“We are here to enhance your experience”

Enhanceers  003We didn’t want to end our posts about the Everglades without mentioning the great programs that the park offers, and the great people that lead them.  The programs include presentations at the visitor center and in different areas of the park, guided walks on different topics, bicycle tours, canoe trips, slogs and more.

We participated in six of their programs, and would have participated in more had we stayed in the Everglades longer.enhancers  005

Our first experience with the programs was the mobile museum.  We walked in on this one after it had begun.  A ranger had set up some tables with artifacts such as skulls from different animals, different types of woods found in the Everglades, colored renderings of the various snakes found there and other fun stuff and discussed each of these.

enhancers  013enhancers  014We also signed up for the morning canoe trip on Nine Mile Pond.  It’s a beautiful canoe trail that goes through sawgrass marsh and mangroves.  The trip was led by Marv, one of the park volunteers, who provided lots of interesting information about these diverse habitats.

gator  020Marv also was in charge of keeping the whole group safe from alligators, croczilla, capsizing, drowning, etc.  Towards the end of the tour we came across this very large alligator with a life vest in its mouth.  Marv later confirmed via email that no visitors were reported missing!

enhancers  002

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“Look closely …”

We also took part in the Mahogany Hammock Walk, led by Ranger Leon.  Again, Leon provided lots of great information about this tree island and the few remaining wild mahogany trees in the country.

Enhancers  001enhancers  004enhancers  011Then we sat in on Ranger Tim’s python presentation, a discussion of how the python population of the park has ballooned, how it began, and efforts to manage it.  This is a tough one.  enhancers  018

And, of course, we participated in the Big Day Birding Adventure led by Ranger Christi.

enhancers  017enhancers  016And the Slough Slog led by Kathy, another great volunteer.

These and the other programs, all free, are extremely interesting and educational.  Both the rangers and volunteers are extremely knowledgeable and helpful.

We heard more than once from the volunteers the refrain that “We are here to enrich your experience”.

Indeed they have!

~ Brendaflower  024

Florida Bay and the Coastal Prairie

florida bay  079florida bay  060We took our kayak, the Dolphin, out on Florida Bay one day.   Our destination was Snake Bight – a bight is a smaller bay within a larger bay.  Snake Bight was known for its birdlife at low tide, so we timed it so that we would be approaching the area at low tide.florida bay  058

florida bay  074florida bay  085florida bay  082 florida bay  015 florida bay  077Unfortunately, there were some pretty high winds, as a cold front (a high of 60+ degrees and low of 45 for one day) was on its way.  Because it was low tide, we were scraping the bottom and had to head out further into the bay to make progress toward the birds.

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Ultimately, we chose to cut the trip short, as our return was going to be into the wind, but it was a great to be out on the bay.  And as usual, the bird life was amazing.florida bay  036

Osprey are nesting at this time.  It was interesting to learn that the Osprey (aka Fish Hawk), whose diet consists completely of fish, does not clean it’s catch in the nest.  The bird removes the head and the guts and only then brings the cleaned fish to the nest.

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On the land along the shores of Florida Bay in Flamingo, where our campground was located, there is also a habitat called Coastal Prairie.   Low plants on open prairie that offer a good hunting ground for Red Shouldered Hawks and several species of owls and other raptors.  We heard a number of owls and were lucky enough to see one flying about and hunting.  We also saw this osprey on a branch on the ground while hiking and Hector was able to get very close to him.   florida bay  087

florida bay  088

whats to do  015There were also about a zillion Great Southern White butterflies in the coastal prairie area.  These butterflies are especially interesting because they have blue tips at the end of their antennae.

florida bay  043florida bay  097For a different view of the Bay, we signed up for a Florida Bay cruise on a pontoon boat. We chose the 4:30 departure, a one and half hour tour that ends after sunset.  A perfect choice.  A pod of dolphins followed us for a very long time and kept us entertained.

florida bay  025

Historic 1950’s Flamingo Visitor Center

florida bay  076florida bay  039florida bay  041 florida bay  092florida bay  099florida bay  026florida bay  027florida bay  084florida bay  044florida bay  042florida bay  073florida bay  098

florida bay  103florida bay  096florida bay  040florida bay  100florida bay  102It was a very pleasant evening and the sunset was quite beautiful.  This was our last evening in the Everglades and a great ending to a great two weeks.

