EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
Author: Lois Gray Photos: Kay Gilmour, MD
DON’T GO TO THE EVERGLADES IN MAY!
May 18 to May 25, 2022
Because it was the only time the three of us could get together to visit the National Park and the Keys, we decided to flout this time worn wisdom and just drive on down the coast. First, Kay and I drove to Ft. Lauderdale and Kim flew from Omaha to Fort Lauderdale. We spent one night in a Hollywood hotel and started out early the next morning. Just a short 7- day trip. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? Well, several things, beginning before the trip even started. • We screwed up the dates and booked all the hotels and activities for a week in June rather than May. So, we had to cancel and rebook everything EXCEPT Kim's airline reservations; they stayed the same because she had not made the date mistake. The rebooking took an entire day to complete. UGH! • We let GPS route us from Hollywood to Homestead and that was not the best way to go. We ran into so much traffic where the Florida Turnpike is joined by I-75. The traffic jam created by this merge took over an hour to sort out. We all pitied the folks who must drive this route every day to work and home. It is awful and dangerous too. • The weather, as expected, was brutal with feverish temperatures (in the high 80s and 90s) and high humidity too. And it barely cooled down at night. The dry season in the Glades is ending soon and the seasonal rains will begin. • Because it is near the end of the tourist season, we found many places closed or near closing and many activities suspended. • Even the animals had more sense than we showed. The birds had completed their breeding, nesting, and feeding chicks and all had fled to wetter and less torrid climes. The mammals were in hiding on the hammocks where there are trees to provide shade. We saw nary a one. The manatees had left the warm waters of the Glades and headed out to their usual haunts in the rivers, springs, and even the Gulf of Mexico. The crocodiles had also fled to salt water. The alligators who do not do well in saltwater had sunk to the bottoms of any bodies of fresh water they could find and rarely showed anything at the surface except for their nostrils and eyes.
• The tours we had booked that had promised wildlife spotting could not deliver and it was not really their fault. Our manatee boat ride was a bust since the two manatees in the area stayed below the surface as well. The airboat ride that was supposed to take us out over the sawgrass in search of alligators produced nothing either. Our boat driver said he was not sailing out over the sawgrass because there were too many bugs and water splashes, and customers did not like that. That ride turned out to be a thrill ride with lots of sharp turns and twists around mangrove islands. • We had planned to do some night photography, but we became aware quickly that horseflies and other noxious insects come out in dry season and pester and bite any warm-blood critters foolish enough to be out in the open. Having seen the size of the horseflies during the day we showed some smarts and did not go out at night. The horseflies were often more than an inch long and they were aggressive, hitting our closed car windows like gravel thrown up by the tires. • The most painful problem that arose was the huge spike in the price of gas right before we left. Each three times we had to fill the car, the cost was between $80 and $100 dollars. Talk about refuel shock! ITINERARY Day 1. Met and spent the night in Hollywood at the Holiday Inn on Sheridan. Sadly, Kim did not arrive until late in the night due to flight delays. Hence, she did not get a good night’s sleep. Day 2. Distant goal of first day’s travel was Key West: 180 miles and estimated 3 hour and 45-minute drive without stops. Though we were to tour Big Pine Key and drive around Key West, our stay for the night was in Florida City. That meant we were doing a down and to where we had started. On this day we visited Big Pine Key and National Key Deer Refuge. But first we crossed the famous 7-mile Bridge which has morphed into something more modern and visitor friendly. There is a pull-out before the bridge begins and good views of the structure and the surrounding tropical waters where the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico “mix it up” revealing so many shades of greens and blues. A Pedestrian walkway had been added and it is possible to walk the entire 7 miles or ride a bike. In the heat, neither of those options was attractive.
We did not see any of the darling little Key Deer in the refuge, but we were lucky enough to see 4 females browsing in 4 different neighborhoods on Big Pine.
These little charmers are a subspecies of the Virginia deer (white-tailed deer) and rarely reach any taller than 24 inches for females or 32 inches for males. They are highly endangered, and their biggest predator is the automobile. We had lunch in the famous NoName Pub where we started our serious study of Key Lime Pie. The Pub called its version “whipped” and it started us off very well: it was luscious.
Then we continued south on the Overseas Highway twenty miles to Key West, last of the Keys. Flowers were blooming profusely but so were the visitors. The city was packed. It was about impossible to find a parking spot; but we were lucky to find one remarkably close to the colorful Buoy labelled the southernmost point on the continental USA. So, Kim got her picture taken in front of it to prove she had been there.
