Anhingas and flowering bromeliads in the Everglades, Florida
On telling friends that we were planning to visit Everglades National Park, my husband and I found that raised eyebrows and wrinkled noses were the most common responses. Why visit a bug-infested swamp, they asked.
We have a thing for national parks, though, and we were sure we’d find much beauty, strangeness, and perhaps even a thrill of danger in the Everglades. As it turned out, we were right.
We arrived in the Everglades in late afternoon, and after a quick look at the very nice Ernest Coe Visitor Center (which was about to close), we headed for Anhinga Trail, the “Disney World of the Everglades,” according to one park ranger, because of the abundance of wildlife often spotted there.
The Everglades is not really a swamp but a broad, slow-moving river, which meanders through sawgrass plains and around hardwood hammocks before finding its way to the mangrove-lined estuaries and, from there, the Atlantic Ocean.
It was beautiful in the evening light, with a few raindrops splattering and thunderheads rumbling in the distance. Although it did rain a little and water was everywhere, March is still part of the dry season in the Everglades, when pesky insects are fewer, temperatures are cooler, and fewer water sources drive predators and prey into close proximity in the remaining ponds and tributaries.
The biggest and most well-known predator is the American alligator, and the Everglades are rife with these large reptiles.
Alligators don’t seem to worry anyone in Florida too much, however, and with minimal signage about them the Everglades’ hiking trails are a mixture of ground-level paths and wooden boardwalks that elevate you above the water and marshy ground. The boardwalks offer excellent viewing places for alligator and bird activity.
Bromeliads, called air plants, live non-parasitically on all kinds of trees in the Everglades.
The Anhinga Trail is named for this diving water bird, which impales small fish on its long, sharp beak and returns to the surface to flip the fish into the air and into its mouth. After hunting, an anhinga spreads its wings in order to dry them.
At dusk, the anhingas and other birds like egrets and herons began congregating in treetops to roost for the night. This anhinga had already tucked its head into its back feathers.
It seemed odd to see webbed feet made for swimming gripping onto a tree branch. It roosts in the trees for good reason.
In the water below, the alligator waits for whatever might come its way: birds, fish, frogs, and small mammals, or even larger prey like deer.
As I said, there were a lot of gators.
We saw this big boy, at least 8 feet long, under the boardwalk, thrashing a decomposing bird, presumably to soften it up a little more.
The next day we drove to the Flamingo Visitor Center, which is as far as you can drive into the Everglades on the south side. We’d planned to rent a couple of canoes and paddle a canoe trail, but winds were high and we were advised that canoeing would be difficult. Instead we walked the park’s other short trails…
…spotting this strangler fig along the way…
…and took a mid-morning boat tour with a rather cranky naturalist, who nonetheless was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the ecosystem of the ‘Glades. We set out through the brackish mangrove canals, which act as nurseries for marine wildlife like shrimp and fish.
Our guide explained that when people came to develop Florida, they viewed the mangroves as worthless trash trees and methodically destroyed them. Eventually they discovered that without the mangroves to protect marine hatcheries, fish and shrimp populations plummeted, affecting the fishing industry. So now mangroves are appreciated for their unique role in the ecosystem.
Among the abundant wildlife living in the mangrove estuaries, we were thrilled to spot three manatees munching on algae. We also saw several bottlenose dolphins racing our boat, but they were too fast to capture on camera.
We had our eye out for crocodiles, which co-exist with alligators in the brackish water of the lower Everglades, but we only saw gators. This one lounged on a sandy bank just below a bike path that ran along the canal. Don’t stop to change a flat here!
Later, on one of the boardwalk trails, we spotted a barred owl, an owlet actually—one of two we’d heard were nesting there. (The bird-watching opportunities in the Everglades and southern Florida must be incredible. Later that week, as we left the Keys, we even saw a pair of bald eagles atop a light pole.)
But most people, including us, wanted to see alligators—lots of them.
The Everglades did not disappoint.
Along roads, along trails, in ponds at the visitors centers—wherever you looked you saw wild gators lounging in the water or sunning themselves on banks.
They are such prehistoric looking creatures, and pretty creepy. But how amazing to see them in the wild in such numbers.
I leave you with an image of “the river of grass,” as the Everglades is known. It is surely one of the most unusual of our many national parks, and well worth a visit to see a delicate and unique ecosystem at work.
All material © 2006-2010 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.