~ Brendaflorida bay  094

Birds of the Everglades

great blue heron  011

Great Blue Heron

rosie   006

Roseate Spoonbill

black necked stilt  005

Black Necked Stilt

The Everglades is truly a mecca for birders.  There are 366 species of birds that have been observed in the park.

brown pelican  002

Brown Pelican

Everywhere you go in the Everglades, there are birds.  We encountered them on our canoe and boat trips, hiking, cycling and pond hopping.  I’d purchased a great bird book before leaving Denver and was really enjoying identifying different kinds of birds while Hector chased around after them to take their picture.

Lots and lots of pictures … of lots and lots of birds!

coot  011

Coots in flight … Coot’s Bay

ibis  003

White Ibis … over Snake Bight

Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

cardinal  003

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

After all of this bird education I decided to join the “Big Day Birding Adventure”, a six hour program, offered only four times a year.  This program has you follow a park ranger to various areas of the park and take various walks in search for birds.  The ranger who leads the group is actually counting numbers of birds for tracking and reporting purposes.

birders  006

North American Birders

Anhinga

Anhinga

We showed up Saturday morning and I quickly realized that I was the greenest member of the group (interestingly, Hector was the only one who brought photography gear).  There were intermediate, advanced and very advanced birders in the group.  The leader of the program, Christi, is a longtime ranger and also very experienced birder.

Anhinga nesting

Anhinga nesting

Anhinga with chick

Anhinga with chick

anhinga  001

Lunch!

Black Crowned Night Heron

Black Crowned Night Heron

Black Crowned Night Heron

Black Crowned Night Heron

Juvenile

Juvenile

Black Necked Stilt

Black Necked Stilt

Great Egret

Great Egret

American Coot

American Coot

Green Heron

Green Heron

So off we went with the two of us trying to keep up with all the birds that everyone else in the group was spotting.  I have to say that everyone was very generous, helping me to spot birds by moving aside to give me better vantage points and by patiently repeating descriptions of the locations of birds that I had a tough time finding.

Roseate Spoonbills

Roseate Spoonbills

Rosie

Rosie

rosie   001

White Ibis

White Ibis

White Ibis

White Ibis

Tri Color Heron

Tri Colored Heron

Red Bellied Woodpecker

Red Bellied Woodpecker

Red Bellied Woodpecker

Red Bellied Woodpecker

Pine Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

great blue heron  008

Great Blue Heron

great blue heron  009

Blue Heron … Lift off

great blue heron  004

White Ibis

White Ibis

Wood Stork

Wood Stork

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Hector thought six hours might be too long, but Christi mentioned at the outset that we were free to break away from the group whenever we liked so this made us more comfortable about joining the group.

coot  014

Coots Chatting

It's left of the crooked branch ... no the other one ...

To the left of the crooked branch … no the other one …

Purple Galinule

Purple Gallinule

purple galinule  004

Purple Galinule avoids being lunch ...

Purple Gallinule avoids being lunch …

Tri Color Heron

Tri Colored Heron

tri color heron  008

Tri Colored Heron Fishing

tri color heron  007

Great Blue Heron

Tri Colored Heron

great blue heron  001

Tri Colored Heron

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Great Egret

Great Egret

Look closely ... you can see the water rumbling from the growl!

Look closely … you can see the water rumbling from the deep growl!

gator  006As a bonus, on our walks, we got to see and hear more alligators bellowing – their rumbling  mating call, which is pretty entertaining.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

great egret  007

Great Egret

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

stork  006

Wood Stork

stork  003

Wood Stork

Wood Stork

Wood Stork

American White Pelicans

American White Pelicans

Swallow Tailed Kite

Swallow Tailed Kite

Red Shouldered Hawk

Red Shouldered Hawk

Red Shouldered Hawk

Red Shouldered Hawk

Osprey

Osprey

Osprey

Osprey

Osprey with fish

Osprey with fish

Osprey

Osprey

Kestrel

American Kestrel

White Pelican

American White Pelican, Florida Bay

american white pelican  010

Larry, Curly, and Mo

black Necked Stilt  012

Black Necked Stilt

Black Vulture  001

Black Vulture

Cormorants

Double Crested Cormorants

And part of the group spotted two very rare birds, a white-crowned pigeon and a short tailed hawk.  Unfortunately, I saw both of those only as they were flying away.