Kay gave us a driving tour of the city passing such important landmarks as Ernest Hemingway’s house, the Little White House (from Truman’s Day), and Sloppy Joe’s Bar where Ernest and his pals hung out in their glory days, drunk most of the time. We all enjoyed seeing the old houses and the quaint hotels, but the driving was exhausting because the streets are still so narrow and the drivers so many. We didn’t stay long in the “hot town tonight.” Drove back to Florida City for the next two nights so we could explore Everglades National Park at the southern end.
Day 3. Our first day in the Everglades. We entered through the Ernest Coe gateway and started exploring by car. It was then that we realized we were not here at the right time of year (if we had not already known it). Driving straight to the “Anhinga Trail Boardwalk, we started out on our first hot walk. And it was torrid even though early in the morning. The Ranger told us to stop at the first indentation and we might see Pileated Woodpeckers and their babies. However, we never did see them even though we looked in the right place several times.
We were luckier with the anhinga; we saw many males and females but no chicks on this walk. When we reached the end of our endurance and turned back, we were in luck again.
ANHINGA The ranger was there and showed us where to look to see the Swallow Tail Kites with chicks. It was difficult to determine how many chicks, but we and the ranger were sure there were at least two. She later located a green heron for us, and it was close enough for photos.
SWALLOW TAIL KITE ADULT
WHITE MORPH GREAT BLUE
Most special was her showing us the bird we had never seen or heard of before: the white Morph Great Blue Heron. They are only seen here in the Everglades and in Cuba. Proper nomenclature for these birds is still a topic of study by professional ornithologists.
She identified the turtles in the water (Florida red bellied turtles) it was possible to photograph them as well. Here’s one hanging out with a gar fish.
Next, we headed to the Flamingo Visitor Center, about 20 miles further into the park. We had hopes of seeing a crocodile. The Florida Everglades and the Keys are the only places in the world where crocodiles and alligators occupy the same habitat. There was a chance to see Manatees as well there. However, when we arrived, the ranger told us that both species had left the marina area and headed out into the Gulf of Mexico since the waters there were warm enough for them. Our fun sighting there turned out to be a beautiful osprey enjoying his fresh caught fish for lunch. We all felt for the fish, but the osprey must eat. He was balancing precariously on a thin metal sign, so he was constantly lifting his wings to keep his balance. And the pesky fish kept sticking to his talons. He tried to shake it free without losing his lunch but that proved difficult. He was at last successful, and we left him to continue his meal in peace.
On the way back to the park exit, we stopped at several small lakes, but it was clear that birds were not hiding in these either. The good news was that the mosquitoes were not out either. Another good piece of Key Lime Pie awaited us at the evening meal. We had eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Maybe the osprey had the better luck. Day 4. Today the destination was the Shark Valley Visitor Center in a northern part of the National Park. The big attraction there was a tram right out to a concrete observation tower which offered 360 degrees of viewing for the huge surrounding territory.
The walk up the tower was not intimidating and there was a cooler breeze up top to reward us. And what a panorama was on view. The park encompasses 1,508,796 acres (about twice the area of Yosemite National Park). A goodly portion of those acres seemed to be visible up on the 65 ft. tower. The ranger said 20 miles can be seen from the top on a clear day and we were lucky enough to have a beautiful view. After we left the tower, we drove around on some gravel roads for see what might show up for us. The roads are named: Upper Wagon Wheel, Birdon, and Turner Roads.
HI - KIM
The grandeur of the sawgrass prairies was evident all around us, but animal life was not to be seen. However, some huge horseflies (at least a couple of inches long) kept hurling themselves against the car windows quite aggressively so we were not at all tempted to exit the car to search deeper off the road. Our best sighting on these backroads was a huge
and beautiful barred owl, sitting on a limb so close we could have touched it if the horseflies were not protecting it.
The owl was hunting, and we saw him make a couple of dives off the limb but never saw what he caught. He was very patient with us staring at him and clicking cameras too and stayed with us at least 20 minutes. We drove these roads several times at different hours and finally also saw a fine Red Shoulder Hawk close by as well. The photographers got some great pictures of him as well. We also rescued two big turtles who were on the roads. Maybe they thought of our actions as kidnapping rather than rescue, but we just could not stand to leave the slow-moving critters in the roadways. We later identified the turtles as pug-nosed turtles.
