When we reached the Tamiami Trail, we found the road closed just across it from the Resort. Traffic could not come across from the east or go any further from the west. We learned that the fire had been blazing and growing for at least 6-7 hours. Therefore, the workers on the day shift at the resort could not leave nor the evening and night crews arrive. All the restaurants, except the deli/café were closed due to lack of chefs and wait staff. So we had a hamburger with fries in the deli and tottered off the bed hoping for better tomorrow. The next day brought the news that the fire was now contained, the road was opened, and 6000 acres had burned. But we headed west again so we were not particularly concerned. Our second gravel road for exploring had fewer opportunities to observe wildlife of any kind but the photographers concentrated on insects, dragonflies and butterflies as well as wild flowers. So everyone was satisfied. The one interesting thing we saw was courting and mating behaviors occurring in a tree full of black vultures. None of us had ever had the chance to observe that behavior. We are now sure there will be a good crop of young black vultures in the coming weeks. PHOTOGRAPHER CLYDE BUTCHER’S GALLERY The following day, we drove west again towards Big Cypress Preserve and the Gulf Coast entrance to the Everglades. But we had one marvelous stop at Clyde Butcher’s Art Gallery. This now 73 year old photographer has made It his life’s work to photograph the Everglades and other sections of natural Florida. He uses an 8” x 10” large format view camera to create very large pictures, almost always in black and white. He has been doing this work for over
50 years. Butcher has been appropriately called the Ansel Adams of Florida. His gallery displays many of his iconic photographs documenting the real beauty of natural Florida.
THE GULF COAST ENTRANCE We visited this visitor center for only a short while because we learned that there are no drives around this area and no hiking trails either. This is strictly a water world to be explored only on boats. Though the Park Service does offer boat tours, we felt that we had seen enough of the environment with our Eco Boat Tour in Islamorada in the Keys. So we turned north and headed towards Naples. Just before we left the Center, I spotted a book about my next door neighbor growing up, Guy LaBree, the official artist of the Seminole Tribe. It is a lovely book with a lengthy biography up until 2010 . There were many childhood pictures which I instantly recognized as well as many of his own wonderful pictures of Seminole myths and daily life. I bought it straightaway and wondered why I had not heard of it before. Florida’s West Coast from Everglades City to Naples We had been out in the wilds of the Everglades so long that we were totally unprepared for the shocking traffic on the west coast of Florida. Someone reminded us that it was spring break for many college kids and their families which would greatly increase the traffic. But even that could not explain to us the India-like insane traffic. We would get into full stops that lasted 30 minutes to an hour, with no movement whatever. Bumper to bumper traffic haunted us until we finally reached Tampa where our Everglades exploration ended. And as luck would have it, another fire was raging to the west of Naples which further complicated the traffic because several outlying suburbs of the city had to be evacuated. As an example of the congestion, it took us over an hour to drive from our hotel to the first restaurant we chose
even though it was only a few blocks away. Incredible? Yes, but true nonetheless!
THE FAKAHATCHEE STRAND PRESERVE STATE PARK This wonderful preserve is south of Naples but definitely worth a stop as we discovered early into the hike. A strand is a linear swamp forest and this one is 20 miles long and 5 miles wide. A fresh water slough (slow-moving fresh water stream) flows through the strand nurturing animals, birds, and plants. It is the only place in the world where Royal Palms and Bald Cypress grow together creating the shady canopy. This strand is also the orchid (44 varieties) and bromeliad (14 species) of the North American continent! Many highly endangered native wildlife species are protected here as well: Florida Panthers, Florida Black Bears, Eastern Indigo Snakes, Everglades Minks, And Diamondback Terrapins. In addition, both American crocodiles and American alligators inhabit this special place. Birds aplenty live here too: swallow-tail kites, osprey, bald eagles, red- shouldered hawks, egrets and herons, roseate spoonbills, and indigo and painted buntings, among so many others. It was here that the four of us saw a spectacle we had never seen before: alligators hunting and fishing. In a beautiful lagoon-like pond at the end of the designated hiking trail, we stood for at least an hour watching the many water birds fishing with amazing success. While these busy birds caught their prey, two alligators slept comfortably on shore. Finally, the smaller of the two reptiles eased into the water with his periscope eyes staying above the surface. He swam easily among the birds and approached the shores as well. The birds paid him no mind at all. They continued their sharp-eyed hunting even when he got uncomfortably close to them.
But he was clearly intent on fishing, not trying to snatch a bird. He would submerge completely And then break the surface with a fish in his mouth. He would swallow the unfortunate fish with his head above water. While we watched, he caught many fish. All that hunting and fishing aroused the larger and obviously more mature gator and he slip quietly into the water. It was difficult to tell whether he was actually eyeing the birds or just sightseeing. He never lunged at any bird either standing in the water or on the shore. Instead he cruised around the lagoon and lazily caught a couple of larger fish. But suddenly, he erupted from the water with his head and back completely out of the water, tail and backend still immersed. He crashed back into the water and performed the death roll that gators do when they grab larger prey to drown them. But his prey this time was still fish, as we saw when he lifted his head to swallow. No one on the platform observing this behavior had ever seen it before. He repeated his actions a couple of times and the photographers were able to video the performance. It is important to remark upon all the people standing with us while this reptilian show was going on because we were surrounded by different languages: Dutch, French and Spanish were clearly heard. But almost everyone, including some shy children, spoke English as well. How extraordinary or was it? Can’t forget the big Cotton Mouth Moccasin we observed coiled atop a fallen tree trunk which extended over the pond water. Ibis were in the pool but paid the large, black and thick snake no attention whatever—even when he slid off into the water and disappeared. It seemed to us that they would be comfortable when they knew just where he was.