Roseate Spoonbills

Roseate Spoonbills

rosie   005whats to do pond hopping  041rosie   003

great egret  003

Great Egret

birders  009 We wound up staying for the whole six hours, and the once skeptical Hector had a fun day taking photos of the amazing birds and alligators.

~ Brenda

For any avid birders who can help, we also saw this hawk like bird in the coastal prairie habitat, but we don’t know what he is.  Thoughts?  Thanks to our friend from Cape May for the answer … it is a juvenile Red Shouldered Hawk!mystery bird  001

mystery bird  002

We are the One Percent

One Percent  001The most unique program that we participated in was the “Slough Slog”.  The description of this program reads:

Wade through the river of grass into the shadows of a ‘gator hole’ or a cypress dome.  Wear lace-up shoes, socks and long pants that can get wet or muddy.

The museum at the Visitor Center has an exhibit called “Making a Hole a Home” which describes gator holes and slogging as follows:

Cold-blooded creatures, alligators require water year-round to regulate their body temperature.  They stay submerged on cold days to stay warm, and on warm days to stay cool.  Their dependence on water drives them to dig their own pools, assuring themselves a place to plunge for protection from the heat of the searing sun.  A gator excavates its hole by thrashing its tail, digging with hind legs, pushing with its snout, and otherwise moving soft peat and vegetation out of pockets in the limestone bedrock.  This active clearing creates a small oasis that attracts some of the gator’s favorite prey – a self-catered feast of fish, turtles, and an occasional bird.

One Percent  017Slogging is off-trail hiking that brings you into closer contact with the park’s more elusive species.  Some of the most beautiful settings, such as the interior of a cypress dome, can only be seen in this way.  Watch your footing – mucky soil, sharp rocks, and sink holes make walking tricky.  Though gators and snakes tend to avoid humans, if you’re timid about forging your own path, look into a ranger-led slog.

vd.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxWe signed up for the guided “Slough Slog” on Valentine’s Day, very romantic.

One Percent  022

one percent  104One Percent  018

The person leading the slog was one of the park’s volunteers, Kathy.  She handed each of us a walking stick that we were to use to locate branches, roots and holes directly in front of us.

Kathy explained that the cypress dome that she’d just visited was kind of dry, and she’d decided to take our group to a different area.  There were two Cypress Domes we could hike to in this area and Kathy mentioned that the one further out was the more beautiful of the two, she called it a “cathedral”.  She asked if we were all willing to walk a little further to this second cypress dome, and we were.

One Percent  016Once we began our hike, I figured out why this outing is rated “strenuous”, even though it’s really not that long.  Walking in the muck is really tough.  Kathy was very thoughtful and stopped for several breaks along the way to point out some of the smaller, less noticeable plants and animals along the way; a green frog, lichen, Cypress knees and periphyton, algae that are the primary producers in the Everglades food web and produce food and oxygen for small aquatic organisms.

One Percent  010One Percent  020We arrived at the Cypress Dome and all agreed with Kathy that this was a magical place and well worth the longer walk.  Once inside the dome, walking was actually easier because the ground there (under the water) was peat and not as mucky as that outside the dome, but there were lot of roots, branches and holes.  We spent a good amount of time exploring the dome and spotted spiders, orchids, more lichen, bromeliads and a hawk in its nest.  The water in the dome was a strangely beautiful clear color with interesting plants.One Percent  006

One Percent  021One Percent  005One Percent  008One Percent  026One Percent  023One Percent  011One Percent  025One Percent  012Kathy then located the gator hole in the middle of the Cypress Dome.  The gator hole was vacant, which gave me some pause as I stood in knee deep water.  But it was such a lovely place that I quickly forgot to worry.

One Percent  015One Percent  003Before we left, Kathy informed us that only one percent of the visitors to the Everglades, an aquatic paradise, ever actually get their feet wet!   And that’s how we became members of the one percent.

~ BrendaOne Percent  024

Angel Goes Boating

angel boating  004Hector’s brother Gus joined us one day and we went out on a flats boat for a half day.

It was a breezy morning, and not as hot as previous days, so we decided to take Angel along.  This was her first experience on a boat and we were really looking forward to it.

angel boating  037Angel walked onto the dock confidently, but when she realized that she was going into the boat, she did not look like a happy camper.  She got very low and tried to clutch on to the dock, but Hector was able to soothe her, pick her up and place her gently inside the boat.

angel boating  001angel boating  003Once in the boat, she calmed down and performed her customary olfactory inspection of the perimeter.  We stayed by the dock a little while to get her used to the motion of the boat.