Some of the delicate dragon flies made good picture subjects as well. They are not easy to capture in pictures because they dart around so quickly, never staying put very long. Crows seem to have taken over all the bird niches at this time of year because we must have seen thousands of them everywhere we went in the park. They made good photo subjects as well. Even an Eastern Rat Snake captured our attention and he proved photogenic as well. You can see that because there was little to no large fauna, we began to concentrate on smaller creatures and that made our visit rich too. We had spied a couple of alligators half submerged in various ponds where they were difficult to see clearly. However, on our last day in the Glades, at the Oasis Visitor Center we finally hit a jackpot. Off the boardwalk there, we saw as many alligators as anyone could wish for. Some were sunning on exposed rocks, others were slowly gliding along, patrolling it seemed. There were many sizes there too but only adults.
Day 5. This day found us at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. From there we booked a couple of excursions. The first was entitled “Manatee and Wildlife Viewing” and it bravely guaranteed manatee sightings. We were in a small boat that just cruised around the marina of a very posh resort area. Jason was able to deliver on the promise, but it was still disappointing. A mother and baby manatee were indeed hanging around the marina, but they were very reluctant to surface for viewing or photographing. We could just see just under the surface the back of the big gentle creatures. We had to admit that we had actually “seen” manatees, even if only barely. After a nice lunch at the resort restaurant, we admired the gorgeous Poinciana Trees which were blooming all over the place. We had seen some in Key West as well. The Key Lime pie here was also exceptionally good but quite different from others we have tasted along the way. Our last activity in this part of the park was taking an airboat ride. I have already indicated that this too was a big disappointed because it was in no way like any airboat ride I have ever taken before. It just turned into what I supposed the driver thought would be a thrill ride as he raced around mangrove islands and made quick twisting turns to demonstrate his prowess as a driver. Did not impress us much at all since we had been expecting a ride out over the sawgrass prairies.
Day 6. We had great hopes for the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve near Bonita Springs on the west coast of Florida. Kay and Lois fondly remembered walking on the boardwalk a few years ago and seeing so many wonderful things, like leaping alligators, oblivious wading birds walks and hunting so close to the big reptiles, snakes, songbirds, raccoons and so much more. Unfortunately, this visit was not a repetition of that magical encounter. Our boardwalk stroll was so hot that it felt crushing. We heard not a single bird call, saw extraordinarily little water for any birds or gators to live in, observed no blooming tropical plants, and the fact that we were the only walkers suggested once again that we were there at the wrong time of year. I think that by now we had learned the lesson several times over. Day 7. With high hopes again, we stayed the night in Bonita Springs and got up early in the morning to head for Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. It proved to be smart that we had purchased entry tickets for 8:30 a.m. The sultry weather did not settle in until later in the day. It was cool and breezy when we started out on the long boardwalk at 8:30.
Again, there were no birds, though we heard pileated woodpeckers we never could see them. There were some showy flowers in bloom, both tiny and large. The swamp mallows (akin to Hibiscus) were particularly photogenic.
We viewed several different habitat areas: dense forests, swampy areas with huge bald cypresses, and Glade prairies again.
The heat finally wore us down and sent us scuttling pack to the air-conditioned car.
We found a pleasant restaurant within walking distance of our Hampton Inn and enjoyed a delicious meal, a drink each, and the soothing evening breezes wafting across the outside porch where we ate. Some fun music was playing in the background and many of the tunes were ones we are familiar with. And of course, we ended the evening with a shared piece of Key Lime Pie. On the drive back to Hollywood via the famous old Tamiami Trail, we stopped by Clyde Butcher’s Museum. Butcher is recognized as the Ansel Adams of natural Florida, especially the Everglades. He has been photographing wild Florida for at least 60 years and his Hasselblad camera has created huge black and white pictures that are simply stunning. We got back to Hollywood and the Holiday Express in time for dinner at the hotel and we had our final celebratory Key Lime Pie. When I count the days, we spent in South and West Florida, I calculate we shared a total of 7 pieces of Key Lime Pie: each one delicious in a distinct way.
All of Kay’s photos of this trip can be seen at www.kay.gilmour.smugmug.comPage 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4 Page 5 Page 6 Page 7 Page 8 Page 9 Page 10 Page 11 Page 12 Page 13 Page 14 Page 15 Page 16
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