THE AUDUBON CORKSCREW SWAMP This preserve is further north than the Fakahatchee Strand and it has been a preserve for many years longer than the Strand. As a matter of fact, the Corkscrew has been protected by the Audubon Society since 1912. However, it took a consortium of interested and dedicated organizations and people to accomplish its complete protection through the purchasing of what finally amounted to 6,080 acres. The first boardwalk through the swamp was constructed in 1955. And it is truly a marvelous place to visit. On first starting on the boardwalk, we male and female painted buntings flying into and out of a cage-like feeder which prevents other larger birds like grackles and jays from taking all the food. The buntings are not captives in any way; they have just learned where to get food without being disturbed. Later, we saw a male indigo bunting at the same feeder. That was a good omen for all our sightings along this easy walk. In addition, we saw male and female barred owls, really close up. The docents told us that the pair have chicks in a nest hole further back in the swamp where they cannot be seen from the boardwalk. Later on, we saw the male barred owl flying in the direction of his nest with a fish in his talons. Previously we had not known that these owls would fish. So that was a first for us. Exciting, especially since owls are my favorite birds! The day was warm but not too humid and the blue skies overhead made for a perfect day of walking the boardwalk checking out the habitats and looking for the abundant birds and even animals we would eventually see.
There were more surprises to come. One was a large and very busy raccoon who was hunting and digging on the shore of one of the many ponds. He sported a very unusual color too—almost a tawny light brown rather than more usual spackled gray. He was having no trouble catching his afternoon snack or perhaps it was an early supper. At any rate, we saw him continually pulling a morsel up from below and washing it off in the water before swallowing it down. Further along, we saw 4 juvenile raccoons working a different pond shore together. They were a more typical color than our lone fisherman. But they too were successful hunter-gatherers. Shyer than the big fellow, they would occasionally run behind taller shrubs to wait out the observers on the boardwalk. Banded Water Snakes were our next unexpected eyecatchers. There seemed to be three snakes all intertwined in what the docents said was a mating posture. But we were a bit taken aback by the threesome—a “ménage a trois” in the reptile world? They were so preoccupied with their own slithering, coiling and recoiling that we were able to observe them until we had taken photographs from every angle. All the expected water birds were seen in many ponds: egrets, heron, spoonbills and white ibis. But again, we were treated to an unexpected behavior from snowy egrets. They would fly over the surface of a pond, dipping with their beaks into the water. We had never seen that activity in spite of seeing many snowy egrets over the years and even entertaining them in our own Millers Creek flowing past our backyard. We were never sure if these birds were fishing or drinking, despite careful observations. Gray Squirrels were around us everywhere, even running alongside on the boardwalk railing, seeming pretty fearless. Brown and Green Anoles also abounded. Micki spotted a brown one tinged with red who had the longest tail we have ever seen on these species. Even the
docents were impressed enough to come to take their own photographs.
Alligators abounded below the boardwalk level as well but we saw no crocodiles here. Though White Tail Deer, Florida Black Bears, and Florida Panthers, and River Otters are said to live here as well, but we saw nothing to prove or disprove that statement. We spent several hours in the Corkscrew, even having lunch in their café and returning for more walking afterwards. Anyone interested in Florida wildlife and native plants and trees should definitely put this wonderful preserve on their bucket list. SANIBEL ISLAND & JAY “DING DARLING NAT WILDLIFE REFUGE Still fighting our way through the awful traffic, we finally reached the causeway over to Sanibel Island from Ft. Myers. Again, the number of cars was staggering to us. It took almost an hour just to cross the 3- mile-long causeway. And what a greater shock it was when we finally reached the other side of the island itself to drive into the preserve! Gone was the rarely traveled dirt road around the preserve but up jumped big signs now announcing that the little preserve was now part of the National Wildlife Refuge system! Furthermore, there was a modern Visitor Center right at the entrance where before there had been only an honor system “mailbox” arrangement where you were asked to make a donation! The visitor center and all the outlying buildings teemed with people from children to older folks on walkers! It was incredible to us who had last visited “Ding” Darling probably about 15 years before and been along on the drive.
However, when we finally got on the now gravel road among so many other cars, we were pretty delighted with all the wildlife we saw. New birds included Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Reddish Egret, Double- crested Cormorants, a Willet, and Black-necked Stilts. Of course the other “usual suspects” were there as well. The Arizona folks were intrigued by the tiny tree crabs crawling along the limbs of the mangrove trees—hardly bigger than a quarter and quite black. In a contrasting color was the orange-red Mangrove Salt Marsh Snake we saw swimming close to shore on the Gulf side of the Preserve. On leaving Sanibel, we found a nice restaurant with a view over the water to have fresh seafood and muse over all the creatures we had enjoyed on this trip. Then we had to rejoin the crowds to cross over the causeway yet again. TAMPA We had anticipated arriving in Tampa about 2 or 3 in the afternoon but that was not to be—the never-ending stream of traffic, wrecks along the way causing horrible detours and interminable episodes of gridlock transformed what should have been a 2 or 2.5-hour drive into a 6+ hour ordeal, meaning we reached the Renaissance Hotel at the Tampa Airport in the total dark (about 8 o’clock). The darkness and a very circuitous route from I-275 to the hotel was made possible only by GPS. We could not imagine how anyone unfamiliar with the area and without GPS would have ever found that hotel. But success at last and a nice meal with a jolly waiter made our last evening together very enjoyable.
We laughed so much on this trip, besides all the fun we had seeing new places, creatures and terrain, that we were reminded of why we four travel so well together. It seems that the more problems, obstacles, frustrations arise on our trips, the more we laugh!
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