We slowly left the dock initially going through a no wake zone (there are manatees here).  Once we left the no wake zone, the boat could only go a maximum speed of 15 knots so we weren’t exactly speed boating.  In this environment, that was just fine.

angel boating  031angel boating  013angel boating  032angel boating  035We started out in an area called Coots’ Bay after the zillions of Coots that constantly swim in this area.  These little guys are fun to watch as they run across the water, dive to get fish and generally frolic around.  Angel was not really tuning in to the ducks, as she was low in the boat and unable to see them, but she was enjoying the breeze and all of the smells.

angel boating  040angel boating  014angel boating  028angel boating  024angel boating  010

We then explored various mangrove islands in an area called Whitewater Bay.  What was most surprising was that we found ourselves totally alone on the water – no other boats as far as the eye could see.  It was fabulous.

angel boating  026There were tons of fish jumping around us and Gus spotted some tarpon in the water.  This is one of the world’s premiere fishing hotspots with Redfish, Mangrove Snapper, Snook, and other gamefish species like Tarpon.  Angel was oblivious to the fish, the wind was making her sleepy so she took a nap.

angel boating  002angel boating  015angel boating  008angel boating  012
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angel boating  055angel boating  050angel boating  049When we returned to the dock, we spotted one of the crocodiles that spends most of his time in the marina area.  South Florida is the northernmost range of the crocodile and the only place you can see one in the United States.angel boating  051

American Crocodile

American Crocodile

So, what’s the difference between a crocodile and an alligator?

American crocodiles are olive gray, have long, narrow snouts, and frequent only salt and brackish water habitats.  Another way to recognize them is that both their upper and lower teeth are visible when their mouths are closed.

angel boating  056

Alligator

Alligators are black, have wide snouts, and are found mainly in freshwater locales, though they might occasionally venture into brackish water and saltwater.  In contrast to the crocodile, only their upper teeth are visible when their mouths are closed.

The Everglades National Park is the only spot in the world where alligators live close by saltwater crocodiles.

angel boating  036angel boating  038Fortunately, Angel was clueless about the crocodile, protected as she was in the boat.  Back at the dock, she posed for some photographs and let Hector lift her out of the boat.  Then she headed home for another nap.

~ Brendaangel boating  046

Just what is there to do in the Everglades?

whats to do   038

View of Florida Bay from Christian Point

whats to do paddling  037We began our exploration on bicycles, which is a great a way to cover some ground around the campsite and beyond without having to get into a car.   Several of the trails allow bicycles as well.

whats to do  003whats to do  002whats to do  013We also hiked on a number of the trails, many of which are between ½ mile and 3 ½ miles (which is nice when it’s hot and humid) but incredibly varied, offering a glimpse into multiple habitats and wildlife.  Our friends Al and Bonnie joined us for a few hikes one weekend.whats to do   039whats to do  011whats to do  012whats to do  015whats to do  014whats to do  008whats to do  007whats to do  002

whats to do paddling  036whats to do paddling  017We also went canoeing and kayaking and rented a flats boat for half a day.   Being on the water gives you a very different view of the different habitats and wildlife.  We discovered one of our favorite canoe trails on a ranger-guided program on Nine Mile Pond, which had some very technical and fun areas to paddle in.whats to do paddling  034whats to do paddling  026

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I'm too sexy ...

I’m too sexy …

On this particular trip, we heard alligators bellowing – a mating call – for the first time.  Their mating season usually starts in March, but they apparently are starting early this year.  The sound is a scary and very deep rumble you can hear for a great distance and is accompanied by a mating display of arched backs and inflating their throats.

CROCZILLA!

CROCZILLA!

whats to do paddling  032whats to do paddling  031On that same trip, we were supposed to see “Croczilla” the largest known crocodile in the park (14 feet long or so!), who makes this pond his home.  But he wasn’t around that day.  So we went “Croczilla” hunting on Nine Mile Pond on another day and found him there in all his splendor.

whats to do pond hopping  045whats to do pond hopping  041whats to do pond hopping  044whats to do pond hopping  040whats to do pond hopping  051Another favorite activity was “pond hopping”.  On our way to and from other activities we’d stop at various ponds to check out the wildlife and add to Hector’s massive number of photographs of the park.   We even got to know certain birds and alligators that always hung out in the same places.  But we also saw that on different days, and even at different times in the same day, the amount and type of birds in each pond would change.

We participated in some other ranger-led programs, more on this later.

And we signed up for a group boat tour of Florida Bay.

Two weeks at the Everglades was clearly not going to be enough.

~ Brenda

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The River of Grass

sawgrass  010“There are no other Everglades in the World.  They are, they have always been, never wholly known.  Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue height of space.  They are unique also in the simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose…It is a river of grass.”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Conservationist

signs  003It’s telling that the first piece of information that you turn to when you open the Everglades National Park brochure is titled “Saving the Glades”.   There are many sources of additional information about the history of and threats to the park, but I’ll include some excerpts from their published literature in this post to give a sense of the extent of the work that is needed and in process and the importance of supporting efforts to “Save the Glades”.

“The park was created in 1947 to save part of the Glades, but its future depends on a healthier, more naturally functioning ecosystem in the entire region, where burgeoning human population thirsts for the same water that wood storks, currently an endangered species, need to survive.  We must create a balance among the competing demands of urban, industrial and agricultural development, with a restored Everglades as its centerpiece.

Florida Bay  001Coastal Prairie  010hardwood hammock  005Everglades alone of U.S. national parks holds three world designations; International Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site, and Wetland of International Importance.  After years of drainage and alterations, efforts to save the remaining Everglades and to restore a semblance of their original function are underway.  In 1989 Congress extended the eastern park boundary to protect the eastern Shark River Slough, which is historically important to sustain the Park’s biological abundance and diversity.  Then, in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, Congress authorized the world’s largest environmental restoration project.  Requiring 30 years to accomplish, the plan seeks to return water to more natural patterns of quantity, timing and distribution throughout the South Florida ecosystem.”

Florida Bay  008And indeed there is “biological abundance and diversity.”  The habitats in the park are largely dependent on very small elevation changes and include:

pinelands  001pinelands  013

  • Pinelands – occur on the highest elevations in the park, along a limestone ridge that runs along the east coast of Florida.  Pines root in very little soil in rock cracks.  There used to be over 200,000 acres of pines along the ridge; now only 11,000 acres are preserved in the park, it is the last remaining large stand of the once extensive Dade County slash pine forest of southeastern Florida.
  • hardwood hammock  001hardwood hammock  002hardwood hammock  003hardwood hammock  009Hardwood Hammocks – are elevations of drier land on which hardwood trees and other vegetation grow profusely.  They generally form as teardrop-shaped islands in the “river of grass” or among the pinelands.

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  • sawgrass  011sawgrass  012sawgrass  014Sawgrass Marsh – a wide, shallow, slow-moving “river of grass”, the predominate ecosystem of the park.  Within this river, the two major drainage systems are a wide flow called Shark Valley Slough, and a smaller one called Taylor Slough.  A slough (pronounced “slew”) is the name given to the deeper areas at the center of freshwater flow.

Cypress  002

  • Cypress  001Cypress  003cypress  014Cypress – Bald cypress trees grow in standing water and are usually found wherever there’s a dip in elevation.  Dwarf cypress trees grow in the open sawgrass and, despite their small size, can be quite old.  Circular-shaped groupings of cypress, called cypress domes, form in low areas in the limestone bedrock.  The tallest trees are found in the deep water at the center creating a dome shape.

Mangroves  001

  • Mangroves  004Mangroves  003Mangroves  007Mangrove Forest/Estuaries – Mangroves take root in brackish zones where fresh water and salt water intermingle.  Everglades National Park is home to the largest continuous mangrove forest in the United States.  Mangrove islands, known as keys, provide important nesting sites for colonies of wading birds.  Salt Marsh Mosquitoes supply wintering and migrating birds with an abundant food source.  The dense mangroves also provide a summer breeding ground for many birds.

Florida Bay  005

  • Florida Bay  007Florida Bay – is the largest body of water in the Everglades, filling a triangle between the southern shore of the mainland and the upper keys.

Florida Bay  011Florida Bay  003Florida Bay  002The Everglades offers endless opportunities for adventure and exploration.

florida bay  017florida bay  012“Nothing is yet saved for good; the Everglades’ fate remains our mandate.”

~ Brenda